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Body Integrity Dysphoria and the Gustavson Case

image of xrays of multiple body parts

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of bodily mutilation.

Early in 2022, I wrote a piece for The Prindle Post discussing the arrest of John Yalu for the suspected murder of Kalman Tal. The circumstances surrounding Tal’s death are unclear, but the initial facts appeared to indicate that he had paid Yalu to amputate his leg, despite Yalu having no medical training. Speculation was, and remains, that Tal suffered from Body Integrity Dysphoria (BID), a rare disorder which makes sufferers feel like a disabled person trapped within a non-disabled person’s body and for which there is no agreed-upon treatment.

In that article, I argue that if we are committed to the principle of do no harm, then all treatment avenues, regardless of how distasteful we may find them, must be considered. Failing to do so would abandon those with the disorder to their suffering and force them to consider dangerous, even life-threatening alternatives like black-market surgery or DIY operations.

Fast forward to May 2024 and London, where the criminal court sentenced Marius Gustavson, 46, to prison. Charged with, amongst other things, five counts of causing grievous bodily harm, Gustavson was given a life sentence, meaning he will serve no less than 22 years behind bars. The actions that warranted such a severe sentence have a Hannibal Lecter quality.

Gustavson, who called himself the “eunuch maker,” ran a highly profitable business providing body modifications to willing participants. This was despite neither Gustavson nor any of those assisting him having medical training. Additionally, these operations were carried out in non-surgical settings as seemingly innocuous as flats and hotel rooms. This, by itself, would be shocking, but it is not simply that operations were carried out by criminally unqualified individuals such as Gustavson. What elevates this into the realm of body horror is the operation’s nature, severity, and voyeurism.

As listed by the Criminal Prosecution Service, the 22 procedures in which Gustavson was involved included “the removal of the victims’ testicles, the amputation of penises, clamping of testicles with burdizzo clips (ordinarily used by vets in the castration of cattle), and the insertion of needles into genitalia.” It was not simply that these bodily parts were removed or mutilated, although that is itself horrifying, but that such tissue was then kept by Gustavson and his accomplices either as trophies, to be sold online, or in what might be the most disturbing fact of this case, to be cooked by Gustavson and ate.

To add another layer of horror to this case, Gustavson not only carried out these procedures but also ran a pay-per-view service where subscribers could watch him work. Altogether, between 2017 and 2021, Gustavson’s business earned him £223,229.43, $32,972.99 and €24,799 in profit.

What links this to the Yalu and Tal case is that Gustavson claims to have been suffering from BID. What’s more than this is that, according to his legal defense, Gustavson wanted to put “a smile on people’s faces by offering a service to those suffering, like him, from what was described as [BID].”

Now, whether Gustavson suffered from BID is a matter for debate. He had undergone surgical interventions himself to alter his physicality. This included, but is not limited to, having his penis removed in 2017 in a procedure carried out in a London flat and, in 2019, had to have his leg amputated after he deliberately submerged it in dry ice. Those who helped Gustavson in both instances also received jail sentences.

For my part, I doubt whether he had BID. His actions do not conform with the symptoms typically associated with the disorder. Most notably, those with BID rarely seek additional amputations or modifications once the part of their body which caused the initial distress has been removed. Gustavson, on the other hand, sought multiple modifications. Additionally, his desire appears to have begun to manifest after his divorce in 2016. Those with BID start experiencing symptoms in mid to late childhood. So, I suspect Gusatvson was using BID as a legal defense to lessen the likelihood or severity of his criminal sentencing. This did not work.

But, why does this matter from a philosophical and ethical standpoint?

First, it draws into question what the purpose of medicine is and what procedures fall under the umbrella of treatment. We typically accept that the amputation of a diseased limb to save someone’s life is acceptable. But is that the only circumstance? Might it be those other motivations, such as body modification or the improvement of the quality of life, could justify limb amputation?

Second, there are questions of justice and resource allocation. Who should pay for these operations and the ongoing support for the “willingly” disabled? Is it OK to amputate a limb if the individual pays out of pocket? What about access to benefits and social support? Should these be assigned to those who could have otherwise not needed them?

Third, we face questions about the limit of consent. Can you provide valid consent to such an operation, or are there certain things to which you cannot consent? Does this even matter in the case of such surgeries?

And fourth, can these interventions be legal? Is there any way that such an operation can be justified within the eyes of the law, or is the law’s very purpose to prevent such harmful acts, like these, from occurring?

But what I think both Gustavson and Yalu’s cases raise is the vulnerability of those suffering from BID. Those with the disorder have nowhere to turn to address the significant distress that they experience, which can last for decades, even entire lifetimes.

If the purpose of medical practice is to use knowledge of science and biology to improve the quality and length of life, then it seems clear that this will involve, in some exceptional circumstances, interventions which may be ethically troubling and socially distasteful. Indeed, many of the interventions and technologies which we might today consider ethically untroublesome or even mandated, like organ donation, were once viewed as affronts to the sanctity of the body and to nature itself.

This is to be expected as new knowledge and technologies extend the sphere of medical practice into realms which, for one reason or another, had previously remained outside its control.

Resisting calls to even investigate the effectiveness of amputation in BID cases cuts off potential treatment options for those with the disorder. This, in turn, means that those with BID feel betrayed, unseen, or misunderstood by the medical profession. So, they seek out alternative treatments, making them easily exploitable by the likes of Gustavson, who conducted these “surgeries” not to provide any therapeutic benefit but to satisfy his own desires and to make money.

It may be weird. It may be unbelievable. But until a better alternative comes along, amputations conducted under proper surgical conditions may be the best way to help those with BID. After all, who is likely to cause more harm, a trained surgical professional working with the proper tools in the right environment or someone like Gustavson, selling the spectacle of quasi-surgery and eating what he takes?

IVF and the Embryo’s Relationship to Human Life

image of in vitro fertilization

On Wednesday, June 12th, members of the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) attending their annual convention voted express opposition towards in vitro fertilization, or IVF. This is a series of procedures aimed to cause pregnancy for couples or individuals experiencing difficulties with fertility. The final steps of the process involve fertilizing egg cells in a lab, then implanting resulting embryos to result in pregnancy. Both because embryos may fail to implant, and because couples may hope to have multiple children through IVF, clinics produce multiple embryos. Those that go unused are either frozen or destroyed. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that there are 600,000 frozen embryos in the U.S., while the National Embryo Donation Center puts this figure at 1.5 million. (It is comparatively more difficult to attain figures on how many embryos are destroyed.)

It is worth looking at precisely what the attendees of the convention resolved. According to the organization’s summary of the meeting, attendees, given that IVF involves the creation, storage and destruction of embryos that will not be born, endorsed:

That the messengers to the Southern Baptist convention… call on Southern Baptists to reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation especially in the number of embryos generated in the IVF.

Further, they call on Southern Baptists “to advocate for the government to restrain actions inconsistent with the dignity and value of every human being, which necessarily includes frozen embryonic human beings,” and “promote adoption as one way… [for couples] to grow their families and [ask prospective adoptive parents] to consider adopting frozen embryos.”

Why propose this resolution now? It seems to make explicit what was previously just implied. In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that, according to state law, the fertilized embryos created from IVF are children. Following the ruling, three IVF clinics in Alabama suspended operations, prompting state lawmakers to craft legislation granting civil and criminal immunity to those involved in providing IVF treatment. At the Federal level, IVF has become a political football. Republicans in the Senate proposed legislation that would withhold Medicaid funds from any states which pass legislation banning IVF – legislation blocked by Democrats. Instead, Democrats favor a bill which would prevent states from restricting the procedure and require insurers to cover it. Only two Republicans voted to take this later bill to the floor, causing it to fall short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed.

Some context on this issue may be illuminating. According to the Pew Research Center, 10% of women in the U.S. self-report having received fertility services. The U,S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2021, 2.3% of all infants born in the U.S. (86,146) were conceived using IVF. So, restrictions on IVF stand to impact a significant number and perhaps prevent tens of thousands of births a year. Further, public sentiment is in favor of IVF. According again to Pew, 70% of subjects surveyed say access to IVF is a good thing and only 8% say it is bad. The least approving groups were white evangelical Protestants and those who self-describe as Republicans, 63% of whom approve.

Of course, the common occurrence and popular endorsement of a practice does not make it moral. Slavery, blood sports, and ritualistic sacrifices were historically common but we now condemn these as obviously wrong. So, we ought to consider the merits of the moral arguments against IVF, particularly those of the Southern Baptists.

The position advocated for by the SBCs seems to stem from a common starting point in many debates about reproduction – the idea that life begins at conception. The argument, in the context of IVF seems to go something like this: Human life begins with an embryo. The process of IVF produces embryos that are frozen indefinitely or destroyed. It is wrong to end or refuse to allow a human life to continue. Let’s call this argument the Embryo Personhood View or EPV.

This argument relies on several potentially questionable premises. For instance, one might wonder whether it is always wrong to end a human life – we may find it justified in the context of self-defense or perhaps triage. Further, the concept of human life is somewhat underexplained; perhaps what we are really concerned about are a being’s psychological capacities, not whether it is a human organism. Regardless, I think it is worthwhile to unpack the EPV in order to determine SBC’s theoretical commitments.

In particular, we should consider the statement that human life begins with an embryo. When we begin analyzing it, what it means may become less clear. Consider the fact that a plant begins with a seed. This statement tells us that a seed is necessary to get a plant but that more is required – you need a viable seed, nutritious soil, sunlight, and water.

Do the Southern Baptists believe that human life begins with an embryo in the sense that an embryo is necessary for human life? Certainly, they must believe this; you cannot have a new human life without first having an embryo. But this cannot be all that “human life begins with an embryo” means. First, many things are necessary for human life that seem to lack moral significance. Chemicals like carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are the necessary building blocks of our bodies; yet they do not have unconditional value or rights. Second, the biological materials that produce an embryo – namely, sperm and egg cells – are also necessary for human life. Do these cells have a similar dignity and value? Are they the proper subject of government regulation?

Perhaps instead the SBC’s view is that the embryo is sufficient for human life. When thing A is sufficient for thing B, that means A is enough to cause B. Getting 100% on a test is sufficient to pass it; you will certainly pass the test with a perfect score! But it is not necessary to pass, as you could pass with a lower score. So, in this case, an embryo being sufficient for a human life means that once we have an embryo, we have a being with a right to life. While this avoids some of the strange implications of the necessity view, it is not clear that this is a defensible position, nor one that the SBC actually holds.

First, there is the matter of context. An embryo is normally sufficient, at least in some sense, to produce a living human organism. When conception occurs inside the body, and the zygote develops into an embryo, this starts a process. Unless this process is interrupted by some means, the end result will be a morally valuable human being. Of course, it’s worth noting that the process may be interrupted by natural means; the embryo may fail to implant, it may be non-viable, there may be a miscarriage, etc. However, an embryo in a lab seems importantly different in the sense that it is not currently in this process. If left to its own devices, it simply will not survive. Thus, the circumstances of a frozen embryo make it seem comparatively less plausible that it is sufficient for human life; its circumstances are abnormal for an embryo.

Second, there is a matter of consistency. Considering the view that an embryo is a person, Dustin Crummett asks us to imagine the following case: A fertility clinic catches fire. One part of the building contains hundreds of frozen eggs. A five-year-old child is trapped on the other side. Who should firefighters save first? Clearly the five-year-old. But this suggests that embryos lack the same rights and dignity as humans. Otherwise, saving the frozen eggs would seem a more compelling course of action. In fact, it should be an obvious choice; there are literally hundreds of embryos, so if their lives are valuable, the moral reason to save them should be hundreds of times greater than the moral reason to save the five-year-old.

There is something generally puzzling about the positions staked out by the SBC when considered in totality. As noted earlier, the resolutions approved at the convention state that embryos have a right to life. They also promote adoption for couples struggling with fertility and ask them to “consider” adopting frozen embryos. Suppose embryos have a right to life. For a frozen embryo to live its life, it must be implanted into a person and develop in utero. Compare this to an already living child in the adoption system. Certainly, it would be better for a child in this position to be adopted into a loving family, but they will still survive if not. We cannot say this for a frozen embryo. Thus, it seems that the SBC should be imploring members of its Church to attempt to adopt frozen embryos. To merely ask them to consider this option suggests that their actual view of an embryo’s moral standing is less than what the resolutions explicitly claim.

Ultimately, the SBC’s position on IVF has to overcome some challenges. If they think life beginning with an embryo means an embryo is necessary for human life, then either their position is trivial or it goes too far. Yet, they may instead mean that embryos are sufficient for human life. Yet in the context of IVF, this claim is dubious. Further, this claim seems at odds with other positions that the SBC posits in their resolutions.

Views we posit in debates about reproductive rights have far-reaching implications. We often make claims about what rights we have over our own bodies, when we may permissibly end another life, and what precisely it is that makes a living organism worthy of moral consideration. As a result, it is always advisable to think carefully about what your views imply in other contexts, lest you commit yourself to a position you do not actually accept.

Is College Worth It?

photograph of college commencement

It’s not a new question, but it’s been receiving renewed attention after a recent analysis circulated online. According to a study from “The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity” (FREOPP), there are a number of popular bachelor’s and master’s degrees offered at schools in the U.S. that have a low or negative return on investment (ROI) which “leave students worse off.”

The calculation is a simple one: a college degree is an investment, as it costs money and time. People with college degrees have, in the past, typically made that money back long-term, since careers that require college degrees tended to pay higher salaries than those that didn’t. But with rising costs of college tuition and many well-paying careers no longer requiring college degrees, these days one may be better off, at least in terms of long-term earnings, to skip college altogether, rather than go to college to study certain subjects.

Some of the degrees identified in the study were perhaps surprising – many MBA programs, for example, provide an overall poor ROI according to the analysis. Others were less surprising, as they fit into the stereotype of degrees that aren’t “worth it”: degrees in fine arts, humanities, and education, for example, were identified as having low or negative ROIs.

Although it’s been reported on by numerous media outlets, the FREOPP’s study has not gone unchallenged. However, even if we take the results at face value, what should we do with them? The authors of the study argue that prospective students have a right to know about the ROI of a program they’re interested in pursuing, and that information about a program’s ROI should even be used to inform policy in the form of scholarships and bursaries.

I think we should do something different with the study: we should ignore it. Far from being useful information, focusing too much on ROI can have negative consequences.

There is an obvious concern with talking about which degrees are worth pursuing purely in financial terms: there are clearly other, non-financial benefits that come along with earning a college degree. This is perhaps especially the case for careers that may have comparatively lower earning potential but are seen as more rewarding by students who have certain interests.

This does not go unnoticed by the authors of the FREOPP report, who cite that the “joy factor” is something that needs to be considered when choosing a degree to pursue, and that degrees with low ROIs can nevertheless produce significant social benefits. At the same time, the report also claims that it would be “irresponsible for defenders of negative-ROI programs to use “social benefits” as a catchall excuse for poor performance,” while also claiming that “programs which generate large social benefits also come with significant private rewards.” The argument, then, is that if it is the case that when pursuing a degree with a low ROI one does produce significant social benefits, that investment will pay off, since producing social benefits, in turn, produces (presumably monetary) rewards.

Whether this is true depends on how we define a “social benefit.” There are clearly cases where social benefits are rewarded – the report’s example is that of someone trained as a biologist (another field identified as having an overall low ROI) contributing to the development of a life-saving vaccine. Conspicuously missing from this discussion, however, are less tangible social benefits that are more likely to be produced in the more stereotypically “underperforming” degrees, such as those that come about from contributions to the arts. While some of these contributions may also be accompanied by “significant private rewards” this is certainly not always the case.

Rather than acting as an “excuse,” then, a more inclusive and less obtuse interpretation of “social benefits” may very well on their own compensate for a lower ROI from degrees with so-called “poor performance.” Indeed, a fundamental issue with assigning any type of value to something like a college degree is that one’s preconceptions about what should constitute that value will taint any such calculations.

Solely calculating benefits in terms of the long-term financial wellbeing of individuals also ignores the value that lies in a society that encourages a variety of pursuits. Will you make more money learning how to program computers than learning how to paint? Probably. But is a society consisting exclusively of computer programmers one we should pursue? Probably not.

Information about the ROI of college degrees is also not useful for policy recommendations; indeed, it will likely cause more harm than good.

The FREOPP report notes that “[a]round 29 percent of federal Pell Grant and student loan dollars over the last five years were used at programs that leave students with a negative ROI,” and that such results “point to a role for federal policymakers in improving the ROI of higher education.” The thought here is that other stakeholders – the government, perhaps, or taxpayers, depending on the type of subsidy provided – ought to know about the ROI of programs they are helping students attend so that they can determine if their investment is really worth it.

But the implications of this kind of recommendation are potentially chilling. It is not difficult to envision a policy where, for example, Pell Grants are only provided to students who enroll in a degree that has been declared “worth it.” Since such grants are given to low-income students, it would essentially gatekeep entire swaths of academic pursuit to only allow the participation of the already well-off.

Instead of a recommendation at the policy level, isn’t information about ROI still useful when it comes to individuals trying to decide what they want to study in school? The report cites another report that claims that the primary motivation of most college students is to get a good job that will pay them well. While there are certainly conversations to be had about what college really is “for,” and whether the primary concern of students when pursuing a higher education should be trying to get training for the workforce, it is undoubtedly the case that students are concerned with this. Surely, then, knowing the ROI of a college degree will help them make that decision.

Will it, though? From the FREOPP report, engineering and computer science are listed as the “best financial bets,” while the fine arts are the worst. Is this surprising information? Today’s high school students are likely all too familiar with what is sometimes seen as a myopic focus on STEM careers and the monetary rewards associated with in-demand careers in tech. It is unlikely that many are shocked to learn that artists make less money.

There are, however, two potential takeaways from the information in the FREOPP. One the report itself gestures at is that tuition fees for some programs and schools are too high. Since the cost of tuition is potentially a significant factor in determining ROI, lower tuition fees would result in higher ROIs.

A second takeaway is that if ROI is a significant concern, then this is simply an indication that workers need to be paid more. It has been well-documented that, despite increasing productivity over decades, wages have not kept up. Combined with increased tuition fees, this means that regardless of what one chooses to study in college, one’s ROI will inevitably continue to decline.

Should We Protect Disinformation?

Every week, the Associated Press releases a “roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals” circulating social media. These stories range from recent claims that a Milwaukee election official lost her job because of her involvement in manipulating the 2020 election, to France (a NATO member state) deploying troops in Ukraine the latter of which, if true, would likely have resulted in a serious escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Attempts to combat misinformation and disinformation, like the AP’s fact-checking efforts, have become vital in an information environment increasingly polluted by information content problems, many of which find a home under the label “fake news.” To minimize the threat that these false claims pose to sociopolitical tensions and our information environment, it is worth looking at one of the more harmful forms of fake news, namely, disinformation. Accordingly, we ought to reassess why we protect deceptive speech of this sort under the First Amendment.

The philosophical literature concerning free speech has three broad rationales for its defense: truth-seeking, democracy-preserving, and personal autonomy-based arguments. Truth-seeking defenses are generally consequentialist in that they value free speech for its ability to provide us with truth. One philosopher commonly associated with the truth-seeking rationale is John Stuart Mill. He believed that wrong opinions eventually yield to argument and fact, and consequently, they remain indispensable from dialectic. According to Mill, we ought to enshrine protections for freedom of speech because it plays a fundamental role in our ability to discover truth. Moreover, he argued that to suppress speech is to assume infallibility. Put simply, because we can never be certain about the truth of our perspective, we are never justified in suppressing the speech of others.

It goes without saying that Mill is correct about wrong opinions inevitably leading to arguments. However, his notion that wrong opinions eventually bring about facts is overly optimistic. One cause for concern is Mill’s truth-seeking argument implicitly assumes that every interlocutor acts in good faith. This assumption overlooks the abundance of cases where individuals are not seeking truth but rather something malicious, as with those who create disinformation. In contrast to misinformation, whereby inaccuracies arise inadvertently, disinformation refers to incorrect information intended to deceive, frequently resulting in harm. Instead of contributing to the pursuit of truth, those who create and share disinformation intentionally seek to subvert our efforts to access and act on true beliefs.

Additionally, truth-seeking arguments tend to overlook instances where individuals have been isolated into informational communities. In these information silos, disinformation is rampant because opposing viewpoints have either been omitted or their credibility has been actively undermined, as is the case in epistemic bubbles and echo chambers, respectively. One can forgive Mill for not anticipating algorithmic filtering in social media platforms and its influence on social epistemic structures. Nevertheless, truth-seeking defenses of free speech do not provide a strong argument for treating disinformation as protected speech.

Like their truth-seeking counterparts, democracy-preserving rationales are also typically consequentialist. Rationales of this sort consider freedom of speech invaluable to preserving democracy. Many advocates of democracy-preserving arguments, like the philosopher and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn, structure their argument around the belief that a well-informed electorate is a fundamental component of a democracy. For an electorate to be well-informed, they argue it is necessary to protect freedom of speech.

Although the uninhibited flow of information can serve an important role in cultivating a well-informed electorate, defenders of democracy-preserving rationales often disregard how a laissez-faire approach to speech can undermine the same institutions that freedom of speech is intended to uphold. Take, for example, disinformation’s role in misinforming an electorate and the catastrophic consequences this can have on a democracy. Even a cursory glance at the disinformation campaigns orchestrated by those that sought to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election and their culmination in the 2021 United States Capitol attack demonstrates that speech that deliberately misleads others can undermine democratic institutions.

Perhaps the most compelling rationale for treating disinformation as protected speech comes from personal autonomy arguments. Although these arguments vary depending on one’s notion of autonomy, they generally claim that free speech is a natural right and thus fundamental and inalienable.

Autonomy defenses of free speech are commonly divided into speaker- and listener-centered theories. Procedural speaker-centered theories posit that restricting someone’s speech based on viewpoint undermines that individual’s judgment regarding what they choose to express to others. For example, a restriction against endorsing a particular political candidate would undermine the autonomy of their supporters. Procedural listener-centered theories contend that individuals have sovereignty over what they believe in relation to what they see, hear, and read. For instance, if the state were to intervene before individuals could reach a judgment on their own, this would violate their right and duty to independently decide how to act based on the information they receive. This latter view is often attributed to the philosopher Thomas Scanlon’s earlier work. For Scanlon, when we form beliefs and actions based on information others provide, we depend on our autonomous judgment.

Like the other two rationales, autonomy-based defenses routinely disregard how free speech absolutism can undermine the same institutions or ideals they aim to protect. Philosophers like Susan Brison have argued that misleading or false information, like fake news, can compromise autonomy by undermining one’s ability to make informed decisions. Brison believes this is partly because careful judgment is not always the determining factor that leads to our formation of beliefs. Put otherwise, we don’t always process information rationally. As a result, she argues, restricting fake news and other forms of disinformation does not deprive individuals of information that would be of any value to their ability to form accurate beliefs. Furthermore, it isn’t evident how this notion of autonomy precludes governmental intervention in restricting intentionally deceptive speech.

One might object that stripping legal protections for disinformation could result in individuals using the legal system to censor their political opponents. Critics might also worry that restrictions could result in legal punishment for unintentional instances of fake news. These concerns fittingly note that “fake news” has increasingly been misappropriated as a label for any content one finds disagreeable or seeks to discredit. Furthermore, concern about political censorship is not inapt given that much disagreement about what constitutes fake news correlates with political partisanship.

However, my focus here is on disinformation rather than the broader category of fake news. By defining fake news of the sort that we might consider restricting as synonymous with disinformation, we exclude instances of negligence (i.e., misinformation) or satire where false information is unintentional or palpable enough to recognize the comedic intent of the work.

Another potential objection comes from those who are sympathetic to governmental distrust rationales. Governmental distrust rationales range from worries about inefficiencies in enforcing policies (e.g., wasteful spending) to broader concerns about the government turning tyrannical. In the case of restricting disinformation, proponents claim that providing the government with the power to punish individuals for their speech would be overreaching, that is, too restrictive toward speech that deserves protections (e.g., political dissent, subversive art). However, adherents of governmental distrust rationales neglect to recognize that we already permit the government to restrict certain types of deceptive speech like false advertising. We provide the government with these powers because we recognize the importance of protecting individuals from situations where they are deceived into acting on false beliefs.

If none of the leading rationales for the value of free speech provide a strong basis for protecting disinformation, maybe we ought to heed the suggestion of philosophers who ask us to reflect upon what we value most in our commitment to free speech and consider whether the speech we currently protect aligns with those values. Our options inevitably present unique tradeoffs. However, it’s worth weighing these tradeoffs in consideration with the kind of society we want: one which places full responsibility on individuals to recognize and decide which information is reliable or one that plays a more active role in protecting its citizens from deceptive content.

Biden’s New Border Policy and the Rights of Asylum Seekers

photograph of large group crossing field

Illegal immigration is shaping up to be a major issue in the 2024 election. 48% of people say they care about it a “great deal” according to a recent Gallup poll. It is, however, far from clear how to address the issue or to even identify what the issue specifically is. A planned bipartisan immigration deal was scuttled earlier this year when Republicans withdrew support following Trump’s attack on the proposed legislation. If successful, it would have been the first major congressional action on immigration since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Following this failure, and with immigration still forefront in the minds of many American voters, on Wednesday, June 5th, President Biden implemented a controversial executive order, which placed restrictions on the asylum process.

Asylum seekers make up only a fraction of total immigrants, but there are currently over a million asylum applicants on the U.S. waitlist – a few 10,000 are approved every year. These asylum seekers request refuge in the United States to avoid (potential) persecution on the basis of things like race, religion, or political affiliation. Because of these additional considerations, the asylum process raises a unique set of ethical questions. While immigration, generally, is discussed in consequentialist terms — comparing the harms and benefits of different immigration policies — asylum suggests a fixed, uncompromising duty to rescue those in need.

Where might this obligation come from? One line of arguments involves human rights or internationally guaranteed rights. If we accept that humans, either by their nature or by their membership in a global community, are owed certain protections and powers unjustly denied them in their country, then other nations may be on the hook for ensuring their delivery. Just as we typically believe that a passerby has an obligation to assist an injured stranger, we might similarly assert that well-positioned nations are similarly obligated. Countries owe refuge to those that arrive at their doorstep fleeing persecution.

But which country is responsible for making up this deficit? Skeptics are quick to point out that just because someone is owed these goods somewhere, does not mean they are owed asylum in whichever country they choose. And indeed, the United States has increasingly refused entry to asylum seekers who have traveled through a safe country to get there. But surely it cannot be that every state is permitted to pass the buck, or else asylum seekers might forever be denied what they are owed. Is there a way to resolve this tension?

Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration has been placing restrictions on just who can apply for asylum, due to both spiking asylum claims amid political violence in Central America as well as fears of immigrants abusing the asylum system. June 5th’s executive order allows for the suspension of asylum claims at border regions outside of ports of entry as long as the threshold number (2,500 of average immigration stops per day) is reached. As average daily immigration stops are almost always above this number, the executive order nearly functions as a de facto ban on asylum claims outside of ports of entry. (A port of entry is a designated lawful entry point into the country staffed by customs and border patrol personnel, such as an airport.) This dovetails with other Biden administration policies to mitigate asylum seeking and to steer immigrants towards lawful ports of entry.

But as ethicists we should ask: does this shift in policy interfere with the rights of asylum seekers? A possible reply is that, like any good Samaritan, the United States should not be expected to help if there is an extensive risk to itself. However, evidence indicates that at least the long-term economic impact of refugees and asylum seekers is positive. This does not deny the possibility of other kinds of harms or more local economic harms, but especially given the small number of asylum seekers compared to the population of the United States, contending they pose an extensive risk is dubious.

Another thought is that asylum seekers should simply enter at a port of entry instead of illegally across the border to ensure the protection of their rights. The adequacy of this response will depend on the effective function of legal ports of entry. Additionally, almost by definition, asylum seekers will have some of the least control over the circumstances of their entry and their ability to navigate the U.S. immigration system. If we are serious about granting asylum to those fleeing persecution, then there needs to be a relatively low barrier to enter the system to ensure it does not miss people with the greatest need. To be clear though, exploitation of the system need not follow from this fact. An effective well-staffed asylum system could quickly and rigorously make determinations about asylum status even if applying for asylum is made easier.

The alternative is difficult to stomach; stripping the opportunity of asylum for someone who had to flee their country is a devastating punishment. Is the erosion of asylum seekers’ rights an acceptable byproduct of an illegal immigration crackdown? If we accept the rights of asylum seekers as something foundational – something crucial to protect as long as it does not seriously burden the host country – then they likely need to be prioritized and protected as opposed to lost among general cost-benefit analysis of immigration or the vicissitudes of electoral politics.

Rolling the Dice: The Ethics of Randomized Research Funding

photograph of bingo balls in a lottery machine

There is only so much money to go around.

We hear this reasoning all the time in our personal and political lives. Want to buy a new car and a next-gen console? Tough. You can only afford one (or quite possibly, none). So, decisions must be made about where you spend your money. Do you forgo the essentials to get the luxuries? Probably not. It’s usually best to buy what you need before what you want, and for many, paying for the former leaves little for the latter.

The same is true for governments. They can’t simply print money without consequences, as they don’t have an unlimited balance from which to draw. Indeed, discussions about fiscal responsibility – being economically sensible by balancing the books – permeate political debates worldwide. As now infamously encapsulated by former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s “magic money tree” speech, when it comes to deciding where money is spent, just like us individuals managing our household budgets, those in charge have to make decisions that mean some things we’d want to dedicate money to get shafted.

But it is not only in the personal and political spheres that this is a reality. It also occurs in philosophy and, more broadly, in academia. It costs money to employ people to ponder life’s great mysteries. It also costs money to train them so they have the required skills. It costs money to build and maintain the administrative systems required to employ them and those they work with, and it costs money to send them to conferences to share their research with others. And while philosophers don’t typically need much resources (there’s no large hadron collider for ethics or metaphysics), we need our basic needs met; we need to get paid to afford to live. So, those holding the purse strings make similar decisions about what projects to fund and who to employ as you and I do about what to spend our money on. They have a limited fund to divvy up. For every researcher – senior, established, early career, or even pre-PhD – who secures funding to run their project or fund their post, countless more aren’t so lucky.

This places funding bodies in a somewhat unenviable situation as they must decide, from amongst the numerous applications they receive, which ones they should award funding to and which they have to reject; and there are always more rejections than acceptances. For instance, the British Academy – one of the U.K.’s largest research funders – runs an early career fellowship scheme with a typical success rate of less than 10%. Similar stats can be attributed to comparable schemes run by other U.K. funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust. I suspect the same is true for funders in other jurisdictions.

So, how do funders decide which projects to support? Typically (hopefully), these decisions are made based on merit. Applicants identify a scheme they want to apply for and submit a research proposal, a CV, and referee statements (and maybe some other documentation). The funding body then considers these applications, ranks them according to a set list of criteria, and rewards the lucky few with funding. Those falling short receive a nicely worded email and a “better luck next time” metaphorical pat on the head.

At least, this is how it is supposed to work. Recently, however, funding bodies have been increasingly vocal about how hard it is to distinguish worthy from unworthy proposals. Or, to be more accurate, they’re receiving so many proposals of top quality that they can’t rank them. When it comes to selecting worthy projects, according to those funders, even after a rigorous selection process, they still have more in the “yes” pile than the available funding permits, and they simply can’t choose which projects deserve to be greenlit.

The question, then, which touches upon themes of fairness and responsibility, is what to do about this. How should funding bodies respond when faced with more worthy projects than they can fund and seemingly no way to choose between them? Some have decided that the best way forward is to leave it up to chance.

This method, typically called randomization, is seen as a way for funders to offload the work of selecting between seemingly equally deserving projects onto Lady Luck. In essence, projects are put into a hat, and those pulled out receive funding. This sidesteps the messy work of picking favorites and the need for splitting hairs. Of course, an entirely random selection process would be unfair as it would entail all projects, regardless of merit, being given an equal chance at receiving funding. So, when employed, the randomization is only partial. Prospective projects still go through the same evaluation process as before, thus maintaining the quality of work; it is only at the final step when only worthy projects remain, and if there is a need for it, that randomization is employed.

The aforementioned British Academy was the first major funder to trial partial randomization, trying it out in 2022 for a three-year period as part of their Small Research Grants scheme. Since then, other funders have followed its lead, including the Natural Environment Research Council, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Carnegie Trust. It is not unreasonable to expect that other funders, upon seeing the increasing use of partial randomization, might also follow suit.

However, the justification for its use goes beyond simply making the funder’s life easier. According to those same funders, it also promotes diversity and fairness. The envisioned mechanisms powering these proposed benefits are relatively intuitive. If all the proposals selected for random selection meet the necessary standards, other factors that might inadvertently influence funding decisions – such as perceived socio-economic or cultural backgrounds – would not be a factor. In other words, partial randomization removes a layer of human bias from the selection process. Indeed, there’s evidence to support such an idea, as the British Academy has already announced that since their trial started, there has been a notable increase in successful projects originating from scholars from previously underrepresented backgrounds. As noted by Professor Simon Swain, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Research and Higher Education Policy:

The increase in successful applications from historically underrepresented ethnic backgrounds and those based in Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with broader institutional representation, suggests that awarding grants in this way [via partial randomization] could lead to more diverse cohorts of Small Research Grant-holders.

So, not only does partial randomization relieve decision pressures on the funders, but it also benefits those who have historically faced exclusion from such opportunities, which, in turn, enhances the quality of academic research overall. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

Provided that partial randomization is genuinely random, I believe it can also provide solace to researchers whose projects do not get selected. This is because it makes the luck aspect of grant chasing explicit. Like much in life, luck plays a massive role in whether a project gets funding. Even if your work is as good as possible, success depends on multiple factors outside an applicant’s control: is the reviewer familiar with the project’s field? Has another applicant got better-written references? Is the reviewer hungry? Or ill? Or tired? All these things, which shouldn’t influence funding decisions, inevitably do. By building into the system a degree of randomization – a quantifiable stage in which luck is explicit – prospective applicants can (or I think should) be able to take solace from the fact that their project may not get selected not because of something they did or didn’t do, but because it just wasn’t their day.

However, while partial randomization might have some genuinely desirable benefits, it leaves me slightly uneasy because it has an air of abandonment (maybe even a dereliction) of duty on the funder’s behalf.

It is the funder’s job, or at least the job of those on the relevant selection committees, to rank the projects according to the relevant criteria and decide which should be awarded funding. By outsourcing the final part of this process to a randomized system – be that as complex as a dynamic, multifactored algorithm or as simple as a hat full of names – the funders avoid discharging this duty. They avoid deciding which projects should get funding and avoid responsibility for the outcome. They can wipe their hands of the final selection stage and so wipe their hands of the joy and, crucially, disappointment they bring to applicants. While I think prospective applicants can take solace from knowing their project might fail based on nothing but luck, this robs those applicants of a figure at which to be mad; you can be angry at an envisioned funder or selection committee if you know that, somewhere, a person said your project shouldn’t receive funding. But, when a project is rejected based on luck, you have no one at which to direct any anger or sadness. An algorithm isn’t as good a target for frustration as a person or group.

Ultimately, while the anticipated benefits of partial randomization (increased diversity and fairness) are desirable, the selection method’s usage has an air of avoidance and ease. It’s the funder’s job to pick the appropriate projects. If they can’t do this fairly, do we want them to take the easy way out, or would we prefer they worked harder to make a justifiable decision?

Expert Says It’s Time to Retire “Expert Says” Articles

cropped photograph of scientist in lab

The media has not always had a great track record when it comes to covering scientific and academic issues. It’s often noted that the news media report findings with exaggerated or sensationalized headlines, like how coffee can help reverse liver damage or smelling farts might be healthy. Reporting on studies can be problematic for several reasons, but there may be another kind of reporting that is even worse: the “expert(s) say” article. These articles use expert testimony (supposedly based on one’s expertise in a specific field) to comment on current public policy debates. But illicit appeals to authority threaten to shatter what little public trust remains.

There is nothing inherently wrong with appealing to expert testimony, and there are a great many articles where experts communicate meaningful facts and insights to their audience. However, as anyone who has taken a critical thinking course will tell you, there are only certain circumstances where appeals to authority are justified. To be legitimate, the authority appealed to must be generally recognized as an expert and their testimony must be based on their particular expertise. The reason we accept a claim on the basis of someone’s say-so is because they represent a broader group of people following a larger process of peer review meant to fact-check research, reproduce scientific results, and hold individuals accountable for their claims.

We often rely on experts to explain issues of public importance that may not be widely understood, like how the legal process works or how a virus can spread. Expert testimony can also be a way of combating misinformation and building trust, as (ideally) an expert can point to tangible ways to demonstrate the truth of what they are saying. In general, people are more willing to trust information coming from a credentialed expert than that coming from a journalist or media personality.

Unfortunately, there are many ways in which we can abuse that public trust. Consider all the news segments and articles that turn to psychologists or “body language experts” to speculate about the mental state of a person without previously examining them. Asking an expert to weigh in with limited information confuses speculation with news. This means that claims characterized as expert testimony are sometimes nothing more than opinions. People comment on subjects beyond their field of expertise or ignore the lack of consensus within their epistemic community. This practice risks putting the stamp of legitimacy on claims that do not deserve it.

There are examples of similar “expert says” articles, some of which unnecessarily rely on experts to tell you things you already know or to simply express an opinion. Did you know that experts say that complicated passwords can save you from hacking? Did you know that experts believe that women’s apparel should have more pockets? Did you know that according to wetland experts, wetlands are too important not to protect? Or, that according to one expert, the pandemic is “far from over”? Is the public enlightened when an expert claims that a politician not taking a stance on remote work is “surprising” or that if the financially unstable Canada Post doesn’t stabilize soon it could “go the route of Blockbuster”? According to one article, experts believe AI-powered hate content is on the rise (again without a specific claim to substantiate this), while another acknowledges that there is no expert consensus on AI risks.

Recently, the Canadian government made changes to the passport, removing depictions of Canadian history. According to an “expert” – an associate professor of rhetoric, writing, and communications – the critics were engaged in “troll politics” and the entire issue was “utterly fabricated” for the culture war. Such “expert” testimony is about a controversial issue and cites nothing to substantiate the claims. While their expertise may deal with communication, it’s not immediately relevant to the cultural or historical issue. These opinions are disguised as something more legitimate than they ultimately are.

It is not difficult to find articles loaded with similarly hollow “expert” claims – where it isn’t clear what the person is an expert of or where opinions are the only thing on offer. The media can further manipulate the message by cherry-picking experts or relying on one expert’s idiosyncratic views. Ultimately, we do a disservice to the public as well as real experts by appealing to expertise in the way they do. By continuing to allow opinions to be disguised as facts, we undermine trust in genuine expertise. Not only must the media do better in vetting and presenting claims, experts too must learn to be more careful about weighing in on a controversial topic. Expert testimony shouldn’t ever simply replace the critical thinking process.

Should Sports Broadcasts Promote Gambling?

In May 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the provisions in the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act – prohibiting states from authorizing sports betting – were unconstitutional. In the years that followed, many states began to legalize sports betting. According to the American Gaming Association, only 12 states have not yet legalized some form of sports betting. Additionally, in 30 states and the District of Columbia, bettors can place wagers using a mobile device like their phone. Since then, it has become a massive industry; about 20% of Americans in 2022 reported placing at least one sports bet in the prior year, and bettors have placed over 300 billion dollars in sports bets across the country since 2018.

This has begun to radically change sports broadcasts. Whereas in years past commentators may have made sly comments about potential bets, gambling is now discussed openly; broadcasts may give live updates on the betting line and display the over/under on the scoreboard. Today, significant portions of sports broadcasts are dedicated to gambling. Just look at the broadcasts from ESPN, the largest exclusively sports broadcasting network. ESPN now even lends their name to a sportsbook. During the PGA Championship, the network offered an “ESPN BET” broadcast which discussed potential bets and saw analysts providing input on bets as the action progressed. Broadcasters may even suggest specific wagers; during broadcasts of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, the team I follow, on the MSG Network, panelists would propose a specific parlay of prop bets during the pre-game, note the payout of that parlay, then check in on its progress each intermission.

It is worth considering whether this promotion of gambling by broadcasters is something we should normalize or whether it ought to be limited. To be clear, this is different from assessing whether sports gambling itself should be restricted. I tend to think that our attitudes regarding permitting gambling ought to fall under the harm principle – the idea that unless one’s actions are directly harming others, then we generally ought to avoid interfering with others’ choices. Although gambling can have harmful consequences, it does not directly harm others. (Though some of the points I raise later may put pressure on this idea.)

So, what precisely do I mean by “promoting gambling”? I’ll use this phrasing as shorthand for, effectively, encouraging viewers to place bets. This may include namedropping specific sportsbooks during broadcasts, offering deals for first time gamblers to place bets, discussing potential bets and/or dedicating time for analysts to provide their input on specific bets. There may be other ways in which a broadcaster could promote sports betting, these are just a few that I have encountered regularly while watching sports. Note, too, that this is different from merely allowing an advertiser to purchase ad spots.

One obvious argument for the permissibility of promoting gambling stems from the kind of considerations I mentioned earlier – considerations about harmfulness. It is just not immediately obvious that promoting gambling harms anyone.

Further, broadcasters are private companies acting on the marketplace. They receive money from advertisers of other products to promote those goods. What makes a sportsbook any different? Additionally, given the popularity of sports betting, it’s very likely that viewers would be interested in these segments. Thus, market forces, both at the level of advertising and at consumer preferences, suggest that the promotion of gambling is nothing more than normal corporate profit seeking.

However, this argument fails to note the ways in which sportsbooks may be different from other products and services that broadcasters promote. Gambling is potentially addictive. A 2015 study from Welte et al. found that 4.6% of Americans demonstrate problematic gambling behavior at some point in their lives, with problematic behavior being defined as meeting three or more criteria in the DSM-IV’s description of gambling addiction. 1.4% experience pathological gambling, demonstrating five or more symptoms. While the rates seem low, if they are generalizable to the U.S. population of about 336 million, this means that about 15.5 million Americans will engage in problematic gambling behavior and 4.7 million will at some point demonstrate pathological gambling.

It also stands to reason that these figures could rise even higher in the current landscape. First, betting is easier than ever; you can just download an app and keep placing bets from your couch while watching games. Second, the promotion and discussion of gambling during broadcasts normalizes betting. As this becomes a more normal part of sports fandom, those with addictive tendencies who may otherwise not gamble may be drawn in and develop an addiction.

Yet one might argue that this should not prompt calls for regulation. Ultimately, people can become addicted to many things; shopping, video games, and alcohol for instance are potentially addictive but most people can enjoy these things responsibly. And responsible use can be fun! Admittedly, I was a lot more interested in last year’s Super Bowl after I had placed a parlay on a few prop bets. Thus, someone making this argument may see regulations on gambling as a form of perfectionism, an attempt by the state to encourage people to develop virtues and avoid behaviors that some label as vices. This is, after all, part of the reason why gambling was previously illegal in the United States. Yet it seems that a democratic state has, at best, a limited prerogative to promote virtue. So perhaps regulating gambling by limiting promotion of sports betting falls outside this prerogative.

It may be worth noting, though, that we limit the ways in which other sorts of behaviors can be discussed or promoted. For instance, since 2009 cigarette advertisements have been illegal in the U.S. Further, while alcohol consumption is a significant part of sports fandom culture, and alcohol manufacturers, particularly beer producers, frequently advertise during sports, sports broadcasts do not dedicate entire segments to discussing the best beer to consume during the game or offering promotions for first time drinkers. Limiting the ways in which sports betting may be promoted, in particular by sports broadcasters, may offer a middle ground between prohibition of gambling and the recent state of affairs.

Additionally, aside from the effects on bettors, one might worry about potential conflicts of interest. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, the heavy promotion of sports betting may create perverse incentives for sports broadcasters. It is highly unlikely that this could trickle down to the level of competition – although it is worth noting that individual teams and leagues have created partnerships with sportsbooks. However, broadcasters may be able to shape bettor behaviors. Sportsbooks ensure profits, in part, by ensuring that roughly an equal number of bettors place wagers on opposite outcomes. To put it simply, they want the same number of people betting that the home team will win and that the visitors will prevail. Even if sportsbooks do not place pressure on the broadcasters with whom they advertise, these broadcasters have an incentive to make the partnership as lucrative as possible for the sportsbook. This could come in the form of encouraging bets that help balance the books, or perhaps even in the form of suggesting that incredibly unlikely bets will pay off. Once broadcasters begin taking money from sportsbooks, it gives them incentive to mislead or manipulate their views.

Of course, one may argue that the speculation above goes too far. It goes into the realm of conspiratorial thinking; surely if sportsbooks were working with broadcasters to help increase the profits, this secret would be difficult to keep. Regardless, just the appearance or potential for a conflict of interest may often be just as troubling as an actual conflict. Although sports broadcasters do not seem to have a robust moral obligation to be honest to viewers, they ought to carefully consider whether their choices may undermine the extent to which viewers think of them as trusted sources of information. The American public in general has little confidence in institutions, so perhaps we ought to be careful to give them more reason to distrust yet another institution.

The landscape of sports betting has rapidly changed in the United States. Previously treated as a kind of “open secret” that broadcasters only cheekily referenced, it’s now difficult to watch a game without seeing betting lines, an over-under or prop bets on a specific player’s performance. Given gambling’s addictive nature and this addiction’s potential to create great harms, it is worth taking a step back to consider the reasons for and against allowing this state of affairs to continue as is.

Korea, Climate Change, and Intergenerational Justice – Part 2

Previously, I discussed a landmark case in the Constitutional Court of Korea in which 200 plaintiffs – mostly babies and children – claim that the Korean government has failed to protect its people by not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis. With Korea being uniquely prone to rising sea levels and extreme weather events, the plaintiffs are seeking to establish a legal precedent that would recognize the harms they will now suffer as a result of the Korean government’s inaction.

This case poses a battery of moral questions; but I focused on the unique considerations raised by just one of the plaintiffs: an unborn fetus nicknamed “Woodpecker.” I noted how Woodpecker’s inclusion challenges us to consider whether or not we can wrong individuals who do not (yet) even exist. Intergenerational justice seeks to explain how this is possible. It notes that while many of the harms that result from our actions are immediate, others might be deferred. And, if we believe that we bear moral responsibility for the harms that we cause, this might necessitate acknowledging that it is possible for us to now wrong an individual who does not even exist.

I previously considered one potentially concerning implication of this approach: namely, that it drastically widens the scope of individuals to whom we might owe duties. Now, however, I want to consider a much deeper problem for intergenerational justice: one that might threaten the very foundation of the entire project.

Consider, again, the case of the effluent-spewing factory set up by Blight Inc. in a lakeside community. We told the story of “Bluebird,” a child born 100 years hence, who would suffer a severe illness as a result of Blight Inc.’s historical pollution. As such, we provided a description of how we might coherently claim that the plant now wrongs Bluebird – despite Bluebird not yet even existing.

But what does this mean? In simplest terms, we might say that Bluebird is wronged by Blight Inc. because Blight Inc. has caused Bluebird to be worse off. But how do we show this? Ordinarily, we might establish whether A causes B by asking whether or not B would have happened but for A’s occurrence. This is often referred to as “counterfactual causation.” Suppose I want to know if my eating of a banana is a cause of my being bitten by a mosquito. According to counterfactual causation, I simply need to ask “would the mosquito have still bitten me but for my eating of the banana?” If the answer is “no,” then this is a good indication that my eating of the banana is a cause of my bite. If the answer is instead “yes” (i.e., the mosquito would have bitten me whether I’d eaten the banana or not), then this is a good indication that my eating of the banana is not a cause of my bite.

Return, then, to the case of Bluebird: When we say that Blight Inc. has made Bluebird worse off, we are essentially saying that but for Blight Inc’s actions, Bluebird would have been living a better life (i.e., one absent their disease). But here’s the thing: this counterfactual approach becomes enormously problematic when applied to future persons. Suppose, for example, that Bluebird’s grandparents met at a rally protesting the actions of Blight Inc. Is it now true that but for Blight Inc’s actions, Bluebird would have been living a better life? No. It is now the case that but for Blight Inc’s actions Bluebird never would have existed in the first place. Far from being the cause of Bluebird having a worse life, Blight Inc. is in fact the cause of their having any life at all.

This quirk of the approach might not seem all that concerning when we realize that it only applies to cases where someone wholly owes their existence to the harms perpetuated by the polluter. But the problem becomes much worse when applied to the climate crisis. Why? Because the effects of the crisis are massive and far-reaching. Consider our world 200 years hence. The 2224 in which we manage to successful avert climate catastrophe (call this 2024A) is going to be radically different to the 2224 in which we do not – a world ravaged by widespread droughts, floods, forest fires, and food shortages (call this 2024B). Why does this matter? Well, each and every one of us owes our existence to a very specific set of circumstances. We are each the result of a specific sperm and a specific egg uniting at a specific point in time. Had our parents conceived just a few minutes earlier or later, an entirely different person would have been created (a very close sibling, most likely). In this way, the tiniest change in these circumstances would have meant that we never even existed.

Given this, it becomes quickly apparent that no person who exists in 2024A could also exist in 2024B. Whatever unique set of circumstances led to the creation of a particular person in 2024B, there is no way that those same circumstances could also come about in 2024A. Why is this problematic? Because – if we use counterfactual causation – we cannot say that our climate failures now cause the people in 2024B to be “worse off.” Why? Because it’s not true that but for these failures, those living in 2024B would have had a better life. Rather, they would have had no life at all. Their very existence is dependent on their world being precisely the way it is.

This concern is referred to as the Non-Identity Problem, and was first posed by philosopher Derek Parfit. Crafting a solution is no easy feat. Yet it seems that we must if we wish to make coherent claims of intergenerational justice: that is, claims of the kind that our actions now are capable of wronging those who have not yet come into existence.

Fortunately, the Non-Identity Problem is limited to cases where a person’s existence depends on the world being precisely the way it has turned out to be. This means that it provides no challenge to the claims of individuals like Woodpecker. Since Woodpecker has already been conceived, their existence is assured – and that existence can be one that continues into a future where humanity pulls itself back from the brink of climate catastrophe or a future where we descend further into environmental disaster. Given this, it is true that – if the Korean government (and the world at large) fails to take the right actions – they will have caused Woodpecker to be worse off. Their inclusion as a plaintiff in this case, then, seems perfectly apt.