Back to Prindle Institute

What Should Disabled Representation Look Like?

photograph of steps leading to office building

Over the course of the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected millions, with long-haul symptoms of COVID permanently impacting the health of up to 23 million Americans. These long-haul symptoms are expected to have significant impacts on public health as a whole as more and more citizens become disabled. This will likely have significant impacts on the workforce — after all, it is much more difficult to engage in employment when workplace communities tend to be relatively inaccessible.

In light of this problem, we should ask ourselves the following question:

Should we prioritize disabled representation and accommodation in the corporate and political workforce, or should we focus on making local communities more accessible for disabled residents?

The answers to this question will determine the systematic way we go about supporting those with disabilities as well as how, and to what degree, disabled people are integrated into abled societies.

The burdens of ableism — the intentional or unintentional discrimination or lack of accommodation of people with non-normative bodies — often fall on individuals with conditions that prevent them from reaching preconceived notions of normalcy, intelligence, and productivity. For example, those with long COVID might find themselves unable to work and with little access to financial and social support.

Conversely, accessibility represents the reversal of these burdens, both physically and mentally, specifically to the benefit of the disabled individual, rather than the benefit of a corporation or political organization.

Adding more disabled people to a work team to meet diversity and inclusion standards is not the same as accessibility, especially if nothing about the work environment is adjusted for that employee.

On average, disabled individuals earn roughly two-thirds the pay of their able-bodied counterparts in nearly every profession, assuming they can do their job at all under their working conditions. Pushing for better pay would be a good step towards combating ableism, but, unfortunately, the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009. On top of this, the average annual cost of healthcare for a person with a disability is significantly higher ($13,492) than that for a person without ($2,835). Higher wages alone are not enough to overcome this gap.

It is our norm, societally, to push the economic burden of disability onto the disabled, all while reinventing the accessibility wheel often just to make able-bodied citizens feel like they have done a good thing. In turn, we have inventions such as $33,000 stair-climbing wheelchairs being pushed — inventions that rarely are affordable for the working disabled citizen, let alone someone who cannot work — in instances where we could just have built a ramp.

In order for tangible, sustainable progress to be made and for the requirements of justice to be met, we must begin with consistent, local changes to accessibility.

It can be powerful to see such representation in political and business environments, and it’s vital to provide disabled individuals with resources for healthcare, housing, and other basic needs. But change is difficult at the large, systemic level. People often fall through the cracks of bureaucratic guidelines. Given this, small-scale local changes to accessibility might be a better target for achieving change for the disabled community on a national scale.

Of course, whatever changes are made should be done in conversation with disabled members of the community, who will best understand their own experiences and needs. People with disabilities need to be included in the conversation, not made out as some kind of problem for abled people to solve.

This solution morally aligns with Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness, which emphasizes justice for all members of society, regardless of gender, race, ability level, or any other significant difference. It explains this through two separate principles. The first focuses on everyone having “the same indefeasible claim to a fully equal basic liberties.” This principle takes precedence over the second principle, which states that “social and economic inequalities… are to be attached to offices and positions open to all… to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged.”

By Rawls’ standards, because of the order of precedence, we should prioritize ensuring disabled citizens’ basic liberties before securing their opportunities for positions of economic and social power.

But wouldn’t access to these positions of power provide a more practical path for guaranteeing basic liberties for all disabled members of society? Shouldn’t the knowledge and representation that disabled individuals bring lead us towards making better policy decisions? According to Enzo Rossi and Olúfémi O. Táíwò in their article on woke capitalism, the main problem with an emphasis on diverse representation is that, while diversification of the upper class is likely under capitalism, the majority of oppressive systems for lower classes are likely to stay the same. In instances like this, where the system has been built against the wishes of such a large minority of people for so long, it may be easier to effect change by working from the bottom up, bringing neighbors together to make their communities more accessible for the people who live there.

Oftentimes, disabled people simply want to indulge in the same small-scale pleasures that their nondisabled counterparts do. When talking to other disabled individuals about their desires, many of them are as simple as able-bodied counterparts’ daily taken-for-granted lives: cooking in their own apartment, navigating public spaces simply, or even just being able to go to the bank or grocery store. These things become unaffordable luxuries for disabled people in inaccessible areas.

In my own experience with certain disabilities, particularly in my worst flare-ups that necessitated the use of a wheelchair, I just wanted to be able to do very simple things again. Getting to class comfortably, keeping up with peers, or getting to places independently became very hard to achieve, or simply impossible.

Financial independence and some kind of say in societal decisions would certainly have been meaningful and significant, but I really just needed the basics before I could worry about career advancement or systemic change.

Accessibility for disabled people on such simple scales only improves their independence, and independence for nondisabled people as well. Any change for disabled people at a local scale would also benefit the larger community. Building better ramps, sidewalks, and doors for people with mobility limitations within homes, educational environments, and recreational areas not only eases the burden of disability, but it also improves quality of life for children, the temporarily disabled, and the elderly in the same community.

Obviously, there is something important to be said about securing basic needs — especially housing, healthcare, food, and clean drinking water — but these, too, would be best handled by consulting local disabled community members to meet their specific requirements.

From here, we could focus on making further investments in walkable community areas and providing adequate physical and social support like housing, basic income, and recreation. We can also make proper changes to our current social support systems, which tend to be dated and ineffective.

The more disabled peoples’ quality of lives improve, the more likely they will feel supported enough to make large-scale change. What matters at the end of the day is that disabled people are represented in real-life contexts, not just in positions of power.

Representation isn’t just being featured in TV shows or making it into the C-Suite, it’s being able to order a coffee at Starbucks, get inside a leasing office to pay rent, or to swim at the local pool.

This is not the end-all be-all solution to end ableism, nor is it guaranteed to fix larger structural and political issues around disability, like stigma and economic mobility. But, by focusing on ableism on a local scale in a non-business-oriented fashion, we can improve the quality of life of our neighbors, whether they are experiencing long COVID or living with another disability. Once we have secured basic liberties for disabled folks, then we can worry about corporate pay and representation.

The Totalitarianism of the Borg

image of Enterprise spaceship and Borg Queen

WARNING: The following article contains minor spoilers for Picard seasons 1 & 2 on Paramount+.

Sir Patrick Stewart has once again returned to our screens as the iconic explorer, archaeologist, writer, historian, diplomat, and Earl Grey drinking machine that is Jean-Luc Picard. The first season of Picard saw Starfleet’s greatest officer come out of retirement to save the life of Soji, a woman with a mysterious past. As a result, we saw him make new friends and enemies, tackle a nefarious cabal, and attempt to come to terms with his failing health. Permeating the thoughtful narrative were philosophical issues galore, including what makes us worthy of moral consideration, how we find or create meaning in the face of death, and whether the ends can justify the means.

While only a few episodes in, Picard’s second season is shaping up to be equally thought-provoking, challenging our perceptions of personal identity and what we are willing to sacrifice or destroy to secure our survival. It also reintroduces us to several familiar faces, one of which featured heavily in the show’s promotional material, the Borg Queen. So, in honor of the return of one of Star Trek’s great villains, I wanted to explore the Borg’s totalitarian tendencies.

The Borg are a group of cyborgs that search the galaxy for assimilatable people, technology, and cultures. They are not made up of a single species but consist of countless ‘drones’ whom they have forcibly assimilated into their group. There are no individuals within the Borg as each drone is linked together via a hive mind called “The Collective.” Once connected, individuality is absorbed and subsumed. The individual becomes a techno-zombie, possessed by the vast hive mind.

The Borg’s ultimate goal is biological and technological “perfection.” They seek this by harvesting anything distinctive from other races. Because of this unrelenting process of assimilation and incorporation, the Borg are one of Star trek’s most formidable entities. A single drone can assimilate an entire starship, and a single borg vessel can destroy entire fleets or raze a city to the ground.

In their debut, Q describes the Borg as:

the ultimate user. They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth, or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume.

In their pursuit of perfection, the Borg leave no room for freedom of choice, equality, or compassion. On the contrary, the collective sees these traits as inefficiencies; obstacles on the path to perfection. As Seven of Nine – a Borg drone later freed from the collective – observes while aboard a Starfleet vessel, “you’re erratic, conflicted, disorganized. With every individual giving their own small opinion, you lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” The disdain Seven of Nine expresses for the individual’s worth, and specifically for the value afforded to the expression of that will, is in direct opposition to Jean-Luc’s philosophy. As he states, in no uncertain terms, when the Borg captures him:

Capt. Picard: I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.

The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

Capt. Picard: We would rather die.

The Borg: Death is irrelevant.

Indoctrination into the collective erases all prior relationships with friends, family, religious affiliations, political memberships, and even one’s species status; the Borg consume them all. Even death lacks meaning for the Borg as death is merely the loss of the individual.

The portrait of the Borg painted here – a horrifying force assimilating everything into its structure, to the exclusion of all independent thought and actions, for the propagation of its survival and goal satisfaction – is terrifying. However, the Borg are more than tyrannous; they’re totalitarian.

Totalitarian governments attempt to control every aspect of their citizens’ lives through coercion and repression. As Alan Haworth highlights in his book, Totalitarianism and Philosophy, totalitarianism attempts to achieve total control via (i) the constriction of space and/or (ii) the conflict of wills.

The constriction-of-space model eliminates areas, be they conceptual or physical, where citizens can act autonomously. But, this is difficult to achieve as there are always ways for citizens to rebel and ways for states to exert more control. So, as Haworth argues, this avenue is more aspirational than anything else. A totalitarian state aims towards the total restriction of autonomous space even though such a state is unattainable. Or, in his own words:

This is, thus, a model of the relationship between control and liberty from which it follows that there is an inverse ratio between increase in control by the rulers and decrease in the area within which the ruled are free to act, in which case we must be forced to the conclusion that total control is a practical impossibility since – as the argument presupposes – rulers only have total control when their subjects cannot, as it were, ‘move’ at all, and that is something that could only happen – or so I take it – when the rulers are in a position to direct every single action and thought of those they rule.

The conflict-of-wills model envisions totalitarianism coming into full fruition when the oppressive government enforces its will upon its citizens, dominating their desires. This form of totalitarianism is more subtle than the overt constriction-of-space model. As Hannah Arendt remarks in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “[t]otalitarian terror achieved its most terrible triumph when it succeeded in cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making the decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal.” This mode of totalitarianism subverts autonomy’s foundations and makes the previously unimaginable possible.

The Borg, however, do both of these. They invade the body and mind of the assimilated so entirely that they effectively enact both formulations of totalitarianism at once. The collective is housed just as much in the ships it commands as in the drones at its disposal. It maintains an all-pervasive watch on those who make up its quasi-species; there is no room for deviation from the collective’s will. More troubling, however, is their capacity to dominate the will of the individuals it assimilates. Even if room for deviation existed, the drones don’t have the capacity to take advantage of it. The Borg hive utterly dominates their will.

The portrayal of the Borg in the Star Trek franchise illustrates something important about totalitarianism’s nature. Namely, that as a political system, it demands unflinching obedience to the goals of those in power and cannot stand, nor survive, a populace that rebels against it. Indeed, when drones have regained their independence, the collective sees this as an imminent threat. The power of the Borg and the totalitarian state comes from their ability to dominate the wills of those they hold in their power. Thus, it is paramount to reject the urge to comply or be consumed by their pursuit of perfection or security. Neither the Borg nor the totalitarian state is invincible. Resistance isn’t futile.

The Moral Need for Public Conversation about Rights in a Pandemic World

photograph of protester holding sign reading: "Freedom from Tyranny Don't Tread on Me" in front of State building

The COVID-19 pandemic has created several problems that pit sacrifices for the collective good against individual resistance on the basis of upholding some perceived “right.” For example, should people be expected to wear masks? Are people obligated to follow social distancing guidelines? Is a lockdown justified? Are we obligated to get vaccinated once it is possible? But, what do we mean by “rights” in these cases? And, how has an understanding of political philosophy (or lack thereof) helped or harmed social attempts to manage these problems?

Resistance to social-distancing and mask-wearing is controversial. Those who have been most vocal in their resistance have acknowledged the pushback they get. It is no surprise why either: failure to wear masks, failure to socially distance, failure to isolate, and failure to eventually get vaccinated make the problem of the pandemic worse for everyone else and will likely prolong its effects. Consider the issue of following social-distancing guidelines. A party of about 25 people this month led to over 350 people having to quarantine after the party became a super-spreader event. The less effort that people put into following public health recommendations, the easier it becomes for the virus to spread and the worse the rest of us are for it. Now polling suggests that only 58% of Americans plan to get vaccinated, and if there is great resistance to vaccination then the problem will only be prolonged further.

There are a myriad of possible reasons for not following these guidelines (and in some cases laws), but one that is often cited is that the guidelines are a violation of individual freedoms or rights. Several of the protests, rallies, and calls for “liberation” from lockdowns and mask mandates have justified their actions on the basis that such measures violate fundamental freedoms and rights. For example, MLB player Aubrey Huff declared in June that requiring people to wear a mask is “unconstitutional to enforce,” and as The Washington Post reports, “many say that they have a ‘constitutional right’ not to wear masks and mask mandates are forms of totalitarian rule.” In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro declared that he would refuse to get vaccinated, citing his rights. Even in Canada the provincial government of Alberta, currently one of the worst hotspots in the country, has resisted mandates on the basis that it could infringe on constitutional rights. Premier Kenny recently pointed to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a reason they are avoiding greater restrictions.

Of course, the question really is whether people do have a right to not wear a mask or do have a right to violate public health regulations. As many Canadian legal experts have pointed out, Kenny’s reasoning is faulty. Canadian rights and freedoms are inherently subject to “reasonable limits” by the constitution as can be justified in a “free and democratic society,” but American constitutional rights are slightly more absolute in character. Still, where is the protected right to not wear a mask or to violate public health standards? Many would argue that they are covered by the first amendment, but short of a court ruling on this matter, it is hard to argue that one has that right at all. If I were a legal positivist, for example, I might suggest that the only “rights” that one has are ones that are determined by court rulings. Therefore, in keeping with the positivist slogan that ‘law is law,’ until courts rule on the constitutionality of something like a mask mandate, one cannot claim they have a right to not wear one. On the other hand, one may take a more natural law view and proclaim that such rights are not for courts to say we have them, they are inherent and inalienable.

Regardless of whatever right is actually protected by whatever court, people will continue to resist if they ‘feel’ it within whatever perceived ‘folk’ conception of rights they have. Thus, this is not merely a public health issue or a legal issue, but a philosophical issue in the truest sense. What justification do people have for proclaiming that they have a certain right? For example, if someone who rejects the mandated wearing of masks because it violates their rights, do they perceive these rights as inherent or conventional? Also, how are generally understood constitutional rights translated into perceived rights to take certain actions in specific situations like not wearing a mask? A common aphorism about rights holds that one’s right to wave one’s fist ends at the tip of another person’s nose may be used to justify resistance to health measures. But, what about when the concern isn’t a fist touching your nose, but the particles you expel into the air? Whose nose takes priority, everyone else in public or the people who refuse to wear a mask?

Through all of the problems of masks and public health mandates, the central question is what should be the relationship between society and the individual and to what extent does the individual have to make a sacrifice? These kinds of questions will only become more significant over time. Many governments may need to raise taxes to pay for pandemic-related spending. The public may be expected to practice further sacrifice and restraint in the future in the face of climate change. If so, then for the sake of the public democratic conversation alone, it would not hurt if people were more familiar with the philosophical justifications they think they have for resisting efforts to effect the common good. Perhaps civics education and the practice of being a good citizen should include a background in political philosophy?

One really good reason to consider this is that traditional ‘folk’ understandings of rights are often based on historical notions that do not fit the modern highly-connected world. Despite what many may think, even philosophers like Locke, who was influential in formulating such rights, believed that rights do not eliminate obligations to others.  The action of one individual can have such far reaching consequences (such as one house party leading to hundreds of infections and possible deaths) in a way that was not possible when the concept of rights in a liberal democracy were formulated. A more public conversation about how we collectively ought to understand our rights and obligations in the 21st century could alleviate political confusion and delayed action. Another good reason is it would make it more obvious when people assert some right arbitrarily. One does not get to claim a right merely because they feel they have one, nor can they legitimately claim “I exempt myself” without reason.

On the other hand, traditional political philosophy can also confuse and obstruct the kinds of interactions that take place between an individual and society. Perhaps the problem is retreating behind political philosophies which have become political dogmas. Instead of thinking about the individual and the state as ontologically separate things which are opposed, we may instead consider the scientific reasons why the public is so skeptical and so unwilling to work for the common good. If we treat society and individuality as a process of securing capability and responsibility, then the moral lesson might be to not make this a rights issue at all. Perhaps the problem we face is how to secure public cohesion so that more people are willing to do their part even if they have a right not to.

What Would Nietzsche Think of Sam and Dean Winchester?

image of the season 7 title card for the show Supernatural

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Supernatural’s final season.]

On November 19th, after more than fifteen years, the longest-running genre show in American broadcast television ended when The CW’s Supernatural aired its series finale. Since its premiere in 2005, the show has followed the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who hunt monsters and repeatedly find themselves fighting to stop the Apocalypse. Having defeated everyone from Satan to the Archangel Michael in previous seasons, the final chapter of the Winchesters’ story sees them squaring off against the person ultimately responsible for the suffering and evil they’ve challenged throughout the show: the Almighty God (who typically incarnates in the form of a bearded writer named “Chuck”). After learning that Chuck has secretly been manipulating them for the entirety of their lives, pushing them towards a confrontation where one brother shall kill the other, Sam and Dean reject this divine plan and set out to, instead, attack and dethrone God.

In the late 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche told a similar story; in Book Three of his 1882 work The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells a story of a “madman” running through a marketplace yelling:

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?”

Ultimately, the madman realizes that his audience doesn’t understand, so he throws up his hands and shouts “I come too early! My time is not yet!” and enters the church to pray for the dead.

While his readers would later develop the concept in many different directions (both philosophical and theological), Nietzsche’s talk of “the death of God” is typically found within the more sociological portions of his work. In The Gay Science, for example, Nietzsche considers how art and poetry (and, perhaps, television shows?) can not only give meaning to an individual person’s life, but can help define entire cultures and collective ways of living. This is why Nietzsche’s madman talks about the burdens and responsibilities that come in the wake of “God’s demise”: whereas previous cultures might have been defined by religious values or practices, a post-religious culture would need to invent a new sense of meaning for itself.

So, for Nietzsche, the rejection of God entails the rejection of many other things, but this comes as both an exciting challenge and an opportunity: in the absence of divine expectations, people can pursue and enjoy their lives as they desire, free from the restrictions of the culture (and even the deity) who might prevent them from becoming the person that they would otherwise be. Without Chuck around to write the story, say, the Winchesters (and everyone else) could be free to write their own ending.

And to Nietzsche, to experience true freedom is to “no longer be ashamed before oneself,” living and expressing oneself fully in each moment:

“I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”

This amor fati — “love of fate” — is a matter of a human saying “yes” to one’s circumstances without obligation, dread, or fear, no matter what those circumstances might be — something Nietzsche elsewhere calls “my formula for greatness in a human being.” (Of course, Nietzsche also has much to say about the role of one’s own strength and willpower in shaping one’s circumstances, as well as the conditions that prevent a person from being able to do so, but those are stories for a different day.)

At the end of the road, it’s unlikely that Nietzsche was thinking about God’s death in the same way as the writers of Supernatural — that is to say, he did not clearly think of it as a literal death of a literal deity. But this means that we can view the television show as a kind of a parable, aesthetically demonstrating familiar Nietzschean ideals of freedom, authenticity, and the power of humanity. The Winchesters’ fight to be free of God’s schemes is ultimately not that different from the fight to be able to genuinely express yourself — the fact that Sam and Dean do so alongside the Grim Reaper, the Devil, and the remaining Heavenly Host is just a matter of making exciting television. And, in a similar way, the amor fati doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen; instead, it’s a matter of, like the Winchesters, making the right choice about how to handle the bad when it comes.

So, in a time when spandex-wearing protagonists dazzle movie theaters and television screens with their superpowers, Supernatural’s heroes are just a couple of normal guys driving around in their dad’s old car. After fifteen seasons of vampires, magic daggers, time travel, and demon blood, the story of Sam and Dean Winchester (and, for that matter, Chuck/God) proudly ends in a profoundly human (all-too-human) place.

Morality Pills Aren’t Enough

close-up photograph of white, chalky pill on pink background

Here’s a problem: despite the coronavirus still being very much a problem, especially in the US, many people refuse to take even the most basic precautions when it comes to preventing the spread of the disease. One of the most controversial is the wearing of masks: while some see wearing a mask as a sign of a violation of personal liberties (the liberty to not have to wear a mask, I suppose), others may simply value their own comfort over the well-being of others. Indeed, refusal to wear a mask has been seen by some as a failure of courtesy to others, or a general lack of kindness.

We might look at this situation and make the following evaluation: the problem with people refusing to take precautions to help others during the current pandemic is the result of moral failings. These failings might be the result of a failure to value others in the way that they ought to, perhaps due to a lack of empathy or tendency towards altruism. So perhaps what we need is something that can help these people have better morals. What we need is a morality enhancing pill.

What would such a pill look like? Presumably it would help an individual overcome some relevant kind of moral deficiency, perhaps in the way that some drugs can help individuals cope with certain mental illnesses. The science behind it is merely speculative; what’s more, it’s not clear that it could ever really work in practice. Add concerns about a morality pill’s potentially even worse moral consequences – violations of free will spring to mind, especially if they are administered involuntarily – and it is perhaps easy to see why such a pill currently exists only in the realm of thought experiment.

But let’s put all that aside and say that such a pill was developed. People who were unempathetic take the pill and now show much more empathy; people who failed to value the well-being of others now value it more. Also say that everyone was happy to get on board, so we put at least some of the bigger practical worries aside. Would it solve the problem of people not taking the precautions that they should in helping stop the spread of coronavirus?

I don’t think it would. This is because the problem is not simply a moral problem, but also an epistemic one. In other words: one can have as much empathy as one likes, but if one is forming beliefs on the basis of false or misleading information, then empathy isn’t going to do much good.

Consider someone who refuses to wear a mask, even though it has been highly recommended that they do by a relevant agency, or perhaps even mandated. Their failure to comply may not be indicative of a failure of empathy: if the person falsely believes, for example, that masks inhibit one’s ability to breathe, then they may be as empathetic as you like and still not change their minds. Indeed, given the belief that masks are harmful, increased levels of empathy may only strengthen one’s resolve: given that one cares about the well-being of others, and believes that masks can inhibit that well-being, they will perhaps strive even more to get people to stop wearing them.

Of course, what we want is not that kind of empathy, we want well-informed empathy. This is the kind of empathy that is directed at what the well-being of others really consists in, not just what one perceives it to be. A good morality pill, then, is one that doesn’t just supplement one’s lack of empathy or altruism or what-have-you, but does so in a way that it is directed at what’s actually, truly morally good.

Here, though, we see a fundamental flaw with the morality pill project. The initial problem was that since those who refuse to follow guidelines that can help decrease the spread of the coronavirus refuse to listen to the evidence provided by scientific experts, then we should look to other solutions, ones that don’t have to involve trying to change someone’s beliefs. The problem with focusing on one’s moral character instead, though, is that bettering one’s moral character is a project that requires changing one’s beliefs, as well. The morality pill solution, then, really isn’t that much of a solution at all.

The morality pill, of course, still exists only in the realm of the hypothetical. Back in the real world we are still faced with the hard problem of trying to get people who ignore evidence and believe false or misleading information to change their minds. Where the morality pill thought experiment fails, I think, is that while it is meant to be a way of getting around this hard problem, it runs right into it, instead.

Moral Luck, Universalization, and COVID-19

photograph of toast and swank gathering

All over the country, people are making headlines for violating shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders. Motivations for this behavior are diverse; some fail to recognize the gravity of the situation, some acknowledge that COVID-19 is bad, but doubt that it is a threat to them personally; others, despite a lack of expertise in infectious disease, trust their gut instincts more than they trust the opinions of experts. Some people who defiantly resist orders insist that they are doing so to protect their constitutional rights. People are hosting parties, attending church services, and engaging in life-as-usual activity. Those who have been sheltering in place for over a month look on with incredulity and, often, anger. Why do these people behave as if rules, created in emergency circumstances for the health and safety of the community at large, don’t apply to them?

Some people who choose to go out and spend time near others live in states in which doing so is currently against the law. Others live in Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming — states in which staying at home has been recommended, but not required by their respective governors. An answer to the question of whether going out in these conditions is legal doesn’t settle the question of whether it is ethical.

Plenty of people appear to be comfortable gambling with general health and well-being. In one case that made headlines, notorious libertarian Ammon Bundy defied Idaho’s stay-at-home order, routinely hosting in-person meetings on the topic of the order as a restriction of civil liberties. Bundy announced his intention to host a massive Easter get together of 1,000 people or more. In reality, 60 people attended the event, none of which took any social distancing precautions. They did so in defiance of what they viewed as a governmental infringement on their right to choose.

What is it to make a choice? One plausible way of looking at it is that a choice is an endorsement—it is a recommendation. When I choose a course of action, I affirm that the action is, on some description, valuable. I affirm that it would be acceptable for another person to make the choice that I make under similar circumstances. In performing an action, I express that I view the action not only as an action that can be performed, but as an action that ought to be performed. After all, if I didn’t think it ought to be performed, what on earth possessed me to perform it? If that is the implication of choice, then we should be very selective in our choices. In his 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre emphasizes the responsibility each person bears for their own choice. He said,

“When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.”

Our choices then, even when they seem to us to be somewhat narrow in scope, are not entirely private or personal matters.

A number of things follow from the idea that our choices are endorsements. First, our choices are no small matter because they define who we are as people. People may want to conceive of themselves as kind, empathetic, and caring, but the question of whether a person has those traits is determined by what they actually do, rather than by what they claim to value. In pandemic conditions, a choice to attend a party or to go into a crowded place when doing so is not necessary may seem to be of little consequence if, ultimately, no one gets hurt. On the other hand, those choices say something about the kinds of risks a person is willing to take on and the kind of danger to which that person is willing to expose others.

Second, if choices are recommendations, then there is a good chance that people will follow them—that’s what happens with recommendations. If, for instance, college students observe that some of their peers are gathering together with no apparent consequences, there is some chance that they might conclude that doing so is, after all, no big deal. Others their age are making themselves exceptions to shelter-in-place rules, why can’t they do so as well?

Many philosophers have had much to say about the morality of making an exception of oneself. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant urges us to think about whether our actions can be universalized—roughly, would it be acceptable if everyone performed the action we are considering performing? If not, then we are treating a principle, morally binding on everyone else, as if it doesn’t apply to us.

Decision-making in a pandemic demonstrates the moral importance of universalization powerfully. People who violate stay-at-home and shelter-in place-orders are counting on the fact that they are behaving as exceptions to the rules. If everyone followed the recommendations suggested by their actions, the disease would spread like wildfire, even faster than the rate at which it is now spreading. “But,” they might argue, “what is the real harm? If I don’t get sick, and if I don’t spread the disease, does it really matter if I saw some friends one Friday night in April?”

A person who makes this argument fails to recognize themselves as the recipient of what philosophers often refer to as moral luck. In his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief, philosopher W.K. Clifford describes a ship owner who sends his ship out to sea despite the fact that he had reason to believe it might not be seaworthy. The ship sinks and the passengers die. What if, instead, the ship didn’t sink? What if all of the passengers survived? Would this diminish the guilt of the ship owner? Clifford answers, “Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong forever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out.” The shipowner got lucky in this case—no one discovered that he did something irresponsible. This doesn’t change how we should view his decision to send the ship off to sea; whatever the consequences turned out to be, his action was reckless.

Consider the following two cases. Tom and Mary both go out to a bar and become equally intoxicated. They both make the decision to drive their respective cars home while too impaired to operate a vehicle safely. They both live roughly the same distance from the bar. On the way home, Tom encounters a pedestrian whom he hits and kills. A pedestrian does not cross Mary’s path, and she arrives home safely. The fact that a pedestrian was present in one case but not the other was a matter of moral luck—neither Tom nor Mary had any control over that. That said, they both behaved equally recklessly and that is the decision for which they are morally responsible.

The same thing can be said about the decision to ignore critical recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such actions are reckless. Some people who disregard orders may not get the virus and they may not spread it to others. Nevertheless, their actions are not universalizable. They can’t be reasonably recommended to others. When these people take themselves to be defending their own liberties, they are really behaving selfishly and diminishing the liberty and well-being of others.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Freedom to Protest: An Ethical Examination of the DePauw Student Handbook

Jr. Summer Papachen rallies students to make their voices heard by BYRON MASON II

On Friday October 12, I walked out of Hoover Hall and unto the cold grey tiles of Stewart Plaza. On that cloudy day, a crowd of students and faculty had begun to form around junior Summer Pappachen, who was holding a megaphone. I had heard about the demonstration through word of mouth and social media: this was probably the best advertised demonstration I had attended at DePauw. In light of how secretive previous demonstrations had been, this felt very strange. Students and faculty had come together to demonstrate against the recent cuts to faculty healthcare. Additionally, the student organizers of the Democratic Socialist Club (DSC) asked President McCoy to abolish the current demonstration policies, which were specifically infringing on the freedoms of students of color. Summer emphasized that President McCoy had not met 7 of the 8 demands set forth by the Association of African American Students (AAAS)  last semester. As I stood among my professors and peers, the memory of last semester’s protest was seering in my mind.

Continue reading “Freedom to Protest: An Ethical Examination of the DePauw Student Handbook”

Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?

photo of animal pelts on a table.

It is easy to forget that our choices as consumers have significant consequences beyond satisfying our material needs or desires.  Many of us make purchasing choices with little regard for how those choices affect other people, non-human animals, or the environment.  In many cases, the stakes are tragically high. One proposal worth consideration, then, is that certain purchasing options should simply be off the table or should, at a minimum, be highly regulated.  

Continue reading “Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?”

What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?

The European Union’s highest court has recently ruled that companies are allowed to ban hijabs in their workplaces. It is a response to two cases: Samora Achbita, a woman working for a company in Belgium, was fired over her refusal to take off her veil at work; Asma Bougnani was likewise fired by a company in France, for the same reasons.

This is yet another battle in the long hijab wars that have been fought in Europe over the last 20 years. As usual, there is a political aligning on this issue: the far right welcomes such bans, the multicultural left vehemently opposes them, and the rest of the parties are either undecided, or simply confused, about their stand.

Continue reading “What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?”

Do Driverless Cars Infringe on Personal Freedom?

Picture yourself in a sterile cabin sitting atop four wheels. The only sound you hear is the soft hum of an electric engine. There is not much there except for four seats. The dashboard is bare, and it only has a large screen showing the remainder of your trip on a map — there is no steering wheel.  The tinted windows block out the sun; still, you are able to see outside. You can observe a swarm of cars moving in a peloton through a downtown area—at a frightening speed—breaking their even spacing to cross an intersection, where a pileup is avoided by only a few millimeters, as another swarm of cars crosses the intersection perpendicular to you.

Continue reading “Do Driverless Cars Infringe on Personal Freedom?”

Freedom and the 2016 Electoral Season

‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.

Take Donald Trump, for instance.

In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:


While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.

Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.

Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.

Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”

And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.

But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.

But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.

In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.

This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”

Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.

This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).

Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?