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Trans Panic and the Philosophy of Fear

image of storm clouds gathering

As a trans person living in the U.S. right now, how can you both stay apprised of dangers to your health and political rights and not become paralyzed by the overwhelming quantity of anti-trans legislation and sentiment? When is the fear that you feel appropriate? When does it become something that is more hurtful than helpful?

These are difficult questions, because the dangers to trans people are very real, whether that be a lack of affordable access to gender-affirming medical care, an inability to get contraceptives or access to abortion, or an overturning of other rights using the reasoning given in Dobbs that they are not “deeply rooted in our history or traditions.”

There are two traps that it is easy to fall into, either ignoring these threats and failing to do anything to prevent them or becoming obsessed with anti-trans news at the expense of your health.

These responses are understandable given the near constant onslaught of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, but they may not be the most helpful.

In what follows, I do not intend to identify one perfect way to react in the face of oppression. Instead, I’d like to make several distinctions between different kinds of fear so that we can collectively be more reflective about the emotions we are feeling in this time and have more options in choosing how to respond to them.

First, who are you feeling fear for? Is it just for yourself? Do you only care about things that threaten you? Is it just for you and members of your community? Do you only care about the dangers that face your friends or people who are a part of the same group? Or do you feel fear for yourself and others when they are threatened, whether they are in your group or not?

It makes sense that we would be more fearful for ourselves and for those close to us, but there is a danger in failing to recognize the dangers that are present to other marginalized communities.

Just as Myisha Cherry argues that rage is more productive when it is felt in response to an injustice, it seems that fear is more appropriate when it is felt in solidarity with others.

If, as a white, abled, trans person, you only feel fear in response to threats to trans people and not to people of color or people with disabilities, something has gone wrong.

The purpose of fear seems to be to remind us to attend to certain dangers or risks, so that we can prevent those things from happening. Unlike anger, which is backward-looking and responds to past injustice, fear is forward-looking and responds to potential injustice. If we just attend to what could happen to us, we will miss the perils that threaten others and fail to counteract them before it is too late.

Second, is the fear that you feel constant and unchanging? Or is it responsive to features of the situation? For example, do your fears start to resolve if anti-trans legislation slows down and trans rights are being secured? Or do you remain stuck in high alert even after the danger has passed?

One of the difficulties of the experience of sustained danger to one’s safety is that it often leads to complex trauma that makes it easy to be hyper-aware of any potential danger but hard to gauge which threats can be ignored.

We can see this now in the responses that many people are having in these later stages of the pandemic, where they might find themselves having a panic attack after being in a small, crowded room, even though the collective dangers to health have shifted dramatically as more people have gained access to the vaccine.

These kinds of trauma reactions are certainly understandable, but a fear that does not respond to the situation can lead to actions that do not actually address the problem at hand. Unresponsive fear can also interfere with being able to feel safe, to enjoy relaxing, or to go out and participate in meaningful social activities. As much as it is important to attend to dangers to trans rights, it is equally, if not more, important to preserve trans joy.

Third, is the fear helping us to act in ways that address the danger? Though fear can prompt action that is targeted and useful, it can also make us paralyzed, more suspicious and paranoid, and less calm and deliberate in our thinking. When we are collectively afraid, we can easily begin to fight among ourselves because emotions are high. This can lead to a cycle in which effective action seems less and less possible, which can further reinforce a collective paralysis.

To avoid this outcome, it seems important to recognize the ways that fear operates and give space to individuals to express those fears, work through them collectively, and ensure that the most pressing danger is being targeted. Likewise, we must remember to be in solidarity with others and the particular threats that are pertinent to them. If we can band together to protect each other from the threats that we face, we will have a better chance of mounting an effective response.

Fear has a bad reputation as a negative emotion that must be overcome or avoided.

See, for instance, Master Yoda’s words that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Or the famous Dune quote: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” I am unconvinced, however, that fear is always something to be avoided. Since fear draws our attention to dangers that often need to be attended to, it seems helpful and even good in certain circumstances.

But why not just say that the feeling of fear itself is something bad that needs to be overcome? Perhaps it points us in the right direction at first, but surely the feeling of fear is something to be overcome. There are two things to say in response. First, courage is often taken to involve acting despite fear; without fear, an action doesn’t seem nearly as courageous. So, at the very least, fear can give meaning to certain kinds of actions.

Second, fear can often prompt us to act and take measures to ensure our safety in the future. For example, if I am afraid of leaving the stove on when I go on a trip, I might check it again before I leave to ensure that it is off. Or, if I am afraid that a law will pass, I might organize my friends and family to contact their legislators to prevent it from passing. What needs to be overcome is not necessarily fear, but paralysis.

So long as our fear moves us to act in ways that are appropriate and doesn’t get in the way of being able to flourish, it seems straightforwardly helpful. Of course, living under oppression isn’t so easy, and the constant terrorism can interfere with feeling safe and happy. The answer, however, isn’t to get rid of fear; it’s to contextualize it.

The Scourge of Self-Confidence

photograph of boy cliff-jumping into sea

Our culture is in love with self-confidence — defined by Merriam-Webster as trust “in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” A Google search of the term yields top results with titles such as “Practical Ways to Improve Your Confidence (and Why You Should)” (The New York Times), “What is Self-Confidence? + 9 Ways to Increase It” (positivepsychology.com), and “How to Be More Confident” (verywellmind.com). Apparently, self-confidence is an especially valued trait in a romantic partner: a Google search for “self-confidence attractive” comes back with titles like “Why Confidence Is So Attractive” (medium.com), “4 Reasons Self-Confidence is Crazy Sexy” (meetmindful.com), and “6 Reasons Why Confidence Is The Most Attractive Quality A Person Can Possess” (elitedaily.com).

I will argue that self-confidence is vastly, perhaps even criminally, overrated. But first, a concession: clearly, some degree of self-confidence is required to think or act effectively. If a person has no faith in her ability to make judgments, she won’t make many of them. And without judgments, thinking and reasoning is hard to imagine, since judgments are the materials of thought. Similarly, if a person has no faith in her ability to take decisions, she won’t take many of them. And since decisions are necessary for much intentional action, such a person will often be paralyzed into inaction.

Nevertheless, the value that we place on self-confidence is entirely inappropriate. The first thing to note is that behavioral psychologists have gathered a mountain of evidence showing that people are significantly overconfident about their ability to make correct judgments or take good decisions. Representative of the scholarly consensus around this finding is a statement in a frequently-cited 2004 article published in the Journal of Research in Personality: “It has been consistently observed that people are generally overconfident when assessing their performance.” Or take this statement, from a 2006 article in the Journal of Marketing Research: “The phenomenon of overconfidence is one of the more robust findings in the decision and judgment literature.”

Furthermore, overconfidence is not a harmless trait: it has real-world effects, many of them decidedly negative. For example, a 2013 study found “strong statistical support” for the presence of overconfidence bias among investors in developed and emerging stock markets, which “contribut[ed] to the exceptional financial instability that erupted in 2008.” A 2015 paper suggested that overconfidence is a “substantively and statistically important predictor” of “ideological extremeness” and “partisan identification.” And in Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, published at the start of the second Iraq War, the Oxford political scientist Dominic Johnson argued that political leaders’ overconfidence in their own virtue and ability to predict and control the future significantly contributed to the disasters of World War I and the Vietnam War. And of course, the sages of both Athens and Jerusalem have long warned us about the dangers of pride.

To be sure, there is a difference between self-confidence and overconfidence. Drawing on the classical Aristotelian model of virtue, we might conceive of “self-confidence” as a sort of “golden mean” between the extremes of overconfidence and underconfidence. According to this model, self-confidence is warranted trust in one’s own powers and abilities, while overconfidence is an unwarranted excess of such trust. So why should the well-documented and baneful ubiquity of overconfidence make us think we overvalue self-confidence?

The answer is that valuing self-confidence to the extent that we do encourages overconfidence. The enormous cultural pressure to be and act more self-confident to achieve at work, attract a mate, or make friends is bound to lead to genuine overestimations of ability and more instances of people acting more self-confidently than they really are. Both outcomes risk bringing forth the rotten fruits of overconfidence.

At least in part because we value self-confidence so much, we have condemned ourselves to suffer the consequences of pervasive overconfidence. As I’ve already suggested, my proposed solution to this problem is not a Nietzschean “transvaluation” of self-confidence, a negative inversion of our current attitude. Instead, it’s a more classical call for moderation: our attitude towards self-confidence should still be one of approval, but approval tempered by an appreciation of the danger of encouraging overconfidence.

That being said, we know that we tend to err on the side of overconfidence, not underconfidence. Given this tendency, and assuming, as Aristotle claimed, that virtue is a mean “relative to us” — meaning that it varies according to a particular individual’s circumstances and dispositions — it follows that we probably ought to value what looks a lot like underconfidence to us. In this way, we can hope to encourage people to develop a proper degree of self-confidence — but no more than that.

Virtually Inhumane: Is It Wrong to Speak Cruelly to Chatbots?

photograph of middle school boy using computer

Smartphone app trends tend to be ephemeral, but one new app is making quite a few headlines. Replika, the app that promises you an AI “assistant,” gives users the option of creating all different sorts of artificially-intelligent companions. For example, a user might want an AI “friend,” or, for a mere $40 per year, they can upgrade to a “romantic partner,” a “mentor,” or a “see how it goes” relationship where anything could happen. The “friend” option is the only kind of AI the user can create and interact with for free, and this kind of relationship has strict barriers. For example, any discussions that skew toward the sexual will be immediately shut down, with users being informed that the conversation is “not available for your current relationship status.” In other words: you have to pay for that.

A recent news story concerning Replika AI chatbots discusses a disturbing trend: male app users are paying for a “romantic relationship” on Replika, and then displaying verbally and emotionally abusive behavior toward their AI partner. This behavior is further encouraged by a community of men presumably engaging in the same hobby, who gather on Reddit to post screenshots of their abusive messages and to mock the responses of the chatbot.

While the app creators find the responses of these users alarming, one thing they are not concerned about is the effect of the AI itself: “Chatbots don’t really have motives and intentions and are not autonomous or sentient. While they might give people the impression that they are human, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not.” The article’s author emphasizes, “as real as a chatbot may feel, nothing you do can actually ‘harm’ them.” Given these educated assumptions about the non-sentience of the Replika AI, are these men actually doing anything morally wrong by writing cruel and demeaning messages? If the messages are not being received by a sentient being, is this behavior akin to shouting insults into the void? And, if so, is it really that immoral?

From a Kantian perspective, the answer may seem to be: not necessarily. As the 17th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, we have moral duties toward rational creatures — that is, human beings, including yourself — and that their rational nature is an essential aspect of why we have duties toward them. Replika AI chatbots are, as far as we can tell, completely non-sentient. Although they may appear rational, they lack the reasoning power of human agents in that they cannot be moved to act based on reasons for or against some action. They can act only within the limits of their programming. So, it seems that, for Kant, we do not have the same duties toward artificially-intelligent agents as we do toward human agents. On the other hand, as AI become more and more advanced, the bounds of their reasoning abilities begin to escape us. This type of advanced machine learning has presented human technologists with what is now known as the “black box problem”: algorithms that have learned so much on “their own” (that is, without the direct aid of human programmers) that their code is too long and complex for humans to be able to read it. So, for some advanced AI, we cannot really say how they reason and make choices! A Kantian may, then, be inclined to argue that we should avoid saying cruel things to AI bots out of a sense of moral caution. Even if we find it unlikely that these bots are genuine agents whom we have duties toward, it is better to be safe than sorry.

But perhaps the most obvious argument against such behavior is one discussed in the article itself: “users who flex their darkest impulses on chatbots could have those worst behaviors reinforced, building unhealthy habits for relationships with actual humans.” This is a point that echoes the discussion of ethics of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In book 10 of his Nicomachean Ethics, he writes, “[T]o know what virtue is is not enough; we must endeavour to possess and to practice it, or in some other manner actually ourselves to become good.” Aristotle sees goodness and badness — for him, “virtue” and “vice” — as traits that are ingrained in us through practice. When we often act well, out of a knowledge that we are acting well, we will eventually form various virtues. On the other hand, when we frequently act badly, not attempting to be virtuous, we will quickly become “vicious.”

Consequentialists, on the other hand, will find themselves weighing some tricky questions about how to balance the predicted consequences of amusing oneself with robot abuse. While behavior that encourages or reinforces abusive tendencies is certainly a negative consequence of the app, as the article goes on to note, “being able to talk to or take one’s anger out on an unfeeling digital entity could be cathartic.” This catharsis could lead to a non-sentient chatbot taking the brunt of someone’s frustration, rather than their human partner, friend, or family member. Without the ability to vent their frustrations to AI chatbots, would-be users may choose to cultivate virtue in their human relationships — or they may exact cruelty on unsuspecting humans instead. Perhaps, then, allowing the chatbots to serve as potential punching bags is safer than betting on the self-control of the app users. Then again, one worries that users who would otherwise not be inclined toward cruelty may find themselves willing to experiment with controlling or demeaning behavior toward an agent that they believe they cannot harm.

How humans ought to engage with artificial intelligence is a new topic that we are just beginning to think seriously about. Do advanced AI have rights? Are they moral agents/moral patients? How will spending time engaging with AI affect the way we relate to other humans? Will these changes be good, or bad? Either way, as one Reddit user noted, ominously: “Some day the real AIs may dig up some of the… old histories and have opinions on how well we did.” An argument from self-preservation to avoid such virtual cruelty, at the very least.

The Vice of Ingratitude; or, How I’m Bad at Thanksgiving

photograph of set table for autumn harvest

While growing up, my family took part in a fairly standard thanksgiving tradition. We would all go around the table and each say something that we are thankful for.

I was bad at this tradition. Partly, that was because I was bad at vulnerability. To deflect from saying anything too deep, I’d normally give half joking answers. For example, one year I said I was grateful for ‘literacy.’ Now, in one sense ‘literacy’ is actually a good answer. It’s a wonderful thing that we often don’t stop to notice and appreciate. But even if it’s a ‘clever’ answer, it was also a dodge from revealing any real emotional depth.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at vulnerability. But I still struggle with gratitude more broadly. Indeed, the three vices I struggle with most are vainglory, ingratitude, and cowardice. I’ve written before on vainglory, and — with Thanksgiving fast approaching — it’s time to wrestle with ingratitude.

To home in on my struggles with gratitude, we first need to understand that there was a second problem with my answer of ‘literacy.’ To see the problem, we need to understand what gratitude is.

Defining Gratitude

The word ‘gratitude’ is used somewhat ambiguously in modern English. Sometimes we use words like ‘grateful’ and ‘thankful’ when we mean something like the word ‘glad.’ If I say:

“I’m thankful it didn’t rain during my wedding.”

I’m really saying something like:

“I’m glad it didn’t rain during my wedding.”

I’m basically saying that I’m pleased by the course of events. But gladness is different from gratitude. I am glad FOR something, but I’m grateful TO someone FOR something.

In gladness there are two parts of the relationship. (1) The person who is glad, and (2) what they are glad for. In contrast, in gratitude there are three parts of the relationship. (1) The person who is grateful, (2) the person (or persons) they are grateful to, (3) and what they are grateful for. Philosophers say that gladness is a “dyadic relation” (a relation between two elements) whereas gratitude is a “triadic relation” (a relation between three elements).

And this was the deep problem with my answer of ‘literacy.’ I was not grateful that I could read and write, rather I was glad that I could read and write. People would ask me the question “what are you thankful for?” but I would instead answer the question “what are you glad for?”

If I’d really wanted to express gratitude, I should have said something like:

“I’m grateful to my teachers and parents for helping me learn to read.”

Saying “I’m grateful for my job” is an expression of gladness. Saying “I’m grateful to my boss for keeping me on even after that mistake I made last December” is an expression of gratitude.

Gratitude Looks Outward

Often, when people try to list the things that they are thankful for, they instead list things about which they are glad. When I googled ‘things to be thankful for’ the first list to come up included: good health, weekends, pets, laughter, sunshine, books, indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and freedom of speech.

Now, it’s possible to be grateful for these things, but I expect that for the most part we are glad of these things rather than grateful for them. I certainly am glad for modern medicine, but I don’t exactly feel ‘grateful’ to medical researchers. The truth is, I barely think about medical researchers at all, and certainly they do not leap to mind when I reflect on the wonders of modern medicine.

Similarly, I’m glad that I’m healthy and that there is laughter in the world. But I’m not grateful for such things.

The thing is, given my own philosophical commitments, I should be grateful. I shouldn’t just be glad that it didn’t rain during my wedding, I should be thankful to God that it did not rain during my wedding. This is one of the distinctive features of most theistic traditions, anytime it’s appropriate to feel glad it’s also appropriate to feel gratitude since all good things ultimately come from God (see Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, James 1:17, The Qur’an 16:53).

I could tell myself that I’m grateful to God for good health and laughter. But the truth is I’m not that grateful a person. I’m glad of those things, and I’m philosophically committed to those good things coming from God, but I struggle to feel gratitude.

I’m glad for modern medicine, and not grateful to medical researchers for modern medicine. Similarly, I’m glad for my health, and not grateful to God for my health. In both cases, I can tell that I’m predominantly glad — instead of predominantly grateful — because of how my attention gets directed. When I think about my health, my attention turns inward. I attend to my own life because I’m content with my own life.

Were I predominantly grateful — instead of predominantly glad — then my attention would be disposed to move outward. When I think about my health, my attention would naturally redirect to God and to all the people who have worked hard to help develop modern medicine. The person who is glad for their political freedoms thinks predominantly about what the freedoms mean for their own life. The person who is grateful for their political freedoms is disposed to also think about the sacrifices that others have made to bring political reform.

Gratitude as a Prosocial Emotion

Gratitude, by its very nature, draws one’s attention out of one’s self. The grateful person does not rest content in their own life but is led to think well of other people.

It is this feature of gratitude, that it directs our attention outward, that makes gratitude such an important virtue. The more you see your own goods as gifts, the more you recognize the fittingness of giving good things to others in return (c.f. Colossians 3:1-17). I expect you’ve noticed this in your own life. When someone does something kind to you, you are often inclined to do something kind for others. If you find twenty dollars on the street, that is just good fortune. But if the person in front of you pays for your twenty dollar meal, you are much more likely to pay for the person behind you in turn.

This is why gratitude leads to prosocial behavior. Studies have found that gratitude increases charitable giving, strengthens relationships, and improves the quality of work. Of course, happiness and gladness also lead to these things, but the evidence seems to suggest that directed gratitude is an especially powerful prosocial influence.

My Struggles with Gratitude

When I said I was thankful for literacy, I was not thinking about the other people who have helped me learn to read. And even now, aware of the moral importance of gratitude, I find myself more often glad than grateful.

What is the cause of this ingratitude?

Seneca, in his book On Benefits, suggests that there are three primary causes of ingratitude:

Now we must consider what it is that most makes people ungrateful: it is either an excessive regard for oneself—the deeply ingrained human failing of being impressed by oneself and one’s accomplishments—or greed or envy.

In my own case, I suspect that it’s mostly the first cause. I struggle with gratitude because I fail to appreciate just how deeply the goods of my life are owed to the free gifts of others. Intellectually¸ I can recognize that I would not have the good life I have were it not for the generosity of others. But that recognition is all on the surface, it has not seeped down ‘into my bones.’

If I’m not careful, I fall into the assumption “that I earned all that I have” or at least that what others have given me is only “what they owed me in the first place” (Adapted Quote, Seneca 26.II). To inculcate a virtue of gratitude, I need a clearer moral vision. I need to learn to more clearly and reflexively recognize all the many positive influences that others have been in my life.

The hope is that if I spend enough time noting things to be thankful for (not just noting things about which I’m glad, but actually noting the people who have done good things for me), then I’ll eventually develop the virtue of gratitude. Perhaps I’ll be able to recognize, down in my bones, the wonderful gift I have in the life I get to live.

Aaron Rodgers, “Critical Thinking,” and Intellectual Humility

photograph of Aaron Rogers in football uniform with helmet

NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines recently when he was sidelined for having contracted COVID-19 and it became public knowledge that he has not been vaccinated. While Rodgers is far from the only unvaccinated NFL player, controversy ensued when it came out that he had misled reporters and the public into thinking that he had, in fact, been vaccinated. Rodgers stated that he has been “immunized,” something which many took to mean that he had been vaccinated, but really meant that Rodgers sought alternative treatments, including the thoroughly-debunked ivermectin, and defied the advice of trusted experts in lieu of that of Joe Rogan.

While there is plenty to be worried about when it comes to Rodgers’ situation – he is actively spreading misinformation about the safety of vaccines and the efficacy of alternative treatments, he is a public figure and role model and thus has a greater responsibility that comes with having greater influence, etc. – something stood out when he was explaining why he had chosen to mislead reporters about his vaccination status. While Rodgers claimed that he was worried about the repercussions of the “woke mob” and “cancel culture,” he also justified his actions by stating that, “I’m not, you know, some sort of anti-vax flat-earther. I am somebody who is a critical thinker.”

In labeling himself a “critical thinker,” Rodgers and those like him are attempting to avoid being targets of criticism, while at the same time presenting themselves as rational inquirers who have happened to have reached conclusions that diverge from the scientific consensus. Given that rational inquiry and independent thinking seem like generally good things, self-proclaimed critical thinkers might then feel persecuted for having their views rejected and mocked.

You’re supposed to think critically! Shouldn’t we encourage critical thinking, and doesn’t the “woke mob’s” refusal to even engage with divergent views from those such as Rodgers represent some kind of failing as rational thinkers and inquirers?

In thinking about these questions, we need to get clearer on what it means to be a “critical thinker.” When we think about being a “critical thinker,” we might also think about being intellectually virtuous: possessing character traits or dispositions that lead someone to effectively pursue the truth, acquire knowledge, and gain understanding. In other words, just as there are traits that are typically representative of morally admirable people – for example, being generous, kind, empathetic, etc. – so, too, are there traits that are representative of being intellectually admirable. These might include traits like being open-minded, curious, and honest, among others. There’s no definitive list of all the virtues out there, but a good place to start when thinking about virtues is to think about smart people we really admire, and to see what kinds of traits they possess.

One such trait that we might associate with our intellectual idols is being a critical thinker. Indeed, some have come out in support of Rodgers, and have expressed admiration of the way he has inquired into issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. However, many of those using the term seem to be conflating two senses of “critical thinker,” one which is intellectually virtuous and worthy of guiding our inquiries, and one which is not.

The sense in which Rodgers, and many of those he has associated with, use the term seems to be one in which “critical thinking” means thinking independently: one pursues the truth on one’s own (or else in conjunction with a small group of other “critical thinkers”), often in such a way as to challenge a dominant view. When thinking about which intellectual traits are good ones, these kinds of critical thinkers might look to admirable intellectual figures throughout history, perhaps ones who have made significant scientific progress by rejecting the intellectual authorities of their day. In this sense, “critical thinking” is really a kind of critical thinking, insofar as one looks primarily to criticize consensus views.

The problem with being a critical thinker of this variety, however, is that it can come at the expense of other intellectual virtues. For instance, one important intellectual virtue is that of humility: one needs to be able to recognize what one knows and is capable of finding out, and not try to tackle problems one does not have the training or capacity to meaningfully contribute to. While it is, of course, worthwhile to learn new things, part of being intellectually humble means recognizing when one needs to listen to others.

For example, I have a passing interest in cosmology, but have no formal training in the physics of black holes. It would not, then, be intellectually humble of me to challenge trained scientists on their views just because they don’t align with my pet theories: it wouldn’t help make any progress, and I wouldn’t be any closer to gaining any new knowledge or understanding. What I should do in such a case is listen and learn.

There are certain kinds of critical thinking, then, which may very well be bad for one’s intellectual character. This is not to say that we always need to simply accept what we are told by people who apparently know better. Rather, it means that we need to be able to evaluate the areas in which we could help make a contribution and the ones in which we simply need to listen to what people who know better are saying. It is not always easy to do this. Regardless, while those like Rodgers might want to distance themselves from conspiracy theories and claim that his dissent from the recommendations of doctors, scientists, and the NFL is the result of some rational inquiry, the kind of critical thinking he is engaged in is not the kind of intellectual trait that one should admire.

The Politically Great and the Morally Good

photograph of Machiavelli statue

It wouldn’t be beyond the pale to assert that we’re currently having a collective crisis of faith regarding many of our world leaders and the political institutions they represent. Not only do they appear to be ineffectual in the face of emerging challenges – climate change, economic collapse, pandemics, and rising fascism, to pick a few – but several also seem to be fundamentally untrustworthy and, if one wants to be provocative, downright immoral.

For example, in the U.K., in the past year alone, several high ranking cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister himself, have been accused of lying, bullying, adultery, cronyism, corruption, and the questionable appropriation of public funds for personal use. Abuses of power like these, which extend far beyond the U.K.’s shores, have even been identified by the Centre for the Future of Democracy’s recent report as one of the critical causes for the broader decreased faith in democracy in many of its former bastions.

Now concerns regarding politicians acting less than virtuously are nothing new. In the 44 B.C. treatise De Officiis, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote that there is “no vice more offensive than avarice, especially in men who stand foremost and hold the helm of state. For to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous.” Indeed, concern regarding politicians’ dubious dealings have been common throughout history.

Cicero’s demand that politicians not exploit the state is pretty ethically uncontroversial. However, there is a more nuanced question here than should politicians do their job morally. The question of the personal moral character of politicians and what this means for their suitability as statesmen is far more complex. Does it matter to us if a world leader acts immorally in private when they are good at their job of being a politician? That is, if they lead the country, protect their citizens, and communicate clearly with those they’re responsible for/to, then why should we care about their extracurricular ethical deficiencies?

To illustrate, let’s use a thought experiment. Imagine an election has been called to decide your country’s next leader. Candidate A is known to be morally admirable – they recycle, don’t cheat on their partner, give generously to charity, don’t lie, etc. On the other hand, Candidate B does the opposite – they lie, cheat, throw all their rubbish in the same bin, hoard their wealth, etc. After a brutal campaign, both candidates demonstrate their suitability for the job in equal measure. With nearly all the votes counted, there’s a tie. Yours is the only vote left to be cast. As such, you get to decide who the newest world leader is. Whom do you pick, and why?

On the one hand, you might think it’s obvious – you pick Candidate A as they are objectively better than Candidate B. In addition to doing the job, Candidate A is also a good person, and that’s valuable. After all, immorality is, by definition, bad (we might want to value it as -1). This undesirability is evident compared to the amoral (which we could value at 0) and even more so when compared to the morally good (which we can value as +1). Thus, if you end up with an effective leader regardless, why would you pick Candidate B, who comes with a negative value (-1), when you could instead have Candidate A, who comes with a positive value (+1). In other words, why settle for less when you can have more?

Complementing this self-centered approach, those favoring the morally virtuous leader may also ground their reasoning in justice. We typically think that the immoral shouldn’t succeed at the expense of the moral; there is something right in rewarding those who act morally and punishing, or at least not rewarding, those who don’t. To actively choose Candidate B over Candidate A would fly in the face of this sense of justice. It would indicate that individual integrity is divisible from the mainstay of professional ethics. That personal moral failing can be disregarded in decisions about who should(n’t) be rewarded in professional capacities. In short, when all other things are equal, justice demands that bad people shouldn’t succeed and good people should. Thus, Candidate A is the just choice.

On the other hand, it’s plausible to argue in favor of, or at least of not discounting, Candidate B simply because they possess some personal moral failings. After all, who among us is entirely virtuous?

As we’ve already established, the two candidates are equally qualified. Thus, we have to ask why it matters that one acts in a morally dubious manner and the other doesn’t. Could it be that we’re acting upon some ill-formed or reactionary intuition? After all, we don’t think in these terms when we consider a person’s suitability for other jobs or tasks. For example, if you need surgery, the idea that you would pick from a list of equally qualified surgeons based on whether one was faithful to their partner would seem bizarre. In this situation, what matters is that person’s capacity to fulfill the role’s requirements. Anything outside that scope is inconsequential. So, just as we would think it insignificant that a capable surgeon acts immorally when not on-call, we might feel the same about a world leader – provided that they can undertake the task of effectively leading the nation, all other considerations should fall to the wayside.

As with many thought experiments, you might consider this one’s parameters to be too restrictive or even implausible. The pessimistic (or some may say realistic) of you may argue that the very qualities that make one a practical head of state are the same qualities that would tarnish one’s personal ethical record. As noted in Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”

For Machiavelli, those qualities which make someone a good person are not the same as those that make them a great leader. Indeed, often those qualities may impede one’s ability to do their job as a politician. That, at the end of the day, the requirements of statehood demand that one lie, deceive, subjugate, battle, and even kill others – things that we would otherwise decry as vices and sins if not for the fact that the role of world leader required them.

Where does this leave us then? Do politicians need to be moral, and are we right in expecting them to be? While it may seem obvious to say yes – to decry the idea of an immoral leader – we have to be aware that we may be moralizing in a way that we wouldn’t do for people in other roles. Furthermore, we might even be doing our country a disservice by trying to install a leader who, under any other circumstance, might be considered a good person.

On Some Philosophical Roots of Pixar’s “Soul”

image of "Soul" logo

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Disney and Pixar’s new movie “Soul.”]
On December 25th, the 23rd feature film from Pixar Animation Studios was released on the Disney+ streaming platform to great popular acclaim; after nearly a week, “Soul” has steadily retained a 90% score at Rotten Tomatoes with over 2600 audience reviews. Although it has garnered some criticism over at least one of its casting choices, the film’s presentation of a man struggling to come to terms with his life choices (while simultaneously trying to convince a skeptical spirit of life’s value) has resonated with viewers. And, as is often the case with Pixar products, there is plenty of philosophical material to unpack.
Beginning with the death of long-aspiring jazz musician Joe Gardner, much of “Soul” portrays a metaphysical universe that, while cartoonish, might look familiar to anyone who has taken a class on ancient Greek philosophy. According to Plato, something like a spiritual world (the world of the Forms) is more fundamental to reality than the familiar physical world and all human souls exist there before they enter human bodies; Joe Gardner’s discovery of the Great Before, where nascent souls are formed prior to being born on Earth, functions in a similar kind of way to Plato’s sense of a “pre-existence” to life on Earth. However, Plato’s Forms have little to do with a soul “finding their spark” to get their pass to Earth; the character of 22 would need a mentor, in Plato’s perspective, after birth (to be able to remember their innate knowledge of reality, as described in the Meno dialogue), not before it (as in the movie — although Plato does include something similar to “Soul”’s instructors in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic). “Soul” never explains what happens when a person’s spirit enters the Great Beyond (but its depiction is ominously reminiscent of a bug-zapping lamp), so it’s hard to compare its sense of the afterlife to anything, but at least some Christian traditions (most notably, those stemming from the third century theologian Origen and the 19th century revolutionary Joseph Smith) whole-heartedly embrace a literal sort of pre-existence for human souls.
This sort of dualistic framework (that sees a human being as the composite of two substances: a physical body and nonphysical soul) would go on to powerfully influence Western philosophers and theologians alike; indeed, many contemporary beliefs about human nature bear some form of the ancient Greek stamp (consider, for example, just how many popular stories hinge on some kind of philosophical dualism). “Soul” not only mines this Platonic concept for its setting but for its plot as well when Joe’s spirit accidentally falls into a cat (while 22 temporarily takes over Joe’s body). This kind of event is roughly dependent on what is sometimes called a “simple” view of personal identity (as expressed by, for example, Descartes) whereby what makes a person themselves is simply a matter of their soul (their body is, in a sense, “extra” or “unnecessary” for such calculations).
Many reviews of “Soul”, however, focus less on its metaphysical framework and more on its existentialist message. Granted, existentialist themes — especially those focusing on individuals discovering personal meaning for their lives and “finding their place in the world” — are tropes long trod by Pixar since it released “Toy Story” in 1995 and appear also in films like “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and “Toy Story 4” (that last one even helped Dictionary.com select “existential” as its 2019 Word of the Year). In a similar way, other releases (like “Finding Nemo,” “Up,” “Coco,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out,” and “Onward”) grapple with the meaning of life specifically within the context of grief, loss, and death. In this way, “Soul” is but the latest in a long line of entertaining animated depictions of philosophical reflections on what it means to be human.
What makes “Soul” unique, however, is that, rather than focusing on what makes individuals special, the film highlights what we all have in common. The climax of the movie comes when Joe Gardner, after accidentally helping 22 find their spark that will allow them to go to Earth, learns that such sparks are not measures or definitions of a soul’s purpose or calling — they are simply an indication that a soul is “ready to live.” Throughout the film, Joe had been operating on the assumption that his spark was “music” because hearing and playing jazz filled him with such passion for life that he felt satisfied and happy in a way far beyond any other experience. Early on, Joe tries, with little luck, to help 22 discover their own passion; it is only after 22 gets an accidental taste of life in Joe’s body that they are truly ready to live — even though 22 never discovers specifically what their “calling” in life might be.
This kind of thinking smells less like Plato than it does his student Aristotle. While Aristotle has a rather different view of the soul than his predecessor (for example: Aristotle denies that a “soul” can sensibly be separated from a “body” like Platonic dualists might allow), Aristotle nevertheless recognizes that something like a soul is a crucial part of our makeup. To Aristotle, your soul is what explains how your body moves and changes, but it isn’t something substantively distinct from it; for example, he draws an analogy to a bronze statue of Hermes: just like how you could not remove the “shape of Hermes” from the bronze without destroying the statue, you could not remove the soul from a body without destroying a person (for more, see his explanation of “hylomorphism”). So, if the soul is something like a power that directs a body to perform different actions, the big question is “what actions should a soul direct a body to perform?” Crucially, Aristotle thinks that the answer to this question is the same for all humans, simply in virtue of being human: we all have the same ergon (“function” or “task”), so what’s “good” for all humans is the same: in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that this amounts to “activity of soul in accordance with virtue.”
So, unlike what he originally assumed, what was ultimately “good” for Joe Gardner was not simply a matter of “playing jazz” — it was a matter of living life in the right way. True happiness (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia”) is not simply a matter of performing a single task well, but of living all of life, holistically, in a manner that fits with how human lives are meant to be lived. Similarly, whatever sort of passions 22 might discover during their life on Earth, what’s “good” for 22 will also amount to living life in the right way (maple seeds, lollipops, and all). The reason why Jerry (the interdimensional being in charge of the Great Before) explains to Joe that a spark is not a life’s “purpose” is because life itself is the purpose of all souls — empowering beings to live their lives is why souls exist, at least according to Aristotle.
In the scene that sets up the climax of the film, Dorothea Williams tells Joe a story about a dissatisfied fish looking for the ocean, not realizing that he was swimming in it all along; in different ways, both Plato and Aristotle offer their own commentaries on how we can forget (or fail to notice) the sorts of things that give our lives real meaning. Sometimes, it’s nice to have movies like “Soul” to help us remember.

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

Does Character Matter?

photograph of empty oval office

One infamous feature of the Trump era is the shocking decline in the proportion of Republican voters who say that the president’s moral character matters to them. According to a recent Gallup poll, during the Clinton administration 86 percent of Republicans thought it was very important for “a president to provide moral leadership for the country.” In 2018, that number was down to 63 percent. The almost inescapable conclusion is that Republicans have simply dropped the requirement of good character — or perhaps made a special exception — in light of President Trump’s obvious moral turpitude.

However, in a certain way the shift is understandable. Although we may think that good moral character is desirable in our elected officials, it is less clear why this should be so. After all, it seems plausible that we ought to support politicians who will be most successful at their jobs, and that the success of an elected official consists solely in successful governance. But moral character is, at best, a weak indicator of a person’s capacity to govern. For example, Robert Caro’s monumental biography of President Lyndon Johnson conclusively demonstrates that he was a real piece of work, but he was also a fabulously effective politician. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether Mother Teresa could have become, like Johnson, a “master of the Senate,” despite — or perhaps because of — her saintly disposition. Thus, if we think that capacity to govern is the sole criteria of success for a politician, then it seems that moral character does not matter a great deal. Much more relevant is a would-be leader’s record of managing and utilizing unwieldy bureaucracies.

On the other hand, most people seem to have a strong intuition that it would be impermissible to allow a murderer or rapist to hold office, no matter how effective they are at governing. So, we are confronted with two contradictory intuitions: that we ought to support politicians solely based on their capacity to govern, and that we ought not support certain morally egregious politicians regardless of their capacity to govern. Something has got to give.

One might question the claim that moral character is a weak indicator of a person’s capacity to govern. An ancient strand of political thought stretching back to Plato and Aristotle has it that virtue is a necessary attribute of a successful leader since effective statecraft requires practical wisdom, and practical wisdom is both the crown of the practical virtues and cannot exist without them. Anecdotally, the evidence is at best unclear. After all, President Johnson will perhaps be forever known for his disastrous decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, a decision that may have been due, at least in part, to certain character flaws. Likewise, President Trump’s cruelty and stupidity seems to be reflected in his many cruel and stupid policies. At the same time, there are surely instances of morally exemplary characters who perform poorly in political office. Thus, a more systematic study than is possible here would be required to make this objection stick.

Another place that some have pushed back on the argument is the implicit claim that successful governance has nothing to do with having a morally good character. What if exercising virtue is part of governing? If to govern is, at least in part, to provide moral leadership, then an elected official’s acts of humility, kindness, justice, and prudence are also acts of governing. If this is the case, then when, for example, a president consoles victims of a natural disaster or school shooting, makes a wise decision about during a foreign policy crisis, or celebrates the civic contributions of particular citizens, these are all at least arguably instances of governing, and yet also (at their best) authentic demonstrations of virtue.

Another weak point of the argument against moral character is the claim that we ought, without qualification, to support politicians who will be most successful at their jobs. Of course, it is important that politicians be successful, since governing is a kind of job that one can do well or badly. But a political office is also a position that comes with a tremendous number of perks; it is not just a reward, but it certainly is one. Because of this, some have argued that we ought to assess a politician not only with respect to how successful she is in policy terms, but also in terms of whether she deserves to hold political office, with all of its advantages. It is this idea that, I believe, best explains why we feel that we ought not support a murderer or rapist for office, no matter how good they are at governing. At minimum, we think that there is a moral threshold below which a politician is disqualified from the advantages of office. Where exactly that threshold lies is a matter of debate, as is whether a politician can re-qualify herself by properly atoning for her moral failures.

In short, we should reject the argument that character does not matter for three reasons. First, it is not at all clear that character is only a weak indicator of the ability to govern. Second, the exercise of virtue is itself part of effective governance. Finally, because political office is accompanied by various perquisites, some decrepit characters may not merit it. With a firmer grip on why character matters, it may hopefully be easier for people to avoid inconsistently applying the character standard to their assessments of politicians.

Panic Buying and the Virtue of Compassion

black and white photograph of old and young hands touching

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the globe, the prospect of more communities, cities, whole regions and countries going into lockdown is becoming a reality.

As I write this, in Australia mass gatherings are banned, travel restrictions are being introduced and a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering from overseas is being instituted. Yet even several weeks ago, before the mass cancellation of events and activities, one of a myriad of ‘effects’ of the epidemic in Australia has been a massive toilet paper shortage.

In many places around the country, especially the major cities, large supermarkets and grocery store shelves have been emptied. It is unclear exactly how this started; but once a view, and a concern, had formed in the community that there would be shortages of toilet paper people began to panic-buy and stockpile it. In so doing those people have created shortages which have in turn led to further panic and rushes on stocks as soon as they are replenished. This kind of panic-buying (a problem encountered also in other countries) has also affected many other grocery items and medical supplies, and concerns have been raised about whether some of the most vulnerable members of the community are missing out on essentials as panic buying and stockpiling continues. In response, as of yesterday, Australian supermarkets have now introduced purchase limits on certain items to prevent stockpiling at the expense of others.

It is often said, and often seen, that times of tragedy and trouble, bring us together, and bring out the best in us. We have witnessed many times (for example in the recent bushfire crisis in Australia) people coming together, cooperating, and helping one another in times of disaster sometimes at great personal risk.

These moments are often thought of as a kind of moral test. Though we do encounter the best of ourselves, and the best – most virtuous – moral reflection of human behaviour in such moments, the opposite can also be true.

A video which appeared on social media and then on mainstream news outlets last week of people fighting in a shopping centre over toilet paper illustrates what it can look like when people think of their struggle as competitive rather than cooperative – when people believe they must struggle against, rather than with, others.

In the video, one person has a large shopping cart piled high with packets of toilet paper and can be seen driving her cart away from an isle whose shelves are completely empty. A second person approaches, asks for one packet from the full trolley, and upon being refused, a physical fight ensues, in which two other parties promptly intervene.

The point of the example is not to show these particular people up, but to point out that this moment, and others like it not filmed and disseminated, represents the antithesis to the virtues of generosity and cooperation that are the markers of our ‘better natures’ and traits that we, as a community and a society, rely upon in times of crisis or trouble.

When we say something like “these are testing times” we mean that we may be tested in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, morally. Perhaps there is a sense here also of that test being able to tell us something about what we, as humans, are really like.

Many of the questions we unpack and debate in moral philosophy concern, at bottom, views about what human nature, essentially, is like: whether, for instance, we are more naturally altruistic or self-interested by nature.

It is clear even to a casual observer of the human condition there is a spectrum – of people, of actions, and contexts – between self-interest and altruism. We also know there are psychologically complex reasons for people to behave in certain ways in particular situations. It is a difficult question to answer – how separate should we should think of moral reasons as being from other sorts of reasons? Even so, the moral test presented by times of crisis and trouble is doubly significant as a test of our societal ethical values and those of our personal character.

Aristotle, in his treatise on ethics, made the cultivation of personal virtues central to the question of what constitutes an ethical life. The virtues are traits that belong to and are exercised by individuals. Importantly, they are acquired by practice in a process Aristotle called ‘habituation’ by which one learns to be virtuous by practicing virtue in a similar way to the learning of a musical instrument by playing it. He thought of the ethical life as a craft: learned and perfected through practice, rather than issuing from a set of rules.

Hoarding and scrapping, as captured on the film, is clearly not the kind of virtuous behavior that will help us to get through times of trouble and help us to emerge as a strong community. Behavior that issues from the self-interested, individualistic realms of human nature has its place in dystopian apocalyptic fiction, but such fiction foreshadows for us a possible reality.

As things currently stand, the public has been notified that essential supplies are not going to run out, therefore stockpiling toilet paper, and other grocery items, is irrational. Yet people are driven by panic and mistrust to continue to hoard. The appropriate moral response requires us to strengthen our character and that of our society against such impulsive behavior and to foster trust and listen to reason. We are rational creatures, and we are better when we use our reason – which suggests that our morality is related in important ways to our capacity for reason.

But there is something else – by which I do not mean something different from reason but something in addition to it – which we need for the moral life. Compassion. We need to cultivate, through a kind of ‘moral imagination’ the ability to see ourselves in the situation of another. We need to not make exceptions of ourselves, but to see in our own plight, that of the other. These capacities are fostered in the practical virtues of generosity and cooperation. Now is a good time to be practicing these virtues. We will need them for what lies ahead.

Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene

photograph of floating ice in Antartica

We all know, more or less, that Planet Earth is in trouble, that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that an environmental catastrophe systemic, complex, and more and more irreversible is already underway.

We are facing an unprecedented concatenation of changes to the Earth. Global warming from fossil fuel pollution is causing ice caps to melt and oceans to rise, threatening to inundate many coastal habitats within decades. Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events in the form of violent storms and severe droughts. Destruction of ecological systems is leading to the collapse of insect and bird populations which are necessary for the pollination of plants including human food crops. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste, and toxic synthetic substances can now be found in every part of the world. A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades shows that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway and it is more severe than previously feared, according to new research.

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Should We Avoid or Engage Moral Dilemmas?

It is common for parents to teach their children to avoid moral danger. Parental advice includes avoiding certain peer groups, adhering to a curfew, and ensuring that responsible adult supervision is always present.  Parents tend to think that these kinds of policies make it more likely that their children won’t encounter situations in which they might make bad decisions.  

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