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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

Book Bans, the First Amendment, and Political Liberalism

photograph of banned book display in public library

Book bans in public schools are not new in America. But since 2021, they have reached levels not seen in decades, the result of efforts by conservative parents, advocacy groups, and lawmakers who view the availability of certain books in libraries or their inclusion in curricula as threats to their values. In one study that looked at just the nine-month period between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, the free expression advocacy organization PEN America found nearly 1,600 instances of individual books being banned in eighty-six school districts with a combined enrollment of over two million students. Of the six most-banned titles, three (Gender Queer: A Memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, and Lawn Boy) are coming-of-age stories about LGBTQ+ youth; two (Out of Darkness and The Bluest Eye) deal principally with race relations in America; and one (Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out) features interviews with transgender or gender-neutral young adults. 41% of the bans were tied to “directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books.”

The bans raise profound ethical and legal questions that expose unresolved issues in First Amendment jurisprudence and within political liberalism concerning the free speech rights of children, as well as the role of the state in inculcating values through public education.

What follows is an attempt to summarize, though not to settle, some of those issues.

First, the legal side. The Supreme Court has long held that First Amendment protections extend to public school students. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a seminal Vietnam War-era case about student expression, the Court famously affirmed that students in public schools do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Yet student expression in schools is limited in ways that would be unacceptable in other contexts; per Tinker, free speech rights are to be applied “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”

Accordingly, Tinker held that student speech on school premises can be prohibited if it “materially and substantially disrupts the work and discipline of the school.”

The Court has subsequently chipped away at this standard, holding that student speech that is not substantially and materially disruptive — including off-campus speech at school-sponsored events — can still be prohibited if it is “offensively lewd and indecent” (Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser), or can be “reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use” (Morse v. Frederick). In the context of “school-sponsored expressive activities,” such as student newspapers, the permissible scope for interference with student speech is even broader: in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Court held that censorship and other forms of “editorial control” do not offend the First Amendment so long as they are “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Those cases all concerned student expression. A distinct issue is the extent to which students have a First Amendment right to access the expression of others, either through school curricula or by means of the school library. Book banning opponents generally point to a 1982 Supreme Court case, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, to support their argument that the First Amendment protects students’ rights to receive information and ideas and, as a consequence, public school officials cannot remove books from libraries because “they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, and other matters of opinion.”

There are, however, three problems with Pico from an anti-book banning perspective. First, those frequently cited, broad liberal principles belong to Justice Brennan’s opinion announcing the Court’s judgment. Only two other justices joined that opinion, with Justice Blackmun writing in partial concurrence and Justice White concurring only in the judgment. Thus, no majority opinion emerged from this case, meaning that Brennan’s principles are not binding rules of law. Second, even Brennan’s opinion conceded that school officials could remove books from public school libraries over concerns about their “pervasive vulgarity” or “educational suitability” without offending the First Amendment. This concession may prove particularly significant in relation to books depicting relationships between LGBTQ+ young adults, which tend to include graphic depictions of sex. Finally, Brennan’s opinion drew a sharp distinction between the scope of school officials’ discretion when it comes to curricular materials as opposed to school library books: with respect to the former, he suggested, officials may well have “absolute” discretion. Thus, removals of books from school curricula may be subject to a different, far less demanding constitutional standard than bans from school libraries. In short, Pico is a less-than-ideal legal precedent for those seeking to challenge book bans on constitutional grounds.

The question of what the law is is, of course, distinct from what the law should be. What principles should govern public school officials’ decisions regarding instructional or curricular materials and school library books?

A little reflection suggests that the Supreme Court’s struggle to articulate clear and consistent standards in the past few decades may be due to the fact that this is a genuinely hard question.

Political liberalism — the political philosophy that identifies the protection of individual liberty as the state’s raison d’être — has traditionally counted freedom of expression among the most important individual freedoms. Philosophers have customarily offered three justifications for this exalted status. The first two are broadly instrumental: according to one view, freedom of expression promotes the discovery of truth; according to another, it is a necessary condition for democratic self-governance. An important non-instrumental justification is that public expression is an exercise of autonomy, hence intrinsically good for the speaker.

The instrumental justifications seem to imply, or call for, a corresponding right to access information and ideas. After all, a person’s speech can only promote others’ discovery of truth or help others govern themselves if that speech is available to them. Simply having the unimpeded ability to speak would not contribute to those further goods if others were unable to take up that speech.

Yet even if the right of free speech implies a right to access information and ideas, it may be plausibly argued that the case for either right is less robust with respect to children. On the one hand, children generally have less to offer in terms of scientific, artistic, moral, or political speech that could promote the discovery of truth or facilitate democratic self-governance, and since they are not fully autonomous, their speech-acts are less valuable for them as exercises of their autonomy. On the other hand, since children generally are intellectually and emotionally less developed than adults, and also are not allowed to engage in the political process, they have less to gain from having broad access to information and ideas.

Obviously, even if sound, the foregoing argument only establishes lesser rights of free speech or informational access for children, not no such rights. And the case for lesser rights seems far weaker for teenagers than for younger children. Finally, the argument may be undermined by the state and society’s special interest in educating the young, which may in turn provide special justification for more robust free speech and informational access rights for children. I will return to this point shortly.

All the states of the United States, along with the federal government, recognize an obligation to educate American children. To fulfill that obligation, states maintain public schools, funded by taxation and operated by state and local government agencies, with substantial assistance from the federal government and subject to local, state, and federal regulation. As we’ve seen, the Supreme Court has mostly used the educational mission of the public school as a justification for allowing restrictions on students’ free speech and informational access rights inasmuch as their exercise would interfere with that mission.

Thus, the Court deems student speech that would disturb the discipline of the school, or books that would be “educationally unsuitable,” as fair game for censorship.

This is not radically different from the Court’s approach to speech in other public institutional contexts; for example, public employees’ speech is much more restricted than speech in traditional public forums. The combination of the sort of considerations adduced in the last paragraph, together with idea that speech and informational access can be legitimately restricted in public institutions, may lead one to conclude that student expression and informational access in public schools can be tightly circumscribed as long as it is for a “legitimate pedagogical purpose.”

This conclusion would, I think, be overhasty. The overriding pedagogical purpose of the public school does not cleanly cut in favor of censorship; in many ways, just the opposite. Educating students for citizenship in a liberal democracy must surely involve carefully exposing them to novel and challenging ideas. Moreover, mere exposure is not sufficient: the school must also encourage students to engage with such ideas in a curious, searching, skeptical, yet open-minded way. Students must be taught how to thrive in a society replete with contradictory and fiercely competing perspectives, philosophies, and opinions. Shielding students from disturbing ideas is a positive hindrance to that goal. This is not to deny that some content restrictions are necessary; it is merely to claim that the pedagogical mission of the public school may provide reason for more robust student free speech and informational access rights.

But what about conservatives’ objections — I assume at least some of them are made in good faith — to the “vulgarity” of certain books, irrespective of their intellectual content? Their determination to insulate students from graphic descriptions of sex might seem quixotic in our porn-saturated age, and one might think it is no worse than that. In fact, insofar as these objections derive from the notion that it is the job of public schools to “transmit community values,” as Brennan put it in Pico, they raise an important and unresolved problem for political liberalism.

Many versions of political liberalism hold that the state should strive to be neutral between the competing moral perspectives that inevitably exist in an open society.

The basic idea is that for the sake of both political legitimacy and stability, the state ought to be committed to a minimal moral framework — for example, a bill of rights — that can be reasonably accepted from different moral perspectives, while declining to throw its weight behind one particular “comprehensive doctrine,” to use John Rawls’s phrase.

For example, it would be intuitively unacceptable if state legislators deliberated about the harms and benefits of a particular policy proposal in terms of whether it would please or enrage God, or of its tendency to help the public achieve ataraxia, the Epicurean goal of serene calmness. One explanation for this intuition is that such deliberation would violate neutrality in employing ideas drawn from particular comprehensive doctrines, whether secular or religious, that are not part of that minimal moral framework with which most of the public can reasonably agree.

If state neutrality is a defensible principle, it should also apply to public education: the state should not be a transmitter of community values, at least insofar as those values are parochial and “thick,” rather than universal and “thin.” Concerns about children’s exposure to graphic depictions of sex may be grounded in worries about kinds of harm that everyone can recognize, such as psychological distress or, for certain depictions, the idea that they encourage violent sexual fantasies that might later be enacted in the real world. But conservatives’ worries might also be based in moral ideas that don’t have much purchase in the liberal moral imagination — ideas about preserving sexual purity or innocence, or about discouraging “unnatural” sexual conduct like homosexuality. These ideas, which are evidently not shared by a wide swath of the public, do not have a place in public education policy given the imperative of state neutrality.

Unfortunately, while perhaps intuitively compelling, the distinction between an acceptably “minimal” moral framework and a “comprehensive doctrine” has proved elusive. For example, are views about when strong moral subject-hood begins and ends necessarily part of a comprehensive doctrine, or can they be inscribed in the state’s minimal moral framework? Even if state neutrality can be adequately defined, many also question whether it is desirable or practically possible. Thus, it remains an open question whether the transmission of parochial values is a legitimate aim of public education.

Public educators’ role in mediating between students and the universe of ideas is and will likely remain the subject of ongoing philosophical and legal debate. However, this much seems clear: conservative book bans are just one front in a multi-front struggle to reverse the sixty-year trend of increasing social liberalization, particularly in the areas of sex, gender, and race.

A “Rogue Court”?: Integrity and Majority Rule

photograph of curtain drawn to inner chamber

Ever since the decision in Dobbs was handed down, there’s been a great deal of ink spilled about the Supreme Court “going rogue.” Whatever image those words are meant to conjure, it can’t be that simply by contradicting popular opinion justices act wrongly. Indeed, to do its job and fulfill its essential function – safeguarding individual rights and acting as legal backstop and ultimate umpire for conflicting claims to basic protection – the High Court must be able to act in opposition to the majority’s will. We should all be relieved that when it comes to who receives a fair trial or who may cast a ballot, we don’t simply put the matter to a vote (or do we?).

We think that the fundamental liberties that citizens enjoy are not the kind of things that should expand and contract with the ebb and flow of favorable representation in Congress.

As Evan Arnet argued yesterday, sometimes the sausage that our legislature – held hostage by party politics – produces simply won’t do. Everything can’t depend on a mere up or down vote; some things must be guaranteed. Enter: The Supreme Court.

In no small part, our need for the High Court to chaperone the legislature stems from the fact that the masses are deeply misguided when it comes to the facts on the ground (see The New York Times’s recent moderated discussion with pro-life and pro-choice focus groups where multiple respondents on both sides thought that abortion was more physically dangerous than childbirth for a woman and estimated that 30-40% of abortions take place after the first trimester – when in reality it’s less than 10%). What we require is a final ruling made by legal experts standing above the political fray who see the matter clearly and can anticipate the legal implications that we mere mortals hardly perceive.

So rather than the common complaint about the justices being out of step with the court of public opinion, the real trouble with the Courts’ recent pronouncements must lie elsewhere

– perhaps in its shifting attitude toward the separation of church and state (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District), toward precedent (Dobbs), and toward interpretive consistency (Bruen).

These are all significant complaints to be sure, and each warrants careful consideration. But rather than taking up these criticisms in isolation, I’d like to point to an overarching picture that paints these seemingly disparate complaints as a constellation of related concerns. The public’s historic lack of trust in the Supreme Court may indicate, as Ronald Dworkin once suggested, that “Integrity is our Neptune” – a celestial body we discover only by first recognizing that it’s missing.

So, what is integrity? Simply put, integrity demands that the law be created and adjudicated in a consistent way. Dworkin insists that proper legal interpretation requires commitment to moral coherence. We should strive to comprehend our legislative and judicial history as one of continuity. Judging, Dworkin claims, is not unlike being a writer of a chain novel. You’re tasked with interpreting the major, minor, and latent themes running through the narrative to date and contributing to that tale in a way that does honor to what’s come before – you situate decisions so as to present our legal history in the best possible light.

Ultimately, integrity represents a compromise between the weightlessness of a living constitution and tyrannical rule of a dead hand from a bygone era.

Both of these can devolve into judicial activism and thus commit the gravest of grave sins: legislating from the bench – either by a complete reimagining of the Constitution and our legal history, or by an outright refusal to appreciate the needs of our evolving and ongoing story.

What makes integrity important? The Supreme Court’s legitimacy relies on appearances. We expect justices to rule according to the law and not their politics. The trouble is that it’s extremely difficult to disentangle the two. Do one’s legal convictions shape their political leanings, or does one’s politics dictate their judicial positions? Demonstrating that fidelity to law comes before party loyalty requires a kind of sacred devotion to impartiality and detached public justification (or perhaps simply a renewed commitment to better covering one’s tracks). For if judicial review – the power of unelected judges to strike down the popular will – is exposed as nothing more than partisan warfare by other means, then the game is lost and the lie of democratic representation is exposed. The emperor has no clothes.

How do we know when the clothes (integrity) aren’t there? Dworkin offers a thought experiment: Imagine a law that made abortion criminal for women born in even years but permissible for those born in odd ones. Such a policy might accommodate the 60/40 split in public opinion on the issue.

Allowing each of two groups to choose some part of the law of abortion, in proportion to their numbers, is fairer (in our sense) than the winner-take-all scheme our instincts prefer, which denies many people any influence at all over an issue they think desperately important.

Still, Dworkin thinks, there’s something that rubs us the wrong way about such a compromise. We seem to reject the Solomonic solution of simply cutting down the middle and giving both sides a little of what they want. So what explains our discomfort? Why is this kind of “fairness” not enough? Why do we turn our nose up at “checkerboard solutions” like this one?

Certainly, the decision to kick the abortion question to the state legislatures looks an awful lot like a checkerboard solution – and one that sits uncomfortably with both sides.

It’s hard to see how that ruling fits within our judicial history that treats similar rights (similar to either the right to reproductive autonomy or the rights of the fetus) as national concerns. Such a ruling appears a significant break with traditional practice.

Just last week, Benjamin Rossi gestured at several potential futures for the current political compromise neither side finds tolerable. Pro-life advocates motivated by Body Count Reasoning (explained here by Dustin Crummett) are unlikely to be satisfied with half-measures. Meanwhile, pro-choice proponents decry the unequal burdens arbitrarily foisted upon residents of different states concerning a basic good: health. (Jim Harbaugh can encourage his players to encourage their partners to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy and offer to adopt all those children all he wants, but the fact remains that pregnancy is not without risk and the decision to go forward is not simply about whether one has “the means or the wherewithal.”)

Unfortunately, whichever way the Dobbs fallout is eventually resolved is likely irrelevant to the larger problem. Unless and until we begin to conceive of our legislative and judicial history as a shared project of public justification, there will be no restoring public faith. Without courts committed to something like Dworkin’s idea of integrity, even term limits cannot save us.

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

The Morality of Forgiving Student Debt

photograph of graduates at commencement

In March 2020, as the pandemic began, the federal government temporarily suspended student-loan payments and the charging of interest on student debt. Two years later, the suspension continues. There are now growing calls for student debt to be canceled entirely.

Forgiving student loans is a deeply controversial topic, as a few of our own writers have discussed. The policy raises difficult economic questions (would forgiving student loans beneficially stimulate the economy, or simply contribute to the already-high inflation?), political questions (would this be a political “winner” for the Democrats going into the midterms?), and also essentially moral questions.

Do the borrowers deserve forgiveness? Would forgiving existing loans be fair to those who have already paid off theirs? Would a government bailout of student loan borrowers be just when they tend to earn more than most taxpayers?

Both sides of the student loan forgiveness debate use the language of morality and justice to defend their views. On the anti-forgiveness side, it is common to hear expressions to the effect of “I paid mine. You pay yours.” How is it fair on those who worked hard, lived frugally, and repaid their loans that their lazier or less financially responsible counterparts get their loans bailed out by the government? It seems morally wrong to reward failure when it is the result of personal irresponsibility. Those who took out loans did so freely. Perhaps they ought to deal with the consequences themselves, rather than have those consequences shifted onto the taxpayer’s back.

Whether this is a convincing argument depends largely on whether you think those taking student loans are fully informed about the relevant information before making their decisions, and whether you think they are being financially exploited by the universities they are joining. If borrowers were exploited, then it seems just to forgive their debts.

First, some background. Student loan debt has grown rapidly over the past two decades, almost fourfold from $480 billion in 2006 to $1.73 trillion in 2021. Approximately 45 million Americans have student debt, an average of $39,351.

The U.S. Department of Education claims that 10 years is the ideal length of time to pay off a student loan. But, in reality, these loans take an average of 21 years to pay off. If you graduate at 22, you can be expected to be paying off your student loan into your mid-40s. And some student loans are far worse than that. The average Professional degree at a for-profit college takes a shocking 46 years to pay off — longer than most Americans are in the workforce. Even worse, some borrowers are unable to repay their debts. The default rate for the student loans owed to for-profit colleges is 52%, and 66% for African Americans.

The personal impact of crushing student loan payments can be severe and endure for decades. Given these possible long-term negative effects, perhaps the federal government shouldn’t be giving these student loans out in the first place.

The brain takes an average of 25 years to fully mature, but the life-changing decision to take a student loan is made by those as young as 18 years old. If these loans should have never been given, then forgiving them would be rectifying past exploitation.

Debt is also not solely the moral responsibility of the borrower; the provider bears some moral responsibility too. But federal student loans are available to almost all students with no requirements beyond meeting the program’s requirements. The government spends no time nor effort assessing whether the prospective student will be capable of repaying the loan, nor if the degree will be considered an asset. Both eligibility and interest rates are the same for the top-earning degrees (e.g., Petroleum Engineering, Operations Research & Industrial Engineering), and the lowest (e.g., Medical Assisting, Mental Health, Early Childhood Education), despite their vastly different risks of default. Is it really fair to give the burden of a student loan to a future low-paid Medical Assistant, on the same terms as a future Petroleum Engineer? If not, perhaps the federal government has failed to act responsibly in giving these loans in the first place, suggesting forgiveness is the moral choice.

But why should the government opt for forgiveness?

If you get into debt you cannot repay, our society has a system for escape: bankruptcy. It is a painful solution, but an essential one used by 1.5 million Americans each year. Isn’t this the solution to the student debt crisis? The problem is that this basic financial right is tightly restricted in the case of federal student debt. While some advocate changing bankruptcy law to include student debt, until those changes are enacted we are seemingly left with only one solution for those with non-repayable student loans: forgiveness.

Despite these considerations, there is also a strong case against student debt forgiveness. Student loans are not always exploitative. Used well, they can provide access to higher education to millions of Americans who could otherwise not afford it. In a world without student loans, we would expect fewer students from poor families to go to university. Most college students take student loans, and most are able to repay. The access to higher education that these loans can provide is often immensely valuable, both economically and personally.

Of course, an education is worth far more than its financial benefits, but even if we focus narrowly on the economic benefits of university education, those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million over their careers, compared to $1.6 million for those with a high school diploma. In fact, every extra level of education is correlated with another boost to lifetime earnings. So, while some student loans are lifelong financial burdens, others act as financial life-rafts, leading borrowers to better lives in the broadest sense. Student loans can be irresponsible, exploitative and morally wrong, but they can also be transformative.

If student loans are neither inherently exploitative nor inherently beneficial, how can we assess blanket policies such as forgiveness? One way is to examine the effect of the policy through the lens of distributive justice — the question of what allocation of society’s wealth and resources would be equal, fitting, or otherwise just.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley appealed to the value of distributive justice in support of student loan forgiveness, calling it ‘a racial justice issue’, ‘a gender justice issue’, and ‘an economic justice issue’, and tweeting that “Black women are … the most burdened by student debt.” The implication is that Black women are unjustly disproportionately burdened by student debt, in part due to the existing racial wealth gap, and that forgiving this debt would make the country more just. Similarly, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote that “Canceling student debt is one of the most powerful ways to address racial and economic equity issues. The student loan system mirrors many of the inequalities that plague American society and widens the racial wealth gap.”

Historically, Joe Biden has been fairly skeptical of such claims. In 2021, he told The New York Times, “The idea that you go to [the University of Pennsylvania] and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.” Despite the fact that Biden disagrees with Pressley, Warren, and Schumer, he too views the issue through the lens of distributive justice. But Biden believes distributive justice would not be served by a blanket policy of forgiveness. This explains the most recent proposals to be floated by members of the Biden administration, which consider much more limited and targeted debt forgiveness, aimed at those below a certain income threshold.

Biden has a point. Those who go to university earn, on average, significantly more than their high-school diploma holding counterparts. They also are much less likely to be unemployed; college graduates’ unemployment rate is now just 2%.

So how could it really help promote equality and distributive justice to bail out the debts of the high-earning university-educated elite?

Pushing this point further, the recent calls for student debt-forgiveness are seen by some as a disproportionately wealthy, powerful, and influential segment of society seeking to massively financially benefit themselves at the taxpayer’s expense. Is it right to force blue-collar taxpayers to bail out Harvard graduates? Megan Kelly recently put it like this: “There people are going to be… elite graduates… Why should I be paying for their education? I don’t want to!”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed back against these skeptical characterizations and defended the distributive-justice credentials of student loan forgiveness. She wrote that “Taking the school that someone went to college to is not really shorthand for the income of the family that they come from.” Martina Orlandi gives a similar argument here. The trouble with this argument is that when we talk about adults being wealthy, we aren’t generally talking about their parents’ wealth but their own. The first person in a family to have wealth is still wealthy, and we don’t think they should be taxed less because their parents were poor. Likewise, it is unclear why college graduates should have their debts forgiven because their parents were poorer than them.

At a recent town hall, Ocasio-Cortez provided a much stronger argument in defense of debt forgiveness as a vehicle for distributive justice, pointing out that most students from high-income families never take student loans: “if you are very wealthy, if you are a multimillionaire’s child, if you are Bill Gates’ kid, if you’re Jeff Bezos’s kid—Jeff Bezos isn’t taking out a student loan to send his kids to college.” If rich kids don’t take student loans and poor kids do, then it is clear that forgiving these loans should promote greater wealth equality.

To get a better grasp on these various conflicting claims about what distributive justice demands in relation to student loans, we need to look more closely at the statistics.

Black college students are indeed the demographic of students most likely to use federal student loans. However, Black Americans have significantly lower rates of college enrolment than White Americans. 29% of Black Americans aged 25 to 29 have undergraduate degrees, while 45% of White Americans do. Therefore, forgiving federal student debt would probably help narrow the racial wealth gap between college graduates, but it would most likely widen the racial wealth gap between Americans overall. Likewise, college students from the wealthiest families tend to take out fewer loans, while those from the poorest take out more. Forgiving student loan debt would, therefore, likely decrease wealth inequality between college graduates. But, in terms of income, the top 40% of households owe 60% of outstanding education debt and make 75% of the payments. The bottom 40% of households have only 19% of outstanding educational debt, and make only 10% of the payments. So forgiving student loans would likely increase the wealth inequality between Americans overall, even as it lowers wealth inequality between college graduates.

Intergenerational justice may provide a more convincing lens from which to defend student loan forgiveness. In 1970, the average in-state tuition for a public university was $394. In 2020 it was 25.8 times higher, at $10,560. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has risen by just 3.5 times. Instead of 5 hours of work per week paying for a year of tuition at an in-state university, it now takes 28 hours per week. The days of paying for college with a part time job are over. At the same time, employers now demand higher levels of education from their employees, putting this generation under immense pressure to take on educational debt to access the same jobs their parents worked with less education. In this context, student debt forgiveness can be seen as a way of mitigating the inequality between the generations — a way of transferring the nation’s wealth to younger Americans who have lacked the financial opportunities their parents had. Whether this is convincing or not likely depends on your view of government debt. Forgiving student debt would, effectively, nationalize the debt — add it to the total U.S. federal debt. But fiscal conservatives argue this would simply add to the burden of future taxpayers (i.e. young people and their children). If they are right, then student loan forgiveness could simply perpetuate generational injustice, rather than mitigate it.

Student loan forgiveness is a controversial topic for good reason. Student loans can be irresponsibly given and exploitative, but they can also be extremely beneficial. Forgiving them could reduce certain unjust inequalities in American society, but it could increase others. But this much is clear; the issue is not just political. It is also a debate about morality and about justice.

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

The Weight of Whiteness with Alison Bailey

Alison Bailey opens her new book, The Weight of Whiteness with an invitation to “wade slowly and mindfully into the weight of whiteness, and to attend to the ways white supremacy has misshapen our nation, our communities, and our humanity.” She writes that while black, indigenous and people of color feel the weight of whiteness daily, most white people tend to numb themselves to this weight. She argues that white people need to do the work of investigating the weight of whiteness, and its effects not just on the mind, but also on the heart. This work involves philosophy and epistemology, but it also involves genealogy. It requires white people to feel the weight of white supremacy they’ve inherited from their ancestors.

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. Alison Bailey
  2. Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
  3. James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies
  4. The Newark uprising of 1967
  5. George Yancy, the “clicks” that install (chapter from his book, Look, A White!)
  6. Shannon Sullivan, “The Hearts and Guts of White People
  7. Resmaa Menakem
  8. Charles Mills, The Racial Contract
  9. Henry Louis Gates, “Finding Your Roots
  10. Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family

Credits

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

Setting Pace by Blue Dot Sessions

Ice Tumbler by Blue Dot Sessions

Uncivil Disobedience with Candice Delmas

The last time philosopher Candice Delmas was on the show, we explored civil disobedience. On today’s episode, we’re discussing the uncivil side of disobedience. She explains that the very reasons that we might be obligated to follow the law in just societies can also impose a duty to break the law in societies that are unjust. And she says that this doesn’t always have to be an act of culturally-approved civil disobedience. Sometimes injustice requires behaving without civility.

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. Candice Delmas
  2. Suffragist movement and violence
  3. Hacktivist group Anonymous
  4. Sanctuary Movement
  5. Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer
  6. January 6th Capitol attack
  7. ACT UP
  8. Fidelity to law and John Rawls
  9. H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law

Credits

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

Coulis Coulis by Blue Dot Sessions

Gullwing Sailor by Blue Dot Sessions

Democratic Deliberation with Sheron Fraser-Burgess

Deliberative democracy is a school of political thought in which conversation takes on a central role. It’s different from representative democracy, which involves voting and polling, because it focuses on discussion and understanding to move forward on issues. Sheron Fraser-Burgess, professor of social foundations and multicultural education at Ball State University, explains that educators can take principles from deliberative democracy and apply them to a classroom setting. In her work, she advocates for democratic deliberation, which is a means of teaching students not only how to work through cultural differences, but also how to be better citizens in a 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. Sheron Fraser-Burgess
  2. Deliberative democracy
  3. John Dewey
  4. Amy Guttman
  5. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers
  6. Hannah Arendt and desegregation
  7. Womanism
  8. Ideal and non-ideal theory in political philosophy

Credits

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

Bundt by Blue Dot Sessions

Coulis Coulis by Blue Dot Sessions

Policing and Ethics with Ekow Yankah

Police have had a fraught relationship with communities of color since the earliest days of law enforcement in the eighteenth century. Our guest today, professor of law Ekow Yankah, argues that police power has often been deployed in a misguided attempt to solve deep economic and social problems. And this typically comes at the cost of harming people from marginalized communities. Instead, he argues, we need to imagine healthy communities where police play a background role.

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. Ekow Yankah
  2. Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper story
  3. Fourth Amendment

Credits

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

Gullwing Sailor by Blue Dot Sessions

Just Immigration with Allison Wolf

When the philosopher Allison Wolf heard a news story in 2014 about Central American children migrating to the United States, she was angry. She wasn’t upset about the minors coming in the first place, she was furious about the heartlessness of her fellow Americans reacting to the crisis. It wasn’t until she started writing about immigration that she discovered what was at the heart of the issue. By examining the stories at the center of dehumanizing policies, she realized that feminism, and its focus on oppression, could shed light on the problem of justice and immigration.

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. Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account by Allison Wolf
  2. 2014 Central American migrant crisis
  3. Some of the philosophical and ethics issues related to immigration
  4. Marilyn Frye, “The Systemic Birdcage of Sexism
  5. Remain in Mexico” policy
  6. Ann Cahill and derivatization
  7. José Jorge Mendoza
  8. Grant Silva
  9. Carlos Alberto Sánchez

Credits

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

Insatiable Toad by Blue Dot Sessions

On Journalistic Malpractice

photograph of TV camera in news studio

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.


In 2005, then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the U.S. had suffered over 7,000 cases of leprosy in the previous three years and attributed this to an “invasion of illegal immigrants.” Actually, the U.S. had seen roughly that many leprosy cases over the previous three decades, but Dobbs stubbornly refused to issue a retraction, instead insisting that “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

In 2020, then-Fox-News anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the results of the election were “eerily reminiscent of what happened with Smartmatic software electronically changing votes in the 2013 presidential election in Venezuela.” Dobbs repeatedly raised questions and amplified conspiracy theories about Donald Trump’s loss, granting guests like Rudy Giuliani considerable airtime to spread misinformation about electoral security.

It’s generally uncontroversial to think that “fake news” is epistemically problematic (insofar as it spreads misinformation) and that it can have serious political consequences (when it deceives citizens and provokes them to act irrationally). Preventing these issues is complicated: any direct governmental regulation of journalists or news agencies, for example, threatens to run afoul of the First Amendment (a fact which has prompted some pundits to suggest rethinking what “free speech” should look like in an “age of disinformation”). To some, technology offers a potential solution as cataloging systems powered by artificial intelligence aim to automate fact-checking practices; to others, such hopes are ill-founded dreams that substitute imaginary technology for individuals’ personal responsibility to develop skills in media literacy.

But would any of these approaches have been able to prevent Lou Dobbs from spreading misinformation in either of the cases mentioned above? Even if a computer program would have tagged the 2005 leprosy story as “inaccurate,” users skeptical of that program itself could easily ignore its recommendations and continue to share the story. Even if some subset of users choose to think critically about Lou Dobbs’ 2020 election claims, those who don’t will continue to spread his conjectures. Forcibly removing Dobbs from the air might seem temporarily effective at stemming the flow of misinformation, but such a move — in addition to being plainly unconstitutional — would likely cause a counter-productive scandal that would only end up granting him even more attention.

Instead, rather than looking externally for ways to stem the tide of fake news and its problems, we might consider solutions internal to the journalistic profession: that is, if we consider journalism as a practice akin to medicine or law, with professional norms dictating how its practitioners ought to behave (even apart from any regulation from the government or society-at-large), then we can criticize “bad journalists” simply for being bad journalists. Questions of epistemic or political consequences of bad journalism are important, but subsequent to the first question focused on professional etiquette and practice.

This is hardly a controversial or innovative claim: although there is no single professional oath that journalists must swear (along the lines of those taken by physicians or lawyers), it is common for journalism schools and employers to promote codes of “journalistic ethics” describing standards for the profession. For example, the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists is centered on the principles of accuracy, fairness, harm-minimization, independence, and accountability; the Journalism Code of Practice published by the Fourth Estate (a non-profit journalism watchdog group) is founded on the following three pillars:

  1. reporting the truth,
  2. ensuring transparency, and
  3. serving the community.

So, consider Dobbs’ actions in light of those three points: insofar as his 2005 leprosy story was false, it violates pillar one; because his 2020 election story (repeatedly) sowed dissension among the American public, it fails to abide by pillar three (notably, because it was filled with misinformation, as poignantly demonstrated by the defamation lawsuit Dobbs is currently facing). Even before we consider the socio-epistemic or political consequences of Dobbs’ reporting, these considerations allow us to criticize him simply as a reporter who failed to live up to the standards of his profession.

Philosophically, such an approach highlights the difference between accounts aimed at cultivating a virtuous disposition and those that take more calculative approaches to moral theorizing (like consequentialism or deontology). Whereas the latter are concerned with a person’s actions (insofar as those actions produce consequences or align with the moral law), the former simply focuses on a person’s overall character. Rather than quibbling over whether or not a particular choice is good or bad (and then, perhaps, wondering how to police its expression or mitigate its effects), a virtue theorist will look to how a choice reflects on the holistic picture of an agent’s personality and identity to make ethical judgments about them as a person. Like the famous virtue theorist Aristotle said, “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”

On this view, being “blessed and happy” as a journalist might seem difficult — that is to say, being a good journalist is not an easy thing to be. But Aristotle would likely point out that, whether we like the sound of it or not, this actually seems sensible: it is easy to try and accomplish many things, but actually living a life a virtue — actually being a good person — is a relatively rare feat (hence his voluminous writings on trying to make sense of what virtue is and how to cultivate it in our lives). Professionally speaking, this view underlines the gravity of the journalistic profession: just as being a doctor or a lawyer amounts to shouldering a significant responsibility (for preserving lives and justice, respectively), to become a reporter is to take on the burden of preserving the truth as it spreads throughout our communities. Failing in this responsibility is more significant than failing to perform some other jobs: it amounts to a form of malpractice with serious ethical ramifications, not only for those who depend on the practitioner, but for the practitioner themselves as well.

On Objectivity in Journalism

blurred image of crowd and streetlights

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.


Over the past few years, a number of left-leaning journalists have publicly questioned the notion of objectivity as an ideal for journalists and journalistic practice. The discussions that ensued have generated a lot of heat, but for the most part not too much light. That’s why I was delighted by the latest episode of Noah Feldman’s podcast, Deep Background, which featured a lengthy interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is perhaps best known as the creator of The New York Times’s The 1619 Project. In that interview, Hannah-Jones and Feldman develop a nuanced account of the place of objectivity in journalism. I will discuss this account in due course. Before I do, I would like to unpack the multiple meanings of “objectivity” as it is used to describe journalists and their art.

The word “objectivity” is normally applied to two things: persons and facts (or truths). An objective person is one who has three attributes: neutrality, even-handedness, and disinterestedness. A neutral person has no prior or preconceived views about a particular subject; an even-handed person is disposed to give due weight to both sides in a factual dispute; and a disinterested person has no strong interests in one side or the other being the correct one. Thus, objectivity as an attribute of persons involves (the lack of) both beliefs and desires. It is in the name of promoting the appearance of this kind of objectivity that some journalists think it is improper for them to engage in political activity, or even to vote.

When applied to facts or truths, as in the oft-repeated phrase “objective truth,” the word is generally taken to mean something about either empirical verifiability or “mind-independence.” Take empirical verifiability first. In this sense, “objective” truths are truths that can be directly verified by the senses, and so are part of a public world which we share with other sentient creatures. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with both truths about our mental states, such as that I like the taste of chocolate ice cream, and “metaphysical” truths, such as that God is all-powerful. Mind-independence is a slippery concept, but the basic idea is that mind-independent truths are truths which don’t depend on anyone’s beliefs about what is true. That it is raining in Durham, North Carolina would be true even if everyone believed it false. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with conventional truths, such as truths about grammar rules, since such rules depend for their very existence on the attitudes, and in particular the beliefs, of writers and speakers. In this sense, however, “objective” truths include both metaphysical truths and truths about mental states. To see the latter point, consider that the fact that I like chocolate ice cream would be true even if no one, including I myself, believed it to be true. Thus, truths about personal taste can count as subjective in one sense, but objective in another.

With some exceptions I will discuss shortly, criticisms of objectivity rarely cast doubt on the existence of objective truths. Instead, they target the ideal of the journalist as a neutral, even-handed, and disinterested observer. The criticisms are two-fold: first, that adopting the objective stance is impossible, since all journalists use their prior beliefs and interests to inform their decisions about what facts to include or highlight in a story, and if they have the discretion, even what stories to write. Second, since a perfectly objective stance is impossible, trying to adopt the stance constitutes a form of deception that causes people to invest journalists with a kind of epistemic authority they don’t and couldn’t possess. Better to be honest about the subjective (basically, the psychological) factors that play a role in journalistic practice than to deceive one’s readers.

In the interview with Feldman, Hannah-Jones echoed these criticisms of objectivity. She then distinguished between two activities every journalist engages in: fact-finding and interpretation. In the fact-finding phase, she said, journalists can and must practice “objectivity of method.” What she apparently means to pick out with this phrase are methods by which journalists can hope to access objective truth. Such methods might include interviewing multiple witnesses to an event or searching for documentary evidence or some other reliable corroboration of testimony; they might also include the institutional arrangements that newsrooms adopt — for example, using independent fact checkers. However, she and Feldman seemed to agree that interpretation — variously glossed as working out what facts “mean” or which are “important” — is a subjective process, inevitably informed by the journalist’s prior beliefs and desires.

Here are two observations about Hannah-Jones’s account. First, the methods used to access objective truth in the fact-finding stage tend to force journalists to at least act as if they are objective persons. For example, interviewing multiple witnesses and weighing the plausibility of all the testimony is the kind of thing an even-handed observer would do. Looking for corroborating evidence even when one wants a witness’s testimony to be true emulates disinterestedness. This doesn’t mean that one has to be objective in order to practice journalism well, but it does suggest a role for objectivity as a regulative ideal: when we want to know how to proceed in fact-finding, we ask how an objective person would proceed. And to the extent that we can emulate the objective person, to that extent is the epistemic authority of the journalist earned.

Second, it seems to me that “interpretation” involves trying to access objective truth, or doing something much like it. Feldman and Hannah-Jones used two examples to illustrate the kinds of truths that the process of interpretation is aimed at accessing: truths about people’s motives, or why they acted (as opposed to truths about their actions themselves, which are within the domain of fact-finding), and causal truths, like that such-and-such an event or process was the key factor in bringing about some state of affairs. But such truths are objective in at least one sense. Moreover, even truths about motives, while subjective in not belonging to the public world of the senses, can be indirectly verified using empirical methods very similar to those used to access directly empirically verifiable truths. These are methods lawyers use every day to prove or disprove that a defendant satisfied the mens rea element of a crime. Since interpretation involves accessing objective truths or using empirical methods to access subjective ones, and since the methods of accessing objective truths involve emulating an objective person, interpretation at least partly involves striving to be objective.

This can’t be all it involves, however: what’s important is not equivalent to what’s causally efficacious. Here is where Feldman and Hannah-Jones are undoubtedly correct that a journalist’s attitudes, and in particular her values, will inevitably shape how she interprets the facts. For example, a commitment to moral equality may cause a journalist to train their focus on the experience of marginalized groups, that value informing what the journalist takes to be important. A merely objective person would have no idea of what facts are important in this moral sense.

Thus, a journalist must and should approach her practice with a complicated set of attitudes: striving to be objective (to be like an objective person) about the facts, while at the same time inevitably making choices about which facts are important based at least in part on her values. This is part of what makes journalism a difficult thing to do well.

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