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The Moral and Linguistic Contours of Insults

image of blue and red fingers pointing at each other

Thanks to Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX), we can update a philosophical joke used to illustrate the use-mention distinction. For those unfamiliar, the use-mention distinction is a way to distinguish when a term appears in a sentence and refers to some object, typically its meaning, versus when the term that appears in the sentence refers to its appearance. As Cappelen et. al. point out there is a difference in the way the term shared in the following sentences function:

D1. Jim went to Paris.

D2. “Jim” has three letters.

In D1., “Jim” is being used and refers to a person, possibly even me. That reference helps establish the truth-value we assign to the statement. So, if “Jim” refers to me, then the sentence is false; if it refers to some other person named Jim, who just returned from France, then then the sentence is true. In D2., “Jim” is being mentioned and in doing so the reference of “Jim” just is the term “Jim,” not any object external to the sentence.

So, what is the joke that can now be updated?

One time at a golf tournament, a famous golfer hit a ball into the deep rough. Hoping to be allowed to pick up the ball and drop it into a more favorable spot, the golfer calls an official over and asks for a ruling. The official denies the golfer the opportunity to pick up and drop the ball without penalty, clearly frustrating the golfer who replies as follows: “Just to be clear, if I were now to say ‘You’re a feculent analphabet,’ I would get an additional penalty stroke, right? The judge, having taken a philosophy of language class, reluctantly agrees with the golfer without issuing a penalty.

Okay, not the funniest joke, and the way I narrated it is even less funny, but it is really meant as an illustration. Since the golfer merely mentioned the sentence “You’re a feculent analphabet” and did not use the sentence to level an insult, the golfer did not violate the rule against insulting officials.

What does this have to do with Rep. Crockett? During a meeting of the House Oversight Committee two weeks ago, the following exchange occurred between her and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA):

Rep. Crockett: Do you know what we are here for?

Rep. Greene: I don’t think you know what you are here for … I think your fake eyelashes are messing up what you’re reading.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), in accordance with §961 of the Rules of the House of Representatives,  motioned for the committee Chair Rep. James Comer (R-KY), to have Rep. Greene’s words taken down (i.e., stricken from the record) because they were an attack on another member of the House and thus an example of unparliamentary debate. According to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Greene’s words violated Rule XVII 1 (b) which states that “Remarks in debate (which may include references to the Senate or its Members) shall be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.” As clarified in §361, “Personalities in debate forbidden,” House members may not refer “to a particular Member of the House in a derogatory fashion.” Rep. Greene, by insulting the appearance of Rep. Crockett, seems to have clearly violated this rule. However, Rep. Comer ruled that Greene’s comment “lacked decorum but did not violate rules against attacking other members.” Wanting to ensure that she understood the ruling, Rep. Crockett asked “I’m just curious, just to better understand your ruling: If someone on this committee then starts talking about somebody’s ‘bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body,’ that would not be engaging in personalities, correct?”

As with the aforementioned golf judge, Rep. Comer would have to agree, twice over, that Rep. Crockett did not personally attack Rep. Greene. First, both representatives used sentences that involved insults about the appearance of another member of the House, and thus by his own ruling do not constitute a violation of Rule XVII 1 (b); second, unlike Rep. Greene, Rep. Crockett only mentioned and did not actually use the relevant sentence, thereby not actually attacking anyone.

But can the use-mention distinction really carve out Rep. Crockett’s words as not subject to the rules?  Here is one way to try to express the use-mention distinction:

But this expression of the distinction defines mentioning by noting that you have to use the relevant expression (“Jim” in our analytic example, “feculent analphabet” in the joke, and “bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body” in Rep. Crockett’s example) in order to mention it. The use may be self-referential, but it is still a use. So, to mention an expression, you have to use it, suggesting that the distinction collapses.

If that is the case, then in some sense, both Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett used the relevant insults. In fact, given the overall context of the events, it is pretty clear that Rep. Crockett’s expression was an insult, indirectly aimed at Rep. Greene, mediated through a direct question to Rep. Comer. Complicated, yes; an insult aimed at a target, nevertheless. Still, if neither Rep. Greene nor Rep. Crockett engaged in personal attacks, then an insult about the appearance of one person is not a personal attack, regardless of the analytical issues regarding the use-mention distinction.

Now to the evaluative questions: “How is an insult about an appearance of another person NOT a personal attack?” In other words, did Rep. Comer make an error in his ruling?

Consider the best thing that we might say for Rep. Comer’s position, namely, that an insult is a species of criticism. Criticism is a judgment about the value — moral, political, practical, aesthetic, etc. — of some object. Criticism, in this most basic definition, is a core activity of a deliberative assembly such as the U. S. House of Representatives and its enumerated powers as granted by the Constitution of the United States.  Whether it is proposing, debating, and voting on legislation (Article 1, Sect. 1), considering whether to punish and even expel a member for disorderly behavior (Article 1, sect. 5, clause 2), or whether or not to declare war (Article 1, Sect. 8, clause 11), a properly functioning deliberative assembly will involve members of the House expressing their judgments about the value of exercising these Constitutional powers. So, the problem is not that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett engaged in criticism per se; the problem must lie elsewhere.

The problem with insults is that they are a species of aggression toward another, i.e., an attack. Given the nature of these comments, we might identify the verbal sparring as an exchange of microaggressions. According to Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Beth Spanierman, microaggressions are “verbal and nonverbal interpersonal exchanges in which a perpetrator causes harm to a target, whether intended or unintended.” The key element is that the criticism has a harmful impact. A microinsult, as a species of microaggression, causes harm by conveying “stereotypes, rudeness, and insensitivity … that demean a person’s racial, gender, sexual orientation, heritage or identity.” The choice of words by each representative attacking the appearance of the other demeans the heritage or identity of the other. Furthermore, as Jerome Neu points out, “[t]o insult is to assert or assume dominance, either intentionally claiming superiority or unintentionally revealing a lack of regard. To be insulted is to suffer a shock, a disruption of one’s sense of self and one’s place in the world.” In short, the result, if not the intent, of a microinsult, is to lower the value and regard owed to a person, to treat the other as less than equal. As such, this is a moral problem in that insults lower the worth and esteem of the target that is not warranted. When the characteristics identified by insults are tied to physical appearance, this is clearly out of bounds because one’s appearance has little to no moral relevance because our physical characteristics have little to no connection to moral worth. This is especially true if those characteristics are not of our own choosing, such as body shape. But they are also irrelevant if the identified characteristics are choices that conform aesthetic cultural standards such as hair color or the use of lash extensions.

In the end, we have an answer to the question regarding Rep. Comer’s decision that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett were not engaged in personal attacks: He’s wrong.

Insulting another’s appearance, whether directly in the case of Rep. Greene or indirectly in the case of Rep. Crockett, is a personal attack in violation of Rule XVII 1 (b). It is time for Comer and the rest of the elected officials to act in accordance with their own rules in the House.  In fact, these rules should probably be observed by all those seeking elected positions this coming November: they should not be “speaking reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against” anyone.

Korea, Climate Change, and Intergenerational Justice

photograph of flooded countryside

Last week, the Constitutional Court of Korea began its second and final hearing in a landmark case concerning their government’s handling of the global climate crisis. Similar claims have been filed in the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, India and Brazil; with one such case against the Swiss government succeeding in the European Court of Human Rights just weeks earlier. Yet this is the first case of its kind in East Asia. The setting for the lawsuit is apt, given that Korea’s long, low coastline puts it among the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Sea levels along Korea’s coast have risen around 10 centimetres in the last 40 years. This – combined with a significant increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events – has made flash flooding the most frequent natural disaster in the country, with 2022 seeing the heaviest rain to hit Seoul in 115 years. In 2020, three successive tropical cyclones in the space of two weeks caused 676 power outages affecting more than 300,000 households. In total, 46 lives were lost to storms and extreme rainfall in that same year.

The case currently before the Constitutional Court claims that the Korean government has failed to protect its people by not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis. Two hundred plaintiffs are named – largely babies and children. Yet there is one plaintiff that deserves special attention: an unborn fetus nicknamed “Woodpecker.”

Much of our moral discussions focus on how our actions might wrong others. I have previously claimed, for example, that we wrong other members of our community by failing to get vaccinated; that we wrong our children by sharing images and videos of them online; and that we wrong members of certain cultures by depositing human remains on the Moon. These claims are largely unproblematic, since they are based upon the immediate harms that we cause to certain individuals. But claims like that made by Woodpecker are more challenging. They force us to ask the question: can we wrong someone who does not (yet) even exist?

Consider an example to help make this concern more acute: Suppose that Blight Inc. builds a factory in the midst of an idyllic lakeside community. Suppose, further, that this factory begins spewing toxic effluent into the lake. This pollution creates a battery of predictable harms: fish stocks dwindle, the waters cease to be swimmable, and toxins find their way into the town water supply. The actions of Blight Inc. obviously wrong a great many people: the fishermen whose livelihoods have been destroyed; the leisurists who can no longer use the lake for recreation; and the townsfolk who now find themselves sick as a result of their polluted drinking water. Given this, it seems likely that these individuals will have a strong moral claim against Blight Inc. to cease all future harms, and (most likely) compensate for the harms already incurred.

But suppose that some of these harms will continue far into the future. Suppose that the pollutants find their way into the ecosystem, and will create health problems for residents of the town for at least another century. Suppose that a child (call them “Bluebird”) will be born in 2124 with a severe illness resulting directly from Blight Inc.’s pollution in 2024. Can we coherently claim that Blight Inc. now wrongs Bluebird, even though Bluebird does not (yet) exist?

It seems that we can. And perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. The effects of most of our actions are immediate – so that if we do something harmful, that harm tends to occur now. This limits the scope of our victims and makes them relatively easy to identify. But not all of our actions are this way. Sometimes, the harmful effects of our actions are deferred. And this is precisely what happens in the case of Bluebird. While some of the harms leading from Blight Inc.’s actions are immediate, others are deferred – and deferred for a very long time. But this no less makes them harms for which Blight Inc. is responsible. And the very same is true of the climate crisis. While we are already feeling the effects of the crisis, the worst of the harms we are trying to avoid will not occur for decades, or even centuries. Thus, if we do fail to avert disaster, the harms that result from this failure will be deferred for some time. Yet they are still harms for which we seem responsible.

This notion forms the basis of what is called intergenerational justice: the idea that our actions now are capable of wronging those who will come into existence in the future.

Perhaps this seems intuitive. But it remains a controversial suggestion. For most of our discussions of morality, claims of injustice – of being wronged – are limited to those who exist. Yet intergenerational justice makes a bold stride in the direction of making claims of injustice about individuals who do not exist. What’s more, intergenerational justice drastically widens the scope of individuals to whom we owe duties. Consider, again, the lake pollution case above. In pumping effluent, Blight Inc. does not just wrong (and therefore potentially owe compensation to) the current residents of the town, but also every future resident of the town who will be harmed by their actions. And the same is true of climate change. Our failure to arrest disaster now wrongs not only those who are currently harmed by the climate crisis, but every person in the future who will also be harmed.

And there’s a deeper concern, too: one that might potentially undermine the very foundation for any claim of intergenerational justice. Next time, I will turn to consider this, and see what it might mean for the claims of individuals like Woodpecker.

Eurovision, Israel, and the Responsibility for War

image of Eurovision logo

On May 11th, Swiss artist Nemo won the Eurovision song competition with “The Code.” The nominally apolitical contest has always been somewhat of a stage for international drama, with this year’s Eurovision occurring with an additional pall of controversy due to the inclusion of singer Eden Golan as the representative artist from Israel. Activists hoped for something like the 2022 exclusion of Russia, and failing that, began pushing for both the artists and the broader public to boycott Eurovision for allowing Israel entry. The finals, held in Malmö, Sweden, occurred amid marches and protests. Performing to a polarized crowd, Golan took fifth, the 20-year-old singer having become a focal point of international politics. To what end we might ask?

For pro-Palestinian or anti-war activists, the question is likely more about tactics than ethical principle. Eurovision, for all its kitsch, is a major international event with significant mass media interest. Tethering their cause to the visibility of Eurovision may pay dividends. This line of thinking does not, however, necessarily explain why they pushed so hard to get Israel excluded from the contest. For some activists, the stated concern was whitewashing, in which the international competition provided Israel a convenient platform to present itself through shimmering pop rather than military violence. And indeed, Golan’s submitted song, “Hurricane,” was originally entitled “October Rain” in reference to the October 2023 attack on Israel by Hamas which killed over 1,000 Israelis and precipitated the current invasion. It was rewritten and retitled at the behest of Eurovision officials, but vague references remain in the lyrics.

It may also be ethically significant to force those with large platforms to take a stand. This echoes the ongoing Blockout 2024 movement which surged following the Met Gala, and encouraged social media users to block celebrities and influencers for failing to use their influence to call attention to Gaza. At core, this is something between a demand for good Samaritanism and good custodianship of power. The contention is that those who have platforms should use them to call out injustice where they see it, either because everyone has such an obligation, or because specifically those with power or influence have an incumbent responsibility. (The expectations of celebrity have been previously discussed by The Prindle Post.)

Lurking behind this is a deeper question of responsibility and accountability. War is something ostensibly done by nations, vast concatenations of peoples, geographies, laws, and institutions that are the primary players of international politics. Is it not somewhat facile to draw such a straight line between a young Israeli singer and the decisions of her country’s government? How does a nation, this abstract geopolitical entity, waging war, refract to the responsibility of those within?

For some philosophers, the answer is simply democracy. While citizens are generally unable to vote on war, and certainly not on specific military operations, they are involved in electing political leadership. Aspiring leaders in turn often have some public record about their inclinations towards war. Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his decades in government, has never pretended to be anything other than a hawk (technically as Prime Minister he is elected by a parliament which is elected by the people). From this electoral agency ostensibly stems citizens’ responsibility for war.

But if so, it is a watered down responsibility as almost all citizens are far removed from having any personal agency in the decision to wage war. Moreover, war is often based on contingent circumstances that were likely not front of mind when the politician was being elected. Even if the citizen supports the government actions in question — and they very well may not, regardless of whether they support the politician — it is extremely unlikely that anything hinged on their individual vote. Further, decision making powers related to war, and especially military action, strategy, and tactics are often kept deliberately far from voters. Such power is held almost solely by executive political and military leadership. Moreover, military leadership, with the likely exception of commander-in-chief, are not elected positions. Altogether this entails that citizens, even acting collectively in well-functioning democracies, have almost no formal capacity to check military decisions other than to elect different political leadership. Some philosophers, such as the political scientist Neta Crawford, argue that this situation means citizens have a moral obligation to stay educated on their country’s military actions and protest if they believe an unjust war is occurring. Although Crawford’s primary interest is a citizen’s responsibility given an unjust war, not necessarily their responsibility for the war in the first place.

Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, contends in his influential book Just and Unjust Wars that “there should be little difficulty in blaming heads of state [for aggression]. The hard and interesting questions arise when we ask how responsibility for aggression is diffused throughout a political system.” And yet, the Eurovision example raises an interesting contrasting point, for among the broader public, blame for war spreads like wildfire, hardly staying confined to the upper echelons of government. If anything, the fact that only a small number of powerful people actually had decision-making power is obscured by the image of a nation at war. A song contest is seen as strategic propaganda. Israel, which has long been internally divided about Palestine and has seen continuous peace marches and protests since October, is taken as univocal on their military actions. Soldiers, many of whom are performing mandatory service, are almost universally viewed as villains. From a perspective which emphasizes the culpability of decision-making powers, as opposed to more diffuse forms of responsibility, almost all individuals on both sides of the conflict become cogs simply caught in the gears of international politics.

Some of the staunchest criticism of Israel’s action in Gaza, point out that most people there are not Hamas; that these individuals, even if perhaps supporting from afar, did not plan or participate in military actions against Israel; that they are civilians and do not deserve to suffer as collateral damage in a larger conflict. (What “suffer” means in this context is of course worlds apart from any unpleasantness that occurred at Eurovision.) But pop stars and other celebrities are legitimate targets of criticism if one accepts the idea that we have a responsibility to do something and not merely the duty to take responsibility for something. And yet, there is a certain shared reductionism in equating Golan with Israel and the average Gaza resident with Hamas. The real challenge may be maintaining focus on those who actually have decision-making power and are publicly accountable for its use.

Should Weapons Be Allowed in Space?

image of debris field in space

Last month the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution to reaffirm the commitment of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to ban the use or deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space. The resolution failed after a Russian veto, prompting Western countries to accuse Russia of hiding something. In fact, U.S. intelligence has confirmed that Russia is developing nuclear anti-satellite capabilities capable of creating a massive energy wave that can take out constellations of small satellites. These new discoveries coupled with the use of services like Starlink in the war in Ukraine as well as the growing rivalries over space mining force us to confront the future militarized space. Is there a way to prevent this outcome? What’s the best way forward when it comes to space weapons?

For many, keeping outer space from becoming weaponized remains the moral ideal. The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1950s and the risks of keeping nuclear weapons in space led to the development of the Outer Space Treaty. Weapons of mass destruction were prohibited, and it was declared that space exploration would be done for the benefit of all countries as outer space is “the province of all mankind.” But while we’ve proclaimed that the Moon and celestial bodies shall only be used for peaceful purposes, we have not banned all weapons in space.

There are obvious reasons to promote a ban on the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in outer space, and these reasons have not changed significantly from what they were in the 1950s. Besides the desire to avoid nuclear devastation and destruction to the environment, having weapons of mass destruction in space could undermine international stability and lead to an arms race. There are, however, even more specific reasons to be concerned about the use of any kind of weapon in space today. The first reason concerns the value of satellites for military and economic purposes. The Global Positioning System operates over 30 satellites, with the GPS Block III satellites being the latest deployed. A study by RTI International estimates that a loss of GPS alone would cost the U.S. economy 1 billion dollars per day.

The major ethical risk involved with the use of such weapons, besides the economic and social harms that would follow from the denial of space services, would be that kinetic weapons used in space to destroy satellites would create a “devastating” debris field that “could linger for generations in this unique region of space and interfere with safe operation of satellites.” Once space debris is created, it is almost impossible to control, meaning that other satellites and space stations will be at risk. The debris can continue to move at great velocity through space, posing great danger to other satellites as well as space stations. This can contribute to the possibility of the “Kessler syndrome” whereby debris collisions cascade and lead to more collisions. The use of weapons threatens to exacerbate a problem that already exists and render low-Earth orbit unusable for generations. This can act as a disincentive to use weapons in space because of the risk of mutually assured destruction of the orbital environment around Earth.

To many, the risk of mutually assured destruction may be reason enough to avoid the use of ASATs. However, given the risks involved, not only to both sides of a dispute in space but to all other humans that depend on the space services, this is a problematic ethical response. Despite the risks, it is still quite possible that a country will be tempted to use weapons in space that could soon escalate into full-scale attacks.

But this point may be moot; the weaponization of space may be inevitable. Currently, the United States, Russia, China, and India have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. In 2023 Israel intercepted a ballistic missile in space, making it the first example of combat in outer space. The use of missiles to deliver a kinetic payload and destroy a satellite is one possibility, however cyberwarfare, jamming, the use of lasers and other directed-energy weapons to disable a satellite are other possible weapons. For example, a laser-based weapon deployed on Earth could be used to damage the solar arrays of a satellite and deprive it of power, or cyber attacks could allow a satellite to be commandeered. Recently, alarm has been raised by the Chinese Shijian satellite which contains a grappler arm which could be used as a weapon against other satellites.

A second significant reason why nations may be incentivized to use weapons in space would be to protect mining equipment or space stations. Given the plans of the Artemis mission and longer-term plans for mining, a new space race for resources is set to begin. Without a clear framework to recognize ownership (the Outer Space Treaty prohibits any nation from claiming sovereignty over space or a celestial body) there may quickly be competing claims about who is entitled to mine what where. It’s far from obvious how we will settle disagreements about what should be extracted and what should be preserved. Mining operations will not take place without significant investment, and there will be a desire to protect those investments should another state choose to interfere.

If the weaponization of space is indeed inevitable, then perhaps the most prudent step is to attempt to prevent what has already transpired by eliminating all weapons in space as was proposed in 2014. But banning all weapons in space will be problematic if a ban is instituted but bad-faith actors choose to ignore such bans. It may be that the strongest incentive to get such actors to avoid using weapons in space is to offer a deterrence in the form of the destruction of their satellites. Mutually assured destruction could still be useful, if the destruction can be confined to combatants without space debris ruining the orbital environment for the rest of humanity.

Or perhaps we should attempt to regulate the specific kinds of weapons permitted in space. Non-kinetic weapons that do not deliver a payload to eliminate a target such as cyber-warfare, the use of focused-energy weapons, or even potentially grappler arms, could allow nations to respond to perceived satellite threats without being forced to outright destroy a satellite and send its debris across Earth’s orbit. If such weapons are cheaper, easier to use, and more precise than banned weapon such as ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons, this may act as a stronger deterrent in the long run to use such weapons that can affect humanity beyond the combatants involved. This could preserve low-Earth orbit if a conflict does break out.

Given that it is still relatively early days as far as space exploration is concerned, the kinds of conflicting tendencies that might incentivize war may be relatively unknown. Some precautionary principle might help us anticipate and prevent fallout. However, regulation might also be a move that only serves to make space exploration more fraught as nations seek to militarize in secret.

Ashes to Ashes, Moondust to Moondust – Part 2

image of half-moon

Last month, I discussed some of the moral questions raised by Astrobotic Technology’s recent (and, ultimately, failed) attempt to land a probe containing human (and dog) remains on the moon. I focused on the cultural significance of the moon – particularly for the Navajo Nation, who protested the lander prior to launch. While there is an understandable allure to having one’s remains deposited on a celestial body, I expressed doubts that the interests of the dead (if such things even exist) are sufficient to outweigh the cultural harms caused by such practices.

But the potential concerns don’t stop there. The Peregrine lander raises a number of other ethical problems – the first and foremost of which is how we are to appropriately deal with property in space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 held that no part of space can be subject to appropriation by a particular state. And while this merely establishes a legal (not moral) norm, it seems to support the more general idea of space as a sort of global commons. Like the oceans and the atmosphere, it’s there for the enjoyment of all. But does this enjoyment have its limits? Certainly. There are ways in which we can enjoy a commons that might limit the ability of others to enjoy it in that same way. While we might fish from a common lake, overfishing will deplete that resource so that others are unable to do so. This is the oft-cited “tragedy of the commons.”

Our use of the commons therefore requires restrictions. This is precisely what John Locke sets out to address in his theory of property. An important part of his theory describes the process by which we are able to take common property and make it our own. How? By mixing our labor with it. Thus, when I trudge into a common forest, fell a tree, and craft that timber into a birdhouse, I come to own that birdhouse. The same is true when I pick an apple or fish up a trout. But, according to Locke, there is one proviso: that in helping ourselves to the commons, we must leave enough – and as good – for others. Put another way, when dealing with the commons, we must limit our actions so that anyone who comes after us can deal with the commons in precisely the same way. Thus, if I take so much timber (or apples, or fish) that others are unable to take the same amount, I have used the commons in a way that is impermissible.

It’s an intuitive notion, and one that captures the more general sense in which we believe that people shouldn’t take more than their “fair share.” But how does it apply to the actions of Astrobotic Technologies? Well, the “Lockean proviso” doesn’t apply merely to taking things from the commons, but also to leaving them there. Again, it helps describe a common intuition that we shouldn’t use the commons for the excessive dumping of litter or toxic waste. Consider, then, the mission of the Peregrine lander. The Moon might be global commons – there for the enjoyment of all. But it is also finite. The deposition of human remains there utilizes – and potentially spoils – a portion of that commons, however small. In doing so, it leaves less for others to enjoy, thus potentially violating the Lockean proviso.

But there’s room for disagreement with this idea. While finite, the Moon is still pretty big. Perhaps it’s true that we can deposit our remains there while still leaving enough space (no pun intended) for everyone else to do likewise. Perhaps every last person on the planet could make the Moon their final resting place, without removing the ability of others to do likewise.

But this is where things get tricky. It’s easy to think of commons – and how they are to be shared – purely in terms of those of us who currently exist. But commons are more complicated than this. Typically, they are temporally extended – they exist from generation to generation. This means that we’re not simply required to leave as much and as good for everyone else currently able to enjoy the commons – but also for all of those who will come to enjoy those same commons in the future. This is why we might consider it unfair to fell and mill an entire forest and split the proceeds equally among the current generation of a community. While every member of that community might’ve received their “fair share,” they’ve acted in a way that deprives future generations from enjoying that same resource.

This is the concern of intergenerational justice – and it features predominantly in many discussions of environmental ethics. Whether it be creating an inhospitably warm climate, eradicating a species, or befouling water and soil with harmful pollutants, there are all sorts of actions that prevent future generations from the proper use and enjoyment of the commons. And something similar might be happening here with the Moon. We must be careful that our use now of the Moon doesn’t prevent our descendants from enjoying this global common in the future. If we litter our nearest celestial body with human and animal remains (or all other manner of waste, space debris, and – as was proposed at one point – nuclear fallout) we might risk doing precisely this.

The Complicated Ethics of African Safaris

photograph of gazelles followed by safari vehicle

For many, the idea of paying great sums of money to travel to Africa and go on a safari promising the opportunity to shoot exotic wild game like giraffes, lions, or elephants is ethically unacceptable. The killing of Cecil the lion, for example, caused outrage around the world. For some, what is objectionable is the idea of slaughtering any animal at all for any purpose. For others, it might be the exploitative nature of Westerners spending large sums of cash to shoot African animals, or the fact that the black market trade of goods like elephant tusks is made worse by the practice of safari hunting. Addressing these issues can be tricky: Germany has recently threatened to place greater limits of trophy hunting due to poaching concerns; Botswana, meanwhile, has threatened to send 20,000 elephants to Germany due to overpopulation of the species. Stories like this remind us how complex the ethical issues involved in animal tourism can be.

Tanzania comes in at 165th place in terms of nominal GDP per capita and Botswana comes in at 86th. These are developing nations where the average person makes relatively little money compared to the rest of the world. Despite this, the very rich can book photo or hunting safaris at five-star hotels like the Four Seasons Serengeti Safari Lodge for thousands of dollars a night. If one wishes to hunt wild game, they can select from an established menu where the price of hunting each animal is clearly listed. Hunting a baboon might cost $100 while hunting a leopard will cost $4500. An African elephant with at least one tusk over 30kg will cost $20,000 to kill.

It’s not surprising why a system like this would strike one as unethical. For starters, there is the basic act of hunting animals for sport, which many consider to be inherently wrong. Since reasonable alternatives to hunting exist, inflicting unnecessary harm and suffering on animals who are living their natural lives is morally wrong. But the consequences are even bigger than this. Trophy hunting not only wrongs the individual organism, but it can affect entire communities of animals if they work on packs or groups. The practice can also destabilize migration and hibernation practices, upsetting the balance of various ecosystems.

In addition to ethical views such as utilitarianism or the capabilities approach which might stress the ethical importance of minimizing harm or having a meaningful relationship with the animal world, there is also the additional concern that certain animals like elephants seem to have a heightened level of consciousness, including the ability to recognize themselves. This suggests that hunting certain kinds of animals may constitute an additional form of wrongdoing.

There is also the fact that these safaris feel like just another case of Western exploitation of African economies. Having outsiders spend small fortunes to hunt (or even photograph) the local fauna while residents survive on a fraction of what is spent each day. If this is one of the few ways to bring investment into the local economy, it would appear African countries don’t have much of a choice about tolerating the practice.

On the other hand, defenders of hunting and photo safaris will argue that conservation of the African savanna requires great sums of money. The national parks and hunting reserves that have been saved from agricultural development creates an opportunity cost for local development that must be offset. If these animals are left alone, they may be more inclined to wander into local villages and cause damage. This possibility makes it difficult for locals to want to support conservation.

Additionally, the high value of black market goods such as ivory presents a significant incentive to engage in poaching. Failing to regulate this practice threatens grave consequences. Given the incentives, we should anticipate a tragedy of the commons scenario where poachers and developers acting only in their self-interest will ruin the local habitats and endanger more animal species.

To prevent outcomes like this, African governments allow trophy hunting and photo safaris because the revenue from these businesses can be used to pay for conservation efforts. According to one study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, trophy hunting contributes more than $341 million to the South African economy and supports more than 17,000 jobs. Safari operations help support anti-poaching patrols, provide employment for locals, and build infrastructure for rural economies.

But defenders of game hunting argue that “African wildlife conservation can only be justified if that ground generates enough revenue to support local communities whilst maintaining a healthy ecosystem.” Hunting and photo safaris then must accomplish a great many tasks. Ultimately, the hope is that we might incentivize active conservation by giving these animals a very different kind value. Killing some animals thus becomes a means to save many more.

Still, many consider the defense of safari hunting on the grounds that it provides the resources required for conservation to be questionable. A separate study conducted for Humane Society International has found that the economic benefits of trophy hunting are sometimes overstated. They found, for example, that trophy hunting only contributes closer to $132 million per year. There are also concerns that studies do not properly consider the difference in the economic benefits of not engaging in trophy hunting and engaging in it when it comes to comparing tourism projections.

Even if we consider only photo safaris, there are risks that creating a market to support conservation has led to a perverse incentive. The money to be made from tourism often proves too enticing, leading to greater development of infrastructure to support more and more tourists instead of greater conservation efforts. Further, There are concerns that tourists coming to Africa to see pristine wilderness are destroying it by their very actions. Even without hunting, wildebeests are declining and migration patterns and behavior of wild animals are changing as they become more and more accustomed to photo tourists.

Easy answers to these growing problems are nowhere in sight. While we may have moral objections to these safaris, banning the practice could very well lead to worse outcomes for the local animal populations. It’s far from clear what course of action will produce the greatest benefits over the long term.