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Insurance, Natural Disasters, and the Relevance of Luck

photograph of black smoke and forest fire approaching apartments

Last year, Hurricane Ida caused around $30 billion in damages. This cost was largely borne by insurers, forcing some companies to declare insolvency. The United States is now on the brink of another active hurricane season, and – as a result – insurers in some of the riskiest parts of the country are cancelling home insurance policies. Around 80,000 homes in Louisiana have already lost their coverage, with an additional 80,000 Floridian policy holders set to be affected by the end of this week.

This is nothing new. The worsening climate crisis has seen a marked increase in the number of uninsurable homes. For example, in Australia – a country blighted by recent wildfires and floodsaround 720,000 homes are set to be completely uninsurable by the end of the century. When these homes are damaged or destroyed, their occupants are left destitute.

What, then, should we be doing to help these people? More generally, what kind of moral obligations do we have to people who lose their homes as the result of a natural disaster?

One way of approaching this issue is through the concept of ‘luck’. We experience luck all the time – some of it good, some of it bad. And bad luck comes in many different forms: We might have our car destroyed by an errant bolt of lightning; or we might lose our entire life savings betting on a bad hand of poker. In both cases, we’re left worse off. But the obligation on others to help us may very well differ. Consider the bolt of lightning. This is, perhaps, the purest example of a case of ‘brute’ bad luck – an “act of God” in every sense of the word. Compare this with that losing hand of poker. Sure, there’s still an element of luck at play: if the random shuffle of the deck had dealt me a better hand, I might’ve won. But I knew what I was signing up for. I made a calculated gamble knowing there was a good chance I might lose all of my money. Unlike the bad luck of being struck by lightning, the losing hand of poker was bad luck I opted in to – “option” luck, if you will.

This distinction between “brute” bad luck and “option” bad luck forms an important part of how Luck Egalitarians see our obligations to help others.

Stated in its simplest form, Luck Egalitarianism says that we have a moral obligation to help those who suffer from bad brute luck, but not those who suffer from bad option luck.

So, how does Luck Egalitarianism help us with disaster-prone homeowners? Well, wildfires and floods are (like bolts of lightning) clear cases of bad brute luck. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we have an automatic obligation to help those who lose their homes to such disasters. Here’s the thing: wildfires and floods aren’t entirely unpredictable. They tend to occur in disaster-prone areas, and such areas are usually well-documented. In fact, those who choose to build their homes in a risky location will usually find themselves paying substantially less for their homes. In this way, these people make a calculated gamble – so when disaster does inevitably strike, it is instead a case of bad option luck, not brute luck.

At least, it used to be this simple. For a long while, disaster-prone areas were largely stable. But the climate crisis has seen a swift end to that. Risky areas are growing, and wildfire and flood seasons are lengthening and worsening. Someone who chose to build in a safe area several decades ago may now find their home regularly in the path of catastrophe.

But what about the fact that these people choose to stay in disaster-prone areas? Sure, there may have initially been no risk in that location, but now that there is, doesn’t their choice to stay make any disaster that befalls them a case of bad option luck?

The Luck Egalitarian would say “yes” – but only if a homeowner actually has a choice in the matter. Sadly, many don’t. Selling a home that’s at risk of imminent destruction is hard. What’s more, selling it for a price that allows the occupants to afford a new home in a safer area is even more difficult. For this reason, many disaster-prone homeowners find themselves stranded – unable to afford to move. So, if someone builds a home in an area that later becomes disaster-prone, and – as a result – cannot afford to move, the Luck Egalitarian will still see the destruction of their home as a case of bad brute luck.

But there’s one final complication – namely, the role played by insurance. According to some Luck Egalitarians, the availability of affordable insurance is sufficient to convert bad brute luck into bad option luck. Why? Consider the lightning example again. Suppose that automotive lightning strikes are frequent in my area, but that full lightning coverage for my car is available for only $1 per month. I, however, opt not to purchase this insurance and instead spend my money on something more frivolous. Suppose, then, that the inevitable happens and my car is destroyed by a random bolt of lightning. While the lightning might be an “act of God,” the loss of my car is not. Why?

Because that loss is a combination of both the lightning and my calculated gamble to not purchase insurance. I, essentially, signed up for the loss of my car.

This is why insurance is so important when considering what we owe to disaster-prone homeowners. If affordable insurance is widely available – and a homeowner refuses to purchase it – any disaster that befalls them will be a case of bad option luck. This will mean that – for the Luck Egalitarian, at least – the rest of us have no specific moral obligations to help those individuals. When such insurance isn’t available, however (as it no longer is for many residents of Louisiana and Florida) the story changes. Those who (1) built their homes in previously safe areas that have now become disaster-prone; (2) subsequently cannot afford to move; and (3) inevitably find themselves the victims of natural disasters are victims of bad brute luck. And this may very well put strong moral obligations on the rest of us to come to their aid – either as individuals, or through our elected government. As the climate crisis worsens – and more and more homes become uninsurable – the need for this kind of assistance will only grow.

The Continued Saga of Education During COVID-19

photograph of empty elementary school classroom filled with books and bags

In early August, Davis County School District, just north of Salt Lake City, Utah, announced its intention to open K-12 schools face-to-face. All of the students who did not opt for an online alternative would be present. There would be no mandatory social distancing because the schools simply aren’t large enough to allow for it. Masks would be encouraged but not required. There was significant pushback to this decision. Shortly thereafter the district announced a new hybrid model. On this model, students are divided into two groups. Each group attends school two days a week on alternating days. Fridays are reserved for virtual education for everyone so that the school can be cleaned deeply. In response to spiking cases, Governor Herbert also issued a mask mandate for all government buildings, including schools. Parents and students were told that the decision would remain in place until the end of the calendar year.

On Tuesday, September 15th, the school board held a meeting that many of the parents in the district did not know was taking place. At this meeting, in response to the demands of a group of parents insisting upon returning to a four or even five-day school week for all students, the board unanimously voted to change direction mid-stream and switch to a four-day-a-week, all-students-present model. Many of these same parents were also arguing in favor of lifting the mask mandate in the schools, but the school board has no power to make that change.

Those advocating for a return to full-time, in-person school are not all making the same arguments. Some people are single parents trying to balance work and educating their children. In other households more than one adult might be present, but they might all need to be employed in order to pay the bills. In still other families, education is not very highly valued. There are abusive and neglectful homes where parents simply aren’t willing to put in the work to make sure that their children are keeping up in school. Finally, for some students, in-person school is just more effective; some students learn better in face-to-face environments.

These aren’t the only positions that people on this side of the debate have expressed. For political, social, and cultural reasons, many people haven’t taken the virus seriously from the very beginning. These people claim that COVID-19 is a hoax or a conspiracy, that the risks of the virus have been exaggerated, and that the lives of the people who might die as a result of contracting it don’t matter much because they are either old or have pre-existing conditions and, as a result, they “would have died soon anyway.”

Still others are sick of being around their children all day and are ready to get some time to themselves back. They want the district’s teachers to provide childcare and they believe they are entitled to it because they pay property taxes. They want things to go back to normal and they think if we behave as if the virus doesn’t exist, everything will be fine and eventually it will just disappear. Most people probably won’t get it anyway or, if they do, they probably won’t have serious symptoms.

Parents and community members in favor of continuing the hybrid model fought back. First and foremost, they argued that the hybrid model makes the most sense for public health. The day after the school board voted to return to full-time in-person learning, the case numbers in Utah spiked dramatically. Utah saw its first two days of numbers exceeding 1,000 new cases. It is clear that spread is happening at the schools. Sports are being cancelled, and students are contracting the virus, spreading the virus, and being asked to quarantine because they have been exposed to the virus at a significant number of schools in the district.

Those in favor of the hybrid model argue that it is a safe alternative that provides a social life and educational resources to all students. On this model, all students have days when they get to see their friends and get to work with their teachers. If the switch to a four-day-a-week schedule without social distancing measures in place happens, the only students who will have access to friends and teachers in person are the community members who aren’t taking the virus seriously and aren’t concerned about the risks of spreading it to teachers, staff, and the community at large. It presents particular hardship for at-risk students who might have to choose the online option not only for moral reasons, but also so they don’t risk putting their own lives in jeopardy. Those making these arguments emphasize that the face-to-face model simply isn’t fair.

Advocates of this side of the debate also point out that we know that this virus is affecting people of color at a more significant rate, and the evidence is not yet in on why this is the case. The children who are dying of COVID-19 are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. The face-to-face option has the potential to disproportionately impact students of color. If they attend school, they are both more likely than their white classmates to get sick and more likely to die. Many of these students live in multi-generational homes. Even if the students don’t suffer severe symptoms, opening up the schools beyond the restrictions put in place by the hybrid model exposes minority populations to a greater degree of risk.

Slightly less pressing, but still very important, considerations on this side of the debate have to do with changing directions so abruptly in the middle of the term. The school board points out that students that don’t want to take the risk of attending school four days a week can always just take part in the online option, Davis Connect. There are a number of problems with this. First, Davis Connect isn’t simply an extension of the school that any given child attends; it is an independent program. This means that if students and their families don’t think it is safe to return to a face-to-face schedule, they lose all their teachers and all of the progress that they have made in the initial weeks of the semester. Further, the online option offers mostly core classes. High school students who chose the online option would have to abandon their electives — classes that in many cases they have come to enjoy in the initial weeks of the semester. Some students are taking advanced placement or dual-enrollment courses that count for college credit. These students would be forced to give up that credit if they choose the online option. The result is a situation in which families may feel strongly coerced to allow their children to attend school in what they take to be unsafe conditions and in a way that is not consistent with their moral values as responsible members of the community.

Those on this side of the argument also point out that community discussions about “re-opening the schools” tend to paint all students with the same brush. The evidence does not support doing so. There is much that we still don’t know about transmission and spread among young children. We do know that risk increases with age, and that children and young adults ages 15-24 constitute a demographic that is increasingly contracting and spreading the virus. What’s more, students at this age are often willful and defiant. With strict social distancing measures in place and fewer students at the school, it is more difficult for the immature decision-making skills of teenagers to cause serious public health problems. It is also important to take into account the mental health of teenagers. Those on the other side of the debate claim that the mental health of children this age should point us in the direction of holding school every day. In response, supporters of the hybrid model argue that there is no reason to think that a teenager’s mental health depends on being in school four days rather than two. Surely two days are better than none.

Everyone involved in the discussion has heard the argument that the numbers in Davis County aren’t as bad as they are elsewhere in the state. In some places in the area, schools have shut down. In a different district not far away, Charri Jenson, a teacher at Corner Canyon High, is in the ICU as a result of spread at her school. The fact that Davis County numbers are, for now, lower than the rates at those schools is used to justify lifting restrictions. There are several responses to this argument. First, it fails to take into consideration the causal role that the precautions are playing in the lower number of cases. It may well be true that numbers in Davis County are lower (but not, all things considered, low) because of the precautions the district is currently taking. Other schools that encountered significant problems switched to the hybrid model, which provides evidence of its perceived efficacy. Second the virus doesn’t know about county boundaries and sadly people in the state are moving about and socializing as if there is no pandemic. The virus moves and the expectation that it will move to Davis County to a greater degree is reasonable. You don’t respond to a killer outside the house by saying “He hasn’t made his way inside yet, time to unlock the door!”

To be sure, some schools have opened up completely and have seen few to no cases. This is a matter of both practical and moral luck. It is a matter of practical luck that no one has fallen seriously ill and that no one from those schools has had to experience the anguish of a loved one dying alone. It is a matter of moral luck because those school districts, in full possession of knowledge of the dangers, charged forward anyway. They aren’t any less culpable for deaths and health problems — they made the same decisions that school districts that caused deaths made.

A final lesson from this whole debate is that school boards have much more power than we may be ordinarily inclined to think. There are seven people on this school board and they have the power to change things dramatically for an entire community of people and for communities that might be affected by the actions of Davis County residents. This is true of all school boards. This recognition should cause us to be diligent as voters. We should vote in even the smallest local elections. It matters.

Moral Luck and the Judgment of Officials

photograph of empty tennis court and judge's chair

Novak Djokovic was defaulted from the US Open last week for violating the Abuse of Balls rule. During the first set of his quarterfinal match with Pablo Busta, he struck a ball to the back of the court without looking. This resulted in the ball hitting a line judge. The referee, Soeren Friemel, after consulting with other officials, made a ruling to bypass the Point Penalty Schedule and issue an immediate default. In other words, Djokovic lost the match, left the tournament, forfeited all of his winnings in the tournament, and is subject to further fines. In the aftermath of this incident, many of the TV commentators discussed issues of the severity of the injury to the judge, that the ruling was correct, and the bad luck of Djokovic. The bad luck was in reference to the fact that just as Djokovic was striking the ball, the line judge straightened up from her bent over position which put her head in the direct path of the ball.

As I watched the events unfold and before the ruling was made, I immediately began to think about the fact that the referee’s judgment was going to hinge on the problem of moral luck. This problem was initially discussed by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel in a two-part article in 1976. Dana Nelkin describes the problem as one that “occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control.”  In other words, judgments of moral approval or disapproval, including the imposition of sanctions, can depend upon accidents or choices by third parties. The problem can be exemplified by considering two teenagers drag racing. Both of them are using poor judgment as well as speeding. The car on the right is clearly pulling ahead of the car on the left (due, let’s say, to crummy spark plugs in the left car) when an animal darts out into the street from the left. Neither teen attempts to avoid hitting the animals because neither sees the animal. As luck would have it, even though the animal darts into the road from the left, the car on the left misses the animal but the car on the right strikes it. Is it really the case that the driver on the left is morally innocent compared to the driver on the right? Had it not been for the crummy spark plugs the driver on the left would have struck the animal; had it not been for the presence of the animal the accident would not have occurred at all.

What seems to be at issue here, Nelkin explains, is the acceptability of two ideas, one called the Control Principle and the other a corollary of that principle.

Control Principle (CP): We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.

CP-Corollary: Two people ought not to be morally assessed differently if the only other differences between them are due to factors beyond their control.

At first, these ideas seem to be intuitively acceptable. To accept them means that luck should play no role in moral assessment. But notice that they imply that in our stipulated example of drag racing that the driver on the left seems to be just as culpable as the driver on the right for hitting the animal — either both are culpable or neither is culpable. After all, the only difference between the two drivers are factors beyond the control of either driver and both were in control of the decision to drag race. So, what is to be questioned? Should the judgment that the two drivers have different levels of culpability be jettisoned or should CP and its corollary be abandoned?

This hypothetical case is analogous to the situation with Djokovic. A few points before the offending event, Djokovic much more angrily and with much more force slammed a ball into a side wall of the court. None was injured. He was not warned, given a point penalty, or given a game penalty.  But, given the rule, the earlier event was just as much of a violation of the rule as the latter event. It is worth seeing the rule in its entirety:

ARTICLE III: PLAYER ON-SITE OFFENSES

  1. ABUSE OF BALLS Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a tennis ball within the precincts of the tournament site except in the reasonable pursuit of a point during a match (including warm-up). Violation of this Section shall subject a player to fine up to $20,000 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warmup) the player shall be penalised in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule hereinafter set forth. For the purposes of this Rule, abuse of balls is defined as intentionally hitting a ball out of the enclosure of the court, hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.

What should be noticed is that the mere act of hitting a ball “violently, dangerously or with anger,” regardless of whether anyone is injured, is sufficient to violate the rule. So, the earlier act by Djokovic was sufficient for Friemel to issue a warning in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule. Nowhere in the code does it specify that Friemel may skip directly to default based on the poor luck of the ball hitting and injuring someone, though, as with all officials in sports, part of his job is to use judgment to make decisions.  But, it seems as if part of that decision to not issue a warning for the earlier outburst and to default Djokovic for the latter outburst included a rejection of the control principle and its corollary. Otherwise it seems as if the only difference between the two events was the placement of the line judge and the fact that just as Djokovic hit the ball she stood up in a way that placed her head in the direct path of the ball. Both of these elements were beyond the control of Djokovic. So, if CP is operative, then Djokovic seems to be equally culpable and equally deserving of being defaulted for the earlier outburst as for the one that resulted in the injury to the line judge. By abandoning CP, while Djokovic clearly violated the rule earlier, he did not need to be sanctioned because luckily the outcome was different.

But now comes the twist. It looks like other officials at the match bear some responsibility for the line judge’s injury.

What do we say about the Friemel’s non-application of the rule earlier in the match?  Furthermore, what do we say about the officials at the Western & Southern Open just a few days before who did not default Aljaz Bedene for hitting a camera operator in a similar situation? Here we have an almost identical set of facts, but the injury sustained by the camera operator did not require immediate medical attention, unlike the line judge injured by Djokovic. The rules do not make an explicit allowance for the severity of the injury to factor into the judgment of the officials, but in these three cases, the severity of the injury was considered. The different decisions make sense if we abandon the control principle because those different outcomes, that were due in part to factors beyond the control of the players, seem to allow for different judgments.

Now, all we have to do is accept that luck plays a role when making moral judgments. This implies that you can be morally culpable for things beyond your control. Friemel and the other tennis officials seem to be committed to this idea. But now that we know that consequences matter, it appears that Friemel and other officials should also be culpable in the injury of the US Open line judge. After all, if we let consequences matter, then we have to confront the suggestion that acts of omission resulting in bad outcomes are open to moral censure. By not giving Bedene a harsher penalty a few days before, and not even issuing a warning a few minutes before in the Djokovic – Busta match, the officials perform acts of omission. These acts of omission appear to support a claim that Djokovic could vent his frustration in violation of the Abuse of Balls rule without fear of serious sanction. The officials are thus, oddly, morally implicated in Djokovic’s transgression. They seem to be responsible for creating a situation in which Djokovic could behave this way. The resulting injury involves actions beyond their control (the line judge standing up and Djokovic hitting the ball). But by abandoning the CP and its corollary, they nevertheless appear to share in the responsibility of injury.

These observations — to accept or reject the CP as well as the implications of doing so — apply beyond sports. In any social arena, officials who are entrusted with making judgments may have more responsibility for the outcomes of their silence than they want to recognize.

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.


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Moral Luck and the Trump-Russia Investigation

portrait of Donald Trump Jr. at a campaign event

One cannot avoid news of Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion between Russian government entities and the Trump campaign. It seems that nearly every day a new story detailing new twists in this saga is published. Luckily, the whole story serves as a goldmine for philosophical and ethical reflection on current events. In this post, I explore the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and other individuals associated with Russia as an example of what philosopher’s call “moral luck.”

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