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On Ye and Edgelords

Vultures 1, released by ¥$ (a collaboration between Ye – née Kanye West – and Ty Dollar $ign) has been met with many different reactions, ranging from criticism to acclaim, and from cautious optimism that Ye is “back” in some way, to skepticism that he will ever produce good music again. The release of the album, however, has been overshadowed by Ye’s behavior: prior to the release of Vultures 1, Ye had long been making antisemitic remarks in interviews and spouting hate speech on social media, comments which have cost him endorsements and more than a few fans. At the same time, Vultures 1 has done well commercially, if not critically, with one track reaching the top spot on the Billboard 200, the first time for Ye in 13 years.

The critical reviews have focused both on the music and the surrounding controversies. One of the most notable came from popular YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano, who called the album “completely unreviewable trash.” “Unreviewable” because, according to Fantano, defenders of Ye’s music are not open to listening to any form of criticism, as they consist of those who agree with Ye’s hateful messages, “nihilistic teenagers” who are entertained by the controversy, and those who are too obsessed with Ye to be clear-headed.

While Fantano’s review is noteworthy for its bite, many other outlets have also been critical, and in similar ways:

“On the album closer, ‘King,’ he raps about being called ‘crazy, bipolar, antisemite,’ then puffs out his chest: ‘I’m still the king.’ King of who? Middle-school edgelords?” – The Washington Post

“Kanye West & Ty Dolla $ign: Vultures 1 review – weak lyrics from a witless edgelord” – The Guardian

“West is at best musically compelling, and at worst—more often than not—a wanton edgelord, intent on saying some of the foulest things imaginable.” – Variety

Much of the criticism has to do with the lyrics on Vultures 1, with many critics claiming that they contain the same kind of hate speech that Ye has been making for years, delivered with seemingly no concern for the consequences. Hence the verdict: Ye is an edgelord.

But what is an “edgelord” anyway, and should we think of Ye as one?

According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an “edgelord” is “someone who makes wildly dark and exaggerated statements (as on an internet forum) with the intent of shocking others.” It is very much a concept born from the internet, a place where anonymity allows people to act in ways that they might not normally otherwise. You have no doubt come across people who qualify as edgelords, at least to some degree: they can be found in abundance in some of the internet’s seedier corners such as 4chan, as well as its more mainstream areas, like comment sections, Reddit or Twitter/X.

While Ye has made his share of exaggerated and shocking statements online, there’s no reason to restrict evaluations of edgelordiness to his social media presence. For example, on his latest #1 track off of Vultures 1, Ye compares himself to a who’s-who of problematic celebrities, including Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and P. Diddy, and adds an extra shout-out to Chris Brown for good measure. Does this qualify as edgelord behavior? According to the dictionary definition, Ye does seem to be making “wildly dark and exaggerated statements” and, given the respective histories of the men Ye is comparing himself to, he does seem to be intending to shock his listeners.

But I think there is a missing component to the dictionary definition, which is that an edgelord’s speech need not be an expression of beliefs they actually hold. The primary intent of the edgelord is provocation, not the expression of something they legitimately think is true. While the expression of belief invites engagement and the sharing of reasons, edgelords merely want to cause a reaction, be it outrage, disgust, or even legitimate attempts to show why their views are wrong; any such reaction achieves their goal.

Since edgelords make statements solely with the intent to cause a reaction, their actions are not as bad as those who believe what they are saying. Put another way: an expression of a hateful statement is worse if it is an expression of a sincere belief than if it is made merely to provoke. This is not to relieve the edgelord of all moral responsibility: the disingenuous expression of intentionally extreme, exaggerated hateful statements is clearly reprehensible. But whereas the appropriate response to the expression of a sincere and hateful belief is to challenge it, the appropriate response to the edgelord is to ignore them. Hence, we do not, I argue, hold the edgelord as responsible for their actions as we would someone who was expressing a sincere belief with the same content.

Consider, for example, two tweets: both contain the same words, and both are generally considered to be hateful and extreme. In one case, the tweet is made by an edgelord, whose intent is to rile up others and see how much attention they can get. In the other, the tweet is made by a person who legitimately believes what they are tweeting, and attempts to engage others in discussion, however wrongheaded. Both are doing something wrong, but arguably the person who is sincere is worse. For instance, once the edgelord’s intentions are discovered, they are dismissed: they are rightly deemed immature, arrogant, and not worth anyone’s time. But the person who is expressing themselves sincerely is reprehensible, a holder of truly awful beliefs.

The concept of an edgelord, of course, does not have solid boundaries. For example, there are cases of edgelord behavior in which one will make an intentionally provocative statement that is an exaggerated version of a less-extreme belief they sincerely hold. In these cases, it can be difficult to determine how we should react. The extent to which one is morally responsible for their edgelord behavior is also dependent upon other variables: for example, the immature teenager who understands which words are provocative but is unable to appreciate the harms they cause is, perhaps, less responsible than the fully-grown adult who should really know better (although again, the teenager still deserves criticism).

Regardless of the murkiness of the concept, we can now return to our initial question: is Ye an edgelord? I think there is reason to think he isn’t. This is because, given his behavior, Ye’s statements, lyrics, and other actions do seem to be expressions of beliefs he actually holds. This is both in terms of his expressions of antisemitism, but also in his comparisons to controversial figures: he does legitimately see himself among these figures, either akin or superior to them in the sense of being “uncancellable.”

Ye is clearly trying to be shocking, and if that was the extent of his actions one may well have reason enough to condemn his music as that of an edgelord. But Ye qualifies as something worse: someone who intends to shock, but also means a lot of what he says.

The Unique Harm of Bramhall’s Liver Branding

photograph of surgeon in operating room putting on gloves

In 2013, Simon Bramhall, a surgeon at the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, performed a life-saving liver transplant on Patient A. Despite the surgery being a success, a few days later, the liver started failing. So, roughly a week after receiving their first liver, Patient A was back in the operating room for their second transplant, this time under the care of another surgeon. But, when this second surgeon opened up Patient A, they found something remarkable. Burned into the liver’s surface – the one that Simon Bramhall had implanted only a few days before – were two four-centimeter letters: “SB.”

Eventually, after some delay, equivocation, and the sharing of photos, it emerged that, yes, during the first operation, Bramhall had used an argon beam – used for cauterization – to sign the liver after he had transplanted it into Patient A. According to a nurse who had been present at the first surgery, when asked what he was doing, Bramhall said, “I do this.” He has since said he doesn’t recall saying this or that he must have been referencing something else if he did.

Bramhall’s rebuttal, however, is suspect. Not long after news of Bramhall’s actions emerged, a consultant anesthetist came forward and claimed that Bramhall signed his initials on another patient’s liver during a 2013 surgery, known as Patient B. Bramhall claims not to recall doing this.

Despite these revelations, Bramhall didn’t lose his job, at least not immediately. He left Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham of his own accord, feeling that he was no longer welcome there, and continued to practice surgery at another institute until 2020; this is despite his 2017 admission of two counts of assault by beating concerning the liver brandings. Eventually, in 2022, the General Medical Council struck him off the medical register, arguing that his actions had undermined public trust in the medical profession.

Now, this case raises a whole host of questions, from the practical: Why did Bramhall feel the need to do this and has he done this to anyone else? to the ethical and legal: Why didn’t his colleagues immediately raise the alarm and why did it take so long for him to be charged and struck off once they did?

What I want to focus on here is not that he marked the liver unnecessarily but that he did so with a particular vision in mind. He didn’t do a squiggle, a circle, a smiley face, or something meaningless, but he used the argon beam to burn his initials into Patient A’s liver. Does this make a difference? Is it, in some sense, more harmful than if he had done another shape? Or some random letters?

First, it must be noted that the argon beam is commonly used during operation to stop bleeding, so its presence is not unusual. Also, the mark it makes is very shallow, with the beam only penetrating micrometers into the tissue. So, the amount of damage is limited. Finally, tissue can be used as a medium to test the beam’s effectiveness, meaning that the fact that the liver wasn’t pristine when Bramhall closed up Patient A isn’t an intrinsic concern.

This latter point is something which has been raised in Bramhall’s defense with Barbara Moss, a patient of Bramhall and now his co-author (they write thrillers together), arguing that:

He’s got to test the laser on the liver before he can use it – it’s a routine process. If I’m trying out a pen, I might as well just put my initial, because I can do that very quickly. The fact that he did it in a particular shape makes no difference.  

This argument seems slightly odd given that, as another surgeon has noted, such tests normally consist of a couple of dots or a small wiggle, which happens before bleeding occurs, not after as, obviously, you’d test the laser before you have need of it. However, Moss’s argument got me thinking: does the shape matter?

One could make a case for the negative. Whether it’s someone’s initials, a circle, or a couple of dots, the damage done to the liver itself is minimal at most. Any mark is confined to the organ’s surface and doesn’t impact functioning. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Patient A’s replacement liver failing, the liver may have never been seen again, and they would have never known about the mark’s existence. So, from a rather restrictive point of view, if one is concerned with the potential for physical harm that Bramhall’s actions might have caused, then it seems that it doesn’t matter what shape he etched into the organ as any shape would have the same impact – nothing at all.

However, this would indeed be a very limited conceptualization of harm. It is now common for us to understand harm not only in a purely physical sense (getting hit with a hammer, being run over by a car) but also in a mental and cognitive sense (seeing someone get hit with a hammer, accidentally running someone over with a car). This understanding of harm emerged and became a central factor in Bramhall’s trial as, after seeing images of their branded organ, Patient A began experiencing symptoms of PTSD. This instigating factor led the Criminal Prosecution Service to charge Bramhall in the first place. It was not what he had done to the liver but what his actions had done to Patient A that mattered. So, with a broader understanding of harm, it can become easy to see how Bramhall’s actions might be considered uniquely wrong.

Yet, I am unconvinced that this gets to the nub of the issue. The idea of someone branding their initials into your internal organs is unquestionably horrifying, and I do not doubt that this could lead to PTSD, but I don’t think this fully captures the uniqueness of Bramhall’s offense. The fact that, above all other options, he chose to brand his initials into Patient A means there is something horrifyingly unique, even personable, in his actions.

To illustrate this, imagine that, to relieve the stress, two surgeons play a game of noughts and crosses (aka tic-tac-toe) on a patient’s liver, branding the game into the organ with an argon beam much like Bramhall did his initials. It’s not unreasonable to think that, upon finding out that their innards would forever carry the remnants of such a game, they would experience similar distress and symptoms as Patient A (for context, Bramhall says he knows someone who has done this very thing). The game’s presence would represent the reckless attitude such surgeons would have towards their patients and their jobs. Indeed, it would have to be someone holding an awfully cavalier attitude toward their profession to even consider such a thing. Yet, this lacks a certain degree at the core of the Bramhall case: the unabashed egotistical arrogance.

This is not to say that a surgeon who played a child’s game in the tissue of a patient’s organ wouldn’t have this critical flaw – I’m almost certain they would. Nevertheless, the imprinting of the game itself would be separate, to some degree, from the person playing it. It could have been anyone doing that. Bramhall’s initials, however, are an entirely different story. They are tied to him in a very personable way. And, yes, anyone could have put the letters SB into the patient, but someone with those initials did. If the liver hadn’t been rejected, Patient A would have spent the rest of their life walking around with a mark that intimately tied them to Bramhall; not an ambiguous game of noughts and crosses, but one of the very things that Bramhall uses to self-identify.

To emphasize this point further, imagine he branded his entire name into Patient A’s liver. The more personable and unique the mark signifying Bramhall’s actions, the worse it is (at least, that’s how it seems to me).

I suspect we will never really know why Bramhall did what he did (at least twice). He’s claimed that extreme stress led him to make the markings, but I find this doubtful. He has said that he thinks the backlash and subsequent punishment he’s received was over the top and that the GMC sought to make an example out of him. To use him as a way of warning other reckless medical professionals. This might be true. But, given the extreme power doctors hold over us – especially surgeons, who violate our bodies with our permission and are responsible for us when we are at our most vulnerable – might the example be worth making? Is it not better to make an example out of someone who did something terrible, than slap them on the wrists and potentially encourage such behavior in others?

It costs millions of pounds to train a surgeon of Bramhall’s caliber, and if nothing else, he was reportedly a technically sound surgeon. But if the cost of protecting the medical profession is his removal from it, the subsequent loss of his expertise, and all the time spent cultivating his skill, then it strikes me as a price worth paying.

I want to have faith that those who care for me will do just that, and this is fundamentally compromised if I must worry about those professionals using my flesh as an Etch A Sketch when I’m under the knife.

The SAT and the Limitations of Discrimination

In 2020, at the height of America’s pandemic-fueled racial reckoning, numerous colleges and universities dropped standardized tests as an admission requirement. No mere PR move, such action was supported by influential anti-racist activists such as Ibrahim Kendi, who declared, “Standardized tests have become the most effective weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools.” Racial gaps in SAT scores persist to the present. Yet, in the past several weeks multiple prominent universities, including Brown, Dartmouth, Yale, and UT Austin, have reinstated standardized testing as an admission requirement. Their reasoning — combating inequality.

The schools argue that careful use of standardized testing, in concert with other factors, can help to identify promising applicants who would otherwise be overlooked. Recent research has also affirmed that standardized test scores are predictive of performance, especially at highly selective universities. Moreover, standardized tests seem to be less biased than other more impressionistic aspects of the college admissions process like letters of recommendations and essays.

But all this does not necessarily vindicate the SAT. It can still be biased, even if less biased. And one can still find standardized testing too narrow an evaluative tool, even if acknowledging that more holistic methods or lottery-based approaches to admission have their own problems. However, the saga also reveals the very different ways we choose to measure and explain “inequality” in the first place.

One approach is to focus on discrimination. If one is committed to the belief that racial disparities are generally caused by discrimination, then the racial gap in test scores becomes evidence of that discrimination, and the tests emerge as the problem. Standardized testing reflects societal biases.

But racial inequality in America isn’t merely a matter of differential treatment; it is also a product of differential resources. Home ownership rates, family income, wealth, school funding, exposure to environmental toxinsall vary by race. If we believe these structural features impact standardized testing (and we should), our perception shifts from focusing exclusively on discrimination to a wider view of how resource inequality also shapes the picture. What follows from this shift in focus?

First, it requires us to admit the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap as measured by standardized tests at least partly reflects a real gap in the abilities those tests measure. This certainly does not imply these gaps are innate, nor that discrimination is not real, nor that standardized tests are the best measure of societal value. The concern is that by the time someone is taking the SAT at 16, harms from poverty, deprivation, and inequality have already accrued. Some of these harms, such as a lack of access to nutritional food or a lack of knowledge about test taking, can be addressed fairly easily. Other harms, for example exposure to allergens or environmental toxins, such as lead due to substandard housing, may cause lifelong negative effects.

It might be objected that while the gap in abilities measured by standardized tests is real, the abilities themselves are rather artificial — that these tests measure test taking and nothing more. Historically, the SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, with the implication it measured something like innate potential. In the 90s, it was rebranded to replace Aptitude with Assessment (it is now simply SAT). The question of what precisely standardized tests are measuring is complicated and controversial. However, the fear from a resource inequality perspective is that if differences are truly deep and structural with far reaching implications, then we should expect to find these differences emerge across many kinds of evaluation. This is a statistical claim about the overall effect of inequality. It does not imply that childhood environment is destiny or that there cannot also be benefits, to mentality, insight, or what have you, from a less privileged upbringing.

Second, resource inequality highlights a tension between two different missions of education. On the one hand, higher education, especially elite education, is a means of meritocratic selection, picking out those currently succeeding in K-12 American educational institutions and providing them additional opportunities and resources. On the other hand, education is a means of social uplift, by which people can allegedly transcend difficult circumstances and build a better life for themselves. But what if meritocratic means of selection themselves reflect and reinforce difficult circumstances? In fact, if resource inequality is causing a real effect, then we should expect a standardized test – even one with no discrimination whatsoever – to perfectly recapitulate an unequal society. If education is to be ameliorative of inequality, then institutions of higher education must accept different ability (at least at the time of evaluation) even on a fair test. Although, as previously discussed in The Prindle Post, this does not mean that these students are unqualified.

Finally, moving beyond discrimination to unequal resources challenges our understanding of societal change. If we believe the racial achievement gap to reflect discriminatory testing practices, then the natural solution is to change (or eliminate) the test. Better yet is to eliminate the prejudices behind the discrimination through educating ourselves and each other. But what if the racial achievement gap reflects instead the distribution of resources across society? What if people’s starting place is the most significant factor in determining SAT performance? The solution becomes far more ponderous. It may be rebutted that resource inequalities are still ultimately the result of discrimination, merely past discrimination, but this misses the point. For regardless of how we characterize the ultimate historical causes, correcting present discrimination will not automatically address the enduring impacts of the past. Of course, discrimination and material resources interact in complex ways: a lack of resources can lead to differential treatment, and differential treatment to a lack of resources. A natural hypothesis is that challenges for minorities which are redistributed by birth every generation (e.g., women and LGBTQ+ individuals) – and therefore don’t accumulate material disadvantage the way racial minorities can – may be better addressed by tackling discrimination and ideology, whereas resource inequality may require more redistributive solutions. As for the SAT, even if judicious use is an improvement to college admissions without standardized testing, we should not expect it to overcome the limitations of an unequal society.

Should AI Reflect Us as We Are or as We Wish to Be?

closeup image of camera lens

Our understanding of AI has come a very long way in a short amount of time. But one issue we still have yet to crack is the prevalence of bias. And this seems especially troubling since AI does everything from determining if you should go to jail, to whether you get a job, to whether you should receive healthcare, and more. Efforts have been made to make algorithms less biased – like including greater diversity in training data – but issues persist. Recently, Google had to suspend their Gemini AI platform because of the images it was generating. Users reported that when they asked for pictures of Nazi soldiers in 1943, they would get images of multi-ethnic people in Nazi uniforms. Another user requested a picture of a medieval British king and received equally counterfactual content. Clearly our desire to combat social bias conflicts with our desire for accuracy. How should problems like this be addressed?

There are good reasons for wanting to prevent AI from producing content that reflects socially harmful bias. We don’t want it to simply reinforce past prejudice. We don’t want only images of men as doctors and lawyers and images of women as secretaries and nurses. If biases like these were systematic across AI, it could perpetuate social stereotypes. Presumably, we might instead desire that if we asked for images of a CEO at work, that a significant portion of the images would be women (regardless of past statistics).

A similar concern occurs when we consider generative AI’s handling of race. In order for algorithms to generate an image, it requires large amounts of training data to pull from. However, if there are biases in the training data, this can lead to biased results as well. If the training data contains mostly images of people with white skin and few images of people with black or brown skin, the algorithm will be less likely to generate images of black or brown skinned people in images and may struggle to reproduce different ethnic facial features. Research on facial recognition algorithms, for example, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to discern different skin tones without a diverse training dataset.

Correcting for these problems requires that developers be mindful of the kinds of assumptions they make when designing an algorithm and curating training data. As Timnit Gebru – who famously left Google over a dispute about ethical AI – has pointed out, “Ethical AI is not an abstract concept but is one that is in dire need of a holistic approach. It starts from who is at the table, who is creating the technology, and who is framing the goals and values of AI.” Without a serious commitment to inclusion, it will be impossible to catch bias before it gets reproduced again and again. It’s a system of garbage in, garbage out.

While biased AI can have real life significant impacts on people – such as the woman who lost her refugee status after a facial recognition algorithm failed to properly identify her, or the use of predictive policing and recidivism algorithms that tend to target Black people – there’s also the risk that in attempting to cleanse real-life biases from AI we distort reality. The curation of training data is a delicate balance. Attempts to purge the presence of bias from AI can go too far. The results may increasingly reflect the world as we ideally imagine it rather than as it actually is.

The Google Gemini controversy demonstrates this clearly: In attempting to create an algorithm featuring diverse people, it generates results that are not always true to life. If we return to the example of women CEOs, the problem is clearer. If someone performs a google image search of CEOs, it might mostly generate images of men and we might object that this is biased. Surely if a young person were to look up images of CEOs, we would want them to find examples other than men. Yet, in reality, women account for about ten percent of CEOs of fortune 500 companies. But, if the impression the public gets is the opposite, that women make up a far more significant number of CEOs than they actually do, they may not realize the real-life bias that exists. By curating an ideal AI version of our world, we cover up problems and become less aware of real-life bias and are less prepared to resolve those problems.

Consider an example like predictive policing where algorithms are often trained using crime data collected through biased policing. While we can attempt to correct the data, we should also be reminded of our responsibility to correct those practices in the first place. The reason an algorithm may not produce an image of a female CEO or that an algorithm predicts crime in poor neighborhoods is not the algorithm’s fault, it simply reflects what it sees. Correcting for bias in data may eventually go a long way towards correcting bias in society, but it can also create problems by distorting our understanding of society. There is moral risk in deciding the degree to which we want AI to reflect our own human ugliness back at us and the degree to which we want it to reflect something better.

Octopi and Moral Circle Expansion

photograph of octopus in water

Washington State is now on the cusp of passing the world’s first ban on octopus farming. The bill – which passed the State House of Representatives and Senate earlier this month – now only needs to be signed by the Governor in order to become law. The legislation is intended to halt a developing practice that leads to widespread death and suffering for octopi – not to mention other serious environmental harms.

This development marks yet another step in what is often referred to as “moral circle expansion.” What do we mean by this? Well, there are things that are worthy of moral consideration, and there are things that are not. My family, my friends, my students – indeed, all other humans – are, we assume, worthy of moral consideration. What this means, essentially, is that when making a decision, I need to factor in how the interests of those individuals might be affected. If, for example, I am about to do something that will cause severe pain to a number of those people, this will be a morally relevant consideration – and may, in fact, be sufficient to render my action morally impermissible..

There are, however, many things that are clearly not worthy of moral consideration. Most inanimate objects are like this. That’s why when my computer is slow to boot up first thing in the morning, there’s nothing morally problematic with me responding by striking it and delivering a tirade of verbal abuse. The story would, however, be much different if I treated another human in this way.

Sadly, our history is rife with examples of our “moral circle” being limited so as to exclude certain portions of the human population. Disenfranchisement, gender- and sexuality-based oppression, and the widespread suffering of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples have all, to some extent, resulted from a failure to understand how far our moral circle should expand.

In 1975, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation opened a brave new world of moral circle expansion by arguing that non-human animals are also worthy of moral consideration. His argument was elegantly simple, and started from the observation that most non-human animals are sentient – that is, able to feel pleasure and pain. According to Singer, sentience is all that’s required in order for something to have interests. Why? Because if something can feel pleasure then it has an interest in gaining pleasure, and if something can feel pain then it has an interest in avoiding pain. Once these interests are on the table, they must factor into our moral decision-making processes.

Almost fifty years on, Singer’s assertion might now seem rather uncontroversial. Most would probably agree that my cat has interests, and is therefore worthy of moral consideration. So too are the birds currently at the feeder outside of my window. The upshot of this is that there are many ways in which I could act towards these animals that would be clearly morally impermissible.

But, as humans, we’re rather inconsistent in our approach to moral circle expansion. While we happily include the animals with which we are most familiar – like household pets – we tend to omit vast populations of other animals – like those we farm. Many try to justify this distinction based on the perceived intelligence of the creatures in question. But this is a bad approach. Firstly, our perceptions are often mistaken. Pigs, for example, are smarter than dogs. Secondly, implying that something is less worthy of moral consideration just because it is less intelligent creates all kinds of problematic implications for how we treat very young children and those with diminished mental capacity.

Moral circle expansion gets even trickier once we start considering creatures more far-removed from humans. Recent developments suggest that our moral circle might need to be expanded to include things like fish and maybe even insects – but this is (predictably) being met with serious resistance. Something similar is now happening in Washington with octopi.

Interestingly, in 2021, the United Kingdom passed legislation recognizing decapod crustaceans (lobsters and crabs) and cephalopod molluscs (squid and octopi) as sentient beings. This recognition did not, however, automatically halt practices that would be considered morally reprehensible if perpetuated against other sentient beings. Washington State’s bill goes one step further than this, with California and Hawai’i now considering similar legislation. And such a move makes sense. Octopi are among the smartest non-human animals – able to use tools, recognize people, complete puzzles, and even open toddler proof cases that are impervious to young humans. At the very least, such abilities put them (cognitively) leaps-and-bounds ahead of many other non-human animals that we readily afford moral consideration. My cat, for example, isn’t capable of half of what an octopus can manage. So – if sentience and intelligence are what matter to moral circle expansion – cephalopods should be afforded at least as much consideration as our feline companions – if not more.

Yet they’re not. Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova is currently planning to open the world’s first intensive octopus farm in the Canary Islands (a development that partially motivated Washington State’s new bill). And it’s this inconsistency that’s most concerning. There is, we must assume, an objective standard for what should be included in the moral circle. What’s more, most of us seem in agreement that the circle should be expanded to include many non-human animals – especially those we share our homes with. Yet, whatever standard we adopt to ensure this happens (be it sentience, intelligence, or a combination of both) there are many more non-human animals that fulfil this criteria – octopi chief among them. What this means, then, is that we must either abandon any notion of expanding our moral circle to include non-human animals in the first place; or – better yet – begin to think more carefully (and inclusively) about the range of animals that rightfully deserve moral consideration.

Should the Law Protect People from Being Viewed as Bigots?

photograph of statue in front of Supreme Court building

In a recent judicial statement, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote that those who adhere “to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct” are in danger of being “labeled as bigots” and “treated as such.” This kind of statement has become a familiar refrain for Alito, ever since the Supreme Court recognized the right to same-sex marriage in the 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges. In Alito’s dissenting opinion in Obergefell, he similarly worried that the Court’s decision would be used to “vilify Americans” who oppose same-sex marriage.

Part of Alito’s concern is that the Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage might influence how some people of faith will be treated (given that many who oppose same-sex marriage do so for religious reasons). He worries that some might take these rulings to suggest that certain religious beliefs are intolerant or hateful, and that this might threaten the religious freedom of those people as a result. I’ll return to the issue of religious freedom later.

But first, I think it is worth thinking through his concerns about people being vilified or treated as bigots – regardless of their particular religious beliefs – if they oppose same-sex marriage. Alito’s position seems to rest on an assumption that the law ought to protect people from being viewed as bigots, at least in this circumstance. This naturally leads to a question: is he right? Should courts, at least sometimes, interpret laws a certain way in order to protect people from being viewed as bigots?

The short answer, I think, is no. But this short answer deserves a longer explanation that involves some important philosophical considerations.

In thinking through this, it will be useful to try to get as clear as possible about what Alito’s complaint is and is not. Alito’s complaint is not that the Supreme Court is calling people who oppose same-sex marriage bigots. The Court hasn’t done that. Instead, Alito’s complaint seems to be that the Court has issued rulings that imply that people who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots, and that others will view and treat opponents of same-sex marriage as bigots as a result. Take, for example, a 2021 judicial statement from Justice Clarence Thomas that Alito joined. That statement claims that in Obergefell the Court suggested that those “who believe that marriage is a sacred institution between one man and one woman” were guilty of “espous[ing] a bigoted worldview.”

As evidence for this claim, Thomas cites several statements from the Court’s majority opinion in Obergefell where the Court stated, among other things, that excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry “demeans gays and lesbians,” and serves “to disrespect and subordinate” them. Thomas and Alito appear to implicitly assume that those who support actions that demean, disrespect, and subordinate LGBTQ people are behaving in a bigoted manner toward LGBTQ people.

Thus, part of Alito and Thomas’ reasoning seems to go like this:

1) If one supports a position that demeans, disrespects, and subordinates LGBTQ people, then one is a bigot.

2) The Supreme Court majority in Obergefell treats a position supported by those who oppose same-sex marriage as one that demeans, disrespects, and subordinates LGBTQ people.

3) Therefore, the Supreme Court implies that those who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots.

I use the word “implies” in the conclusion instead of “views” because it is not clear that Thomas and Alito think the Supreme Court majority in Obergefell accepts premise 1. On the contrary, the Court’s majority in Obergefell held that “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises.” But Alito and Thomas seem to think that this statement is insufficient to cancel the Court’s implication that those who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Alito and Thomas’ reasoning. This still leaves us with a question. How would the Court implying that those who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots lead other entities like “governments, employers, and schools” to view opponents of same-sex marriage as bigots? One reasonable answer is that Supreme Court decisions license certain views and actions by others. In other words, if the Supreme Court puts its stamp of approval on something, others are more likely to follow suit.

There is certainly something to this line of reasoning. For example, shortly after the Supreme Court held that a web designer had the right to refuse to make wedding websites for gay couples, a hairdresser announced that she would not serve transgender customers.

So let’s assume for the sake of argument that Alito and Thomas are right that the Court has implied that those who oppose same-sex marriage are bigots and that others are more likely to view those who oppose same-sex marriage as bigots as a result. Does this provide the Supreme Court with a reason to stop recognizing a right to same-sex marriage?

To answer this, consider an analogy. Imagine a court invalidates a law that allows employers to pay women less for the same work as men simply because they are women. Imagine the court does so on the grounds that such a law demeans, disrespects, and subordinates women. If we accept Alito and Thomas’ arguments, by analogy, this should lead us to conclude that those who oppose equal pay for women are bigoted against women. But that consequence seems irrelevant to whether courts should require equal pay for women.

I expect that Alito would agree that courts may prevent sex-based pay discrimination, and that he would reject an argument that courts should avoid doing this simply because it may imply that those who oppose equal pay for women are bigots. If he would, he must differentiate this analogy from the case of the right to same-sex marriage. How might he do that?

First, he might claim that a relevant difference is that those who oppose equal pay for women are bigots, while those who oppose same-sex marriage are not. This is, of course, a controversial premise. But even if we grant this premise for the sake of argument, such a response fails. This is because the response overlooks the fact that the risk that someone might be viewed as a bigot doesn’t outweigh the important moral, political, and legal value of ensuring equality based on sex or sexual orientation. Whether or not those who oppose such equality are viewed as bigots shouldn’t be the controlling issue. This gets priorities wrong.

Second, Alito might claim that there is a special concern about religious liberty in the case of those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons. Indeed, in his recent statement he worries specifically about those with “traditional religious views on questions of sexual morality” being viewed as bigots.

Two points are worth making in response. First, it is important to distinguish viewing someone’s religious beliefs as bigoted versus discriminating against someone because of their religious beliefs. We have compelling moral and legal reasons to prevent discrimination based on religion. That includes preventing discrimination based on religious belief. But one can view someone’s religious beliefs as bigoted without discriminating against them, and it’s important to not conflate the former with the latter. Alito seems to have distinct worries about religious opponents of same-sex marriage being discriminated against. But that is a separate issue that would require its own examination.

Second, even if an employer wants to pay women less than men for religious reasons, the court still ought to prevent employers from doing this, even if it implies that the employer’s religious beliefs are bigoted. This is, in part, because people are not prevented from retaining religious belief, even if those beliefs are considered bigoted by others. This is also, in part, because religious freedom doesn’t require that others — including the government — accept or act in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.

At this point, one might raise the following objection: While it is true that forbidding same-sex marriage harms many LGBTQ people, isn’t it also the case that permitting same-sex marriage will harm many religious believers? The potential harms to religious believers are of two types. First, religious believers might be viewed as intolerant or bigoted. Second, religious believers might be forced to sanction same-sex marriages in various ways that violate their consciences (e.g., by being required to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings). Why aren’t the harms to LGBTQ people and religious opponents of same-sex marriage here symmetrical?

The appropriate response comes in two parts, to correlate with the two types of potential harms to religious opponents of same-sex marriage. First, the harm of being viewed as intolerant or bigoted generally is not the kind of harm that the government has good reason to prevent. (There are exceptions to this general rule, like legal protections against defamation.) On the other hand, the government often has good reason to prevent groups of people from suffering harm by not being given equal access to basic rights, like the right to marry.

Second, the question of whether religious believers should be given exemptions from certain laws due to their opposition to same-sex marriage is a question that can and should be treated separately from the question over whether we should recognize a right to same-sex marriage. The ongoing debates over whether such exemptions should be granted are a separate issue. One can decide that it’s appropriate to grant such exemptions, even if one thinks that opposing same-sex marriage is hateful or intolerant. This is because religious freedom should be extended even to views that we find hateful or intolerant.

Thus, in short, while it is understandable that many who oppose same-sex marriage don’t want others to view them as bigots, this is not a situation that the law should seek to shield them from.

Fears for the Fear Machine

closeup photograph of chatbot figure

The image shows a white woman on a bus, chin resting on her hand, frowning. Crowded onto the seat behind her are several identical-looking dark-skinned men looking over her with big smiles. The woman, who’s holding an item printed with the Union Jack, looks nervous and upset.

This image was shared widely on twitter. (In fact, the title of this piece was inspired by a tweet commenting on it.) It was produced using generative AI technology. AI image generators such as DALL-E and Microsoft’s Image Creator have been trained on a large set of images from human artists, using complex algorithms to represent various features of images, from their subject to their artistic style. When a user inputs a prompt describing the image they want, the AI image generator represents the elements in the prompt according to its training, generating an image as its output. The human user can then assess the output, refining their prompt and repeating the process if necessary until the generator outputs a satisfactory image.

In the case of the image described above, the output is a xenophobic representation of an imagined future, shared to stoke fear and hatred in viewers. Some of the moral ground here is easily covered. It’s morally wrong to further unjust aims by stoking fear and hatred. It’s wrong to represent ethnic groups as dangerous or morally depraved. These actions treat their subjects with profound disrespect, and the people enacting them are arguably complicit in the violence they contribute to by stoking others’ fear. That these images are often posted for monetary gain adds insult to moral injury. (For example, the account that posted the image discussed above gains money through twitter engagement; I declined to link to the original for this reason.)

While spreading hateful images is not new, the generative technology used to produce this image has made its creation much easier than it would otherwise have been — and social media has done the same to its proliferation. In my day, racists had to spend a few hours in an illustrator program producing a xenophobic image like this. Further back, those who were ambitious in their bigotry had to get a job at a newspaper drawing political cartoons to have anything close to this sort of reach.

The questions about the ethical implications of such technology for society are important. (Who bears the moral responsibility when hateful images like these are widely shared, and who should bear the responsibility of curbing their proliferation?) My focus here, however, will be a bit closer to home: what moral dangers — and possibilities — are opened up for individuals as a result of access to this technology? More specifically, what does it do to us to input our fears into the fear machine and receive a fearsome image in return?

Let’s focus on the xenophobic fears represented in the illustration of the woman on the bus. Producing xenophobic images most clearly wrongs others, but we have reasons to think that in producing these images one also wrongs oneself. The self-harm in these cases is both emotional and moral. Emotional harm results from the feelings of further fear that the person producing the image calls up in themselves. Images make one’s fears vivid, communicating their point more richly and viscerally than the handful of words used in the prompt could do. When you’ve seen an image that stokes fear, you’ve encountered something fearsome, and the person who produces these images representing their fears ends up paying an emotional cost. We can see this sort of self-harm with other feelings or attitudes, such as self-respect. A person who repeatedly listens to an abusive voicemail from their ex in order to feel bad about themselves is indulging in a kind of self-harm. Feeling afraid feels bad — though not all bad, if it’s accompanied by a thrill (perhaps unlikely in the case of creating images that stoke one’s own xenophobia). In the same way that the voicemail listener is pushing an emotional bruise, the person who produces an AI-generated image of what they fear for society is subjecting themselves to deeper anxiety.

More importantly, the person who produces these images self-inflicts a moral injury insofar as this action reinforces their own prejudice. In producing the image, the person makes something new in the world that contributes to their own moral shortcomings. So much attention has been paid to the problems of misinformation that arise from photorealistic images and deepfake videos that it can be easy to miss the reality of what is produced when illustrations like these are generated. Illustration-style images are not misinformation in the way that, say, a faked photograph or deepfake video would be. The person who produced them is not tricked into thinking an event that never happened did happen. But illustrations like these do represent the world as being a certain way. The image discussed in the introduction represents Britain as currently or potentially in danger from brown-skinned men, who are represented visually as interchangeable (with their near-identical appearance) as well as foreign, in contrast to the white woman who (in holding the Union Jack) is presented as “really” British. Producing the image is a kind of reality-making. It results in something real — the image — that portrays the world in prejudicial terms, reinforcing the fears and prejudice of the person who produced it.

Fear often feels disempowering, but in many ways we can still exercise agency in the face of our fears. We can choose to feed or to starve them through the media we consume — or in this case, the media we produce. Those of us who find xenophobia morally repugnant may still have internalized implicit biases that affect our understanding of the world. We would do well to think creatively of the ways generative technology can be used not to keep remaking the fractured and prejudiced world we inherited, but to imagine new ways of living without fear of each other.

Perhaps there is even some legitimate use in generating images that help one encounter one’s fears. A person with a phobia of grasshoppers, for example, could produce an image of someone who looks like them holding a grasshopper as a part of exposure therapy. Given how powerful images can be in affecting our perceptions of the world, image-generating AI puts us behind the wheel of a powerful machine. What we do from there matters morally, not only to society but also for our own moral trajectory as we consider the kind of people we want to be and the kind of world we want to create.

The Cold Case of Alabama’s Embryos

photograph of in vitro cell culture dish in lab

On February 16th, in Burdick-Aysenne v. Center for Reproductive Medicine, the Supreme Court of Alabama in Montgomery decreed embryos created via IVF, consisting of roughly eight cells, and held in sub-zero storage by a fertility clinic, must be considered synonymous to children. Such a ruling has satisfied some and angered others, but above all (including myself) bamboozled most.

The facts of the case are remarkably straightforward, even if its consequences are not.

The plaintiffs are three couples who underwent IVF treatment at an Alabama-based fertility clinic. The IVF treatments resulted in not only healthy children for each couple but also several additional embryos. This is normal, as these additional embryos are made in case additional implantation attempts are needed or if the couple decides to have more children in the future. These surplus embryos were held in what was meant to be secure storage at the IVF clinic. However, a third party accessed the room where these, amongst other embryos, were stored. This person, for whatever reason, then grabbed the embryos, which, given that they were freezing, caused burns to that person’s hand. They then dropped the embryos, resulting in the latter’s destruction.

The plaintiffs brought the lawsuit against the fertility clinic under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, arguing that the clinic’s negligence in allowing the third party to access the storage room resulted in the death of the plaintiffs’ “children.” The initial trial judge dismissed the case because embryos existing in vitro (outside a living organism) are neither children nor people. But, upon appeal, Alabama’s Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, asserting that the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act does apply because the embryos were, in fact, children. As Justice Mitchell writes in the ruling:

The central question presented in these consolidated appeals, which involves the death of embryos kept in a cryogenic nursery, is whether the Act contains an unwritten exception to that rule for extrauterine children – that is, unborn children who are located outside of a biological uterus at the time they are killed. Under existing black-letter law, the answer to that question is no: the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.

The consequences of this ruling have been significant. Two of the eight IVF clinics in Alabama have stopped offering their services as embryo damage or destruction is an ever-present risk during the IVF procedure. This ruling directly impacts all those potential patrons looking to start (or grow) their families. What’s more, it predominantly impacts those who have just enough money to afford IVF but not enough to use out-of-state providers.

Clearly, the ruling has some long-term pragmatic impacts which need ironing out: Does this mean that anyone currently holding embryos in storage is now expected to do so in perpetuity? What is to be done with these embryos if they are never implanted or cannot be implanted for medical, scientific, or financial reasons? If never-ending storage is required, this will inevitably drive up IVF costs, making fertility treatment even more inaccessible to Alabama’s poorest. And while this may sound like an absurd proposition, apparent absurdity is no legal defense if civil (or even criminal) charges are brought.

Now, the ethical issues associated with embryo, fetus, and gestating entities’ moral status is something which has been discussed and debated for centuries chiefly in the context of abortion, so I won’t rehash this debate here (but, for clarity’s sake, I don’t think embryos are children). Instead, what I believe is essential here, or at least what this ruling has thrust into the spotlight, is the effort to drive the concept of fetal personhood into realms in which it makes no sense for it to be deployed (if the idea even makes sense at all, that is).

I would have thought it would have been obvious to say that an embryo – a collection of biological matter of not more than eight cells – is not the same as a child. If done right, I can put an embryo into subzero temperatures without damaging it. This cannot be done with a child – freezing them will kill them. Also, the series of events that must happen, in a specific order at a specific time, for an embryo to become a child is long and uncertain. This is true in cases where IVF isn’t used, where fertilization, implantation, and gestation all take place over roughly nine months, and a myriad of cellular and extra-cellular events must happen in a specific order and particular way in order to produce a child. In IVF, all of this still needs to happen, with an added stage at the beginning where implantation requires scientific and medical assistance – you can’t just throw a frozen embryo at a prospective parent and expect things to turn out alright.

Beyond the disparities between a frozen embryo and a fully-fledged child, the ruling also stands on some shaky theoretical ground regarding the entities’ physical location – it’s not inside a person and thus not gestating. Even if one accepts that life begins at conception, they needn’t concede that all conception results in life. These frozen embryos exist outside a gestational environment and thus are not developing into a child or anything else. They are frozen in time; if they are not developing into children, why would we treat them as such? To have such a simplified idea of meaningful life and gestation, that once a sperm and egg fuse, that morally significant life begins, is to view such entities in stark contrast to the complex matrix in which all life, be that developing or developed, must exist. Simply having the raw ingredients for what might eventually become a child is not the same as having the child itself. Or, by way of a very clunky analogy, just because you’ve mixed some flour, butter, eggs, and sugar doesn’t mean you’ve got a cake; you still need kitchenware, an oven, and a power source to heat it. Without those, potentiality means nothing.

Ultimately, the case is bizarre (I haven’t even touched on using religious scripture as a jurisprudential foundation), and it can be easy to get bogged down in the ruling’s minutiae. But what I think is more important, and what I’m sure others have done in detail already, is to place this ruling in the context of the increasing rolling back of reproductive liberty within the U.S. With the Burdick-Aysenne v. Center for Reproductive Medicine ruling coming so soon after the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, it seems increasingly clear that women’s reproductive health and fundamental bodily freedoms are increasingly under threat. While this case is situated in the language of saving the life of the unborn (or even yet to be implanted), I cannot help but see it fitting into the canon of regressing reproductive liberties of the living and its ever-growing reach.