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The Ethics of Conscription

photograph of military boots and fatigues standing in line

As the conflict wrought from the occupation of Ukraine enters its third year, the nation struggles to find warm bodies for the front. Its leaders consider an expansion of the draft. Russia, too, suffers war fatigue as their conscription fueled invasion trudges on. Surrounding nations, eyeing the conflict and their own military limitations, mull expanding mandatory military service. Seeking to deter Russian hostilities, Latvia reintroduced conscription as of January 1st. Serbia, historically close with Russia but studiously non-committal on the issue of Ukraine, reopened discussions of conscription this January as a way to ensure military preparedness. Even  Germany — long gun-shy about all things military — has been reconsidering mandatory service, formally ended in 2011.

Russia and Ukraine are focused on the draft to sustain a war effort. Latvia, Serbia, and Germany are considering a general requirement to engage in military service, in peace times as well as during war.  One situation is certainly more emergent than the other, but both assert the government’s right to send its citizens (without consent) to fight and die. How might we justify such incredible power?

The most straightforward justification is that it is simply part of the deal. The “state,” the political institution which reigns sovereign over its people and territories, provides certain privileges and protections. In return, it can impose obligations on its people: taxation, jury duty, mandatory military service, what have you. Under this analysis, the legitimacy of conscription stems from the general political legitimacy of the state and its coercive powers.

A potent concern is consent. How can we justify the state’s power of conscription if people did not explicitly consent to it? This concern echoes across all the state’s coercive powers, but it is especially acute for military service where so much can be on the line. The most historically influential response by philosophers is essentially hypothetical consent. The idea is that, understanding the situation, a reasonable person would agree to be governed by the state and hence consents in theory. This is hypothetical consent to be governed, not necessarily to conscription specifically. But if we agree that a reasonable person would consent to be governed, consent to abide by decisions made through the political process, and consent to the protection provided by the state, then conscription is not far away. However, hypothetical consent clearly has its limitations: Imagine the absurdity of hypothetical consent as a defense in cases involving sexual harassment. Moreover, consent typically implies respect for the individualness of personal decisions (regardless if others may judge them as unreasonable).

One might also, while not objecting to coercive powers of the state generally, take issue with conscription specifically. If government is understood as existing partly to protect certain rights, life among them, then conscription would seem antithetical to the very nature of government. Although one may respond that the government needs to infringe the rights of some, to protect the rights of many. Governments can also provide more flexibility. For example, many European countries with mandatory service (such as Austria), provide a choice of military service or civil service.

If conscription can be justified as something citizens owe to the state, an implication of this is that the state needs to hold up its end of the bargain. A state that serves its people is best positioned to ask for service in return. A corrupt or tyrannical state, an unjust war, all these might undermine the legitimacy of conscription. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries have often adopted a carrot and stick approach to compulsory military service. Revolutionary France, the birthplace of modern conscription, also ensured that military service provided a path of advancement for those serving. In the United States, the GI Bill, initiated at the end of World War II, provides extensive support for education for veterans.

Along these lines we may also worry about a mismatch between who benefits from the state and who pays the price of conscription. During the Vietnam war, the poor and minorities were far less able to avoid the draft than those with more resources. This unfairness is immortalized in the art and music of the time, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” which was written in response to the disproportionate deaths of Black Americans.

Alternatively, we may justify conscription (and indeed, the state generally) on the basis of utility — that it provides the most good to the most people. Clearly, mandatory military conscription, especially in times of war, comes with risks. But it can also come with benefits, e.g., enabling a nation to fight off an invader that could otherwise lead to far larger casualties. Arguing for conscription on the basis of benefits, or even necessity, is clearest in a moment of humanitarian crisis. More generally, the challenge is not whether conscription can come with benefits, but whether it is legitimately the best option for the people.

Can changes be made to increase voluntary recruitment? Can technology be used instead of soldiers? Can new alliances be made? In short, is mandatory military service truly the least injurious option? Using benefits to the people as our metric also places war itself in the crosshairs. Some wars, such as repelling invasion, are of uncontroversial public benefits. Other wars — Vietnam, again, is a notable example — seem to be in service of the government but not necessarily its people.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect conscription to have a clear moral justification at all. The historical roots of conscription lay not in ethical analysis, but military expediency. In early 1800s Europe, when European governments had achieved a level of control and centralization to carry out conscription, it simply became a fact of war. This is not to say ethical reflection on the matter is not valuable, nor that it can never be justified, nor that there are not better and worse ways to implement conscription. But is a general moral justification what we should expect?  Or is it more likely that conscription is often just a government tactic in need of a moral fig leaf?

Should the U.S. Continue Aid to Ukraine?

photograph of Ukrainian flag on military uniform

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


On Wednesday, September 7th, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced a new aid package to Ukraine worth over $1 billion. The announcement came during what may be a critical juncture for the war. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been slower than initially hoped, leading U.S. officials to question Ukrainian military strategy. However, progress has been made in recent weeks – the Ukrainian military has broken through the first line of Russian defenses in the south and liberated settlements. Further, there is some reason to believe future gains may come at an accelerated rate, as intelligence officials believe the Russian military concentrated its defenses at the first line.

Regardless, continued U.S. aid to Ukraine is no longer an ironclad guarantee. Although a majority of U.S. citizens still approve of aid to Ukraine, poll numbers have shown changing attitudes in recent months. About half of Republican respondents polled feel that the U.S. is doing too much to help Ukraine, and that they prefer ending the war as soon as possible, even if Ukraine concedes lost territory to Russia. Further, despite a majority of Democrats and independents favoring aid to Ukraine even in a prolonged conflict, support for that position has declined somewhat. During the Republican presidential debate in August two candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, stated they would end U.S. aid to Ukraine (in DeSantis’s case, this was qualified with the statement that he would stop aid unless European nations “pull their weight”). Donald Trump has suggested that all aid to Ukraine should pause until U.S. agencies turn over alleged evidence that incriminates President Joseph Biden.

Given the amount of aid the U.S. has sent to Ukraine – about $76 billion at the time of this article’s writing (although Congress has approved up to $113 billion) – it is worth pausing to weigh the moral arguments for and against continuing to provide aid.

Before beginning that discussion, I want to note two things.

First, while aid to Ukraine is normally reported in dollar amounts, this is misleading. The U.S. has not sent $76 billion in cash to Kyiv. While some money has gone to financing, significant portions of the aid are supplies from the U.S. stockpiles, training Ukrainian soldiers, and collaborating on intelligence. The value of the aid is estimated at $76 billion but this does not mean the U.S. has spent $76 billion. Less than half of the aid has been cash, and some portion of this figure includes loans.

Second, there are arguments about aid this article will not consider. Namely, these concern the strategic or political value of aiding Ukraine. One might argue that a repulsion of the invasion would humiliate and weaken Putin’s regime, thereby advancing U.S. interests. Alternatively, one could argue that if the war effort fails while the U.S. sends aid, it could damage U.S.’s standing internationally; there would be doubts that cooperation with the U.S. is sufficient to ensure security. While these considerations matter and should enter our decision making, they are too complex to discuss in sufficient detail here.

What arguments might someone make against continuing aid to Ukraine? The most common arguments in public discourse stem from what the U.S. government ought to prioritize. For instance, during the Republican primary debate, Ramaswamy commented that the U.S. would be better off sending troops to the border with Mexico. Trump has similarly questioned how the U.S. can send aid to Ukraine but cannot prevent school shootings.

The idea here appears to be something like this. Governments have obligations which should shape their decisions. Specifically, governments have greater duties to resolve domestic issues and help their citizens before considering foreign affairs. Thus, the claim here seems to be that the U.S. should simply spend the resources it is currently allocating towards Ukraine in ways that more tangibly benefit citizens of the U.S.

There are a few reasons to be skeptical of this argument. First, without a specific policy alternative it is not clear what those who utter this argument are suggesting. For any particular program, it is always theoretically possible that a government could do something more efficient or more beneficial for its citizens. But this claim is merely theoretical without a particular proposal.

Second, this argument may pose what philosophers call a false dichotomy. This fallacy occurs when an argument limits the number of options available, so that one choice seems less desirable. False dichotomies leave listeners with an “either this or that” choice when the options are not mutually exclusive. Consider Ramaswamy’s proposal in particular. It is unclear why the U.S. could not both provide military aid to Ukraine and deploy soldiers to protect its borders.

Third, not all aid sent to Ukraine could clearly benefit U.S. citizens. For instance, it is not clear how anti-tank missiles, mine-clearing equipment, or artillery can be used to solve domestic issues in the U.S.

More compelling, however, are the arguments that may appeal to the long-term consequences of prolonged war in Ukraine. Some may point to more speculative consequences. Perhaps a long war in Ukraine will result in a more hostile relationship between Western nations and Russia. This is especially true given recent discussion of Ukraine joining NATO and Russian officials’ attitudes towards the alliance. Further, a prolonged conflict may create more tense relationships between the U.S. and China, and could provide a diplomatic advantage to the latter. So, some might argue that it could be in the interests of long-term peace to bring an end to the war in Ukraine; the more strained these relations become, the less probable cooperation between major powers becomes.

Less speculative is the simple fact that, the longer the war drags on, the more people will die. The more battles fought, the more casualties. Additionally, given that the Ukrainian military is now using munitions like cluster bombs and the Russian military has blanked portions of Ukraine with land mines, it is certain that the increased casualties will include civilians. Given that there is moral reason to avoid deaths, we may have moral reason to bring an end to the war in Ukraine to reduce the number of lives lost – the sooner it ends, by whatever means, the fewer people will die.

However, proponents of aid to Ukraine also appeal to the long-term consequences of current events. In particular, some argue that failing to support Ukraine’s war effort will enable future aggression, specifically, aggression by Moscow. The idea is something like this. The costlier the war is for Russia, the less likely its leaders will be to pursue war in the future. Further, the more support that nations like the U.S. are willing to provide to nations that are the victims of aggression, presumably, the less likely it would make future aggressive acts. Although a prolonged war in Ukraine will lead to a greater loss of life now, one might argue that in the end it will prevent even larger losses in the future by changing the cost-benefit analysis of future would-be aggressors.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for continuing aid to Ukraine comes from just war theory – the application of moral theory to warfare. Just war theorists often distinguish between jus ad bellum – the justification of going to war – and jus in bello – the morality of the conduct of combatants once war has broken out. Typically, just war theorists agree that wars of aggression are not justified unless they are to prevent a future, more severe act of aggression. Defensive warfare, in particular defensive warfare against an unjust aggressor, is justified.

To put the matter simply, Ukraine has been unjustly invaded by the Russian military. As a result, the efforts to defend their nation and retake captured territory are morally justified. So long as we have moral reason to aid those who are responding to unjust aggression, it seems we have moral reason to aid Ukraine. For many, this is enough to justify the expenditures required to continue military aid.

Of course, one might question how far this obligation gets us. It is not clear how much we are required to aid others who have a just pursuit. Resources are finite and we cannot contribute to every cause. This point will be more pressing as the monetary figure associated with aid to Ukraine rises, and our public discourse questions the other potential efforts towards which that aid could have been directly.

As noted earlier, however, there are some reasons to question arguments of this sort when they are light on specifics. It is one thing to reassess the situation as circumstances have changed and find that your moral obligations now seem to pull you in a different direction. It is another entirely to abandon a democratic nation to conquest simply over sophistry. The severe consequences of our choices on this matter should prompt us to think carefully before committing ourselves to a particular plan of action.

The Case For and Against Nuclear Disarmament

photograph of bomb shelter sign in Ukraine

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


When the Cold War ended thirty years ago, many hoped that the chances of nuclear war would decline, and even that nuclear weapons might be on the road to ultimate extinction. For a time, it seemed those hopes might be fulfilled. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ famous Doomsday Clock stood at six minutes to midnight – that is, global catastrophe – in 1988. The Clock was rolled back to fourteen minutes to midnight in 1995 as Russia and the United States agreed to unprecedented reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals.

Sadly, though, these optimistic predictions have faded in recent years. Russian nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine, the impending expiration of the one remaining nuclear weapons  treaty between Russia and the United States, signs of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and the unprecedented challenge of managing a three-sided geopolitical competition between nuclear-armed Russia, China, and the United States have brought concerns about nuclear war back to the forefront of policymakers’ agendas. Some prominent Americans commentators are now calling for a big build-up of our nuclear arsenal. Today, the Clock stands at ninety seconds to midnight, closer to catastrophe than it has ever been – largely, the Bulletin claims, because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer has even reignited debate about the United States’ use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II – so far, the only instance of their use in anger. Thus, now seems like a propitious moment to go back to first principles: that is, to reconsider what ultimately should be done about nuclear weapons.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the basic question is whether or not to adopt disarmament as the ultimate goal. “Disarmament” means both dismantling all nuclear warheads and delivery systems, as well as eliminating stockpiles of weapons-grade fissile materials that could be used to quickly assemble a weapon. The arguments against disarmament come in two flavors: first, that nuclear weapons are effective deterrents to nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional forms of aggression; and second, that nuclear disarmament is an unrealistic goal.

The historical case for the value of nuclear weapons as deterrents to conventional military aggression is weak. In 1950, the United States enjoyed a near-monopoly on nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union having only tested their first atomic bomb a year earlier. This did not deter North Korea from invading South Korea with the Soviet Union’s support, and it did not deter China from entering the war when U.S., South Korean, and allied forces advanced almost to the border between North Korea and China in the fall of that year. Nor did the United States’ nuclear arsenal deter North Vietnam from invading and ultimately conquering South Vietnam, a country to which the U.S. had made clear security guarantees, in the early 1970s.

The reason that the U.S.’s nuclear “umbrella” was unable to dissuade Soviet-supported regimes from engaging in aggressive conventional military action against U.S. allies during the Cold War is not difficult to understand. Ultimately, the United States’ interest in avoiding a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, which it might have precipitated by using nuclear weapons against one of the Soviet Union’s allies, trumped its interest in protecting its own allies from conventional aggression. Knowing this, North Korea, North Vietnam and other Soviet-backed states were confident that the United States would not actually use its nuclear arsenal against them. Today, Russia or China or some other revisionist power may reasonably believe that the United States would, for precisely the same reason, never actually use its nuclear weapons against them if they threatened the sovereignty of countries like Taiwan, South Korea, or Poland with conventional military force – even one which enjoys a treaty-based U.S. security guarantee.

Nuclear weapons have historically also failed to deter states from directly aggressing against states that possessed their own nuclear arsenals. It is certainly true that the Cold War never went hot in a conventional sense, and that might be chalked up to superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. Still, the existence of a small Israeli nuclear arsenal was widely known since the late 1960s, though not officially acknowledged; but this did not deter a coalition of Arab states from invading Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A few years before, the Soviet Union and China, which both possessed publicly-acknowledged nuclear arsenals, engaged in a series of intense military clashes on their border. And in 1999, Pakistani forces occupied strategic positions on Indian territory in the Kashmir region, leading to a conventional military conflict between the two nuclear-armed states. Again, the reason that aggressor states are not necessarily deterred by their victims’ nuclear arsenals is the cost of their use both in terms of possible nuclear counterstrikes by the aggressor or its ally and international reputation. This makes it unlikely that nuclear-armed states will use their arsenals against any but the most grave existential threats, whatever their official policy.

The case for nuclear weapons as deterrents against the use of other weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons – seems to rest on firmer historical ground. In the eighty-year history of nuclear weapons, there has never been a single nuclear exchange or chemical or biological attack by one state against a nuclear-armed state. The principle of mutually assured destruction or MAD, as it is popularly known, seems to have played a role here. According to this theory, two nuclear-armed states are unlikely to attack each other with nuclear weapons because there is no entirely adequate defense against a nuclear counterstrike. Because a state contemplating a first strike could expect to suffer cataclysmic losses from such a counterstrike, it will be effectively deterred.

In the 1950s, prior to the advent of ballistic missiles, the greatest nuclear threat to both superpowers was their adversary’s thousands-strong fleet of strategic bombers. Although the country that struck first could expect to destroy some of these bombers – both the United States and the Soviet Union built thousands of fighter interceptors to shoot them down – it was well-understood that at least some would manage to hit their targets. And even a handful of thermonuclear-armed bombers could cause millions of casualties. The lack of an adequate defense to nuclear counterstrike became only more apparent once the superpowers diversified their weapons delivery systems, developing the so-called “nuclear triad” of submarines, bombers, and missiles. Even today, anti-missile defense systems are notoriously unreliable, and submarines difficult to detect and destroy.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the United States and Soviet Union came perilously close to nuclear war at various points, notwithstanding the elegant logic of MAD. President John F. Kennedy estimated that the chances of a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis were one in three; his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, put the odds at one in one hundred. Either way, these are surely terrifying figures given the potentially catastrophic, even civilization-ending impact of full-blown nuclear war not just on those countries, but the entire planet.

In another famous incident in 1983, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Force named Stanislav Petrov likely single-handedly averted nuclear war when his nuclear early warning system mistakenly reported an intercontinental ballistic missile launch from the United States. Petrov chose to wait for corroborating evidence before relaying the warning up the chain of command, a decision credited with preventing a retaliatory nuclear strike at a time of heightened tension between the superpowers. The superpowers’ hair-trigger deployment of their nuclear arsenals meant that misunderstandings and the fog of (Cold) war could cause even rational actors to choose a fundamentally irrational course, and there was little time to deliberate or think twice about whether to launch. A world of MAD is not a safe world.

Moreover, the argument that nuclear weapons deter nuclear war is not by itself sufficient to justify their existence unless nuclear war would be more likely in a disarmed world or a world that attempted disarmament than in a world of nuclear deterrence. This point brings me to the arguments against nuclear disarmament based on the practical infeasibility of that goal.

In A Skeptic’s Case for Nuclear Disarmament, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the process of disarmament raises two dangers: the danger of incentivizing proliferation and the danger of cheating. Because any serious move toward disarmament would have to be led by the United States – the second-largest arsenal in the world – its allies, like Japan, South Korea, or Poland, might feel so apprehensive about losing America’s nuclear umbrella in light of mounting geopolitical tensions and rivalries that they would decide to acquire their own nuclear deterrent in response. For this reason, O’Hanlon recommends deferring nuclear disarmament until after major geopolitical tensions between Russia, China, and the United States have been resolved. It could be added that nuclear disarmament, which would require extensive cooperation between these great powers, would itself probably be more feasible if they were to resolve their disputes.

One reply to this argument is that it threatens to defer disarmament into the indefinite future – in practical terms, it implies no change to the intolerable status quo. There is no guarantee that even if the current disputes between the great powers were resolved, some new ones would not arise. As we have seen, there are also reasons to doubt whether America’s nuclear arsenal really is an effective deterrent. Moreover, that these disputes increase the likelihood of nuclear war is one of the best reasons for pursuing disarmament. And historically, it is not unheard of for nuclear-powered rivals to work together to reduce their nuclear arsenals, or even to talk seriously about disarmament.

O’Hanlon also argues that because of the extreme difficulty of verifying compliance with a disarmament agreement, particularly with respect to stockpiles of fissile materials, there is a serious danger that some rogue state will secretly build a nuclear weapon and use it for the purpose of nuclear blackmail. For this reason, he recommends that any disarmament treaty include a reconstitution provision pursuant to which any party could temporarily withdraw from the treaty and reconstitute its arsenal if it can show to an impartial body that it faces a serious nuclear, chemical, biological, or even conventional threat.

Such a reconstitution provision might, however, introduce further instability into the disarmament regime. Once a treaty party withdraws, its geopolitical rivals would certainly be strongly motivated to withdraw as well; indeed, one party’s withdrawal could be a sufficient reason for its rivals’ withdrawal. In effect, this would unravel the disarmament regime and take the world back to square one. Moreover, even if O’Hanlon is correct that no conventional deterrent could adequately prevent nuclear blackmail or conventional aggression by a rogue state, arguably a world characterized by a higher risk of conventional aggression and nuclear blackmail is still preferable to a world characterized by a non-trivial risk of a nuclear exchange.

Of course, there is much more to be said about the arguments for and against disarmament; in the foregoing I have only managed to scratch the surface. Some useful further resources include O’Hanlon’s book, Raimo Väyrynen and David Cortwright’s Towards Nuclear Zero, George Perkovich and James M. Acton’s Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, and McGeorge Bundy’s Danger & Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years. Whichever way you ultimately come down on this issue, with the nuclear order straining under new challenges, it behooves all of us to reflect seriously upon the desirability and feasibility of a renewed push for nuclear disarmament.

Taking Offense with Emily McTernan

Imagine sitting in a staff meeting where one of your co-workers makes a joke about people with disabilities. You’re offended, so you roll your eyes and cross your arms in front of your chest for the rest of the meeting. You might worry that your reaction was pretty insignificant, and didn’t really do any good. My guest, philosopher Emily McTernan, argues that taking offense and showing disapproval, even in small ways, can actually be a force for social good.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Emily McTernanOn Taking Offence
  2. Amy Olberding, The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy
  3. Sarah Buss, “Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners
  4. Cheshire Calhoun, “The Virtue of Civility
  5. Joel Feinberg, Offense to Others

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Funk and Flash” by Blue Dot Sessions

Rambling” by Blue Dot Sessions

Capitalist Humanitarianism with Lucia Hulsether

Ethnographer and historian of religion Lucia Hulsether is on the show today to talk about the strange phenomenon she calls “capitalist humanitarianism.” She studies the ways that corporations attempt to distance themselves from the harms of capitalism by doing things like by selling environmentally-friendly goods or promoting socially-responsible investing.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Lucia HulsetherCapitalist Humanitarianism

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Capering” by Blue Dot Sessions

Supervised Injection Facilities and the Morality of Harm Reduction

photograph of discarded syringe on asphalt

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


People often support policies that lessen the harms others experience. For instance, proponents of abortion rights often argue that banning abortion does not eliminate abortions, it only makes them unsafe. Some high school sex education programs provide condoms to students to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Although traditionally alcohol is banned in homeless shelters, some have shifted to a “wet” model allowing residents to use alcohol and in some cases even prescribing alcohol. The rationale here being that it is easier to get one’s sobriety under control in a managed environment and when one has shelter at night.

More recently, some have considered the role harm reduction may play in addressing the U.S. opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 93,655 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, a 30% increase from 2019, and a further 107,622 died of overdose in 2021. One of the leading contributors to this spike in deaths is the increased presence of fentanyl. Because of its potency, lower cost, and addictive potential, fentanyl is often mixed with other powdered drugs or sold in their place. As a result, people who unknowingly consume fentanyl may accidentally overdose, not realizing the strength of the drug they are consuming.

In response, policy makers have been taking measures to reduce the risk of harm fentanyl poses. For instance, although once labeled as “drug paraphernalia” lawmakers across the U.S. have worked to decriminalize fentanyl test strips, hoping to help drug users avoid fentanyl. Some have called for further steps including the creation of Supervised Injection Facilities (SIFs). At these facilities, individuals are permitted to bring in and consume drugs. They are then provided with the means to use these drugs as safely as possible; they receive clean needles, alcohol pads to sterilize injection sites, and medical staff remain on standby to monitor for potential signs of overdose. Additionally, staff can help secure access to resources such as addiction counseling and treatment. The idea is to reduce overall harm by ensuring that those who would otherwise use drugs in public are instead in a private, controlled space with access to resources which can help secure their long-term health. OnPointNYC, the organization running the SIFs, reports they have intervened in 848 overdoses on site and zero deaths have occurred in 68,264 uses.

SIFs, however, are not popular in the U.S. Although other locales have considered opening SIFs, New York City contains the only two officially operating in the U.S. – one in East Harlem and one in Washington Heights. However Representative Nicole Malliotakis of New York’s 11th District has called on the Justice Department to shut down “heroin shooting galleries that only encourage drug use and deteriorate our quality of life.” Pennsylvania’s state senate recently passed a bill banning SIFs by a 41-9 margin. Senator Christine Tartaglione, a Democrat from Philadelphia, stated that her “constituents do not want safe injections site in the neighborhood” and claimed that these sites “enable addiction… [and] we should be in the business of giving these folks treatments.”

These, and other potential objections, warrant further examination. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to consider arguments against harm reduction in the context of SIFs. However, in doing so, these reflections may lead to some insight about harm reduction arguments in other contexts.

One might object to SIFs because they appear to publicly endorse illegal behavior. Yet we may have reason to find this reason uncompelling – the law and morality often diverge. To oppose SIFs because the drugs consumed there are illicit is to merely pass the buck. Why should we regard the use of particular drugs morally objectionable? Why prefer a policy of abstention to moderation? Our focus is better placed on arguments that target SIFs themselves.

The claims by public figures quoted earlier suggest that SIFs fail to prevent harm and instead increase it. There seem to be two purported reasons for this. First, that SIFs enable or even promote drug addiction. Second, that SIFs lead to a deterioration of the surrounding area, encouraging drug users to occupy it, which leads to drug dealing, public drug use, and further threats to the local community.

The available data, however, does not support these arguments. Researchers have found that SIFs lead to lower rates of overdose and decreases in infectious disease rates among drug users. So, SIFs appear to lessen harm to addicts, at least in the short term. Further, SIFs do not seem to impact local crime rates, and, at worst, have no impact on public drug use and needle litter (though there is some evidence that they reduce both).

There is an intuitive argument that these facilities will deteriorate neighborhoods by drawing in drug dealers – the supply may seek out the demand. However, support for this claim is primarily anecdotal. Further, while narcotics arrests have increased in New York neighborhoods with SIFs, these areas now have additional police presence outside of SIFs. It’s at least plausible that an increased police presence is the cause of additional arrests.

Further, there seems to be little, if any, data on the long-term effects of SIFs for overcoming addiction. Perhaps more clarity on long-term consequences of SIFs will come as their impacts are further researched. But currently there seems to be little evidence suggesting they are harmful. They seem to benefit addicts, at least in the short term, and there does not appear to be conclusive evidence that they harm the surrounding community.

But perhaps considering only the consequences misses the point. As I have argued elsewhere, sometimes the consequences of a policy do not seem to matter in the face of other moral objections. Consider, for instance, someone arguing that making cannibalism illegal just produces additional harms – it pushes the market for human meat into the underground, making regulation and oversight impossible, harming both the producers and consumers of human meat. Thus, this person concludes that legalizing cannibalism and regulating human meat consumption would make things safer.

These points, however, fail to resonate as objections to prohibiting cannibalism. This is because harm is just one factor (if even a factor) behind cannibalism’s illegality. Part of the reason why we have laws is to express our attitudes towards a behavior. In this case, eating human flesh simply seems deeply morally wrong to us.

Following this logic, the opponent of SIFs could argue that there is something morally objectionable in drug use, even if SIFs do reduce harm in the long run. That explanation could come in various forms. For instance, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant argues that someone who refuses to develop their talents acts immorally by disrespecting her own humanity – she has a potential that she is ignoring in favor of seeking pleasure. Alternatively, one might ground an objection to drug use in virtues. Given the long-term risks associated with drug use, one who regularly uses may fail to demonstrate the virtue of prudence. Thus, one might argue that, if drug use is morally wrong, then facilitating it via SIFs would make one complicit in wrongdoing.

Even if one can give a compelling argument that drug use is in some way immoral (although this may be difficult given the disease model of addiction) there are hurdles this explanation must overcome. Namely, it is unclear whether these concerns are the proper basis of legislation. The government has, at best, a limited prerogative to promote virtue, at least in a society with robust individual rights to self-determination. Further, given the sheer scale of deaths from drug overdoses in the United States, it seems more plausible that reducing harms by participating in or facilitating wrongdoing is a lesser evil than continuing with a status quo that results in tens of thousands of deaths a year. And even still, it is not clear that facilitating a wrong behavior for the sake of minimizing harm is itself wrong.

Opponents of SIFs seem to have two rhetorical options available to them. They may argue that SIFs do not, in fact, reduce harm. But this claim has a tenuous relationship to current data. Alternatively, they may argue that even if they do reduce harms, SIFs are ultimately unjustifiable for moral reasons. There is more flexibility in developing arguments of this nature, but there are still serious theoretical difficulties one must resolve even if they can give a plausible argument for drug use’s immorality. Perhaps this is why opponents of SIFs couch their arguments in terms of the consequences of SIFs, even when they lack the data to support these claims.

Ultimately, if OnPoint’s figures are accurate, SIFs show great promise at limiting deaths from overdose. Even if this is their only benefit, this alone should make us pause before rejecting them. While they may only address the symptoms of the opioid crisis in the U.S., we have compelling moral reason to minimize harms while solving the underlying problems behind addiction.

Social Equality with Jessica Flanigan

Social or relational egalitarians believe that humans should treat one another as equals. They’ll often point to democracy as the most realistic means of achieving their political goals in an egalitarian way. And this makes sense in theory. Everyone gets a vote, everyone gets an equal say. My guest today argues that democracy might not actually be the most equitable way of making decisions in a society. Jessica Flanigan is a philosopher at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, and she says that egalitarians might want to rethink their commitment to democracy.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Jessica Flanigan, “Social Equality and the Stateless Society

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Borough” by Blue Dot Sessions

Phenomenology of Black Spirit with Biko Mandela Gray and Ryan J. Johnson

We’re reframing the philosophical canon today with Biko Mandela Gray and Ryan J. Johnson. Their new book, Phenomenology of Black Spirit, puts major Black thinkers in conversation with the work of the philosopher Hegel.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Biko Mandela Gray
  2. Ryan J. Johnson
  3. Phenomenology of Black Spirit
  4. Ethics and phenomenology
  5. Ronald Judy, Sentient Flesh: Thinking in Disorder, Poiēsis in Black
  6. More on Ella Baker

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions

Ethics in Focus with Elena Ruíz and Nora Berenstain

This episode is part of our Ethics in Focus series where we present full-length interviews with expert guests. This series features conversations about ethics for folks already familiar with the field of ethics. Today, I’m talking to the philosophers Elena Ruíz and Nora Berenstain about the criminalization of pregnancy in North America. We’re discussing their 2018 article “Gender Based Administrative Violence as Colonial Strategy.”

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Elena Ruíz and Nora Berenstain, “Gender-Based Administrative Violence as Colonial Strategy
  2. Leanne Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation
  3. John Locke, “Second Treatise of Government
  4. Shannon Speed, Incarcerated Stories
  5. Cate Young, “This Is What I Mean When I Say ‘White Feminism’
  6. Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers
  7. Anthea Butler
  8. Horatio Robinson Storer
  9. Kimberlé Crenshaw
  10. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class
  11. Reproductive justice

Resources provided by Nora Berenstain and Elena Ruíz

  1. Freefrom National Abortion Access Fund for Survivors
  2. Indigenous Women Rising abortion fund
  3. Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project
  4. Mariposa Fund
  5. Surkuna (Ecuador)
  6. Fondo Maria (Mexico)
  7. Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (El Salvador)
  8. Lilith fund
  9. Abortions without borders
  10. Plan C
  11. Sister Song
  12. Women with a Vision
  13. National Network of Abortion Funds
  14. Third Wave Fund
  15. Survived and Punished

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions

Rules with Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston is Director emerita of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and a visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. On today’s episode of Examining Ethics, we’re discussing her new book Rules: A Short History of What We Live By. She explains that regulations that seem to have little to do with morality–like spelling rules–are often tied to deep-seated values in a society.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Lorraine DastonRules: A Short History of What We Live By
  2. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein on rule following
  4. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives
  5. 1908 National Spelling Bee

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Victims’ Rights with Lenore Anderson

Practical or applied ethics involves a lot of discussion about harm. And when we’re examining harm as it relates to crime, we tend to focus on victims. However, president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice Lenore Anderson argues that we need to take care that our discussion of harm isn’t centered on just one group of people. She’s here to discuss her new book In Their Names: The Untold Story of Victims’ Rights, Mass Incarceration, and the Future of Public Safety.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Lenore Anderson, In Their Names: The Untold Story of Victims’ Rights, Mass Incarceration, and the Future of Public Safety
  2. National Academies of Science, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States
  3. Victims of crime in New Orleans jailed so they could provide testimony in court

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Obedience with Pauline Shanks Kaurin

There’s perhaps no better example of an obedient person than a soldier. And yet, soldiers often thoughtfully disobey direct orders, and in some cases, are legally obligated to disobey the rules. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, who is a philosopher and professor of military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College joins us to explore the ethics of obedience. She’s discussing her book On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community
  2. Mỹ Lai massacre
    1. Hugh Thompson
  3. Alasdair MacIntyreAfter Virtue
  4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  5. Thomas Aquinas on unjust laws
  6. USS Theodore Roosevelt and COVID-19

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Calgary Sweeps” by Blue Dot Sessions

Emma Saunders-Hastings: Philanthropy and Democracy

Inquiries around the ethics of philanthropy might seem pretty cut-and-dry at first glance. Are the people receiving donations better off than they were before they received help? Even if the answer to that question is yes, political theorist Emma Saunders-Hastings argues that it’s not the only critical question we should be asking about philanthropy. On this episode of the podcast, we discuss her new book, Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropy and Democratic Equality.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Emma Saunders-Hastings, Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropy and Democratic Equality
  2. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  3. Give Directly

Please note that the Prindle Institute does not endorse any of the organizations linked in the show notes.

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Care and Institutions with Elizabeth Lanphier

Clinical ethicist and professor of philosophy Elizabeth Lanphier joins the Examining Ethics podcast to discuss the relationship between care and justice, and what an ethic of care might look like in institutional settings.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Elizabeth Lanphier, “An Institutional Ethic of Care”
  2. Why we should care about ‘care ethics’
  3. More information about the basics of care ethics
  4. Virginia Held
  5. Justice versus care ethics
  6. Ideal and nonideal theory
  7. Margaret Urban Walker

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Nasty, Brutish and Short with Scott Hershovitz

Joining me on the show today is the philosopher Scott Hershovitz, whose new book explores philosophy and ethics through the lens of questions raised by his own children. But as Scott explained to me, his sons Rex and Hank aren’t interested in philosophy just because they’ve been raised by a philosopher. In fact most children are natural philosophers.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Scott Hershovitz, Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids
  2. St. Augustine on time
  3. Jane English, “Sex Equality in Sports
  4. Angela Schneider
  5. Phillipa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect
  6. Trolley problem
  7. René Descartes and dreams
  8. Chris Sununu and climate skepticism

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Capering” by Blue Dot Sessions

Hungaria” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

African American Philosophy with John McClendon III and Stephen Ferguson II

John McClendon III and Stephen Ferguson II are like philosophical archaeologists, uncovering and analyzing the lost scholarship of Black thinkers from the last two centuries. Their book, African American Philosophers and Philosophy, is a fascinating exploration of the work of Black scholars who’ve historically been left out of mainstream philosophy. In my interview with them, we spoke about the value of recovering this scholarship from the archives, and also focused on important contributions to the field of ethics from African-American philosophers.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Stephen Ferguson II
  2. John McClendon III
  3. Charles Mills
  4. Francis Williams
  5. David Hume
  6. Charles Leander Hill
  7. Thomas Nelson Baker
  8. Angela Davis
  9. J.C. Price
  10. John Milton Smith
  11. Kwame Nkrumah

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Golden Grass” by Blue Dot Sessions

Pintle 1 Min” by Blue Dot Sessions

Phantom Patterns and Online Misinformation with Megan Fritts

We take in massive amounts of information on a daily basis. Our brains use something called pattern-recognition to try and sort through and make sense of this information. My guest today, the philosopher Megan Fritts, argues that in many cases, the stories we tell ourselves about the patterns we see aren’t actually all that meaningful. And worse, these so-called phantom patterns can amplify the problem of misinformation.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com.

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Online Misinformation and ‘Phantom Patterns’: Epistemic Exploitation in the Era of Big Data” by Megan Fritts and Frank Cabrera
  2. The Right to Know by Lani Watson
  3. Definition of the term “epistemic”
  4. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Golden Grass” by Blue Dot Sessions

Pintle 1 Min” by Blue Dot Sessions

 

Reconsidering Reparations with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Reparations and climate change might at first glance seem unrelated. My guest Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues that they are inextricably linked, and that racial justice cannot happen without climate justice.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Reconsidering Reparations by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
  2. Brookings Institution racial wealth gap report
  3. Worldmaking after Empire, Adom Getachew

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Chaunce Libertine” by Blue Dot Sessions

The Women Are Up to Something: Benjamin Lipscomb

Although they didn’t set out to, the British philosophers and friends Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot revolutionized the field of ethics in the middle of the 20th century. Our guest today, the philosopher Benjamin Lipscomb, explores the unique friendship and work of four women who changed the face of moral philosophy in his book, The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Newsreel clip from the opening of the show

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still by Blue Dot Sessions

Entwined Oddity by Blue Dot Sessions

Seen and Not Heard: Jana Mohr Lone

Before Jana Mohr Lone became a philosopher, she was a lawyer who worked with families and children. She noticed that the legal system often robbed her clients of a voice. She watched with dismay as children were disempowered again and again. In her current practice as a philosopher, she’s dedicated to using philosophy to help young people experience the power of their own voices. She joins us to discuss her book, Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Teaching children philosophy with Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad”
  2. The Philosophy of Childhood by Gary Matthews
  3. How to do philosophy for and with children
  4. John Banville
  5. Carol Gilligan

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Coulis Coulis by Blue Dot Sessions

The Cornice by Blue Dot Sessions

Transparency is Surveillance: C. Thi Nguyen

Calls for increased transparency and oversight are common in the public realm. Our guest today, the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, argues that transparency can actually erode important parts of community life. He claims that while transparency might root out corruption, it also has a sort of chilling effect on the very work people are required to be transparent about.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Transparency is Surveillance,” C. Thi Nguyen
  2. BBC Reith Lectures on trust
  3. Elijah Millgram
  4. Tal Brewer
  5. Annette Baier

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Lina My Queen by Blue Dot Sessions

The Ethics of Giving with Shariq Siddiqui

Giving away money and resources is great, right? What harm could it do? Philanthropy expert Shariq Ahmed Siddiqui, who is a professor at the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, joins us to explain that the ethics of giving is a lot more complicated than we think.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Shariq Ahmed Siddiqui
  2. Muslims in early America
  3. Mutual aid versus charity

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Ghost Byzantine by Blue Dot Sessions

Tartaruga by Blue Dot Sessions