Back to Prindle Institute

Justice for All?: William Kelly and Kyle Rittenhouse

photograph of police officer with blurred civilians in the background

Last week, a police officer was fired over the details of an anonymous donation he made. Norfolk Police Lieutenant William Kelly contributed $25 to a legal defense fund for Kenosha shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse last September. That donation was accompanied by a message:

“God bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong. Every rank and file police officer supports you. Don’t be discouraged by actions of the political class of law enforcement leadership.”

Kelly’s donation was anonymous and only made public following a security breach of Christian crowdfunding website GiveSendGo when data was shared with and circulated by Distributed Denial of Secrets and later published by The Guardian.

In the wake of his firing, GiveSendGo has started a fundraising campaign for Kelly. Co-founder Heather Wilson argues that “Regardless of how you feel regarding Kyle Rittenhouse, the fact is that Mr. Kelly’s individual rights have been grossly violated.” His donation “wasn’t against the law, but a criminal hacker group and a biased media outlet decided that was enough to make an example of him.”

This particular framing conforms to a broader (misleading) narrative regarding cancel culture’s all-out assault on individual rights. The story is presented by some as the obvious overreach of the progressive thought police. Kelly, these voices claim, is being persecuted merely for holding private, personal opinions that a powerful bunch have deemed distasteful. Woke mob rule has conspired once again to force the hand of another institution to cut ties with a controversial figure or risk being tarred with the same brush. What was once a call for boycott or an urging to deplatform has transformed into something much bigger. This isn’t a mere public shaming; Kelly’s dismissal highlights the serious threat to professional livelihood: an 18-year veteran and the second-highest ranking officer in the Norfolk Police Department lost his job in less than 72 hours.

Given the situation, labor lawyers like Ray Hogge have suggested that the firing was “inappropriate and illegal.” Kelly’s dismissal is a violation of his rights of speech and association. As a free citizen, Kelly is at liberty to support any charitable cause he chooses, regardless of whether city leaders approve. Employers shouldn’t be in the business of picking and choosing the values their employees can espouse. And this should be especially true in the case of a private, off-duty communication between friends.

The trouble is that Mr. Kelly’s rights are not the only rights at issue. His interests must be weighed against the state’s interest in delivering impartial justice for us all. Kelly’s case is more than just a matter of bad optics or a squeamish politician rolling over to avoid backlash from a mob spoiling for a fight. This is a state official countermanding the expressed purpose and obligations of the post he serves a post that sometimes requires the use of deadly force. Kelly’s words give us reason to question whether he can adequately execute the functions of his office.

Even out of uniform, officers have a duty to uphold public image and not engage in activities that might erode respect for the badge. As Police Chief Larry D. Boone made clear,

“A police department cannot do its job when the public loses trust with those whose duty is to serve and protect them. We do not want perceptions of any individual officer to undermine the relations between the Norfolk Police Department and the community.”

The effect Kelly’s position as an officer of the law has on this speech act (even in private as a public citizen) appears inescapable (for discussion see A.G. Holdier’s “Pastor Fritts, the First Amendment, and Public and Private Reason”). His incidental use of his police department email in making the donation helps to highlight the trouble: Lt. Kelly is incapable of speaking on this matter while wearing a different hat. A police officer expressing support for a vigilante (publicly or privately) and suggesting that outlaw is above the law is fundamentally at odds with the sworn duty to protect and serve. It betrays an indifference to the law he is meant to uphold and to the exclusive position that he occupies. It confers legitimacy on some while denying it to others and fails to discourage us from taking the law into our own hands.

But there remains much that needs to be settled. Rittenhouse only stands accused and has pleaded not guilty on the basis of self-defense; the jury is still out. Unfortunately, this fact means that Kelly’s endorsement is more egregious, not less. Choosing to support a suspect before his day in court is a problematic stance for law enforcement to take. The police shouldn’t stand as judge, jury, and executioner. Kelly’s actions are objectionable, then, not because he chose the wrong side in the culture war, but because he chose to take a side at all.

A Strange Moral Disgruntlement with Giving

photograph of donation jar stuffed with large bills

I tend to get annoyed when people donate money in ways I think are silly. I was recently reminded of this when I saw the staggering amount of money spent first on the Presidential campaigns and second on the Georgia runoff. This annoyed me, because everything I have read suggests that money makes little to no difference to federal or state wide election outcomes (note that there is a correlation between the amount of money raised and the number of votes gotten, but that is because popular candidates receive more donations, not because donations help make candidates popular). I was not only annoyed that people were donating money to political campaigns rather than to causes that could make a difference, but I was extra annoyed that people mostly donated to the political campaigns where money had the least chance of effecting the outcome (for example, democrats across the country donated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election fund even though her chance of losing was minuscule).

It is not just political donations. I remember in middle school being annoyed with my sister for raising money to rescue endangered species like tigers. I thought this was a silly use of money since a) humans are qualitatively more important than animals and b) the best environmental protection does not focus on the preservation of certain culturally-salient species. Likewise, a few years ago I was annoyed with people at my church who, as it seemed to me, were frivolously donating money to help build a new building and purchase a new pipe organ.

Hopefully at least some of you readers can identify with this annoyance (if not, this whole post is just self-indulgent moral navel-gazing). I bring it up because there is something odd about this annoyance — I seem more annoyed by people donating money ineffectively than I am by people just spending money selfishly.

Let’s make this oddity concrete. I am peeved when friends donate money to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s political campaign rather than donating that money to charitable causes that will likely create practical, tangible change. And yet I am not peeved when friends go out to dinner rather than donate that money to charitable causes that will likely make a real difference.

I grumble about how donating money for a new church building was a terrible witness for Christian love, but don’t similarly grumble anytime a Christian renovates their own home or buys a car nicer than they absolutely need. I openly criticized my sister for raising money for animal conservation rather than for anti-malaria efforts, but of course I was not bothering to raise money for either!

So why am I more annoyed by ineffective selflessness than I am by simple selfishness. Whatever the explanation, it concerns me. The reason I should care that people donate to the Against Malaria Foundation rather than a political campaign is because I care about people dying from malaria! But people spending money selfishly are failing to help those dying of malaria at least as much as those donating to political campaigns.

So what is going on here, why do I get so annoyed by ineffective selflessness?

I’m not sure, but I have a theory I want to toss out there. The reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness is because I’m annoyed at the thought of people feeling unjustified pride in their own goodness. In other words, if someone spends money eating out or spends money donating to a political campaign both are, in some sense, wasting their money. However, the person who donates to the political campaign is wasting their money and feels an inner glow of self-approval that they are ‘doing their part’ and ‘participating in the process.’ In other words, what bothers me about ineffective charity is the thought that people will unfairly get to feel good about themselves when they don’t deserve it.

This explanation fits well with some other things we know about human psychology. In particular, it fits with our natural concern that rewards be proportional to dessert. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Righteous Mind:

“When people work together on a task, they generally want to see the hardest workers get the largest gains. People often want equality of outcomes, but that is because it is so often the case that people’s inputs were equal. When people divide up money, or any other kind of reward, equality is just a special case of the broader principle of proportionality. When a few members of a group contributed far more than the others—or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing—most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally.”

Some evidence for this comes from our willingness to pay to punish cheaters and free riders, even when no future benefit is secured by that punishment. In cooperation games where players can keep money for themselves or add it to a group pot to be grown and then distributed, the vast majority of players will pay money they won to take away money from those who did not contribute to the overall pot. People would rather make less money themselves if they can at least decrease the amount won by those who were freeriding. This is also why there is so much political pressure to root out cheating in the welfare system. It often costs more to find welfare fraud than we save in finding it. Yet people are still willing to pay to enforce standards because we are so bothered by the thought of someone benefiting unjustly.

All of this also makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. Suppose there are two people, one of whom will spend resources punishing you whenever you cheat them, and the other who will only punish you when it makes financial sense to do so. Who are you more likely to cheat? Having a strong commitment to punish cheaters, even when it seems counterproductive, plays a vital role in maintaining social trust and cooperation.

My theory then, is that the reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness more than selfishness, is because my concern with ‘wasted donations’ is not actually a concern for the global poor, instead it is a concern about fairness. Just as it bothers me when cheaters do not get punished (because they end up better off than they deserve), so too am I bothered when those contributing little to others feel good about themselves for helping (because they end up better off than they deserve). It is upsetting when someone does not feel guilt over doing something wrong, and it is similarly upsetting when someone feels pride over doing something neutral. In both cases the ‘moral order’ of the world seems off, and I am willing to invest considerable mental energy in trying to set the things right.

It is useful to notice this motivation because it goes some way to tempering my criticism. It is hard to feel good about my own disgruntlement when I realize it is motivated not by a love for the poor but by a concern that others not feel better about themselves than I do. After all, the people trying to help, even if they do so poorly, probably do deserve to feel better about themselves than those who are not trying to help at all (though of course, we should all spend time making sure we are using money where it can really help those who need it).

Campaign Donations, Caveat Emptor, and #RefundPete

photograph of Mayor Pete at an even flipping pork chops in Iowa Pork apron

The second week of December saw another unusual wrinkle in an already-complicated Democratic primary season: grassroots donors began demanding refunds for political contributions made to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Citing concerns about Buttigieg’s pursuit of high-dollar donors, defenses of corporate interests, and dismissive attitudes towards questions regarding these tactics, as well as specific revelations regarding his work at the management consulting group McKinsey and Company, some voters who had once considered Buttigieg an interesting newcomer to the national stage are changing their minds. Although the Buttigieg campaign has declined to release data on the number of refunds requested, the movement appears to be growing as the hashtag #RefundPete began trending online.

As it stands, presidential campaigns are only legally obligated to refund a campaign donation if that donation somehow violates legal requirements (such as if it exceeds the FEC’s contribution limits) – no provision requires refunds simply because donors have had a change of heart. However, might Buttigieg’s campaign have a moral obligation to dispense refunds? Or does the Latin warning “Caveat Emptor” – “let the buyer beware” – apply to political donations just as much as it might to property sales?

On the one hand, you might think that a political donation is simply a non-binding show of support – a flat contribution demonstrating a thin sort of sponsorship that does not commit either a donor or a candidate to anything further. Put differently, this view sees a campaign donation as simply a gift with no strings attached. Even though a voter might give money to one (or even multiple) campaigns, that would in no way indicate how the donor would end up voting at the ballot box and, conversely, the candidate can use that money at-will.

On the other hand, it might be that making a campaign contribution thereby initiates the donor into the candidate’s group of supporters, creating a net of (at least some) obligations between the donor and the candidate – such as the expectation that the candidate represent the will of the donors/supporters. On this view, a donation is more like a contract or a promise that a candidate must perpetually merit. Presumably, on this second, thicker view, if the candidate breaks the contract (perhaps by initially misrepresenting themselves or by changing their positions), then the donor could have grounds to demand repayment.

If these choices are right, then it would seem like the #RefundPete movement is assuming the second option to ground their reimbursement expectations: although someone may have contributed to Buttigieg when he was presenting himself as a progressive, small-town mayor looking for grassroots support, that same contributor could easily feel deceived when Buttigieg later adopts a more openly centrist position, chases elitist funding, and cavalierly ignores questions regarding that shift. Because of that perceived deception, former Buttigieg donors might think they are entitled to a refund.

However, it is the first option which seems like the most natural understanding of how campaign donations actually function. Given that there is a clear difference between contributing to a campaign and actively campaigning for a candidate (via rallying, door-knocking, sign-posting, or a myriad of other approaches), it’s not clear that a simple financial transaction (often done impersonally through an online payment portal) is able to automatically create the thick sorts of relational obligations between a candidate and his supporters required to ground a reimbursement request. That is to say, although campaign donors and campaign workers are both supporters of a candidate, they are not identical political agents (someone can easily be one without being the other). If former Buttigieg-donors also put in the effort to build relational ties with the Buttigieg campaign (thereby becoming Buttigieg-campaign-workers), then they might indeed have standing to expect some form of recompense for their wasted efforts (given what they now know); if those former donors are now simply regretting their choice to toss some “pocket change” at a candidate that they now don’t like, then it’s much less clear that they deserve the refunds they’re requesting. Indeed, this second scenario seems fairly familiar to any voter who has ever ended up dissatisfied with the results of representative democracy.

To be fair, it seems like much of the #RefundPete hashtag is motivated by the opportunity to make a political statement about Buttigieg’s campaign tactics, policy positions, and general demeanor: for example, the hashtag was sparked by a campaign worker for Elizabeth Warren and one of the inspirations of the #RefundPete hashtag had only donated $1 to help Buttigieg qualify for an early debate. Particularly in a race where grassroots support has become a defining wedge issue among Democratic candidates (as Bernie Sanders joked about in the December debate), such statements might be perfectly legitimate – but that’s a far cry from saying that the concept of a campaign donation refund is, in principle, legitimate.

Christmas Music and Emotional Manipulation

blurry photograph of decorated Christmas trees

There is a predictable pattern of reactions to Christmas music every year. First, stores start to play it much too early – typically right after Thanksgiving, or maybe even right after Halloween – and people comment on how stores are playing it much too early. Then there’s that sweet spot, where for a few weeks the songs are fun and comforting to listen to, and Wham’s “Last Christmas” is still tolerable. Inevitably, though, patience starts to run out as holiday stresses mount, and by the time the season’s over pretty much everyone is ready for another 10-month break from Christmas music.

There is, however, one class of song that is particularly difficult to tolerate no matter what time in December: the preachy Christmas song that doesn’t celebrate the spirit of giving so much as it seems to chastise you for having been a terrible person all year long. Two such songs stand out: John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (that’s the one with the “War is over/If you want it” chorus) and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (that’s the one with the “Feed the world/let them know it’s Christmastime again” chorus).

While both songs come from a place of good intentions – Lennon’s song was written partly in protest against the Vietnam War, while Band Aid were attempting to help raise awareness for a famine in Ethiopia in the early-to-mid 1980s – I doubt they make many people’s holiday party playlists. And for good reason: I don’t want to feel bad about myself during the holidays. And although I didn’t really do anything this past year to try to put an end to war or famine, do I really have to be reminded about my many moral failings?

If you think that I’m being too hard on these types of songs, then you should know that I’m not alone. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been criticized repeatedly, for many different reasons. Perhaps most damning of all is its ill-informed message about what was happening in “Africa” at the time. Consider, for example, the following lyrics, which describe Africa as a place:

Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

While undeniably schmaltzy, it’s also bizarre to talk about all of Africa in a single breath. As Bim Adewunmi at The Guardian writes:

“There is a humourless danger in taking song lyrics too literally, but I can’t help it: yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in Africa because huge swaths of that vast continent are Christian; the greatest gift anyone can have is life; and actually, it is more likely to be water, not just “bitter tears”, flowing across Africa’s 54 nations.”

Adewunmi also argues that the song perpetuates a narrative in which the people of Africa need to be “saved” by those in the west, and ignore the efforts of those actually living in countries affected by some of the problems that “super groups” like Band Aid are meant to draw attention to.

So not only is it emotionally manipulative, but it’s patronizing as well. Is there any good reason to keep playing this song around Christmas?

Well, perhaps there’s one: the song and subsequent concerts put on by related act Live Aid have raised a good quantity of money for charity. Although the original Band Aid song was released in 1984, subsequent re-releases – including Band Aid II in 1989, Band Aid 20 in 2004, and Band Aid 30 in 2014, with updated rosters of contemporary popular musicians – donated a portion of profits from sales of the single each time to various charities in Africa, approximately £40m worth – although there has been debate about the overall benefits or detriments of the original Live Aid efforts, with some arguing that unforeseen political consequences of Live Aid’s donations may have caused a significant amount of harm, as well.

Whether the consequences were overall positive or negative, we can also ask the more theoretical question of whether it is appropriate to solicit charitable donations by means of emotional manipulation. Clearly the song is meant to make the listener question their relative position of privilege – especially when they are told to “thank God” it’s “them” instead of you who are suffering. We might then be motivated to donate to the Band Aid cause not out of legitimate concern for the suffering of others, but instead to assuage our own guilt. We might worry, though, that while it’s overall a good thing to donate to charity, one should be motivated by actually helping others, and not just to try to feel less bad about oneself.

That being said, if it does indeed help distribute some of the wealth and goods from those who have a lot to those who need it, it is hard to see how a little emotional manipulation in the form of cheesy Christmas songs could hurt. And while it might be close to another year before you hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” again, next time you do it’s worth thinking about the best way to assuage that year-end guilt.

Peter Singer and the Ethics of Effective Altruism

In the first part of this two-part series, we explored the views of Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and whether they count as “eugenics.” Although his possibly eugenicist views are what drew protestors to Singer’s recent talk at the University of Victoria, Singer wasn’t there to discuss bioethics. Instead, he had been invited by the Effective Altruism club, and the event included a screening of Singer’s 2013 TED talk on Effective Altruism.

Continue reading “Peter Singer and the Ethics of Effective Altruism”