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Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Russia and the Energy Crisis

photograph of electric power pylons in winter landscape

Europe is facing a crisis (I know, another one?!). This crisis, however, isn’t viral, ecological, economic, or migratory – although it is influenced by, and influences, these phenomena. No, I’m referring to the European energy crisis. Since the beginning of this year, the wholesale price of gas has increased by 250%. This, in turn, has caused similar price rises down the energy production and consumption chain. As a result, businesses and domestic consumers have seen their energy bills rise phenomenally, increasing the numbers of people facing fuel poverty and forcing EU leaders to call emergency meetings.

The reason for this price rise is hard to pin down because it isn’t attributable to any single cause. Instead, multiple factors – such as a shortfall in renewable energy production, an increase in demand as the global economy resurges post-COVID, and a steady phasing out of energy from coal production – have led to the crisis. However, to oversimplify it, there’s not enough energy to meet demand, causing prices to rise. And, while the situation is at its worst in Europe, there’s no reason to think that it will not eventually spread. Indeed, prices have already begun to rise in other parts of the globe.

While this is a dilemma for those countries who import all or some of their energy (be that gas, coal, oil, or electricity), it is also an opportunity for exporters. Higher prices mean greater profits as individuals, institutions, and even states become increasingly willing to part with funds to secure essential resources. On a small scale, prices being dictated by supply and demand isn’t too much of an issue (provided you’re onboard with capitalism). It’s how your local shop decides how much to charge for toilet roll – the more people want it, the more that shop can charge. But, when it comes to nation-states’ selling and purchasing power, things can become tricky as scarcity confers additional political power to those resource-rich countries, which they can leverage against the resource-poor.

It is precisely this politicization, and even weaponization, of energy supplies that several countries fear will take place within Europe. More specifically, concerns are being raised that Russia, one of Europe’s largest natural gas suppliers, is going to capitalize on the European energy crisis, using it as an opportunity to solidify its already significant bargaining position or even refuse to export energy as a means of weakening its (perceived) rivals. Of course, this is something that Russian authorities have denied, with Vladamir Putin going so far as to not only deny Russian involvement but also blame Europe for the whole affair.

This concern raises an interesting point, however. While fears have been expressed about Russia’s intentions during the crisis, it’s not entirely clear what would be wrong with them making the best of it. Why shouldn’t Russia, as one of Europe’s largest gas suppliers, take advantage of the crisis to better its fortunes, even if this does lead to an increase in gas prices?

Now, the answer might seem obvious – people are going to suffer without gas. If people can’t afford to heat their homes during winter, this will cause suffering and even death – things which we typically class as undesirable. Thus, one can argue, from a moral and political cosmopolitanism, that Russia shouldn’t act in a manner that causes harm to people regardless of their nationality. Consequentially, it should do what it can to help minimize gas prices and thus minimize harm.

Yet, it’s not entirely clear why Russia should care about the suffering of individuals beyond its borders, or at least, what it owes those people. After all, pretty much every person already has a political entity that exists to protect their interests – their own nation-state. Why should Russia pass up an opportunity to better its fortunes and act in a way that benefits the well-being of individuals for whom it holds little to no responsibility? What concern is it of Putin’s if people in the U.K. are cold because they can’t pay their gas bills? After all, those people have the U.K. government to care for them. Why should the Russian government miss out on an opportunity to better its standing and that of its citizens?

This attitude may seem callous or even cruel (indeed, I would be inclined to say it is). But a failure of a government to act in the best interests of those to whom it holds no obvious bond is arguably not a dereliction of duty. After all, it would seem uncontroversial to claim that the purpose of government is to secure the well-being of its citizens. If it fails in this purpose, that is when its legitimacy can be called into question. But to disregard the well-being of citizens of other member states, while potentially distasteful and even unethical, doesn’t seem to contradict a government’s function. For the Russian government then, if it can act in a manner that solidifies its positioning and thereby (in)directly betters the lives of its citizens, it would seem acceptable, even necessary, that it takes advantage of the unfolding crisis. The Russian government should look out for the Russian people, and passing up an opportunity to do this, simply for the benefit of those whom it holds no duty of protection, would seem antithetical to its very purpose.

Now, that is not to say that Russia would be off the hook if it did take advantage of the current situation. There is still plenty of scope for condemnation if it did drive up energy prices, resulting in suffering, simply as a means of increasing its political power (cosmopolitanism has already been alluded to as a potential basis for such criticism). But, to find fault with Russia for taking advantage of the crisis simply because it’s acting in a way that will give it political leverage over its peers or competitors seems to criticize the nation for doing its job, one which every government holds. After all, if the positions were reversed, how do you think your government would act? In the best interests of its citizens or the interests of others?

Reproductive Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of stick family carved into beach

Last week, fellow writers Daniel Burkett and Marshall Bierson debated the ethics of having children against the background of climate change. Burkett defended the view that we should have fewer children due to the negative impact each child (throughout their lifetimes) has on the climate (and therefore others). Bierson, among other arguments, pointed to the positives that a child’s life might bring about, including donating to effective climate causes. Bierson also discussed reasons to have fewer children he finds more convincing, including the opportunity costs. “I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need,” writes Bierson, “but instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.”

Both of their approaches to the ethics of childbearing are interesting and well-argued. But neither writer engages with the value of personal choice and reproductive autonomy. Burkett worries that the moral calculation of putting another human on Earth doesn’t pay off due to the climate harm it causes. Bierson worries that he could have maximized the good more effectively. What is implicit in both these worries, I think, is what the philosopher Bernard Williams called a “totalizing” and “impersonal” conception of morality.

To get a grip on Williams’s point, let’s take a clear example of a totalizing and impersonal conception of morality: maximizing act utilitarianism. This moral theory states that an action is permissible only if it would produce the best possible consequences. Of any choice in life, whether it is whether to have a child or an ice cream, we can always ask if it produces the best possible consequences. So, since every choice has some consequences, good or bad, every choice is actually a moral one. Williams describes utilitarianism as “totalizing” because it suggests that morality’s demands relentlessly reach out into every domain of human life and tell us what is permissible and what is impermissible.

Williams thought of utilitarianism as “impersonal” because it suggests that, regardless of our personal wishes or life projects, we all have exactly the same moral duty in every case: to maximize the good. He asks, “But what if [morality’s demand] conflicts with some project of mine? This, the utilitarian will say, has already been dealt with: the satisfaction to you of fulfilling your project, and any satisfactions to others of your so doing, have already been through the calculating device and have been found inadequate.” The utilitarian view is that any personal choice based on your own deeply held commitments and desires is only acceptable if it just so happens to generate the best consequences. Williams’s complaint is that this picture provides very little space for the values of autonomy or personal integrity.

Having such a sprawling, demanding, and inescapable conception of moral obligations can come to eclipse the value of individual freedoms like reproductive autonomy. But the vast majority believe we have not just a legal right to choose whether we reproduce or not, but also a moral right to exercise that discretion over our private affairs. In other words, there is an intuitive moral right to reproductive autonomy.

Consider, for example, how you would feel if an ethicist approached you and insisted that you morally ought to conceive a baby in the next month, regardless of your actual wishes or particular situation. You would, presumably, not be terribly interested in having this stranger dictate permissible options to you. You might think the choice to have a baby or not is a personal one, yours alone. Indeed, to “give in” to the stranger’s demands might threaten to seriously damage your personal integrity, your sense of self.

If Williams is right, then there must be limits to the demands impersonal utilitarian morality can make on us: areas of our lives that make room for individuals to decide things for themselves. Perhaps our choices about reproduction are one such domain which must allow an ethical role for personal choice.

This is not to say that reproductive choices are free from all moral considerations. But perhaps the relevant, weighty moral considerations will be more personal (and interpersonal) than those impersonal considerations on which the utilitarian focuses. Rather than maximizing the impersonal value of your actions’ consequences, we might focus on more personal and interpersonal moral questions might such as “Would I be a good parent to my child, if I had one?” Or, “Would I be able to live a life I find meaningful, with children?” It is these more individual, more human-scaled, sorts of ethical questions that most of us seriously consider when we consider bearing children. And perhaps we are right to do so.

On the Art of Evildoers

close-up photograph of Philip Roth

The fall of a literary star is something to behold. At the beginning of April, Blake Bailey was the toast of the literary world; his new biography of the novelist Philip Roth had been published to acclaim, landing on The New York Times best-seller list. But by the end of the month, Bailey’s fortunes were laid low by horrific allegations made against him, including that he raped two women as recently as 2015 and “groomed” middle school girls when he was a teacher in the 1990s. After they surfaced, his publisher, W.W. Norton, took the rare step of stopping promotion and shipment of the book just days after his literary agent dropped him as a client.

One might very well be tempted to say, “good riddance.” And there is no reason to defend Bailey personally; the accusations against him are credible and multiple. Yet Norton’s decision raises an important philosophical question: how evil does a person have to be in order for it to be impermissible to disseminate their art?

One problem we are immediately confronted with is the issue of arbitrariness. Are there any criteria for setting a threshold for the badness of a person such that it is impermissible to disseminate their art? One fruitful perspective on this question comes from rule consequentialism, which evaluates the rightness of acts according to how much the rules permitting or obligating those acts would promote overall good consequences, however the latter are spelled out. This perspective helps with the problem of arbitrariness because it prompts us to compare, in a morally meaningful way, different thresholds in terms of their hypothetical consequences. Not publishing Bailey’s book implies a rule setting the threshold for permissible publication at rape or sexual assault (or, presumably, worse). What would be the effect of consistently applying that rule as compared to a world in which the rule permitted disseminating just about anyone’s art?

Shockingly, not a few great artists have either admitted to or been credibly accused of rape or worse. William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, details his attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl named Dora in his unpublished memoir Men and Women. William S. Burroughs killed his wife; Norman Mailer came close. Eldridge Cleaver famously wrote about raping white women as an act of revolutionary violence. Of course, Woody Allen stands credibly accused of sexually assaulting his daughter, Dylan Farrow; Roman Polanski was actually convicted of drugging, raping, and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl. And then there’s Bill Cosby. And Hitler, whose Mein Kampf chillingly lays out the dictator’s plans for the extermination of world Jewry.

The point is this: applied consistently, the rule implied by the act of not publishing Bailey’s work would deprive us in some cases of great works of art, and in other cases of important information. Publishers, producers, and art dealers, hesitant to invest in works that they might end up having to pull, might refuse to enter into contracts with artists without intrusive background checks. Yet the world of the consistently applied rule would also be better than ours in certain respects: victims would not be retraumatized by the fame of their abusers; artists might be deterred from committing heinous behavior by the thought that it would negatively affect their careers. How one weighs these different effects is a matter of fine judgment. In my view, the benefits seem speculative, while the costs seem probable and cumulatively great. But I could be wrong.

Another idea is that it is wrong to benefit people who are guilty of heinous moral wrongs, perhaps because it encourages or emboldens them to continue behaving as they do, or because — if they continue to commit badly — we may take on partial responsibility for their wrongdoing. Here, I think, we can do better than simply throwing up our hands and concluding that we must benefit wrongdoers if we want to benefit from their art— or at least, that we must benefit only them. For example, in Bailey’s case, Norton could have decided to donate all of the proceeds minus Bailey’s royalties from his book to rape survivors’ organizations. This outcome would surely not encourage Bailey, as it constitutes a clear condemnation of him. This would also be a great way of establishing some symbolic distance between the publisher and the author.

There are other compelling arguments against publication from a non-consequentialist perspective. Some may think that it is simply wrong to honor individuals who are guilty of heinous moral wrongs. By “honor” I mean something like expressing admiration for a person in a way that tends to enhance their social status. Perhaps this is wrong because such individuals do not morally deserve to be honored — and not because honoring them would bring about bad consequences. Publishing a person’s book certainly does honor them; thus, it is wrong to publish. The trouble with this argument is that it is arbitrary: when is a moral wrong so heinous that the obligation applies? Is there any reason to prefer the rule that sets the threshold for heinous acts at the killing of ten people rather than the killing of one? There doesn’t seem to be. Without any reason to draw the line at rape or sexual assault rather than, say, the extermination of the entire human race, we might as well choose the higher bar. But if we draw the line at the higher bar, then in effect publishing anyone is permissible.

That we nevertheless tend to believe it is wrong to honor people who don’t deserve it helps to explain why the question whether it is wrong to publish evil people will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Human beings have a well-documented aversion to ambivalence, preferring to hold either wholly positive or wholly negative attitudes towards persons and things. But publishing evil people puts us in the uncomfortably ambivalent position of having to appreciate and honor their talents while abhorring their deeds. This will never be a natural fit for beings like us.

Should Republicans and Democrats Be Friends?

photograph of stuffed Republican elephant and Democrat Donkey face-to-face atop American flag

America’s polarization crisis extends to its friendships: a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that only thirty-one percent of Democrats have at least some friends who are Republicans, while only four-in-ten Republicans said they have some friends who are Democrats. Should we be alarmed by this? Should we be friends with people who hold views we believe to be immoral?

It seems that we have dueling intuitions about the moral permissibility of friendship with those who do not share our values. Consider a peaceful neo-Nazi — someone who has genocidal beliefs but will never act on them. I think most people believe it is wrong to be friends with such a character, and I can think of three arguments in support of this belief. First, there is the “signaling” argument. Being friends with the neo-Nazi will likely be interpreted by others as expressing approval for, or lending credibility to, their beliefs. One ought not signal one’s approval for beliefs one takes to be immoral, so one ought not be friends with the neo-Nazi. The second argument is the “incentive” argument. The idea is that withholding friendship from the neo-Nazi might incent him to abandon his beliefs, which is something we ought to encourage him to do insofar as we believe his beliefs are immoral. If one ought to withhold friendship from the neo-Nazi for this reason, then one ought not be friends with him. Finally, there is the “disesteem” argument, which is that disesteem — that is, feelings of disdain or disapprobation — are an appropriate response to the neo-Nazi’s immoral beliefs, and these feelings are incompatible with genuine friendship. If we ought to A (in this case, feel certain emotions towards the neo-Nazi), and A is incompatible with B (in this case, be friends with the neo-Nazi), then we ought not to B.

So, we certainly have intuitions, backed by reasons, that support not being friends with individuals solely because of their moral beliefs. On the other hand, consider a Kantian and a consequentialist. These two may have fundamental moral disagreements over a host of issues, such as our obligations to the foreign poor, the morally optimal distribution of all-purpose goods, the morality of lying, the morality of infanticide, and whether it is morally permissible to intentionally kill one person in order to save five. Only one of them can be right, so one of them has immoral beliefs. Yet we do not think it would be wrong for them to be friends.

I will assume that Democrats and Republicans have moral disagreements, for example over abortion. The question is whether friendship with someone of the opposing party is like the Kantian’s friendship with the consequentialist or like being friends with a neo-Nazi.

It might be argued that the neo-Nazi’s immoral beliefs include immoral beliefs about how others can be permissibly harmed, which distinguishes them from the beliefs of Kantians and consequentialists, or Republicans and Democrats. But from a Republican’s perspective, Democrats impermissibly believe that it is permissible to harm the unborn; and from a Kantian perspective, consequentialists impermissibly believe that it is permissible to intentionally kill one in order to save five. Furthermore, since the neo-Nazi is peaceful, her genocidal beliefs cannot be distinguished from the others in terms of disposing her to act violently.

The Kantian’s friendship with the consequentialist also nicely illustrates why the distinction between cross-party friendships and friendships with neo-Nazis cannot lie in the sheer number of disagreements, or their moral importance. The Kantian has a large number of fairly fundamental moral disagreements with the consequentialist, including over what makes actions morally right or wrong. Nor can the distinction lie in the idea that Democrats (or Republicans) shouldn’t believe that Republicans (or Democrats) as such hold moral beliefs, while they should believe neo-Nazis hold immoral beliefs. Either the Kantian or the consequentialist should believe that the other’s beliefs are immoral, yet they are seemingly still permitted to be friends.

Nor can the distinction lie in the confidence with which we hold the moral beliefs that differ from our opposite party friend. Plenty of people are just as confident that consequentialism (or Kantianism) is the correct moral philosophy as that racism, or racially motivated genocide, is morally right or wrong. Yet confident consequentialists should not disdain friendships with Kantians and vice versa. On the other hand, we should not be friends with a neo-Nazi just because he is not confident about his genocidal beliefs.

We might try to appeal to the admittedly vague idea of reasonability to distinguish between cross-party friendships and friendships between Kantians and consequentialists on the one hand, and friendships with neo-Nazis on the other. The thought is that the disagreements that occur in the former cases are reasonable, but not in the latter case. It’s not clear that all would agree that this feature does distinguish them, since many people think the beliefs of people of the opposing party are unreasonable. For these people, if reasonability is what distinguishes friendships between Kantians and consequentialists and friendships with neo-Nazis, then cross-party friendships will fall on the side of friendships with neo-Nazis. These people will have to conclude that people of the opposing party do not deserve friendship, that being friends with them lends credibility to their views in a morally problematic way, and that disesteem that is incompatible with friendship is an appropriate response.

More fundamentally, if it’s true that having what we take to be immoral beliefs unfits a person for our friendship, it’s hard to see why they should be unreasonable immoral beliefs. What’s doing the work in our intuition that we ought not to be friends with people because of their beliefs is the moral character of their beliefs, not their rationality or reasonability. Just because a prima facie compelling argument can be given for consequentialism and not Nazism does not make the consequentialist’s beliefs less morally heinous from the point of view of the Kantian.

Another suggestion is that neo-Nazi beliefs are somehow simply worse than, for example, the beliefs of Democrats as viewed from the perspective of Republicans, or the beliefs of consequentialists as viewed from the perspective of Kantians. However, the “signaling,” “incentive,” and “disesteem” arguments are not based on Nazis’ ideas being particularly heinous in the eyes of others, but just on their being believed to be immoral.

We’re left, then, with a troubling conclusion. If one ought not be friends with neo-Nazis solely because of their beliefs, then there is in principle no way to distinguish such friendships from cross-party friendships, insofar as each member of a cross-party friendship believes that the other side holds immoral views.

Still, perhaps we ought to deny the claim that we should not be friends with neo-Nazis, at least in its unqualified form. Some former Nazis strike up friendships with neo-Nazis in order to de-program them; ought we condemn that action? Similarly, if a Democrat believes his Republican friend is racist, might he not justify his friendship on the ground that he is likely to be more successful at persuading his friend to abandon his racist beliefs by remaining friends? A friend of this conception of cross-party friendship might point out that withholding friendship is but one way, and perhaps not the most effective way, to incent others to abandon their beliefs; that simply because feelings of disesteem are appropriate does not mean they are morally required, all-things-considered; and that there are ways to signal one’s disapproval of a friend’s beliefs.

Note that even if these counterarguments are successful, they will not justify a “de-politicized” or “de-moralized” friendship — a friendship wherein at least one person believes the other has immoral beliefs, but decides to do nothing about it. But this raises a further problem, which I can only gesture at: if genuine friendship requires accepting the friend as they are in some sense, then the kind of cross-party friendship that seems morally permissible may not be genuine. In the end, then, it may turn out that genuine cross-party friendships are morally impermissible.

To Wear a Mask or Not During the COVID-19 Pandemic

photograph of groups of people walking on busy street wearing protective masks

The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon that has disrupted people’s lives and the economy. Currently, the United States leads COVID cases in the world and as of this writing, the United States has the largest amount of confirmed deaths, and ranks eighth in deaths per capita due to the virus. There are a number of factors that might explain why the numbers are so high: the United States’ failed leadership in tackling the virus back in December/January, the government’s response to handling the crisis once the virus spread throughout the United States, states’ opening up too early — and too quickly — in May and June, and people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously by not social distancing or wearing face masks. Let us focus on the last point. Why the unseriousness? As soon as the pandemic hit, conspiracy theories regarding the virus spread like — well, like the virus itself. Some are so fully convinced about a conspiracy theory that their beliefs may be incorrigible. Others seem only to doubt mask-wearing as a solution.

Part of the unwillingness to wear face masks is due to the CDC and WHO having changed their positions about wearing masks as a preventative measure. From the beginning, the U.S. Surgeon General claimed that masks were ineffective, but now both the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing them.

Why this reversal? We are facing a novel virus. Science, as an institution, works through confirming and disconfirming hypotheses. Scientists find evidence for a claim and it leads to their hypothesis being correct. As time goes on, scientists gather new evidence disconfirming their original hypothesis. And as time continues further, they gather more information and evidence and were too quick to disconfirm the hypothesis. Because this virus is so new, scientists are working with limited knowledge. There will inevitably be back-and-forth shifts on what works and what doesn’t. Scientists must adapt to new information. Citizens, however, may interpret this as skepticism about wearing masks since the CDC and WHO cannot make up their minds. And so people may think: “perhaps wearing masks does prevent the spread of the virus; perhaps it doesn’t. So if we don’t know, then let’s just live our lives as we did.” Indeed, roughly 14% of Americans state they never wear masks. But what if there was a practical argument that might encourage such skeptics to wear a mask that didn’t directly rely on the evidence that masks do prevent spreading the virus? What if, despite the skepticism, wearing masks could still be shown to be in one’s best interest? Here, I think using Pascal’s wager can be helpful.

To refamiliarize ourselves, Pascal’s wager comes from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, who wagered that it’s best to believe in God without relying on direct evidence that God exists. To put it succinctly, either God exists or He doesn’t. How shall we decide? Well, we either believe God exists or we believe He doesn’t exist. So then, there are four possibilities:

God exists God does not exist
Belief in God
  1. +∞ (infinite gain)
2. − (finite loss)
Disbelief in God 4.   −∞ (infinite loss) 3. + (finite gain)

 

For 1., God exists and we believe God exists. Here we gain the most since we gain an infinitely happy life. If we win, we win everything. For 2., we’ve only lost a little since we simply believed and lost the truth of the matter. In fact, it’s so minimal (compared to infinite) that we lose nothing. For 3., we have gained a little. While we have the truth, there is not infinite happiness. And compared to infinite, we’ve won nothing. And finally, for 4., we have lost everything since we don’t believe in God and it’s an eternity of divine punishment. By looking at the odds, we should bet on God existing because doing so means you win everything and lose nothing. If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose everything and win nothing. If God doesn’t exist, compared to infinite, the gain or loss is insignificant. So through these odds, believing in God is your best bet since it’s your chance of winning, and not believing is your chance of losing.

There have been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but I still find this wager useful as an analogy when applied to mask-wearing. Consider:

Masks Prevent Spreading the Virus Masks Don’t Prevent Spreading the Virus
Belief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (1) (Big Gain) People’s lives are saved and we can flatten the curve easily. (2) − (finite loss) We wasted some time wearing a piece of cloth over our face for a few months.
Disbelief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (4) (Big Loss) We continually spread the virus, hospitals are overloaded with COVID cases, and more deaths. (3) + (finite gain) We got the truth of the matter.

 

For (1), we have a major gain. If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus and we do wear masks, then we help flatten the curve, lessen people contracting the virus, and help prevent any harms or deaths due to COVID-19. (One model predicts that wearing masks can save up to 33,000 American lives.) This is the best outcome. Suppose (2). If masks do nothing or minimally prevent the spread of the virus, yet we continue to wear masks, we have wasted very little. By simply wearing a restriction over our face, it is simply an inconvenience. Studies show that we don’t lose oxygen by wearing a face mask. And leading experts are hopeful that we may get a vaccine sometime next year. There are promising results from clinical phase trials. And so wearing masks, having a small inconvenience in our lives, is not a major loss. After all, we can still function in our lives with face masks. People who wear masks as part of their profession (e.g. doctors, miners, firefighters, military) still carry out their duties. Indeed, their masks help them fulfill their duties. The inconvenience is a minor loss compared to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus as stated in (1).

Suppose (3). If (3) is the case, then we’ve avoided inconvenience, but this advantage is nothing compared to the cost (4) represents. While we don’t have to wear a mask, celebrating the riddance of inconvenience pales in comparison to losing unnecessary lives and unknowingly spreading the virus. Compared to what we stand to lose in (4), in (3) we’ve won little.

Suppose (4). If we decide (4) is the strategy, we’ve doomed ourselves by making others sicker, we’ve continually spread the virus, and hospitals have had to turn away sick people which leads to more preventable deaths. We’ve lost so many lives and caused the sickness to spread exponentially, all because we didn’t wear a mask.

Note that we haven’t proved that masks work scientifically (although I highly suspect that they do). Rather, we’re doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks would be in our best interest. If we’re wrong, then it’s a minor inconvenience. But if we’re right, then we’ve prevented contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it’s better to bet on wearing masks than not to.

To Requite, To Restore, or To Deter: Punishing Amy Cooper

photograph of empty courtroom from Judge's perspective with gavel in foreground

On May 25, Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper after he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Video of their interaction sparked further debate about racial bias and police brutality, and also led to the renewed pressure to pass a NY State bill banning race-based 911 calls. Amy Cooper was fired from her job, had her dog temporarily confiscated, personal history exposed, and became a household name as one of the many faces representing the white “Karen” complex. She released a subsequent apology in The New York Times, but also immediately hired a defense attorney when she was officially charged with filing a false police report. However, on July 14, Christian Cooper announced he would not be cooperating with Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Cooper concluded that he must “err on the side of compassion and choose not to be involved in this prosecution.” His announcement shocked many and raises further questions about the purpose of punishment and the criminal justice system at large.

Why should we punish “bad actors?” Is the purpose of criminal law to deter crime, to punish perpetrators, or something else? And should prosecutors listen to victims when deciding whether to pursue charges?

Within the theories law and punishment, there are two major answers to the question of the purpose of criminal law: retribution and deterrence. The retributive approach to punishment and criminal justice is the belief that people who do the crime, should serve time. Under retributive theory, perpetrators should be punished regardless of the future consequences. Retributivists believe that the goal of punishment is ultimately to give people what they deserve. Retributivism therefore is inherently backward looking in its justification of punishment. The utilitarian approach to punishment, however, purports that the purpose of punishment is to deter future crime, both by the perpetrator and potential future bad actors. The goal of deterrence-based punishment is positive outcomes for society as a whole, and it is inherently forward-looking in its justification and goals. Both of these approaches to punishment can be used to answer whether or not Amy Cooper should be prosecuted.

In his explanation, Christian Cooper concludes that neither the retributive nor the utilitarian approach to punishment logically justifies Amy Cooper’s prosecution. In terms of retribution, Christian believes that Cooper has already gotten what she deserves. He explains that he believes “in punishments that are commensurate with the wrongdoing.” Cooper sees Amy losing her job and reputation as sufficient punishment for her crime, and even suggests she has little more to lose. He also argues there is little to be gained by punishing Amy Cooper further since the issue of racial bias against black and brown folks is a “long-standing, deep-seated racial bias” which “permeates the United States” and cannot be solved through one symbolic prosecution. He believes that charging Amy Cooper not only does little to solve the racial bias but may in fact cause a different problem because it “lets white people off the hook” from more deeply examining the ways in which they engage with and perpetuate racism. As Cooper explains, “They can push for her prosecution and pat themselves on the back for having done something about racism, when they’ve actually done nothing.” Cooper also points out that the social consequences of her actions might serve as the ultimate deterrence to many. He contends that, “if her current setbacks aren’t deterrent enough to others seeking to weaponize race, it’s unlikely the threat of legal action would change that.” Prosecution is no guarantee of securing positive consequences; it will not deter others who fail to see themselves as holding racial bias. In fact, Cooper argues, there is the potential for her prosecution to backfire and contribute to the continued apathy and unprobed racial bias of white people.

While Christian Cooper believes prosecuting Amy Cooper isn’t justified on retributive or consequentialist grounds, his sister Melody Cooper has a different perspective. In a recent tweet she explains that she believes that the potential for deterrence is simply too beneficial to ignore. Melody agrees with her brother’s argument that policing must change, she also believes that because “People are getting hurt and killed in the meantime” that “if there’s a chance to send a message to other white women they can’t and shouldn’t put black people at risk in this way, it should be done.” To Melody, and those who agree with her, the potential deterrence generated by prosecuting Amy Cooper outweighs all else. She references the very real consequences of interactions between Black people and the police, and the phone calls that precede them. Melody clearly favors the traditional utilitarian approach to punishment in which deterrence and positive outcomes are the highest goal of the criminal justice system.

While Melody and Christian clearly disagree on Amy’s prosecution, another question still remains: should the prosecuting attorney take Christian Cooper’s perspective into account when deciding whether to pursue charges? Neither retributive nor utilitarian approaches to justice necessitate acknowledging the victim’s perspective in determining punishment. However, there is another theory of criminal justice which would center Christian’s perspective and cooperation as the victim of a crime: restorative justice. This approach aims neither to produce the best outcomes nor to give perpetrators what they deserve, but rather intends to repair the harm caused by crime. In a restorative justice system, Christian Cooper’s desire for Amy Cooper not to be sentenced would hold far greater weight than in a retributive or utilitarian system. An article in The Indypendent by Kiara Thomas argues that a restorative justice approach would be the best approach in this situation, since it is not only about harm caused between two people, but represents larger harms such as racism, police violence, and white privilege. This approach might also address the issue of deterrence, since restorative justice has been shown to decrease the likelihood of repeat offense on the part of perpetrators.

Amy Cooper’s first court date is October 14. Despite Christian Cooper’s lack of cooperation, experts predict Amy Cooper will still be successfully prosecuted due to the stark video evidence against her. Whether or not this is immoral depends on what one views the purpose of criminal law to be: to requite, to restore, or to deter.

The Remote of Morty and the Ring of Gyges

photograph of several rick and morty action figures

The latest episode of sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty presented a variation on an idea previously seen in Groundhog Day among other stories. In it, Rick invents for Morty a remote that allows him to “save” his life at a certain point, try out different experiences and “load” the save to return back to the save point with no consequences. In this piece, I hope to explore what it means for consequences to matter morally and whether we should be thinking in terms of ultimate consequences at all. Before that, however, let us explore further how exactly this remote works.

The remote is meant to mimic the way many video games work, where one is able to save and return to the save point if one fails or dies, i.e. they allow one to “load” saves. In a video game, a “save state,” is a file that contains information about the save point and amounts to a record of the values of different variables changeable by participation in the game. It is conceivable that one could record the “save state” of the actual universe since the state of the universe is determined by the variable excitations of certain “fields,” like the electromagnetic field or the Higgs-induced mass field, as well as by the distribution of those excitations in the fabric of spacetime. While practically impossible, it is imaginable that someone could record the values of all of these and so be able to generate a save state of the universe at a given time. Indeed, if the simulation argument is true, something like this would be the case.

So, suppose you, mortal and small as you are, possessed a remote that allowed you to contact the Simulators and signal to them to load a previous save state (excepting, presumably, the state of your mind, as otherwise you would not remember your experiences between saving and reloading, rendering the remote useless). The moral dimension of this scenario comes with this question: would you continue to act in accordance with virtue if you knew your actions had “no consequences” beyond how they affected your mind? If you would, why? People are already comfortable with what they call “victimless” crimes. Doing wrong before reloading might be the ultimate victimless crime.

The reader of Plato cannot help but be reminded of the story of the Ring of Gyges by this scenario. In The Republic, Plato presents, through the character Glaucon, the story of a man who finds a ring, the so-called “Ring of Gyges” which allows the wearer to become invisible. With the power of the ring, the man, a shepherd, rapes the queen of the land and kills the king, taking his place (in fact this man is supposed to be the ancestor of Gyges, a historical king of Lydia). Glaucon then asks Socrates to imagine two such rings, one placed on a just man, another on an unjust man and to consider whether their actions would differ. Glaucon indicates that not only would they almost certainly act the same, but if the just man refrained from unjust actions he would actually be foolish for doing so while the man who acts unjustly would be happier.

One response to Glaucon’s argument is that the unjust man would not be happy because people generally feel empathetic pain when they hurt others, and feel guilt afterward for acting unjustly. This pain and guilt would mean the just man would end up happier, though he would lack the material comforts the unjust man might obtain. However, this response is not as helpful with the remote scenario, at least at first glance.

Consider the person who gleefully begins to use the remote and does all sorts of horrible things to people, just for fun or out of curiosity. Why would they feel guilt? Upon reloading a save, none of those people they hurt would feel hurt or even remember the experience. In some sense, those minds—the ones that experienced the harm induced by the remote user—do not exist. So the user might feel empathetic pain while they commit atrocities, or before they reload the save, but afterward it is not obvious these feelings would remain.

So suppose the ancestor of Gyges found this remote—instead of the ring—and did as he did, raping the queen, killing the king, and taking over rulership of the land. Our intuition is that those actions are wrong. But, once the shepherd reloads his save and becomes a shepherd once again, do those actions remain wrong? In other words, suppose the shepherd told his friend about what he had done and the friend believed him. Would the friend judge the shepherd as a bad person?

Most of us likely believe that something immoral is taking place, but it will prove particularly difficult to justify this intuition. A natural response to this question, for example, is to say “Of course! Anyone who is capable of something so horrible must be a bad person.” However, as we have learned from the Holocaust, ordinary people can tolerate or aid in horrible actions. Some of those who Americans often consider moral exemplars, the Founding Fathers, owned slaves. While those who perpetrated these harms did actually do something wrong, it seems fair to say that we are not so different from them that we would be incapable of acting likewise, in the right (or rather “wrong”) circumstances. We are all capable of great evil, it seems, but we rarely judge each other merely on the basis of what we think others are capable of. We judge each other for actual harms we perpetrate. On some definition of “actual,” those who are harmed by someone who uses the remote before they reload a save are not really “actual.”

“But,” you may retort, “while you’re right we don’t judge people for merely being capable of horrible actions, we do judge them for ‘following through’ so-to-speak. Isn’t committing the action, even if it gets undone by reloading, still morally blameworthy?” And you might be right. But we also usually require that someone know what they are doing to be horrible. A person with an intellectual disability who assaults someone in anger is not usually thought responsible for their actions in the same way someone capable of understanding the harms of their actions would be. Supposing that the shepherd sees nothing wrong with his actions, given that they have no permanent consequences, he does not seem to be doing wrong knowingly. He might recognize that, in other circumstances, his actions would be wrong. A soldier does not knowingly murder as does the serial killer since the soldier thinks there is a justification for his actions while the serial killer does not. Likewise the shepherd thinks under these circumstances there is no permanent harm wrought, and so he believes that he does no wrong.

The critical flaw with the shepherd seems to be his obsession with consequences as the only morally relevant criteria. More specifically, there is a problem with his only judging actions by their ultimate consequences. Suppose the shepherd did as he did, with the rape and the murder, and never reloaded his save. In this case, the shepherd clearly does wrong and the existence of the remote is irrelevant; it is as though it never existed. But in any of the cases where he does reload the save, any actions he takes to hurt other people (if they are indeed wrong) will be wrong in spite of the fact that his victims will not remember experiencing this parallel reality harm. These actions will be wrong even if the people he wrongs never even exist after he reloads the save—say, if those people were born, lived, and died all between the time he saved and the time he reloaded.

Ultimately, if our current understanding of physics is correct, the stars will all be swallowed by black holes, those black holes will eventually evaporate, and the whole universe will be a homogeneous soup of photons. No matter what course of action we take, this will be the result. It is a natural consequence of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy must always increase. Not only are our lives temporary due to death, but the consequences of our lives, of all the lives of all people who will ever live are temporary, ending in this same final result. In a sense, we are in a similar position to all those who make up the shepherd’s alternate reality; we will all eventually be erased.

And, yet, we cannot help but believe our actions are meaningful and it matters that people act in accordance with virtue—even in these outlandish remote-user scenarios. That we are temporary does not mean that harms perpetrated against us are insignificant. But, if this is true, then the suffering of the child who grew up without her father, who really herself “never existed,” at least in terms of having any impact on our final reality, really matters too. The alternative is the denial that any of our actions have moral significance given that the fate of the universe is the same regardless.

This remote is fantastical, but, like the Ring of Gyges, it provokes responses that make clear some really foundational moral principles. The story of the Ring of Gyges solidifies our belief that one ought to do right not because the law forces you to do so, but because you simply ought to do right. Various explanations for this conviction have been given. One common explanation is that doing wrong harms the doer. In a similar vein, German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that harming animals was not wrong but still said that people should not do it since, by becoming comfortable harming animals, people might become more comfortable hurting humans. But, if you’re skeptical of these sorts of arguments (perhaps because they seem too doer-centric) and still think harming people while using the remote is wrong, then we are left to conclude that what is right or wrong is not so in virtue of ultimate consequences, but because doing right or wrong benefits or harms conscious people, whether they exist for a day or a lifetime, whether the actions they take impact humanity for millennia or not at all.

Pandemic Sacrifices: It Matters Who Dies and Why

photograph of small liferaft at sea

Political leaders, faux medical experts, and pundits are advocating for a stop to isolation policies despite the real loss of life that would result from doing so.

They are weighing the impact that isolation is having on the economy. The longer we isolate, the more businesses will suffer, and the more corporations will not be able to benefit from the labor that previously was performed. Further, we are facing a catastrophic rise in unemployment—22 million due to the pandemic. Instead of looking towards social benefits and supporting those most affected from losing their jobs and health, these leaders are suggesting ending isolation and further exposing the workforce in the name of an economy that, experts warn, will just need to be shut down again—next time with further dead, made up of those apparently expendable and worth sacrificing for the economy.

These calculations stand in for rhetorical frameworks for moral analysis. We do have approaches for dealing with massive losses when they are the result of, say, natural disasters. These can be blunt instruments that weigh the impact of saving each individual human life against the resources that could otherwise be spent on the good of “society.”

Imagine you were on a lifeboat in a stormy sea. There is no way for everyone to survive, and the experts estimate that a certain percentage must be sacrificed for the survival of the majority. What is the ethical method for making this decision?

The stipulations here force us into “consequentialist” thinking—we would like to maximize the number of people alive at the end of the hellish scenario. However, most would find the “pure” consequentialist reasoning abhorrent. In other words, maximizing the number of people alive at the end is not where our ethical duties end. When stuck on a lifeboat and in a position where 20% of those on board will die, there is a moral difference in this 20% being determined randomly or at the will of a corrupt captain. (Or as a result of the previous decisions of the corrupt captain.)

Our current situation is, and isn’t, parallel to the lifeboat analogy. There isn’t an inevitable number of people that must be sacrificed. There isn’t a storm forcing us to weigh human life against a “greater good”—in this case, the economy. We could, in fact, stay on our boat and take the measures that experts are suggesting at avoiding the sacrifice the leaders are saying are “necessary.”

However, when there is inevitable harm, the procedure for allocating that harm matters morally. Say we do face a scenario where there is a percentage of human lives that will be lost given the pandemic, and a need to end isolation for the greater good of the economy. COVID-19 is the great equalizer we must endure, and while we will lose some, our country/lifeboat will endure.

It’s important to note that even with that stipulation, the metaphor breaks down. That isn’t even the position we are in, either. The actions of the leadership of our lifeboat continue to ensure that the amount of harm increases, and becomes more unavoidable, more inevitable. By defunding the WHO and pandemic response teams, but counteracting state efforts and absolving the federal government from its responsibility for action, the situation continues to be made worse.

Further, they’re able to do this by invoking the notion that it is just like the inevitability of a natural disaster while asking people to unequally bear the burdens of the harm. They’re banking on the support from those they don’t think will accrue the harm. As in the lifeboat analogy, the ones who survive will likely be grateful. But the decision-making for who will be sacrificed is not morally neutral.

Treating these losses as distant and abstract statistics is a strategy. There is force in calling the impact of the coronavirus the great equalizer, as celebrities and politicians alike have claimed. It evokes the frameworks of natural disasters or warfare where there is a limit to what we can do to intervene—lives will “just be lost.” Trump’s message has shifted from denial and buck-passing to attempts to frame casualties under 100,000 as a victory.

This is not an equalizer and is structurally and reliably affecting some groups of people more than others. Black Americans are dying at a much higher rate than non-Black Americans—33%, while only making up 14% of the areas analyzed. Thirty percent of COVID-19 patients are black despite representing only 13% of the population (the different data is the result of varying availability of data). These stark differences become more dire in some cities: In Wisconsin, for example, African Americans represent 6 percent of the population, but nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 fatalities.

Other over-represented vulnerable populations include those living in care facilities, such as disabled people and the elderly, and the incarcerated. Meanwhile, the rich are much safer than others.

This makes a moral difference. Just like on a lifeboat, the captain is not absolved of making every attempt to avoid circumstances where sacrifices must be made, and is responsible for ensuring that just burden-sharing is in place. Sacrifices cannot be justified for false reasons—saving the economy isn’t even a true reason in the sense that sacrificing people may not actually achieve the intended aim.

Anyone suggesting sacrificing 2-3% of the population needs to name family members and loved ones they are willing to sacrifice. They then need to indicate a further segment of their loved ones to live with the effects of a serious illness and extended ICU stay. Because if this is an inevitable sacrifice we all must make, treat it as the great equalizer they claim it is. This will affect us all.

The Ethics of Triage

photograph of empty cots in a medical tent

As the global crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic deepens we are facing a barrage of ethical problems related to the provision of health care.

Equitable access to medical treatment is an issue that will manifest on different levels. It will manifest globally: in areas where health systems are deficient or sections of the population have limited access, the effects stand to be much worse if large-scale infection takes hold.

Populations in countries with underlying issues of poverty or other large public health issues already putting stress on health systems will suffer higher mortality rates and may find it more difficult than wealthier nations to source supplies such as protective gear and medicines.

The statistics stand something like this: Of persons infected, about 20 out of 100 will need hospital care. Of those, about 5, or 5 percent of people overall, (roughly a quarter of those who are hospitalized) will need intensive care including the use of a respirator for assisted breathing.  Mortality rates from COVID-19 are differing between places, but on average it is as high as 3-6 per cent.

If the pandemic gets away from us and infections spiral, even developed countries with good health care, services will be stretched, likely way beyond capacity. As intensive care beds are filled, some people will miss out on medical resources. The question of who is going to miss out, or who is going to be prioritized, will leave doctors and medical staff facing very tough decisions about how best to distribute scarce resources.

When hospitalizations increase to the point where demand for intensive care outstrips capacity, the process of triage is used to make decisions about which patients to prioritize. I’ll come back to this concept of triage in a moment, but first, it could not be more urgent for people in places facing down imminent rises in infection rates and community infections to understand that the more preventative measures are heeded the more we reduce the need for doctors to make tough decisions in terms of access to care. Social distancing measures are vital because even those not as vulnerable to the worst outcomes of infection have a role to play in helping to curb its spread. Though around 80 percent of cases are mild, the danger lies in the threat of overwhelmed healthcare systems if really high percentages become infected –and this is why experts are telling us that we need stringent measures to contain the spread.

Triage is the treatment policy adopted in wartime where the numbers of casualties far outstripped medical resources in terms of access to doctors, medicines, and care facilities.

Wounded patients were divided into three categories: the first, those likely to survive without medical assistance; the second, those who may survive with assistance and probably not without; and the third, those who would probably not survive even with medical assistance. Of these categories, only those falling into the second would receive medical treatment.

How does such a principle look in the time of global Coronavirus pandemic? Hospitals may be forced to adopt such a policy with the use of intensive care staff and equipment, and as health systems reach breaking point, choices about who will get access to life-saving treatment will be a real ethical and practical issue.

How will those decisions be made? If someone needs intensive care their chances of survival without assistance are greatly reduced already. Patients deemed to have a higher chance of survival based on other factors, such as general health or age, are likely to be prioritized over those with existing health problems or the elderly.

It is possible that the elderly or terminally ill, for example, might be placed in the equivalent third category, so that the resources spent in trying to save them might be deemed better spent on someone whose chances of survival are good with care but poor without.

A raft of other factors could be in the mix. It is likely age would be a factor, and if numbers of infections rose sharply, there is the possibility of age cut-offs getting lower, so that first under 70 might be prioritized, next under 60, next under 50 and so on. Would profession be a consideration – should healthcare workers, for example, be prioritized? How about parents or people with young children, or other dependents?

These kinds of choices are not unfamiliar in bioethics (they have to be made, for instance, by doctors considering allocation of the fewer organs available for transplant than patients in need of them), but the salient difference here is the sheer numbers of cases where such decisions are faced.

By virtue of doctors and medical staff having to confront these tough triage decisions on a large scale, a kind of consequentialist ethics is forced upon them. Triage is inherently utilitarian, because it allocates resources according not to need but best outcome. A patient in poorer health has fundamentally higher care needs, which translates to demand on medicine, equipment, and staff; but if those resources can be split between two less critical patients with a reasonable chance of saving both, that is the best (probable) outcome. This decision is not based on individual patients’ needs, but on a better outcome overall, according to consequences.

Whatever factors come to play a role in individual decisions made by doctors and healthcare professionals, once the healthcare system has reached this stage there will necessarily have to be a process of ethical weighing-up of costs and benefits, which thrusts a utilitarian framework onto decision-making.

One may, in theory, reject utilitarian reasoning and argue that we have a duty to everyone, and that everyone has a right to equal treatment, access to care, or other necessities such as protective equipment. But rights are powerless when the capacity to uphold or honor them does not exist. In a scenario where infections spiral out of control and health systems collapse, the notion of a universal right to life-saving treatment will be meaningless.

This is an ethical issue in terms of how it affects individual outcomes throughout the pandemic, and it is also an ethical issue by virtue of the awful position it puts doctors, nurses, and medical staff in. Imagine having to choose between two young patients, one with a chronic condition so somewhat less likely to recover. Imagine having to choose between a healthcare worker and a layperson, or between the mother of an infant or an older child. The point is that it can become a situation where doctors are forced to make ‘ethically impossible’ choices.

Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher, claims ethics is not an ‘ideal’ system–that it is not something which works only in theory–but, he says, “the whole point of ethical judgements is to guide practice.” In other words, ethics is not about ideals, but practical outcomes.

He is right, in the context of triage in the age of COVID-19, only insofar as these particular practical ethical issues arise as a result of better ethical options, like preparedness and mitigation, having been foregone. In other words, if ethics is not an ideal but a practical reality, utilitarian ethics is a reality here not because it was, as it turns out, right all along, but because other ethical failures have put us in the position of being left with no other choice.

I said at the beginning that the more preventative measures are heeded, the more we reduce the need to make tough decisions in terms of access to care. Triage is not therefore an ethical position, but rather the unhappy position of having to use a kind of moral calculus, which it is better to have avoided in the first place. We therefore need to mobilize our capacity, at the individual level and as a society, using the measures epidemiologists are urging, to mitigate the need for triage. We can think of it as our duty to our families, to our communities, to our nations, and to humanity. Failure at this level would be an ethical failure.

We should, however, take the opportunity to consider what other ethical failures threaten to lead us to disaster in this crisis. Given the general shortage of specialist care facilities, and even of basic protective gear for front-line staff in many parts of the world, the issue of preparedness is also burning.

Why are there not enough critical care facilities in so many countries when a deadly global pandemic has been warned of for many decades? Many nations spend large percentages of their GDP on defense against threats of invasion or international conflict, yet are completely, tragically unprepared for this, predictable, event.

The situation of front-line medical staff having to make heart-rending decisions about who will receive life saving medical treatment and who will miss out is a morally onerous burden that could, had governments better protected their citizens by being ready for such an event, have been largely prevented.

From Blackface to Homophobic Tweets: Prioritizing Deontology over Consequentialism?

Governor Ralph Northam delivers a speech

Though 2019 has only just begun, several politicians and celebrities have already become embroiled in scandals concerning their past conduct, with proof of racism, homophobia, and sexism coming to light online through social media. The most recent debate has centered newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who appears in a racist photo circulated online from his 1984 medical school yearbook on February 1. The picture, which features Northam, shows two people standing side-by side, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan outfit. It is unclear which person is Northam, but he has admitted that one of the people in the photo is him. Democrats and Republicans alike over the past weekend have called for Northam to resign over the photo, as well as the NAACP. It seems as though everyone is in agreement that Northam’s actions were unacceptable and call for a resignation. However, in an opinion article in The Guardian, Shanita Hubbard points out the clear disconnect that many have between racist actions and racist policies. Hubbard does not intend to undermine the seriousness of blackface, but rather contends that “Policies that harm black bodies deserve the same outrage as blackface.” Is Hubbard right that actions that lead to racist ends deserve the same moral weight as those that treat people as a means for entertainment? Is one worse than the other? And how can we interpret the societal reaction, or lack thereof, in response to racism through the lens of moral philosophy?

Blackface is undoubtedly racist, both in its origins and in its function as in act in the modern day. Blackface in the United States was used as a way to mock, denigrate, and perpetuate racial stereotypes about black people throughout and following the history of slavery, with white actors and “comedians” impersonating black people during minstrel shows throughout the mid-19th century into the 20th. Though many caught wearing blackface in the modern day claim ignorance to its racist history, the essential function of blackface is to use black bodies as a means to an end — usually comedy, the perpetuation of stereotypes or the reinforcement of white supremacy.

The use of a person or group of people and their skin color as a means to an end can be interpreted most clearly as morally abhorrent under a deontological moral philosophy. In deontological ethics, actions are good or bad “because of some characteristic of the action itself” rather than the outcome of the action. Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned deontological ethical philosophers. He believed in a supreme principle of morality which could be used to justify all other moral obligations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the idea that it is immoral to use someone merely as a means to an end, and that all people regardless of the circumstances must be treated as an end in themselves. The action of blackface clearly violates this principle, and it might in part be that for this reason people across many political and philosophical ideologies react strongly in condemnation, while failing to assign the same condemnation to other racist actions which lead to racist outcomes.

Hubbard addresses this problem in her article, arguing that “If the litmus test for accountability is transparent racism, then this same vigor must be applied to policies and practices and the politicians who impose them.” Why is it that many are willing to condemn an action which uses a person or group as a means, but aren’t as eager to condemn actions that harm people based on these same identities?

One stark example that Hubbard gives is the issue of voter suppression, which often impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans, more than any other group. Politicians such as Brian Kemp, who have been responsible for the widespread implementation of voter suppression, have not been met with the call to resign as strongly as politicians such as Northam. Hubbard chalks up the difference in reaction to racist actions and racist policies to a difference in the blatancy, and the ability of politicians to hide behind the supposed amorality of their policies. However, Hubbard’s frustration can also be directly linked to a moral system which condemns on the basis of the consequences of one’s actions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism, and it gives no bearing to the intention of an actor, but rather the harm caused by their actions. While Hubbard is not calling for such a moral philosophy to take precedent, she is pointing out the clear lack of support for using this doctrine as a standard when it comes to racism.

One might also interpret this problem to arise from the moral doctrines society believes to be fundamental in combination with which groups are included within these moral philosophies. Another example of outrage over the use of a group as a means to an end is the controversy which surrounded Kevin Hart in December concerning tweets and comments from his past which were blatantly homophobic. Hart used homophobia for comedy and also social status, which was met with public outrage strong enough to have him removed from hosting the 2019 Oscars. However, similar backlash and condemnation is not always met with politicians or celebrities who implement or donate to causes which perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ folks. In this situation, which mirrors that of Northam, it seems that it is more mainstream to condemn a person for using a person or group as a means but not to condemn a person for causing substantial harm to a person or a group.

The application of these moral principles to both these situations is not to imply that the unified condemnation comes out of a place of genuine concern from all those doing the condemning. In fact, the concern about the racist actions of Governor Northam from the right may very well be, as Chauncey Devega argues “an opportunity to score political points by distracting public attention” from the wrongs committed by the Republican party when it comes to issues of racial justice. Without giving credit to those making the argument as being ‘moral’ ones, we can still assess the basic function of the argument in its appeal to the public’s ethos. Further still, incidences of blackface may not represent just one morally wrong action, but be a symptom of a larger moral problem within society. It is also important to note that while these philosophies may be used as guiding principles for how one assesses moral blame, they do not always necessarily, or have historically, extended to all people in society. However, it is important for us to truly assess why we believe an action or a person is immoral so that we understand the moral values present or lacking in our society.

Evaluating Solitary Confinement: A Matter of Values

Untidiness, tattooing, insolence towards a staff member, “reckless eyeballing,” and possession of an excessive quantity of postage stamps. These are all behaviors that are officially punishable by “restriction to quarters” and “change of housing” in the US Federal Prison System, according to Quartz. Thus, you can be placed in solitary confinement for relatively innocuous infractions, and the clear potential for abuse of this practice is one reason why the use of solitary confinement to punish prisoners has recently come under intense pressure. New York reached a legal settlement in 2015 with the New York Civil Liberties Union regarding the aggressive use of solitary confinement in its prisons, and a multi-year process was begun to lessen the times people spent in solitary confinement and to improve conditions in solitary confinement units.

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Voting in the 2016 Election: Impact Versus Intent

This past election cycle has been particularly divisive. In the last week, the response to a Trump victory has sparked protests across the country. Students have walked out of classes at UC Berkeley, and as protests in major cities have been more or less continuous since election day, violence broke out in Portland, OR in the hours between Friday and Saturday morning. Chants outside Trump Tower in New York City have included “Not My President” and “Love Trumps Hate.” In Los Angeles, protestors chant in Spanish and hold signs defending the rights of immigrants and undocumented Americans, a group that has been a focal point of a great deal of divisive rhetoric of the president-elect’s campaign. Opponents of the Trump candidacy have used personal messages throughout protest, rejecting the underlying meaning of a Trump presidency more than any particular policy he might adopt.  

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