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Ethics and Other Minds: The Moral Permissibility of Octopus Farms

photograph of octopus underwater

In March of 2023, news agencies reported that Nueva Pescanova, a Spanish multinational corporation, is planning to intensively farm octopuses in the Canary Islands. The proposal for the farm describes farming a million octopuses a year for slaughter and sale as food. Octopuses are extremely intelligent. They are capable of using tools and engage in high-level problem solving. The documentary My Octopus Teacher, which highlighted the capabilities of these animals won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2021. The best-selling book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Origins of Deep Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith pursued critical questions about what it is for a creature to be conscious and how that consciousness manifests itself. These questions have moral implications that we should not take lightly.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes famously argued that he could know beyond all doubt that he existed as a thinking thing. Though each of us may be justified in belief in our own existence, we can be less certain in the case of the consciousness of other individuals, including other humans. The best we can do is note similarities in structure and behavior and conclude that similar creatures are likely also conscious, especially if they are capable of telling us that they are. In Discourse on the Method Descartes argued that the ability to use language or other signs to express thoughts was the evidence available to us that another being has a soul. He argued that the fact that non-human animals only express passions through behavior and not thought in a language demonstrates that,

They have no reason at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measure the time more correctly than we can do with all of our wisdom.

Descartes is just one historical figure in a long line of thinkers who define what we might now call consciousness in very anthropocentric ways — human beings represent the gold standard, the rational animal. In Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith argues that consciousness is so evolutionarily advantageous that it might have evolved in response to different environmental pressures in different circumstances, and this may be just how it happened in the case of the octopus. Octopuses have consciousness distributed through “mini-brains” throughout their body. This raises many significant philosophical questions and strongly suggests that if we use human consciousness as a standard for what the phenomenon is or could be, we’d likely end up with an impoverished take on the concept. Questions of consciousness don’t just impact interactions with other humans or non-human animals. They are also relevant to our future interactions with advanced technology. It’s important to do our best to get it right.

If octopuses exhibit behavior that indicates significant intelligence and their biological structure suggests a kind of consciousness that we know very little about, the situation demands erring on the side of caution. This is an argument not only against intensively farming these creatures but also against killing them at all for food or for any other human purpose. If it’s wrong to kill intelligent creatures, it seems sociopathic to farm millions of them for food every year.

Nueva Pescanova claims that the deaths of these octopuses would be painless. There are several questions that need to be asked and answered in response to this claim. First, is it true? The company plans to kill the animals by placing them in water kept at -3C. They allege that this is a humane and painless form of death. This is a controversial claim. Some experts insist that this form of death is particularly slow and painful and for this reason some supermarkets have already stopped selling seafood killed in ice baths.

Second, if the death is painless, does that entail that the killing is morally acceptable? Some philosophers have suggested that it does, at least if the creature in question has no sense of time or capacity to fear their own death (see, for example, Peter Singer’s arguments in Practical Ethics). There are at least two main responses to this line of thought. First, the problem of other minds reemerges with a vengeance here. What does it mean to have a sense of time or to fear one’s death? Can these capacities manifest themselves in different minds in different ways? Do they require articulation of thoughts in a language or is the presence of certain dispositions to behave sufficient? Second, killings are not justified just because they’re painless. If Bob sneaks up behind Joe and kills him painlessly, he nevertheless, all things being equal, does something seriously morally wrong. Among other things, he deprives Joe of a future of positive experiences. As philosopher Thomas Nagel argues in his famous paper Death, the badness of death consists in the deprivation of the goods of life. This is a deprivation that both humans and non-humans are capable of undergoing. If death is bad for humans for other additional reasons related to their cognitive abilities, those might be additional reasons that death is particularly bad for an intelligent creature like an octopus as well.

The prospect of intensively farming octopuses is particularly troubling because of their intelligence. That said, the practice of intensively farming sentient creatures at all raises very serious moral concerns. Intensive farming involves mistreatment of animals. It causes them pain and it violates their autonomy. It recklessly disregards the care obligations we have to vulnerable populations. It weakens our moral characters by encouraging us to think of other sentient creatures as things rather than as beings with minds and experiences of their own. The case of the octopus motivates thought about the problem of other minds and the many forms consciousness could potentially take. If we ought to err on the side of caution when it comes to minds that are different, there is an even stronger case for doing so when minds are the same. There are many historical examples of the use of uncertainty about other minds to discriminate and oppress people on the basis of race, gender, age, ethnicity, and so on. People have too often concluded that if another mind is unknowable, it must be inferior, and this has been the cause of the worst atrocities perpetrated on humans by humans. We should stop engaging in the very same behavior when it comes to non-human animals. Intelligent creatures should not be intensively farmed nor should any sentient animal at all.

Clifford Waters and the Death of a Yellowstone Bison

photograph of bison on the road in Yellowstone National Park

In late May of this year, Clifford Waters pled guilty to one count of “of feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentionally disturbing wildlife” in Yellowstone National Park. The punishment for the crime was a fine of $1000, half of which went to Yellowstone’s wildlife fund. Waters was charged with the crime after he helped a newborn bison cross the Lamar River when the animal had become separated from his mother and the rest of his herd.

Waters was unaware that his act of assistance could lead to the young bison’s rejection by the herd. Unfortunately, that is indeed what happened. The bison survived the incident but was later euthanized by park staff because of his hazardous habit of approaching cars and people at the park. Representatives of the park claim they could not remove the animal to a sanctuary due to a local law prohibiting the removal of bison from the park except for use in scientific research or slaughter.

Many argue that it is difficult to see how justice was done or welfare protected in any aspect of this case. It is important, of course, for many reasons, that human beings do not interfere too much in the lives of wildlife. When humans feed or otherwise intervene in the lives of wild animals, it can be dangerous for the animals. In this case such behavior led the calf to be socially ostracized.

Behaviors that are safe for humans may not be safe for other animals, and foods that may be healthy for human consumption may cause serious health problems for other animals. Human behavior also often leads to the destruction of animal habitats which can put animal lives and social structures at risk. Too much interaction can also be dangerous for humans. In addition to the violence to which an animal might resort if they feel threatened, if an animal becomes too comfortable with humans, there may be a higher incidence of zoonotic disease spread and disruption of natural ecosystems. For all of these reasons, it may be important to have laws discouraging people from engaging in potentially harmful interactions with wild animals. Bison, in particular, are known to gore humans when humans get too close.

In many ways, this is a case study in how we understand and apply philosophical principles related to moral responsibility. Some are concerned about this feature of the human element of the story. It is true that some humans interact with non-human animals in reckless and irresponsible ways. Humans often risk their lives to get selfies with animals, causing the animals to feel threatened and to respond with defensive, often violent behavior. Consider, for example, a 27-year old Indian man who was trampled to death while trying to snap a selfie with a wild elephant or the man in China who was killed when dragged into the ocean by a 1.5 ton walrus with whom the man was trying to get a picture.

These are both tragedies, but these victims also had very different motivations from Waters who was attempting to save the bison. Waters wasn’t acting in his own self-interest. He was not treating the bison as a tool for his own entertainment. He was exhibiting empathy for the creature and put himself in harm’s way to attempt to rescue it. His behavior was evidence of virtues of character such as courage as compassion. Park staff and prosecutors could have made the decision to look the other way in this case given the circumstances, but they opted not to do so.

This decision strikes many as an injustice. When we hold people responsible for their actions, it should be in light of a guilty, reckless, or negligent mental state. We shouldn’t punish people for being kind. Still, we need these kinds of external sanctions to prevent people from doing harmful things even when they don’t know they’re harmful. These sanctions are likely to deter the individuals involved from engaging in such behavior again and also deter other people from engaging in high-risk behavior with animals in the future. That said, the fact that these laws can serve as deterrents doesn’t entail that they should be used in every case. This might have been a case that called for some discretion.

Those who made the decision might argue that these laws are in place to help the animals. Under other circumstances, this may seem plausible, but in light of the way the rest of this story played out, that explanation is hard to swallow. Animals at Yellowstone are held responsible for their behavior in cases in which it is not possible for them to have “guilty minds.” Bison aren’t committing premeditated murder, for instance, when they gore a human being approaching their calf. Moreover, it’s not reasonable to hold animals accountable with their very lives for “nuisance” behavior when it is humans who ultimately caused that behavior; humans are encroaching on the habitats of these animals and park staff are aware that it was human behavior that led to the bison’s behavior in this particular case. Human colonizers nearly caused the outright extinction of bison. Putting them in a vulnerable position creates a care-based duty to protect them.

It is safe to say that bison aren’t protected when they are euthanized. Laws that prohibit transfer of individual animals to sanctuaries ought to be re-evaluated. Current policy is anthropocentric — we can remove animals from the park only to serve certain kinds of human interests — they can be removed for slaughter or for use in scientific research. This is, in part, to prevent the spread of brucellosis which can spread to deer, elk, and domestic cattle. In recent years, bison who have been certified brucellosis free have been transported to tribal reservations. This may sound like an appropriate response — tribal members have historical and cultural relationships with bison. However, Yellowstone’s bison conservation website explains what happens to bison on tribal lands: “We transfer captured bison to Tribes who transport them to slaughterhouses for processing.” The word “processing” in this case is, of course, a euphemism. It makes no difference to a bison who is doing the killing, the result is the same — the deprivation of future experiences. The bison who was euthanized in this case wasn’t even deemed eligible for the tribal program. He became a danger to people who didn’t follow posted rules and paid with his life.

Our judgments about the appropriateness and severity of punishments should be based on defensible reasoning about free will, moral responsibility, and the nature of wrongdoing. Should humans be punished for extending empathy toward animals? Should animals be executed for feeling threatened when humans come too close? Does it make sense to punish someone for inadvertently harming an animal while at the same time routinely shipping those same animals off to be killed or experimented on?

Frank Reynolds as Diogenes the Cynic

photograph of Danny DeVito at ComicCon panel for IASIP

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (IASIP) has returned for its sixteenth season. The show, which follows the exploits of five alcoholic, narcissistic Philadelphians who run the constantly failing, but never seemingly failed, Paddy’s Pub, is the longest-running live-action sitcom in American TV history. The quintet, otherwise known as “The Gang,” consists of Dennis (a psychopathic, womanizing barman), Mac (the insecure, self-appointed bouncer), Charlie (the glue-sniffing, paint-drinking, unstable janitor), Dee (the petty failing actress and waiter), and Frank (a degenerate millionaire chasing his sense of youthfulness).

Over the seasons, The Gang has done everything from the mundane, like trying to pass a health inspection or play a board game, to the fantastically bizarre, like influencing the 2020 presidential campaign or kidnapping a critic who gives their bar a lousy review. Yet, unlike so many other long-running shows, IASIP is as funny, imaginative, and even at times, emotionally devastating as it’s always been (arguably better).

Now, the show’s potential for philosophical intrigue hasn’t gone unnoticed. One of the entries in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is It’s Always Sunny and Philosophy: The Gang Gets Analyzed, and the hugely popular Wisecrack youtube channel has (at the time of writing) four videos dedicated to IASIP’s philosophical and cultural impact. What I want to do here, though, is not a broad exploration of the show’s themes nor examine one specific fight The Gang has (like whether we can trust science). Instead, I want to highlight how Frank’s behavior and attitudes emulate the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (AKA Diogenes the Dog) and what we can learn from the pair of miscreants.

Diogenes was born in 404 or 412 BC on the coast of the Black Sea and died in Corinth in 323 BC. He founded the philosophical school of thought known as Cynicism, which espouses a rejection of conformity and, instead, insists that for us to live a good life, we must live according to self-generated internal laws and ideals. This need for self-government might strike some as rather mundane. After all, many of us want to live free from others telling us what to do, and the idea of bucking authority isn’t precisely original nowadays. But for Diogenes, it was not enough to be part of a counterculture; one had to reject society’s very foundations.

Diogenes lived his philosophy, unlike other philosophers who shared it via their writings. He begged for food, lived in a wine barrel, masturbated in public, urinated on those he didn’t like, and walked backwards through the streets to highlight, even debase, the norms governing people’s behaviors. He wanted his fellow citizens to see that the rules they mindlessly follow constrain them, make them unhappy, and force them into evil lives. Diogenes thought that if we could all see the rules we follow without even knowing they’re there, we would be able to live according to nature. We could reject the allure of power, money, or fame and instead live in the moment. We could embrace life’s simple pleasures and live free from the subversive control exercised by society’s requirement for conformity.

Indeed, his disdain for traditional authority was so great that, when Alexander the Great visited him at his barrel and asked if Diogenes wanted anything from the ruler, the Cynic responded by saying, “Yes, please stand aside. You are blocking my sunshine.” Let me make this clear. When offered anything that a king could provide – riches, property, titles, women – Diogenes wanted nothing more than for Alexander to get out of the way so he could continue to enjoy the feel of the sun on his skin.

Ultimately, Diogenes wanted to shirk society’s chains, live in the moment, enjoy life, and not spend his time preoccupied with what others thought, or, surprisingly for a philosopher, to waste time pondering the big questions. What mattered to him was the here and now and nothing more.

And this leads us to Frank (played to perfection by Danny DeVito). Frank is a former businessman who, upon joining The Gang at the start of season two, is going through a bitter divorce from his wife. After The Gang initially rejects him (despite him being Dennis and Dee’s father), he manages to work his way into their fold by purchasing the land on which Paddy’s Pub sits. Being incredibly wealthy, Frank is the money man for the group, funding their schemes and bailing them out of financial trouble when needed (or, more accurately, when he chooses to).

Importantly for us, though, Frank is The Gang’s most depraved member. He likes to live in the “Fringe Class,” where he can act without constraints and rules. He spends his time, almost exclusively, indulging in whatever desire comes into his head. This impulsive need is a reaction to his career and marriage repressing his urges over decades. But, after he steps back from his business and his wife indicates she’s leaving him, he decides he will let loose in his latter years. As he admits at a funeral, after confessing he wants to sleep with his former sister-in-law, Donna: “I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it.” After Donna rejects him, however, Frank sleeps with Donna’s adult daughter, emphasizing that while he may be her uncle, they’re not blood-related.

In one of the show’s biggest mysteries, Frank gets stuck in a giant coil in a children’s play park, wearing only underwear. The Gang take advantage of his vulnerable state, mining him for business tips in exchange for helping him get free, which they immediately renege upon, despite his cries that there will be children in the park soon. The show never reveals how he ended up stuck, nor why he’s in his underwear, but given his bizarre predilections, one can imagine.

It isn’t just outside the home that Frank rejects societal norms, however. His vast resources mean he could live practically anywhere, yet, he chooses to move in with Charlie, the bar’s emotionally unstable janitor. They live in a one-room apartment, sleep on a pull-out sofa bed, urinate in cans, cut their nails with a knife, and play bizarre games like Night Crawlers, where they crawl around their apartment at night like worms. Their apartment is so unpleasant that, for them to fall asleep, the pair have to eat a can of cat food, huff glue, and drink enough beer to make them pass out. Yet, despite this, he loves living there and develops a close relationship with Charlie. He also enjoys pooping the bed occasionally because he finds it funny.

The list goes on, and picking these choice examples was a struggle. The ends to which Frank goes to enjoy his life are practically boundless. From hosting a beauty pageant so he can stare at women to buying a Lamborghini for no other reason than to annoy Dennis, Frank lives nowhere but in the here and now. After a lifetime of conforming, or at least trying to conform, to what society expects of him, Frank embodies Diogenes’s philosophy of freedom from expectations and the virtue of being in the moment.

From the outside, Frank’s choices are, for lack of a better word, disgusting. His bizarre lifestyle of roaming the sewers in the nude seems repugnant. Yet, Frank’s never been happier. Living as part of the fringe means he is free from worrying about others’ opinions and what society expects of him. He doesn’t have to engage in the pantomime of civility. Instead, he can just be who he is.

I should point out that Frank doesn’t fully conform to Diogenes’s cynicism. After all, Frank loves money, and for Diogenes, money is just another trapping into which we fall. But, I would contest that Frank reconciles a practical issue with the hard cynicism espoused by Diogenes. If one wants to live, then one needs resources. Without them, we die of hunger or thirst or exposure. One can beg as Diogenes did, but then we’re chained by our need to beg; we’re reliant on others. Diogenes liked to think he was truly free, but one can never be free of the material demands placed on us by the world. Frank’s money enables him to do whatever he wants in a way Diogenes never could. While the philosopher had to plead for food, Frank can choose to eat at high-priced restaurants, or he can choose to eat cat food or stuff he finds in the rubbish.

Finally, to emphasize the comparison, I want to reference something in one of the most recently aired episodes: Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang. In this episode, Dennis and Dee try to relieve Frank of his gun by taking him on a day out and luring him into a false sense of security. This day consists of eating burgers in Dennis’s car, running under the bridge with his unhoused friends, and going to the beach. However, as the day goes on, Frank’s animalistic behaviors become increasingly apparent. He eats so fast that it seems like he might choke. He tries to get out of Dennis’s car by going through the window, on which he hits his head. He repeatedly urinates on fire hydrants. And when he gets to the beach, he starts yelling at it and firing his gun into the water. Indeed, his behavior is so animalistic that Dennis and Dee outright state that he’s turning into a dog.

Ultimately, to live like Frank and Diogenes would be a big ask of anyone. We like our creature comforts, from living in a house to knowing where our next meal will come from; these things bring us a sense of security. But, as both Cynics illustrate, such security may be expensive, and if one wants to be free from life’s shackles and ultimately happy, maybe the right course of action isn’t to dye your hair or buy a motorbike but instead, highjack a tour boat full of tourists so we can make sure we get to the cinema on time… or perhaps not.

Rescues and Resource Allocation

blurred photograph of the ocean

For the past several days, the world has waited with bated breath to hear the fate of the occupants of the OceanGate submersible Titan. Launched on Sunday June 18th, the sub was intended to take Stockton Rush – CEO of OceanGate – and four passengers on a 10.5 hour voyage to the wreckage of the Titanic. Instead, communication was lost with Titan less than two hours into the voyage. When the sub failed to surface as scheduled, a massive search and rescue effort was initiated.

Among those searching were numerous ships and two C-130 Hercules aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard as well as additional support from the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York National Guard. The Canadian Navy has dedicated the HMCS Glace Bay, while the Canadian Coast Guard has provided the John Cabot, with two additional ships – the Ann Harvey and the Terry Fox – en route. These were joined by Canadian P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon aircraft and the Motor Vessel Horizon Arctic. Two commercial vessels – the Skandi Vinland and the Atlantic Merlin – also joined the search, while France has sent L’Atalante.

This lengthy roster of responders seems understandable – especially given the 96-hour oxygen limit onboard the Titan. Some have, however, raised concerns about the resources allocated to find the occupants of the sub, especially in light of similar crises occurring elsewhere.

Just four days before the launch of Titan, a fishing boat carrying 500 refugees from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Israel/Palestine capsized off the coast of Greece. Rescuers managed to save 104 passengers – and recover an additional 79 bodies – but more than 300 passengers are still unaccounted for. Greek authorities have since been criticized for failing to render adequate aid to the migrants during the disaster. At the very least, the international response to this disaster (the mitigation of which would have used similar resources to those mobilized in the search for the Titan) was minimal, as was media coverage of the tragedy.

The comparison of these two cases raises an important question: how do we decide the appropriate level of resources to allocate in a rescue scenario?

The answer to this question is not an easy one, and requires care and sensitivity – especially in light of the details surrounding the Titan’s implosion. Of course, the obvious answer might seem to be that the inherent value of a human life justifies allocating whatever resources necessary to save that life. But here’s the thing: these kinds of resources aren’t infinite. For this reason, we are forced to make difficult decisions and do what we can to prioritise our resources as effectively as possible.

It’s this very idea that underpins triage – the practice used by emergency room doctors and combat medics during a time of crisis. Medical professionals do not have infinite time or medical resources, so are forced to use what they have to save as many lives as possible. The approach is strongly consequentialist in nature, and is eloquently described by utilitarian Peter Singer as “doing the most good you can do.”

While the heroic efforts of those that searched for the Titan should not be diminished, it’s an open question whether those resources are truly being implemented in a way that achieves the most good. At the very least, it provides a benchmark by which we might assess the appropriate level of response to other crises. Put simply: if the lives of five missing individuals truly warrant the search and rescue efforts being expended in the Atlantic, then consider what this means for the amount of resources that should have been (but were not) allocated to find the more than 300 people still missing in the Mediterranean.

And there’s something else we might need to consider too: namely, the responsibility that individuals have for putting themselves in a crisis in the first place. Last year, I wrote about how people’s risky choices might factor into the aid we give them after they lose their homes to extreme weather events. Luck Egalitarians note that while many of the bad things that happen to us are the result of random chance (like being struck by lightning), many other misfortunes occur as a direct result of deliberate gambles (like losing my life savings betting on a bad hand of poker). Luck Egalitarians refer to the latter as bad “option” luck, and believe that our obligations to help those suffering from this kind of bad luck are less than the obligations we have towards those suffering bad luck that results from random chance (referred to as bad “brute” luck).

How, then, might this concept apply to the passengers onboard the Titan? Such a journey is incredibly dangerous at the best of times. In this case, however, the risk was even greater given the battery of safety concerns with the jury-rigged nature of the vehicle. Despite this, each of the occupants decided to take on this risk for purely recreational purposes – even paying a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege of doing so. Does this mean that we should allocate no resources in an effort to save these individuals? That their fate – whatever it turns out to be – is merely each of them getting what they signed up for? Certainly not. But it does, again, make for an interesting comparison with those refugees who lost their lives in the Mediterranean. While they, too, chose to take on an extraordinary risk, many of them were compelled by circumstance; doing so to avoid poverty and conflict and – in many cases – a very real threat to their lives.

Ultimately, then, the appropriate level of resources to allocate in a crisis depends on a number of factors. Among these is a careful consideration of whether or not those resources are being mobilized in a way that ensures we are doing the most good we can do. We might also consider the extent to which individuals find themselves in a crisis as the result of their own deliberate and calculated gambles. With these factors in mind, it does become harder to understand how five individuals who chose to take a recreational journey fraught with risk have received more international support – and media attention – than the plight of 500 individuals who had little option but to embark on a dangerous voyage.

Moral Limits on State Secrets

photograph of "Top Secret" manila envelope

The topic of UFOs recently made headlines, as a purported whistleblower claims the United States government is secretly in possession of alien spacecraft. This proclamation comes in the midst of increased national attention to the prospect of UFOs in recent years. Of course, the general American public is far from having any definitive evidence of the existence of such things as UFOs or intelligent life from other galaxies, but if such evidence exists, we might wonder if the government has a moral obligation to disclose it.

It seems there are at least two distinct questions to unpack here: Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly keep a secret from citizens? Under what conditions (if any) can the government permissibly lie to citizens? Let’s start with the former. Of course, there is a strong precedent of the government refusing to disclose certain kinds of information to the public. For instance, most agree that certain information pertaining to military operations and national security should be held in secret due to the risks involved with leaking such intel. But the ethics surrounding state secrecy get murkier once we start talking about matters pertaining to citizens’ privacy or risks that would potentially change their day-to-day behavior. There also are clearly issues where the American public is justified in demanding full transparency from government officials, including the procedures behind elections, the allocation of tax payer money, etc.

The relevant question thus becomes into which of these categories does evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life most plausibly fit. It must be determined if releasing this evidence to the general public poses sufficiently harmful threats, so as to justify state secrecy. One potential concern is that releasing significant evidence of UFOs or extraterrestrial life would constitute such a paradigm shifting event, it is extremely difficult to predict how the public would react. We have strong historical reason to be skeptical that the population will respond in a fully peaceful or rational manner. If we consider all of the social upheaval and violence that came along with the paradigm shifting events of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation, we can safely conclude that rapid influxes of knowledge that fundamentally transform society are not always well-received. Of course, such a rationale does not provide conclusive reason for the state to keep secrets, but societal peace and stability are certainly factors when it comes to making complex ethical judgments at the governmental level.

Other reasons why the state might have an interest in keeping UFOs or evidence of extraterrestrial life a secret pertains to national security and military strategy. If, as some have claimed, the government possesses partial or even fully intact alien technology, the state is likely scrambling to understand the engineering behind such objects. This knowledge would be helpful when it comes to building superior military technology, making it clear why governmental authorities would not want to share this advantage with other nations. Similarly, the government surely does not want knowledge of how to build more effective weapons falling into the wrong hands. While there is a clear national advantage to possessing the best, most sophisticated technology, there is also a clear national disadvantage if that technology is adopted by one’s political enemy. Thus, for reasons of both public safety and military strategy, the state might possess compelling reasons to conceal evidence of life and technology from other galaxies.

So we’ve established there may be sufficiently strong reasons to justify government secrecy in the case of UFOs and extraterrestrial life, but we have yet to discuss the permissibility of state-endorsed lies. Lying is thought to be more difficult to morally justify than merely withholding the truth. Furthermore, lying also greatly diminishes institutional trust, causing lasting damage beyond the initial moral damage involved in the telling of the lie. Thus, it is probably safe to conclude that if ever it is permissible for the government to lie to citizens, such instances are somewhat scarce. They might include severe threats to the public that would cause mass panic, violence, or social unrest, especially if it is likely these threats can be resolved in a way that avoids these negative outcomes. The thought here is that lying is justified because it is necessary to promote the greater good.

However, even if we grant the state’s good intentions, some might remain dubious that the government is ever morally permitted to spin lies to its own citizens. The moral and pragmatic costs of lying are simply too high to be justified, particularly at the state-level. A philosophically interesting test case for this can be found in the domain of healthcare ethics. In a recently published paper, the author argues there are four conditions which must be met in order for public health officials to lie: (1) the risk of harm to the public is substantial, (2) the upside of telling the lie is very high, (3) lying mitigates this risk of harm to the public, (4) and lying is by far the most effective way to mitigate the risk of harm. Insofar as these four conditions are plausible in the public health case, they can perhaps serve as a more general template for judging the permissibility of lying in other domains as well.

Much of the difficulty in judging the moral status of state secrets and lies derives from our collective uncertainty of the actual risks posed to civilization by UFOs or extraterrestrial life. Assuming the existence of such entities, even the people among us who know the most, still know vanishingly little about the extent of intelligent life beyond our planet. Without more information, we can only speculate as to the nature of the risks. Ultimately the government’s decision to either conceal or share evidence with the public needs to be sensitive to a range of public goods, including that of institutional trust, public safety, and political stability, all of which might be threatened by revelations of life vastly more advanced than humanity.

Nowhere to Hide: Extracting DNA from Air, Water, and Sand

photograph of gloved hand taking water sample

David Duffy and his team from the University of Florida recently discovered a groundbreaking method for tracking the health and whereabouts of sea turtles. As the turtles represent an endangered species, the scientists’ goal was to study their migration patterns and to identify the environmental factors that might be influencing their health and well-being. Researchers found that they were able to extract meaningful DNA samples from air, water, and sand at the beach. Those samples allowed researchers to draw conclusions about sub-populations and to test for the presence of pathogens that lead to a particularly deadly form of cancer in sea turtles.

The discovery that significant DNA information could be extracted from these sources is great news for conservation scientists as well as for people who care about the preservation and well-being of animals more broadly. Scientists can use genetic information about animals without disturbing them in their natural habitats; they can wait until an animal has vacated a space before using the genetic material left behind to learn more about the creature and that creature’s community.

Researchers also learned something with more controversial consequences. Meaningful amounts of human DNA were extracted from air, water, and sand as well — amounts of DNA that can pick out the genetic code of specific individuals. This means that human beings, like other animals, leave behind genetic information essentially everywhere we go. This discovery gives rise to many important moral questions.

One such question is: who owns discarded pieces of a person’s body? Does the person still have some rights of ownership over physical matter that comes from their own body? If so, do these ownership rights entail a corresponding right to decide what can be done with the matter? Or, instead, are discarded cells like trash — once we’ve shed them, we no longer have any reasonable claim to ownership over them? Should we adopt a “finders keepers” attitude when it comes to discarded genetic material?

One response may be that treating small bits of discarded material as part of a person’s body is impractical and unrealistic. If shedding cells is something we do everywhere we go, there can be no returning discarded cells. At that point, the living source has lost any control. It might be tempting to think that there isn’t much at stake here.

That said, humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to using genetic material in morally responsible ways. For example, in one famous case, a woman named Henrietta Lacks consented to a biopsy as part of her cancer treatment. Scientists used her genetic material for research and found that her cells — now called HeLa cells — had remarkable properties that led to major advances in medical treatment. For decades, Lacks’ family was not compensated in any way for their matriarch’s contribution. One reason to be concerned about Duffy’s discovery is that a person’s cells could easily be used to profit others without any compensation accruing to the source. If this is the case, a person’s discarded genetic material may just be a new capitalist frontier to commodify and exploit.

But there are other reasons to be concerned that genetic information will be misused. For instance, in the late 1980s, members of the Havasupi Tribe provided their genetic material for the purposes of studying Type II Diabetes, a condition from which many members of the tribe suffered. Unbeknownst to the donors, the genetic information was used to research migration patterns, inbreeding, and schizophrenia within the tribe. Migration studies of tribal members, in particular, could potentially disrupt the already tenuous relationship that Native Persons have with the land and provide another avenue for governmental exploitation. When genetic material is collected or used without consent, it can lead to further discrimination and racism.

In addition to these concerns, we also tend to think that a person is entitled to privacy when it comes to details about their own body. When we shed our DNA, we don’t do so intentionally; we don’t give consent. But if an institution or individual was able to extract DNA from a location where we unwittingly shed it, they could come to know all kinds of details about any of us. The right to privacy begins within the borders of one’s own body even if those borders might shift or extend.

Then, of course, there are the implications for forensic science. Since its discovery, DNA has changed the landscape in criminal justice. There is no doubt this has had some tremendous positive consequences. Killers who had gone free for decades to commit all sorts of atrocities were eventually captured using DNA, sometimes through the use of unconventional methods. That said, the presence of DNA is not always evidence that a specific individual committed a crime. Sometimes context gets lost when DNA evidence is found. Finding a person’s DNA at a scene, even when there is a harmless explanation for that fact, can blind investigators to other explanations and prevent them from looking into other viable suspects whose DNA was, for whatever reason, not extracted.

Duffy’s discovery encourages speculation about a future in which it is impossible to get away with committing a crime — one in which there will always be genetic evidence to connect a person to a scene at the time a crime was committed. In such a world, we might wonder, what happens to Fourth Amendment rights? We might be looking at a future in which the genetic tapestry of any space is, in a sense, open access. In such a world, what would it mean for search and seizure to be “unreasonable”?

Finally, we can ask the question about this technology that we find ourselves asking over and over in this age: is this knowledge worth pursuing, or are we opening Pandora’s Box which can never be closed? We tend to treat all technological knowledge as intrinsically valuable, as if we are always justified in pursuing new frontiers. It may be the case, however, that some knowledge is not worth having, such as the number of blades of grass on a lawn or the number of grains of sand on a beach. Other knowledge is worse than neutral or useless, it is all things considered harmful. Consider, for example, knowledge of how to construct biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction. We treat pursuit of this kind of information as if it is inevitable, but it really isn’t. Should we view ourselves as subject to some kind of irresistible technological determinism such that if it is possible to create new tech, we are powerless to stop it? Instead, we might do well to consider carefully the implications of our discoveries and regulate the technology in ways that respect fundamental values.

The Promises and Perils of Neurotechnology

image of light beams refracting from model brain

In late May, a groundbreaking study published in Nature outlined how new developments in neurotechnology have allowed a man to walk again after being paralyzed for the better part of a decade. The patient in question – Gert-Jam Oskam – sustained a spinal cord injury in a cycling accident ten years prior, leaving him entirely unable to walk. This injury – like most spinal injuries – essentially meant that Oskam had suffered an interruption in the communication between his brain and certain parts of his body. In the revolutionary new procedure, Oskam received a brain-spine interface (BSI) that essentially created a “digital bridge” between the brain and spinal cord. The treatment was highly effective, with Oskam recovering the ability to stimulate leg muscles mere minutes after implantation. Within a year, Oskam was once again able to stand, walk, climb stairs, and navigate complex terrain.

The rapid development of neurotechnology will provide a raft of new medical interventions; from restoring spinal injuries such as Oskam’s, to allowing the control of prosthetic limbs. It also creates promising opportunities for the treatment of dementia and Parkinson’s disease, as well as more common mental health issues such as depression, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Given this battery of potential medical applications, it would seem that neurotechnology is clearly a force for good. But is this really the case?

On a consequentialist analysis, we must not only consider the benefits of new scientific developments, but also their potential costs. What concerns, then, might arise in the context of neurotechnology?

Given its highly invasive nature, neurotechnology’s greatest threats involve potential breaches to both our (1) privacy, and (2) autonomy. Consider, first, privacy. Neurotechnology literally creates a digital connection to our minds – the very thing that makes us us. In doing so, it holds the capacity to gain intimate knowledge of our (previously) most private psychological states. There are very real concerns, then, about what neurotechnology might do with this information. Many of us know the surprise, frustration, and – perhaps –  indignation that comes when we are targeted by a commercial tailored specifically to our internet browsing history. Imagine, then, what would happen if such marketing was based on neurotechnology’s knowledge of our innermost thoughts. Consider the audacity of receiving an advert for the latest SUV just moments after thinking “I really need to buy a new car.”

Of course, this threat to privacy already exists thanks to the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives. While not nearly as invasive, digital technology currently enjoys unprecedented access to our lives via our phones and myriad other smart devices (all, of course, in communication with each other and with unfettered access to our social media, digital communications, and financial transactions). In this way, then, neurotechnology might only represent a difference in the degree of our loss of privacy, rather than an entirely novel intrusion in our lives.

Consider, then, how neurotechnology might instead threaten our autonomy. A vital component of autonomy is retaining complete control over our thoughts and actions. The inclusion, via neurotechnology, of any kind of “digital bridge” necessarily compromises this control – creating a vulnerability that might compromise our autonomy. If there is a digital “middleman” between my psychological desire to lift a glass of water, and my hand’s physical performance of this task, then there is the opportunity for my autonomy to be threatened. What if my BSI refuses to perform the action I desire? What if the BSI is hacked, and I am forced to perform an action that I do not desire? In this sense, neurotechnology poses a threat that prior technological advancements – like phones and smart devices – have not yet created. While social media implements algorithms to monopolize our attention, and advertisers might use every trick in the book to manipulate us into purchasing their products, they have not (yet) been able to wrest control of our physical bodies. With the advent of neurotechnology, however, this may become a possibility.

In addition to concerns relating to our privacy and autonomy, there is the larger concern that neurotechnology might threaten our very humanity. There is, of course, much debate in philosophy about what it means to be “human” – or whether there is any such thing as “human nature” in the first place. However, in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, author Bill McKibben argues that human life would be meaningless if every challenge we faced could be easily overcome. By this reasoning, then, neurotechnology might threaten to strip meaning from our life by allowing us to strive over adversity without hard work and the development of important skills and character traits.

Of course, this doesn’t imply that the use of all neurotechnology is wrong. We routinely implement medical technology to make people’s lives better, and certain applications of neurotechnology – like the BSI that allowed Gert-Jam Oskam to walk again – are really no different to this. The novelty of neurotechnology, however, is in its capacity to go beyond therapy and provide enhancement – to take us beyond our traditional nature and, in doing so, threaten our very nature. This concern – coupled with those regarding the threats it raises to privacy and autonomy – mean we should practice caution in its development and implementation. What stands to be seen however, is whether such fears are merely the techno-paranoia of Luddites, or reasonable concerns about the wholesale exploitation of technology to threaten our privacy, autonomy, and humanity.

Why Pride Merch Matters

photograph of multicolored shoes at Pride parade

Target is at the center of a controversy about pride merchandise. After years of offering a wide array of LGBTQ+ affirming products, including displays celebrating the queer community in the month of June, the major retailer has removed and relocated some of its pride merchandise in response to threats and harassment towards its employees. In a statement released near the end of May, Target said that it had “experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work” and that for that reason it was pulling some of its pride merchandise. Some workers also reported that their store’s pride display was moved to a less prominent location.

The conservative ire for Target’s inclusiveness is well-documented, with customers removing pride display signs, accusing employees of being child groomers and promoting a woke agenda, and even threatening gun violence. Conservative podcast host Matt Walsh sparked outrage by falsely stating that particular trans-affirming items were being sold for children, which helped fuel the campaign against Target. Since Target’s statement, the situation has escalated with a group of apparently fake bomb threats on a number of stores, as well as backlash from numerous directions.

In a year when trans rights are on the chopping block in numerous states, with nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in the United States, one has to wonder: Does a display in a store really matter? Corporations have long been dismissed for engaging in rainbow capitalism: showing outward support for the LGBTQ+ community only when it profits them to do so. Support for a marginalized community doesn’t mean much if it lasts only as long as prevailing sentiments in the wider culture align with it. Isn’t backing down just what people have long expected Target to do?

I will argue Target’s actions do matter morally, both in their material effects and in their symbolic ones. First, the material effects. Whatever the motivation may be behind the corporate support of the LGBTQ+ community, the items sold in a store exist in the world for people to see and buy. Target has sold products for gender transition and expression, such as binders and swimwear labeled as “tuck-friendly,” in addition to the more symbolic rainbow-colored or queer-message products. The ability to go to a nearby store — the same place you may go for paper towels, diapers, and shower curtains — and pick up these items is convenient for people who are transitioning. Not everyone has easy access to specialty retailers, so Target provides a real service in bringing these products to their stores.

The pride displays also have a material effect for the LGBTQ+ creators of the merchandise with whom Target partnered. Target is a major retailer, earning a net profit of close to seven billion dollars in 2022. When a designer has their products sold at Target, their products reach a much wider customer base than can be reached with an independent store. Unsurprisingly, the creators of the pride merchandise have expressed frustration and disappointment at having their merchandise pulled. Designer Ash + Chess expressed sadness over having their products removed from stores. The brand JZD similarly made a statement calling anti-LGBTQ+ hate “devastating,” expressing that the experience of having their products pulled after more than a year of working on custom pieces was emotionally draining. While these designers may be getting support within their community as people feel sympathy and outrage for their treatment, the brands are still missing out on an opportunity that they were offered and worked hard to achieve. And seeds of distrust have been planted for LGBTQ+ brands’ prospects of working well with Target in future years.

The display matters to Target’s employees as well. Some queer Target workers have made it known that they do not appreciate their safety being used as an excuse to cave to the demands of people who wish them ill. Someone who worked at Target in part because of the company’s queer-friendly commitments might understandably feel betrayed.

As material forces in the world, pride merchandise in major retailers is worth more than whatever motivation may or may not be behind it. Its continued presence in the face of backlash is not nothing, nor is Target’s pulling some merchandise insignificant to those affected by it.

Target’s pride merchandise also matters symbolically. Symbols help connect us to each other. They allow us to recognize ourselves in each other, express our values or identities, and find common ground. In a society experiencing a noticeable backlash against the LGBTQ+ community, a rainbow pin can communicate a small bit of safety in a public place such as a restroom. I’m like you. I’ve got your back. A pride display similarly communicates acknowledgement and support of the queer community. At least it does so until it is moved out of sight.

But having pride merch and items for gender transition such as binders and tuck-friendly swimwear in major retailers like Target communicates something further. It communicates that being queer is no big deal. It counteracts the pervasive narrative of deviance that has long been wielded against queer people. As a symbol, it thus has meaning independent of the changing commitments of the corporation behind it.

Many have pointed out that the popularity of pride merchandise may be more of an indicator of social acceptance than a cause of it. Be that as it may, companies have a duty not to cave to the pressure of those who are opposed. No symbolic show of support can nullify oppressive laws, restore rights, or keep queer people safe, but symbols that also offer real material benefits can be a small source of support for people living in a society that is increasingly hostile to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both in their material effects and their symbolic nature, pride displays matter.

Allen v. Mulligan, the Voting Rights Act, & Non-Ideal Theory

photograph of Alabama road map

On Thursday, June 8th, the Supreme Court of the United States announced what many consider a surprise ruling. In Allen v. Milligan, a 5-4 verdict affirmed a lower court’s judgment that Alabama likely violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by discriminating against Black residents via Congressional districts. Chief John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson with Roberts authoring the majority opinion.

What precisely was at issue? In January 2022, a federal court ruled that, due in part to racially polarized voting patterns in the state (meaning that one’s race is highly predictive of the candidate for office that one prefers), the Congressional districting plan for Alabama likely discriminated against Black residents. The districts were largely unchanged from previous plans. However, looking closely at how the districts break down by county, one notices some oddities – the borders of the single majority Black district jut across counties and include only segments of metropolitan areas like Birmingham and Mobile, while the other six districts primarily follow county lines. As a result, there is only one majority minority population Congressional district in Alabama, despite Black residents making up about 27% of the state’s population. A redistricting plan proposed by the challengers, drawn around county borders, would result in two districts where the Black population would make up about 40% of the electorate in each.

The majority opinion put forward two primary points. It largely affirmed the Court’s ruling in Thornburg v. Gingles, which offered several criteria to test whether the effects of election laws are discriminatory. Among these are whether the votes of a protected class are diluted. Some hallmarks of vote dilution include “packing” and “cracking” the votes of a minority population – the former occurring when larger numbers of members of a particular protected class are placed into a single district, and the latter when small numbers of that class are scattered into a large number of districts. The court ruled in favor of the challengers to Alabama’s district, in part due to finding that their proposal avoided these issues and served as a reasonable alternative.

Further, the majority opinion objected to arguments offered by the state of Alabama. Specifically, the majority agreed that while district makers should not be strictly motivated by racial considerations, they must certainly be aware of them. However, Kavanaugh’s concurrence specifically did not sign onto this portion of the majority opinion, instead agreeing with Justice Clarence Thomas that “the authority to conduct race-based redistricting cannot extend indefinitely into the future,” although noting that this was not an argument raised by Alabama.

Thomas offered a lengthy dissent from the majority opinion, in which he objected to several points. The primary thrusts of his criticisms were as follows. First, he affirmed a view he has argued for since at least 1994, that violations of section 2 of the VRA only deal with one’s ability to register to vote and to physically cast a ballot – so districting cannot be a violation in his view. Second, he argued that the “reasonable alternative” plan offered by the challengers failed to serve as a race-neutral benchmark for redistricting, as it was designed with race in mind. Third, the plaintiffs in this case sought a proportional system of voting power based on race. (Though Roberts argues at multiple points in his opinion that the plaintiffs were not seeking race-based proportional power, and that Gingles explicitly rules this out.) In concluding his dissent, Thomas argues that the kind of redistricting accepted by the majority is, ultimately, a kind of segregation as it divides voters based on racialized lines, writing that it “does not remedy or deter unconstitutional discrimination in districting in any way, shape, or form. On the contrary it requires it.”

Admittedly, I lack the legal expertise to directly assess the merit of the majority or the dissenters’ jurisprudence and application of case law. Nonetheless, I think it is worthwhile to examine the philosophical ideas behind each position.

There is an obvious kind of appeal to the dissenting position that race is not a category we should consider from a legal perspective. After all, race is, as John Rawls put it, arbitrary from a moral point of view – it is not something that we control and, while it may shape how others perceive us, it does not by itself directly determine our preferences, attitudes, or competencies. Thus, to allow it to shape our decision-making is to make decisions based in part on something that ought not matter. Further, perhaps creating policies, in part, out of concerns about race may create the possibility for discrimination. To modify a statement made previously by Roberts, the way to stop discriminatory organizing of districts by race is to stop organizing districts by race altogether.

However, this point may overlook a crucial philosophical distinction, namely, the difference between ideal and non-ideal theory. There are multiple ways of understanding this distinction. One particularly relevant way is as follows. Ideal theory is concerned about the standards that we believe our society ought to be organized around. In the present case, this would be the standard of racial equality – that an individual’s race should not matter to their life’s outcomes, or the decisions that policy makers generate. Non-ideal theory, on the other hand, looks at the ways in which and reasons why we have failed to reach these ideals previously. To adopt non-ideal theory about race in the United States, for instance, requires recognizing the ways in which racial discrimination has occurred throughout its history, and use those reflections to inform our judgments about how to achieve racial equality now. Failure to consider non-ideal theory may simply result in maintaining the advantages created by hierarchal systems in the past, by leaving those inequalities unchecked and unaddressed.

The members of the majority, Kavanaugh in particular, seem to adopt a non-ideal perspective about districting in Alabama. Perhaps, in the future, we will not need to pay attention to the racial demographics of Congressional districts. But given the history of racial discrimination in the United States, the districts as previously drawn have the effect of minimizing the political power of the Black population even if that was not the intention of those who proposed those districts at present.

So, the members of the Court seem to disagree about the right balance to strike between our ideals and the means we should take to achieve those ideals. Namely, they disagree about whether non-ideal theory is appropriate to guide our decision-making when it comes to voting rights. But it is worth noting that the Court is set to rule on affirmative action in the near future, and many believe that their decision will bring about its end. Thus, how Roberts and Kavanaugh vote on that case will be particularly interesting. If, indeed, they rule against affirmative action it suggests the following view: voting rights are the kind of rights that our policies must address in a racially conscious way, but access to economic and educational opportunities do not warrant race consciousness. However, our economic rights and freedoms may serve as the scaffolding promoting rights of political participation. For instance one may not be able to vote unless one is able to afford to take time off from work to go to the ballot box, as not all states guarantee time off to vote, and even fewer grant paid time off. So, it is not immediately obvious that such a distinction is tenable, at least in a philosophic sense, once we begin to adopt the perspective of non-ideal theory.

Is Canadian Democracy Getting Weaker?

photograph of Justin Trudeau in front of row of Canadian Flags

Last week Prime Minister Trudeau criticized Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for democratic backsliding. This might seem a bit rich from someone who is mired in controversy over whether his government failed to act to stop foreign interference in elections when that interference aimed to hurt his rivals. There is no hard proof of this, but Trudeau has resisted calling a public inquiry into election interference, prompting accusations of a cover-up. Trudeau’s bizarre attempt to avoid an inquiry by appointing a “special rapporteur” recently ended, but it is far from clear whether any democratic checks to hold the Trudeau government accountable on this issue will prevail. Two years ago, I asked whether the U.S. is becoming less democratic. Given this issue in Canada, along with various other issues recently, perhaps this raises questions about the robustness of Canadian democracy and whether we are engaging in democratic backsliding of our own?

Canadian media reported that China attempted to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections, including threatening Canadian politicians. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had advised the government that China had attempted to deploy disinformation and secure funding for preferred candidates to help the Liberal Party of Canada secure a minority government. Sources have claimed that Trudeau and his cabinet ignored these warnings. It has also been reported that China had targeted MPs like Michael Chong and that the government did not warn him. The government initially tried to claim that they weren’t briefed on this, but it was later revealed that they were aware of these efforts.

This has the potential to undermine democratic trust in Canadian elections, both because it makes it more difficult to accept the results as valid (Conservatives estimate, for example, that Chinese interference may have cost them 9 seats), but also because of the possibility that the government was either complicit or incompetent in the face of it. Thus, the public wanted a public inquiry into the issue. Yet, despite near universal calls for such an inquiry from every opposition party, only the Prime Minister can decide if a public inquiry should be called. Trudeau decided to make up an entirely new and ad hoc process to decide if an inquiry should be called by appointing a “Special Rapporteur” in the form of former Governor General David Johnston to investigate matters and on the basis of his good name alone, ask that Canadians trust Johnston to decide if an inquiry was necessary.

There were already suspicions of a conflict of interest which were only magnified when Johnston’s report announced that there would be no judicial inquiry as it would be difficult dealing with classified materials in a public inquiry. Instead, he suggested leading hearings about the experiences of diaspora communities in Canada. Canadians were not happy with this. Only 27% of Canadians polled believed that Johnston was impartial. The House of Commons passed a motion requesting his resignation and for an inquiry to be held. At first, Johnston resisted, saying he respected the right of the House to “express its opinion” but that his mandate was to the Prime Minister himself.

Does this offer evidence of democratic backsliding? Certainly such an unprecedented and improvised process raises eyebrows. The prime minister handpicked the investigator tasked with determining whether he or his government is potentially undermining Canadian elections. The investigation was conducted in private with no opportunity for cross examination of witnesses, no one testified under oath, and evidence was only provided voluntarily by the cabinet. In other words, the methods used were potentially unreliable and accountable, prompting criticism from Conservatives.

Johnston, who despite enjoying respect and admiration for his time as Governor General, has numerous ties to the Prime Minister. He was a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which had accepted donations from Chinese sources, and whose entire board recently resigned. He was also a long known acquaintance of the Prime Minister and his family, having known Trudeau as a student at McGill University and from a family friendship “rooted only in the five or six times” their families skied together years ago.

Given that Trudeau has a minority government and depends on the opposition, their governing partners in the NDP could have insisted Trudeau and Johnston, acting on their own motion. But, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused to back out of his informal gentleman’s agreement to support the Liberals, citing the fact he didn’t want an election to be called while there were still doubts about election integrity. This eliminated the only realistic democratic check to keep Trudeau accountable on this issue. Until Johnston finally agreed to step down this week. Now the Liberals have even signaled that they are open to a full inquiry.

Defenders of the process have argued that Johnston is an honorable gentleman being treated unfairly – he was simply a public servant working in good faith who fell victim to partisanship. Johnston was known as a person of honor and enjoyed great respect for his nonpartisan role as Governor General. He also privately asked a retired Supreme Court Justice for his opinion on the matter and that judge said he didn’t believe there was a problem. Others have argued that anyone chosen for the job would have had the same fate; criticism was inevitable. Besides, since Johnston ultimately resigned and an inquiry looks more and more likely, perhaps the system ultimately “worked.”

On the other hand, problems with the process remain. For example, the justice who signed off on Johnston also was associated with the Trudeau Foundation at one point, and Johnston’s legal council consisted exclusively of Liberal advisors. Ultimately, the complaints highlight a trend with Trudeau’s government which has had so many conflict of interest problems. It’s gotten so bad that the Ethics Commissioner recently called for basic training for all cabinet ministers.

Does this mean that Canadian democracy is weakening? For many years, critics have expressed worry about the government depending far too much on the executive and the Prime Minister’s Office. Calls are getting louder to reign in that power. There have also been concerns regarding the government’s recent attempt to regulate speech on the internet, laws which have made Canada an outlier. Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to stop a protest he helped inflame, and the use of state power to seize bank accounts serve as additional signals of the weakening of democratic guardrails. This was only further underscored by the fact that the Commissioner who investigated the use of the Emergencies Act and controversially concluded that that the threshold for its invocation had been met, had (you guessed it) a history with the Liberal Party of Canada.

The increasing polarization in the country is making it easier for politicians to try to justify some fairly sketchy policies. A significant base is all too willing to jump to their defense, purely for the purpose of partisanship. This only makes the potential for the abuse of power easier. While some might argue that Canada’s democratic system of accountability ended up working in this particular case, an inquiry is not certain and even if it comes to pass it will only be by luck and public pressure. Johnston asked Canadians to trust him and now Singh is asking Canadians to trust him to judge when Canadian elections are free from interference. But any investigation will still depend on the goodwill of Trudeau and his league of extraordinary gentlemen.

A Future Without Work

oil painting of man chopping wood

Some prominent voices suggest implementing a type of universal basic income (UBI) in order to curb the future negative impacts of AI on employment prospects. While UBI policies can vary depending on context, any UBI plan involves the governmental distribution of universal cash payments to citizens on a predictable basis. Importantly, UBI payments are not earned, but rather they are granted merely in virtue of one’s status as a citizen or resident of a certain political jurisdiction. While there have been a number of UBI advocates throughout history, the concept has never received widespread support in the American context. However, many are softening to the idea in recent years due to the seismic changes in the employment market that are on the horizon. Debate over the merits of UBI even played a prominent role in the latest presidential election cycle, as presidential hopeful Andrew Yang advocated for a Freedom Dividend to help shield Americans from the risks of employment precarity caused by advancing technology.

While there are of course a whole host of questions pertaining to the economic feasibility of such an approach to remedying the impacts of AI, there are also underlying philosophical questions. Whether or not UBI will fix the problems it’s intended to fix is not only an economic, sociological, and political question, but also a philosophical one. Clearly, one of the most obvious roles of work in peoples’ lives is to supply them with the instrumental good of money, a role that instituting a UBI could plausibly fill. However, it is clear that work tends to play other vital roles as well.

Whether or not UBI is an advisable path forward in response to the impact of evolving technology remains an open question until we address some foundational questions about the relationship between work and what it means to be human.

While there are a multitude of ways in which one can approach the intersection of work and human flourishing, I will focus on a few of the most obvious ways in which work is integral to our lives. The first is as a source of personal identity. One of the primary ways in which people derive a concrete sense of themselves in relation to others is via their vocational choices and endeavors, with over one-third of Americans claiming their work is “extremely or very important to their overall identity.” The pursuit of excellence in one’s profession and the possession of a very particular kind of expertise can anchor one’s image and sense of self-worth as they navigate through life. Different jobs provide us with different scripts about who we are and about what kind of role we play in our communities. While there are of course other sources of personal identity beyond one’s chosen profession, the fact  remains that work constitutes a major source of identity for many.

The second way in which work is integral to our lives, is that it tends to offer us a community of people with which to interact. Given the vanishing of many of our shared social spaces, work plays an even more central role in providing people with necessary social connections than in generations prior. As opposed to older generations, younger people are less likely to have relationships with their neighbors, more likely to purchase food to go as opposed to dining in communal spaces, and less likely to grow up with ties to a religious community. The bottom line is that — on average — people are interacting face-to-face less often than they once did. Of course, in the work-from-home era, this trend has also spilled heavily into the workplace.

The complete elimination of the workplace for a large segment of the population threatens to take with it certain key social benefits. People frequently meet their spouse in the workplace, and the majority of American workers also report relationships with their co-workers as the most satisfying part of their job.

If these work communities are to be entirely lost for a number of individuals, other types of communities will have to fill this void in order to circumvent a host of negative social ramifications.

The third and final role played by work that I will consider here, is that of work’s ability to provide structure to our daily lives. Whether we like it or not, our jobs are what force many of us out of bed in the morning, and they also are what we plan our vacations, holidays, and other personal commitments around. The standard 9-to-5 American workday provides a clear structure to many peoples’ lives, as it interjects at least a minimal amount of routine into one’s day. Since there are demonstrated mental health benefits to keeping a daily routine, there might be at least some reason to view the way work tends to structure our lives as a net positive. Of course, there are also downsides to the way in which work commitments can constrain us or stifle out the pursuit of other goods, with such concerns prompting a number of cultural movements, including ones to shorten the 9-to-5 workday. Despite these legitimate concerns about work structuring too much of our lives, the point still stands that humans tend to do best with some amount of daily structure and routine. If work responsibilities are to be completely wiped away for a sizable portion of the population, it is plausible that establishing other sources of structure will become necessary for the sake of many peoples’ mental health and ability to thrive on a daily basis.

Noting these trends towards a rapidly changing economy and employment landscape, valuable philosophical resources have sprung up in recent years to help us think better about the roles work does and should play in our lives. Such resources include 80,000 Hours and Notre Dame’s Ethics at Work project. Demand for these kinds of projects will only grow in the coming months and years, as speculation over the future impact of AI and other technologies on the nature and structure of the  economy proliferates. The introduction of these advancements into the marketplace pushes us towards a deeper understanding of the role work plays in the experience of being human.

While work is about securing economic security, it is not only about securing economic security. Even if UBI turns out to be a politically and economically feasible solution to the impact of AI on the employment market, it can’t be the only fix we pursue to the problem of vanishing work. While monthly pay checks will help fill the economic void left by a collapsing employment market, it will do little to nothing to fill the other voids left by a lack of work. Thus, in addition to more research on the efficacy of instituting UBI, we should simultaneously pursue research into how to remedy the other inevitable societal impacts of a shrinking workforce.

Tiger Woods, Non-Disclosure Agreements, and Testimonial Injustice

black and white photo of lawyer holding pen and documents

In May 2023, a federal court judge ruled that Erica Herman, ex-girlfriend of Tiger Woods, must comply with the terms of the non-disclosure agreement she signed at the onset of their relationship. Among other things, the NDA required Herman to pursue any claims against Woods through arbitration rather than in court. Doing so would protect the reputation of the golf superstar.

Herman disputed the validity of the NDA in part because of a piece of federal legislation, the Speak Out Act, which went into effect in December 2022. The Act rendered unenforceable non-disclosure agreements regarding sexual assault and abuse that were entered into before the allegation was made. In short, this means that a person cannot be compelled in advance to remain silent about any sexual assault or misconduct that might occur while involved with the party with whom they have entered into the agreement. Herman alleged that her claims against Woods included accusations of sexual harassment. The judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence for that contention.

This case is among the first to be heard since the passing of the Speak Out Act. The judge was tasked with determining whether the behavior Woods exhibited toward Herman counted as sexual abuse. Herman claimed that Woods suddenly and unexpectedly ended their relationship and kicked her out of the home they lived in together. She alleged that he used the guise of a trip to the Bahamas to get her out of the house and then abandoned her at the airport where a representative of Woods informed her that the locks had been changed and she would never see Woods again. In her arguments for the court, Herman pointed out that she was an employee of Woods when their relationship began, and he abused his position of power repeatedly in sexual ways. Her lawyers argued that Woods, “made the availability of her housing conditional on her having a sexual relationship with a co-tenant.”

This case raises moral questions about NDAs in general and NDAs that apply to sexual assault and misconduct specifically. Those who argue in favor of NDAs emphasize that they are consensual — no one has to sign an NDA if they don’t want to. Once they have signed it, the parties to the agreement are bound by the ethics of making promises. Further, advocates argue that in cases like Woods’s, rich and powerful people can have their lives and reputations destroyed by con artists and jilted lovers who are willing to lie to make some money.

Others, however, argue that NDAs are, in general, unethical unless they are narrowly tailored to protect trade secrets or intellectual property. These agreements always involve an imbalance of power, and, as a result, fully free and informed consent is not possible. Signing such an agreement is often a condition of employment and is therefore inherently coercive. Not all contracts are genuine promises — a person ought to be released by the obligations of a contract if that contract is exploitative or otherwise unjust. Such agreements prevent people from behaving fully autonomously and these restrictions do not serve any compelling interests aside from protecting the reputation of the individual or institution. There are much more important considerations than reputations.

Many non-disclosure agreements constitute instances of what Miranda Fricker has called epistemic injustice. Specifically, such agreements are instances of what Fricker calls testimonial injustice which occurs “when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.” Humans are social creatures and being taken seriously as a knower is an important part of living a flourishing human life. When a person is exploited by an imbalance of power to sign away their ability to publicly testify to their experiences, they are removed unfairly from the community of knowers and forced to participate in conversations in private when there might be important reasons that those conversations should be public. The moral problems here go beyond potential future harms; NDAs threaten to violate human dignity. The use of power to diminish the impact or importance of a person’s testimony is to treat them as an unlikely source of knowledge and to treat them this way arbitrarily, simply by contractual stipulation, is to treat them as less of a person.

That said, there are often important consequences that hang in the balance. Consider the case of former president Donald Trump and porn star Stormy Daniels. Trump paid Daniels in exchange for her signature on a non-disclosure agreement promising not to reveal the details of their sexual relationship which occurred years earlier. Daniels later took Trump to court, claiming that the NDA was invalidated by the fact that Trump did not sign his name, but rather signed with a series of Xs so that he could retain plausible deniability about the whole affair. Regardless of the specifics of this particular contract, it is arguably a contract that never should have been taken seriously at all. If a person wants to share details about their relationship with a candidate for President of The United States, that should be information that should come to light without any legal consequences so that the voting public can make fully informed decisions when they vote. They can choose not to be influenced by such information or to treat it as unreliable if they think that is what the evidence warrants, but they shouldn’t be precluded from hearing it at all because a powerful person paid a subordinate to sign an NDA.

Movie producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein also used non-disclosure agreements to silence his victims. His case offers an important insight into the use of NDAs in sexual abuse cases — when restrictions are placed on who a victim can speak to about their abuse, sexual predators are allowed to use the same tactics with more and more victims and avoid getting caught. The people who broke their NDAs with Weinstein were pivotal in his ultimate conviction.

Fricker notes that in cases of epistemic injustice, harms are often caused by abuses of identity power. It is common for people to be taken less seriously as knowers when they are members of minority or historically oppressed groups. Patriarchy creates conditions of epistemic injustice for women and members of the LGBTQ community. This is of particular concern in cases of sexual abuse because the very people who are the most likely to be abused are the people who are least likely to be heard or taken seriously about that abuse. If an NDA is in place, they won’t be heard at all or will be heard only in arbitration.

Woods and his representatives are concerned about harm to his reputation if Herman’s case against him were to be heard in open court rather than resolved in arbitration. Crucial to their argument seem to be claims about fairness. What they don’t seem to recognize is the privileged position that Woods is in — the unique position to use expensive legal wrangling to force silence to begin with. In this way, Woods can behave in whatever way he would like and then effectively purchase silence from women. What others might take to be fair is the opportunity to dispute allegations in court.

The Speak Out Act is a step in the right direction, but this case highlights existing systemic problems with the court system when it comes to these kinds of matters. Some people have a very narrow view of what counts as sexual abuse or harassment, and in this case the judge appears to be one of them. This situation makes clear the need for further discussion about the nature of sexual misconduct – a discussion which requires conditions of free and open expression.

Glacier Northwest v Teamsters: Employer Property and Worker Rights

photograph of construction workers on break at job site

Tensions had been simmering between Glacier Northwest and its employees. On August 17th, 2017, drivers for the company loaded up their cement-mixing trucks with freshly made cement and drove off for delivery. Mid-delivery, a strike was called and rather than deliver cement as expected, 16 of the truck drivers drove back to the yard. They kept the drums running, left their vehicles, and the strike was on. Seven of the 16 drivers expressly notified management they would be returning to the yard with loaded trucks. While none of the trucks were damaged, the cement was wasted and Glacier Northwest sued Teamster Local 174, their employees’ union, for $11,000 dollars in a Washington court. The case ultimately made it before the Supreme Court.

This seemingly minor lawsuit hinges on the question of whether labor disputes should be handled by the National Labor Relations Board or state courts. The NLRB has expertise on labor matters and is generally viewed as more supportive of workers than many state courts  — although this somewhat depends on the president, as the Board members are presidential appointees. But, on June 1st, the Supreme Court released its decision in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v Teamsters, placing the case back in the hands of the Washington State Supreme Court, with their blessing to continue the lawsuit in state court.

This complicated decision in a complicated case continues the trend of the current court ruling in opposition to organized labor, most notably in Janus v. AFSCME. (Although as many commentators have noted, the Glacier Northwest ruling falls short of the most anti-labor ruling that could have come out of the case – one which workers’ rights advocates worried would unleash a flood of state-level litigation in response to strikes.) As stands, it still provides a path for employers to sue their employees for damages in state court if they fail to take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable and imminent harm caused by a strike. How wide or narrow this path is remains unclear.

Lost in the tortuous proceduralism of Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters is a more fundamental ethical question: how should employer’s property rights be weighed against workers’ right to organize and strike?

An extreme perspective that strongly prioritizes property would be that workers are “allowed” to organize and even strike (as in, such actions would be legal), but they are on the hook for any losses and property damage that results. The consequences of striking would be enormously onerous to workers, and employers would be subject to legal remedy to “reverse” harms caused by a strike. Under such a standard, strikes would be both risky and less impactful. The takeaway is that for the legal right to strike to be meaningful, workers must have some protection from the economic damages caused by their actions.

One somewhat legalistic approach essentially dodges the question of balancing property rights and workers’ rights. The idea here is that striking workers are simply not working, and therefore owe nothing more to the company than if they were out sick or a random person on the street. It follows then that striking workers are not responsible for the harms that result from a strike, as long as those harms result directly from stopping working. If grocery store workers go on strike, and in addition to a bunch of lost sales all the fruits and vegetables spoil, they would owe nothing to the company. Why should this be their responsibility any more than the responsibility of an employee that stayed home sick?

What workers cannot do under this perspective is take any steps to cause property damage to their employer beyond damage that results from not working. Workers cannot go on strike, grab torches, and burn down the factory.

This is in fact very close to how the National Labor Relations Board views damages that result from strike. It can quickly get deep in the weeds. (Which Justice Jackson incidentally raised as an argument to let the National Labor Relations Board do it rather than state courts.) What about situations that are strategically timed or contrived to produce maximum damage? Does it matter whether the situation is contrived as opposed to merely carefully timed? Could workers walk off the job partway through a dangerous smelting process and let the factory burn down? Or, as came up frequently during oral argument before the Supreme Court, could ship workers sail a boat into the middle of the river and then abandon ship?

The National Labor Relations Board’s solution – and this language is reflected in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters – was to say employees must take “reasonable precautions” to avoid these kinds of serious harms to persons and property. This leads to its own complex discussion of what counts as reasonable precautions, and to which specific harms they should apply.

A different approach would be to say that the balance between property rights and workers’ rights is simply the wrong issue. What we should care about is not these ostensibly competing sets of rights, but rather the balance of power in the workplace. The idea here is that workers’ rights and protections don’t exist on some definitive list, but in relation with what is required for workers to have agency at work. The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has noted that uses (and abuses) of power are allowed in the workplace which we would find intolerable from the government. The question then becomes what tools do workers need in the workplace. (To Congress’s credit, a goal of equal bargaining power was explicitly included in the National Labor Relations Act.)

Strikes are large and flashy and can lead to a myopic analysis where the harms of striking are on full display, but the harms that made the strike necessary – from underpayment, to bad-faith bargaining, to poor working conditions, to undignified treatment – are invisible. Workers may not have direct legal redress for these harms. Instead the assumption is that the right to organize and strike provides workers tools to resolve these harms on their own.

Crucially, the intent of a strike is not primarily to cause economic damage to the employer. The intent of a strike is to bring the employer to the bargaining table and achieve certain goals in the workplace. The leverage of a strike is that it causes economic or reputational harms to the employer. What matters is that companies know their employees are allowed to engage in strategically timed strikes. When workers are generally weak in comparison to their employers, as is the case in modern America, it may make ethical sense to be generous with what strike tactics are allowed, not to hurt employers, but to provide employees with the tools to negotiate with their employers as equals and prevent harms in the workplace.

A final, more human-centric approach would be to simply say that workers’ rights should have priority over their employer’s property rights. The thrust of the approach is that worker agency, dignity, and self-determination are more important than employer property. This intuition is heightened in cases with larger corporate employers where no one suffers major personal harm associated with the loss of company profits or property. The intuition becomes ethically grayer for small, closely held businesses and more extreme property loss. Note though that the consideration here is the human harms associated with property loss, not the property loss as such.

On this approach, the primary reason a strike should not be strategically timed to burn down a factory or leave a boat stranded in a river is because such an action endangers people, not property. (This leads to its own balancing question on strikes that can cause public harm, such as nursing strikes, as has been previously discussed in the Prindle Post.) Placing workers’ rights over property could still lead to legal complexity in individual cases, but it would set clear priorities. Courts should protect the agency and dignity of workers.

Affirmative Action and the Long Road to Justice: Are We There Yet?

photograph of paths converging on college quad

The Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of affirmative action. On October 31, 2022, the Court heard oral arguments for cases that Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina arguing that their race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional. The Court’s decision is expected to be announced by the end of June, and many expect that the ruling will forbid race-conscious admissions altogether, limiting colleges and universities to recruiting diverse student bodies through race-neutral means.

While it was always clear that this day would come eventually, on the eve of the Court’s decision a central question looms large: Are we ready for the end of affirmative action?

When the Supreme Court ruled on Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), its most recent affirmative action case, the Court made it clear that the practice of race-conscious admissions should not continue indefinitely. While upholding a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Michigan’s Law School, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority that “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time,” speculating that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Jeffrey Lehman, the Dean of Michigan’s Law School, agreed, saying that “The question is no longer whether affirmative action is legal; it is how to hasten the day when affirmative action is no longer needed.”

Justice O’Connor’s thought that affirmative action should have a limited lifespan is far from novel, as many defenders of affirmative action have supported its eventual dissolution. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in his Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) opinion allowing for certain forms of race-conscious admissions, anticipated a day that affirmative action programs would be a “relic of the past,” hoping that day might come “within a decade at the most.

And the idea that affirmative action should come with an expiration date is still the clear opinion of the Court. In October’s oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan said that “everybody would rather achieve all our racial diversity goals through race-neutral means,” adding that all the Court’s affirmative action cases “indicate that race-neutral means are better.” Even though affirmative action is currently legal, the consensus is that such policies are merely temporary.

This, of course, raises the important question why a ruling about what is just and fair would only be temporary. If everyone agrees that race-neutral policies are what is ultimately fair, then why allow preferential treatment for some in the short term?

One way to think about this question is through the lens of what the political theorist John Rawls calls “transitional justice.” Rawls observed that, even after we identify what an ideal society would look like, there is still the remaining issue of how we should transition from our current society to one that is completely just. For this reason, questions of transitional justice ask what steps we can take to create a society that more closely mirrors the ideal.

Just like it can be difficult to decide what is ideally just, it can also be very challenging to identify what sorts of policies help us most effectively transition to that ideal. Suppose, for example, that there is a society where hate crimes against religious minorities are particularly widespread and rarely prosecuted. In order to create a more just society, it is obvious that the court system needs to punish such wrongdoing. However, if a new leader comes to power and cracks down on these crimes, the political backlash may well make the society even more unjust than it was before. How should the society respond? By prosecuting only some of the most egregious crimes? By punishing all offenders, but only with a lenient sentence?

Along with showing the difficulty of crafting transitional justice policies, this example also reveals that the demands of ideal justice and transitional justice can easily come into conflict. In the ideal case, justice might ultimately demand that all religious hate crimes be met with a harsh sentence, but perhaps the best transitional policy for a given society is to only punish the worst of those crimes. And if a society adopts this latter policy in hopes of one day reaching the ideal, the question will always remain of when the society should move from this transitional policy to one that more closely embodies the ideal.

With the contrast between transitional and ideal justice in hand, we can make sense of the fact that, while the Supreme Court has historically endorsed affirmative action, such policies have always been thought to come with an expiration date. The practice of race-conscious admissions was never meant to be the ideal, but rather a way to move from a world of overt racial discrimination and exclusion to one where all students can be considered on their individual merits.

Adopting race-conscious admissions policies, though, does raise the difficult issue of when to end them. We have not yet reached O’Connor’s 2028 cutoff, but we are far past Blackmun’s 1988 deadline. Is eliminating affirmative action the next step in making the United States more just?

Some defenders of affirmative action think that race-neutral policies cannot yet ensure diverse student bodies. In October’s oral arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed that, of the nine states that have eliminated affirmative action altogether, “the numbers for underrepresented groups have fallen dramatically.” After the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, outlawing affirmative action in California’s public institutions, the percentage of Black students at Berkeley fell from 6.4% to 3.6%, and the percentage of Hispanic students was reduced from 16.3% to 9.4%. Other defenders of affirmative action have argued that race-conscious admissions should not be just about creating diverse student bodies, but righting historical injustices.

On the other side of the debate, those who think that affirmative action has run its course hold that the supposed benefits of race-conscious admissions no longer justify departing from the ideal. Affirmative action policies can increase racial tension, raising the odds of a backlash against racial minorities instead of reversing racial discrimination. There is also evidence to suggest that affirmative action can actually hurt the students that it is intended to help, as students who enter college with less competitive academic credentials have markedly higher rates of attrition than if they attend institutions where their qualifications are more comparable to their peers.

According to these affirmative action critics, we have reached a point where race-conscious admissions policies make our society less rather than more just. In their minds, the next step in our journey towards creating a just society is to no longer employ racial preferences in college admissions. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Questions About Authenticity from Androids in the Age of ChatGPT

photograph of Blade Runner movie scene

One of the great philosophical fiction writers of the 20th century, Philip K. Dick, was deeply concerned about the problem of discerning the authentic from the inauthentic. Many of his books and stories deal with this theme. One novel in particular, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, includes a version of the Turing Test, what Dick called the Voight-Kampff test, to distinguish humans from androids. Most people are probably more familiar with the use of the test in the novel’s cinematic adaptation, Blade Runner. In the film, the use of the test is never meaningfully questioned. In the novel, however, it is suggested throughout (and especially in chapters 4 and 5) that there are significant moral, epistemic, and ontological issues with the test. The Voight-Kampff test is meant to distinguish humans from androids by measuring involuntary physical responses connected to empathetic reactions to hypothetical scenarios. The test works on the supposition that humans would have empathic reactions to the misuse and destruction of other conscious entities while androids would not. It is suggested to the reader, as well as characters, that the test will generate false positives by occasionally identifying humans with psychological disorders as being androids. The main character, Rick Deckard, knows about the possibility of false positives when he tests another character, Rachael Rosen, and determines she is an android.

The possibility that the test is faulty allows Deckard to be manipulated. The CEO of the company that makes the androids, Eldon Rosen, claims Rachael is a human. His explanation is that for most of her life Rachael had little human contact and thus did not develop empathy sufficient to pass the test. If the test is returning false positives, then enforcement agencies using the test “may have retired [killed], very probably have retired, authentic humans with underdeveloped empathic ability.” Further muddying the philosophical waters, it is unclear whether advances in android technology have made it so that the test results in false negatives, and thereby allowing dangerous androids to move freely through society. As Rachael points out “If you have no test you can administer, then there is no way you can identify an android. And if there’s no way you can identify an android there’s no way you can collect your bounty.” In other words, without a reliable test to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, the real from the fake, Rick Deckard and the organizations he represents are paralyzed.

But Rachael is an android. Her backstory is a lie. Nevertheless, Deckard is constantly questioning what he knows, what is real, and whether his behavior as a bounty hunter is morally licit.

Dick was worried about problems with the inability to distinguish the real from the fake in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2023, with the creation of a variety of forms of technology such as ChatGPT, voice cloning, and deep fake image technology, along with public figures being willing to tell outright lies with seeming impunity, we already live in Dick’s dystopia.

Consider just a few recent examples.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has worries about AI-generated content as part of the ongoing strike. One proposal made by the WGA to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) states the AMPTP should agree to “Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

The Washington Post reports that an instructor at Texas A&M, Jared Mumm, sent an email to his students stating that due to concerns about the use of ChatGPT in his course, all students were going to receive an incomplete for the course until he could determine who did and who did not use the software.

The U. S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law recently heard testimony from Sam Altman, CEO of Open AI – the creators of ChatGPT – about the dangers and solutions to the existence of such technology.

Each of these on-going events center on a concern about the authenticity of ideas, about whether the consumer of these ideas can reliably believe that the claimed or implied origin of an idea is veridical. To make this point, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) opened the subcommittee hearing with an audio recording that was an AI-generated clone of his voice reading the following ChatGPT generated script:

Too often, we have seen what happens when technology outpaces regulation: the unbridled exploitation of personal data, the proliferation of disinformation, and the deepening of societal inequalities. We have seen how algorithmic biases can perpetuate discrimination and prejudice, and how the lack of transparency can undermine public trust. This is not the future we want.

As the real Senator Blumenthal points out, the AI’s “apparent reasoning is pretty impressive” suggesting the senator actually endorses something akin to the ideas that are, nevertheless, not his ideas. The fear is that someone hearing this, or any other such creation, would be unable to know whether the ideas are authentic and being authentically stated by the claimed author. For another example, The Daily Show recently created a fake re-election ad for President Biden using similar technology. The fake ad includes profanity and morally questionable attacks on the character of many public figures — see here. Comments about the ad discuss how effective this it might be for the President’s future campaign with one, Lezopi5914, stating that the fake ad is “Full of truth. Best and most honest ad ever.”

If we can’t distinguish the real from the simulated, then we are cut off from the objective world. If we are cut off from the objective world, then we are cut off from our ability to ensure that sentences correspond to reality and thus our ability to assign the value “true” to our sentences (at least on a correspondence theory of truth). Without being able to assign the value “true” to sentences such as our beliefs, our decisional-capacity is threatened. On one reading of Kantian forms of autonomy, the agent has to have full, accurate information to make rational, moral choices. The possibility of the existence of an ad with an AI-generated script, a cloned voice, and a deep-faked face undermines a voter’s ability to make rational, moral choices about who deserves our vote in the next election as well as more mundane decisions.

To make matters even worse, if I know fake information is out there, but I can’t distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, then how do I form any beliefs whatsoever, let alone act on them?

One does not need to adopt William Clifford’s strong principle that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” to become paralyzed. In the current situation, I don’t merely lack sufficient evidence for belief adoption, I have no grounds for a belief.

We can see how such thinking may have influenced Jared Mumm to give every student in his Texas A&M course an incomplete.  As he put it on one student’s paper, “I have to gauge what you are learning not a computer” but at the moment, he lacks a reliable test or procedure to identify if a text is authentically written by a student or generated by an AI chatbot. Result: everyone gets an incomplete until we can sort this out. As educators, do we have to suspend all grading until a solution is found? If no one can trust the information they obtain about politicians, policy, legislation, the courts, or what happened on January 6, 2021, do we even bother participating in self-governance through voting and other forms of political participation?

Rick Deckard suggests that those who create such technology have a moral responsibility to provide solutions to the problems they are creating. It is hinted that the only reason the android technology is not banned outright in the fictional world is because there exist tests to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic. He tells Rachael and Eldon Rosen that “[i]f you have no confidence in the Voight-Kampff scale … possibly your organization should have researched an alternate test. It can be argued the responsibility rests partly on you.” In other words, in order to avoid outright bans, detection technology needs to be available and trustworthy.

Help (?) is on the way. Open AI is developing tools that can identify text as AI generated. Other companies are creating software to identify voice cloning and deep fakes. Is this all we need? A test, a procedure, to determine what is real and what is fake, and then policies that use these tests to determine who is to suffer punitive measures for using these tools for deceptive purposes? Open AI admits that its detection tool generates false positives nine percent of the time and there is no word on how often it produces false negatives. Other detection software is also not one hundred percent accurate. Thus, we seem to lack reliable tests. What about enforceable policies? Some new outlets report that Mr. Altman asked Congress to regulate AI, thereby saying it is a governmental responsibility, not Open AI’s, to develop and enforce these rules. Other outlets suggest that Mr. Altman is trying to shape legislation to the advantage of Open AI, not in solving the problems of authenticity the technology creates. Who do you believe? Who can you believe?

And so here we are, in a world filled with technology that can deceive us. But we have no reliable manner to identify the authentic from the inauthentic and no enforceable policies to discourage nefarious use of these technologies. While I believe that academics have many tools at their disposal to keep students from cheating, the larger societal problems of this technology are more concerning.

I am not the only person to notice the connection between Philip K. Dick and these philosophical problems — see here and here. But the seemingly unanswerable question is, “Did Jim write this article and then discover similar essays that provide further support for his concerns or are the explicit references to cover his tracks so no one notices that he plagiarized, possibly using ChatGPT?” How can you know?