Back to Prindle Institute

Law Enforcement, Role-Based Duties, and Bodily Autonomy

photograph of police officer in gear

On May 24th 2022, 21 people from Uvalde, Texas, lost their lives in an elementary school mass shooting. As people across the country experienced vicarious horror hearing the stories of the children who witnessed the atrocity, discrepancies and changes in the police report started to grab the attention of the general public. In all, the Uvalde police department made a total of 12 report updates and amendments, finally settling on one attention-grabbing fact: of all 19 armed officers and guards who were present at the active crime scene when the shooting began, none of them entered the room where the gunman had barricaded himself with a class full of students. This continued for 78 minutes, until the classroom was finally breached and the shooter killed.

Much of the public conversation surrounding the response of the Uvalde Police Department has focused on the motivations behind the officers’ reluctance to enter the classroom. Namely, on their own admission, they were concerned they would get shot. This is clearly not an irrational fear: they would have to enter the classroom not knowing the position or state of the gunman. Like anyone confronting another with a gun, they would be in danger. But most people’s views of the situation seemed unmoved by these facts.

The overwhelming public consensus was that this danger was precisely part of the role of police officers. By failing to take on this risk, the officers were neglecting a crucial aspect of their duties.

The question of the extent of self-endangerment obligations is one that has arisen in other cases of controversial uses of deadly force among law enforcement officers: for example, Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown and Philip Brailsford’s killing of Daniel Shaver, among many other cases. In many cases where the self-defense plea was used to argue the officer’s case, the plea was successful: officers could kill to preserve their own life, if they legitimately feared for it. Leaving aside the crucial question of how racism and subconscious bias factored into the officers’ perception of threat, we are left wondering: if the officers did feel threatened, isn’t their primary duty still to the public, even when that public currently seems threatening? More simply: under what circumstances are law enforcement officers required to risk their lives for the sake of helping others?

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, a 2005 Supreme Court decision began making the rounds on social media for its surprising answer to the above question.

Namely, the Court ruled that law enforcement officers had no constitutional duty to protect a person from harm. They would violate no constitutional duty to refrain from assisting someone who needed, or even requested, their assistance.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no sense in which officers must risk their lives for the public. Officers are supposed to respond to orders to serve — orders which come from their captain or chief of police. In the case of Uvalde, the chief of police had not told the responding officers to move in on the shooter. But what if he had? Can someone’s job ever obligate them to risk their life for the sake of another?

In a strictly moral sense of “obligation,” the answer seems to be, very plausibly, yes! Many philosophers accept a category of moral obligations that are attached to specific relational or social roles. For example, one may think that someone ordinarily has no moral obligation to donate a kidney to someone in need of one. But they may also believe that this obligation does kick in if the person in need of the kidney is the donor’s child. The changing variable in this case is the relationship that the donor stands in to the recipient: they have special obligations to the recipient based on their social or familial role.

The idea of role-based obligations goes back at least as far as the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. The Analects, a collection of his teachings, describes the following exchange:

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied: “Let the ruler be a ruler, minister be a minister, father be a father, son be a son.” The Duke said, “Excellent! Indeed, if the ruler is not a ruler, the ministers not ministers, fathers not fathers and sons not sons, even if I have food, how can I eat it?”

Here, Confucius points to the importance of role-based obligations for maintaining social cohesion. It is clear that, if parents universally and routinely ignored their special role-based obligations to their children, there would be a huge humanitarian crisis to contend with. It is clear that, if law enforcement officers or other kinds of civil servants ignored all role-based obligations to protect those they serve, the social order would lack a class of protective services that, under ideal conditions, seem crucial to the well-being of a nation.

The legal question of such obligations, however, is more complicated. In the majority of U.S. states, commercial surrogacy (contracting paid gestational labor from another) is illegal. In these states, such contracts are prohibited because they are deemed unenforceable: a citizen cannot sign away their rights to bodily autonomy, even of their own volition. Therefore, most terms of the contract would be unenforceable, as a surrogate would maintain the right to, say, obtain an abortion as allowed under the particular state’s abortion laws. Would a labor contract that required law enforcement officers to risk their lives on command be less of a voluntary relinquishing of bodily autonomy than a surrogacy contract?

On the other hand, there is an obvious and prominent counterexample to the idea that no contract can oblige someone to surrender some bodily autonomy: military service.

When someone signs up for military service, they relinquish their right (while on duty) to choose their own clothing, haircut, and innumerable other aspects of their day-to-day life.

Of course, they also obviously contract themselves into a potentially highly-dangerous job. A military, to function, must assume that personnel are obligated to follow orders into battle, even if those orders put their lives at serious risk. At various times in history, we have even drafted people into the army, forcing them to take up arms in defense of the nation, or else face jail time. While many are critical of a draft, few question the right to voluntarily sign away significant portions of bodily autonomy in order to (as a free choice) join the military.

At the crux of this issue lies a seeming-conflict between two incompatible propositions: 1) in order for a nation to flourish, there must be a way of holding law enforcement, and other civil servants, to their role-obligations to risk their own well-being for the sake of the public; 2)the right to bodily autonomy is inalienable, and the voluntary relinquishing of autonomy cannot be legally enforced. Finding a way to reconcile the two — or to carve a middle ground between them — may be helpful for determining future matters of contract policy and responsibility.

Considered Position: Thinking Through Sanctions – Our Own Obligations

photograph of feet on asphalt before a branching decision tree

This piece concludes a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior?

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions? 

In the first post, I suggested that sanctions are, on the whole, probably effective. In the second post, I suggested that sanctions, on the whole, probably do not violate the rights of innocent civilians (though I’m not totally certain about that).

The final question concerns how wide the scope of that obligation — that is, the duty to support these punitive economic measures — is.

There are two parts to this question.

First: who has responsibilities to boycott?

Do governments have an obligation to impose sanctions? Do companies have an obligation to pull out of Russia? Do sports organizations have an obligation to ban Russian athletes? Do academic journals have reason to reject papers submitted by faculty at state-sponsored Russian Universities? Do I have a responsibility to not purchase Russian-made products?

Second: who should be boycotted?

If I should boycott Russia, should I also boycott China given their treatment of the Uyghur people? Does it also apply to Saudi Arabia given their human rights abuses? Does it apply to the U.S. State of Georgia for its voting rights bill?

Who Has a Reason to Boycott?

For individuals and companies, there could be three different relations to boycotts. Boycotting could be morally prohibited, it could be morally required, or it could be morally permissible. Since it will be permissible just if it is neither prohibited nor required, let’s consider reasons it might be morally prohibited or required for individuals to boycott.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally wrong for individuals or companies to boycott? 

Yes, often there are.

There are some actions which should only be done by certain agents. For example, if I see you commit a crime, I cannot lock you up in my basement. Only the state has the authority to impose criminal punishments, I do not. Similarly, many philosophers historically have maintained that only the government can legitimately wage war.

There is good reason to think that, often, we should limit ‘coercive pressure’ to centralized agents. This is because when a group of people all try to collectively punish someone, the resulting punishment is often disproportionate.

Sometimes people do really bad things, and deserve some punishment. However, when the information goes viral, they don’t just struggle to get a job, they struggle to get any job. And so the bad action can destroy someone’s life. Each individual employer thinks they are just not hiring the person for this job, but when everyone thinks that way, the person is unable to get any job at all. But sometimes a person does not deserve to be unemployable, even if they really did something quite bad. And this provides one reason for why individual people or companies should not always take ‘boycotting’ or ‘coercive sanctioning’ into their own hands.

Could such considerations apply to Russia? Possibly, but I think it’s unlikely. The invasion of a democratic nation is such a serious violation of international norms, that it is hard to imagine any form of economic isolation that would be a disproportionate response. There could well be issues if, for instance, Russian civilians begin starving. But that is a general problem with targeting civilians and is not really a specific problem of mob injustice.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally required for individuals or companies to boycott? 

In general, there are two sorts of reasons one might be obligated to boycott a country or organization that is doing something unjust.

First, it might be necessary to help protect those suffering injustice. Thus, you might think that we owe it to the Ukrainian people to put as much international pressure on Russia as possible. Or, you might think we owe it to the people of Taiwan to signal as large a credible threat as possible. Here the thought would be that, collectively, such pressure can do real good in making the world a better place and protecting the rights of those being oppressed.

Second, it might be necessary to avoid complicity with injustice. Even if your refusal will not make the situation better, we often think that participation in evil can itself be evil. Thus, Google might worry that their map software could be used by invading troops. It might not make the situation any better for the Ukrainian people if Russian soldiers lacked access to Google maps; but Google might think they still have reasons to avoid associations with evil.

Of these two reasons, the first one strikes me as by far the most plausible argument. If you want to argue that academic journals should not publish papers written by those working at Russian state universities, or that gas companies should not buy Russian-produced oil, the best argument is that doing so helps send a broad and unambiguous signal that such invasions will not be tolerated now or in the future. This could, in turn, help protect rights. It is not that any one company makes a difference, but that everyone working together can send a uniquely powerful signal, and that such a signal only works if we all do our part.

It seems plausible, then, that many individuals and organizations plausibly have at least some reason to support various boycotts (especially in contexts where there is involvement by the Russian state).

Who Should be Boycotted?

Once we accept that sometimes individuals have good reason to boycott other institutions. There are tricky questions to be asked about the scope of those duties.

It seems plausible that I should boycott Russia, but what about other countries which are violating international norms? It seems clear that I should refuse to join a country club that discriminates against Black people. But do we also have reason to boycott a streaming service if we don’t like a podcast they host?

These are difficult questions, and I don’t know any easy solutions for how to sort the cases. That said, there are at least a couple of plausible principles that can help think through these things.

First, the worse the injustice, the more boycotting is justifiable. The basic reason for this is because the worse the injustice, the less likely it is that the ‘piling-on’ effect is going to result in some clearly disproportionate and unfairly punitive responses.

Second, the clearer the social norm, the more justifiable boycotting is. There are tons of unjust actions performed by governments. Invasion and war crimes are unjust, but so is the denial of religious freedom and gender parity. Nevertheless, it seems more justifiable to sanction Russia for invasion than to sanction the Maldives for its violations of religious freedom.

Partly this is because war crimes are plausibly more serious injustices. But partly it is because there are clearer norms against invasion. Invasion is less ‘generally acceptable’ and so coercive punishment seems less ‘ex post facto’ or ‘capricious’ when employed against an invading nation. There are lots of injustices in the world, and we probably don’t want to coercively punish every injustice anyone performs. Thus, to avoid maliciously targeting just those we tend to suspect or dislike, it is easier to justify boycotting those in violation of clear and broadly-accepted norms of justice.

Third, you want to watch out for inconsistency. In general, it is very dangerous to boycott, sanction, or coercively punish someone else if the main reason is just to improve your own moral image. But I think we often find ourselves tempted to boycott, less for the sake of the oppressed, and more to solidify our own moral reputations.

One way to keep an eye out for this, is to notice if your responses seem inconsistent or disproportionate. If you find yourself calling for the boycotting of Georgia for their pro-life laws, but not China for the oppression of the Uyghurs, then it should at least make you pause and wonder if your motivations are mostly about political posturing.

What Is the Wrong Lesson to Draw?

It is extremely difficult to give clear principles for when individuals should coercively respond to the bad actions of others. It is easy to get bogged down in complicated edge cases.

However, this itself can be a form of temptation. We can often bog ourselves down in edge cases in order to avoid clear moral duties. Thus, because I am not sure exactly how much money I am obligated to give to charity, I don’t end up giving any. Even though I’m quite certain that I ought to at least give some. (Those of us reading online articles about applied ethical puzzles are probably particularly susceptible to this vice.)

There are real, difficult, and complicated questions here. But just because some of the cases are difficult, does not mean all of them are. And sometimes there are clear cases that require us to stand up and sacrifice for the cause of justice.

The Ethics of Escapism (Pt. 2): Two Kinds of Escape

photograph of business man with his head buried in the sand

Shortly before Labor Day this year, polling data of the American workforce indicated that a majority (58%) of employees are experiencing some form of burnout. Not only was this an increase from the early days of the pandemic (when the number was around 45%), but over a third of respondents directly referenced COVID-19 as a cause of their increased stress. Reports on everyone from “essential” workers, to parents, to healthcare professionals and more indicate that the effects of the coronavirus are not merely limited to physical symptoms. Ironically, while the steps taken to limit COVID-19’s physical reach have been largely effective (when properly practiced), those same steps (in particular, self-imposed isolation) may be simultaneously contributing to a burgeoning mental health crisis, particularly in light of additional social pressures like widespread financial ruin, state-sanctioned racial injustices, and a vitriolic election season.

Indeed, 2020 has not been an easy year.

Nearly a century ago, J.R.R. Tolkien — creator of Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, and the whole of Middle-Earth — explained how fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings not only offer an “outrageous” form of “Escape” from the difficulties people encounter in the lives, but that this Escape can be “as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic.” In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien asks, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” It is true that Escape from reality can sometimes be irresponsible and even immoral (for more on this, see Marko Mavrovic’s recent article), but Tolkien reminds us to avoid confusing “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” — the problems of the latter need not apply to the former.

There are at least two ways we can distinguish between Tolkien’s two kinds of Escape: epistemically (rooted in what someone seeks to escape) and morally (concerning one’s motivations for escaping anything at all). Consider how a person might respond to the NFL’s decision to highlight a message of social justice during its games this season: if they are displeased with such displays because, as Salena Zito explains, they “are tired of politics infecting everything they do” and “ just want to enjoy a game without being lectured,” then we might describe their escape as a matter of escaping from information, perspectives, and conversations that others take to be salient. Depending on how commonly someone engages in such a practice, this could encourage the crystallization of their own biases into an “epistemic bubble” where they end up never (or only quite rarely) hearing from someone who doesn’t share their opinions. Not only can this prevent people from learning about the world, but the “excessive self-confidence” that epistemic bubbles engender can lead to a prideful ignorance about reality that threatens a person’s epistemic standing on all sorts of issues.

If, however, someone instead wants to avoid “being lectured at” while watching a football game because they wish to escape from the moral imperatives embedded within the critiques of the lecture (or, more accurately, the slogan, symbol, chant, or the like), then this is not simply an epistemic escape from information, but an escape from moral inquiry and confrontation. Failing to care about a potential moral wrong (and seeking to avoid thinking about it) is, in itself, an additional moral wrong (just imagine your response to someone ignoring their neighbor trapped in a house fire because they “just wanted to watch football”). In its worst forms, this is an escape from the responsibility of caring for the experiences, needs, and rights of others, regardless of how inconvenient it might be to care about such things (in the middle of a football game or elsewhere). Nic Bommarito has argued that being a virtuous person simply is a matter of caring about moral goods in a manner that manifests such caring by instantiating it in particular ways; much like the people who passed by the injured Samaritan on the road, escaping from reminders that we should care about others cannot be morally justified simply by selfish desires for entertainment.

Both of these are examples of Tolkien’s Flight of the Deserter: someone who has a responsibility to learn about, participate in, and defend the members of their society is choosing to escape — both epistemically and morally — from reminders of the duties incumbent upon their roles as social agents. But this is different from the Escape of the Prisoner who simply desires a temporary reprieve to unwind after a stressful day. In the absence of immediately pressing issues (like, say, your neighbor trapped in a house fire), it seems perfectly acceptable to take some time to relax, de-stress, and recharge your emotional reserves. Indeed, this seems like the essence of “self-care.”

For example, the early weeks of the first anti-pandemic lockdowns happened to coincide with the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a Nintendo game where players calmly build and tend a small island filled with cartoon animals. For a variety of reasons, quarantined players latched on to the peaceful video game, finding in it a cathartic opportunity to simply relax and relieve the stress mounting from the outside world; months later, the popularity (and profitability) of Animal Crossing has yet to wane. You can imagine the surprise, then, when this gamified Escape of the Prisoner was invaded by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, who elected to offer virtual signs to players wanting to adorn their island in support of the Democratic candidate for president. Although it would seem an exaggeration to call this a “lecture,” insofar as someone complains about “just wanting to play a game” without being confronted with political ads, there seems to be nothing morally wrong with criticizing (or electing to avoid) Biden’s campaign tactic — probably because there is no inherent obligation to care about a politician’s attempt to get elected (in the same way that there is a duty to care for fellow creatures in need).

So, when thinking about the ethics of escape, it is important to distinguish what kind of escape we mean. Attempts to escape from our proper moral obligations (a Flight of the Deserter) will often amount to ignorant or shameful abdications of our moral responsibilities to care for each other. On the other hand, attempts to (temporarily) escape from the often-difficult burdens we bear, both by doing our duties in public society and simply by quarantining ourselves at home, will amount to taking care of the needs of our own finitude — Tolkien’s Escape of the Prisoner.

In short, just as we should care about others, we should also care for ourselves.


Part III – “Searching for the Personal when Everything Is Political” by Meredith McFadden

Part I – “The Ethics of Escapism” by Marko Mavrovich

The Ethics of Escapism (Pt. 1)

photograph of Green Bay Packers stadium lightly populated before game

The NFL will imprint “End Racism” and “It takes all of us” in the end zones of stadiums in lieu of team logos. NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell stated that “the NFL stands with the Black community players, clubs and fans confronting systemic racism,” a commendable sentiment. The NFL will also allow coaches and officials to wear patches embroidered with “social justice phrases or names of victims of systemic racism.” Many coaches have signalled their support for the league’s latest policies and its general shift towards allowing sociopolitical issues into the game. Adam Gase and the entire coaching staff of the New York Jets will wear “Black Lives Matter” throughout the 2020 season. Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, used this summer’s protests to speak with his team about social justice while also calling out the league’s lack of diversity. Even Bill Belichick, who is famously averse to “off-field distractions,” has welcomed these social justice conversations into the locker room. The NFL is but one example of the invasion of sociopolitical movements into entertainment.

The politically blank pages of one’s life are disappearing. No longer can one turn on late-night television to escape politics. No longer can one watch post-game interviews without being reminded of the social discord. No longer are Academy Award acceptance speeches devoid of political advocacy. These spaces are politicized. While late-night talk show hosts, athletes, and actors have undoubtedly revealed their politics and championed social values in the past, such revelations were notable because they were atypical. Now, they are the norm. As comedy writer Blayr Austin notes, “There’s never a moment reprieve from the chaos of news.”

Perhaps this transformation of those previously unscathed spaces of entertainment ought to be celebrated. There are at least three reasons to think so. Firstly, the entertainers — athletes, musicians, actors, and business personalities — are members of society, too. It may be unfair to expect them to silo their personal political preferences from their public work so that some of their fans can enjoy an escape from the so-called “chaos of the news.” But while entertainers are not entirely removed from society’s ills, they enjoy a comfortable arm’s length distance from it and the everyday reality of average civilians. Secondly, entertainers may be necessary catalysts for the desired change. But of course, the flipside is also true: entertainers may be necessary catalysts for undesired change (See my piece, “Novak Djokovic and the Expectations for Celebrity Morality”). Thirdly, some may argue that their silence will only serve to perpetuate the social ills debated today — systemic racism and racism injustice come to mind. But using this argument as a reason to compel entertainers to be political would obligate entertainers to “speak out” and raise awareness on a whole host of ills without any sense of how the ills should be prioritized, while also assuming that the classification of some social developments as “ills” is always beyond doubt. Ending racism and sexism are goals we might all agree on, but are inclusion riders equally unobjectionable? This third reason is also problematic because it conflates permissive conditions with obligatory participation. While silence on a social ill may permit the ill to continue unabated by criticism, silence is not an instrument of enacting that ill. In other words, silence is not the act that propagates the ill — even if it permits the ill to occur — which is an important distinction to understand when discerning proper responses to social developments.

But what about the fans who may find this blending of social justice and politics with entertainment suffocating (even if they do are sympathetic to the cause)? Is it wrong for them to feel that way? Is it wrong for a fan to seek a 3-hour reprieve from the omnipresent sociopolitical tumult by watching football? There are at least three reasons to think so.

Firstly, the ability to escape from the omnipresent sociopolitical tumult is not a luxury that every individual enjoys, especially if that tumult intimately affects an individual; therefore, the escapist fan should not want such an escape or, at least, the vehicle of entertainment (e.g. the NFL) should not address his or her escapist desire (e.g. not be reminded of the unjustified police killings and destructive demonstrations while watching the game). Yet the principle that underlies this reason would imply behavioral and attitudinal changes that others would find ridiculous. I should not complain to my landlord about the malfunctioning A/C in my apartment because, after all, some people suffer in far hotter climates without it. I should not want to go to the gym to clear my head because some people do not have access to gyms or other means of clearing their head. These examples are absurd, but so, too, is the argument.

Secondly, the fan should not be critical of the blending of social justice and politics with entertainment suffocating because he or she is not obligated to watch. Social media plays host to some version of the following exchange: “I don’t like how political football/the Tonight Show/the Oscars has gotten!” which is invariably followed by the retort: “Well, you don’t have to watch!” But of course, such a statement does not resolve the conflict. Suppose the conflicted spectator only watches professional football and finds pleasure in the 21 weekends of games from September to February. To tell him or her “You don’t have to watch!” is akin to saying “You don’t have to participate in your favorite hobby/interest/game/mode of necessary relaxation!”

Lastly, the fan should be held to the same standard as the entertainer: to be silent — to escape — only serves to perpetuate the existing ills that have fomented the never-ending barrage of news and the social fractures, therefore it is wrong to seek the reprieve. Do not sports, late-night talk shows, and award shows celebrating cinematic achievement pale in comparison to the problems yet to be resolved in our community? Maybe so. But does this mean that one is wrong to seek a political-free zone of entertainment? If the answer is yes, then it seems we must always be on-watch, always be advocating, always be consuming the news, always be active in resolving all of society’s ills, and always be denying ourselves an escape — however short, however trivial — from our contentious, divisive, and oft-disappointing reality.


Part II – “Two Kinds of Escape” by A.G. Holdier

Part III – “Searching for the Personal when Everything Is Political” by Meredith McFadden

Rap Feuds and Moral Standing

"Pusha T," by SImon Abrams licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rap music– it is a genre of sound that manipulates words in such a clever manner that since the birth of hip hop in 1973, it has enthralled audiences across the globe. As rap music evolved, it became an outlet where MCs would address personal issues and vendettas with others, but especially with other rappers. When rappers feud, they hurl the most vicious insults at one another through their songs in hope that their opponent will no longer possess the will to rebuke them. Rappers often go to great lengths in feuds with other MCs, even going as far as digging to find personal information. Personal matters being brought into rap feuds has often resulted in strained relationships between former friends, violence, and even death. The lengths that some rappers go to shame other MCs has always been in question, but the inquiry has reared its head once again since another rap feud has surfaced, and it’s been brought up by none other than Drake, believed by many to currently be on top in the rap game. Drake’s stance on rap feuds and the results of rap feuds from the past has raised the question of whether the MCs who engage in them should attack their opponent on such a personal level.

Continue reading “Rap Feuds and Moral Standing”