Back to Prindle Institute

When Is Someone Responsible for Not Acting?

photograph of empty chair with "Lifeguard On Duty" sign displayed

A recent law in Minnesota legalized edible marijuana for those over the age of 21 with support from both Republicans and Democrats. While this new law is perhaps unsurprising to many locals and lawmakers, it came as a surprise to one Republican who voted for the bill. Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler claims that he was not aware of what he was voting for. In fact, he called for the legislature to repeal the new law, a call that was shot down as quickly as it was raised.

Abeler’s claim, that he was not aware of what he was voting for, might be met with genuine suspicion. It’s presumably a part of Abeler’s job to know what he is voting for, and such a claim might be disingenuous. But, for the sake of argument, I would like to consider Abeler’s claim to be genuine.

If Abeler was not aware that his vote would support the legalization of edible marijuana, is he still responsible for his vote?

Abeler’s claim effectively amounts to a denial of one if not both of the classical conditions of moral responsibility: (i) awareness and (ii) voluntariness. Classically, individuals are responsible for an action only if both of these conditions are met. Abeler’s claim is a denial of awareness concerning the specific content of the bill. And his claim is a denial of voluntariness with respect to support for the specifics about which he was unaware. Indeed, assuming Abeler’s claim is genuine, how could Abeler willfully vote to legalize marijuana edibles if he wasn’t aware of this aspect of the bill?

This particular question is an application of the following general question:

Is an individual responsible for something the same individual fails to do?

In philosophy and law, this problem is known as the problem of negligent omissions (see here for an overview in law, and here for an excellent piece in philosophy).

Pinning down when a lack of action becomes a failure of action is tricky. For example, we generally think that if a child is drowning and there is an individual nearby who does not act, this individual is culpable in some sense. The individual ought to have acted and did not — there is a negligent omission. However, we do not generally think the individual is culpable if he is not able to save the child. For example, if the individual is a couple of miles away and unaware of the child drowning, he does not seem to be culpable for not acting.

So, under what conditions is an individual responsible for a failure to act or a failure to act knowledgeably? Generally, there are three conditions. An individual is responsible for an omission if the same individual:

1. Is able to act;
2. Is obliged to act;
3. Is aware of the relevant events and obligation.

To see how these conditions are important, consider the following example. Sylvia is a lifeguard at the local beach. Her job is to save people from drowning and to alert people about the weather conditions by placing the correctly colored flags on the beach. For example, if there is a riptide and it is dangerous to swim in the ocean, she is to place a red flag on the beach. As it happens, an individual begins to drown. Sylvia jumps to the rescue and successfully saves the individual.

Notice that, among the individuals on the beach, it is Sylvia’s job to save the person drowning. The other swimmers do not have the training. And, even if they do, they are not obligated in the same way that Sylvia is obligated to save the person drowning.

Imagine now that Silvia fails to act and the person drowns. Reasonably, she is responsible in some sense. Moreover, imagine the outrage if Sylvia were to turn to a surfer and exclaim, “Why didn’t you save him?” The surfer can legitimately say that he could not have responded because he does not have the proper training. Even if the surfer were to have the training, he would not be obligated to save the individual in terms of his role or job (of course, the surfer still has the more general obligation to help those in need).

The example shows how Sylvia is responsible for her failure to act. She has the ability (the proper training), the obligation in virtue of her role, and the awareness of the event and obligation.

When she fails to save the drowning individual, her omission is negligent.

Now, Abler’s omission is a bit more subtle. He claims to have not voted knowledgeably. He acted, and yet he failed to act with an awareness and knowledge of the bill for which he voted. To see how Abeler is responsible for this omission, let us revisit the lifeguard. Among Sylvia’s various responsibilities is the task to alert the beachgoers of the swimming conditions. Imagine that she raises a yellow flag to alert the people that there is a medium hazard to swimming. However, Sylvia did not take into consideration that the tide is now becoming high tide. This collection of conditions will cause a riptide — Sylvia should have raised a red flag to alert the beachgoers to not swim. Regardless of whether the beachgoers swim, we have a situation where Sylvia acted and did not act knowledgeably. She is responsible for her failure of knowledge because it is her job to account for the water conditions.

Abeler is likewise obligated to know what he votes for in virtue of his role. So, when he fails to vote and when he fails to vote knowledgeably, he is still responsible. His omission is negligent.

All is well at the intuitive level. It seems intuitively correct to ascribe responsibility to Sylvia and Abeler. The conditions are articulated, work together, and have common examples to back them up. But something worrying has happened.

If we can ascribe responsibility for an omission, and more specifically, omission of knowledgeable action, we seem to lose one of the classical conditions of responsibility: awareness.

One way to keep the awareness condition is to maintain that Abeler is generally aware of his responsibilities as a state senator. When Abeler assumed his position, he was aware of his decision and obligated himself to read certain documents. Thus, when he enters his office on voting day and fails to read the bill thoroughly, he has already fulfilled the awareness condition in an important sense. So too with our lifeguard. When Sylvia signs on the dotted line to become a lifeguard, it obligates her to act and be aware in certain ways.

It may also seem that the voluntariness condition is in peril. However, we can offer the same answer that applies to the awareness condition: Abeler voluntarily took on the role of a lawmaker.

There is more to be said about negligent omissions, and there are more ways to pair the classical conditions of responsibility with negligent omissions. What is clear, however, is that Abeler is still responsible for his vote.

Can Machines Be Morally Responsible?

photograph of robot in front of chalkboard littered with question marks

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, we find ourselves relying more and more on the decision-making of neural nets and other complex AI systems. If the machine can think and decide in ways that cannot be easily traced back to the decision of one or multiple programmers, who do we hold responsible if, for instance, the AI decision-making reflects the biases and prejudices that we have as human beings? What if someone is hurt by the machine’s discrimination?

To answer this question, we need to know what makes someone or something responsible. The machine certainly causes the processing it performs and the decisions it makes, but is the AI system a morally responsible agent?

Could artificial intelligence have the basic abilities required to be an appropriate target of blame?

Some philosophers think that the ability that is core to moral responsibility is control or choice. While sometimes this ability is spelled out in terms of the freedom to do otherwise, let’s set aside questions of whether the AI system is determined or undetermined. There are some AI systems that do seem to be determined by fixed laws of nature, but there are others that use quantum computing and are indeterminate, i.e., they won’t produce the same answers even if given the same inputs under the same conditions. Whether you think that determinism or indeterminism is required for responsibility, there will be at least some AI systems that will fit that requirement. Assume for what follows that the AI system in question is determined or undetermined, according to your philosophical preferences.

Can some AI systems exercise control or engage in decision-making? Even though AI decision-making processes will not, as of this moment, directly mirror the structure of decision-making in human brains, AI systems are still able to take inputs and produce a judgment based on those inputs. Furthermore, some AI decision-making algorithms outcompete human thought on the same problems. It seems that if we were able to get a complex enough artificial intelligence that could make its own determinations that did not reduce to its initial human-made inputs and parameters, we might have a plausible autonomous agent who is exercising control in decision-making.

The other primary capacity that philosophers take to be required for responsibility is the ability to recognize reasons. If someone couldn’t understand what moral principles required or the reasons they expressed, then it would be unfair to hold them responsible. It seems that sophisticated AI can at least assign weights to different reasons and understand the relations between them (including whether certain reasons override others). In addition, AI that are trained on images of a certain medical condition can come to recognize the common features that would identify someone as having that condition. So, AI can come to identify reasons that were not explicitly plugged into them in the first place.

What about the recognition of moral reasons? Shouldn’t AI need to have a gut feeling or emotional reaction to get the right moral answer?

While some philosophers think that moral laws are given by reason alone, others think that feelings like empathy or compassion are necessary to be moral agents. Some worry that without the right affective states, the agent will wind up being a sociopath or psychopath, and these conditions seem to inhibit responsibility. Others think that even psychopaths can be responsible, so long as they can understand moral claims. At the moment, it seems that AI cannot have the same emotional reactions that we do, though there is work to develop AI that can.

Do AI need to be conscious to be responsible? Insofar as we allow that humans can recognize reasons unconsciously and that they can be held responsible for those judgments, it doesn’t seem that consciousness is required for reasons-recognition. For example, I may not have the conscious judgment that a member of a given race is less hard-working, but that implicit bias may still affect my hiring practices. If we think it’s appropriate to hold me responsible for that bias, then it seems that consciousness isn’t required for responsibility. It is a standing question as to whether some AI might develop consciousness, but either way, it seems plausible that an AI system could be responsible at least with regard to the capacity of reasons-recognition. Consciousness may be required for choice on some models, though other philosophers allow that we can be responsible for automatic, unconscious, yet intentional actions.

What seems true is that it is possible that there will at some point be an artificial intelligence that meets all of the criteria for moral responsibility, at least as far as we can practically tell. When that happens, it appears that we should hold the artificial intelligence system morally responsible, so long as there is no good reason to discount responsibility — the mere fact that the putative moral agent was artificial wouldn’t undermine responsibility. Instead, a good reason might look like evidence that the AI can’t actually understand what morality requires it to do, or maybe that the AI can’t make choices in the way that responsibility requires. Of course, we would need to figure out what it looks like to hold an AI system responsible.

Could we punish the AI? Would it understand blame and feel guilt? What about praise or rewards? These are difficult questions that will depend on what capacities the AI has.

Until that point, it’s hard to know who to blame and how much to blame them. What do we do if an AI that doesn’t meet the criteria for responsibility has a pattern of discriminatory decision-making? Return to our initial case. Assume that the AI’s decision-making can’t be reduced to the parameters set by its multiple creators, who themselves appear without fault. Additionally, the humans who have relied on the AI have affirmed the AI’s judgments without recognizing the patterns of discrimination. Because of these AI-assisted decisions, several people have been harmed. Who do we hold responsible?

One option would be to have there be a liability fund attached to the AI, such that in the event of discrimination, those affected can be compensated. There is some question here as to who would pay for the fund, whether that be the creators or the users or both. Another option would be to place the responsibility on the person relying on the AI to aid in their decision-making. The idea here would be that the buck stops with the human decision-maker and that the human decision-maker needs to be aware of possible biases and check them. A final option would be to place the responsibility on the AI creators, who, perhaps without fault created the discriminatory AI, but took on the burden of that potential consequence by deciding to enter the AI business in the first place. They might be required to pay a fine or take measures to retrain the AI to avoid the discrimination in the first place.

The right answer, for now, is probably some combination of the three that can recognize the shared decision-making happening between multiple agents and machines. Even if AI systems become responsible agents someday, shared responsibility will likely remain.

Facebook Groups and Responsibility

image of Facebook's masthead displayed on computer screen

After the Capitol riot in January, many looked to the role that social media played in the organization of the event. A good amount of blame has been directed at Facebook groups: such groups have often been the target of those looking to spread misinformation as there is little oversight within them. Furthermore, if set to “private,” these groups run an especially high risk of becoming echo chambers, as there is much less opportunity for information to flow freely within them. Algorithms that Facebook uses to populate your feed were also part of the problem: more popular groups are more likely to be recommended to others, which led to some of the more pernicious groups getting a much broader range of influence than they would have otherwise. As noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, while it was not long ago that Facebook saw groups as the heart of the platform, abuses of the feature has forced the company to make some significant changes into how they are run.

The spread of misinformation in Facebook groups is a complex and serious problem. Some proposals have been made to try to ameliorate it: Facebook itself implemented a new policy in which groups that were the biggest troublemakers – civics groups and health groups – would not be promoted during the first three weeks of their existence. Others have called for more aggressive proposals. For instance, a recent article in Wired suggested that:

“To mitigate these problems, Facebook should radically increase transparency around the ownership, management, and membership of groups. Yes, privacy was the point, but users need the tools to understand the provenance of the information they consume.”

A worry with Facebook groups, as well as a lot of communication online generally, is that it can be difficult to tell what the source of information is, as one might post information anonymously or under the guise of a username. Perhaps with more information about who was in charge of a group, then, one would be able to make a better decision as to whether to accept the information that one finds within it.

Are you part of the problem? If you’re actively infiltrating groups with the intent of spreading misinformation, or building bot armies to game Facebook’s recommendation system, then the answer is clearly yes. I’m guessing that you, gentle reader, don’t fall into that category. But perhaps you are a member of a group in which you’ve seen misinformation swirling about, even though you yourself didn’t post it. What is the extent of your responsibility if you’re part of a group that spreads misinformation?

Here’s one answer: you are not responsible at all. After all, if you didn’t post it, then you’re not responsible for what it says, or if anyone else believes it. For example, let’s say you’re interested in local healthy food options, and join the Healthy Food News Facebook group (this is not a real group, as far as I know). You might then come across some helpful tips and recipes, but also may come across people sharing their views that new COVID-19 vaccines contain dangerous chemicals that mutate your DNA (they don’t). This might not be interesting to you, and you might think that it’s bunk, but you didn’t post it, so it’s not your problem.

This is a tempting answer, but I think it’s not quite right. The reason is because of how Facebook groups work, and how people are inclined to find information plausible online. As noted above, sites like Facebook employ various algorithms to determine which information to recommend to its users. A big factor that goes into such suggestions is how popular a topic or group is: the more engagement a post gets, the more likely it’s going to show up in your news feed, and the more popular a group is, the more likely it will be recommended to others. What this means is that mere membership in such a group will contribute to that group’s popularity, and thus potentially to the spread of the misinformation it contains.

Small actions within such a group can also have potentially much bigger effects. For instance, in many cases we put little thought into “liking” or reacting positively to a post: perhaps we read it quickly and it coheres with our worldview, so we click a thumbs-up, and don’t really give it much thought afterwards. From our point of view, liking a post does not mean that we wholeheartedly believe it, and it seems that there is a big difference between liking something and posting it yourself. However, these kinds of engagements influence the extent to which that post will be seen by others, and so if you’re not liking in a conscientious way, you may end up contributing to the spread of bad information.

What does this say about your responsibilities as a member of a Facebook group? There are no doubt many such groups that are completely innocuous, where people do, in fact, only share helpful recipes or perhaps even discuss political issues in a calm and reasoned way. So it’s not as though you necessarily have an obligation to quit all of your Facebook groups, or to get off the platform altogether. However, given that otherwise innocent actions like clicking “like” on a post can have much worse effects in groups in which misinformation is shared, and that being a member of such a group at all can contribute to its popularity and thus the extent to which it can be suggested to others means that if you find yourself a member of such a group, you should leave it.

Is Canceling All Student Debt Fair? Yes. Here’s Why.

photograph of college graduation cap laying on top of pile of cash

In a recent interview, president-elect Joe Biden explicitly stated he intends to tackle student debt by proposing some relief to the borrowers. This statement gave progressives renewed hope of achieving one of their most dear and more radical objectives: canceling all student debt. But this possibility has reignited debate with arguments both for and against it.

“It’s Regressive”

Some argue that a reason against canceling student debt is that it’s regressive — meaning, it would disproportionately help the rich. Critics allege that “students from rich families tend to borrow more than students from poor families, since wealthy students disproportionately choose expensive private colleges where even rich families must resort to borrowing.” But this argument is not as clear-cut as it sounds, for three reasons.

It’s Misrepresentative

To start, as others have argued, “information on outstanding debt is based on where borrowers are after they have financed their college education, not where they started out.” In other words, the amount of debt that one takes counts as part of one’s own financial reserves. So of course if one takes on higher loans, then if this figures as part of one’s own wealth, then they will appear as richer. Think about home ownership: when one buys a home, the home counts as part of one’s own financial assets. If the home is worth 1 million dollars, then it will appear that the owner is worth 1 million dollars. This is the case even if the owner has a mortgage (which is debt). So, technically, the owner still does not own the house (if they are paying the mortgage) but the house nevertheless counts as part of their wealth. From this is clear that the regressive argument does not hold up, and is possibly misrepresentative.

It Lacks Context

But even if the regressive argument was on the right track (it is not, but let’s assume that it is), it seems to lack context as these arguments tend to discount the meaning that money (and consequently, debt) has depending on which economic community one belongs to. In this sense, canceling all student debt will undoubtedly benefit low-income communities. Saying that it will benefit the rich more is not a good reason for setting aside the policy, and confuses the current situation. Which leads me to the last point:

It’s Misleading 

There is something to say about the term ‘regressive’. To say that a policy is regressive usually indicates that not only it will give an advantage to people who are well-off but that it will be also punitive towards people that are not well-off. Taxing cigarettes for example is regressive because it primarily targets, and disadvantages, low-income communities which are the ones, as it has been pointed out, that tend to smoke the most. But canceling student loans would not hurt low-income communities, if anything, it will benefit them. So saying that the initiative is regressive is misleading.

“It Won’t Help the Economy Recover”

One reason to erase all student debt, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, is that it will stimulate the economy. However, some have suggested that canceling student debt will not necessarily yield that desired result. The reason why is that “forgiving student loans spreads stimulus out over time instead of pushing it all out at once because it eliminates a monthly payment. A borrower who owes $200 a month would get the same amount of relief this month, in the middle of an economic downturn, as they would when the crisis is over.” I take it that the rationale behind this claim is that it would be better to receive a substantive stimulus once, rather than receiving a smaller debt forgiveness spread over time. While the former will make a difference in people’s lives in terms of whether they spend it, a small debt forgiveness will not necessarily do that. If we are concerned about long-term solutions this argument seems right: better more money now then less money over time. But it is not clear that student debt forgiveness will yield less money. For example, a stimulus, let’s say $1200, received once will be outweighed by a smaller debt forgiveness that spreads out over years as it will eventually amount to more money.    

Personal Responsibility vs Structural Causes

Many of these claims are motivated by a misunderstanding as arguments against canceling student debt seem to hinge on the sharp contrast drawn between personal responsibility and structural causes. As others have rightly pointed out, those in favor of canceling student debt often attribute the crisis to “societal factors”, while those who side against erasing student debt often cite reasons that pertain to personal responsibility. The latter argument tends to emphasize that if one chooses to go to college and to take a loan, then it is one’s responsibility to pay off such a loan. Yet, this claim does not take into consideration that even granting that one does choose to go to college, societal factors – which go beyond individuals’ control – have dangerously evolved in ways that have shaped the student debt crisis. Among these factors are disproportionate tuition fees that do not reflect inflation, instead rising at twice the rate. This fact alone counts against the personal responsibility argument, as individuals themselves can hardly bend the inflation rate to their needs, but college cost is not the only thing that got more expensive. Healthcare premiums as well as housing costs rose, and that adds to the societal causes that have contributed to making student debt a crisis.

Finally, it’s also worth reflecting on how the opportunities that college education provides have evolved. In a society where more and more jobs require college education for jobs that did not before, it’s fair to question how “free” the choice to attend college is given that the lack of a degree rules out so many more opportunities than it did in the past.

“Don’t Get Loans You Cannot Repay”

But even if one is somewhat obliged to go to college in order to have the degree needed to do the job, another argument goes, then it is one’s own personal responsibility not to take loans one knows it will struggle to repay. Yet this line of reasoning, much like the one on personal responsibility above, discounts the role that predatory lending practices have played in shaping current circumstances. Those who take on student loans do not have access to the same escapes that those who are in debt usually have. One example is that, contrary to debt incurred due to medical bills for instance, the rules for easing student debt are considerably more restrictive. For example, in order to declare bankruptcy to ease student debt, borrowers are required to prove that repaying the debt poses an “undue struggle” on them and their dependents. If that was not bad enough, some loan providers exert predatory schemes that put students in particularly precarious financial positions. In 2017, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused loan provider Navient of giving out subprime loans to borrowers that in some instances the company predicted to have “as high as 92%” chance of defaulting. One cannot blame the students for not being vigilant enough to fall into the traps of predatory lending as this would be akin to victim-blaming. The students, even if not vigilant, do not commit any unlawful activity in taking on debts that they cannot sustain. Predatory lenders instead do. Thus, the attention should not be on the borrowed, but rather on the company themselves that should be held accountable for their irresponsible conduct.

Why Now?

But even admitting that student debt can and should be canceled, why should it be our priority now? As Carson Lappetito, president of Sunwest Bank, has claimed, our efforts should be targeting “the restaurants, hotels, front-line workers that are being most heavily impacted” by the pandemic. But canceling student debt of course does not imply that one should not help those communities that have been severely disadvantaged by pandemic; it simply means that, if anything, one should focus on both: impacted hotels, restaurants, front-line workers, and those whose lives continue to be upended by debt. The implication should be that by giving to one we are not taking from others.

One reason for easing student debt now is that there is a president-elect who is open to the possibility, and could do so simply through executive order. Even though some have pointed out that easing student debt through an executive order might not be ideal policy because it would “would invite a deluge of lawsuits,” the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School carefully examined the issue and defended its legality, concluding that the “broad or categorical debt cancellation would be a lawful and permissible exercise of the Secretary’s authority under existing law.”

Canceling all student debt is an idea that is not new, nor it is the first time being debated. There are many arguments that speak in favor of it, and those against canceling all student debt are not, on reflection, as solid as they may seem. From a moral standpoint, as Roxane Gay as argued, “[a]s a public, we owe a debt to one another — the debt of belonging to a community. It’s time that debt was paid.”

Liability and Luck

photograph of lone firefighter standing before small wildfire blaze

In the unlikely event that you have not yet experienced your daily dose of despair concerning the fate of humanity, then I’d highly encourage you to read Elizabeth Weil’s ProPublica piece “They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?” The article makes two basic points. 1) Extensive controlled burns would be an effective precautionary strategy that would prevent recurring megafires. 2) There are political and financial incentives which trap us into a reactionary rather than precautionary fire strategies.

There are clearly lots of perverse incentives at play, but one part of the article was especially interesting:

“How did we get here? Culture, greed, liability laws and good intentions gone awry. There are just so many reasons not to pick up the drip torch and start a prescribed burn even though it’s the safe, smart thing to do. . . . Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. ‘There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,’ Beasley said. ‘So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.'”

It is risky to engage in controlled burns. Things can go wrong, and when they do go wrong it could be pretty bad, someone could lose their home, maybe even lose their life. Of course, it is far riskier, in one sense, to not engage in controlled burns. So why, then, our incentives set up the way they are?

At least two different explanations are likely at play.

Explanation 1: Action vs Inaction. First, in general, we are more responsible for actions than for inactions. The priest who ‘passed by the other side’ of a man left for dead did something terrible, but did not do something as terrible as the thieves who beat the man up in the first place. As a society we jail murders, we don’t jail the charitably apathetic, even if the apathetic are failing to save lives they could save.

And indeed, this point does have an appropriate corollary when talking about fire suppression. I am not responsible for houses burning in California — this is true even though last spring I could have bought a plane ticket, flown to California, and started burning stuff. Had I done so, likely things would have gone terribly wrong, and in that case I really would have been responsible for whatever property I had destroyed. This seems appropriate, it could be catastrophic if my incentives were structured such that I was punished for not starting vigilante fires.

Elizabeth Anscombe gives us a similar example. If the on-duty pilot and I are both asleep in our cabins, then we are doing the very same thing when our ship hits an iceberg. Yet it was the pilot, and not I, who sunk the ship. Indeed, had I, a random passenger, had tried to navigate the ship we would have absolutely held me responsible when something goes wrong.

So, what is the principle here? Is it that amateurs are specially responsible for actions? No, because we can also identify cases where we indemnify amateurs for their actions. Perhaps the best example here is good Samaritan laws. These laws protect untrained people, like myself, if we make a mistake when trying to render emergency first aid.

What is really going on is that we don’t want passengers trying to navigate ships. Nor do we want aspiring philosophers attempting unsupervised controlled burns in California. But we do want pilots to navigate ships, and we do want burn bosses attempting controlled burns. As such, we should construct incentives which encourage that, and protect people from culpability even if things occasionally go wrong.

Explanation 2: Causal Links. Second, we trace responsibility through causality. Because you caused a house to burn down you are, at least partially, responsible for that damage. The problem is, it is almost always easier to trace causality to actions than to inactions. We can identify exactly which active burning causes damage. We can easily say, “the first you started on February 14th destroyed these two house.” It’s much harder to say “the not burning that you didn’t do on February 14th was what allowed the fire to get out of hand.”

And indeed, I think probably we can’t really hold people responsible for any particular failure to burn. We can hold people responsible for how much controlled burning they can do in general, but we can’t trace causal paths to hold them responsible for any particular bad result of inaction. Indeed, it would be unfair to do so, no burn boss can’t foresee when a particular failure to burn will destroy a house (in the way they can sometimes foresee when burning in a particular area might destroy a house). This creates a problem though. Because we can’t hold people fully responsible for their inaction, that means we must hold people disproportionately responsible for actions, thus perversely incentivizing inaction.

This also parallels our interpersonal lives. For example, we generally want people willing to think for themselves. But we are also far more likely to condemn people for reaching terrible views they came up with themselves than for failing to recognize what is wrong with the conventional view. This can create perverse incentives, however. It might really be true that we are justly responsible for coming to terrible conclusions, but because it is so hard to hold people responsible for the majority view it might be important to forgive even egregious mistakes to keep incentives favoring original thought.

So here is the general point. Assessing responsibility is far more complicated than just establishing whether someone played a causal role. Sometimes holding people responsible for things they really should not have done can create perversely disincentivize people from taking risks we want them willing to take. The fires in California give one clear example of this, but the point generalizes to our lives as well.

Against Abstinence-Based COVID-19 Policies

black-and-white photograph of group of students studying outside

There are at least two things that are true about abstinence from sexual activity:

  1. If one wishes to avoid pregnancy and STD-transmission, abstinence is the most effective choice, and
  2. Abstinence is insufficient as a policy category if policy-makers wish to effectively promote pregnancy-avoidance and to prevent STD-transmission within a population.

I take it that (1) is straightforward: if someone wishes to avoid the risks of an activity (including sex), then abstention from that activity is the best way to do so. By (2), I simply mean that prescribing abstinence from sexual activity (and championing its effectiveness) is often not enough to convince people to actually choose to avoid sex. For example, the data on the relative effectiveness of various sex-education programs is consistent and clear: those programs that prioritize (primarily or exclusively) abstinence-only lessons about sex are regularly the least effective programs for actually reducing teen pregnancies and the like. Instead, pragmatic approaches to sex education that comprehensively discuss abstinence alongside topics like contraceptive-use are demonstrably more effective at limiting many of the most negative potential outcomes of sexual activity. Of course, some might argue in response that, even if they are less effective, abstinence-only programs are nevertheless preferable on moral grounds, given that they emphasize moral decision-making for their students.

It is an open question whether or not policy-makers should try to impose their own moral beliefs onto the people affected by their policies, just as it is debatable that good policy-making could somehow produce good people, but the importance of policy making based on evidence is inarguable. And the evidence strongly suggests that abstinence-based sex education does not accomplish the goals typically laid out by sex education programs. Regarding such courses, Laura Lindberg — co-author of a 2017 report in the Journal of Adolescent Health on the impact of “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage” (AOUM) sex ed programs in the US — argues that such an approach is “not just unrealistic…[but]…violates medical ethics and harms young people.”

In this article, I’m interested less in questions of sex education than I am in questions of responsibility for the outcomes of ineffective public policies. I think it’s uncontroversial to say that, in many cases of pregnancy, the people most responsible for creating a pregnancy (that results from sexual activity) are the sexual partners themselves. However, it also seems right to think that authority figures who knowingly enact policies that are severely unlikely to effectively prevent some undesirable outcome carry at least some responsibility for that resulting outcome (if it’s true that the outcome would have probably been prevented if the officials had implemented a different policy). I take it that this concern is ultimately what fuels both Lindberg’s criticism of AOUM programs and the widespread support for comprehensive sex-education methods.

Consider now the contemporary situation facing colleges and universities in the United States: despite the persistent spread of the coronavirus pandemic over the previous several months, many institutions of higher education have elected to resume face-to-face instruction in at least some capacity this fall. Across the country, university administrators have developed intricate policies to ensure the safety and security of their campus communities that could, in theory, prevent a need to eventually shift entirely to remote instructional methods. From mask mandates to on-campus testing and temperature checks to limited class sizes to hybrid course delivery models and more, colleges have demonstrated no shortage of creativity in crafting policies to preserve some semblance of normalcy this semester.

But these policies are failing — and we should not be surprised that this is so.

After only a week or two of courses resuming, many campuses (and the communities surrounding them) are already seeing spikes of COVID-19 cases and several universities have already been forced to alter their previous operating plans in response. After one week of classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill abruptly decided to shift to fully-remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, a decision mirrored by Michigan State University, and (at least temporarily, as of this writing) Notre Dame and Temple University. Others like the University of Iowa, the University of South Carolina, and the Ohio State University have simply pushed ahead with their initial plans, regardless of the rise in positive cases, but the feasible longevity of such an option is bleak. Indeed, as the semester continues to progress, it seems clear that many more colleges will be disrupted by a mid-semester shift, regardless of the policies that they had previously developed to prevent one.

This is, of course, unsurprising, given the realities of life on a college campus. Dormitories, dining halls, and Greek life houses are designed to encourage social gatherings and interactions of precisely the sort that coronavirus-prevention recommendations forbid. Furthermore, the expectations of many college students (fueled explicitly by official university marketing techniques) is that such social functions are a key element of the “college experience.” (And, of course, this is aggravated all the more by the general fearlessness commonly evidenced by 18-25 year-olds that provoke them into generally more risky behavior than other age groups.) Regardless of how many signs are put up in classrooms reminding people to wear masks and no matter the number of patronizing emails sent to chastise students (or local businesses) into “acting responsibly,” it is, at best, naive of university administrators to expect their student bodies to suddenly enter a pandemic-preventing mindset (at least at the compliance rates that would be necessary to actually protect the community as a whole).

Basically, on the whole, colleges have pursued COVID-19-prevention policies based on the irrational hope that their students would exercise precisely the sort of abstinence that college administrators know better than to expect (and, for years leading up to this spring, actively discouraged). As with abstinence-based sex education, two things are true here also:

  1. If one wishes to avoid spreading the coronavirus, constantly wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding social gathering are crucial behavioral choices, and
  2. Recommending (and even requiring upon pain of punishment) the behaviors described in (1) is insufficient as a policy category if university administrators wish to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus on their campuses.

We are already seeing the unfortunate truth of (2) grow more salient by the day.

And, as with sex education, on one level we can rightfully blame college students (and their choices to attend parties or to not wear masks) for these outbreaks on college campuses. But the administrators and other officials who insisted on opening those campuses in the first place cannot sensibly avoid responsibility for those choices or their consequences either. Just as with abstinence-only sex education programs, it seems right to hold officials responsible for policies whose implementation is wildly unlikely, no matter how effective those fanciful policies might be if people were to just follow the rules.

This seems especially true in this case given the (in one sense) higher stakes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the coronavirus is transmitted far more quickly and easily than STDs or pregnancies, it is even more crucial to create prevention strategies that are more likely to be successful; in a related way, it also makes tracking responsibility for the spread of the virus far more complicated. At least with a pregnancy, one can point to the people who chose to have sex as shouldering much of the responsibilty for the pregnancy itself; with COVID-19, a particular college student could follow every university policy perfectly and, nevertheless, contract the virus by simply coming into contact with a classmate who has not. In such a case, it seems like the responsible student can rightfully blame both her irresponsible classmate and the institution which created the conditions of her exposure by insisting that their campus open for business while knowingly opting for unrealistic policies.

Put differently: imagine how different sex education might look like if you could “catch” a pregnancy literally just by walking too close to other people. In such a world, simply preaching “abstinence!” would be even less defensible than it already is; nevertheless, that approach is not far from the current state of many COVID-19-prevention policies on college campuses. The only thing this kind of rhetoric ultimately protects is the institution’s legal liability (and even that is up for debate).

In early July, the University of Southern California announced that it would offer no in-person classes for its fall semester, electing instead for entirely remote course-delivery options. At the time, some responded to this announcement with ridicule, suggesting that it was a costly overreaction. Nevertheless, USC’s choice to ensure that its students, staff, and faculty be protected by barriers of distance has meant not only that its semester has been able to proceed as planned, but that the university has not been linked to the same level of case spikes as other institutions (though, even with such a move, outbreaks are bubbling).

As with so much about the novel coronavirus, it remains to be seen what the full extent of its spread will look like. But one thing is clear already: treating irresponsible college students as scapegoats for poorly-conceived policies that justified the risky move of opening (or mostly-opening) campuses is transparently wrong. It oversimplifies the complicated relationship of policy-makers and constituents, even as it misrepresents the nature of moral responsibility for public action, particularly on the part of those in charge. The adults choosing to attend college parties are indeed to blame for doing so, but those parties wouldn’t be happening at all if other adults had made different choices about what this semester was going to look like in the first place.

In short, if college administrators really expect abstinence to be an effective tool to combat COVID-19, then they should be the ones to use it by canceling events, closing campuses, and wrapping up this semester (and, potentially, the next) online.

The Case of Gabriel Fernandez: Social Work and Public Responsibility

View from street of a large concrete building with thousands of windows. The building is the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts building.

Content warning from the editor: This article contains descriptions of child abuse that might be upsetting to readers.

Recently, Netflix released a documentary series called The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which has become one of the most watched series on the platform. The documentary explores the death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was, over the course of a number of months, tortured and beaten to death by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauru Aguirre. Gabriel died in 2013.

Before Gabriel died, there was significant evidence, observed by many people in his life that severe abuse was occurring. Bruises at various stages of the healing process were visible all over his body. Witnesses observed what appeared to be burns from cigarettes being put out all over his shaved head. These burns were also at various stages of the healing process, suggesting that the torture had been taking place over a lengthy amount of time. At one point, Gabriel arrived at school with injuries all over his face. He reported to his teacher that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.

On May 24, 2013, Aguirre called 911. He claimed that Gabriel had fallen while playing with his siblings. It was immediately clear to responding officers that the severity of the young boy’s injuries could not be explained by a simple fall. The medical examiner later confirmed that the death was a homicide—the people who were supposed to care for him had beaten Gabriel to death. They were both arrested and tried for capital murder in the death of the eight-year-old boy. The autopsy revealed that Gabriel’s stomach contained no food. There was evidence of malnutrition, including the presence of kitty litter in his stomach. His sister confirmed that her brother had been forced by Fernandez and Aguirre to consume the filthy contents of the litter box. Prosecutors pursued the death penalty against Aguirre and agreed to a plea deal with Fernandez that resulted in a penalty of life in prison without parole, due to her diminished intellectual capacity.

Gabriel’s death is a great tragedy, but sadly it is not unique in its severity. One thing that makes this particular case unusual is that criminal charges were also pursued against the social workers who did not notice the many troubling warning signs in time to save the young boy’s life. The documentary series explores the multiple levels of culpability involved in the case. How is it that some children who are in clear danger slip through the cracks?

Answering this question is not easy. Arguably, the decision to prosecute social workers for their missteps in the case treats the situation as if it is more black-and-white than it actually is. Based on the documentary’s reporting, it seems clear that Gabriel’s extended family was aware from the time of his birth that living with his birth mother would not be a safe environment for Gabriel. For the first three years after the child was born, his great-uncle and his partner raised him. He was removed from that environment for reasons that included both homophobia and a desire on the part of Pearl Fernandez to increase the amount of money that she was receiving from welfare. Because they observed the abuse occurring, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that the family had a moral obligation to protect the child against abuse.

The sheriff’s office was also aware of the possibility of violence inside of Gabriel’s home. They conducted an investigation that ultimately led nowhere, but they did not inform the prosecutor in the case that an investigation had ever occurred. Despite the fact that their actions in this case might also be viewed as criminally negligent, charges were not filed against any members of the sheriff’s department.

One way of interpreting the question of how children slip through the cracks is a retributive approach. This approach is motivated by feelings of anger and outrage and it seeks someone to blame. This certainly seemed to be the response of the local community. The social workers filled that role for those that wanted vengeance. But it may be the case that we can only start to get closer to answers (and, ideally, solutions) when we loosen our grasp on retributivism and instead try to get a firmer hold on the root social causes of these kinds of problems.

Understanding these issues will crucially involve understanding dynamics of both money and power. Various members of the prosecutor’s office may have much to gain from appearing tough on social workers in a case such as this. The same can be said for the judges and politicians that publicly supported this move. The social workers, by contrast, have very little power in these circumstances—they are underpaid and overworked. The median salary for a social worker in the United States is $46, 270. According to Greg Merritt, a former DCFS Supervisor and one of the defendants in this case, the social workers that he was overseeing were dealing with an average of 30 cases at a time, and that number often got as high as 38. This means that, as a supervisor, Merritt was responsible for overseeing as many as 280 cases. The stressful nature of the job combined with the comparably low pay creates a high burnout rate for social workers. Nevertheless, many of the social workers that choose to stay do so because they genuinely care about improving the lives of the struggling members of their communities. Given the pressures that these workers face, it is reasonable to assume that they will sometimes make mistakes.

At its heart, this is a case about social values. If we are going to be so critical of our social workers that we open up the possibility of criminal action when things go wrong, we should take steps that are consistent with putting that kind of value on the work that social workers do. First and foremost, the funding for social programs should increase. If we want to maintain very high expectations for our social workers, we should employ more of them at higher salaries. If communities want to direct their rage at social workers when things go wrong, they should make sure that their initial expectations of those employees are reasonable.

We also need to make sure that we aren’t tying the hands of social workers by failing, as voters, to pay attention. In recent years, for-profit organizations have entered into contracts with governments to assist in providing social services. LA County in particular entered into an arrangement with Maximus, a for-profit organization, that at the end of the day is motivated by profits rather than by the well-being of citizens. These motivations result in cost cutting measures such as denying overtime. Clearly, overtime in many of these cases is not just useful, but crucial. We should be thinking, as communities, about whether these are the kinds of services that should ever be privatized and therefore controlled by free market systems.

We should also understand that these kinds of cases always involve competing, important values. All things being equal, we care about both privacy and parental rights. This can make going into a home and conducting a thorough inquiry while treating the parties involved with the appropriate amount of respect and human dignity challenging. Complicating matters further, the parties involved are often deceitful. Some reports of child abuse are unwarranted, and social workers are neither mind readers nor fortunetellers.

It is also important to recognize that taking a child away from his or her family is extremely traumatic for everyone involved. Social workers tend to pursue this possibility as a last resort. Workers need to also be aware, on a meta-level, of the possibility of bias in their decision-making, as a disproportionate number of children of color are removed from their homes by social services.

All of these considerations need to be balanced against concerns for the well-being of the child. Needless to say, this makes the jobs of social workers very difficult, especially when they are dealing with heavy caseloads.

Finally, there are questions about how technology might potentially help to adjudicate these kinds of cases. Software that employs algorithms to identify predictive risk factors may remove some of the burden of tea leaf reading from the shoulders of social workers. These programs would flag certain cases as deserving of increased attention, preventing the likelihood of outcomes like Gabriel’s. These algorithms are not, of course, immune from their own cluster of moral issues. The data used to construct them comes from social services that tend to focus on poor communities. The models that they create might have problematic racial implications. They might also create blinders to the recognition of problems that aren’t flagged by the algorithm.

Child abuse and neglect are byproducts of society at its worst. These events can motivate us to point fingers and to demand payback. It is important to remember however, that there really is no such thing as payback. Nothing that we can do as a community will bring kids like Gabriel back to life. It is more productive to understand that the perfect storms that lead to tragedies like this are caused by problems that are systemic. They require a renewed commitment to our values, which will also require rethinking systems of power and money.

(In the Fernandez case, on January 8th 2020, a California Court of Appeals threw out the case against the social workers.)

Climate Justice: Whose Responsibility?

photograph of power plant smoke stacks

Now that the effects of global heating are happening and ecological collapse has begun, we are confronted with a set of urgent questions about justice and moral responsibility in responding to our climate emergency. Climate heating is of course a global problem – and one that is already disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. It is also a problem caused by people in rich countries continuing the unfettered consumption of resources and the failure of our governments to create policies and laws to curb this consumption, to safeguard the environment, and to transition to green economies through the decades of warnings leading up to this crisis.

The moral question of whether we must act is surely answered in the affirmative, and yet a set of questions remain about how to understand that imperative in relation to the issues surrounding disproportionate greenhouse gas outputs of developed, industrialized countries compared to the minuscule contribution of many smaller or less industrialized countries, who are often those experiencing the worst effects.

This is important because the way we understand our responsibilities has the potential to influence how solutions are pitched to the public and how policy might be implemented. Some of the arguments traditionally used to ground the moral duty of people in affluent countries giving money to the poor of the Global South are transferable, with little adjustment, to the area of climate policy.

Firstly, it is a common feature of normative moral systems that ethical ‘rules,’ ‘duties,’ or, more broadly, ethical actions are universalizable. That is, what is right for one person is right for all, and that when a rule prescribes that we act in a certain way towards one person, that is also a general rule, that we act in that way with respect to all persons.

In a globalized world, we often assume the moral community extends to all people. This ‘cosmopolitan’ argument maintains that the sphere of moral concern is global, that no individual falls outside of it. This means that where moral duties or requirements can be shown to exist, they would also extend to include people in different socioeconomic and geographical situations from our own.

Since the 1980’s Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been advocating for what he calls the expanded moral circle, using this basic idea to challenge some of our behaviors. In particular, Singer argues for the alleviation of poverty by those with the means to do so. Using his now famous drowning child example, Singer has argued that if we have a moral duty to save a drowning child who we might otherwise pass by, without sacrificing something of comparable moral value, then we have an equal duty to save a child dying from poverty-induced disease and malnutrition halfway across the world. The only difference is proximity and that, argues Singer, constitutes a logistical, not a moral, difference.

This is the expanding circle of moral concern that our moral duty to alleviate suffering is as strong for children in far away places as it is for our own children or the children next door. On Singer’s view, it would be immoral to spend our disposable income on expensive clothes, toys, or games that we do not need when there are children elsewhere dying in poverty.

Singer’s argument is a version of the argument from humanity, which says that, no matter our relationship to that suffering, whether or not we in some way caused it, our moral duty to alleviate it inheres in the fact that we are able to help. That, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we can send aid to the world’s poor means we have a duty to do so. This humanitarian argument has broad application: our moral duty exists regardless of the cause of the suffering.

There is a different kind of argument a duty of justice according to which we have a moral duty to help others in need only where, and to the extent that, our actions have caused their suffering. This is an argument from responsibility; the exploitation of the Global South has enriched those in the Global North, and the moral imperative for those in rich countries to alleviate poverty is derived from causal responsibility we have a moral duty to provide redress in the form of reparations as a matter of justice.

This argument is narrower in scope. One only has a moral duty, here, according to the extent to which one has been responsible (directly or indirectly? knowingly or unknowingly?) for the suffering of others in far-flung places. But, on the other hand, this argument does embed the need to change our behavior in a way that the humanitarian argument does not.

It should be clear how this is directly transferable to the climate crisis. From a justice perspective, rich, industrialized nations have been burning fossil fuels to power their citizens’ lifestyles at such a rate that the whole global climate system is now tipping out of control. Those least responsible and least able to cope with the effects are already being disproportionately impacted. Therefore rich countries have a moral duty to alleviate the suffering of those in poor countries. (From a humanitarian perspective, rich countries have the capacity to alleviate the causes and provide aid, therefore the moral onus exists because the capacity exists.)

Whether we recognize a duty based in justice because of “polluter pays” kinds of arguments or on humanitarian grounds we owe reparations on the basis of being most able to help could make a significant difference when we start talking about managing aid and paying reparations to those affected by the climate crisis. It might, for instance, be possible to argue, along the lines of a duty from justice, for diminished responsibility based on the argument that no country meant to cause global heating and that those who have are not, or not entirely, culpable. This can be countered by reminding ourselves that there have been enough warnings, and claims about intentions are at best moot, and at worst false. What’s important to note is that these justice arguments rely upon the extent to which responsibility is admitted or can be established.

On the other hand, it might be at least as important to ask which is more likely to persuade people into action. Though for both these questions the best answer would surely be a combination of both, it is worth pursuing the implications of each a little further.

The question of which argument will be most persuasive might just seem like a pragmatic question, not necessarily a moral one. But it could easily be made to work as a moral argument, framed in terms of the moral imperative to get people to act, and act fast.

For example, Philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith argues that there are reasons to believe that people are more likely to be motivated to act by the justice argument. The humanitarian argument tracks a correlation between the existence of suffering and a moral duty to alleviate it. Everywhere there is suffering, there is also a duty to minimize it. But one might object that this is too morally demanding, and that some may not be willing to accept it. Lawford-Smith suggests this argument relates to people’s intuitions about moral omissions versus moral acts. Research shows that people are inclined to think of omissions as morally less serious than actions in scenarios where an action and an omission have the same outcome. (For example, people tend to think that killing someone through an act is morally worse than letting a person die because of an omission.)

On the other hand, according to the justice argument, the moral duty derives from culpability. The way people act and benefit from unjust institutions makes them culpable for creating the suffering in the first place. Lawford-Smith argues that people are more motivated to act if they feel that some behavior of theirs has caused the suffering. As such, she suggests that it may be more efficacious to argue from justice than from humanity to make a case to the public for why they are duty-bound to act (lobby, agitate, strike, vote, or whatever) on the climate emergency, and for appropriate aid and reparation schemes to achieve global climate justice. If the ultimate moral outcome here is, in fact, urgent action, then the moral and the pragmatic line up, and we must get on with the business of explaining to governments and citizens of rich, industrialized countries why they are, and will be, the cause of massive untold global suffering.

One final observation: at this crucial time, the need to motivate a critical mass of the world’s citizens to rise up and push for change is dire. This is the proverbial eleventh hour. If people cannot be motivated by the moral arguments for humanity or for justice, they may be motivated by arguments from self-interest which are of course not moral arguments at all. In that case, one might point out this is already no longer a crisis affecting just other people in other places. If the climate emergency has not affected you yet, it soon will. If it does not affect you, it will affect your children. Moral arguments should work, because we are a moral, altruistic, and cooperative species, by and large. But if they don’t, let’s hope that existential self-interest ones will. Sadly, though, if only these kinds of reasons will persuade people to act, those people on the planet who are not in a position to cope with the crisis, will find neither humanity nor justice.

“It Wasn’t ‘Me'”: Neurological Causation and Punishment

photograph of dark empty cell with small slit of sunshine

The more we understand about how the world works the more fraught the questions of our place in the causal network of the world may seem. In particular, the progress made in understanding how the mechanisms of our brain influence the outward behavior of our minds consistently raises questions about how we should interpret the control we have over our behavior. If we can understand the neurological processes in a causal network that explain the way we act, in what sense can we preserve an understanding of our behavior as ‘up to us’?

This has been a concern for those of us with mental illness and neurological disorders for some time: having scientific accounts of depression, anxiety, mania, and dementia can help target treatment and provide us with tools to navigate relationships with people that don’t always behave like ‘themselves’. In serious cases, it can inform how we engage with people who have violated the law: there is a rising trend to use “behavioral genetics and other neuroscience research, including the analysis of tumors and chemical imbalances, to explain why criminals break the law.”

In a current case, Anthony Blas Yepez is using his diagnosis with a rare genetic abnormality linked to sudden violent outbursts to explain his beating an elderly man to death in Santa Fe, New Mexico, six years ago in a fit of rage. His condition explains how he wasn’t “fully in control of himself when he committed the crime.”

Putting aside our increasing ability to explain the psychological underpinnings of our behavior more causally or scientifically, our criminal justice system has always acknowledged a distinction between violent crimes committed in states of heightened emotionality and those performed out of more reasoned judgments, finding the latter to be more egregious. If someone assaults another immediately after finding out they cheated with a significant other, the legal system punishes this behavior less stringently than if the assault takes place after a “cooling off period”. This may be reflective of a kind of acknowledgement that our behavior does sometimes “speak” less for us, or is sometimes less in our control. Yepez’s case is one of a more systematic sort where he is subject to more dramatic emotionality than the standard distinction draws.

Psychological appeals for lesser sentences like Yepez’s are successful in about 20% of cases. Our legal system still hasn’t quite worked out how to interpret scientific-causal influences on behaviors, when they are not complete explanations. Having a condition like Yepez’s, or other psychological conditions we are gaining more understandings of every year, still manifest in complex ways in interaction with environmental conditions that make the explanations fall short of having a claim to fully determining behavior.

It does seem that there is something relevantly different in these cases; the causal explanations appear distinct. As courts attempt to determine the implications of that difference, we can consider the effect of determination-factors in how we understand behavior.

John Locke highlights the interplay between what we may identify as the working of our will and more external factors with a now-famous thought experiment. Imagine a person in a locked room. There seems to be an intuitive difference between such a person who wishes to leave the room but cannot – their will is constrained and they cannot act freely in this respect. On the other hand, something seems importantly different if the person were in the locked room and didn’t know the door was locked – say they were in rapt conversation with a fascinating partner and had no desire to leave. The world may be “set up” so that this state of affairs is the only one the person could be in at that moment, but it isn’t clear that their will is not free; the constraints seem less relevant.

We can frame the question of the significance of the determination of our wills in another way. While not all of our actions are a result of conscious deliberation, consider those that are. When you question what to eat for lunch, what route to take to get to your destination, which option to take at the mechanics, etc., what would result from your certainty that your ultimate decision is determined by the causal network of the world? If, from the perspective of making a decision, we consider ourselves not to be a source of our own behavior, we would fail to act. We would be rendered observers to our own behavior, yet in a perspective of wondering what to do.

Note an interesting tension here, however: after we decide what to do (to have a taco, take the scenic route, replace the transmission) and perform the relevant action, we can look back at our deliberative behavior and wonder at the influences that factored into the performance. It often feels like we are in control of our behavior at the time – say, when we consider tacos versus hamburgers and remember how delicious, fresh and cheap the fish tacos are at a stand nearby, it seems that these factors lead to seeking out the tacos in a paradigmatic instance of choice.

But what if you had seen a commercial for tacos that day? Or someone had mentioned a delicious fish meal recently? Or how bad burgers are for your health or the environment? What if you were raised eating fish tacos and they have a strong nostalgic pull? What if you have some sort of chemical in your brain or digestive system that predisposes you to prefer fish tacos? If any of these factors were the case, does this undermine the control you had over your behavior, the relevant freedom of your action? How do such factors relate to the case that Locke presents us with – are they more or less like deciding to stay in a locked room you didn’t know was locked?

These questions could be worrying enough when it comes to everyday actions, but they carry import when the behaviors in question significantly impact others. If there is a causal explanation underpinning even the behaviors we take to be up to our conscious deliberation, would this alter the ways we hold one another responsible? In legal cases, having a causal explanation that doesn’t apply to typical behaviors does lessen the punishment that seems appropriate. Not everyone has a condition that correlates to violent outbursts, which may make this condition a relevant external factor.

Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility

Photograph of two iced Starbucks drinks with a wrapped straw in between them

In 2015 a video of a sea turtle took the internet by storm and set into action the public outrage over pollution caused by plastic straws. Since then, videos and articles including facts about plastic waste in the world’s oceans have been circulating the internet, and plastic pollution has been the topic of more than a few TED Talks. Many anti-plastic advocates made moral appeals to consumers to cut down on their straw usage, and these appeals have steadily grown into an anti-straw environmental movement. On July 9th, coffee mogul Starbucks announced they would be phasing out plastic straws in their cafes nationwide, eliminating plastic straws completely by 2020. However, it did not take long for the blowback to come. New videos and articles began circling social media, this time depicting people with disabilities explaining how the plastic straw ban in businesses, and cities like Seattle and San Francisco makes them feel unwelcome. Is banning plastic straws, like Starbucks did, really an ethical environmental choice? Should the responsibility be on companies or consumers to reduce plastic usage? And do appeals to morality through social media campaigns and public outrage truly effectuate positive change? Continue reading “Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility”

Moral Responsibility at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Photo of a monument memorializing deaths of migrants who tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border

On May 15, 2018, CNN reported that the U.S. Border Patrol, which is “tasked with tracking and trying to prevent border-crossing deaths,” has been undercounting the number of deaths of people who perished trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in contravention of U.S. Immigration laws. CNN reportedly identified more than 500 deaths over and above the Border Patrol’s official tally over the last 16 fiscal years. As CNN reports, undercounting deaths “minimizes the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis associated with illegal crossings” and “makes it harder for the United States to assess the full impact of a border policy, in place since the mid-1990s, that uses barriers and other enforcement tools to push migrants to more remote, deadlier crossing points.”

Continue reading “Moral Responsibility at the U.S.-Mexico Border”

Making Sense in the Face of Tragedy: Scapegoating Climate Change

A photo of National Guard members helping people on a flooded highway overpass.

It seems like a nightmare come true – two record-setting hurricanes batter the United States in less than a week. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, has been called “the most destructive hurricane” in the United States in the past 13 years. Hurricane Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic and  left disaster in its wake in many Caribbean islands and widespread flooding and property damage in Florida. Time has reported the death toll for Hurricane Harvey to be at least 70 and at least 24 for Hurricane Irma. These preliminary numbers could continue to rise, along with calculations of billions of dollars in damage. The public seeks an explanation as to what caused the severity of these storms. Most importantly, many question if human-induced climate change had a role in causing these hurricanes.

Continue reading “Making Sense in the Face of Tragedy: Scapegoating Climate Change”

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Intergenerational Responsibility

Editor’s note: this article contains spoilers for Aurora. 

Aurora, the most recent novel by the science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, focuses on the long-distance voyage of Earth’s first interstellar generation starship. A generation starship is a spaceship designed to sustain a small human population stuck on the ship for several generations. This generation ship is travelling 11.9 light years to the Tau Ceti system, a voyage that takes them roughly 200 years to complete. Thus, the inhabitants of the ship that we meet are not those individuals who signed up willingly for the expedition, but rather the descendants of their descendants.

Continue reading “Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Intergenerational Responsibility”