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The Morality of Forgiving Student Debt

photograph of graduates at commencement

In March 2020, as the pandemic began, the federal government temporarily suspended student-loan payments and the charging of interest on student debt. Two years later, the suspension continues. There are now growing calls for student debt to be canceled entirely.

Forgiving student loans is a deeply controversial topic, as a few of our own writers have discussed. The policy raises difficult economic questions (would forgiving student loans beneficially stimulate the economy, or simply contribute to the already-high inflation?), political questions (would this be a political “winner” for the Democrats going into the midterms?), and also essentially moral questions.

Do the borrowers deserve forgiveness? Would forgiving existing loans be fair to those who have already paid off theirs? Would a government bailout of student loan borrowers be just when they tend to earn more than most taxpayers?

Both sides of the student loan forgiveness debate use the language of morality and justice to defend their views. On the anti-forgiveness side, it is common to hear expressions to the effect of “I paid mine. You pay yours.” How is it fair on those who worked hard, lived frugally, and repaid their loans that their lazier or less financially responsible counterparts get their loans bailed out by the government? It seems morally wrong to reward failure when it is the result of personal irresponsibility. Those who took out loans did so freely. Perhaps they ought to deal with the consequences themselves, rather than have those consequences shifted onto the taxpayer’s back.

Whether this is a convincing argument depends largely on whether you think those taking student loans are fully informed about the relevant information before making their decisions, and whether you think they are being financially exploited by the universities they are joining. If borrowers were exploited, then it seems just to forgive their debts.

First, some background. Student loan debt has grown rapidly over the past two decades, almost fourfold from $480 billion in 2006 to $1.73 trillion in 2021. Approximately 45 million Americans have student debt, an average of $39,351.

The U.S. Department of Education claims that 10 years is the ideal length of time to pay off a student loan. But, in reality, these loans take an average of 21 years to pay off. If you graduate at 22, you can be expected to be paying off your student loan into your mid-40s. And some student loans are far worse than that. The average Professional degree at a for-profit college takes a shocking 46 years to pay off — longer than most Americans are in the workforce. Even worse, some borrowers are unable to repay their debts. The default rate for the student loans owed to for-profit colleges is 52%, and 66% for African Americans.

The personal impact of crushing student loan payments can be severe and endure for decades. Given these possible long-term negative effects, perhaps the federal government shouldn’t be giving these student loans out in the first place.

The brain takes an average of 25 years to fully mature, but the life-changing decision to take a student loan is made by those as young as 18 years old. If these loans should have never been given, then forgiving them would be rectifying past exploitation.

Debt is also not solely the moral responsibility of the borrower; the provider bears some moral responsibility too. But federal student loans are available to almost all students with no requirements beyond meeting the program’s requirements. The government spends no time nor effort assessing whether the prospective student will be capable of repaying the loan, nor if the degree will be considered an asset. Both eligibility and interest rates are the same for the top-earning degrees (e.g., Petroleum Engineering, Operations Research & Industrial Engineering), and the lowest (e.g., Medical Assisting, Mental Health, Early Childhood Education), despite their vastly different risks of default. Is it really fair to give the burden of a student loan to a future low-paid Medical Assistant, on the same terms as a future Petroleum Engineer? If not, perhaps the federal government has failed to act responsibly in giving these loans in the first place, suggesting forgiveness is the moral choice.

But why should the government opt for forgiveness?

If you get into debt you cannot repay, our society has a system for escape: bankruptcy. It is a painful solution, but an essential one used by 1.5 million Americans each year. Isn’t this the solution to the student debt crisis? The problem is that this basic financial right is tightly restricted in the case of federal student debt. While some advocate changing bankruptcy law to include student debt, until those changes are enacted we are seemingly left with only one solution for those with non-repayable student loans: forgiveness.

Despite these considerations, there is also a strong case against student debt forgiveness. Student loans are not always exploitative. Used well, they can provide access to higher education to millions of Americans who could otherwise not afford it. In a world without student loans, we would expect fewer students from poor families to go to university. Most college students take student loans, and most are able to repay. The access to higher education that these loans can provide is often immensely valuable, both economically and personally.

Of course, an education is worth far more than its financial benefits, but even if we focus narrowly on the economic benefits of university education, those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million over their careers, compared to $1.6 million for those with a high school diploma. In fact, every extra level of education is correlated with another boost to lifetime earnings. So, while some student loans are lifelong financial burdens, others act as financial life-rafts, leading borrowers to better lives in the broadest sense. Student loans can be irresponsible, exploitative and morally wrong, but they can also be transformative.

If student loans are neither inherently exploitative nor inherently beneficial, how can we assess blanket policies such as forgiveness? One way is to examine the effect of the policy through the lens of distributive justice — the question of what allocation of society’s wealth and resources would be equal, fitting, or otherwise just.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley appealed to the value of distributive justice in support of student loan forgiveness, calling it ‘a racial justice issue’, ‘a gender justice issue’, and ‘an economic justice issue’, and tweeting that “Black women are … the most burdened by student debt.” The implication is that Black women are unjustly disproportionately burdened by student debt, in part due to the existing racial wealth gap, and that forgiving this debt would make the country more just. Similarly, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote that “Canceling student debt is one of the most powerful ways to address racial and economic equity issues. The student loan system mirrors many of the inequalities that plague American society and widens the racial wealth gap.”

Historically, Joe Biden has been fairly skeptical of such claims. In 2021, he told The New York Times, “The idea that you go to [the University of Pennsylvania] and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.” Despite the fact that Biden disagrees with Pressley, Warren, and Schumer, he too views the issue through the lens of distributive justice. But Biden believes distributive justice would not be served by a blanket policy of forgiveness. This explains the most recent proposals to be floated by members of the Biden administration, which consider much more limited and targeted debt forgiveness, aimed at those below a certain income threshold.

Biden has a point. Those who go to university earn, on average, significantly more than their high-school diploma holding counterparts. They also are much less likely to be unemployed; college graduates’ unemployment rate is now just 2%.

So how could it really help promote equality and distributive justice to bail out the debts of the high-earning university-educated elite?

Pushing this point further, the recent calls for student debt-forgiveness are seen by some as a disproportionately wealthy, powerful, and influential segment of society seeking to massively financially benefit themselves at the taxpayer’s expense. Is it right to force blue-collar taxpayers to bail out Harvard graduates? Megan Kelly recently put it like this: “There people are going to be… elite graduates… Why should I be paying for their education? I don’t want to!”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed back against these skeptical characterizations and defended the distributive-justice credentials of student loan forgiveness. She wrote that “Taking the school that someone went to college to is not really shorthand for the income of the family that they come from.” Martina Orlandi gives a similar argument here. The trouble with this argument is that when we talk about adults being wealthy, we aren’t generally talking about their parents’ wealth but their own. The first person in a family to have wealth is still wealthy, and we don’t think they should be taxed less because their parents were poor. Likewise, it is unclear why college graduates should have their debts forgiven because their parents were poorer than them.

At a recent town hall, Ocasio-Cortez provided a much stronger argument in defense of debt forgiveness as a vehicle for distributive justice, pointing out that most students from high-income families never take student loans: “if you are very wealthy, if you are a multimillionaire’s child, if you are Bill Gates’ kid, if you’re Jeff Bezos’s kid—Jeff Bezos isn’t taking out a student loan to send his kids to college.” If rich kids don’t take student loans and poor kids do, then it is clear that forgiving these loans should promote greater wealth equality.

To get a better grasp on these various conflicting claims about what distributive justice demands in relation to student loans, we need to look more closely at the statistics.

Black college students are indeed the demographic of students most likely to use federal student loans. However, Black Americans have significantly lower rates of college enrolment than White Americans. 29% of Black Americans aged 25 to 29 have undergraduate degrees, while 45% of White Americans do. Therefore, forgiving federal student debt would probably help narrow the racial wealth gap between college graduates, but it would most likely widen the racial wealth gap between Americans overall. Likewise, college students from the wealthiest families tend to take out fewer loans, while those from the poorest take out more. Forgiving student loan debt would, therefore, likely decrease wealth inequality between college graduates. But, in terms of income, the top 40% of households owe 60% of outstanding education debt and make 75% of the payments. The bottom 40% of households have only 19% of outstanding educational debt, and make only 10% of the payments. So forgiving student loans would likely increase the wealth inequality between Americans overall, even as it lowers wealth inequality between college graduates.

Intergenerational justice may provide a more convincing lens from which to defend student loan forgiveness. In 1970, the average in-state tuition for a public university was $394. In 2020 it was 25.8 times higher, at $10,560. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has risen by just 3.5 times. Instead of 5 hours of work per week paying for a year of tuition at an in-state university, it now takes 28 hours per week. The days of paying for college with a part time job are over. At the same time, employers now demand higher levels of education from their employees, putting this generation under immense pressure to take on educational debt to access the same jobs their parents worked with less education. In this context, student debt forgiveness can be seen as a way of mitigating the inequality between the generations — a way of transferring the nation’s wealth to younger Americans who have lacked the financial opportunities their parents had. Whether this is convincing or not likely depends on your view of government debt. Forgiving student debt would, effectively, nationalize the debt — add it to the total U.S. federal debt. But fiscal conservatives argue this would simply add to the burden of future taxpayers (i.e. young people and their children). If they are right, then student loan forgiveness could simply perpetuate generational injustice, rather than mitigate it.

Student loan forgiveness is a controversial topic for good reason. Student loans can be irresponsibly given and exploitative, but they can also be extremely beneficial. Forgiving them could reduce certain unjust inequalities in American society, but it could increase others. But this much is clear; the issue is not just political. It is also a debate about morality and about justice.

Kamila Valieva, Lia Thomas, and Fairness in Sports

So far, the biggest moment of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not been record-breaking stunts or underdog wins, but an issue that has been pervasive in the Olympics throughout the past decade: doping. The issue has become a major topic of conversation every Olympics, especially after the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, Russia, where a state-run doping scandal was taking place and only discovered a year later. While Russia is still technically banned from the Olympics, individual athletes from Russia have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2014. Now, Russia’s history with doping has once again become a focus, as have the lenient reactions of governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after it was revealed that a top figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive.

What made this news so controversial were two things: the timing and the consequences. Valieva’s sample was taken on December 25th, after she won the free skate in the Russian National Championships. However, the lab responsible for testing her sample had not reported the results until February 8th, after Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the team skate and was the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps in the Olympics. The drug she tested positive for, Trimetazidine, is a heart medication that has helps athletes with their endurance, which would give her a significant advantage in figure skating competition. She was suspended and then quickly cleared by a Russian anti-doping organization. But the most shocking decision was the Court of Arbitration in Sports allowing her to compete in the individual free skate, an event that she was favored to win.

The decision to let Valieva compete has created just as much controversy as the original positive test. Former Olympic figure skater and now coach, Adam Rippon, has suggested that Russia’s original ban by the IOC was clearly not strict enough as their best athletes are continuing to test positive. Further, Rippon has also pointed out that Valieva is only fifteen, and her status as a minor means that it is her coach and guardians that bear the greatest responsibility. Given this, Valieva has generally been met with sympathetic responses as no one knows the extent to which she might be complicit. Would-be Olympian Shi’Carri Richardson, however, has pointed out the double standard at play – as she was banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for testing positive for marijuana after she found out her mother died. Like Valieva, Richardson was expected to be a heavy favorite (in the 100-meter dash), but marijuana – while listed as a banned substance – is not a performance-enhancing drug. (Another difference, of course, is that Valieva is white, whereas Richardson is Black.)

While Valieva may deserve sympathy as a child, athletes expect that competitors will be held to the same standard when it comes to positive tests for banned substances – perhaps especially when competing at something as grand as the Olympics. The decision to allow Valieva to compete – even if disqualified from the medal ceremony – illustrates a certain acceptance among the top sports governing bodies of doping at the world’s largest stage for athletic performances. Skaters in the individual event must perform knowing that their biggest competition has a leg-up. And if Valieva is met with understanding and shown leniency, what would stop other athletes (or coaches) from expecting that their rule-breaking behavior might be similarly excused? The basis for athletic competition is the expectation of a level playing field, but complacency about doping threatens to undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Valieva’s case is related to another controversy brewing in the sports world: transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. While public response to Valieva’s situation has been largely sympathetic and respectful, the same cannot quite be said of the treatment of Lia Thomas. In a somewhat similar case, a governing sports body – this time the NCAA – needed to determine quickly whether a University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) swimmer, Lia Thomas, would be able to compete at the conference championships in March. Recently, the NCAA had decided to no longer have a uniform policy for transgender athletes across all sports, but instead to allow individual sports governing bodies to have their own requirements. For Lia Thomas, this meant she would be disqualified from competing because the USA Swimming policy required trans athletes to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy and prove they do not have an unfair advantage from their sex assigned at birth. By the time of the conference championships Thomas would’ve been at 33 months of hormone therapy. Thomas’ absence would completely change the championships as she holds two of the top times in the nation.

What added to the controversy and sparked debate amongst women’s athletic communities was the reaction from sixteen of her teammates. The teammates, referring to themselves as biological women, released an anonymous letter pleading that UPenn or the Ivy League accept Thomas’s ban and not sue the NCAA. They justified their position by explaining how Thomas had taken away their chance to compete at the conference meet, in which only about half of the team makes the roster. In response, over 300 current and former competitive swimmers voiced their support for Thomas, as well as other trans and non-binary athletes in their sport. Crucially, they also highlighted the true issue of this situation, which is that while real problems that have been ongoing for decades in women’s sports, such as sexual abuse, unequal treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, and unfair pay, opponents have mistakenly decided to blame a transwoman for the downfall of fairness in women’s sports.

There has been a marked difference in the ways the sports world, particularly the women’s sports world, has reacted to these situations. Valieva clearly cheated; she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug – whether she knowingly took the drug or was coerced by adults. Her continued competition in the Olympics has now taken away from every skater who worked their entire life in the hopes of one day making it there. It calls into question the integrity of not only the team and free skate competitions, but also the Games as a whole. Fellow competitors, commentators, and the general public seem upset, but also believe sympathy and respect are called for. Lia Thomas, meanwhile, was castigated by her own teammates and has faced a wave of backlash (often transphobic) over her supposed “biological” advantage.

The woman who helped to publish the letter by Thomas’s sixteen teammates is former Olympian, civil rights lawyer, and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar who published an editorial defending their position. In the editorial, Hogshead-Makar compares Thomas not only to her old rivals, the doping East German athletes from the 1980s, but also to Michael Phelps, a male swimmer, who ironically has his own biological advantages, yet is celebrated as a sports phenom. While Hogshead-Makar insists that her ultimate aim is to break down the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, she can’t see that her own argument is inherently sexist – accepting a biologically advantaged male as exceptional, but a transwoman with over a year of hormone therapy as threatening.

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar demonstrates remarkable indifference in suggesting Thomas either compete in men’s swimming, something that would most likely cause some level of trauma from having to be defined under the wrong gender, or forfeit participation in official competition and simply swim in exhibition races. Indeed, Hogshead-Maker is adamant that women should not give up the gains they have fought for against men “no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes.” While purporting to be a supporter of women’s sports and of Lia Thomas’s gender identity, Hogshead-Makar simply refuses to recognize Thomas as a woman. If she did, she would be embracing Thomas with open arms and recognizing a great athlete for what they are – someone who overcame unique and difficult barriers to fully realize themselves.

Welcoming transgender athletes into women’s sports – obviously with certain guidelines to ensure fairness – should be the goal of all women in women’s sports, as it is true they have fought hard (and continue to fight) for equal recognition with men’s sports. Welcoming more women and greater competition can only help further women’s sports in its mission of equality. In the end, the true threat to the integrity of sports lies not in the inclusion or exclusion of gender identities, but in complacency about doping.

Lia Thomas, Fairness in Sport, and Honest Ethical Debate in a World of Bad Faith

photograph of swimming lanes from underwater

In the past few months, women’s collegiate swimming has become the unlikely focus of a political firestorm around transgender rights and fairness in sports. At the very center of the storm is Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who competed successfully on the men’s team before transitioning to female and joining UPenn’s women’s team this year.

Thomas’s participation in women’s swimming began to stir controversy at the end of 2021 when she posted top times in distance free-style events, including a 200 free performance that was quicker than the NCAA gold-medal time the year before. Her times in these and other events are significantly slower than before her transition — apparently the result of compliance with the NCAA’s requirement that transwomen take testosterone-suppressing drugs for twelve months before competing — but they are still championship quality. In early December, some parents of Thomas’s teammates penned a letter to the NCAA arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete. Right-wing media outlets like the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and Fox News smelled blood in the water and went after Thomas without mercy, smearing her character and decrying the unfairness of allowing her to swim. This comes as GOP-dominated legislatures in many states are pushing to pass bills banning transgender children from using the bathrooms of their choice or participating in the sports with others of their own gender. Last month, the NCAA responded to the controversy by dropping its rules on transgender participation and passing the buck to the national governing bodies in all sports. (On February 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt new, more stringent USA Swimming requirements for the 2022 season).

The Thomas case has divided the swimming world and even, to some extent, the LGBTQ community. Iconic Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Nancy Hogshead-Makar questioned whether Thomas should compete on a women’s team, but Brooke Forde, a top NCAA female swimmer, stated that because “treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” she has “no problem” competing against Thomas. GLAAD, an organization that monitors coverage of LGBTQ people in the media, lambasted the negative coverage of Thomas and said that “everyone involved in sports should be speaking up for Lia.” Meanwhile, Martina Navratolina, a legendary tennis player and champion of LGBTQ rights, has cast doubt on the fairness of letting Thomas compete.

Even the act of publicly staking out a position on this issue is fraught with ethical peril. Do right-wing media outlets and GOP politicians really care about the fairness of NCAA women’s sports competitions? It seems doubtful. The Thomas story is catnip for them because they see in it another potential wedge issue in the interminable culture wars. That the fear-mongering and bigotry on the right dominate the discourse on this subject means that even the public expression of uncertainty about the fairness of allowing Thomas to compete can seem like a gift to these malign actors. It was surely useful for the right that Hogshead-Makar published her column about Thomas in the Daily Mail: it gave its bigotry a veneer of respectability based upon her expertise on the subject of women’s swimming.

Of course, the ethical dangers of publicly speaking about this issue are less severe in my case, since my contributions to the public debate have vanishingly little influence. Still, I want to begin my discussion by stating what I take to be an obvious ethical proposition: there are no reasonable moral objections to the desires or self-conceptions of transgender people as such, or to the realization of those desires and self-conceptions. I have encountered no reasonable case for the claim that wanting to present as another gender or have the secondary sexual characteristics of another sex is bad in any sense. Given this, the moral presumption in all areas of life should be in favor of inclusivity — of allowing transgender people to participate in whatever practices or activities they wish, and on their own terms.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that there cannot be ethical problems associated with inclusivity in particular areas of life. Sports, or perhaps just some sports, may be one of those areas. That is because it appears that men have (on average) certain physical “advantages” over women, and sport — or at least some sports — is one of the few areas in life where that matters. For example, the average differential in the men’s and women’s ‘A’ standard times for NCAA championship qualifications is 11.41%, meaning that on average, women’s times are 11.41% slower than men’s times. While in the 2004 Olympics Michael Phelps held a mere .08% time advantage against his teammate Ryan Crocker, he held a 12.62% advantage over the women’s gold medalist.

To say that biological males have physical advantages over biological females is, of course, a gross simplification. For one thing, it is by now widely recognized that determining biological sex is itself a philosophically and scientifically complex issue. It appears that the physical advantages referenced above are more directly tied to the lasting effects of typical “male” puberty, not the chromosomal makeup of an athlete, their genitalia, or the type of gamete they produce. For example, people with Klinefelter syndrome — a genetic condition that results when boys are born with an extra X chromosome — have male genitalia, and some produce sperm. But some of these individuals produce lower amounts of testosterone and have reduced muscle mass. Similarly, South African runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as female, has XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels. In 2019, new rules were instituted to keep women like Semenya from participating in certain events unless they take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Yet it’s far from clear how significant testosterone levels are to elite athletic performance.

Despite these complications, it seems fairly clear that it makes moral sense for women and men to compete separately in at least some sports, and that secondary sexual characteristics are a decent rule of thumb — but only that — for determining who “women” and “men” are for the purposes of such competitions. One important purpose of sports competitions is to celebrate and reward human effort and skill — the incredible discipline, determination, and grit that is required to achieve in athletics at a high level, along with the physical prowess that channels that effort into astounding physical feats. Therefore, it would be unfair if women were never rewarded or celebrated for their effort and skill because they were overshadowed by male performances that are due to innate advantages — advantages that in no way reflect superior effort or skill. By separating men and women into competitive classes, we make possible public appreciation of the fact that the best male and female athletic performances are equally amazing efforts and reflect equally amazing skills. The same is true, for example, for weight classes in boxing: the bantamweight’s skill and effort may be equal to the heavyweight’s, but if they competed against each other the bantamweight would lose every time, and would not be properly celebrated or rewarded for his or her effort and skill.

If this is correct, however, then it is clear that allowing people who possess the innate advantages that flow from male puberty to compete against cisgender women may raise real issues of fairness by depriving those who do not have these advantages of public appreciation of their efforts and skills, even though they are no less substantial.  

But in order to get to the conclusion that transwomen should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports from these premises, we must make three further moves — moves that I am not confident we can or ought to make. First, we must define the meaning and parameters of “innate advantage.” This is at best an extremely difficult task for both conceptual and empirical reasons. For example, we must determine when the difference in an athlete’s performance relative to other athletes’ performances is the result of acceptable physical variation, and when it is the result of unacceptable innate advantage. Second, we have to posit that no amount of hormone therapy can eliminate transwomen athletes’ innate advantages. This is an empirical issue that can only be determined with solid scientific investigation, something that is woefully lacking in this area. Finally, we have to argue that transwomen athletes’ claims to inclusion are morally outweighed by the fairness issues discussed above. This is not self-evidently true, as Brooke Forde’s statement suggests.

For these reasons, I think it is far too early in the day to claim with much confidence either that transwomen should be banned from women’s sport, or that their inclusion in women’s sport obviously raises no fairness issues. There are potential fairness issues that deserve serious consideration, not least because those fairness claims are being made by cisgender women, who have had to fight hard to participate in sports on an equal footing with men. Indeed, that fight is not yet over. But this much is clear: In addition to causing immense harm to individual athletes and perpetuating bigotry against transgender people, demonizing transwomen athletes is not the way to arrive at a just resolution of these issues. The only way forward is honest, good faith deliberation in which all stakeholders are treated with respect. Unfortunately, there are powerful people who would like nothing more than to make it impossible for such deliberation to occur. But this has always been the case; and yet, somehow, progress does happen.

Vaccine Hesitancy as Free-Riding

photograph of masked passengers on subway

As the pandemic rages on, attention is beginning to turn to the moral status of those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of these individuals have succumbed to outlandish conspiracy theories concerning microchips and magnetic implants. But for most, vaccine hesitancy is instead the expression of a genuine concern regarding the safety of the vaccine. It was, after all, developed using a novel mRNA approach to vaccines, and approved in what seemed like an exceedingly short period of time. For these individuals, their hesitancy to receive the vaccine is not based on bad-faith conspiracies, but in a sincere — if scientifically unfounded — fear of the unknown.

There are many arguments we might make regarding those who are hesitant to take the vaccine. Some of these focus on the risk the unvaccinated pose to others who, for whatever medical reason, are unable to be vaccinated. Most of us agree that it is morally wrong of us to unnecessarily put others in harm’s way — particularly when that harm is as serious as hospitalization and death. Given this — and given the importance of ‘herd immunity’ to protecting the vulnerable — we might argue that it is morally wrong for those who can receive the vaccine to refrain.

But the argument I wish to consider here is different. It’s not based on the moral wrongness of failing to protect others, but instead on the unfairness of being a free-rider. What’s a free-rider? Put simply, it’s someone who affords themself a special privilege that they don’t allow for others. More specifically, free-riding occurs when someone receives a benefit without contributing towards the cost of its production. Suppose that my town runs a phenomenal public transport system. Suppose, further, that I frequently make use of this system — commuting to work via bus, and utilizing public transport to run all other kinds of errands. Because I’m particularly stingy, however, I refuse to ever pay a fare — instead sneaking onto buses and expertly avoiding those who would check my ticket. What I’m doing, it seems, is unfair on those who do pay their fare. Why? Because I’m carving out a special exception for myself; an exception that I don’t extend to others. I clearly value the public transport system, and therefore value the contributions of those who pay their fare (since, without those contributions, the system would cease to exist). At the same time, however, I refuse to make any contribution myself. This is deeply inconsistent. If I were asked why I can ride for free when others cannot, I would struggle to provide a good answer.

We might argue that the same is true of vaccine hesitancy. Mass vaccination is directed towards a clear public good — that is, the attainment of herd immunity. As such, we each must be willing to contribute towards the cost of its production. And that cost is receiving the vaccine.

But there’s one potential problem with this argument. As we’ve seen, someone is only a free-rider if they refuse to contribute to the cost of something from which they will benefit. In the case of mass vaccination, the benefit is the protection of those who are unvaccinated. But there’s the problem. As soon as someone contributes to this project by receiving the vaccine, they are no longer eligible to receive the benefit. Herd immunity doesn’t help those who are already vaccinated.

But this is to take an unnecessarily narrow view of the benefits of mass vaccination. Even if I am vaccinated, herd immunity might benefit me by protecting those who I care about — such as loved ones who are unable to receive the vaccine. Further, mass vaccination limits the opportunities for the virus to mutate into newer, more virulent strains (such as the Delta variant that has seen renewed breakouts around the world). And the benefits of mass vaccination extend even further than this. As a result of the pandemic, many of us have been — and continue to be — unable to work, unable to attend classes, unable to travel, and unable to reunite with loved ones. Our ability to do these things will continue to be limited to varying degrees until we find a way to end this pandemic.

All of  us can agree that the world returning to normal is an unequivocal good, and the scientific data suggests that mass vaccination (around 80-90% of the population) is the most effective way of doing this. Of course, more conspiratorially-minded individuals will disagree with this assertion. But this argument isn’t for those people. It’s for those who recognize that vaccination is required, but who — contrary to the evidence — still harbor concerns about its safety.

Essentially, it boils down to this: If a vaccine hesitant individual both (1) wants the world returned to normal, and (2) accepts that mass vaccination is the most effective way of doing this, then they must be willing to contribute to the cost of its production — namely, by receiving the vaccine. If not, then they need to provide a convincing reason as to why they get to be among the 10-20% of individuals who needn’t pay the cost of getting vaccinated. Some — like those who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons — will have good reason. But those who are merely hesitant will not. Many of us would love to “wait and see” what happens with the vaccine rollout, or avoid the inherent unpleasantness of an injection altogether. But we don’t have that luxury. The vulnerable must be protected, and the world must return to normal. By failing to contribute to this project, we are free-riding, and — like the fare-dodging bus passenger — treating those around us in a way that’s grossly unfair.

What Toilet Paper Can Teach Us About Climate Change

photograph of empty toilet paper rolls stacked

One of the stranger parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been people’s sudden obsession with bathroom sanitation. While there was never any pandemic-related disruption to the supply chain, nor the risk of even the strongest lockdown measures in place preventing people from buying essential groceries, many found themselves overcome by a desperate need to panic-buy vast quantities of toilet paper. Ultimately, this created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which paranoid hoarding led to the very shortage that had been feared. A similar scenario played out earlier this year when a cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline led to gasoline shortages throughout the East Coast. Panic-buying ensued once again, with individuals stockpiling vast quantities of fuel and further exacerbating an already struggling supply line.

Many of us might have the intuition that hoarding of this kind is wrong. But why? There are many ways we might try to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. One of the simplest is to see whether it causes harm to others. But that’s not hugely helpful here. Suppose I hold a one-hour exam information session for my class of sixty students. In order to be fair, each student is given one minute in which to ask any questions they might have. Suppose, then, that one student ignores this guideline, and instead monopolizes a total of two minutes for her queries. It seems wrong of her to do this. But why? It’s not clear that her actions harm her fellow classmates. The extra minute she takes only subtracts slightly more than a second from each of their times – hardly enough to make an appreciable difference.

One way of explaining the wrongness of this student’s action is instead to claim that she is taking more than her fair share. We often find ourselves having to divide a finite resource amongst some group of individuals: time in a meeting, pizza amongst friends, holidays between family members. And in each of these scenarios there is, presumably, a fair way of making that division – one that gives full consideration to the interests of all individuals concerned. Once that allocation has been made, exceeding your fair share is wrong, regardless of whether it results in actual harm to others. This is precisely the kind of approach we might take toward food in a famine and water in a drought – and it explains what’s wrong about taking more than your fair share of toilet paper during a pandemic, too.

For many, the fair share approach may be so obvious as to appear trivial. But it can help inform our approach to far more complicated problems – like climate change. In 2011, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels – the maximum global temperature rise we can tolerate while avoiding the most catastrophic effect of climate changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving this with a probability of >66% would require us to keep our global carbon expenditure below 2900GtCO2. As at the time of writing, only 605GtCO2 remains. Divided equally amongst the 7.9 billion population of earth, this comes out at a lifetime carbon allowance of 76.6 tonnes of CO2 per person — or around 0.9 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan.

Of course, it might be the case that a fair share isn’t necessarily an equal share. Another way of dividing up the carbon budget might be to instead require a proportional reduction in carbon emissions by all emitters. Put another way, this requires that everyone’s emissions peak around 2020, drop 50% by 2045, and fall below zero by 2075. The problematic side of this approach is that it allows historically high emitters to continue to emit at a much greater rate than many others around the world. As such, it provides a far more generous carbon budget for those living in a country like the U.S. According to Carbon Brief, a child born in the U.S. in 2017 will – on this approach – have a lifetime carbon budget of 450 tonnes of CO2, or 5.3 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan. By contrast, a child born in the same year in Bangladesh will receive only 4 tonnes of CO2, or 0.05 tonnes per year.

Of course, other factors may come into play in determining what a ‘fair share’ of carbon emissions is for each individual. One such factor is need. Suppose, for example, that I live in a part of the country where the only electricity production I have access to is derived from a coal-fired power plant. In such a case, I might necessitate a higher budget than someone who lives in a location with renewable energy options.

But the precise method by which we determine a fair share of carbon emissions is largely academic. This is because – even on the most generous allocation – we are all still horribly over-budget. In 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), the per capita carbon emissions of a U.S. citizen was around 16 tonnes of CO2. Ultimately, this means that there is a moral imperative on each of us to do all we can to reduce our future emissions in any way possible. Some actions – like recycling and patronizing public transport – may be easy, but other changes (like the one I suggested in a previous article) may require much greater sacrifice. But without these changes, we – like those who hoarded toilet paper and gasoline – will continue to take far more than our fair share, and subsequently treat others unfairly in the process.

ROC and the Ethics of Guilt by Association

image of Russian Olympic Committee Flag 2021

Doping has been a persistent theme of conversation around sports these past few months. During the Olympics, athletes have gone so far as alleging that they were not able to compete in a clean competition, and much of this was directed at one team: “ROC”, which stands for the Russian Olympic Committee. Due to a state-sponsored system of doping, Russia is banned from competing, and Russian athletes who were not implicated in the doping system are instead allowed to represent ROC at the Olympics.

Ryan Murphy’s allegation that swimming is haunted by doping was barbed precisely because he lost to a Russian athlete, Evgaeny Rylov. Fellow American swimmer Lilly King made similar allegations, with a direct jab at Russian athletes. (This isn’t exactly the first Olympics to see tensions flare between Russia and America.) But is it fair to be skeptical about athletes who are associated with countries – or, broadening away from this particular case, coaches – that engage in mass doping schemes? Further, is it fair to be skeptical about entire sports? Murphy later seemed to modify his comments, claiming that he wasn’t voicing skepticism about Rylov but was concerned that swimming, as a sport, wasn’t clean. Not that this is limited just to swimming — after all, many of us view cycling with great suspicion.

One problem is basing these allegations on guilt by association. The evil deeds of others don’t make you guilty. For instance, to allege that Mumford and Sons are a far-right band because of (now-former) member Winston Marshall’s recent behavior is a logical error; the fact that Marshall sides with reactionary views doesn’t mean his fellow bandmates do. In our case, to insinuate that Rylov is guilty of doping because he’s a Russian athlete is to claim he is guilty because of his association to guilty athletes and a corrupt sporting system.

To emphasize why guilt by association is problematic, it’s useful to look at the contrast between shame and guilt. We can focus on two points: Firstly, something can shame you even though it isn’t wrongful. You can feel ashamed for having a long nose or not being very funny. But you aren’t guilty (you can’t feel guilty, and no one can impugn you over it) for having a long nose. Secondly, you can be shamed by your associations to other people. You can feel ashamed that your friend acted in such a way, or you can feel ashamed that your child made such a choice.

So, shame by association is perfectly appropriate: a Russian athlete might feel ashamed that their compatriots doped. But because guilt requires wrongdoing, you can’t be guilty simply because of what someone else has done. So, hinting that a ROC athlete is guilty because they are Russian is inappropriate: to be guilty you have to do something wrong, you aren’t guilty because of who you are affiliated with. And it is worth noting how these Russian athletes are made worse off by the fact they have to compete for ROC. The media often enough referred to “Russia” winning a medal at the games. Had they just been competing as (genuinely) neutral athletes, clean athletes would at least be able to hold Russian doping at arm’s length.

But maybe there is another way of looking at guilt by association that does justify these allegations of cheating: some associations are evidentiary. If you hang around Bada Bing!, the strip bar on The Sopranos, there’s a reasonable chance you’re involved in organized crime. To suggest this based on a mere association between you and Tony Soprano would be dodgy guilt by association. To suggest this based on the statistical evidence that, say, 68% of people who hang out there in fact are gangsters is not dodgy. Or to suggest that if you go there you are likely a gangster because people go there to discuss crime is not dodgy. These latter suggestions turn on something more than insinuation and gossip and find a credible grounding: they are evidence based on factual elements (for discussion, see Marshall Bierson’s “Stereotyping and Statistical Generalization”).

For such an allegation based on association to stick in the ROC case, we need to find grounds to suggest that being Russian is good evidence that ROC athletes have cheated. And one can start to make such a case: after all, if elite athletes in a country are engaging in state-sponsored doping then other athletes will be under pressure to also dope in order to keep up with the other elite athletes. (Likewise, we might run the same arguments for sports like cycling: to even be competitive, you are under pressure dope, which is why it might be reasonable to be suspicious of the entire sport.)

This is a plausible starting point. But it faces three hurdles. Firstly, it is mere speculation and needs to be filled in with something evidentiary (say, if a bunch of ROC athletes confessed to doping, or if there were evidence that other athletes were under pressure to dope). Secondly, it’s at best probabilistic. It only helps to justify the claim that ROC athletes are to some degree more likely (than, say, a neutral athlete) to dope. Even if stereotypes or statistical claims sometimes enable us to make quick judgments (and this can sometimes be useful), the problem with the allegations from Murphy and King was that they were interpreted by any reasonable listener as an attack on a particular athlete: Evgeny Rylov. Thirdly, this line of argument starts with a handicap: the athletes who compete for ROC had to demonstrate that they were not involved in doping. Given this, there should be a presumption that they are competing fairly.

Of course, I am no Olympic swimmer, and a further factor is that these athletes surely have a better insight on the behavior of some of their competitors than I do. Perhaps there is genuine evidence that Rylov doped, evidence that King and Murphy are party to but we have not yet seen. But, unless that is the case, they should be more cautious about making allegations. Guilt by association, unless that association is evidentiary, is no ground for a serious allegation.

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).

Fairness in Taxation

photograph of pencil lying on 1040 tax form

For many, the 2020 election was primarily tied to the presidential race. However, many important ballot questions appeared in states across the country. In Illinois, a ballot initiative, dubbed by supporters as the “Fair Tax” amendment, sought to amend the Illinois state constitution to abolish the flat income tax and replace it with a graduated income tax. Though it might sound simple, campaigns concerning the ballot question saw over $100 million of investment. In the end, the tax amendment was rejected by a 10% margin at the polls.

Is a flat tax system ethical? What are the values and detriments of taxing income at the same rate?

Only 9 states in the U.S. enforce a flat tax rate. These states are spread across the U.S. and across the political spectrum, from Massachusetts and Colorado to Utah and Kentucky. In terms of flat income tax states, Illinois is on the higher end of the tax rate, charging 4.95% of its residents’ income levels.

One moral argument for the flat tax rate is that on its face, it appears extremely fair. Everyone, regardless of income level, is expected to contribute an equal share of their earnings to the local government. A flat tax is also considered to prevent deadweight loss, and the unintended consequences that follow from it. Those who believe that our economy is meritocratic — where labor leads proportionally to profit — might favor a flat tax because it does not constrain those who choose to labor more and therefore profit more.

Another value of the flat tax is that it is easy to understand and implement. Individuals do not have to worry about whether or not their next bonus at work will push them over the edge into the next tax bracket. The flat tax rate has also been considered good for both the middle class and the upper class, or the “job creators.” Those who subscribe to free market ideology believe that a flat tax is the most acceptable form of income tax in that it does the least to inhibit the efficient allocation of resources which already occurs naturally through free-market processes. Flat tax rates have also been found to stimulate the economy through an increase in investment and consumption.

The relative value of eliminating line-drawing is also a benefit claimed by flat tax advocates. If everyone is taxed the same as principle, we can avoid the difficult, and at times arbitrary, process of determining which income levels warrant which levels of income tax. Supporters of flat tax rates might even point to examples of inequity caused by lobbying in graduated tax systems, such as the recent exemption in the 2018 tax plan, which rather unreasonably favored the food company Newman’s Own.

However, many argue that though flat tax rates appear on their face to be equitable, they actually contribute to inequality overall. For a person near or below the poverty line, 4-5% less income can make a substantial difference in lifestyle compared to the wealthiest members of society. For this reason, flat taxes are often considered as favoring the wealthy, as their lifestyle is affected far less than those at the bottom of the income bracket. When combining a flat tax rate with charitable exemptions, the wealthiest members of society might end up paying very little, which can put the burden of taxation on the middle and lower classes or lead to an overall shortage of tax funds with which to address social issues.

Those in Illinois who supported abolishing the flat tax believed it was the fairest policy for the most amount of people. In fact, 97% of all Illinois residents stood to have their tax rate stay the same or decrease as a result of the amendment. Only those individuals making more than $250,000 per year would see an increase in their income tax rate. However, the fair tax amendment did not pass, by roughly a 10% margin.

An Illinois local news agency, Forest Park Review, published interviews with Illinois residents debating the fair tax amendment. Those in Illinois who were against abolishing the amendment argued that once the precedent of graduated income tax was set, the Illinois state government could set new tax rates at any time. One such detractor, Dan Watts, also pointed to the fact that the state of Illinois has notoriously misspent and mismanaged the state budget and finances for years, and that the responsibility of this mismanagement should not fall back onto individuals in an attempt to “paint the water-stained walls.” Another detractor of the amendment, Dan Bjornson, expressed a similar distrust of government, justifying his opposition to the amendment by pointing out that “they’ve made a mess of the state’s finances and I would not want to give them additional power.” However, others argue that it is the very tax system itself that has created such budgetary crises at the state level. Fair tax supporter Quentin Fulks, the chair of the Vote Yes for Fairness campaign, purported that “Illinois is in a massive budget crisis due to years of a tax system that has protected millionaires and billionaires at the expense of our working families.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of Illinois’ ballot amendment is the fact that those heading both the pro- and anti-flat tax campaigns were themselves billionaires. Governor Pritzker invested $56 million to the “Vote Yes for Fairness” campaign. His campaign donation was nearly evenly matched by billionaire Ken Griffin, who poured $54 million into the “Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment” campaign. It seems that the upper echelon of society is controlling the narrative when it comes to a policy that affects every individual. Perhaps it is time to examine a political system in which one’s income heavily dictates the power one wields in the democratic debate over regulating such income.

Life-Life Tradeoffs in the Midst of a Pandemic

photograph of patients' feet standing in line waiting to get tested for COVID

Deciding who gets to live and who gets to die is an emotionally strenuous task, especially for those who are responsible for saving lives. Doctors in pandemic-stricken countries have been making decisions of great ethical significance, faced with the scarcity of ventilators, protective equipment, space in intensive medical care, and medical personnel. Ethical guidelines have been issued, in most of the suffering countries, to facilitate decision-making and the provision of effective treatment, with the most prominent principle being “to increase overall benefits” and “maximize life expectancy.” But are these guidelines as uncontroversial as they initially appear to be?

You walk by a pond and you see a child drowning. You can easily save the child without incurring significant moral sacrifices. Are you obligated to save the child at no great cost to yourself? Utilitarians argue that we would be blameworthy if we failed to prevent suffering at no great cost to ourselves. Now, suppose, that you decide to act upon the utilitarian moral premise and rescue the child. As you prepare to undertake this life-rescuing task, you realize the presence of two drowning children on the other side of the pond. You can save them both – still at no cost to yourself – but you cannot save all three. What is the right thing to do? Two lives count more than one, thus you ought to save the maximum number of people possible. It seems evident that doctors who are faced with similar decisions ought to maximize the number of lives to be saved. What could be wrong with such an ethical prescription?

Does the ‘lonely’ child have reasonable grounds to complain? The answer is yes. If the child happened to be on the other side of the pond, she would have a considerably greater chance of survival. Also, if, as a matter of unfortunate coincidence, the universe conspired and brought closer to her two extra children in need of rescue, she would have an even greater chance of survival – given that three lives count more than two. But, that seems to be entirely unfair. Whether one has a right to be rescued should not be determined by morally arbitrary factors such as one’s location and the number of victims in one’s physical proximity. Rather, one deserves to be rescued simply on the grounds of being a person with inherent moral status. Things beyond your control, and which you are not responsible for, should not affect the status of your moral entitlements. As a result, every child in the pond should have an equal chance of rescue. If we cannot save all of them, we should flip a coin to decide the one(s) that can be affordably saved. By the same logic, if doctors owe their patients equal respect and consideration, they should assign each one of them, regardless of morally arbitrary factors (such as age, gender, race, social status), an equal chance to receive sufficient medical care.

What about life expectancy? A doctor is faced with a choice of prolonging a patient’s life by 20 years and prolonging another patient’s life by 2 months. For many, maximizing life expectancy seems to be the primary moral factor to take into account. But, what if there is a conflict between maximizing lives and maximizing life? Suppose that we can either save a patient with a life expectancy of 20 years or save 20 patients with a life expectancy of 3 months each. Maximizing life expectancy entails saving the former, since 20 years of life count more than 5 years of life, while maximizing lives entails saving the latter. It could be argued that the role of medicine is not merely to prolong life but to enhance its quality; this would explain why we may be inclined to save the person with the longest life expectancy. A life span of 3 months is not an adequate amount of time to make plans and engage in valuable projects, and is also accompanied by a constant fear of death. Does that entail that we should maximize the quality of life as well? Faced with a choice between providing a ventilator to a patient who is expected to recover and lead a healthy and fulfilling life and providing a ventilator to a patient who has an intellectual disability, what should the doctor do? If the role of medicine is merely to maximize life quality, the doctor ought to give the ventilator to the first patient. However, as US disability groups have argued, such a decision would constitute a “deadly form of discrimination,” given that it deprives the disabled of their right to equal respect and consideration.

All in all, reigning over life and death is not as enviable as we might have thought.

Coronavirus, College Board, and AP Exams

photograph of scantron exam being filled in with pencil

With the last Advanced Placement (AP) exams finished on May 22nd, it marked the end of the jam packed 2 weeks of AP testing. However, this year was no normal year for AP exams. Due to school closures from the coronavirus pandemic, AP tests could no longer be administered in schools as usual, but were instead taken at home. As tests moved online, AP tests were quickly modified in format to significantly shorten the exam. AP tests are usually quite time consuming, with a full exam lasting around 4 hours, but this year’s AP exams were shortened to just 50 minutes. Although this decision was initially praised by many students and teachers, the newly formatted online tests brought with them a number of problems. From technological issues with submitting answers to poorly formatted test questions and unfair testing environments, various issues with the new AP exam consistently arose throughout the two week testing period. Due to this, College Board is now facing a 500 million dollar lawsuit with claims against “breach of contract, gross negligence, misrepresentation and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

Of the many issues experienced by students during the AP exam, one glaring problem of the newly formatted AP tests seemed to stand out: the high randomness factor in student’s scores. To understand this, one needs to compare the original AP test to the new ones. The original AP tests consisted of a multiple choice and writing section where the multiple choice section represented a larger percentage of the final score. However, this year, the multiple choice was completely eliminated, leaving students with a significantly shortened writing portion. This created a randomness factor where students could not be tested on the full material of the course but only a small selection of the material. This type of testing can often lead to an unrepresentative score of the student’s knowledge if a student is tested on a concept in which the student is considerably weaker or stronger in. Since a small range of random concepts are tested in a shorter exam, exams could not possibly holistically measure the student’s knowledge of the course material.

A similar thing could also be said for the types of questions given. In the original AP writing sections for many exams, specifically history and English exams, a writing section consists of differently formatted questions. For example, in AP history exams, there is a document-based question, long essay question, and a short answer question. This year, however, only a modified version of the document-based question was given. Not only did exams test a small range of concepts in history out of the entire year’s worth of material, it tested students on the document-based question only, which is largely regarded to be the most difficult part of history exams. Testing only on the basis of the document-based question gives an incomplete assessment of the student’s knowledge of the year’s worth of material given different students strengths; some students do better on different question formats (multiple choice, short answer, long essay question).

To add to the randomness in exams, many exams, specifically STEM exams, were formatted in a multipart question where question 1, for example, has parts A through L. One may think that this multipart question format would be better at testing a wide range of concepts. However, there is a catch, the questions are formatted in a way so that the answers are dependent to the previous part. For example, part D of question 1 would need to use the answer from part C to find the correct answer for part D, and part C would need the answer from part B to find the correct answer for C, and so on. So if a student were to get part B wrong, then it would cause a chain reaction causing the student to miss parts B,C, and D. The student could fully understand the concept for answering C and D, but would get it wrong due to a missed answer on part B. On this year’s AP tests, this type of formatting was pushed to the extreme, where 5 following parts would be dependent on the answer for the primary part. If this were to occur on a regular AP test, a wrong answer on these types of exam questions would have a negative effect, but there would always be multiple writing questions and a large multiple choice section to balance out wrong answers to multipart questions. However, on this shortened exam, a wrong answer could lead to an extremely detrimental effect on the final test score, a score not representative of the student’s actual knowledge of the course material.

So why might all this matter? AP exams determine if a student receives college credit for the course and also plays a role in the college admissions process. In most cases, a score above a 3 or 4 (out of 5) on an AP exam will grant college credit for the course. With high stakes on the line as to whether or not a student will receive credit for a year’s worth of hard work, an exam should be randomness-minimizing and be reflective of student’s knowledge on the subject. However, with the multipart questions and a fraction of the course material tested, the exam this year provided unrepresentative exam scores for students. A student, by the chance of bad luck, could be tested on the one concept in which he or she was weak in, which could lead to an exam score that denies a year’s worth of a student’s hard work.

However, College Board’s poorly formatted exams were only the tip of the iceberg for many students. Other factors of randomness and external factors plagued the AP exams this year.

One significant issue was undoubtedly the widespread technological problems, more specifically, students encountering issues with the process of uploading and submitting exam answers. Many videos of students unable to submit exam responses were posted all over social media. Although College Board reported 1% of students were not able to submit their responses, that amounts to almost 10,000 students unable to submit their final exams. Many students, at no fault of their own, now will have to redo the AP exam in early June. Students now have to face the burden of the College Board’s mismanagement of online servers, a burden in which they had no control over.

On top of this, online AP exams were clearly unable to create a fair testing environment. Any test or exam, especially exams which determine college credit, are at minimum expected to provide a fair testing environment. However, online AP exams failed to meet this standard. Critics have argued that online AP tests disregard the fact that many students may not have access to reliable internet. Many low-income students depend on the educational resources (wifi, books, computers) provided by schools and public institutions like libraries, but without access to those resources many won’t even get a chance to take the test. With so many experiencing economic hardship due to COVID-19,  and the further obstacle of inaccessible public educational resources, AP tests cannot adequately or accurately measure students’ knowledge of the course material. The effects of this are that AP scores play a part in college admissions, so unfair AP test environments could disproportionately affect different groups of students thereby ruining our notion of meritocracy in education.

Furthermore, taking tests at home also comes with many other obstacles to creating a fair test environment due to external distractions such as siblings or even something so simple as the time in which AP exams are set. For example, many American international school students across the world are forced to take tests at inadequate times because a 2pm EST test would be a 3am test for international school students in Japan. However, the biggest factor that contributes to an unfair testing environment is the potential for collaboration on these exams. Students can easily obtain a competitive advantage through cheating without the presence of a proctor. With so many external factors complicating online testing, these online AP tests failed to provide a fair testing environment.

So why then did College Board, despite the clear problems regarding unfair testing environments, shortened test formats, and technological problems, decide to continue the AP test? Why didn’t College Board follow suit of other academic organizations such as international baccalaureate (IB) who cancelled their exams and instead used overall quality of coursework throughout the year to assess whether a student qualifies for credit? The truth is if College Board were to cancel AP exams, they would face pressures to return the money back to students. Considering College Board made over 1 billion dollars in revenue, more than 130 million dollars in profit in 2017, and the president of College Board makes over 1 million dollars a year all despite being a supposed nonprofit, it seems quite clear there are incentives in place other than the well-being of students’ education.

In the end, the purpose of AP tests is to provide a measure and representation of the student’s knowledge of the course material. When an AP test is not able to meet that purpose with this year’s online AP exam format, then the AP scores only serve as a number that cannot possibly measure the student’s knowledge of the class material. Despite this, this obsolete number will be the determinant in a student earning college credit and be a factor in the college admissions process.

Excessive or Necessary? Prosecutorial Discretion in Pursuing Legal Charges

photograph of courtroom

District Attorneys (DAs) in the United States get to decide which cases their offices will pursue. For the most part, there is nothing beyond pressure from voters and other public offices to provide any external impetus to a DA’s decision regarding whether to take an accused person to trial. The results of prosecutorial discretion throughout US history are decidedly mixed. Throughout the Civil Rights movement (1954-68), prosecutors in the American South routinely refused to prosecute white offenders for racist violence and discrimination against Black people. Within the last decade in the American Southwest there have been threats and attacks against Latino immigrants which have gone unprosecuted, or in which the prosecutor has not requested incarceration for the defendant.

Recently, prosecutors in many jurisdictions have announced their intention not to bring charges against recreational marijuana users, or people violating strict heartbeat-style abortion laws in states like Georgia. These prosecutors deem the relevant laws unjust, either for the disparate impact on non-white citizens or their excessive infringement of sexual autonomy. From all these examples it is clear that prosecutorial discretion can be used both to circumvent just and unjust laws alike. 

But not all legal professionals agree that DAs do, or should, have such wide latitude. In Virginia, Arlington County’s Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos has claimed that she has no choice but to prosecute marijuana possession so long as the law remains unchanged. Also in Virginia, that state’s Supreme Court judges have ruled against Norfolk’s Commonwealth Attorney Greg Underwood in his claim that he has complete latitude regarding whether to prosecute crimes in his jurisdiction.

The discussion of prosecutorial discretion touches on the philosophical debate between generalism and particularism. Broadly, this debate is a question about whether (moral) decisions ought to be made on the basis of general principles, or rather particular situations. Professor Jonathan Dancy is one of the most prominent champions of the particularist viewpoint. A given feature of an action—that it’s a lie, for instance—may some times count against doing it but may also sometimes count in favor of doing it. You shouldn’t lie under oath, but you should lie when playing poker. On this basis, particularists argue that there can be no general moral principle to the effect of “do not lie.” The same reasoning is meant to apply to any other potential moral principle. 

Generalists, on the other hand, claim that moral decision-making proceeds by applying general rules to specific situations. Hence, given that there is a moral principle to the effect of “do not lie,” you should neither lie under oath nor when playing poker. The moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant is paradigmatically generalist, as seen in his Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law.”

Paul Woodruff brings the generalist-particularism debate to the topic of justice and the law in his book The Ajax Dilemma. In the chapter on justice, he notes that thinkers as august as John Stuart Mill and Aristotle have abandoned an abstract, principled notion of justice for a pragmatic, particularist one. He contrasts this account to those of a more abstract and generalist type due to thinkers like Plato and John Rawls. Especially concerning Rawls, Woodruff cautions against equating justice with fairness. Justice is everyone getting their due treatment, whereas fairness is everyone getting the same treatment. While these may sound the same at first blush, Woodruff contends they are in fact worlds apart. Justice and giving people their due requires careful thought and judgment concerning particulars; whereas fairness and giving everyone the same treatment only requires rote execution of rules. 

Attorneys like Theo Stamos have a more generalist approach, one that is plausibly interpreted as treating justice like fairness. The law is the law, and every person must receive exactly the same treatment under the law. An approach like this sees the exercise of discretion as unfair because it means different people are treated differently. On the other hand, attorneys like Greg Underwood have a more particularist approach, one that is plausibly interpreted as treating justice as giving people their due. Here the exercise of discretion allows the peculiarities of a given case or jurisdiction to enter the decision-making process. If the enforcement of a law disproportionately affects the non-white community, discretion allows an attorney to effectively neutralize that law. If there are mitigating circumstances in a particular case, discretion allows the attorney to seek a lesser sentence or drop charges entirely. 

Allowing people to exercise judgment and discretion always creates the potential for malfeasance, dereliction, and oppression. However, it is also what creates the potential for mercy, compassion, and resistance. The solution to the possible pitfalls of prosecutorial discretion is not to limit a DA’s ability to exercise judgment, but rather to carefully scrutinize candidates for the office and elect individuals of experience and integrity.

Blame and Forgiveness in Student Loan Debt

photograph of campus quad with students

US Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has recently proposed a pair of debt relief efforts that aim to address the growing problem of student loan debt in America. The first proposal would cancel “$50,000 in student loan debt for every person with household income under $100,000” (with lesser reductions for those with higher household incomes), while the second aims to help prevent student loan debts from becoming a problem again in the future by eliminating “the cost of tuition and fees at every public two-year and four-year college in America.” Here I want to focus on the ideas behind Warren’s first proposal. Should student debts be forgiven?

Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, it is undeniable that mounting student debt is an enormous problem in America. Recent studies have shown that approximately 40 million Americans have student loan debt, and that student debt has become the second-highest category of debt, second only to mortgage debt. Although younger people have the bulk of student debt, individuals from all age ranges have felt the effects, such that “the number of Americans over the age of 60 with student loan debt has more than doubled in the last decade.” There are, of course, consequences to so many people having so much debt: if you are spending a significant amount of your income on repaying student loans then you are going to find it difficult, for example, to buy a house, or car, or save, or invest for your future. It’s also unclear what will happen if a significant portion of those with debt default on their loans, with some economists comparing the student debt situation to the mortgage crisis a decade ago. With student debt being an urgent problem, the idea of addressing it by implementing a debt forgiveness plan might then seem like a good first step.

There are many practical questions to be asked about the implementation of a debt-forgiveness plan like the one Warren proposes (she has, of course, thought about the details). There have been concerns with Warren’s plan, however, that aren’t so much about the dollars and cents as they are about blame and accountability. In answering the question of whether debt should be forgiven we need to first think about who is to blame for it.

A natural place to locate blame is with the students themselves. Here is an example of an argument that one might make for this view:

Those signing up for college know full well what they’re getting themselves into: they know how much college costs, how much they will have to borrow, and generally what that entails for repaying those debts in the future. No one is forcing them to do this: they want to go to college, most likely for the reason that they want a higher paying job that requires a college degree. It may very well be the case that it is difficult to be ridden with debt, but it is debt for which they are themselves accountable. Instead of this debt being forgiven they ought to just work until it’s paid off.

Arguments of this sort have been presented in numerous recent op-eds. Consider, for example the following by Robert Verbruggen at the National Review:

“Where to start with [Warren’s proposal]? With the fact that student loans are the result of the borrowers’ own decisions – often good decisions that increased their earning power? With the fact that people who’ve been to college are generally more fortunate than those who have not? With the fact that this discriminates against people who paid off their loans early, as well as older borrowers who have been making payments for longer?”

In another article, Katherine Timpf similarly claims that student debt should not be forgiven, and that student debt became such a problem only because students were “encouraged to take out loans that they could not afford in the first place.” Curiously, she goes on to claim that while Warren’s debt-forgiveness plan is “a terrible, financially infeasible idea,” it is nevertheless the case that it is a culture that encouraged over-borrowing that is ultimately to blame. It is difficult to make coherent sense of this position: if it is indeed a culture that encourages excessive borrowing that is to blame, then it is hard to see why all the blame should fall to the students.

That student debt is primarily the result of broader societal factors, and not that of bad decision-making, laziness, or unwillingness to “stick it out”, is the driving thought behind many of those who are in favor of debt forgiveness. There are undoubtedly many such factors that have contributed to mounting student debt, but there are typically two that are appealed to most frequently: the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the stagnation of wages. While Warren herself notes that she was able to afford college by working a part-time job, doing so in the modern economy is often very close to impossible. Without independent support it seems that students have little choice but to take out increasingly large loans.

Here, then, is where the ideological heart of the debate lies: those who argue in favor of debt-forgiveness will generally see the blame for the student loan crisis as predominantly falling on societal factors (like increased tuition and stagnated wages), whereas those who argue against it generally see the blame as predominantly falling on the students themselves. Presumably we should assign responsibility where the blame lies, and so depending on who we think is most to blame will determine whether we should implement something like debt forgiveness.

However, we have seen that there is substantial data supporting the view that the student debt crisis is largely attributable to societal factors outside of the control of the students. Furthermore, the thoughts that students are simply “not working hard enough” or “just want a handout” tend to be based on little more than anecdotes and bias (stories of students working multiple jobs just to make ends meet are readily available). This is not to say that students should not be assigned any blame whatsoever for their decisions to go into debt for their educations. However, it does seem that significant contributors to those debts are ones that are outside of a student’s control. As a result, it does not seem that students should be fully blamed for their debts.

Even if this is so, should we think that the best way to take responsibility for those debts is to implement debt forgiveness? As we have seen, some have expressed concerns that forgiving debts would be, in some way, “unfair”. There are two kinds of unfairness that we might consider: first, it might seem to be unfair to those who have already paid off their student loans through years of hard work; second, it might seem to be unfair to those who have to pay for someone else’s debt – Warren’s proposal to finance her debt forgiveness plan, for example, is to generate funds from a tax increase on the extremely wealthy, and one might think it unfair that these individuals should have to cover the debts of someone else. Would a debt-forgiveness proposal be unfair in these ways, and if so, is that good enough reason to say that it shouldn’t be implemented?

While these concerns about fairness might seem like appealing reasons to reject debt forgiveness, upon closer inspection they do not stand up to scrutiny. Consider the first worry: if a debt forgiveness plan is implemented it will indeed be the case that there will be some people who have just finished paying off their debt prior to the policies taking effect and so will not be able to take advantage of their debt being forgiven. It would then seem unfair to privilege one group over another, where the only relevant difference is that the former took on their debt later than the latter. But it is hard to see why this should result in not having any debt forgiveness at all: the argument that “well if I don’t get it, they shouldn’t either!” does not solve any problems. This is not to say that such unfairness should not be addressed at all – perhaps there could be some kind of reimbursement of those who paid off debt before it was forgiven – but it does not seem like a good enough reason to not offer any debt forgiveness to anyone. The second worry similarly fails to hold much water: unless someone takes issue with the idea of taxation in general, then there does not seem to be anything particularly unfair about having the extremely wealthy pay more to aid others.

There are, of course, many factors to take into consideration when considering something like a debt-forgiveness plan, and Warren’s plan in particular. Regardless, it seems that given the severity of the student debt problem, and that the factors that contributed to the problem are largely out of the control of the students themselves, that the responsibility for student debt cannot fall solely on the students themselves.

The Republican Tax Plan: Is Simpler Always Fairer?

A close-up photo of U.S. Income Tax forms.

The Republican tax plan currently under construction in the House and Senate is touted as simpler and fairer.  President Trump often uses those two words, and so do House and Senate leaders. In fact, the website promoting the House version of the plan is fairandsimple.gop. Proponents of tax reform like to brag that their plan will make a tax return fit onto a postcard, the rules will be so simple. And clearly the message is not just “fair and simple.” We are being invited to believe that simplification of the tax code will make it fairer. But is a simpler tax code fairer?  
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