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Trans Panic and the Philosophy of Fear

image of storm clouds gathering

As a trans person living in the U.S. right now, how can you both stay apprised of dangers to your health and political rights and not become paralyzed by the overwhelming quantity of anti-trans legislation and sentiment? When is the fear that you feel appropriate? When does it become something that is more hurtful than helpful?

These are difficult questions, because the dangers to trans people are very real, whether that be a lack of affordable access to gender-affirming medical care, an inability to get contraceptives or access to abortion, or an overturning of other rights using the reasoning given in Dobbs that they are not “deeply rooted in our history or traditions.”

There are two traps that it is easy to fall into, either ignoring these threats and failing to do anything to prevent them or becoming obsessed with anti-trans news at the expense of your health.

These responses are understandable given the near constant onslaught of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, but they may not be the most helpful.

In what follows, I do not intend to identify one perfect way to react in the face of oppression. Instead, I’d like to make several distinctions between different kinds of fear so that we can collectively be more reflective about the emotions we are feeling in this time and have more options in choosing how to respond to them.

First, who are you feeling fear for? Is it just for yourself? Do you only care about things that threaten you? Is it just for you and members of your community? Do you only care about the dangers that face your friends or people who are a part of the same group? Or do you feel fear for yourself and others when they are threatened, whether they are in your group or not?

It makes sense that we would be more fearful for ourselves and for those close to us, but there is a danger in failing to recognize the dangers that are present to other marginalized communities.

Just as Myisha Cherry argues that rage is more productive when it is felt in response to an injustice, it seems that fear is more appropriate when it is felt in solidarity with others.

If, as a white, abled, trans person, you only feel fear in response to threats to trans people and not to people of color or people with disabilities, something has gone wrong.

The purpose of fear seems to be to remind us to attend to certain dangers or risks, so that we can prevent those things from happening. Unlike anger, which is backward-looking and responds to past injustice, fear is forward-looking and responds to potential injustice. If we just attend to what could happen to us, we will miss the perils that threaten others and fail to counteract them before it is too late.

Second, is the fear that you feel constant and unchanging? Or is it responsive to features of the situation? For example, do your fears start to resolve if anti-trans legislation slows down and trans rights are being secured? Or do you remain stuck in high alert even after the danger has passed?

One of the difficulties of the experience of sustained danger to one’s safety is that it often leads to complex trauma that makes it easy to be hyper-aware of any potential danger but hard to gauge which threats can be ignored.

We can see this now in the responses that many people are having in these later stages of the pandemic, where they might find themselves having a panic attack after being in a small, crowded room, even though the collective dangers to health have shifted dramatically as more people have gained access to the vaccine.

These kinds of trauma reactions are certainly understandable, but a fear that does not respond to the situation can lead to actions that do not actually address the problem at hand. Unresponsive fear can also interfere with being able to feel safe, to enjoy relaxing, or to go out and participate in meaningful social activities. As much as it is important to attend to dangers to trans rights, it is equally, if not more, important to preserve trans joy.

Third, is the fear helping us to act in ways that address the danger? Though fear can prompt action that is targeted and useful, it can also make us paralyzed, more suspicious and paranoid, and less calm and deliberate in our thinking. When we are collectively afraid, we can easily begin to fight among ourselves because emotions are high. This can lead to a cycle in which effective action seems less and less possible, which can further reinforce a collective paralysis.

To avoid this outcome, it seems important to recognize the ways that fear operates and give space to individuals to express those fears, work through them collectively, and ensure that the most pressing danger is being targeted. Likewise, we must remember to be in solidarity with others and the particular threats that are pertinent to them. If we can band together to protect each other from the threats that we face, we will have a better chance of mounting an effective response.

Fear has a bad reputation as a negative emotion that must be overcome or avoided.

See, for instance, Master Yoda’s words that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Or the famous Dune quote: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” I am unconvinced, however, that fear is always something to be avoided. Since fear draws our attention to dangers that often need to be attended to, it seems helpful and even good in certain circumstances.

But why not just say that the feeling of fear itself is something bad that needs to be overcome? Perhaps it points us in the right direction at first, but surely the feeling of fear is something to be overcome. There are two things to say in response. First, courage is often taken to involve acting despite fear; without fear, an action doesn’t seem nearly as courageous. So, at the very least, fear can give meaning to certain kinds of actions.

Second, fear can often prompt us to act and take measures to ensure our safety in the future. For example, if I am afraid of leaving the stove on when I go on a trip, I might check it again before I leave to ensure that it is off. Or, if I am afraid that a law will pass, I might organize my friends and family to contact their legislators to prevent it from passing. What needs to be overcome is not necessarily fear, but paralysis.

So long as our fear moves us to act in ways that are appropriate and doesn’t get in the way of being able to flourish, it seems straightforwardly helpful. Of course, living under oppression isn’t so easy, and the constant terrorism can interfere with feeling safe and happy. The answer, however, isn’t to get rid of fear; it’s to contextualize it.

On Anxiety and Activism

"The End Is Nigh" poster featuring a COVID spore and gasmask

The Plough Quarterly recently released a new essay collection called Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year. In a contribution by Joseph Keegin, “Be Not Afraid,” he details some of his memories of his father’s final days, and the looming role that “outrage media” played in their interactions. He writes,

My dad had neither a firearm to his name, nor a college degree. What he did have, however, was a deep, foundation-rattling anxiety about the world ubiquitous among boomers that made him—and countless others like him—easily exploitable by media conglomerates whose business model relies on sowing hysteria and reaping the reward of advertising revenue.

Keegin’s essay is aimed at a predominantly religious audience. He ends his essay by arguing that Christians bear a specifically religious obligation to fight off the fear and anxiety that makes humans easy prey to outrage media and other forms of news-centered absorption. He argues this partly on Christian theological grounds — namely, that God’s historical communications with humans is almost always preceded by the command to “be not afraid,” as a lack of anxiety is necessary for recognizing and following truth.

But if Keegin is right about the effects of this “deep, foundation-rattling anxiety” on our epistemic agency, then it is not unreasonable to wonder if everyone has, and should recognize, some kind of obligation to avoid such anxiety, and to avoid causing it in others. And it seems as though he is right. Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between feeling dangerously out-of-control and the tendency to believe conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to COVID-19 conspiracies (here, here, here). The more frightening media we consume, the more anxious we become. The more anxious we become, the more media we consume. And as this cycle repeats, the media we are consuming tends to become more frightening, and less veridical.

Of course, nobody wants to be the proverbial “sucker,” lining the pocket books of every website owner who knows how to write a sensational headline. We are all aware of the technological tactics used to manipulate our personal insecurities for the sake of selling products and, for the most part, I would imagine we strive to avoid this kind of vulnerability. But there is a tension here. While avoiding this kind of epistemically-damaging anxiety sounds important in the abstract, this idea does not line up neatly with the ways we often talk about, and seek to advance, social change.

Each era has been beset by its own set of deep anxieties: the Great Depression, the Red Scare, the Satanic Panic, and election fears (on both sides of the aisle) are all examples of relatively recent social anxieties that lead to identifiable epistemic vulnerabilities. Conspiracies about Russian spies, gripping terror over nuclear war, and unending grassroots ballot recount movements are just a few of the signs of the epistemic vulnerability that resulted from these anxieties. The solution may at first seem obvious: be clear-headed and resist getting caught up in baseless media-driven fear-mongering. But, importantly, not all of these anxieties are baseless or the result of purposeless fear-mongering.

People who grew up during the depression often worked hard to instill an attitude of rationing in their own children, prompted by their concern for their kids’ well-being; if another economic downturn hit, they wanted their offspring to be prepared. Likewise, the very real threat of nuclear war loomed large throughout the 1950s-1980s, and many people understandably feared that the Cold War would soon turn hot. Even elementary schools held atom bomb drills, for any potential benefit to the students in the case of an attack. One can be sure that journalists took advantage of this anxiety as a way to increase readership, but concerned citizens and social activists also tried to drum up worry because worry motivates. If we think something merits concern, we often try to make others feel this same concern, both for their own sake and for the sake of those they may have influence over. But if such deep-seated cultural anxieties make it easier for others to take advantage of us through outrage media, conspiracy theories, and other forms of anxiety-confirming narratives, is such an approach to social activism worth the future consequences?

To take a more contemporary example, let’s look at the issue of climate change. According to a recent study, out of 10,000 “young people” (between the ages of 16 and 25) surveyed, almost 60% claimed to be “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change affected their daily life and functioning in negative ways. If these findings are representative, surely this counts as the Generation Z version of the kind of “foundation-rattling anxiety” that Keegin observed in his late father.

There is little doubt where this anxiety comes from: news stories and articles routinely point out record-breaking temperatures, numbers of species that go extinct year to year, and the climate-based causes of extreme weather patterns. Pop culture has embraced the theme, with movies like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Snowpiercer,” and “Reminiscent,” among many others, painting a bleak picture of what human life might look like once we pass the point of no return. Unlike any other time in U.S. history, politicians are proposing extremely radical, lifestyle-altering policies in order to combat the growing climate disaster. If such anxieties leave people epistemically vulnerable to the kinds of outrage media and conspiracy theory rabbit holes that Keegin worries about, are these fear-inducing tactics to combat climate change worth it?

On the surface, it seems very plausible that the answer here is “yes!” After all, if the planet is not habitable for human life-forms, it makes very little difference whether or not the humans that would have inhabited the planet would have been more prone to being consumed by the mid-day news. If inducing public anxiety over the climate crisis (or any other high stakes social challenge or danger) is effective, then likely the good would outweigh the bad. And surely genuine fear does cause such behavioral effects. Right?

But again, the data is unclear. While people are more likely to change their behavior or engage in activism when they believe some issue is actually a concern, too much concern, anxiety, or dread seems to soon produce the opposite (sometimes tragic) effect. For example, while public belief in, and concern over, climate change is higher than ever, actual climate change legislation has not been adapted in decades, and more and more elected officials deny or downplay the issue. Additionally, the latest surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has renewed the social phenomenon of pandemic fatigue, the condition of giving up on health and safety measures due to exhaustion and hopelessness regarding their efficacy.

In an essay discussing the pandemic, climate change, and the threat of the end of humanity, the philosopher Agnes Callard analyzes this phenomenon as follows:

Just as the thought that other people might be about to stockpile food leads to food shortages, so too the prospect of a depressed, disaffected and de-energized distant future deprives that future of its capacity to give meaning to the less distant future, and so on, in a kind of reverse-snowball effect, until we arrive at a depressed, disaffected and de-energized present.

So, if cultural anxieties increase epistemic vulnerability, in addition to, very plausibly, leading to a kind of hopelessness-induced apathy toward the urgent issues, should we abandon the culture of panic? Should we learn how to rally interest for social change while simultaneously urging others to “be not afraid”? It seems so. But doing this well will involve a significant shift from our current strategies and an openness to adopting entirely new ones. What might these new strategies look like? I have no idea.

The Politics of Depression

blurred photograph of crowd on busy street at night

In contrast to the exuberant energy of the 2016 presidential election (for better or for worse), the 2020 election has been characterized by fatigue, anxiety, and even depression. Regardless of which candidate triumphs in the presidential election, many voters on both sides can’t help feeling daunted by the government’s inability to meet the needs of its citizens.

The language of illness has always been a useful lexicon for politics; the metaphor of the “body politic” informed statecraft in Europe for centuries, and enemies of the state have always been described as a disease eating away at that body. But for those members of the body politic struggling with mental illness, the question is how to remain politically active while battling depression, especially when the stakes are so high.

Depression may be the mental illness par excellence for political discourse under capitalism. While capitalism has been linked to schizophrenia (we are expected to be sober workers by day and hedonists by night, as sociologist Daniel Bell points out, which ultimately creates a fractured psyche), Mark Fisher draws comparisons between his experiences with depression and the mindset induced by capitalism. In his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, he writes that “while sadness apprehends itself as a contingent and temporary state of affairs, depression presents itself as necessary and interminable: the glacial surfaces of the depressive’s world extend to every conceivable horizon.” He sees a parallel between the “the seeming ‘realism’ of the depressive, with its radically lowered expectations, and capitalist realism.” As Fisher understands, enacting political change and fighting depression are struggles against a similar opponent.

Depression itself is becoming increasingly political, both in terms of how we conceptualize it and how we attempt to cure it. Danish literary critic Mikkel Krause Frantzen proclaims in an incendiary essay for the LA Review of Books that “any cure to the problem of depression must take a collective, political form; instead of individualizing the problem of mental illness, it is imperative to start problematizing the individualization of mental illness.” He asserts that “Dealing with depression—and other forms of psychopathology—is not only part of, but a condition of possibility for an emancipatory project today. Before we can throw bricks through windows, we need to be able to get out of bed.” This political approach to illness is rooted in a wider politicization of illness. For example, Anne Boyer writes in her recently published memoir about cancer, The Undying, that “Disease is never neutral. Treatment never not ideological. Mortality never without its politics.” Boyer rejects apolitical cancer treatment, noting that “Our genes are tested, our drinking water is not. Our body is scanned, but not our air . . . The news of cancer comes to us on the same sort of screens as the news about elections.” Like cancer, depression is often viewed as purely somatic, not as a condition with a basis in the material reality of the afflicted.

When we acknowledge that material reality, we create the potential to radicalize those with mental illness. However, the fatalistic mindset of depression often discourages political engagement. One study conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, which argues that “that depression is a political phenomenon insofar as it has political sources and consequences,” found that mental illness “consistently and negatively affects voting and political participation.” Furthermore, “depression also has developmental consequences for political behavior. Adolescent depression has the potential to set individuals on a trajectory of political disengagement in adulthood.” The study paints this as a vicious cycle; without adequate mental health care, we become depressed, and then depression inhibits political engagement, which prevents healthcare policies from ever changing. The study concludes that though research into the neurological aspect of depression is extremely important, it is also,

“worthwhile to theorize about depression in terms of the social model, especially because the experience of a mood disorder such as depression is largely rooted in social circumstances. Depression is socially-situated in so far as it is not something that simply ‘happens’ to someone but arises out of the circumstances of life. This is compounded by the fact that traditionally disadvantaged groups disproportionately experience depression.”

So how can the mentally ill break out of that vicious cycle? There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Even recognizing that major changes that need to be enacted in order to create a liveable world isn’t always enough. As Frantzen says, “there is no reason to believe that abolishing private property ownership, or realizing a global and absolute cancellation of private debt, will relieve the suffering of depressed people with a single stroke, as if by magic.” For voters experiencing a sense of hopelessness at the polls, and who fear plunging to an even greater depth of hopelessness on election night, a radical kind of self-care is needed. Many have already pointed out the often vacant politics of “self-care,” which does not always promote social change as much as we’d like it to. But when self-care is able to foster “not competition among the sick, but alliances of care that will make people feel less alone and less morally responsible for their illness,” in Frantzen’s words, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Panic Buying and the Virtue of Compassion

black and white photograph of old and young hands touching

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the globe, the prospect of more communities, cities, whole regions and countries going into lockdown is becoming a reality.

As I write this, in Australia mass gatherings are banned, travel restrictions are being introduced and a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering from overseas is being instituted. Yet even several weeks ago, before the mass cancellation of events and activities, one of a myriad of ‘effects’ of the epidemic in Australia has been a massive toilet paper shortage.

In many places around the country, especially the major cities, large supermarkets and grocery store shelves have been emptied. It is unclear exactly how this started; but once a view, and a concern, had formed in the community that there would be shortages of toilet paper people began to panic-buy and stockpile it. In so doing those people have created shortages which have in turn led to further panic and rushes on stocks as soon as they are replenished. This kind of panic-buying (a problem encountered also in other countries) has also affected many other grocery items and medical supplies, and concerns have been raised about whether some of the most vulnerable members of the community are missing out on essentials as panic buying and stockpiling continues. In response, as of yesterday, Australian supermarkets have now introduced purchase limits on certain items to prevent stockpiling at the expense of others.

It is often said, and often seen, that times of tragedy and trouble, bring us together, and bring out the best in us. We have witnessed many times (for example in the recent bushfire crisis in Australia) people coming together, cooperating, and helping one another in times of disaster sometimes at great personal risk.

These moments are often thought of as a kind of moral test. Though we do encounter the best of ourselves, and the best – most virtuous – moral reflection of human behaviour in such moments, the opposite can also be true.

A video which appeared on social media and then on mainstream news outlets last week of people fighting in a shopping centre over toilet paper illustrates what it can look like when people think of their struggle as competitive rather than cooperative – when people believe they must struggle against, rather than with, others.

In the video, one person has a large shopping cart piled high with packets of toilet paper and can be seen driving her cart away from an isle whose shelves are completely empty. A second person approaches, asks for one packet from the full trolley, and upon being refused, a physical fight ensues, in which two other parties promptly intervene.

The point of the example is not to show these particular people up, but to point out that this moment, and others like it not filmed and disseminated, represents the antithesis to the virtues of generosity and cooperation that are the markers of our ‘better natures’ and traits that we, as a community and a society, rely upon in times of crisis or trouble.

When we say something like “these are testing times” we mean that we may be tested in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, morally. Perhaps there is a sense here also of that test being able to tell us something about what we, as humans, are really like.

Many of the questions we unpack and debate in moral philosophy concern, at bottom, views about what human nature, essentially, is like: whether, for instance, we are more naturally altruistic or self-interested by nature.

It is clear even to a casual observer of the human condition there is a spectrum – of people, of actions, and contexts – between self-interest and altruism. We also know there are psychologically complex reasons for people to behave in certain ways in particular situations. It is a difficult question to answer – how separate should we should think of moral reasons as being from other sorts of reasons? Even so, the moral test presented by times of crisis and trouble is doubly significant as a test of our societal ethical values and those of our personal character.

Aristotle, in his treatise on ethics, made the cultivation of personal virtues central to the question of what constitutes an ethical life. The virtues are traits that belong to and are exercised by individuals. Importantly, they are acquired by practice in a process Aristotle called ‘habituation’ by which one learns to be virtuous by practicing virtue in a similar way to the learning of a musical instrument by playing it. He thought of the ethical life as a craft: learned and perfected through practice, rather than issuing from a set of rules.

Hoarding and scrapping, as captured on the film, is clearly not the kind of virtuous behavior that will help us to get through times of trouble and help us to emerge as a strong community. Behavior that issues from the self-interested, individualistic realms of human nature has its place in dystopian apocalyptic fiction, but such fiction foreshadows for us a possible reality.

As things currently stand, the public has been notified that essential supplies are not going to run out, therefore stockpiling toilet paper, and other grocery items, is irrational. Yet people are driven by panic and mistrust to continue to hoard. The appropriate moral response requires us to strengthen our character and that of our society against such impulsive behavior and to foster trust and listen to reason. We are rational creatures, and we are better when we use our reason – which suggests that our morality is related in important ways to our capacity for reason.

But there is something else – by which I do not mean something different from reason but something in addition to it – which we need for the moral life. Compassion. We need to cultivate, through a kind of ‘moral imagination’ the ability to see ourselves in the situation of another. We need to not make exceptions of ourselves, but to see in our own plight, that of the other. These capacities are fostered in the practical virtues of generosity and cooperation. Now is a good time to be practicing these virtues. We will need them for what lies ahead.

The Ethics of Panic Hoarding

photograph of empty shelves at a grocery store

Future historians are going to face a difficult time figuring out whether our current times should be called the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 or the great toilet paper shortage of 2020. Amidst the WHO’s declaration that the COVID-19 outbreak now constitutes a pandemic, border closings, and “self-isolation” in order to prevent the spread of the virus, many have decided that the prudent thing to do is to purchase large amounts of toilet paper in addition to hand sanitizer, and non-perishables. In the United States the run on toilet paper has caused shortages. In Canada, despite attempts to prevent similar outcomes, grocery stores were flooded with consumers buying entire shelves. Marc Fortin of the Retail Council of Canada advised customers that “You don’t need a supply of toilet paper or rice for months,” adding, “Let’s not fall into panic mode.” Certainly, some of what we have seen this week is panic, and an important issue we should consider is when panic regarding the outbreak is morally acceptable and when it is not?

First, we must consider what we mean by the term “panic.” Typically, acting in a panic is contrasted with acting reasonably. As I write, the US government recommends cleaning your hands often, using hand sanitizer, avoiding close contact with people that are sick, and distancing yourself from others if the virus is spreading within a given community. They also recommend staying home if you are sick, covering your coughs and sneezes, and disinfecting touched surfaces daily. The Canadian government recommends similar measures; wash your hands frequently, and cover coughs and sneezes. They also suggest changing routines to help prevent infection; shop during off-peak hours, exercise outdoors rather than indoors. We could assume that recommendations of the government, often made on expert advice, are a reasonable standard. However, the government also specifically recommends purchasing essential materials without “panic buying.” This includes having easy-to-prepare foods like dried pasta, canned soups and vegetables, as well as having extra hygiene products. Unfortunately, they do not explain what is meant by “panic.” How does one know if purchasing that 10th bottle of hand sanitizer or that 5th pack of toilet paper constitutes panic buying?

One way to understand panic is that it is a way of acting without reason. For example, if one is driving and faces an oncoming car that has suddenly swerved towards them and they close their eyes and turn the wheel in any direction hoping to avoid an accident, this could be called panic. In his study of practical reasoning, philosopher John Dewey defined reasonableness or rationality as an affair of understanding the relationship between means and the ends they produce. If one pursues goals, for instance, with no connection to the means available and without reference to the obstacles that will prevent one from meeting said goal, they are acting unreasonably. By contrast, we could define panic as an action that does not consider the relationship between means, goals, and obstacles.

Therefore, if one goes into a grocery store upon hearing about the dangers of COVID-19 and because of this they purchase items at random because they feel they need to, this would constitute panic. Certainly, there are at least some people who chose to purchase large amounts of toilet paper or food they would never eat simply because of sheer panic. Some have suggested that this kind of behavior may be caused by anxiety combined with a desire to copy the behavior of others. Such action, while understandable, is not reasonable. While this definition of panic would preclude the idea that such actions are justified, they aren’t necessarily ethically wrong. According to Michael Baker, a professor of public health, hoarding and bulk purchases may be a way of handling anxiety by establishing a feeling of control. While there is nothing ethically wrong with falling into this pattern, panicked shopping can lead to shortages of important items for others. We can end up purchasing things we do not need and, in the process, make things worse off for others in legitimate need.

However, it is not likely that the vast majority of such cases are sheer mindless panic. After all, if one does purchase excessive accounts of food or toilet paper, they could still be considering how these can serve as means to goals like potentially having to quarantine oneself. One may act with a certain degree of reason and still potentially panic. As mentioned, the Canadian government suggested that one may wish to stock up on certain items, not necessarily because they will need to self-isolate but in order to ensure one doesn’t unnecessarily expose oneself if they are sick. However, there is a difference between making sure that one has a few days of food and toiletries and hoarding. One can “do the math” behind such considerations, establishing a relationship between means and ends, but could still go overboard.

While the concept of “moral panic” is generally tied to cases like the Salem Witch Trial or the panic of Satanism in the 1990s, it was originally defined in the 1970s in a broader way to include reactions to peoples, groups, and events. A common feature to these definitions of panic includes the idea of disproportionality; one may act in a panicked way if their actions are disproportionate to what is needed. Of course this is difficult to measure as well. It certainly requires an adequate idea of the problem, and this can be difficult in the case of the epidemic because of the “overabundance of information” available. Regardless, given that toilet paper is not especially more important than other general household items that governments and other institutions are suggesting that people stock up on, it is still unclear why there is a disproportionate demand for it.

There is also the matter of inductive risk. What if the experts are wrong? What if the outbreak gets unexpectedly worse? What if grocery stores close? As some have pointed out, making sure that one has toilet paper if they have to be confined to their house (in other words, planning for the worst) may not be unreasonable. This, in addition to the unclear relevance of information and inconsistent messaging, has led to calls that we should not mock those who engage in hoarding. While mocking may not be the most helpful or considerate reaction, that doesn’t mean that panicked hoarders should be let off the hook either.

Hoarding, whether understandable or not given the anxiety and stress of the situation, still leads to harmful effects. For example, empty food shelves have made it difficult for charities to get food to the disadvantaged. It has also opened room for price gouging, something that again will hurt those worst off. While things could get worse, purchasing enough cans of tomato soup to last for years is not proportionate to the problem, nor is purchasing food that you would never eat anyways. Worse yet, by purchasing things you do not need while making others worse off, and only to help ensure that you feel more secure against unlikely outcomes, is an act of selfishness. Anxiety, stress, and fear do not absolve people from the moral consequences of their panicked behavior. If you are buying for a potentially long stay in your home, ask yourself questions like “Will this item actually help if I get the virus?” “How much will it help?” “How long should I reasonably expect to have to stay at home and given that, how much food and household items will I need?” And “Can I imagine others need these things more than I do?”

Sparking Joy: The Ethics of Medically-Induced Happiness

Photograph of a sunflower in sunshine with blue sky behind

Happiness is often viewed as an ephemeral thing. Finding happiness is an individual and ever-developing process. Biologically speaking, however, all emotions are the simple result of hormones and electrical impulses. In a recent medical breakthrough, a team of scientists has found a way to tap in to these electrical impulses and induce joy directly in the brain. This kind of procedure has long been the stuff of speculation, but now it has become a reality. While the technique shows a good deal of promise in treating disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress, it also presents an ethical conundrum worth considering.

On initial examination, it is difficult to point out anything particularly wrong with causing “artificial” joy. Ethical hedonism would prioritize happiness over all other values, regardless of the manner in which happiness is arrived at. However, many people would experience a knee-jerk rejection to the procedure. It bears some similarity to drug-induced euphoria, but unlike illicit drugs, this electrical procedure seems to have no harmful side effects, according to the published study. Of course, with a small sample size and a relatively short-term trial, addiction and other harmful aspects of the procedure may be yet undiscovered. If, as this initial study suggests, the procedure is risk-free, should it be ethically accepted? Or is there cause for hesitation beyond what is overtly harmful?

The possibility of instantaneous, over-the-counter happiness has been a frequent subject of science-fiction. Notable examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which featured a happiness-inducing drug called “soma”; and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into the film Blade Runner), which included a mood-altering device called a “mood organ.” Both novels treat these inventions as key elements in a dystopian future. Because the emotions produced by these devices are “false”—the direct result of chemical alteration, rather than a “natural” response to external conditions—the society which revolves around them is empty and void of meaning. What is the validity of this viewpoint? Our bias towards what we perceive as “natural” may be simply a matter of maintaining the status quo–we’re more comfortable with whatever we’re used to. This is similar to the preference for foods containing “natural” over “artificial” flavoring despite nearly identical chemical compositions. While we are instinctively wary of the “artificial” emotions, there may be no substantive difference to the unbiased feeler.

Of course, emotions exist for more than just the experience of feeling. The connection between emotions and the outside world was addressed by Kelly Bijanki, one of the scientists involved in the electrically-induced happiness study, in her interview with Discover Magazine: “Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us.” Just as pain helps us avoid dangerous hazards and our ability to taste bitterness helps us avoid poisonous things, negative emotions help drive us away from harmful situations and towards beneficial ones. However, living in a modern society to which the human body is not biologically adapted, our normally helpful sensory responses like pain and fear can sometimes backfire. Some people experience chronic pain connected to a bodily condition that cannot be immediately resolved; in these cases, the pain itself becomes the problem, rather than a useful signal. As such, we seek medical solutions to the pain itself. Chronic unhappiness, such as in cases of anxiety and depression, could be considered the same way: as a normally useful sensory feedback which has “gone wrong” and itself become a problem requiring medical treatment.

What if the use of electrically-induced happiness extended beyond temporary medical treatments? Why shouldn’t we opt to live our lives in a state of perpetual euphoria, or at least have the option to control our emotions directly? As was previously mentioned, artificial happiness may be indistinguishable from the real thing, at least as far as our bodies are concerned. Human beings already use a wide variety of chemicals and actions to “induce” happiness–that is, to make ourselves happy. If eating chocolate or exercising are “natural” paths to happiness, why would an electrical jolt be “unnatural”? Of course, the question of meaning still bears on the issue. Robert Nozick argues that humans make a qualitative distinction between the experience of doing something and actually doing it. We want our happiness to be tied to real accomplishments; the emotion alone isn’t enough. More concretely, we would probably become desensitized to happiness if it were all we experienced. In the right doses, sadness helps us value happiness more; occasional pain makes our pleasure more precious.

If happiness in the absence of meaning is truly “empty,” our ethical outlook toward happiness should reflect this view. Rather than viewing pleasure or happiness itself as the ultimate good, we might instead see happiness as a component of a well-lived life. Whether something is good would depend not on whether it brings happiness, but whether it fulfills some wider sense of meaning. Of course, exactly what constitutes this wider meaning would continue to be the subject of endless philosophical debate.


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The 21st-Century Valedictorian and the Battle for First Place

An image of high school graduates during a commencement ceremony.

According to 16-year-old Ryan Walters of North Carolina, abolishing the title of valedictorian in high schools only serves to “recogniz[e] mediocrity, not greatness.” Ryan was interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article about ridding schools of valedictorian titles, and he provides a voice of disapproval and disappointment. After working toward the glorious title of valedictorian for many years of his life, Ryan’s dream is over, as his high school has decided to do away with recognizing the top performer in each graduating class. This harsh critique by the Heritage High School junior may have some validity, but it can also be refuted.

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“My Beautiful Failure” and Competition in Higher Education

Continued education, especially college, has long been seen as a positive and transformative experience, changing those who enroll and readying them for the world after graduation. But what happens when unhealthy competition enters the mix?

Columnist and mother Lucy Clark knows all too well. In her piece, strikingly titled, “My daughter, my beautiful failure,”  Clark details just how damaging a competitive and results-driven atmosphere was for her daughter, who struggled to graduate high school. Contrary to popular narratives, though, Clark argues that this is hardly a personal failure, but in part the result of an educational system focused on winners and losers, where personal achievement and class rank dictate the behavior of those involved.

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