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On the Morality of Rental Pet Prohibitions

photograph of "No Dogs Allowed" sign in front of apartment complex

I recently moved into a new home. Fortunately, our new landlord allowed the furriest member of our family to join us. Not all landlords are so kind, however. Many rental agreements contain clauses explicitly prohibiting tenants from owning pets. But such limitations are now being challenged. The U.K. is currently considering legislation that would give tenants the legal right to request a pet in their home, with landlords not being able to unreasonably refuse. New York City, on the other hand, already gives tenants the right to keep a pet in a no-pet property after three months of residence.

Landlords are understandably concerned about such developments. But it’s worth considering why we might think they have the ability to refuse tenancy to the two-thirds of the population that own pets.

We might begin by taking a rights-based approach: arguing that since the landlord is the owner of the property, they have the right to dictate whatever tenancy terms they see fit. If a potential tenant finds these terms unsatisfactory, then they are welcome to look elsewhere for a home. But such an approach – while elegant in its simplicity – fundamentally fails to describe how the law approaches the relationship between landlords and tenants. Property owners are not all-powerful lords overseeing their fiefdoms. As soon as they enter into a contract to lease their property, their rights in that property become limited. Most jurisdictions, for example, recognize the right of tenants to the exclusive possession and peaceful enjoyment of their property. A landlord could not, for example, prohibit the reading of books on the property, or capriciously make a rule outlawing the possession of Tupperware.

A rule against the ownership of pets, then, must be based on more than just the landlord’s right to dictate the terms of a lease. There must be good reason why this particular use of the property can be prohibited, when others cannot.

The obvious answer is, of course, the potential for damage that accompanies pet ownership. Most landlords don’t prohibit animals on the basis of a de Vil-esque hatred of animals. Instead, it stems from a fear that their valuable investment – a home – will be devalued through the devastation wrought by non-human occupants. And let’s be honest, this fear isn’t entirely unfounded. Anyone who has owned a pet will know that animals aren’t always entirely respectful of private property. They are quite capable of causing – sometimes catastrophic – damage.

Perhaps, then, the proper argument against pet ownership in a rental property is a consequentialist one. While tenants do indeed have a right to peacefully enjoy the property in which they reside, this right can be curtailed where an activity creates significant risk of damage to the home. It would, for example, be completely unreasonable for a tenant to claim that the right to peaceful enjoyment allows them to detonate fireworks in their living room. It’s also what allows landlords to create prohibitions against things like smoking.

But there are several problems with this argument. First, if the potential for damage is what justifies a prohibition against pets, then landlords should be permitted to prohibit anything else that brings that same potential for damage. But they’re not. A docile, well-trained cat is far less likely to create chaos than a rampaging toddler. But in most jurisdictions, there are clear protections in place that forbid a landlord from refusing to rent to a family with children. In the U.S., it’s a violation of Federal Law.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between a child and a pet. For one, there seems to be a generally recognized “right” to the former, but not the latter. But this is where a second concern with the consequentialist approach arises: such an argument must weigh all of the consequences – not only the costs. And while a pet might be importantly different to a child, the benefits a pet brings to its family are of a very similar kind. Pets bring companionship and joy. They even improve our improve our mental health. And the benefits aren‘t just to tenants. A recent study showed that pet-friendly homes in New York City brought landlords an additional $250 in rental income every month. There’s every chance that these benefits to tenants and landlords may easily offset the potential costs of any pet-related damage.

Which brings us to a final problem with the consequentialist approach: any rental arrangement brings with it an inherent risk of property damage – and there are already ample mechanisms in place to reduce the cost associated with that risk. That’s what security deposits are for. If a tenant – or their furry companion – causes damage, then this deposit will provide compensation for the landlord. In fact, in many cases, this deposit can be supplemented by an additional pet deposit and cleaning fee. Access to mechanisms such as these make a blanket prohibition on pet ownership in a rental property even harder to justify.

The upshot, then, is this: while a tenant might have the right to peacefully enjoy their rental property, there are circumstances where a significant risk of damage can allow a landlord to dictate the terms of a tenancy. The ownership of a pet, however, is not sufficient to meet this standard. If it was, then other activities (like having a child) could also be prohibited. What’s more, the benefits of pet ownership for the tenant far outweigh the potential costs to the landlord – costs which, through the appropriate use of existing mechanisms like security deposits – can be almost entirely eliminated.

At the end of the day, pets are – for many – just as much a member of the family as any of the humans of the household. Giving up those family members is unthinkable, which is why pet prohibitions lock many families out of a vast number of rental properties. What’s more, prohibiting pets from rental properties – while legally enshrining the rights of certain human family members – might also be yet another example of blatant speciesism

Caring, the Self, and Self-Care

painting of laborers at construction site

The concept of self-care, as of late, has gained a kind of cultural omnipresence. Originating in the context of healthcare, self-care was, at first, used to describe the ways in which patients with chronic illness might work to improve their physical health: a balanced diet, regular exercise, and the like. But having grown beyond this strictly clinical context, self-care is now something much more: for students and teachers; for parents and children; for business owners and employees; for HR professionals and for anti-capitalists. Self-care has even circled back on its origins: it is no longer just something for people who are receiving healthcare, but — in the light of a crisis of mental health among nurses, physicians, and medical students — also for those who provide it.

Self-care is, of course, something which is deeply important: there’s a reason, after all, that the medical community has emphasized self-care for over 50 years, and that well-meaning friends will advise you to care for yourself when they see that you aren’t. But for all of the self-care advice which you might encounter — to go on walks, to journal, to take a bubble bath, or read a book — ubiquity has not brought the concept of self-care clarity.

In my first week of medical school, we frequently encountered talk of self-care. In PowerPoint presentations, we were told to prioritize diet, exercise, and time with our families. We were told to remember to drink water; we were invited to guided yoga sessions and optional lectures on mindfulness. When a panel on physician wellness was held, we were told that what we were doing was hard, but that it got better: we just needed self-care — to meditate or keep a mental health journal — in the meantime.

In your own professional context, you’ve likely heard similar advice, whether it be from a teacher, professor, or boss. This advice, however, admits to a specific understanding of what it means to care: namely, one which is reactive. Self-care is most frequently emphasized in environments which are inherently stressful: our classrooms, where students face exams and social pressures, and our places of work, where failing to meet expectations can deeply impact both you and your loved ones. Much of the same can be said of medical school, where advice on self-care was a theme of the first week precisely because it would be required the week after. Across these contexts, self-care is a kind of coping strategy: a way to deal with the hardships which we will encounter in our day-to-day lives.

This picture of what it means to care for oneself, however, is simply incomplete. While self-care is an important tool for dealing with stress, human flourishing involves more than just coping. Really caring for someone — including yourself — means not just being reactive, but also proactive: it means not just finding strategies for dealing with stressors, but also seeking to thrive. Self-care advice, however, is primarily oriented towards the former rather than latter: we use self-care as a way to cope, and much less often as a way to flourish.

A large part of this likely comes from the emphasis on self-care in educational and professional contexts. Self-care, in these spaces, is a means to an end: even if you’re fortunate enough to have a teacher or boss which truly cares about your thriving, self-care is emphasized insofar as it facilitates productivity. This is why appeals to self-care can strike a student or employee as shallow, or even unserious: in many classrooms and workplaces, self-care isn’t really for you, but for the sake of the organization. And, further, students and employees know what would likely happen if their self-care was oriented more towards their thriving rather than their productivity: self-care cannot interfere with attendance or the satisfaction of expectations. Here, we can see how reactive self-care benefits our institutions, while proactive self-care, sometimes, does not.

I don’t blame us for our focus on reactive self-care. Many don’t even have the privilege to think reactively about self-care, let alone proactively. But this raises an important point. Self-care is, obviously, something which you do — self-care places the burden of both reactive and proactive care solely on your shoulders. Human flourishing, though, is rarely something which can be understood in such solitary terms. Self-care emphasizes the self, and fails to acknowledge the fact that your well-being is, in large part, context-dependent: the expectations placed on you at work and school, and the stressors you encounter there, will affect your well-being. A single-minded focus on self-care, then, can separate cause from effect, and direct our attention towards stabilizing our well-being rather than the reasons our well-being is poor: it is an incredibly effective tool for shifting the entire responsibility for one’s poor well-being entirely onto the individual, rather than the environment (the school, workplace, or society) which most likely bears some of the blame. Your school may emphasize self-care in the classroom, but ignore the bullying which makes you need self-care in the first place. Your workplace may offer classes on meditation, but if your self-care conflicts with your productivity, your boss will likely find someone who prioritizes the latter. If self-care is to truly be a form of care, then, it cannot rely entirely on the self, nor can it abstract the self from its context — and the fact that, at some level, our institutions have an obligation to care for us as well.

If we take these observations seriously, our acts of self-care will point towards us in a radically different direction. Self-care is not about struggling to keep one’s head above water: self-care is about the pursuit of thriving, and the transformation of our institutions in a way which fosters that thriving. It also challenges us to think about our obligations to others: the ways in which we burden others with their own care, rather than lifting that burden ourselves. Human thriving is complex and communal, and relies on more than bubble baths and journaling; but if we seek ways to truly care for ourselves and others, we work towards something which is much more meaningful.

Children Deserve Less Screen Time in Schools

photograph of group of children using smartphones and tablets

School closures because of COVID-19 should teach us a lot about the future of educational reform. Unfortunately, we aren’t learning the lessons we should.

For many years, educational innovators championed visions of personalized learning. What these visions have in common is the belief that one-size-fits-all approaches to education aren’t working, and that technology can do better.

Before we place too much hope in technological solutions to educational problems, we need to think seriously about COVID school closures. School districts did their best to mobilize technological tools to help students, but we’ve learned that students are now further behind than ever. School closures offered the perfect opportunity to test the promise of personalized learning. And though technology-mediated solutions are most certainly not to blame for learning loss, they didn’t rise to the occasion.

To be clear, personalized learning has its place. But when we think about where to invest our time and attention when it comes to the future of schooling, we must expand where we look.

I’ve felt this way for many years. The New York Times published an article back in 2011 that reported the rise of Waldorf schooling in Silicon Valley. While technologists were selling the idea that technology would revolutionize learning, they were making sure their children were staying far away from screens, especially in schools. They knew then what we are slowly finding out: technology, especially social media, has the power to harm student mental health. It also has the potential to undermine democracy. Unscrupulous agents are actively targeting teenagers, teaching them to hate themselves and others.

It is surprising that in all the calls for parents to take back the schools, most of the attention is being paid to what is and isn’t in libraries and what is and isn’t being assigned. Why do Toni Morrison’s novels provoke so much vitriol and yet the fact that kids starting in kindergarten watch so many inane “educational videos” on their “smart boards” doesn’t.

What is more, so many school districts provide children with laptops and some even provide mobile hotspots so children can always be online. We are getting so upset about what a student might read that we neglect all the hateful, violent, and pornographic images and texts immediately available to children and teenagers through school-issued devices.

Parents are asking what is assigned and what is in libraries when they should ask: How many hours a day do my children spend on a screen? And if they are spending a great deal of time on their screens: What habits are they developing?

If we focused on these questions, we’d see that our children are spending too much time on screens. We’d learn that our children are shying away from work that is challenging because they are used to thinking that learning must be fun and tailored to them.

We must get children outside their comfort zones through an encounter with content that provokes thinking. Playing games, mindlessly scrolling, and responding to personalized prompts don’t get us here.  What we need is an education built on asking questions that provoke conversation and engagement.

Overreliance on technology has a narrowing function. We look for information that is easy to assimilate into our preferred ways of thinking. By contrast, a good question is genuinely disruptive, just as a good conversation leaves us less sure of what we thought we knew and more interested in learning about how and what other people think.

In our rush for technological solutions, we’ve neglected the art of asking questions and cultivating conversation. Expecting personalized learning to solve problems, we’ve forgotten the effort it takes to engage each other and have neglected the importance of conversation.

Rather than chase the next technological fix — fixes that failed us when we needed them most — we should invest in the arts of conversation. Not only will this drive deeper learning, but it can help address the mental health crisis and rising polarization because conversation teaches students that they are more than what any algorithm thinks they are.

Real conversation reminds us that we are bigger than we can imagine, and this is exactly what our children deserve and what our society needs. Classrooms need to move students away from an overreliance on technology and into a passionate engagement with their potential and the wonder of new and difficult ideas.

Our screens are driving us into smaller and smaller worlds. This makes us sad, angry, anxious, and intolerant. Many young people don’t have the willpower to put the screen down, so schools need to step up. Initially, it won’t be easy. Screens are convenient pacifiers. But our children shouldn’t be pacified, they deserve to be engaged. And this is where we need to devote energy and attention as we approach the upcoming academic year.

The Right to Block on Social Media

photograph of couple looking at smartphone behind window

On August 18, Elon Musk suggested that the blocking feature on Twitter, which allows users to prevent another user from interacting with them in any way on the site, would soon be removed. (Musk rebranded Twitter “X,” though it still uses the domain twitter.com. For clarity, I’ll refer to this social media site as Twitter, as many of its users still do.) Musk claimed that the feature would be limited to blocking direct messages, adding in a subsequent post that the feature “makes no sense.” This declaration was met with a good deal of criticism and disbelief among Twitter users.

Twitter’s CEO Linda Yaccarino later walked back the statement, claiming that the company is “building something better than the current state of block and mute.” Musk’s claim may be unlikely to be true anyway, since the guidelines for both the App Store and the Google Play Store appear to require that user-generated content must be able to be blocked in any app they offer.

But Musk’s suggestion raises the question of whether blocking on social media is something users have a right to. I won’t attempt to comment on any relevant legal right, but let’s consider the users’ moral rights.

First, a blocking ban violates our right to privacy. We have a right not to expose ourselves to content — and to people — on social media sites. The privacy achieved with blocking on social media goes in two directions: blocking keeps one’s own posts from being viewed by another user, and it also prevents the other user from contacting or interacting with the person who blocked them. In preventing another person from viewing one’s posts, a person can limit who accesses their personal information, thoughts, photos, and social interactions with other users. Even when posts are public, for users who aren’t public figures acting in a public capacity, the ability to retain some privacy when desired is valuable. Blocking is essential for achieving this privacy.

Privacy is also a matter of the ability to prevent someone else from entering your space. Twitter is a place where people meet others, interact, and learn about the world. It facilitates a unique kind of community-building, and thus is a unique kind of place — one that can at once be both public and intimate, involving networks of friends and parasocial relationships. Just as the ability to prevent an arbitrary person from broadcasting their thoughts into your home is essential for privacy, so also the ability to block interactions from someone on social media is an important means of privacy in that space.

Second, the ability to block an account on social media is necessary for safety. Blocking allows users to prevent future harassment, private messages, or hate speech from another user, thus protecting their mental health. By similar reasoning to a restraining order, the ability to block also protects the user from another user’s attempt to maintain unwanted contact or to stalk them through the site. Blocking alone doesn’t accomplish these goals perfectly, but it is necessary for achieving them for anyone who uses social media.

Important to both the above points is the lack of a feasible alternative to Twitter. It’s not always possible for someone to simply use another form of social media to prevent unwanted interactions. Not all platforms have the same functions or norms. The default public settings of Twitter (and its permitting anonymous accounts) make it a much different place from Facebook, which defaults to private posts and requires full names from its users. Twitter has been a successful home for activism and real-time crisis information. Despite recent attempts to launch competing sites, no other social media site compares to Twitter in terms of reach and, for better and worse, ethos. One can’t simply leave the party to avoid interactions as one does in real life; there’s no viable alternative place to go.

Third, blocking gives users more agency than reporting users for suspension or banning. Blocking is immediate, user-achieved, and not dependent on another entity’s approval. It is more efficient than reporting users for suspension or banning, because it does not require either the time or effort that goes into deciding the results of these reports. Neither does blocking depend on the blocked user having violated one of the terms of use on the site, such as rules against hate speech. If I can block another user for any personal reason whatsoever, I have much greater control over my social life online.

With these considerations in mind, it’s worth pointing out that one personal account blocking another is not a case of government censorship or online moderation. People are free to block for any reason whatsoever, without being beholden to principles about what a government or business may rightly censor. There are moral considerations when people act towards each other in any situation, so this is not to say that no moral considerations could make blocking wrong in a particular case. But individuals do not have a blanket moral obligation to allow others to say whatever they want to them, even though a government or the site itself might have no standing to prevent the person from saying it.

One worry you might have is that blocking could intensify echo chambers. An echo chamber is a social community bound by shared beliefs and insulated from opposing evidence. If a person always blocks people who challenge their political ideas, they will likely find themselves in an environment that’s not particularly conducive to forming justified beliefs. This effect is intensified if it should turn out that the blocking actions of a user are then fed into the algorithm that determines what posts show up on one’s social feed. If the algorithm favors displaying accounts the user is likely to find much in common with, then blocking gives highly useful information that would likely result in some further insulation from differing viewpoints beyond the specific account that the user blocks.

Outrage breeds engagement, so the algorithm may instead use information about blocks to show posts that might get the user riled up. But seeing chiefly the most extreme of opposing views does not necessarily diminish the strength of an echo chamber. In fact, if one’s political opponents are showed mostly in an extreme form most likely to generate engagement, their presence might actually serve as evidence that one’s own side of the issue is the rational one. So, even an algorithm that uses blocks as an indication of what outrages the user — and therefore feeds the user more of that — could contribute to a situation where one is insulated from opposing viewpoints. This issue stems from the broader structure and profit incentives of social media, but it is worth considering alongside the issues of privacy, safety, and agency discussed above — in part because the ability to foster an environment that is conducive to forming justified beliefs is itself an important part of safety and agency.

Although it is imperfect, blocking on social media protects users’ privacy, safety, and agency. It is not a matter of government or corporate censorship, and it is necessary for protecting the moral rights of users. Contrary to Musk’s claim, a blocking feature makes moral sense.

Who Should Own the Products of Generative AI?

droste effect image of tunnel depicted on laptop screen

Like many educators, I have encountered difficulties with Generative AI (GenAI); multiple students in my introductory courses have submitted work from ChatGPT as their own. Most of these students came to (or at least claimed to) recognize why this is a form of academic dishonesty. Some, however, failed to see the problem.

This issue does not end with undergraduates, though. Friends in other disciplines have reported to me that their colleagues use GenAI to perform tasks like writing code they intend to use in their own research and data analysis or create materials like cover letters. Two lawyers recently submitted filings written by ChatGPT in court (though the judge caught on as the AI “hallucinated” case law). Now, some academics even credit ChatGPT as a co-author on published works.

Academic institutions typically define plagiarism as something like the following: claiming the work, writing, ideas or concepts of others as one’s own without crediting the original author. So, some might argue that ChatGPT, Dall-E, Midjourney, etc. are not someone. They are programs, not people. Thus, one is not taking the work of another as there is no other person. (Although it is worth noting that the academics who credited ChatGPT avoid this issue. Nonetheless, their behavior is still problematic, as I will explain later.)

There are at least three problems with this defense, however. The first is that it seems deliberately obtuse regarding the definition of plagiarism. The dishonesty comes from claiming work that you did not perform as your own. Even the GenAI is not a person, its work is not your work – so using it still involves acting deceptively, as Richard Gibson writes.

Second, as Daniel Burkett argues, it is unclear that there is any justice-based consideration which supports not giving AI credit for their work. So, the “no person, no problem” idea seems to miss the mark. There’s a case to be made that GenAIs do, indeed, deserve recognition despite not being human.

The third problem, however, dovetails with this point. I am not certain that credit for the output of GenAIs stops with the AI and the team that programmed it. Specifically, I want to sketch out the beginnings of an argument that many individuals have proper grounds to make a claim for at least partial ownership of the output of GenAI – namely, those who created the content which was used to “teach” the GenAI. While I cannot fully defend this claim here, we can still consider the basic points in its support.

To make the justification for my claim clear, we must first discuss how GenAI works. It is worth noting, though, that I am not a computer scientist. So, my explanation here may misrepresent some of the finer details.

GenAIs are programs that are capable of, well, generating content. They can perform tasks that involve creating text, images, audio, and video. GenAI learns to generate content by being fed large amounts of information, known as a data set. Typically, GenAIs are trained first via a labeled data set to learn categories, and then receive unlabeled data which they characterize based on the labeled data. This is known as semi-supervised learning. The ability to characterize unlabeled data is how GenAIs are able to create new content based on user requests. Large language models (LLMs) (i.e., text GenAI like ChatGPT) in particular learn from vast quantities of information. According to Open AI,  their GPT models are trained, in part, using text scraped from the internet. When creating output, GenAIs predict what is likely to occur next given the statistical model generated by data they were previously fed.

This is most easily understood with generative language models like ChatGPT. When you provide a prompt to ChatGPT, it begins crafting its response by categorizing your request. It analyzes the patterns of text found within the subset of its dataset that fit into the categories you requested. It then outputs a body of text where each word was statistically most likely to occur, given the previous word and the patterns observed in its data set. This process is not just limited to LLMs – GenAIs that produce audio learn patterns from data sets of sound and predict which sound is likely to come next, those that produce images learn from sets of images and predict which pixel is likely to come next, etc.

GenAI’s reliance on data sets is important to emphasize. These sets are incredibly large. GPT3, the model that underpins ChatGPT, was trained on 40 terabytes of text. For reference, 40 TB is about 20 trillion words. These texts include Wikipedia, online bodies of books, as well as internet content. Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DreamUp – all image GenAIs – were trained on LAION, which was created by gathering images from the internet. The essential takeaway here is that GenAI are trained on the work of countless creators, be they the authors of Wikipedia articles, digital artists, or composers. Their work was pulled from the internet and put into these datasets without consent or compensation.

On any plausible theory of property, the act of creating an object or work gives one ownership of it. In perhaps the most famous account of the acquisition of property, John Locke argues that one acquires a previously unowned thing by laboring on it. We own ourselves, Locke argues, and our labor is a product of our bodies. So, when we work on something, we mix  part of ourselves with it, granting us ownership over it. When datasets compile content by, say, scraping the internet, they take works created by individuals – works owned by their creators – compile them into data sets and use those data sets to teach GenAI how to produce content. Thus, it seems that works which the programmers or owners of GenAI do not own are essential ingredients in GenAI’s output.

Given this, who can we judge as the rightful owners of what GenAI produces? The first and obvious answer is those who program the AI, or the companies that reached contractual agreements with programmers to produce them. The second and more hidden party is those whose work was compiled into the data sets, labeled or unlabeled, which were used to teach the GenAI. Without either component, programs like ChatGPT could not produce the content we see at the quality and pace which they do. To continue to use Locke’s language, the labor of both parties is mixed in to form the end result. Thus, both the creators of the program and the creators of the data seem to have at least a partial ownership claim over the product.

Of course, one might object that the creators of the content that form the datasets fed to a GenAI, gave tacit consent. This is because they placed their work on the internet. Any information put onto the internet is made public and is free for anyone to use as they see fit, provided they do not steal it. But this response seems short-sighted. GenAI is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in terms of public awareness. The creators of the content used to teach GenAI surely were not aware of this potential when they uploaded their content online. Thus, it is unclear how they could consent, even tacitly, to their work being used to teach GenAI.

Further, one could argue that my account has an absurd implication for learning. Specifically, one might argue that, on my view, whenever material is used for teaching, those who produced the original material would have an ownership claim on the content created by those who learn from it. Suppose, for instance, I wrote an essay which I assigned to my students advising them on how to write philosophy. This essay is something I own. However, it shapes my students’ understanding in a way that affects their future work. But surely this does not mean I have a partial ownership claim to any essays which they write. One might argue my account implies this, and so should be rejected.

This point fails to appreciate a significant difference between human and GenAI learning. Recall that GenAI produces new content through statistical models – it determines which words, notes, pixels, etc. are most likely to follow given the previous contents. In this way, its output is wholly determined by the input it receives. As a result, GenAI, at least currently, seems to lack the kind of spontaneity and creativity that human learners and creators have (a matter D’Arcy Blaxwell demonstrates the troubling implications of here). Thus, it does not seem that the contents human learners consume generate ownership claims on their output in the same way as GenAI outputs.

I began this account by reflecting on GenAI’s relationship to plagiarism and honesty. With the analysis of who has a claim to ownership of the products created by GenAI in hand, we can more clearly see what the problem with using these programs in one’s work is. Even those who attempt to give credit to the program, like the academics who listed ChatGPT as a co-author, are missing something fundamentally important. The creators of the work that make up the datasets AI learned on ought to be credited; their labor was essential in what the GenAI produced. Thus, they ought to be seen as part owner of that output. In this way, leaning on GenAI in one’s own work is an order of magnitude worse than standard forms of plagiarism. Rather than taking the credit for the work of a small number of individuals, claiming the output of GenAI as one’s own fails to properly credit hundreds, if not thousands, of creators for their work, thoughts, and efforts.

Further still, this analysis enables us to see the moral push behind the claims made by the members of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA who are striking, in part, out of concern for AI learning from their likeness and work to mass produce content for studios. Or consider The New York Times ongoing conflict with OpenAI. Any AI which would be trained to write scripts, generate an acting performance, or relay the news would undoubtedly be trained on someone else’s work. Without an agreement in place, practices like these may be tantamount to theft.

A Right to a Home?

photograph of homeless tents in downtown Los Angeles

Over half a million people are homeless in America. In New York City, shelters overflow as endemic homelessness combines with migrants seeking refuge. Struggling with rising crime and drug use, famously progressive Portland now takes more direct action against its homeless population, such as clearing out camps. California, where almost one third of America’s homeless population lives, is fighting a losing battle against surging housing prices and the societal sequelae of COVID.

Homeless Americans are a diverse population. Some live on the streets, others sleep in shelters, in their cars, or on friends’ couches. Many homeless people work, but find their incomes inadequate to pay for housing. Causes of homelessness are diverse including domestic abuse, disability, mental illness, inadequate pay, and housing prices, but there is little evidence to support the sometimes heard allegation that homelessness is a choice. Unsurprisingly, most homeless people want adequate housing.

But just what is owed to the homeless of America? Is homelessness merely unfortunate, or does it represent a deeper moral failing of the government? Could there even be a right to a home which is currently unfulfilled for so many Americans?

One answer is that nothing is owed to the hundreds of thousands that are currently unhoused. Or at least, nothing special. Nonetheless, such a belief would not preclude the government from helping homeless individuals. For starters, the government may act to ensure that basic rights (e.g., due process of law, expression, security, the right to seek emergency health care) are not unfairly denied to homeless individuals. A government might act further out of compassion, as homelessness often goes hand in hand with poverty, vulnerability, and harm. More calculatingly, a government could be moved by purely practical concerns. Cities can struggle with the impacts of large indigent populations. A government may also want to address homelessness to increase potential productivity, or even the aesthetics of a community.

This may seem callous, but even an “owe nothing” account can take us fairly far. Increasingly popular homeless bills of rights, such as the one recently introduced in Michigan proceed along such lines. The Michigan bill aims to secure rights such as “equal treatment by all state and municipal employees” and “freedom from discrimination in employment.” The core idea is that a particular class of people should not be unfairly discriminated against – that they are owed the same rights as everyone else, and such legislation therefore echoes previous legislation which enshrined women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial minority rights.

What such legislation does not do is contend that homeless individuals are owed resources. It is certainly intended to have an alleviatory effect on homelessness, but it does not obligate the government to do anything other than prevent discrimination. A much stronger claim would be homeless individuals are entitled to shelter or perhaps even homes.

Such rights are challenging. More than a mere good thing to do, a right to a home would provide a positive obligation on the government to provide shelter. We rarely think this way. Cars, computers, and smartphones, are also important to the way people live and work, yet few feel that the government owes us these.

Why should the government provide houses? And even if we accept that such a right exists, what exactly is required to fulfill it? Does the government merely need to provide some shelter? Does it have to be nice?

Despite these hurdles, the idea of housing as a right has a long history. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, identifies access to adequate housing as a fundamental right.

One way to approach a right to home is via a famous thought experiment from political philosophy – the veil of ignorance. Imagine a discussion among people trying to design the ideal society. However, there is a major caveat: these individuals do not know who they will be in this society – what characteristics they might possess and what kind of social position they might come to hold. They are behind the veil of ignorance. Consequently, designing a deeply unequal society where many will experience a poor quality of life is a risky proposition. Few would endorse such a society knowing they stand a good chance of receiving the short end of the stick. Instead, these idealized actors may wish to ensure that no matter what kind of life they come to have, they are guaranteed access to certain basic goods, including shelter. Such a thought experiment gives us insight into how we might reason our way to a just society, rather than simply taking what history has given us.

Alternatively, a right to a home might be secured by the pursuit of freedom and equality of opportunity. As the legal theorist Jeremy Waldron has pointed out, homelessness greatly restricts freedom. For starters, everything that is banned in public is, for the homeless, forbidden. Moreover, the material fact of being homeless (and not simply discrimination against homeless individuals) restricts one’s ability to acquire and keep property, raise a family, stay healthy, and seek medical care. Anything that depends on being specific places at specific times, entering private property, or having stable access to a cell phone or computer (keeping cell phones charged is particularly difficult), can be challenged by homelessness and its attendant hardships. If we care about ensuring that all people are in a position to pursue opportunities and better their lives, then a home may not be a goal but rather a prerequisite, and thus something that the government should provide as part of a minimum standard of living.

This moves us away from the idea that a house is simply a resource or good – something to be bought and sold on the market – and towards the idea that the significance of the house is the capabilities it enables.

The right to housing, then, is not simply an entitlement to a structure with certain amenities, but rather a way to satisfy basic needs like privacy and safety.

If one or both of these arguments is compelling, a final concern still needs to be discussed, namely, money. A frequent challenge to rights such as healthcare and housing is that they are bottomless money pits. There is nuance here, with some arguing that addressing homelessness can actually save money long term. Regardless, there is at least the risk that implementing a right to homelessness could be expensive. But this is not a substantive objection to the existence of a right. If it is accepted by a society that there is a fundamental right to housing, then the cost is a secondary consideration. By the same token we do not nullify the right to free speech because we do not always like its consequences. Under both the above accounts, some redistribution of money is justified to secure a more foundational form of fairness.

However, an implementation of a right to a home would have to take seriously that homelessness is caused by more than a lack of houses. Major underlying causes such as soaring housing prices along with addiction, disability, mental illness, and inequality continue to drive people towards homelessness. Additionally, there is an inherent tension between property owners – who want to keep the value of a commodity high – and property seekers; NIMBY sentiment encourages us to simply move the problem elsewhere. If the government does finally commit to housing as a right, that entitlement will have to be secured in the face of these enduring challenges. This may demand more serious societal modifications than simply investing in new construction.

Is Violent Protest Ever Justified?

photograph of rioters hidden in smoke

Given a minute or two, I suspect most could recount instances of the news reporting on riots and widescale violent protests. Indeed, in the past few years, the frequency of such events seems to have increased. Think of the outrage (both immediate and continued) after George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s murders by police, or the riots in France over the shooting of Nahel M., also by the police. In 2019, during the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hongkongers protested violently against the mainland’s increasingly oppressive control. And who could forget the 2021 January 6th insurrection, where supporters of Donald Trump, spurred on by the former president himself, invaded the U.S. Capitol Building, resulting in the deaths of at least seven people. No matter where one turns, violence, rather than discourse, is increasingly the avenue through which we reconcile our disagreements and address profound injustices (be those actual or imagined).

This is not to say that it is actually the case that we’re protesting and rioting more. Simply that the news and other media appear to feature such events more often than they once had.

Violence, however, is typically seen as antithetical to the liberal democratic process so often associated with developed nations. In such nation-states, we’re not meant to solve our problems with force and intimidation but with words and impassioned speeches. If one wants to change the political system or draw attention to a systematic injustice, we’re not meant to smash up shops and set fire to cars but call upon our elected officials to enact changes or go to the media so they can spotlight wrongdoing. As Mónica Soares and others argue, violent protest simply does not have a place in the democratic process. But is this right? Are we always wrong to act violently against the state?

Well, a violence-free political system certainly sounds appealing. After all, at the heart of liberal democracy is not only the recognition that we will disagree with each other, but that we should. Through careful, structured, rigorous debate and discussion, we are meant to exorcise our demons so that we might better understand the issues at play and, crucially, what actions individuals, organizations, and society must take to address problems. You see this when elected officials argue in their respective chambers, be that the U.K.’s House of Commons, the U.S. Senate floor, or Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies. When people disagree, discussion and reason – not violence – are meant to provide an avenue to insight and compromise. In short, we should resolve our conflicts in the marketplace of ideas and not in the brutish state of nature.

And in a perfect world, this would be the case; political violence would be unheard of because it would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and regardless of where one resides, political coercion and injustice are always on the cards.

Even in countries which claim to be paragons of liberal and democratic principles, wrongs occur. And not just any injustice but those committed by state actors acting on behalf of the state against citizens and non-citizens alike. From police shootings to financial mismanagement, and draconian laws limiting free speech to surveillance initiatives, the state is always trying to increase its powers, often in the language of protecting its citizens and their interests.

So, what are we to do when the state, with all its power and legitimacy, oversteps the mark? What should you do as a citizen of your nation when those in power refuse to listen to what you have to say or act against your interests? What happens when the state excludes you from the marketplace of ideas?

According to James Greenwood-Reeves, in his recent book Justifying Violent Protest, one answer – which can be rational and grounded in moral principles – is violent protest. It is not that such actions are antithetical to the liberal democratic project but are, under certain circumstances, entirely justified and even necessary. They are examples of extraordinary course corrections in the face of equally remarkable events.

States as they exist today are not eternal or innocuous things that just are. They have come into being off the back and forth between enemies and allies over multiple centuries. Most importantly, though, they require your obedience. Each state constrains the actions of those who reside within it. Typically, we see this as a good thing as other people’s actions are equally constrained, and these constraints allow you to live together. Without them, everyone would be free to do whatever they willed, and this would cause problems because people’s desires would conflict. So, the state needs you to play by its rules, but for this to be successful, it requires you to want to do so. Its coercive effect needs to be seen as justified in the very eyes of those it coerces. If it fails to do this, disobedience emerges, and this can be anything from minor infractions to violent revolution. As Greenwood-Reeves writes:

Poor moral arguments for obedience entail greater moral reason for disobedience. Violent protest can act, like any other form of protest, as democratic dialogue, addressing these perceived legitimacy deficits and presenting a form of moral argument – even when the use of violence seems spontaneous or opportunistic.

Sometimes we see, on the news, the overthrow of oppressive regimes in far-off places, and, for the most part, we consider this a good thing. When tyrants are expelled from the halls of power by those over whom they exercised their terrible control, we cheer for those who establish a better community for themselves and their fellow citizens. But, such revolutions, by their very nature, are violent. Illegitimate political systems and nefarious state actors never relinquish their power freely; it is always pried from their hands. Yet, the fact that such revolutions involve, to one degree or another, a level of violence doesn’t cause us to balk instantly. Instead, we acknowledge that violence can be a legitimate political tool when the state becomes illegitimate and can no longer justifiably demand obedience from its citizens.

How we draw this line between legitimate and illegitimate states is, however, difficult to agree on (and not something I could hope to tackle here). Nevertheless, one need not identify the precise line to be drawn to acknowledge that some distinction must exist. What is even more important to remember is that the downward spiral towards state overreach is always present. Regardless of how restrained a government might be or how morally just a state might act, the allure of increased control or illegitimate action is ever-present. When political systems start towards a path of control, regardless of how justified it may seem, violent protest can become a justified response.

Discourse and discussion should always be the first port of call when we disagree with each other and, crucially, with the state’s actions. Violence is not, and should not be, the first tool one reaches for when they disagree with the society in which they live. But this does not mean that violence is never the right course of action. When the state can no longer expect your obedience because its actions, philosophies, and laws contradict the moral foundations to which it lays claim, when it claims to be protecting freedoms while simultaneously eroding them to secure its powers, individual actors can be justified in transitioning from peaceful to violent protest.

Is It Better to Intervene in Niger or Not?

Map of Niger and adjacent countries

On July 26th, President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger was deposed in a coup d’état by the Presidential Guard who are now calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. The move came as a blow to Niger given the long history of coups in the country and because Bazoum was the first democratic leader to oversee a peaceful transfer of power from a previously elected leader. The stability of the entire region is at risk now that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given an ultimatum to coup leaders that they must restore the democratically elected government or face military intervention. Western nations like the United States and France have also called for an end of the coup and have frozen aid funding. Nevertheless, the crisis threatens to pull in everyone from anti-colonialists, jihadists, Russian actors, and several African nations into a mire of war. Are there any good options moving forward?

Bazoum was elected just two years ago in taking over from President Issoufou and prompting the first democratic transfer of power in Niger’s history. Niger has been ruled by the Nigerien military previously in 2010 in addition to several periods of military rule in the 1980s and 90s. What triggered this particular coup remains unclear. Some have pointed at perceptions of government incompetence and corruption coupled with the rising cost of living. There have also been security concerns regarding Islamist insurgencies and ECOWAS’s response, as well as anti-French resentment over the deployment of French military forces in the country. It’s also believed that President Bazoum was about to replace military leader General Abdourahmane Tchiani. Some Nigerian nationalists have supported the coup by flying Russian flags. (There are reports that the Wagner Group mercenaries are in the area.)

ECOWAS has given Niger an ultimatum to return power to their democratically elected leaders. In the midst of a rash of similar coups in other nations, they have made it clear that they will not allow another. But the ultimatum given to Niger has now passed, and ECOWAS forces have been put on standby as they consider military intervention. The coup has been condemned by the World Bank, the African Union, the European Union, and the United States who have cut off aid and funding and have frozen assets. Alternatively, the military leadership of the Nigerien Army has declared their support for the coup leaders, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea. The army has declared that they will defend their country and have warned of the consequences of a foreign military intervention. The United States, Europe, and ECOWAS have all attempted diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, but these efforts have failed. All of this prompts the question of whether an intervention is justified – what is likelihood of success and what are the moral consequences of failure?

On the one hand, there are clear reasons for a military intervention to restore democracy in Niger. The nation was seen as turning the page on its unstable past with peaceful democratic transfers of power. Economic growth in the area had reached as high as 7% earlier this year, helping to alleviate significant poverty. Now that sort of growth and stability is in question. Niger was also a significant base of operations for the United States and for France as part of their efforts to fight terrorist and jihadi forces in Africa. The United States, for example, has an airbase in Niger from which they launch drone strikes against groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Boko Haram. French forces had been training Nigerien forces in fighting terrorism. Allowing the coup could destabilize the entire region, particularly since the junta is not friendly to Western forces, particularly to French forces, being stationed in the country and because they may lack the resources to patrol their borders on their own.

There are also concerns about potential human rights abuses, particularly given that the Nigerien military has been known to engage in human rights violations and women and girls continue to suffer from discrimination. This issue is magnified by the fact that the junta has now requested the assistance of the Wagner group which also has its own sordid history of human rights violations. There are also concerns about the safety of President Bazoum and other members of the democratically elected government.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns about whether a military intervention to restore the democratic government would be successful. Mali and Burkina Faso have said that military intervention in Niger would be a “declaration of war” against them. It’s possible it could draw elements of the Nigerien military into conflict with itself, creating a civil war. The ECOWAS forces may lack the needed resources and logistics for an intervention. This is because while Nigerian President Bola Tinubu supports an intervention, the Nigerian Senate has not granted its consent. Nigeria shares a large border with Niger and has a fairly large military force, making their cooperation of paramount importance. There are also concerns that unlike previous ECOWAS military interventions, this would not be supported by native Nigeriens.

The Nigerien military is also fairly large and well-equipped and trained thanks to their just recently being trained by French and American forces in counter-terrorism operations. This means that a military conflict would likely be protracted and could spark a humanitarian crisis with no guarantee that ECOWAS forces could militarily win outright. Refugees fleeing across borders can create fertile grounds for terrorist groups to infiltrate and operate. Nigerian forces have also pledged that if there is a military intervention against them, they will kill President Bazoum.

In addition, military escalation is likely to prolong a resolution that could eventually re-establish foreign aid. A human rights organization in Niger has already expressed concern about the consequences of economic sanctions, including the impact on food and electricity. Nigeria has reportedly cut electricity supplied to Niger, leaving the country with blackouts. A protracted conflict has the potential to cause a human rights crisis as well.

Western intervention in the conflict could also be a problem not only because of the potential for the conflict to potentially pull in other nations like Russia who has warned ECOWAS not to take military action against Niger unless they wish to lead to a “protracted confrontation,” but also because of the perceptions it might create regarding colonialism. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani has argued against Western intervention as it would be “perceived as a new colonization.” The Wagner Group is already spreading this message in Niger. After all, Nigeriens are not unaccustomed to military coups with the 2010 coup being seen as necessary to protect democracy, so it is possible that they are less likely to be skeptical of the coup and more likely to be skeptical of the West.

On the other hand, not intervening may do nothing. While sanctions and freezing aid could potentially help, it’s a strategy that has not worked in Mali, Burkina Faso, or even Russia. It’s possible that the overall security threat to the West becomes so bad that they are forced to intervene in order to prevent the spread of terrorism. In this case, both acting and failing to act could have similar consequences that threaten the lives and rights of people living all over the Sahel region.

Why Is the World in Moral Decline?

photograph of dark alley with sunlit street in background

It isn’t. But apparently it feels that way to most people. According to investigators Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert, people everywhere (or at least in sixty different nations) have consistently believed for seventy years that the world is declining morally – that people are getting ethically worse as they get older, and that every succeeding generation is morally worse than the one before it.

Except that if you ask people other questions like, “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” or “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?” or “During the past 12 months, how often have you carried a stranger’s belongings, like groceries, a suitcase, or shopping bag?” you get very different answers. Mastroianni and Gilbert say, in other words, “that when people are asked to assess the current morality of their contemporaries, their assessments do not change over time.” So, if you ask people if society is declining morally and people are worse than they used to be, a startling 84% say, “Yes.” But if you ask them about how they’ve personally been treated lately the answers people gave in 1949 pretty much match what people say in 2023. Hence the title of Mastroianni and Gilbert’s paper, “The Illusion of Moral Decline.”

I have encountered a lot of anecdotal evidence that people believe that morality is declining, and Mastroianni and Gilbert cite more. In fact, I have heard plenty of people claim everything is declining, all the time. What is new to me is that people’s contemporaneous reports about their actual experiences with other people belie this narrative of decline. How can we explain this?

I would argue that human beings are pervasively influenced by various archetypal narratives. Here are two really powerful ones. The narrative of progress – that, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” – has had tremendous influence. But the narrative of moral decline goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and that apple. (Lest you think it’s only a Christian phenomenon, the Ancient Greeks also thought everything and everybody was getting worse.) There is, however, no narrative of stasis. People usually think that things are mostly getting better or mostly getting worse.

But even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why the majority gravitate toward the latter rather than the former – that morality should be thought to be in decline, specifically, rather than progressing. The explanation that Mastroianni and Gilbert give for this illusion is based on how two psychological phenomena come together: “biased exposure effect” and “biased memory effect.” Biased exposure effect says people pay more attention to negative information about other people. The media, especially the new media, may amplify this effect. “If it bleeds, it leads” was supposed to have been the motto of the most influential newspaper publisher in American history. But negativity, even violence, still seems to generate more interest on screens. Biased memory effect, alternatively, goes the other way. People recall positive events more, forget or misremember negative events, and to the extent they recall negative events tend to have lost their emotional impact. You may have experienced meeting someone who we once had a conflicted relationship with, but discovering you now share a warm nostalgia for positive events you share and forget about the bad times.

So, when people look around at what is currently going on the negative aspects of things, the bad things that happen have more salience for them. However, when they think of the past it seems much better to them now than it did at the time. But when you ask people specific questions about what they have recently experienced, those experiences aren’t all that different from what people experienced in the past.

I don’t want to argue with any of this – I am not an empirical psychologist. But I wanted to bring one thing to the forefront that seems to be lurking behind. There’s always a problem when doing empirical work on normative or moral issues. Most famously, in studying moral development Lawrence Kohlberg asserted that people who follow Kant’s moral theory are more morally well-developed than consequentialists. But that only makes sense if you have already won the argument about Kant’s theory being the best available. Try telling a utilitarian that they only believe that view because they are not as morally well-developed as Kantians. Given our very different perspectives, how should we go about quantifying moral decline?

Mastroianni and Gilbert give a pretty plausible account of the core of morality when they ask people if other people have shown them respect or have been helpful. But suppose I have the view that any marriage except between one man and one woman is morally wrong or that doctors who help people medically transition from one gender to the other are butchers. I might think then that while people are still relatively nice, they are morally bankrupt in ways no one would have even thought of in the past. Or suppose I think abortion is the key to women’s autonomy and without robust protections around it, women will not be counted as fully-human. I might think that Dobbs v Jackson shows the world in precipitous moral decline. Whether or not you think the world is in moral decline depends on how we define moral decline. Again, it’s perfectly possible to think that in one-on-one interactions people are generally fine, but that, overall, things are worse because people are morally corrupt in other ways.

Is there a way to generalize this effect? What if the older people get, the more they tend to get morally conservative in their outlook? What if successive generations of younger people tend to be more tolerant of a wider range of behaviors? Then one person’s moral decline is another person’s moral progress. Or so we might speculate.

Indeterminate Fear: Moral Panics and Floating Signifiers

photograph of child standing in field watching hot air balloons

Fear is a powerful tool, and it can distort our moral landscape. When social anxiety over an issue reaches the level of a moral panic, fear does not remain solely a private emotion. Rather, it is a driver of political action, potentially serving as a basis for hatred and, at times, violence. Think of the recent attack at the University of Waterloo, in which a former student stabbed a professor and two others during a gender studies class. As police stated in their press release, “investigators believe this was a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.” It’s hard to imagine that the widespread anxiety over transgender issues didn’t play a role.

A moral panic is widespread fear of some apparent evil that threatens one’s deeply-held values or way of life. Potential examples in recent memory include panics over rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, new age spiritualism in the ‘90s, and postmodernism in the ‘00s. Current contenders include fear over the “social contagion” surrounding gender identity, as well as fears over Critical Race Theory and wokeism (even in M&Ms).

How do moral panics work? What can an understanding of them tell us about the issues our society treats as important? And might we have reasons to doubt our feelings of fear? To begin to address these questions, let’s consider one use of language that often arises in a moral panic: what’s known as a floating signifier.

A floating signifier is a term whose meaning is so broad and ill-defined as to possibly encompass a number of issues, claims, and events. As may be gathered from the metaphor, what a floating signifier means (signifies) can’t quite be tied down. Its specifics are left to be determined by each individual.

Moral panics often rely centrally on a word that serves as a floating signifier, and these terms are common in political language. “Woke” is a good example. The term “woke” broadly means something like socially progressive, but its specifics are few. As former president Donald Trump remarked, “woke” is “just a term they use. Half the people can’t even define it. They don’t know what it is.” But not knowing what it is doesn’t stop people from using the term to express their beliefs or garner political support.

In what follows, I’ll discuss some of the features and consequences of floating signifiers in a moral panic.

First, floating signifiers can stoke fear through underspecification. Think of a horror film, where suspense is built against an unknown and unlocatable threat. Why don’t horror films reveal the fearsome monster right away? One explanation is that, when we don’t know who or what is out there, our imaginations can fill in the blanks with something dreadful — or, if you’re like me in this respect, you may find the very blankness of the object itself to be a source of fear. When the monster is not yet terrible in one way or another, it is terrible full stop. By being unspecified, its fearsomeness is also unlimited.

In a subtler way, floating signifiers in a moral panic can also rely on underspecification to stoke fear, often together with more explicit fear-inducing language. Consider the term “woke mind virus,” which sounds like something out of science fiction, or political commentator Matt Walsh’s recent tweet saying “feminism has killed far more people than the atomic bomb. It is perhaps the most destructive force in human history.” The line doesn’t work as well rhetorically if you substitute the common definition of feminism as the pursuit of equal treatment for all people regardless of gender. Rather than discussing specific claims, the broad and amorphous term “feminism” is meant to bring up the specter of a threatening ideology.

Second, floating signifiers can reduce critical engagement with actual claims and ideas — especially in an age of social media. One who is under the impression that Critical Race Theory is a pernicious ideology that “says that white people are inherently bad or evil” is not likely to consider — or even encounter — what that theory actually claims. Floating signifiers allow for quick signaling and dissemination of ideas on social and traditional media, but they do so in such a way that what matters is not what those ideas are. What matters for their political purpose is what the fear of those ideas can do in terms of public approval, votes, and legislation — or in other words, in terms of power.

This lack of informativeness is not accidental. Floating signifiers aren’t meant to inform; rather, they serve as buzz-words that call in a group by signaling a common enemy: feminists, the woke mob, anyone who threatens “our” values. This function leads us to their third feature: floating signifiers give the appearance of full agreement and unity among participants, without actually requiring full agreement. When the enemy is broadly and loosely defined, “we” can all share a common enemy — each facing the enemy that arises in their own mind. Thus, floating signifiers galvanize and mobilize groups more than specifics often could, since they don’t require specifics to be agreed on, or even specified in the first place.

So what is there to do? On a structural level, the situation is somewhat grim. Some of the factors that contribute to moral panics are a part (or a consequence) of what philosopher C. Thi Nguyen calls a hostile epistemic environment: a set of external factors that exploit our cognitive limitations and vulnerabilities. Human beings are always subject to the limitations placed on us by our own time constraints and mental capacities. We can’t investigate every claim we encounter for ourselves. We must rely on experts. We are embedded in communities of trust that we rely on for good information. And our society — technology, media, and social institutions — can exploit these limitations in order to increase engagement and therefore ad revenue. Social media’s role in spreading news and ideology makes it a major driver of moral panics, and its influence is not easy to quell. Sensation sells. Outrage garners engagement. It’s hard to see a way out.

At the individual and community level, however, it is easier to imagine some actions that could help in the face of indeterminate fear. I’ll end with a few brief suggestions.

We can examine our own beliefs and preconceptions: Do I actually know what this word means? Do the claims I’m reading seem exaggerated or extreme? What do the people I disagree with actually believe? We can hold each other accountable, willing to discuss uncomfortable issues. As philosopher Barrett Emerick encourages, we can love each other enough not to give up on our loved ones’ moral development, as we hope they won’t give up on our own.

Perhaps simplest (though not easiest) of all, we can take time away from the source of the moral panic. We can try to reduce its influence in our own lives and the lives of those around us. After all, a break from the fearsome engine of social media and in the company of loving friends or family — what the too-online refer to as “touching grass” — is often good for the spirit.

Black-Box Expertise and AI Discourse

image of black box highlighted on stage

It has recently been estimated that new generative AI technology could add up to $4.4 trillion to the global economy. This figure was reported by The New York Times, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, The Globe and Mail, and dozens of other news outlets and websites. It’s a big, impressive number that has been interpreted by some as even more reason to get excited about AI, and by others to add to a growing list of concerns.

The estimate itself came from a report recently released by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. As the authors of the report prognosticate, AI will make a significant impact in the kinds of tasks that can be performed by AI instead of humans: some of these tasks are relatively simple, such as creating “personalized emails,” while others are more complex, such as “communicating with others about operational plans or activities.” Mileage may vary depending on the business, but overall those productivity savings can add up to huge contributions to the economy.

While it’s one thing to speculate, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Where one would expect to see a rigorous methodology in the McKinsey report, however, we are instead told that the authors referenced a “proprietary database” and “drew on the experience of more than 100 experts,” none of whom are mentioned. In other words, while it certainly seems plausible that generative AI could add a lot of value to the global economy, when it comes to specific numbers, we’re just being asked to take McKinsey’s word for it. McKinsey are perceived by many to be experts, after all.

It often is, in general, perfectly rational to take an expert’s word for it, without having to examine their evidence in detail. Of course, whether McKinsey & Company really are experts when it comes to AI and financial predictions (or, really, anything else for that matter) is up for debate. Regardless, something is troubling about presenting one’s expert opinion in such a way that one could not investigate it even if one wanted to. Call this phenomenon black-box expertise.

Black-box expertise seems to be common and even welcomed in the discourse surrounding new developments in AI, perhaps due to an immense amount of hype and appetite for new information. The result is an arms race of increasingly hyperbolic articles, studies, and statements from legitimate (and purportedly legitimate) experts, ones that are often presented without much in the way of supporting evidence. A discourse that encourages black-box expertise is problematic, however, in that it can make the identification of experts more difficult, and perhaps lead to misplaced trust.

We can consider black-box expertise in a few forms. For instance, an expert may present a conclusion but not make available their methodology, either in whole or in part – this seems to be what’s happening in the McKinsey report. We can also think of cases in which experts might not make available the evidence they used in reaching a conclusion, or the reasoning they used to get there. Expressions of black-box expertise of these kinds have plagued other parts of the AI discourse recently, as well.

For instance, another expert opinion that has been frequently quoted comes from AI expert Paul Christiano, who, when asked about the existential risk posed by AI, claimed: “Overall, maybe we’re talking about a 50/50 chance of catastrophe shortly after we have systems at the human level.” It’s a potentially terrifying prospect, but Christiano is not forthcoming with his reasoning for landing on that number in particular. While his credentials would lead many to consider him a legitimate expert, the basis of his opinions on AI is completely opaque.

Why is black-box expertise a problem, though? One of the benefits of relying on expert opinion is that the experts have done the hard work in figuring things out so that we don’t have to. This is especially helpful when the matter at hand is complex, and when we don’t have the skills or knowledge to figure it out ourselves. It would be odd, for instance, to demand to see all of the evidence, or scrutinize the methodology of an expert who works in a field of which we are largely ignorant since we wouldn’t really know what we were looking at or how to evaluate it. Lest we be skeptics about everything we’re not personally well-versed in, reliance on expertise necessarily requires some amount of trust. So why should it matter how transparent an expert is about the way they reached their opinion?

The first problem is one of identification.  As we’ve seen, a fundamental challenge in evaluating whether someone is an expert from the point of view of a non-expert is that non-experts tend to be unable to fully evaluate claims made in that area of expertise. Instead, non-experts rely on different markers of expertise, such as one’s credentials, professional accomplishments, and engagement with others in their respective areas. Crucially, however, non-experts also tend to evaluate expertise on the basis of factors like one’s ability to respond to criticism, the provisions of reasons for their beliefs, and their ability to explain their views to others. These factors are directly at odds with black-box expertise: without making one’s methodology or reasoning apparent, it makes it difficult for non-experts to identify experts.

A second and related problem with black-box expertise is that it becomes more difficult for others to identify epistemic trespassers: those who have specialized knowledge or expertise in one area that make judgments on matters in areas where they lack expertise. Epistemic trespassers are, arguably, rampant in AI discourse. Consider, for example, a recent and widely-reported interview with James Cameron, the director of the original Terminator series of movies. When asked about whether he considered artificial intelligence to be an existential risk, he remarked, “I warned you guys in 1984, and you didn’t listen” (referring to the plot of the Terminator movies in which the existential threat of AI was very tangible). Cameron’s comment makes for a fun headline (one which was featured in an exhausting number of publications), but he is by no measure an expert in artificial intelligence in the year 2023. He may be an accomplished filmmaker, but when it comes to contemporary discussions of AI, he is very much an epistemic trespasser.

Here, then, is a central problem with relying on black-box expertise in AI discourse: expert opinion presented without transparent evidence, methodology, or reasoning can be difficult to distinguish from opinions of non-experts and epistemic trespassers. This can make it difficult for non-experts to navigate an already complex and crowded discourse to identify who should be trusted, and whose word should be taken with a grain of salt.

Given the potential of AI and its tendency to produce headlines that tout it both as a possible savior of the economy and destroyer of the world, being able to identify experts is an important part of creating a discourse that is productive and not simply motivated by fear-mongering and hype. Black-box expertise, like that one on display in the McKinsey report and many other commentaries from AI researchers, provides a significant barrier to creating that kind of discourse.

Academic Activism, Objectivity, and Public Outreach

photograph of teacher presenting to packed classroom

In a previous column, I argued that academics should not — with significant qualifications — be political activists. In his thoughtful and admirably objective reply, Tim Sommers makes two principal arguments highlighting a genuine weak point in my original treatment of this issue, and thus helpfully pushes me to shore up and defend that particular aspect of it. Ultimately, though, neither argument is fully persuasive.

First, Sommers contends that the conception of objectivity that underlies my argument against academic activism is “unhelpful,” since it conflates objectivity with “having no views at all or concealing your views.” But Sommers rightly points out that the “undecided and the waffling” are not necessarily more objective than “the firmly committed.” If this conception of objectivity — call it objectivity as disinterestedness or ambivalence — formed the basis of my case against academic activism, then Sommers’ argument would constitute a serious challenge.

Fortunately, my argument does not rely on a notion of objectivity that identifies it with either disinterestedness or ambivalence. My idea of objectivity is, I hope, uncontroversial: to be objective is to be capable of properly weighing evidence and arguments. My empirical claim is that being passionately committed to a political goal tends to make it more difficult to be objective in this sense because it increases our susceptibility to various well-documented cognitive biases, such as motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. In my view, then, the relation between objectivity and a certain kind of disinterestedness is not definitional, but empirical. That is, “objective” does not mean “disinterested”; rather, there is a contingent psychological link between being objective and being disinterested in a particular way.

Thus, it is far from the case that one cannot possibly be objective about some issue while also being passionately committed to a political goal related to that issue. Nor does objectivity require either suspension of judgment or ambivalence: one can easily be firmly convinced of the correctness of one position in a certain debate, yet not passionately committed to enacting a political goal that flows from that position. In fact, I would go further and say that passionate interest in some issue is often necessary to motivate a person to devote significant time and energy to understanding it. Objectivity, then, does not require or even favor disinterestedness in all respects. However, it seems to be the case that being passionately committed not just to understanding an issue, but to the attainment of a political goal related to the issue, tends to degrade one’s ability to properly weigh evidence and arguments concerning it.

Because my conception of objectivity does not identify it with disinterestedness, and certainly not with having no views or only weakly-held views, confining one’s pedagogy to the “realm of the reasonable” — that is, only teaching “positions and reasons generally recognized by professionals in our fields” — does not represent a departure from objectivity. Nor does good pedagogy require “disguising your own views” to be consistent with this conception. Rather, objectivity requires manifesting the capacity to properly weigh evidence and arguments — and in particular, to take seriously proper evidence and plausible arguments that cut against one’s own political commitments. Being a passionately committed political activist not only makes doing this more difficult; it also makes one appear less able to do it. But in teaching, both objectivity and the appearance of objectivity matter.

There is one more argument against objectivity that Sommers does not make, but which is now so commonplace in some academic quarters that addressing it at this juncture would be worthwhile. It is frequently pointed out that perfect objectivity is unattainable. This is certainly true if by “objectivity” we mean either disinterestedness or ambivalence, or the ability to properly weigh evidence and arguments. But the familiar inference from this true premise to the conclusion that objectivity is not a worthwhile ideal has never been clear to me. Unattainability is arguably inherent in the nature of any ideal — that is, in part, what makes it an ideal. Now, an argument from perfect objectivity’s unattainability might get off the ground if we add either of two claims: that it is impossible to be more or less objective, or that the costs of trying to be more objective outweigh the benefits. But it is possible to be more or less objective — to get closer to or farther away from the ideal of perfect objectivity. And while it is certainly possible that ethical or epistemic imperatives appropriate to non-ideal conditions conflict with our ideals, this does not seem to be the case with respect to objectivity in the context of academic research and teaching.

Next, Sommers argues that the line between public outreach and activism is “meaningless,” or alternatively that drawing this distinction is merely a way of categorizing the same underlying activity according to one’s affinity for the political goals the activity serves. This objection has bite because I had insisted that public outreach allows academics whose activism substantially relates to their research and teaching to share their expertise with the general public while avoiding the pitfalls of activism. If there is no meaningful distinction between public outreach and activism, or it is only a covert way of denigrating activism of which one disapproves, then this argument is in trouble.

This is a more difficult objection to answer, since I myself conceded that the line between public outreach and activism is a blurry one. Moreover, the distinction must ultimately be found in the quality and intensity of the subjective attitudes of a person, with their outward activities — for example, picketing, boycotting, canvassing, writing opinion pieces, giving legislative testimony — only a rough proxy for those attitudes. Thus, it is certainly possible that someone deeply and continuously involved in activities characteristic of political activism has only moderate levels of commitment to the political goals their activism serves. But this will be an unusual case. For this reason, the activities that tend to indicate passionate commitment to a political goal are fairly grouped under the heading of “political activism”; the activities that tend to indicate a desire to improve the quality of public debate are likewise fairly grouped under the heading of “public outreach.” These categories are not mutually exclusive; and ultimately, the distinction turns, at least in part, on what the academic wants to do with their public-facing activity and the strength of their desire.

I must insist, however, that the distinction is not necessarily a disguised way of denigrating political activity with a particular ideological complexion. In my case, just the opposite is true: I tend to worry more about leftwing academic activism despite my own leftist sympathies for the simple reason that a substantial majority of academics are left-leaning. Of course, all arguments may be wielded in bad faith. But this possibility does not warrant dismissing the argument out of hand.

Sommers’ reply to my column exemplifies the sort of engagement with opposing viewpoints that the cultivation of objectivity makes possible. I fear, however, that his advocacy of academic activism would, if successful, make such engagements rarer.

Can Relationship Science Teach Us to Talk Politics Again?

silhouette of man and woman with backs turned to one another

Americans are now more polarized than ever. Too often political discourse devolves into heated disagreements in which both parties learn little about the other side. Quite reasonably, nearly half of Americans have stopped talking to someone about politics, and many have unfriended people on social media or become estranged from their family.

As an ethicist, I value critical thinking and sound reasoning through arguments. Yet I’ve learned the most about productive debate from the science of romantic relationships, which emphasize civil discourse and mutual understanding. Perhaps these tools too can help repair a fractured republic.

Two of the leading researchers are John and Julie Gottman, whose Love Lab for decades has studied thousands of conversations among couples. They are able to predict with over 80% accuracy whether a marriage will result in divorce, just based on observing a brief interaction between spouses. And they’ve identified four ways in which conversations among partners take a dark turn.

Counteract Contempt

The single greatest predictor of divorce is contempt. The Gottmans look for expressions of disrespect, disgust, or ridicule toward one’s partner, which can be subtly expressed through sneering, sarcasm, eye rolling, and mocking. Humans are deeply social creatures adept at sniffing this out, even when the contempt isn’t overt.

Classic contempt is increasingly common in political discourse. Politicians belittle their opponents, calling them “deplorable” or “crooked.” Disrespect is often communicated much more subtly when people debate moral and political issues. Consider the infamous interview Jordan Peterson did with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 News in 2018. The uncomfortable encounter is the epitome of a combative conversation, as Peterson and Newman each engage in repeated rounds of offense and defense while exchanging scoffs and sneers.

Now, when individuals or institutions attack or fail you, contempt can seem completely warranted. Politicians often win votes by sharing contempt for the status quo — whether it’s climate inaction or wokeness. But those politicians must work with the opposing party to make lasting change. The same goes for ordinary citizens. We must live with our opponents, but we do have a choice: either lean into the disdain or understand one another with humility. (Indeed, we can see Peterson engaging in a much more productive conversation in less combative contexts.)

The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation, to remind yourself and your romantic partner of what you love about them. Rather than fume about how your partner is frequently late, realize how it pales in comparison to their sense of humor and dedication to your children. Focus on the positives, not the negatives.

The same lesson can be applied to political conversations. You could dwell on how your father is transphobic and cares more about guns than women’s bodies. And he might dwell on how his daughter has lost all respect for authority, family tradition, and the Second Amendment. But what good will that do? The contempt and combative orientation won’t convince anyone to change their mind and it might weaken the relationship — assuming it’s something worth maintaining.

Keep Criticism to a Minimum

Contempt is just one of what the Gottmans dub the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” although I like to think of them as conversation poisons that contaminate discussions. Another conversation poison is criticism, which involves attacking one’s partner. You might say “You’re always running late” or “You keep interrupting me.”

Criticism isn’t as toxic as contempt, unless it’s frequent and persistent. The Gottman antidote is to more often use “I” statements that facilitate gentle start-ups to the conversation that express one’s own concerns, rather than criticism of the other. For example: “I get really anxious and irritable when we show up late to events” or “I don’t feel like my opinion is valued if I’m regularly interrupted.”

Gentle start-ups also improve political conversations. Disagreeing with a person’s political perspective, even critiquing it, can be productive, but “You can’t seriously want to defund the police” promotes moral combat and makes opponents defensive. Instead, focus on oneself: “I’m worried that defunding the police will overall lead to more crime and violence, especially in the most vulnerable communities.” Of course, phrasing a concern in terms of one’s own thoughts and emotions needn’t happen only at the beginning of a conversation. It’s just as important later on, when blood starts to boil and remarks turn to you and your ilk.

Attack Defensiveness

If the conversation does get combative, another common poison is defensiveness. If your partner says “Ugh, we’re always late,” you’re likely to reply “Well I’m trying to hurry, but I’ve been slammed with work and haven’t had time to catch up on my endless to-do list.” It’s natural to get defensive when another person attacks, but the Gottmans would say that it contributes to the conversation being combative. And being in fight mode makes it virtually impossible to see the other person’s perspective, to be charitable and gain mutual understanding.

Most of us want so badly to be heard and understood that we will remain on defense until that goal is achieved. But that maintains a combative orientation by focusing on how one’s opponent ought to change. Rather than fuel the combative fire, the Gottman antidote is to take responsibility. The criticized partner might reply instead, “I know, I’m sorry. How about we talk sometime about how to divide up the household chores better so I’m not always running behind?” From a place of security, flaws are admitted, even if that’s not the end of the story.

Now imagine you’re debating abortion. Your interlocutor proclaims, “Pro-lifers only want to control women’s bodies, since they don’t support funding programs that help poor children after they’re born.” It’s tempting to defend one’s moral integrity from attack, but taking responsibility would help take the conversation in a better direction. Imagine replying “It’s true that conservatives focus more political attention on the unborn. Infant mortality and poverty concern me too. A friend of mine got laid off after having her first child, and food stamps saved them. I’m just concerned about the unborn children too.”

Taking responsibility in politics is different from romantic relationships. Most of us can’t take responsibility for signing legislation or handing down a ruling. But we can acknowledge points on the other side and faults in our own tribe. Paradoxically, letting down one’s guard and just sharing a personal story is an effective tactic for persuasion.

Flee Emotional Flooding

When heated conversations put the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, the alternative to fighting back is flight. A partner might shut down, stop talking, walk off, or avoid the topic in future conversations. The Gottmans call this stonewalling, and its source is emotional “flooding.”

The antidote is physiological self-soothing. Sometimes that can be achieved by taking a break, but not forever and not in a combative way. Storming off is combative, as opposed to “I’m already hangry and now getting worked up. Can we come back to this tomorrow morning, after my big meeting?” The goal is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which is designed to help us recharge or “rest and digest.” Otherwise, you simply won’t truly listen to one another.

When talking politics, taking a break can be wise too. In some cases, it makes most sense to avoid politics to spare a valued relationship. But we can take this too far by avoiding political dialogue generally, even cutting ties with friends and family members. These forms of political stonewalling are methods of ending relationships, not preserving them, and closing others off certainly won’t change their minds.

Of course, just as some relationships shouldn’t be saved, some political opponents are toxic. Maybe there’s no need to retain a relationship with that high school classmate who always trolls liberals and posts propaganda. The problem is only when avoiding political opponents fuels a tribalistic “us vs. them” mindset that closes off productive conversation.

Anger’s Allowed

The prescription to self-soothe can sound as though one must remain Stoic, free from negative emotions. Should we follow the philosopher Martha Nussbaum who has drawn on Nelson Mandela as an exemplar of reconciliation to argue that anger is poisonous in politics and relationships?

Not necessarily. As the Gottmans are quick to point out, frustration and anger can be healthy in relationships. Not all negative emotions are noxious like contempt or the excessive fear and anxiety characteristic of fight-or-flight responses. The Stoics too recognized that negative emotions aren’t categorically corrupt. Their prescription, like the Gottmans’s, is to identify and respond appropriately to those emotions, whether positive or negative.

Indeed, sometimes anger is productive. Myisha Cherry contends that the emotion is essential to combating racism and other forms of oppression. Try to imagine the activism of Malcolm X or Audre Lorde sapped of rage. Whenever anger toward injustice is apt, it may be appropriate to feel, as Amia Srinivasan has argued. Ultimately, venting and channeling one’s anger can be therapeutic, a way to recover from physiological flooding.

The problem is only when anger morphs into disrespect, when grievances become contemptuous. Martin Luther King’s famous letter from a Birmingham jail is instructive. He clearly expressed frustration with fellow religious leaders and the “white moderates” who criticized his peaceful forms of direct action, but he didn’t become physiologically flooded or stonewall. He was willing to engage respectfully with his opponents while engaging in civil disobedience.

Calls for calm, “rational” discourse can be problematic when used as a weapon for silencing the oppressed, whether in politics or relationships. Alex Zamalin has recently argued in Against Civility that fighting against racism requires forms of resistance that disrupt society. That’s true as far as it goes, but protests, marches, boycotts and other forms of activism are not in tension with civility. The peaceful marches and sit-ins led by Martin Luther King are paradigms of civil disobedience. Other examples include activists who feed water to pigs being transported in hot, overcrowded trailers. Direct action, even disruption of the status quo, can be done out of concern for the oppressed without contempt for one’s opponents. As Ancient Chinese philosophers recognized, civility is necessary for productive engagement with others.

Why It Works

The Gottman approach works because it allows people to be heard. Humans are only receptive to another person’s ideas when there is mutual trust and respect. Show someone disrespect, or come off as an aggressive outsider, and you’ll be shut out. That goes for the salesman peddling his wares or the activist selling her argument for animal rights. As philosophers have long noticed as well, mutual respect is particularly crucial for intellectual opponents to learn from one another.

Modern neuroscience provides additional support for the Gottman approach. The brain only exhibits lasting changes in light of new information if the learner finds the information relevant or significant. Just as a child won’t learn how to throw a football if she despises the game, you won’t appreciate what your opponents say if you hate them — even when there is something valuable to learn.

Consider Daryl Davis, a black jazz musician, who seems to have mastered the Gottman approach and deployed it with the seemingly unreachable: members of the KKK. Davis famously convinced Roger Kelly and others to leave the Klan by befriending them. Kelly told CNN, “We don’t agree with everything, but at least [Daryl] respects me to sit down and listen to me, and I respect him to sit down and listen to him.”

America’s political tribes are not only polarized but fractured. There is little trust or respect — and much contempt for the other side. The relationship is broken. Sometimes ending a dysfunctional relationship is for the best. However, as Gottman and Silver write of romantic couples, it makes sense to repair if at all possible, for “the death of love is a tragedy.”

Agnes Callard’s Philosophy of Sex

photograph of wrinkled sheets

In a recent short article in The Wall Street Journal, University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard lays out an intriguing philosophy of sex that raises some important issues in this fascinating subfield of philosophy. Because her article is so short, I offer these reflections less as criticisms of her view, which in an expanded form would likely include answers to all of the problems I explore, and more as an attempt to elaborate upon her claims and move the conversation forward.

Callard’s view is composed of three claims. First, sexual desire is essentially reciprocal: it is “when I want you in such a way that all I want is for you to want me in exactly the same way.” Second, sexual acts are “enactment[s]” or symbolic “expression[s]” of the idea of such a desire, and thus a kind of ritual. Finally, the idea of consent “fails to capture what sex, the ritual, is about” because consent is “restricted to the domain of what can be directly, non-symbolically expressed,” but the idea that sex expresses is not expressible non-symbolically. Let’s consider each claim in turn.

On Callard’s account, sexual desire is a “second-order” desire. A “first-order” desire is a desire for something that is not itself a desire: a desire for ice cream, say, or to go for a walk. A second-order desire is a desire for a desire. For example, a drug addict may want to want to quit the drug but, at the same time, he may actually want to keep taking the drug. The drug addict has two desires: the first-order desire to take the drug, and the second-order desire to want to quit the drug. You can imagine such an addict saying something like: “I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to take the drug, but I’m not – at least, not yet.” Compare this to an addict who both wants to keep taking the drug, and also wants to want to keep taking the drug. You can imagine this person saying something like: “I want to keep taking the drug, and I’m content to be the sort of person who wants to take the drug.”

In Callard’s account of sexual desire, sexual desire is a second-order desire whose object is not the desirer’s own desire, as in the drug addict case, but rather the desired other’s desire: it is the desire that the other desire the desirer in the way that the desirer desires the other. Notice, though, that such a desire implicitly refers to two first-order desires: the desirer’s desire, whose object is the other, and the other’s desire, whose object is the desirer. In Callard’s account, then, a sexual desire is a desire that the other have a first-order desire that mirrors one of the desirer’s first-order desires. And Callard’s account fails to characterize the nature of these first-order desires.

This raises a few problems for the account. First, the most natural candidate for the first-order desires at play in sexual desire is the desire to have sex with the other, and the desire to have sex with the desirer. Plugging this into Callard’s account, we get the result that sexual desire presupposes a desire to have sex with another, and is a desire that the other desire to have sex with desirer. This latter desire is satisfied when the other desires to have sex with the desirer, and so desires the desirer in the same way as the desirer desires the other. But if this is right, then Callard’s account does not tell us much about the nature of sexual desire because, as we have seen, she wants to define sex in terms of sexual desire. This is akin to defining a “hoofed mammal” as an ungulate, and then defining an “ungulate” as a hoofed mammal.

In addition, that a desirer’s desire has a reciprocal desire as its object does not, by itself, seem to make that desire sexual. For example, I may want to take a walk with someone and want the person to want to take a walk with me. This latter desire has a reciprocal desire as its object, and so it is satisfied just when the other person wants to take a walk with me. But it is plainly not a sexual desire.

Finally, Callard’s account implies that it is impossible to have a sexual desire with respect to something that lacks the capacity to desire. But we routinely recognize that some people desire sex with objects, and there seems to be no reason not to characterize their desires as sexual.

The line of reasoning I have been pursuing so far suggests that Callard has things backwards: instead of defining sex in terms of sexual desire, we should define sexual desire in terms of sex. On this account, a sexual desire just is a desire to engage in sexual activity. However, any philosopher of sex will tell you that it is notoriously difficult to pin down the nature of sexual activity, and it is beyond the scope of this article to try to do that here.

Although Callard is likely mistaken about the nature of sexual desire, I think she does capture something important about sexual pleasure. At one point, she invokes Aristotle for the claim that “if you are a truly erotic person” faced with a choice between two lovers, you would choose a person who desperately wants to have sex with you but can’t over a person who “can and will, but doesn’t really feel like it.” On the one hand, this seems like an odd claim. Surely, the answer to the question which lover would satisfy one’s sexual desire is clear: the lover with whom one can actually engage in sexual activity. But it seems plausible that sex with someone who, while validly consenting, doesn’t feel like doing it may be far less pleasurable than the exquisite agony of sexually desiring someone who reciprocates one’s desire without being able to satisfy it. And it is surely less pleasurable than sexual activity with someone who does reciprocate. This suggests that a significant part of sexual pleasure lies in your awareness of your partner’s desire – that is, in the satisfaction of your second-order desire that your partner want you – rather than merely in the satisfaction of your first-order desire to have sex, your sexual desire.

Furthermore, even if Callard is mistaken about the nature of sexual desire, she may be right about the nature of sex. So, let’s consider this aspect of her account next. According to Callard, sex is a ritual – an enactment or symbolic expression of the idea of sexual desire. Callard’s idea here is intriguing: she is saying, at the least, that sexual acts belong in the same category as other bodily acts that convey meaning such as bowing, waving, or shaking hands. The specific meaning sexual acts convey is that the actor sexually desires the other. You might object that sex acts are a means of satisfying our sexual desires, rather than a means of conveying that we have those desires. Callard’s view appears to commit her to denying that sex acts satisfy sexual desires: for her, sexual desires are satisfied just when the desired other has desires that mirror the desirer’s desires, so sexual acts are unnecessary and even irrelevant to their satisfaction. But we have seen reasons to doubt this model of sexual desire.

Nevertheless, again I think Callard captures something important about, if not sex per se, then perhaps good sex. Sex acts can both be instrumental in satisfying desire and meaningful in conveying desire. For example, a passionate kiss may be a way of telling you something – that I want you – and at the same time, a way of fulfilling that very want. The fact that sexual behavior is culturally variable – kissing, for one, seems not to be a cultural universal – lends credence to the idea that it is ritualistic. Out of the many possible acts that could equally well serve to satisfy our sexual desires, we perhaps choose those which, partly as a matter of cultural convention, we know will also effectively convey the idea of our desires to the desired other. If what I said previously about sexual pleasure is right, we do this because it substantially enhances the pleasures of sex.

We finally turn to Callard’s last claim, that the idea of consent is insufficient to capture “what sex, the ritual, is about.” Her point seems to be that while sex acts are capable of expressing the idea of sexual desire, acts of consent cannot. That one can consent to sex without having any sexual desire – recall the lover in Aristotle’s thought experiment who is willing to have sex with you but isn’t really into it – clearly shows that sexual consent is not inherently expressive of sexual desire. If what I have said before is correct, it follows from this that consent is certainly insufficient for truly pleasurable sex, which, in my view, ipso facto makes it insufficient for good sex. There is indeed, then, something flat and thin about a sexual ethics that focuses only on issues of consent: it will not be able to deliver a full account of when sex is good. But in defense of consent-based sexual ethics, the role of consent was never to tell us when sex is good, but to tell us when it is permissible. As long as we bear in mind that the latter is not the only value question around sex, I do not see much of a problem for the prevailing sexual ethic’s emphasis upon consent.

Agnes Callard’s philosophy of sex may be less than persuasive at points – at least in the highly truncated form in which The Wall Street Journal presented it – but it gets at some of the key issues in the philosophy of sex: the nature of sex and sexual desire, and the role of consent in sexual ethics. For this reason alone, her contribution is laudable.