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The Wrong of Explicit Simulated Depictions

photograph of Taylor Swift performing on stage with image on screen in background

In late January, images began circulating on social media that appeared to be sexually explicit images of pop star Taylor Swift. One particular post on X (i.e., Twitter) reached 47 million views before it was deleted. However, the images were, in fact, fake. The products of generative AI to be specific. Recent reporting traces the origin of the images to a thread on the online forum 4chan, wherein users “played a game” which involved utilizing generative AI to create violent and/or sexual images of female celebrities.

This incident has drawn renewed public attention to another potentially negative use of AI, prompting action on the part of legislators. H.R. 6943, the “No AI Fraud Act”, introduced in January albeit before the Swift incident, if passed, would hold individuals who distribute or create simulated likenesses of an individual or their voice liable for damages. EU Negotiators agreed on a bill that would criminalize sharing explicit simulated content. The Utah State legislature has introduced a bill, expanding previous legislation, to outlaw sharing AI-generated sexually explicit images.

There is certainly much to find disturbing about the ability of AI to create these fakes. However, it is worth carefully considering how and why explicit fakes are harmful to those depicted. Developing a clear explanation for why such images are harmful (and what makes some images more harmful than others) goes some way toward determining how we ought to respond to the creators and distributors. Intuitively, it seems that the more significant harm is, the more appropriate a greater punishment would be.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to content that is created by an AI as a “fake” or a “simulation.” AI generated content that depicts the subject in a sexualized manner will be referred to as an “explicit fake” or “explicit simulation.”

Often, the worry about simulated likenesses of people deals with the potential for deception. Recently, in New Hampshire, a series of robocalls utilizing an AI generated voice mimicking President Joe Biden instructed Democrats to not vote in the upcoming primary election. An employee of a multinational corporation transferred $26 million to a scammer after a video call with AI generated videos resembling their co-workers. The examples go on. Regardless, each of these cases are morally troubling because they involve using AI deceptively for personal or political gain.

However, it is unclear that we can apply the same rationale to explicit fakes. They may be generated purely for the sake of sexual satisfaction rather than material or competitive gains. As a result, the potential for ill-gotten personal and political gains are not as high.  Further, they may not necessarily require deception or trickery to achieve their end (more on this later, though). So, what precisely is morally wrong with creating and sharing explicit simulations?

In an earlier analysis, Kiara Goodwine notes that one ethical objection to explicit simulations is that they depict a person’s likeness without their consent. Goodwine is right. However, it seems that there is more wrong here than this. If it were merely a matter of depicting someone’s likeness, particularly their unclothed likeness, without their consent, then imagining someone naked for the purposes of sexual gratification would be as wrong as creating an explicit fake. I am uncertain of the morality of imagining others in sexual situations for the sake of personal gratification. Having never reflected seriously on the morality of the practice, I am open to being convinced that it is wrong. Nonetheless, even if imagining another sexually without their consent is wrong, it is surely less wrong than creating or distributing an explicit fake. Thus, we must find further factors that differentiate AI creations from private mental images.

Perhaps the word “private” does significant work here. When one imagines another in a sexualized way without their consent, one cannot share that image with others. Yet, as we saw with the depiction of Swift, images posted on the internet may be easily and widely shared. Thus, a crucial component of what makes explicit fakes harmful is their publicity or at least their potential for publicity. Of course, simulations are not the only potentially public forms of content. Compare an explicit fake to, say, a painting that depicts the subject nude. Both may violate the subject’s consent and both have the potential for publicity. Nonetheless, even if both are wrong, the explicit deepfake seems in some way worse than the painting. So, there must be an additional factor contributing to the wrongs of explicit simulations.

What makes a painting different from the AI created image is its believability. When one observes a painting or other human created work, one recognizes that it depicts something which may or may not have occurred. Perhaps the subject sat down for the creator and allowed them to depict the event. Or perhaps it was purely fabricated by the author. Yet what appear to be videos, photos or recorded audio seem different. They strike us with an air of authenticity or believability. You need pics or it didn’t happen. When explicit content is presented in these forms, it is much easier for the viewers to believe that it does indeed depict real events. Note that viewers are not required to believe the depictions are real for them to achieve their purpose, unlike in the deception cases earlier. Nonetheless, the likelihood that viewers believe the veracity of an explicit simulation is significantly higher than with other explicit depictions like painting.

So, explicit fakes seem to generate harms due to a triangulation of three factors. First, those depicted did not consent. Second, explicit fakes are often shared publicly or at least may easily be shared. Third and finally, they seem worse than other false sexualized depictions because they are more believable. These are the reasons why explicit fakes are harmful but what precisely is the nature of the harm?

The harms may come in two forms. First, explicit simulations may create material harms. As we see with Swift, those depicted in explicit fakes are often celebrities. A significant portion of a celebrity’s appeal depends on their brand; they cultivate a particular audience based on the content they produce and their public behavior, among other factors. Explicit fakes threaten a celebrity’s career by damaging their brand. For instance, someone who makes a career by creating content that derives its appeal, in part, from its inoffensive nature may see their career suffer as a result of public, believable simulations depicting them in a sexualized fashion. Indeed, the No AI Fraud act stipulates that victims ought to be compensated for the material harms that fakes have caused for their career earnings. Furthermore, even for a non-celebrity, explicit fakes can be damaging. They could place one in a position where they have to explain away fraudulent sexualized images of them to an employer, a partner or a family member. Even if one understands that the images are not real, it may nonetheless bias their judgment against the person depicted.

However, explicit fakes still produce harms even if material consequences do not come to bear. The harm takes the form of disrespect. Ultimately, by ignoring the consent of the parties depicted, those who create and distribute explicit fakes are failing to acknowledge the depicted as agents whose decisions about their body ought to be respected. To generate and distribute these images seems to reduce the person depicted to a sexual object whose purpose is strictly to gratify the desires of those viewing the image. Even if no larger harms are produced, the mere willingness to engage in the practice speaks volumes about one’s attitudes towards the subjects of explicit fakes.

The Ethics of Conscription

photograph of military boots and fatigues standing in line

As the conflict wrought from the occupation of Ukraine enters its third year, the nation struggles to find warm bodies for the front. Its leaders consider an expansion of the draft. Russia, too, suffers war fatigue as their conscription fueled invasion trudges on. Surrounding nations, eyeing the conflict and their own military limitations, mull expanding mandatory military service. Seeking to deter Russian hostilities, Latvia reintroduced conscription as of January 1st. Serbia, historically close with Russia but studiously non-committal on the issue of Ukraine, reopened discussions of conscription this January as a way to ensure military preparedness. Even  Germany — long gun-shy about all things military — has been reconsidering mandatory service, formally ended in 2011.

Russia and Ukraine are focused on the draft to sustain a war effort. Latvia, Serbia, and Germany are considering a general requirement to engage in military service, in peace times as well as during war.  One situation is certainly more emergent than the other, but both assert the government’s right to send its citizens (without consent) to fight and die. How might we justify such incredible power?

The most straightforward justification is that it is simply part of the deal. The “state,” the political institution which reigns sovereign over its people and territories, provides certain privileges and protections. In return, it can impose obligations on its people: taxation, jury duty, mandatory military service, what have you. Under this analysis, the legitimacy of conscription stems from the general political legitimacy of the state and its coercive powers.

A potent concern is consent. How can we justify the state’s power of conscription if people did not explicitly consent to it? This concern echoes across all the state’s coercive powers, but it is especially acute for military service where so much can be on the line. The most historically influential response by philosophers is essentially hypothetical consent. The idea is that, understanding the situation, a reasonable person would agree to be governed by the state and hence consents in theory. This is hypothetical consent to be governed, not necessarily to conscription specifically. But if we agree that a reasonable person would consent to be governed, consent to abide by decisions made through the political process, and consent to the protection provided by the state, then conscription is not far away. However, hypothetical consent clearly has its limitations: Imagine the absurdity of hypothetical consent as a defense in cases involving sexual harassment. Moreover, consent typically implies respect for the individualness of personal decisions (regardless if others may judge them as unreasonable).

One might also, while not objecting to coercive powers of the state generally, take issue with conscription specifically. If government is understood as existing partly to protect certain rights, life among them, then conscription would seem antithetical to the very nature of government. Although one may respond that the government needs to infringe the rights of some, to protect the rights of many. Governments can also provide more flexibility. For example, many European countries with mandatory service (such as Austria), provide a choice of military service or civil service.

If conscription can be justified as something citizens owe to the state, an implication of this is that the state needs to hold up its end of the bargain. A state that serves its people is best positioned to ask for service in return. A corrupt or tyrannical state, an unjust war, all these might undermine the legitimacy of conscription. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries have often adopted a carrot and stick approach to compulsory military service. Revolutionary France, the birthplace of modern conscription, also ensured that military service provided a path of advancement for those serving. In the United States, the GI Bill, initiated at the end of World War II, provides extensive support for education for veterans.

Along these lines we may also worry about a mismatch between who benefits from the state and who pays the price of conscription. During the Vietnam war, the poor and minorities were far less able to avoid the draft than those with more resources. This unfairness is immortalized in the art and music of the time, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” which was written in response to the disproportionate deaths of Black Americans.

Alternatively, we may justify conscription (and indeed, the state generally) on the basis of utility — that it provides the most good to the most people. Clearly, mandatory military conscription, especially in times of war, comes with risks. But it can also come with benefits, e.g., enabling a nation to fight off an invader that could otherwise lead to far larger casualties. Arguing for conscription on the basis of benefits, or even necessity, is clearest in a moment of humanitarian crisis. More generally, the challenge is not whether conscription can come with benefits, but whether it is legitimately the best option for the people.

Can changes be made to increase voluntary recruitment? Can technology be used instead of soldiers? Can new alliances be made? In short, is mandatory military service truly the least injurious option? Using benefits to the people as our metric also places war itself in the crosshairs. Some wars, such as repelling invasion, are of uncontroversial public benefits. Other wars — Vietnam, again, is a notable example — seem to be in service of the government but not necessarily its people.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect conscription to have a clear moral justification at all. The historical roots of conscription lay not in ethical analysis, but military expediency. In early 1800s Europe, when European governments had achieved a level of control and centralization to carry out conscription, it simply became a fact of war. This is not to say ethical reflection on the matter is not valuable, nor that it can never be justified, nor that there are not better and worse ways to implement conscription. But is a general moral justification what we should expect?  Or is it more likely that conscription is often just a government tactic in need of a moral fig leaf?

Responding Ethically to the Hawaiian Cat-Astrophe

photograph of feral cats eating cat food on street

In April 2022, Knox, Australia, imposed a world-first “cat curfew” requiring pet cats to be kept on their owners’ premises at all times. The restriction was implemented as a countermeasure to the widespread ecological devastation being caused by domestic cats (who kill around 200 million native Australian animals annually) and their feral offspring (who are estimated to kill an additional 1.4 billion native Australian animals annually). At the time the curfew was instituted, cats were already responsible for the extinction of 25 species of mammal found only in Australia, and posed a further threat to an additional 74 species of mammals, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and four amphibians.

At the time, I argued that the curfew is morally acceptable on both a consequentialist and a rights-based approach to the problem. In addition to the obvious reduction in harm to native species, the policy also benefits cats: protecting them from all kinds of risk factors and – in doing so – drastically increasing their average lifespan with no reduction to their quality of life. Subsequent research showed that cat curfews also protect human families by reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases. Cat curfews have subsequently been widely adopted across Australia.

Hawaii now finds itself dealing with a similar crisis. Hosting more endangered species than any other U.S. state, Hawaii is also home to an estimated half a million cats – a large portion of which are feral. While the exact rate of predation by these cats on native species is unknown, the fact that – on the U.S. mainland – cats account for the deaths of between 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually, is enough to raise a serious concern for native Hawaiian wildlife.

But while predation by domestic cats might be managed by a simple curfew, reducing the harm caused by a feral cat population is much more difficult. This is exacerbated by the fact that some well-meaning Hawaiians routinely provide feral cat colonies with food, water, and medical supplies – even going so far as to build feeding stations. Not only do these actions sustain and encourage the feral cat population, but they also – somewhat catastrophically – attract native animals into the midst of those colonies. Those providing sustenance to these cats (often referred to as “colony managers”) argue that in doing so, they are ensuring the cats are well-fed and thus less likely to prey on native wildlife. There’s little evidence to support this claim, however, with data suggesting that a well-fed free-roaming cat will still kill around 75 animals per year.

Hawaiian authorities have recently begun issuing bans on feeding feral cats. This has led to heated protests, with demonstrators claiming that starving the cats is not a solution to the problem. What, then, might be?

The fact that cat curfews are beneficial to both native species and the cats themselves makes them relatively straightforward to justify. In the context of feral cat populations, however, things are much more complicated. There is no practicable way to restrict the movement of feral cats. The only solution, then, is to remove them entirely. The tricky part is figuring out the most ethical way of doing this. Australia has attempted to respond to their own feral cat crisis by airdropping poison-laced sausages. (No, really.) This can be contrasted with the traditional method of trapping and shooting – which tends to be fairly inefficient over a large area, but can work quite well in a small island context. In comparison to these more direct methods of killing, Hawaii’s policy of merely reducing food availability might seem more palatable. Despite this, however, there’s a very real question over whether a slow starvation is really better than a quick killing.

For some, it might seem counter-intuitive to consider how our conservation efforts affect the feral cats in question. But, given that cats are capable of feeling pain and pleasure – and given that many take this feature to be a morally relevant concern – it seems that we must consider their interests. It might be tempting to dismiss the suffering of feral cats on the mere basis that they are invasive. But there is little moral foundation for this. The very word implies a sort of malice – an intent to enter a biome to which they do not belong and cause harm to those who do belong. But this is entirely inaccurate. The feral cats of Hawaii – like many “invasive” species – have no such ill-intent. They are merely following their biological imperatives in an environment to which humans introduced them.

Perhaps, then, the best way of controlling invasive species is not to eradicate those animals that currently exist, but to prevent the creation of more. This is exactly what we try to do when we engage in a process known as trap, neuter, and release – or TNR. In doing so, we remove the ability of feral cats to breed. A completely effective implementation of TNR (i.e., one in which every cat in the population is spayed or neutered) would see a feral cat population dwindle to zero in the space of a single generation. What’s more, it would minimize the harm caused to these cats, with each allowed to live out the life it otherwise would have had but for human intervention.

Unfortunately, the effective implementation of TNR is notoriously difficult. Anyone who’s tried to coral their own domestic moggy can easily speak to this. What’s more, it requires that we play the long-game – and this isn’t necessarily the best way to minimize the total harm involved. Why? Well, while TNR might create the least suffering for the feral cat population, it continues to allow harm to native wildlife while we wait for the cat population to dwindle – harms that could be avoided if cats were removed via a quicker alternative.

But this is just a specific example of a more general concern that occupies ethical conservation. While the goods to be achieved by eradicating an invasive species might be clear, our moral considerations will often demand that we do this in the way that causes the least harm and suffering to the invasive animals concerned. It’s not entirely clear what this process might look like – which is what makes the crisis in Hawaii such a difficult problem to solve.

Utilitarian Justification for Survivor Cannibalism?

black and white photo of snowy mountains in the clouds

The release of the film Society of the Snow – based on the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 into the Andes mountains – reminds us that sometimes the fantastic lifeboat-type ethical scenarios that philosophers like to discuss are never mere thought experiments. Left with no additional food, the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating the bodies of dead passengers. Cannibalism is almost universally condemned around the world. As anthropologist Beth A. Conklin explains, “Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism, challenging one to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior.” Philosophers like to discuss such cases because different moral theories can give different answers, so let’s consider the coherency of the utilitarian response to this case.

On October 13, 1972 the flight left Uruguay for Chile with 45 passengers and crew on board. The plane crashed into the Andes mountains, killing twelve immediately with several more deaths afterwards. The survivors were exposed to frigid temperatures, avalanches, and starvation. Once what little food they had was eaten, the survivors resorted to survival by eating the bodies of passengers and crew who had passed away. Eventually, two of the survivors Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa hiked for ten days into Chile to find help and the remaining sixteen survivors were rescued. Despite the fact that they were all extremely reluctant to eat their fellow passengers (some especially so), they became convinced that it was the only way to survive. However, they initially were not forthcoming with the details of how they survived until word got to the press about what had happened.

The question to consider is whether the passengers did anything wrong by surviving in this way. Many passengers were Catholic and were worried for their souls. Kantian deontology would likely condemn any such a practice as a violation of the humanity principle – treating another as a means to an end. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, seems far more eager to consider the finer points of such cases without issuing a blanket ban. According to Mill’s utility principle, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to increase happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” On which end of the spectrum do the survivors’ actions fall?

It might seem like a straightforward answer. The survivors felt pain to have to resort to cannibalism, but probably nothing like the pain of starvation. Also, by eating the bodies of dead people, the survivors were able to live and survive, thus, presumably, creating greater happiness than the alternative being that they would all perish. Another important point was that no one needed to sacrifice their life for the others; the people who were eaten were dead and thus could feel no pain or pleasure. Thus, by sustaining their own lives the survivors satisfied the greatest happiness principle and were morally justified in their actions. Perhaps as a comfort (probably more a worry) we might think that even if there were a lack of bodies and some of the survivors needed to sacrifice their own life for the lives of others, that this too would be permitted since it would have created the most pleasure at the least cost of pain.

However, this is a bit too narrow of a way to consider this case, for we are asked to consider what will generate the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. What about the families of those who were eaten and everyone else on the planet who might have been revolted at what took place? If we consider their utility and the potential pain they might experience from hearing their loved ones were eaten, would that be enough to tip the scales? We would also need to consider the families of the survivors and the pleasure they would experience; also, the public at large who was initially horrified. If the public’s reaction to an incident like this was broadly negative, does this mean that the survivors would have to sacrifice their lives by starving for the greater good of the public back home?

According to Mill, “the thoughts of the virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned,” for,

The occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do on an extended scale, or in other words, to be a public benefactor, are all but exceptional…. in every other case, private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to.

In other words, Mill tells us that we do not need to consider broader public utility beyond the local people involved in a situation unless there is concern that there is a violation of rights.

Does the public have a right to be free of cannibals? Did the survivors violate the rights of the family in eating their loved ones? Typically, something like this would be a violation of the law, but is this equivalent to a violation of a right? No one was prosecuted for violating the law. Perhaps the right is a more informal expectation that, as a general rule, condoning cannibalism works against the collective good – just as lying simply for expediency’s sake cannot be justified since it works to undermine overall human trust.

But is there really no reasonable room to say that an exception should be made in such an unusual case? Certainly Mill is willing to make exceptions to the general prohibition against lying in cases where withholding the fact would save an individual great evil and there are no other means. Likewise the survivors were saved from a great evil and only by engaging in a practice both they and most others morally reject. But does this mean that such an exception is justified in the manner that Mill suggests? The question now becomes whether a greater utility is preserved by carving out an exception to the practice of cannibalism in this particular case or whether such an exception runs afoul of other significant utilities we wish to preserve. This is a complicated value judgment, not far perhaps from where we began. Mill remains adamant that,

if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates.

But that remains a contentious process. Is our inability to land on a definitive judgment a failure of the moral theory or a testament to the thorniness of this particular case? Moral theories can be helpful in framing the issue and thinking critically about what we value, but they may not be as action guiding as they sometimes appear to be on the surface. Especially when it comes to hypotheticals come to life.

The Lengths to Which We Go: Part 2

Hozier’s Unreal Unearth, is, in addition to being one of the best albums of 2023, is a wonderful exploration of love, morality, and the contradictions inherent in how we think about them. In Part 1, we discussed the album’s fourth song, Francesca, and the moving narrative of unconditional love which it represents: love unreservedly, unapologetically, with abandon, at whatever cost. This narrative has power, I argued, because it represents something salient to the way we think about love: we find stories of love without limit — like those of Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose, and Francesca and Paolo — deeply romantic. But Hozier does not leave the story as is; later in the album, he presents us with a different picture, one which challenges that romantic picture and flips it on its head. He draws out a contradictory set of emotions which poses a different question: is there a length to which we shouldn’t go for love?

*   *   *

The sixth song of Unreal Unearth is not a love song. In fact, it’s about as far from one as it could be. The soaring vocals of Francesca have been replaced with something more sinister, a change in theme evident in the track’s title: Eat Your Young.

The symbolism of Eat Your Young is not as clear as Francesca, but its overall themes are apparent, especially when its music video and Hozier’s own analysis of the lyrics are taken into account: Eat Your Young is a song about gluttony, greed, and war. The first verse begins:

I’m starvin’, darlin’

Let me put my lips to somethin’

Let me wrap my teeth around the world

Start carvin’, darlin’

Hozier himself describes these lyrics as “potentially lustful,” but notes that “the lyrics so grotesque, in a way, that there’s a dark humor to them as well” — drawing an interesting contrast with the portrayal of lust in Francesca. But the lyrics, sung by the singer to a lover, take on that substantially darker tone in the chorus:

Pull up the ladder when the flood comes

Throw enough rope until the legs have swung

Seven new ways that you can eat your young

Come and get some

Skinnin’ the children for a war drum

Puttin’ food on the table, sellin’ bombs and guns

It’s quicker and easier to eat your young

There’s much to be said about these lyrics. Perhaps we can take the lyrics more literally, and focus on the theme of greed: an elite class literally pulling up the ladder behind them, and throwing just enough rope to hang oneself with. Perhaps we can also understand the lyrics in a more metaphorical way, centering on the theme of war and the heavy cost which we — and our children — pay for the violence we bring to the world. But I, personally, find it interesting that the song’s message is situated in the context of a relationship: the singer and his unnamed “darlin’.” We can also, then, take these lyrics as a commentary on relationships, on love, and how both can drive us to dark places.

The lyric which encapsulates this theme, I believe, is last line of the final couplet: “Puttin’ food on the table, sellin’ bombs and guns.” This lyric, in and of itself, poses ethical questions; but in the broader context of a relationship, the picture it paints is slightly different, and contrasts with that which we find in Francesca. In any relationship, and especially in love relationships, we have certain obligations: depending on our role, we may have obligations to care, to protect, to provide, among many others. And while Francesca describes a love which is beautiful in its reckless abandon, Eat Your Young asks: what length would you go to fulfill those obligations? Would you bear any cost, as Francesca did? Or is there a line — some moral limit which you would not cross, even if it meant those obligations went unfulfilled?

In Eat Your Young, Hozier seems to be arguing that there is such a line; hence the final line of the stanza: “It’s quicker and easier to eat your young.” This final couplet directly states the challenge: would you sell bombs and guns, weapons of war which will almost certainly be used to oppress and kill innocents, to provide for your family? Maybe you would in extreme need — but would you do it to send your kids to college? To buy your partner the house they’ve always wanted?

To what extent are you willing to do wrong for love?

I will not, and perhaps cannot, give an answer to such a question here — it is a question about your values, your relationships. But it is a question which we must sit with, especially if we are to understand the philosophical tension between a song like Francesca and a song like Eat Your Young; and it is a question which we should take seriously. Perhaps the most typical examples are not quite as dramatic as those which Hozier imagines, but life does present us with choices which walk this tightrope between love and morality. Lying to protect a loved one, for example, or stealing to provide for them.

Perhaps, when you reflect on these questions, you find a tension in yourself between doing what love motivates and doing what you believe is right. I feel it too. Unreal Unearth, like much of the art which resonates with us the most, represents the human condition as it is: a mess of contradictions, full of feelings without clear sources and intuitions without clear reasons. The complex relationship between human love and human morality is no different, with contradictions which we, if we seek to love fully and be virtuous, must understand. Unreal Unearth’s success as an album, beyond its beautiful music and wonderful lyricism, lies in revealing these contradictions to us, especially as they manifest in our own lives, and our own relationships.

The Lengths to Which We Go: Part 1

Andrew John Hozier-Byrne — better known by the stage name Hozier — released his third studio album, Unreal Unearth, in August of last year. Since its release, the album has met critical acclaim, garnering celebratory reviews and a spot among the Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of the year.

If you haven’t had the chance, I’d highly recommend taking a listen: it’s Hozier’s lyrical folklore in its most refined form, and if you’ve been a fan of Hozier since Take me to Church first broke into the cultural zeitgeist a decade ago, you’ll find yourself immediately at home. But, if you listen closely, Unreal Unearth also challenges us; it presents emotions and philosophies in contradiction with one-another, drawing out the contradictions in our understanding of love, sacrifice, and morality. Unreal Unearth is an incredibly rich case study on the lengths to which we’ll go for the people that we love.

*   *   *

The fourth song of the album, Francesca, presents us with the first face of the coin.

The song is firmly based in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: the famous descent through hell’s nine circles. In the Comedy’s fifth canto, Dante descends to the second circle of hell, which is reserved for the so-called “carnal sinners:” those who were overcome by lust in their corporeal life. Dante tells us that the second circle is “mute of all light,” and dominated by a “infernal hurricane that never rests.” The souls of the damned are to be found in the whipping winds of the hurricane; for their tempestuous sin, Dante tells us that the souls are swept up and battered by the hurricane, never to find peace or rest for eternity. Here, Dante sees the souls of many historical figures known to us today: he sees Achilles, Paris, Dido, Cleopatra. But as he surveys the souls, he sees two which are intertwined, who “seem upon the wind to be so light,” and calls out to them.

The first to speak is the soul of Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman from northern Italy and contemporary of Dante. Though the historical record is sparse, we believe that young Francesca had been married to one Giovanni Malatesta as part of a political deal: her family and Giovanni’s both aspired to political power, and the competing dynasties aligned themselves through Giovanni and Francesca’s marriage. Francesca, however, would soon fall in love not with Giovanni, but with his younger brother Paolo; and when Giovanni discovered their affair, he murdered both his wife and his brother. One commentator, writing some forty years after their death, dramatized it as such: “he found them while sinning, took a sword and pierced them at the same time in such a way that locked together in one embrace they die.”

What is remarkable about Dante’s telling of Francesca’s story is the sympathy with which she is portrayed, especially when compared with the many other damned souls which Dante encounters on his descent. Francesca tells her story unapologetically, with command; and Dante, upon hearing it through the winds of hurricane, is overcome with sadness. He writes: “and all the while one spirit uttered this, the other one did weep so, that, for pity, I swooned away as if I had been dying, and fell, even as a dead body falls.”

It is this story, this Francesca, which Hozier draws upon in the fourth song of Unreal Unearth. Hozier continues on the path that Dante laid, giving a similarly unapologetic voice to Francesca and Paolo:

Now that it’s done

There’s not one thing that I would change

My life was a storm, since I was born

How could I fear any hurricane?”

Hozier’s thesis, though, is most apparent in the song’s chorus, sung over a driving drum set and guitar:

“If someone asked me at the end

I’ll tell them put me back in it

Darling, I would do it again

If I could hold you for a minute

Darling, I’d go through it again.”

Francesca, here, is imagined as not only unrepentant, but defiant of the punishment which Dante imagined for her and her lover. The hurricane is no tempest; and if given the choice to love again, even knowing the cost which would be paid and the eternity which awaited them, Francesca would whole-heartedly embrace the chance. For Paolo, there is no length to which Francesca wouldn’t go.

Francesca de Rimini’s story, as told by Dante and retold by Hozier, is moving: it is a love story which, in the defiance and commitment which it expresses, shows Francesca as both heroine and tragic victim. Part of the emotional power of the story and song, I believe, is how they capture a powerful part of how we understand love, whether romantic or platonic. Francesca loves in the way we might want someone to love us: unreservedly, unapologetically, with abandon, at whatever cost, in full embrace of whatever consequence, even those eternal. It is this sort of unconditional love which is our cultural and emotional ideal; it is reflected in our wedding vows (“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”), in our literature (Jane Eyre and Romeo and Juliet), in our films (Titanic, The Notebook). Love, when it takes a form where no distance or length is too great, resonates with us in a deep way.

But Francesca’s story, alongside many of the stories which investigate this form of unconditional love, show a form of duality. While we find the idea of a love for which no length is too far romantic, or even an ideal, there are some distances which still give us pause. Some might judge Francesca’s story in this way: perhaps you find the idea of an adulterous affair, however loveless the marriage, unethical. I will not come down on this question here (though I would argue strongly for one answer); I merely wish to illuminate one side of our cultural understanding of unconditional love. That which, as many find in Francesca de Rimini’s story, is hopeful, inspiring, and reflects what we might want in love.

Hozier, however, does not leave this theme with the ending of Francesca. He poses to us, later in Unreal Unearth, a question: is there a length to which we shouldn’t go?

*   *   *

Francesca’s final chorus does not fade, but builds over its guitar to a key change, where all of the track’s energy in the drum set is moved to thundering downbeats on the base drum and crashing cymbals. The voices of Hozier and his accompanying vocalists split and overlap, coalescing into a shout chorus which invokes both the image and sound of a divine host; the electric guitar sustains on a frantic vibrato bar, mimicking the winds in which Francesca and Paolo were both damned and united for eternity. Under Hozier’s soaring vocals, his accompaniment sings:

“Heaven is not fit to house a love

Like you and I.”

Why Be Productive?

image of businessman with four full arms running

Whenever I go online, I am inundated with productivity advice. It may be because it’s still the early days of a new year, and with a new year comes a fresh market for those who made resolutions to get more done. Or it may be that the algorithms serving me content have learned that I can’t help but hate-read articles with titles like “Nine CEOs reveal their favorite productivity hacks” and thus shovel more and more productivity articles onto my various feeds, greedy for my clicks and indifferent to my disdain.

Productivity advice is also simply popular. The New York Times best sellers list, for example, consistently features books aimed at enhancing your productivity. Atomic Habits has, at the time of writing, been on the list for 216 weeks; Adam Grant, the author of Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things has sold “millions of copies” of his various productivity/self-help-for-the-LinkedIn-crowd books; and my now-polluted news feeds tell me I absolutely must check out Feel Good Productivity, which challenges the idea that productivity is all about toil and sacrifice, and dares to ask: “But what if there’s another way?”

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be more productive. But the productivity industry thrives on feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in a system that is constantly demanding more of people. It’s worth asking: what are the potential ethical concerns with productivity advice, and why should we care about being more productive in the first place?

Productivity advice can come in different forms. Some give you practical tips to get more done during the day, with suggestions for specific tools or ways of blocking off your time. Others tell you to get rid of the things that are distracting you; social media and screen time being common scapegoats. Others still focus on your motivation or mindset, or get you to develop systematic ways of thinking and approaching your problems.

Regardless of the type of advice, the common denominator of your productivity failures is you. Despite consistent trends of people feeling increasingly under pressure, stressed, and burnt out amid an uncertain economic climate, the source that is consistently identified as being the cause of lackluster productivity is not an overly demanding system, but a lacking on the part of the individual.

We might think that the very last thing that people need right now are suggestions about how to get even more done when they feel like the demands they already face are overwhelming. The productivity industry, however, does not question the expectations one faces to be productive but takes for granted that any failure to meet those expectations is personal.

Of course, one might want to find ways of being more productive precisely because the demands of work and life are getting in the way of other important, non-work-related projects one wants to accomplish. If that’s the case then the abovementioned best sellers will have plenty of solutions for your productivity woes.

But the productivity industry cannot sustain itself by producing contented individuals who are able to achieve their goals. Instead, it thrives on the insecurities and anxieties of those who feel pressure to do more, and helps to reinforce those anxieties by providing ill-supported and inconsistent advice.

Consider a recent trend in the productivity sphere: the realization that simply pushing yourself more to try to get as much done is ultimately counterproductive, and that you need to take breaks every so often (so that you can be more productive later). So I might wonder: is it okay for my productivity if I play video games every once in a while? According to Feel Good Productivity, sure, it’s something you can do if the day is a write-off, and not something to beat yourself up about; according to Atomic Habits, it’s a waste of time, something to distract you from developing better habits; according to Hidden Potential, playing a video game like Tetris can be beneficial in that doing so can help you process trauma better.

That different productivity guides classify the same act as sometimes bad, sometimes neutral, and sometimes actively therapeutic is indicative of the shaky and inconsistent grounds of the productivity industry (in this example: somewhat insipid common sense, personal anecdotes, and curated scientific studies, respectively). While many of the best-sellers will claim to be backed up “by science,” it’s clear that there’s no rigorous standard that any of these authors is being held to. In practice that means you either need to adhere to one system, or else be paralyzed with the knowledge that no matter what you’re doing to try to be more productive you are most likely, according to one or more of these guides, doing the wrong thing.

Another common thread that runs through a lot of the contemporary productivity industry is that you are much less likely to get something done if you do not, in some way, want to do it. This insight is the basis of Feel Good Productivity, which states that the first step in being more productive is feeling good, which in turn leads to reducing stress, giving you more energy, and then, of course, producing more. Hidden Potential makes the same claim: one needs to turn “I have to” into “I want to” in order to hit the relevant metrics one hopes to achieve. Simply buckling down and grinding out hours isn’t going to help, these authors claim: you need to allow yourself the opportunity to explore, play, and have fun to become more productive.

This advice might sound somewhat benign, but there are at least two reasons to be skeptical of its value.

The first is that the system that has created the productivity advice industry inhibits your ability to follow that advice. It would of course be nice to have the space to be able to explore, play, and have fun when trying to build up motivation and accomplish one’s tasks, but performance pressure that is present in many industries, along with demands that allow for less detachment from our work and increasing feelings of shame for not staying connected does not provide the conditions necessary for good-feelings-based productivity. While one’s mileage will certainly vary when it comes to the demands one faces in day-to-day life, that productivity advice is so ubiquitous is reflective of a system that demands more from us, not one that allows us to take our time and enjoy ourselves.

Second is the notion that “feeling good” should be put to use. While it’s likely true that, on average, people can get more done if they’re feeling happy as opposed to, say, stressed and miserable, feeling good presumably ought to be the end of one’s actions, not the means to simply do more.

The question as to why one should be more productive in the first place is not one that I ever recall seeing in any productivity guide. But it is a question worth asking before trying to become someone who tries to get more done when, chances are, the demands you face are already high enough.

Why Care About Economic Inequality?

photograph of skyscrapers behind a favela

Imagine a society where everyone is economically flourishing. Beyond the basic goods required for subsistence, individuals have access to a host of luxury goods and services as well. Opportunities currently only afforded to the upper middle class or wealthy, such as world travel, home ownership, and access to cutting-edge medical care, are accessible to all within this imaginary society. Despite this, there remains radical economic inequality. The top one percent of society’s earners have exponentially more financial resources than the rest of the population. However, the only material difference that results from this inequality is the capacity to own a multitude of vacation homes instead of one, the ability to space travel instead of merely to travel around the globe, and the ability to pass down greater amounts of wealth to one’s descendants.

For the purposes of this article, the salient point is not whether such a society is an actual economic possibility, but whether the kind of economic inequality present in this society constitutes an injustice. What gives many reason to suspect something has gone morally awry in societies with massive economic disparity is the suffering of the lower classes, including the inability of many to meet basic needs. It’s at least plausible that a society where everyone can fulfill both their basic needs as well as many of their wants, can tolerate significant disparity between the economically worst off and the best off without threatening any injustice.

Thus, let’s grant for the sake of argument that economic inequality, even radical inequality, is not intrinsically unjust. This simply means that a disproportionate economic distribution amongst individuals can be just. Do we still have reason to care about large-scale inequality, even in cases where the overall economic distribution is just? This article outlines a few reasons why we might still have strong reason to avoid severe economic inequality.

One such reason concerns the psychological impacts of economic inequality. Studies have shown that as the disparity between the top 1% and the rest of the population grows, there is also an increase in negative emotional experiences across the population. Additionally, the average person’s self-reported life satisfaction tends to decline in response to growing inequality. There are, of course, immense complications when trying to draw causal inferences at this scale. For instance, one outstanding theoretical question is whether it’s actual economic inequality that generates negative psychological consequences, or rather the mere perception of inequality that does this. Despite these kinds of ambiguities in the data, there remains significant evidence suggesting severe economic inequality comes with certain psychological and emotional costs that are worth further evaluation.

Another non-justice-based reason to care about economic inequality is due to its linkage with social trust. One way of glossing the notion of social trust is to say it involves the propensity of individuals to assume basically good intentions in other people, groups, and societal institutions. Social trust is an invaluable resource for political communities, as it engenders a number of benefits, including the promotion of governmental efficiency and improvements to public health. The very notion of democratic liberalism is at least partially constructed on the possibility of social trust amongst very diverse groups of people.

There is some evidence pointing to economic inequality as a detriment to social trust. At least within the context of the United States, there is particularly strong evidence that economic inequality causes those with less education and/or those who fall within the bottom third of earners to experience less social trust. Others cast doubt on this conclusion, arguing for a merely correlative relationship between rising inequality and declining social trust. For instance, perhaps it’s not inequality itself causing the decline in social trust, but it’s the fact that stark economic inequality frequently coexists with higher levels of governmental/legal corruption. This corruption causes a drop in social trust, which we then misattribute to inequality — or so the thought goes. As with the discussion of the psychological ramifications of inequality, drawing definitive causal connections between these kinds of metrics is complex, but there is at least some compelling evidence that rampant economic inequality and social trust are at odds.

Another reason one might object to extreme levels of economic inequality is due to its potential impacts on the very long-term future. This line of objection is a bit more philosophically dense than the previous two we’ve examined, but the basic thought goes something like this: The negative impacts of economic inequality might compound with time, resulting in an increase in certain existential risks. Such risks are those severe enough to threaten the continuation of humanity, including environmental disasters, global warfare, and the misapplication of AI.

To paint a clearer picture of how inequality might increase certain existential risks, we can consider a concrete example. There is some evidence suggesting that increases in inequality cause decreases in the quality of public institutions (e.g., institutions of higher education, governmental agencies, etc.). Such institutions are plausibly highly important in preventing certain existential risks, and thus we have strong reason to care about their quality. This gives us an indirect reason to prevent radical economic inequality. If the trend towards increasing inequality continues in particular societies, it is reasonable to think the damage done to institutions will only continue to aggregate, putting us at greater existential risk.

Whether or not radical economic inequality is intrinsically unjust, it seems we have significant reasons to care about it. Importantly, there may still be countervailing reasons to tolerate stark economic disparity (considerations of economic freedom, overall economic growth, national productivity, etc.). Thus, it is imperative that policy makers weigh the full array of pros and cons when it comes to permitting widespread economic inequality.