← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Is Shoplifting from Grocery Stores Morally Permissible?

woman with backpack and cart standing in front of produce

No. Right?

Loblaw – one of few major Canadian grocery retailers – recently released its third-quarter earnings report, which boasted a profit of $621 million, up from $556 million compared to the same quarter from last year. This is during a time when grocery prices are increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and when people are switching more than ever to discount and dollar stores to try to cut down on their bills. In my home town of Toronto, grocery prices have gotten so out of hand that 1 in 10 Torontonians now make use of food banks. While there have been many arguments about why, exactly, food prices continue to increase, the majority of Canadians find fault with the grocery stores themselves, accusing them of profiteering (major food retailers in Canada are prone to blame suppliers, instead).

Should the record profits that grocery stores are making and the immense pressure that increased prices are putting on consumers cause us to rethink our answer?

That depends. After all, there are circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is impermissible. For example, if you comfortably have the means to purchase groceries and the store in question is a small family-operated establishment, then you shouldn’t steal from them. There are also circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is, indeed, permissible. For example, if you risk starvation and have no other means of acquiring food, few would think you worthy of moral criticism if you stole a loaf of bread.

Although these edge cases seem intuitive, there are challenges even to them. The deontologist – the person who believes morality is about following a certain set of rules – may very well find theft of any kind outright impermissible, starving or not. On the other hand, a moral consequentialist – the person who believes the moral permissibility of an action depends on the consequences of that action – may find theft even from the “ma and pa” establishment to be permissible under certain circumstances (or, at the very least, they not rule it as outright impermissible without digging deeper into a calculus of harms and benefits).

But let’s put the edge cases aside and instead focus on your average (in whatever sense you take that to mean) grocery shopper, and your standard (in whatever sense you take that to mean) corporation-owned grocery store. Is it morally permissible for this person to shoplift from that kind of grocery store?

It is easy to come up with some arguments that say it is. For example, one might think that given that the cost to the store is almost certainly barely noticeable given how much money these stores tend to make, the benefit to the shoplifter far outweighs the cost to the store – call this the “it won’t make any difference” argument. Or, one might argue that corporate greed (and potentially profiteering) justifies small acts of redistributive theft – call this the “Robin Hood” argument.

Indeed, it may seem as though many people have decided that, in fact, shoplifting is largely acceptable these days. Much has been made about an apparent recent increase in the amount of shoplifting in countries all over the world, especially from grocery stores. One would be forgiven for thinking that the consequentialists have run amok, roaming in gangs, and stealing anything that’s not tied down.

However, while many companies and commentators in the media have claimed that there is a “shoplifting crisis,” the extent to which such a crisis actually exists has been disputed. Furthermore, looking at the data shows very different results. For example, a recent study from the U.S. has found little reason to think that shoplifting has increased in any significant way at a national level, at least when considering the country as a whole.

So even if it’s easy to come up with such arguments in theory, using them to justify actual acts of shoplifting does not seem to be terribly common, or at least no more common than it used to be. This is perhaps surprising: if the “it won’t make any difference” or “Robin Hood” arguments ever had any force then they surely have even more force now.

Instead, one might even provide a new argument for the permissibility of shoplifting, namely one of retributive theft. The argument might go like this: employers are stealing from their employees and face little to no punishment for their actions. As such, shoplifting from those employers is justified.

Is this a good argument? There is ample reason to think that employers are, in fact, stealing from employees: numerous reports over the past few years have found many major companies culpable for committing wage theft, a category of employer behavior that includes paying below minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, denying employees’ legal rights to breaks and meals, the diversion of worker tips, and unpaid labor before or after shifts. A 2017 report found that more than $203 million had been stolen from workers in New York, while Home Depot recently settled a class-action lawsuit over wage theft for $72.5 million. And, of course, major grocery retailers have also been accused of wage theft.

Whether these factors justify an act of shoplifting is up for debate, and will no doubt depend on the circumstances. Despite what might appear to be a gluttony of reasons in its favor, it’s also simply difficult to defend shoplifting by appeal to theory, and it seems unlikely that many would be convinced in any practical sense. However, given the increasing financial pressures on consumers, that may very well change.

The Point of Prisons

Officer Derek Chauvin became infamous for the violence he perpetuated against George Floyd. The Black American’s death, while pinned under the knee of a white cop, launched nation-wide protests in 2020 and led to a 21-year sentence for Chauvin. Despite electing to go to federal prison instead of state prison for safety reasons, Derek Chauvin was stabbed on Friday, November 24th. As of November 26th, his survival seems likely, but the incident nonetheless bookends a story of government failure. First, violence was enacted by Chauvin as an agent of the state, and then violence was enacted against Chauvin while in federal custody. It also fits the arc of a national conversation about prison reform, both in terms of the sheer number of people incarcerated (over 2 million) and the conditions inside.

America must wrestle with questions about for-profit prisons, solitary confinement, prison understaffing, three strikes laws, felony murder, and racial bias in sentencing. But it is also worthwhile to take a step back and ask, not just how can we do prisons better, but what are we trying to do with prisons in the first place? For philosophers, this concerns our theory of punishment – the justification for the state inflicting harm, limiting freedoms, and revoking rights in response to acts it deems pernicious.

Imprisonment asserts the government’s right to exercise extreme and harmful power over people as long as certain conditions hold, especially being guilty of a crime. (The coercive power of the state is, in fact, employed well before incarceration, as the entire preceding legal process is also required.) This does not mean the situation cannot be justified. But given the scale of the harm, it behooves the government, and legal theorists, to have a good answer to the question: “Why are you forcibly detaining 2 million of your own people”?

Broadly speaking, there are two major goals we could have for our prison system. The first is the resolution of a societal problem, namely crime. (Although the more cynical among us might also point to poverty, unemployment, and homelessness as social problems that prisons help to “solve”.) The second is Justice – capital letter and all. The idea here is that imprisonment gives the guilty their due, balancing the scales of Lady Justice or signaling moral condemnation in some more metaphysical sense. These two major goals correspond with consequentialist and retributivist theories of punishment respectively (the author has previously discussed these in the context of environmental crimes).

People can of course hold onto each of these goals simultaneously, and our current system is not a pure reflection of either one, but a chimera of both theories, inherited historical practices, and political convenience. The challenge is that consequentialist and retributivist theories of punishment paint a very different picture of what prisons should be.

Perhaps most significantly is that the consequentialist is not necessarily committed to prisons and punishment at all. Classic consequentialist defenses of imprisonment are that it deters crimes, takes dangerous people off the street, and can help to reform criminals. These are all arguments for the way punishment can prevent crime. The consequentialist, however, can also argue that crime prevention is better served by increased non-punitive resources, such as improving education and investing in anti-poverty programs. Put differently, the consequentialist is interested in whether prison represents the best way to address crime in a particular context and, depending on the answer, adjusts social policy accordingly.

Consequentialists also need not be committed to making the prison experience miserable for the incarcerated. If evidence demonstrated that harsher environments or longer sentences served as a better deterrent or improved rehabilitation, this would provide the bones of a potential consequentialist argument – although current evidence does not support this. If instead the aim is simply to remove dangerous people from positions where they can cause harm, then there is no reason prison should involve additional suffering beyond captivity. In fact, consequentialist reasoning seems to dictate that we should minimize inmates’ suffering as much as possible while pursuing our greater societal ends.

For retributivism, by contrast, suffering is the point. Modern society has placed certain constraints on what is an acceptable punishment, but the core idea of retributivism is often still an eye for an eye – albeit understood in terms of years in prison. Retributivist theories also pay attention to individuals in a way that consequentialist approaches, which are focused on larger social goals, do not. In this way, retributivism can also be responsive to the desires of victims or their families in seeing justice done and scratching an emotional itch for resolution.

Not only do retributivism and consequentialist theories of punishment arrive at vastly different answers as to what imprisonment is for, but the core of each approach can represent a deep moral failing from the other perspective. To the retributivist, who wants to give the guilty their due, the social tinkering of the consequentialist neglects considerations of justice and desert altogether. To the consequentialist, the mysterious moral calculus of retributivism smacks of vindictiveness and Old Testament brutality.

As we have seen, retributivist and consequentialist approaches can sometimes be brought into alignment. For example, the consequentialist may like imprisonment because it isolates dangerous criminals, and the retributivist may like imprisonment because it’s miserable for the guilty party. However, this alignment is very dependent on the facts on the ground. As the evidence shifts, and the consequentialist begins to doubt the effectiveness of long sentences as grounds for rehabilitation or deterrence, so too does their image of what prison should be change. It is optimistic to assume that there is an account of what prison is for that conveniently fits the different goals of both consequentialist and retributivist approaches to punishment.

However, not all aspects of the prison system need to be beholden to the overarching theory of punishment. For example, the retributivist may agree that once the state has taken someone into custody via imprisonment, then they have a responsibility to ensure their safety from other prisoners. There are also features of the criminal justice system that attach to neither theory of punishment. For example, restorative justice (see a previous discussion in The Prindle Post) seeks to make whole both the victim and the perpetrator of crimes and can be paired with either consequentialist approaches or retributivist approaches.

Certainly there is a good deal of shared ground for broad aspects of criminal justice reform, including that cops should not kneel on people for 9½ minutes, that prisons should be adequately staffed, and that inmates should not be getting stabbed. And then there are more contentious questions about which crimes deserve prosecution, when minors should be charged as adults, and what kind of evidence warrants the death penalty. Answering the tough questions and deciding hard cases requires genuine, sustained reflection about what precisely we want our criminal justice system to do and what exactly we hope to accomplish. As it stands, current design remains at odds with stated purpose.

Running A-Fowl of the Law: On Presidential Turkey Pardons

photograph of turkey at White House pardoning event

Among the President of the United States’s powers is the pardon, the “unlimited” ability to grant clemency for federal criminal offenses. This clemency can take two forms. First, a commutation or reduction of the punishment for one convicted of a federal crime. Second, forgiveness of transgressions. This eliminates the punishment that has or would have been assigned for an offense. When someone refers to a “pardon” they typically mean the latter form of clemency. According to U.S. case law as of Burdick v. United States, accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt for one’s offenses, hence why pardons differ from immunity. Typically, at least in recent administrations, presidents utilize the pardoning power near the end of their term – 84% of Donald Trump’s, 61% of Barack Obama’s, 56% of Bill Clinton’s and 49% of George H.W. Bush’s pardons came during their final year of office.

However, there is one pardon which now occurs annually. Throughout the history of the United States, presidents often received turkeys as gifts. Usually, these birds were slaughtered and eaten with holiday dinners. The first to spare one was Abraham Lincoln at the insistence of his son Thomas or “Tad.” This turkey gifting evolved into the “National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation” during Harry Truman’s administration. Occasionally, presidents would spare the turkeys presented to them, either returning them to the farm or sending them to a zoo. However, beginning with George H.W. Bush in 1989, the ceremony evolved to include the president pardoning the gift turkeys, sparing them from serving as Thanksgiving dinner. At the time of my writing on the afternoon of November 20th, President Joe Biden pardoned the turkeys Liberty and Bell just a few hours ago.

Obviously, the ceremony is for fun. Presidents regularly use the occasion to make (groan-inducing) jokes to the press. For instance, in 2022 following better than anticipated mid-term elections for the Democrats, Biden’s quips included remarks that the ballot boxes were not “stuffed,” that there was no “fowl play” and the only “red wave” would be if his dog knocked over the cranberry sauce.

But ceremonies, even when unserious, often reveal something about our underlying attitudes and beliefs. The traditional presidential turkey pardon, for instance, may be working to assuage some tense feelings about our nonchalance in making a cooked bird the centerpiece of our holiday gatherings. Sure, about 45 million turkeys are killed each year to produce Thanksgiving dinner, but at least these two turkeys aren’t!

Given the evolution of the presidential turkey pardon, it might be worth investigating what else could be going on here. What other symbolism is behind this act? Recall that accepting a pardon, at least according to current case law in the United States, is an admission of guilt. So, by extending pardons to turkeys each year, the sitting president seems to imply that the birds have committed some kind of offense. Further still, the apparent punishment for this crime is death, given that turkeys pardoned each year are spared from slaughter.

What exactly is the offense for which the birds are being pardoned? Well, the pardon is just a ceremony – there is no paperwork and it does not count in the tally of a president’s pardons. So, we should not search through U.S. code to find the precise law that turkeys violate each year. Further, the turkeys are not wrong-doers in the same way that human offenders are.

Perhaps we can clarify something about the “offense” by considering how the pardoned turkeys are selected. The turkeys typically come from the farm of the current chairperson of the National Turkey Federation. In this case, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Liberty and Bell were chosen due to their extroverted nature. Thus, it seems somewhat arbitrary which turkeys get selected – there is a dash of practical consideration but it is otherwise essentially random. So, it appears that whatever “offense” the pardoned turkeys commit must be one that all members of the species share.

Notice, further, what the use of the term pardon implies about the turkeys given to the president during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. When pardoned the turkeys are spared from slaughter. Thus, death seems to be a punishment according to the pretense of the ceremony. But why is execution an appropriate response to whatever offense that all domestic turkeys commit? And, further, what is gained by pardoning some of the turkeys?

To answer this question, we must consider some potential ways of justifying punishment. Presumably, a pardon is justified in cases where the justification of punishment does not hold. Some justifications of punishment are consequentialist in nature. They look forward and assess what will happen if punishment occurs. The idea being that, if it produces better consequences in the future, then punishment is appropriate. By contrast, a pardon would be justified when it would produce better consequences.

For instance, consider Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. When delivering his decision to the nation, Ford explained that he felt it would significantly damage the nation to witness what would certainly be a long and rigorously reported prosecution of a former president, stating that “My concern is the immediate future of this great country.” Thus, on Ford’s rationale, a pardon was justified because punishment in this case would produce worse consequences.

What follows if we accept turkey pardons on consequentialist grounds? Well, it implies that it is better, all things considered, that these particular turkeys are not slaughtered. Recall that the selection of turkeys pardoned is effectively random. Thus, the consequentialist justification of presidential turkey pardons seems to imply that, for any given domestic turkey, it would be better all things considered to spare that turkey from slaughter. But if we accept this justification of the presidential turkey pardon, then Thanksgiving, for most, is in moral peril – the process required to produce the centerpiece of their meal, all things considered, produces worse outcomes.

However, punishments may also be justified on retributivist grounds. Retributivist justifications of punishment instead look backwards at the past behavior to assess the appropriateness of punishment. Typically, retributivists believe that punishment is justified when it is a matter of desert, in other words, that the offender deserves to be punished. So, on this justification of punishment, a pardon is appropriate when our treatment of the offender fails to fit the crime.

Suppose we accept the retributivist justification of a pardon in the case of turkeys. What does this reveal? Well, recall again that the turkeys punished are selected on an arbitrary basis. The only factors in play are the appearance, temperament, and home farm of the turkeys. None seems like a morally relevant factor when determining if an individual deserves punishment. Thus, much like with the consequentialist judgment, the pardoned turkeys are as good as any other turkey in terms of desert; if they do not deserve the punishment of death, as per their pardoning, then seemingly no other turkey deserves it either.

Ultimately, analysis of the turkey pardons leaves the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in an uncomfortable position. According to the inner logic of pardoning, it appears that the slaughter of any particular turkey is unjustified. If sparing Liberty and Bell produces better consequences or avoids an unjust desert, then it seems this reasoning should hold true for every turkey – what’s good for the two is good for the 45 million.

Of course, one might charge that I’ve taken this ceremony far too seriously. It’s just some quirky fun to kick off the holiday season! The president is not actually pardoning a turkey, and to analyze the situation as though they were misconstrues what’s really happening.

But even unserious ceremonies – especially those which occur annually in the full view of a nation – deserve analysis. Presidents did not always spare their gift turkey, nor was the act always ceremonial, nor was the act always framed as a pardon. The increasing spectacle, coverage, and linking of this observance to the powers of the office of the president invites us to seriously consider the message it sends, lest we uphold traditions that send the wrong message.

Accountability for the Boy Who Cried “Misinformation”

It is no secret that we’re obsessed with information right now, particularly the spread of misinformation. The internet age allowed for the transmission of data on a scale never before seen, including “fake news” or, as the preferred nomenclature would have it, misinformation and disinformation. Now, AI can generate and propagate false information at will.

But our zeal in seeing misinformation stamped out has clouded our recognition of the ways the concept can be abused. Misleading information can be problematic, but our response to it can be equally troubling. We’ve contorted the way we discuss contentious issues and complicated our understanding of accountability.

Many of the most egregious examples of false information being spread are done specifically for the purposes of misleading others. For example, since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war there has been an increase of disinformation about what is actually happening and what each side is doing. Keeping the record straight has been difficult, different groups look to vilify others. It’s easy to confuse the public and sow social instability when they’re not able to see what is happening first-hand. This has been the case, for example, with the disinformation being spread regarding the Russia-Ukraine war.

But apart from geopolitical conflicts, we’ve seen false information being spread about climate change in order to protect financial interests. Political disinformation is also undermining democratic dialogue, and combined with cases of misinformation – cases where deception is not intentional – we can see how the spread of rumor and lies helped fuel the protestors who stormed Congress on January 6th. Cases like this remind us that false or misleading information can be spread deliberately by people seeking to accomplish a particular goal or merely by those who are passing on the latest internet debris they take to be valid.

Both disinformation and misinformation can undermine the ability of society to recognize and respond to social problems. During the pandemic, for instance, massive amounts of false information made it difficult to manage public health, leading to needless deaths. As philosopher John Dewey warned, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless.” Ultimately, misinformation and disinformation prevent the formation of the common understanding necessary to ensure that shared problems can be collectively addressed.

There is, however, potential to abuse the concept of “fake news” for one’s personal ends. You can always accuse others of intentionally peddling fictions – calling out certain kinds of misinformation while conveniently ignoring others when they suit your interests.

Consider this example: A recent study showed that only 3% of Earth’s ecosystems are intact. This finding was very different from those of previous studies, because the study redefined what “intactness” meant. Without a consistent scientific definition of terms, different studies will produce incommensurate results. This means it would be easy to accuse someone of engaging in misinformation if a) they are using a different study than I am and b) I don’t make discrepancies like this clear.

While the crusade to stamp out misinformation seems honorable, it can quickly lead to chaos. It’s important to recognize that scientific findings will conflict when employing different conceptual frameworks and methodologies, and that scientific studies can often be unreliable. It can be tempting to claim that because at least one expert claims something or because one study reaches a certain conclusion, you have the Truth and to contradict it represents misinformation. It can be more tempting still to simply accuse others of misinformation without explanation and write off entire points of view.

The way we liberally label misinformation makes it easy to engage in censorship. Today, there are concerns expressed about the media’s initial coverage of the “lab leak theory,” which may have stifled discussion by immediately branding it as misinformation. This is significant because if there is a widespread public perception that certain ideas are unfairly being dismissed as misinformation, it will undermine public trust. As Dewey also warned, “Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs.”

These are dangerous temptations, and it means that we must hold ourselves and others accountable, both for the information we pass on as well as the accusations we throw around.

What Philosophers Can Contribute to Space Exploration

photograph of explorer with flashlight beam pointed to night sky

“It is good to renew one’s wonder,” said the philosopher.

“Space travel has again made children of us all.”

– Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Several weeks ago, the Daily Nous published an article entitled “What Can Philosophers Contribute to Space Exploration?” The piece was triggered by a recent NASA report that highlights the “ethical, legal, and societal implications” of the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon, and – ultimately – send them to Mars. When we think of space travel, philosophers most likely aren’t the first group of individuals we bring to mind. Instead, we (rightfully) focus our attention on the scientists, engineers, and intrepid explorers who make spacefaring possible. But there is much that philosophy – and the study of ethics in particular – can contribute to these endeavors.

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in space travel. For the very first time, the heavens are no longer the exclusive preserve of government-run space programs. The privatization of space has begun. Just this week, SpaceX launched its twenty-ninth resupply mission to the International Space Station. But, while the private sector has provided a logistical lifeline to the U.S. space program – especially since the retirement of the Space Shuttle – the privatization of space has seen the cosmos quickly become yet another playground for the rich and famous. On July 11 2021, Richard Branson made history by becoming the first human to self-fund his own journey into space. He was quickly followed by Jeff Bezos a few days later. Not to be outdone, Elon Musk delivered his first private tourists into orbit just a few months later.

The costs of these trips is astronomical (pun intended). With a ticket aboard Branson’s Virgin Galactic costing a cool $250,000, one can’t help but wonder whether there might not be better ways of spending this money. Such concerns have always surrounded investment in space travel. But at least, historically, expenditure by state-run space agencies could be justified as a nationally-borne cost for nation-wide benefits. The same is not obviously true in the case of space tourism, where the benefits seem to extend only so far as the tourists themselves. Others disagree. Chris Impey – Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona – argues that entrepreneurs like Branson, Bezos, and Musk “are like the high-octane fuels needed to take space travel to the next level” and that we need to “accept the risk and give the visionaries a free rein” in order to advance as a spacefaring species.

Our very own writers here at The Prindle Post have contributed much to the discussion of these potential cosmic follies. A.G. Holdier notes that a single Virgin Galactic ticket will cost the same as the annual grocery bill for 53 average U.S. families, while Carlo Davia argues that these costs can’t be justified by the purported benefits of things like innovation or ensuring that the Earth has an insurance policy. Giles Howdle, on the other hand, is more generous – taking a nuanced consequentialist approach to defend space tourism.

It’s discourse like this that truly highlights the importance of ethics for space travel. While an accountant can put a dollar value on a trip to space, and a scientist can tell you what stands to be gained from that journey, it takes an ethicist to examine whether – morally – those benefits justify that cost.

And the costs aren’t just financial. It seems that those going to space – be it for recreation or not – should be fully informed of the risks they’re assuming. There’s little doubt that many of us understand the highly dangerous nature of space travel. But it may in fact be the case that we somewhat overestimate this risk. As Impey notes, the fatality rate of spacefaring is around 2%. The fatality rate of a lifetime of driving in a car, however, is around 1.1%. What this means then, is that a single joyride to space is only about twice as risky as a lifetime of using an automobile. What does this mean for the morality – and, indeed, rationality – of taking such a journey? An ethicist can help with that.

What’s more, the ethical considerations of spacefaring even extend to those of us on the ground. As I’ve argued before, an open sky is both extrinsically and intrinsically valuable for us, yet a project link SpaceX’s Starlink threatens to take all of that way. This concern raises an even larger question: How should we treat property in space? We might think of it as a global commons – like the oceans or the Antarctic – there for the shared enjoyment of all humanity. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 seems to support this idea, claiming that no part of space can be subject to appropriation by a particular state. On the other hand, we have the approach of John Locke – who famously argued that we can appropriate common property by mixing our labor with it. What then, might we say of the Moon rocks that an astronaut judiciously shovels from the Lunar surface? Should she be able to claim ownership over these?

To complicate matters further, Locke placed a proviso on his approach to property – namely that one can only appropriate property through labor where she leaves “enough, and as good” for others. Traditionally, we might have understood this to include other members of one’s community, state, or – in the case of a global commons – the whole world. But space is so much bigger than this. In considering how we should carve up the heavens, should we also be considering the interests of beings we’ve not even met? Is the very notion of a “global commons” antiquated? Should we instead be changing our mindset to see space as a galactic commons instead?

It is precisely these kinds of questions that philosophers – and ethicists especially – are well equipped to consider. While answers might not be straightforward, nor agreement easy to find (as evidenced by the views of our very own writers), the consideration of these questions is imperative if we want to become a spacefaring race worthy of the cosmos.

Debating Pro- and Anti-Natalism

photograph of parent/child pedestrian sign on tile pavement

Every person on the planet has an incredible ancestry. We’re all the result of countless interactions between parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. This lineage is so extensive that it stretches past the emergence of humanity as we know it today, through our caveman ancestors, all the way through to the advent of life itself. We are all, each of us, the result of an inexhaustible history of relationships, both biological and social.

So, with all this ancestral pedigree, one might feel the pressure to continue the line and have children themselves. Some may be familiar with such a demand in the form of arguments like carrying on the family line or name (think back to Tywin Lannister’s obsession with family legacy). Breaking the maternal and paternal chain that has existed for multiple millennia is no small act. Even if one faces no social or familial pressure to have children (and many do), it is understandable to feel some force to the idea that, after the countless generations and innumerable interactions necessary for you to emerge into the world as you are, you will be the one responsible for breaking the chain.

Yet, there are some who argue that not only is this not something to feel bad about, but that refusing to have children is the morally correct action as reproducing is a morally transgressive act. Those who hold such a position are known as anti-natalists.

There have been multiple arguments supporting the anti-natalist viewpoint, including convictions that life is inherently bad and thus should be avoided, that life need not be bad but we’re unable to create a life which would be good, or that we shouldn’t reproduce because we cannot obtain the consent of those we would create. What they all share, though, is the core tenet that the negative aspects of life are so great that we should not inflict that harm upon those yet to exist. This does not mean that we should try and eliminate those who do exist, as this would equate to murder and be itself wrong – for us, it is already too late as we are already subject to the harms of existence. But it does mean we should avoid passing that harm down to future generations.

Now, this may sound unreasonable to some. After all, while many of us will experience hardship in our lives, I would suspect most would say that such hardship hasn’t made our lives not worth living. Thus, to say that my being brought into existence by my parents was an inherently immoral act would seem a step too far. You might want to say it was selfish or reckless, but to accuse them of doing something wrong is a fairly extreme claim to make. Indeed, if it applies to one generation back, then there’s no reason to say it should go further than that and apply to my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and so on. Thus, the anti-natalists don’t just condemn you for having children, but everyone who has ever had children, and that’s a lot of people to scold.

The reason I want to bring this up is because, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest not in anti-natalism but in its opposite – pronatalism.

For pronatalists, having children is a moral necessity for which we should be commended and those who avoid such a “duty” should receive condemnation. And, while it has a long and troubled history with strong (yet not necessary) links to right-wing populist movements and theories like the Great Replacement, it is easy to see how it can capture the public imagination given that we typically celebrate the family unit and any addition of members to it.

Today, we see governments around the world implement policies designed to increase birth rates, be that through offering couples financial incentives – like tax breaks and housing assistance – to have children or by curtailing reproductive freedoms like abortion. In a rather striking example, Russia has recently reinstated the Mother Heroine medal, awarded to those women who have 10 or more children.

The reason for today’s emphasis on pronatalist ideologies is undoubtedly varied and complex. But, to oversimplify it: many countries worldwide fear the socioeconomic implications of their populations getting, on average, older and smaller. This is because an older population requires more younger people to look after it than a younger population (unless technology can come to the rescue). It also means that a more significant percentage will be retired and thus less economically productive. We have seen the effect of this already in Japan, where 1 in 10 people are now over the age of 80. Thus, all those countries wanting to deal with the demographic shift towards an older population must either make the elderly more economically productive (deferring retirement age) or shift the age imbalance by bringing more younger people into their fold. The latter is done either by encouraging immigration (which can be politically difficult to achieve) or by driving up birth rates.

It cannot be ignored that failing to address the global socioeconomic issues associated with an ageing population would be devastating. The prosperity of a country is inextricably tied to its economic productivity. And so, when a country becomes less productive, its population suffers. On this basis, there seems to be an argument that it is in governments’ interest to find any way to promote raising birth rates. (This is baked directly into the state’s job description – if a government can’t look out for the needs of its people, what is it for?).

Any success, however, would only kick the can down the road. The only way we can avoid the dangers of an ageing population is to have one of ever-increasing size. And this simply isn’t possible. Eventually, any given population will shrink as exponential growth isn’t possible on a planet with finite resources.

And it is here that we see the tension between pro- and anti-natalism: should we try to lessen the pain people are experiencing now or limit the number of people who will experience pain in the future? The former is born out of a desire to maintain the status quo, while the latter wishes to blow it all up.

It’s hard to say which viewpoint will ultimately carry the day. Pronatalism has the historical advantage. But life lived under threat of economic collapse, climate disaster, and humanitarian crisis makes the prospect of having children less appealing. Given these rising risks, I suspect more may come around to the anti-natalism way of thinking.

Should We Try to Live Forever?

image of silhouette walking long incline of empty space

We all want to live longer. Every year, billions of dollars are spent prolonging our lives, and we are still waiting for the pill that cures aging once and for all.

But if we lived forever, wouldn’t we just end up bored and depressed? Think about the goal you’re most invested in right now, whether that is getting a degree, searching for a romantic partner, raising children, or advancing your career. Part of what makes this goal compelling is that it has an end date, a point at which it will have been accomplished. But if our lives continued on forever, then eventually we would have no goals left to accomplish, leaving us apathetic, unmotivated, and potentially downright miserable.

A life worth living, though, is not merely the sum of our projects. Instead, there are certain things we enjoy doing simply for their own sake. These things include spending time with friends and family, reading a good book, listening to music, or going for a run – activities that do not cease to be fulfilling once they are accomplished. If not for our biological limitations, they could potentially go on without end.

Longevity is one of the most recent crazes in Silicon Valley, with leading figures pouring cash into extending their lifespans. Jeff Bezos and Sam Altman have both given millions of dollars to longevity start-ups, and Bryan Johnson, founder of e-commerce company Braintree, spends millions of dollars every year so that he can be functionally 18 years old again.

With all this money being spent on longevity, the science may not be far behind. David Sinclair, a longevity researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that current medical advances will allow some of us to live to at least 150. Some of these advances are thought to have the potential to not only slow death, but to reverse aging altogether.

This all raises an obvious question: Should we want to live forever? Most have assumed the answer is an obvious yes. Along with all of the current life-extending research, most major religions – including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism – include the promised reward of an eternal afterlife. If given the choice, it seems like most of us would prefer to live forever.

Of course, there are circumstances that could make immortality unappealing. If I am chronically ill or depressed, then living forever might look more like a curse than a blessing. But assuming that we are in good mental and physical health, most people think that eternal life sounds like a pretty good deal.

But if we really think about it, would living forever actually be a good thing? Philosopher Bernard Williams thinks the answer is no. He considers the story of Elina Makropulos, the protagonist of the Czech opera The Makropulos Affair. After imbibing a potion that allows her to live for 300 more years, Elina goes on to become a widely renowned vocalist. Nevertheless, when it comes time to take the potion again, Elina is depressed and apathetic, and while she still fears death, she no longer desires to go on living.

Will the same inevitably happen to us? The long-term projects that make our lives meaningful – education, career, and family – could all be accomplished in a never-ending life. But once we get our degrees, climb the corporate ladder, and raise a family, what would we do then?

Even if we did have projects that couldn’t be completed in such a (relatively) short period of time, this probably wouldn’t help. We would either ultimately succeed at those goals and still have an infinite life ahead of us, or we would eventually recognize that some of our goals are impossible to achieve, an equally depressing realization.

But there is more to life than projects with definitive end dates. Consider some of the things you like to do for fun, like eating out with friends, attending local music festivals, or going for bike rides. Contrasted with projects that have some sort of end or telos, such activities are “atelic” in that they do not have any point where they will have been achieved.

Basing our happiness on project-based goals is likely to make us unhappy both right now as well as in an infinite future.  In his book Midlife, MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya points out that if our happiness is determined by telic projects and endeavors, then we will always be either striving for yet another accomplishment or aimless and depressed after we reach our goal.

The moral of this contrast is obvious. We should focus on deriving more of our happiness, not from the goals we accomplish, but the activities that we enjoy doing just for their own sake.

But along with offering us guidance on how to live in the present, the difference between telic and atelic activities explains why living forever could actually be a good thing. Our lives are a mix of both kinds of activities, but by and large, our goal-based projects are undertaken in service of the things that we enjoy doing for their own sake.

When asked what we would do if money were no object, many of us respond with some kind of atelic pursuit or activity. We mourn the loss of the freedom we had when we were young adults, able to simply enjoy our lives without the weight of so many goal-based responsibilities. And maybe that’s what living forever would be like, a return to a simpler, less demanding way of existing in the world.

Bedside Conceptual Engineering

What is “obesity”?

The answer you’ll find in medical textbooks is simple. Divide one’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters: if the answer is over 30, then they meet criteria for obesity. But as is always the case, the joints of reality are not cleanly carved by a single equation in a textbook: the reality of obesity, and the depth of the question at hand, is much more complex.

In the clinical setting, obesity is often thought of as a disease. But even if we assume that we have a good grasp on what a disease is, there is significant resistance to thinking of obesity as one: some argue that such a claim ignores personal responsibility and encourages unhealthy behavior, while others argue that thinking of obesity as a disease stigmatizes the people who live with it and further propagates the discrimination which they already face in our society. Others argue that obesity isn’t a disease, but a risk factor: they point out that obesity is associated with conditions classically understood as diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, but it is not a disease per se. Still others argue that the medicalization of obesity is, in and of itself, a mistake: that akin to a disability, defining obesity as a risk factor or a disease is pathologizing a mere difference in the human experience.

This year, The Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, convened a commission composed of 60 expert clinicians and scientists to tackle these questions. The answers they consider to these questions warrant our attention, whether we are clinicians, philosophers, or laypeople. The Commission on the Definition and Diagnosis of Clinical Obesity takes an approach with a clinical tilt but a deeply philosophical history, and reveal something important about the words we use and the ways in which we use them: preliminary reports are that the commission didn’t just turn to the science to answer these very difficult questions, but sought to change the questions themselves.

*  *  *

The philosopher David Chalmers defines conceptual engineering, as a first pass, as “the process of designing, implementing, and evaluating concepts.

Chalmers uses the example of a bridge – a structure designed to serve a particular purpose. Plans are implemented, the bridge is built, and, over time, the bridge is assessed for any faults which have developed. Conceptual engineering is much of the same, but with words instead of bridges. Take a word which I’ve spent time thinking about: harm. Philosophers write papers designing concepts of harm, often with a particular purpose in mind (whether it be resolving wrongful-life lawsuits or the non-identity problem). Those concepts are then implemented, whether theoretically or in practice, the results are assessed, and improvements are designed and implemented. This is a very common pattern in philosophy, with metaphysics being applied to practical philosophy and ethical practice.

But conceptual engineering is not just something for philosophy journals: in everyday life, concepts radically shape our political and social environments. Take the concept of “citizen”: the question of who is and is not a citizen has fundamentally shaped political life for centuries, and still does. Think of the most saliently divisive political conflicts of the modern day. In most cases, the fundamental disagreement revolves around the definition of basic concepts (life, gender, etc.).

Though perhaps less obvious in everyday discourse, the concept of obesity is no different. Current projections are that 1.4 billion adults will be living with obesity by 2035, with a global economic impact of $4.32 trillion in the same year. 30 years of research has shown that healthcare providers are implicitly biased against people living with obesity. The relationship between stigma, obesity, and poor mental health outcomes has been extensively documented, especially in children. Understanding this concept is not just important for medical practice, but for our society as a whole.

The Lancet’s commission was convened exactly for this reason. Interestingly, their stated approach was to redefine obesity. In an interview with MedScape, Dr. Francesco Rubino, the project lead, said: “renaming ‘obesity’ is very important. The word is so stigmatized, with so much misunderstanding and misperception, some might say the only solution is to change the name.” He notes, further, that the commission focused on the concept of “clinical obesity” rather than obesity more generally, noting how the two may differ in the same way the concepts of “depression” and “clinical depression” might differ. By establishing a definition, then, Rubino and the commission hope to improve access to care and reduce stigma.

As of writing, the commission has not yet released their final report. But the approach that Rubino and the commission intend to take is clear: that of the conceptual engineer. The WHO recognized obesity as a disease 80 years ago, and that concept has been implemented over the intervening time. We see very clearly, though, that there are cracks in the foundation. The concept of obesity has become wrapped up in stigma, doesn’t reliably track a state of disease, and has proven ineffective in guiding research and clinical management. Rubino and his colleagues, just like the engineer who assesses the bridge, have found the foundation lacking, and seek to change the concept of obesity to better serve our purposes.

We shouldn’t lose track, however, of the important insight which can be found here. Concepts are tools which humans use, and often define. In the philosopher’s vocabulary, obesity is not a natural kind: obesity, rather, is a concept designed by humans for human reasons. Charitably, physicians seek to help people live fulfilling lives, and obesity may impede human thriving; more realistically, physicians have pathologized a group of people who already experience discrimination within and beyond healthcare. Seeing this reality, Rubino and his colleagues have hinted at a moral argument for changing the definition of obesity: the concept of obesity propagates harm and is ineffective at producing human good, and, therefore, we should consider changing it.

Many concepts which we encounter in our daily lives can be analyzed in this way: they are human inventions with human intentions and human faults, and we can redraw the lines of these concepts for moral reasons. We decide what our words mean, and, in most cases, the concepts which we rely on can be changed to make the world a better place, whether our concerns be utilitarian or deontological. Our concepts were designed to serve us, and when they fail to fulfill their role, we should ask if they might be changed for the better.

Can the Oppressed Afford to Be Humble?: Avoiding Vice While Resisting Domination

photograph from courtyard of crowded apartment building

Humility is one of the premier virtues. Alongside other virtues like honesty, courage, integrity, and generosity, it is widely accepted that we should all strive to be humble people.

But what if humility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Think, for example, of an immigrant who is being harassed by a white supremacist, or a slave who is being ordered around by their oppressor. In these situations, humility seems more like a vice than a virtue. If the immigrant or the slave were humble, wouldn’t this just lead to more control and subjugation?

Despite some popular misconceptions, humility isn’t fundamentally about being servile. Humility doesn’t require being a doormat for whoever wants to take advantage of us. Instead, humility helps us avoid being distracted by our own egos, a trait that is valuable for those from all walks of life.

Humility undoubtedly has its benefits. Being humble can help us learn from others and become aware of our weaknesses. Those who are humble are less likely to make decisions blinded by overconfidence. The world would undoubtedly be a better place if it were filled with humble politicians, leaders, and CEOs.

But humility is not always obviously beneficial. If someone is experiencing domestic abuse, or being gaslit into doubting their own thoughts and feelings, then humility might just make things worse. For a person who is full of doubt or lacks the confidence to advocate for themselves, focusing on their weaknesses and shortcomings is liable to exacerbate those issues.

These examples make it clear why humility can be bad for the marginalized and oppressed. As Frederick Douglass said, “I have met, at the south, many good, religious colored people who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this.” For Douglass, encouraging humility for slaves, or for other oppressed peoples, is simply nonsensical.

Because of these issues, a number of philosophers have questioned whether humility is actually a virtue. Vrinda Dalmiya, a professor at the University of Hawaii, takes it that humility can “entrench exploitative structures.” And Robin Dillon, professor emeritus at Lehigh University, has argued that humility is not a virtue “inasmuch as humility reinforces subordination.” Maybe we shouldn’t hold up humility as a virtue after all?

Nevertheless, it is clear that humility can sometimes be a virtue. If someone is arrogant, or doesn’t recognize their weaknesses and limitations, then a dose of humility would likely do them some good. As we’ve already discussed, we would all be better off if the privileged and the powerful were a bit more humble.

But is humility a virtue only for the privileged and the powerful? Laura Callahan, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, has recently made the case that humility can be a virtue for everyone. On her view, humility doesn’t make us a doormat. Instead, being humble sets us free from the distractions of pride.

Think of the most arrogant person you know. That person is likely very into… themselves! They probably think very highly of themselves and, as a result, don’t pay much attention to the strengths, contributions, and ideas of others.

Such arrogance can obviously be a distraction. A continual focus on ourselves and our own egos can pull us away from what we should be paying attention to. If I am obsessed with defending my views and my ego, I can miss valuable insights from others. Constantly thinking about whether I am getting enough credit at work can divert my attention from what I need to get done.

And we all experience a natural temptation to think too well of ourselves. We all start out a bit biased in our own favor. Humility helps to counteract this instinctive attention to self, opening us up to others and helping us focus on what is truly important.

If humility is freedom from the distractions of pride, then being humble is a virtue for everyone. We are better at confronting daily challenges when we are less distracted, and the same is true for those facing various kinds of oppression.

Along with lamenting those that simply accepted slavery, Douglass also regretted that some were distracted by pride: “Slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. Many under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves… Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel amongst themselves about the relative goodness of their masters.” According to Douglass, the enslaved are made worse off when they are caught up with pride and comparisons.

As bad as it is to be a victim of harassment or domination, it is worse to be distracted by one’s own ego while trying to deal with such pressing hardships. Distracting pride can undercut one’s effort to resist oppression, confirming that humility is a virtue not only for the privileged and the powerful but also for the oppressed. Humility doesn’t make us into people that think we are worthless. Rather, it reveals to us that there are many other things worth thinking about.