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Learning from History with Elizabeth Anderson

Slavery is immoral. There’s no debate about it these days. But Americans didn’t always think that way. The morality of slavery was a hotly contested issue in the 18th and 19th centuries. So how did we get from the point where preachers praised slavery in their sermons to today when no one would ever publicly question the wrongness of slavery? Shifts in moral thinking like this come about during a process called moral inquiry. On today’s show, we hear from the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, who argues that the way people went about moral inquiry over two hundred years ago holds important lessons for how we ought to face questions of morality today.

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 Anderson, “The Social Epistemology of Morality: Learning from the Forgotten History of the Abolition of Slavery
  2. 19th-century arguments for the morality of slavery
  3. Contractualism
  4. #PhilosophySoWhite
  5. Intuitions
  6. Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”
  7. Nicolas Condorcet, Réflexions sur l’esclavage des Nègres (1781)
  8. Elizabeth Anderson on moral bias
  9. John Dewey
  10. George Fitzhugh’s argument that slaves in the South were better off than workers in the North
  11. Slave testimonies

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

Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions

TV changing sound effect (modified slightly) by freesound.org user gezortenplotz

Alustrat” by Blue Dot Sessions

Should the NFL’s Players Have to Pay to Protest?

Photo of San Francisco 49ers players kneeling during the National Anthem.

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.


This May, the NFL announced a new policy—any team with a member who kneels during the National Anthem will have to pay a fine. The policy was decided by a vote of the team owners.  Union representatives for the players were not aware of the decision until it was announced. This new policy is a change in tone from the attitudes the league expressed last year and is a further development in an ongoing controversy sparked by players’ decision to protest by taking a knee during the National Anthem.  In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick made headlines for kneeling during the anthem in protest of violence perpetrated by police officers against people of color. Kaepernick no longer plays for the 49ers or any NFL team.  Amnesty International recently honored him with the 2017 Ambassador of Conscience Award.

The new policy mandates that players on the sideline “shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” It may sound as if the players are being forced to express respect whether they feel it or not, but one key feature of the new policy is that it doesn’t require players to stand during the anthem.  Players who choose to protest may either willfully incur a fine on their team or may remain in the locker room while the anthem is played. Individual teams have the autonomy to decide how the fine is dealt with; the team can choose to pay it, or it can be imposed on the individual members who chose to protest.  On May 24, New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson announced that fines would be covered by the Jets rather than by players who saw fit to protest.  Moves like this by team owners are attempts to demonstrate respect for both sides of the debate.  Players may continue to protest without fear of punishment at the level of the individual, but the NFL and its teams will not have to deal with being viewed unfavorably by the public.

Some critics of Kaepernick and other players engaging in the same behavior argue that, though protesting is certainly warranted under some circumstances, and perhaps even that it is warranted under these circumstances, the form it takes, in this case, is inappropriate because it is unpatriotic.  The National Anthem is a potent symbol of our country. Kneeling while it plays disrespects the song and, by extension, the nation.  Some argue further that the United States was the country that made it possible for Kaepernick and other football players to make millions of dollars playing sports.  Protesting during the anthem of the country seems, to these people, to be ungrateful. They argue that this is simply not the forum to engage in this kind of behavior.

Supporters of the protest counter those claims in a number of ways.  First and foremost, they argue that the injustices faced by people of color in this country are far more pressing than any concerns about patriotism.  If injustices are happening (and they are), perhaps it is time that society at large stops telling people of color when and where it is appropriate for them to peacefully protest those injustices.  In fact, to many, it sure looks like this is exactly the right forum—these protests have generated widespread national discussion about racial injustice in this country.

 Supporters argue further that kneeling is not a gesture of disrespect.  It’s not as if the protestors were extending the middle finger at the flag while the anthem played.  After all, kneeling is a posture that many people take when they pray. Protesters did not engage in the most outrageous form of protesting.  The simply assumed a prayer position rather than putting their hands over their hearts.

Many contend that it is not unpatriotic to exercise free speech rights.  In fact, taking advantage of the right to peacefully protest is perfectly consistent with the fundamental values of this country.  A smaller group of Kaepernick supporters argue that it is no real, justified criticism to refer to Kaepernick’s actions as “unpatriotic,” because blind patriotism isn’t something that we should value in the first place.  Nationalism can be an ugly thing. When a person commits to being blindly allegiant to their country, they are often willing to overlook bad actions performed in the name of that country. It also becomes easier to behave as if the interests of those who live outside of that country aren’t important.

Another point made by critics of this form of protest is that it could have been done in a way that didn’t insult the troops. For many people, the act of holding one’s hand over one’s heart during the anthem is an opportunity to show support and appreciation for those who fought and risked or even sacrificed their lives in service of the country.  In response to this argument, people are quick to point out that the National Anthem doesn’t have one and only one meaning. It means different things to different people. One of the most crucial guiding motivations behind the formation of our country was the value of freedom of conscience. People should be free to respond to the anthem in a way that is consistent with their values.

A further argument offered against the protests is that they are being done during work, not during the player’s private time.  What an employee does during the time that they are at work reflects on their employer. In most any other job, if an employee engaged in a speech act in their capacity as representative of their employer and that message was not something the employer wanted to be conveyed, the employee would be risking their job.  The new policy addresses this concern because it offers a third option. Players who don’t want to stand for the National Anthem don’t have to. They can stay in the locker room until it is over.

Major figureheads have weighed in on this controversy. In 2016, President Obama acknowledged the importance of the values emphasized on both sides of the debate but indicated that he respected Kaepernick’s exercise of his constitutional rights and encouraged both sides to listen to one another.  President Trump has repeatedly criticized the protests, and Kaepernick in particular. Nevertheless, Trump has extended an invitation to Kaepernick to participate in a summit on race later this year.

Philosophy and #MeToo with Emily McWilliams

In late 2017, women’s stories of sexual assault, abuse and harassment took the center stage on social media with the hashtag MeToo. But this isn’t the first time people have shared these stories–tales of these experiences have been around for hundreds of years. The MeToo movement itself has been around since 2006. Today’s guest, the philosopher and the Prindle Institute’s Schaenen scholar Emily McWilliams, explains the connections between the MeToo movement and the philosophical concept known as hermeneutical injustice. Examining Ethics producers Eleanor Price and Christiane Wisehart join Emily for a discussion of the ways movements like MeToo might address the problem of epistemic injustice around sexual violence and harassment.

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. Activist Tarana Burke Started the “Me Too” Movement 10 Years Ago
  2. Epistemic Injustice
  3. Hermeneutical Injustice
  4. Key points in the history of sexual harassment
  5. List of people taken recently accused of sexual assault and harassment

Credits

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

Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions

Are We Loose Yet” by Blue Dot Sessions

Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions

Thannoid” by Blue Dot Sessions

Police Officers or Immigration Officers? The Dilemma of Responding to ICE Warrants

Photograph of a police officer leaning against a police car

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


On February 22, Wilson Rodriguez Macarreno called 911 because he thought that someone was breaking into his car in the  Seattle suburb of Tukwila. After the police apprehended the suspect breaking into his car, Macarreno was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was handcuffed and driven to an ICE field office without being told the reasons for his detainment. According to the Tukwila, Washington police officers, there was a warrant for Macarreno from immigration authorities. According to his lawyer, Macarreno came to the United States illegally from Honduras around 15 years ago to escape a life of gang violence. Close family members and friends of his had died as a result of the violence, so he made his escape to the United States. Macarreno has lived in the United States since and has three children that are legal citizens. Continue reading “Police Officers or Immigration Officers? The Dilemma of Responding to ICE Warrants”

Perceiving Morality with Preston Werner

Can you see goodness with your eyes or feel immorality in your heart? The philosopher Preston Werner thinks so. He defends an idea called moral perception, which means that just like you are able to see or feel things like the color of an orange or the softness of a sweater, you’re also able to perceive, or feel, morality. Some philosophers argue that perceiving morality is a key part of how we make moral judgments about situations. There are a lot of people who are skeptical of this idea. Preston explains what moral perception is, and also explains why it’s an idea worth defending.

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. Preston Werner, “Moral Perception without (Prior) Moral Knowledge
  2. Preston Werner, “Moral Perception and the Contents of Experience
  3. Moral facts and moral realism
  4. Moral knowledge
  5. How some philosophers think about perception
  6. David Faraci, “A Hard Look at Moral Perception
  7. Implicit Bias

Credits

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

The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions

Borough” by Blue Dot Sessions

Gaslighting, PTSD and Testimonial Injustice with Rachel McKinnon

Trans people are vulnerable to many types of harms. And unfortunately, some of these harms can come from their “allies”– people who claim to want to help them. On today’s episode, Andy and Christiane talk to the philosopher Rachel McKinnon, who writes about allies and their relationship to the trans community. She tells us that one of the bad behaviors that allies can be guilty of is something called gaslighting. Rachel describes for us two of the major problems with gaslighting: it’s a particularly harmful form of epistemic injustice and it can lead to a type of post traumatic stress disorder.

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. Rachel McKinnon bio
  2. Rachel McKinnon’s YouTube channel
    • For a more in-depth discussion on gender identities and terminologies, check out this video.
  3. Gaslighting
  4. Post-traumatic stress disorder
  5. Active bystander training: there are many different modules used by universities and other organizations to encourage active bystander action. Some examples are Training Active Bystanders or the Green Dot Initiative.
  6. Implementation intention
  7. Rachel McKinnon on Episode 6 of The UnMute Podcast by Myisha Cherry

Credits

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

Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Stillness” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Heliotrope” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Gender Segregation: Empowering or Exclusive?

A black-and-white photo of a movie theatre during a film.

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.


With over $400 million dollars in North American profits, Wonder Woman has set the record for the biggest U.S. film opening with a female director. Even before setting this record, the 2017 comic book adaptation was heralded by many as a feminist film, including actress and former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. Despite its success, the film was not without criticism, with some women claiming that they did not find the film empowering, and even that it ignores non-white women. Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding the film has to do with a Texas movie theatre, which offered “women-only” screenings of the film back in June. This decision was met with a wave of retaliation, accusations of discrimination, and even a lawsuit. Is it sexist to provide a women-only screening of the film? Is it fair to call the movie theatre’s actions as feminist? And most importantly, how does this reaction reflect American society’s tolerance, or lack thereof, of gender segregation?

Continue reading “Gender Segregation: Empowering or Exclusive?”

The Berkshire Museum and the Ethics of Selling Art

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.


The Berkshire Museum in Western Massachusetts, which has 40,000 objects in its collection, including both works of art and historical artifacts, plans to sell 40 works of art to help fund a building renovation and to add to its endowment. According to NPR, the museum sees this move as essential to its continued success and financial stability. Van Shields, executive director of the museum, claimed, “To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change… It is not about what we have. It is about who are we for.”

However, some in the larger world of art museums have protested the move. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors reportedly urged the Berkshire to reconsider its decision. Particularly, some have objected to the fact that among the paintings to be auctioned are some paintings by Norman Rockwell, who lived his last 25 years in the same county where the Berkshire Museum is located.

The Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museums object to the Berkshire’s move primarily because they believe it violates the responsibility placed in the art museum by the public to care for, maintain, and protect its collection. The Code of Ethics for Museums from the American Alliance of Museums considers museum collections to consist in the common wealth of humanity, not the personal property of the museum itself. As such, a museum has the responsibility to ensure that the public has equal opportunity to enjoy and appreciate these works of art.

Consequently, museums cannot do whatever they please with the art in their collection. In fact, the Code of Ethics provides strict guidelines on when it is acceptable to sell works of art: “Disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” Selling art to increase an endowment or renovate a building appears to violate this restriction in the Code of Ethics, because neither use involves the direct care of the collection or the acquisition of additional pieces.

Others in the museum world have argued that this guideline should be loosened. For one thing, the specific limitation that the proceeds of art works can only be used to acquire more art or directly care for the existing collection does not fully recognize possible financial threats to the continued existence of art museums. To carry out their mission of making it possible for the public to enjoy works of arts, museums must continue to attract donors and museum-goers. Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, makes a similar point in a 2009 New York Times article, discussing a different controversy involving a museum’s sale of art: “If it’s really a life-or-death situation, if it’s a choice between selling a Rauschenberg and keeping the museum doors open, I think there’s some justification for selling the painting.”

Of course, there were legitimate concerns that motivated the adoption of such a strict ethical guideline safeguarding works of art from the everyday financial pressures of running a museum. There is a fear, as expressed in the Times article, that allowing some museums to sell of works of art to pay the museum’s bills will be a slippery slope leading to a situation where museums routinely sell pieces of their collections to pay their general operating expenses. If such a practice became routine, the art museum’s central mission would seem compromised.

There are many additional nuances, counter-arguments, and relevant facts worth mentioning in such a complicated debate. What is philosophically interesting in this debate is the revelation that the line that runs from general moral principles to specific action-guiding ethical rules is never straight. A moral principle expresses a universal moral value. In this instance, the Museum Code of Ethics inscribes the general moral principle, expressing that museums ought to safeguard the public’s access to objects of cultural significance. Moral principles articulate specific actions or policies concerning the fulfillment of the general moral principle. Moral rules interpret moral principles for specific situations. Interpretations are rarely obvious, and the very generality of the moral principles means that multiple reasonable interpretations will abound.

Thus, just because we agree on general moral principles, does not mean we will agree on how those principles are to be enacted in real life. I imagine most (if not all) directors of art museums believe that their mission is to safeguard the public’s common interest in our collective cultural heritage. Clearly such unanimity does not prevent sharp ethical disagreements from emerging, and professional societies would be wise to not grow complacent with the articulation of general principles. The devil is in the details.

Ethics of Protest: Part 2

Are protests productive? Should they be? And if they should be productive, what does that productivity look like? In part two of our ethics of protest series, we interview Tabitha St. Bernard, the youth and family coordinator for the Women’s March. We also hear from Derek Ford, a DePauw professor and long-time protest organizer.

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. Ethics of Protest, Part One
  2. Black Lives Matter
  3. Tabitha St. Bernard
  4. Derek Ford, assistant professor of education at DePauw University
  5. Protesters Call on Fox News to Fire Bill O’Reilly
  6. Why Act When It Doesn’t Make a Difference?” by Bob Fischer
  7. Occupy Wall Street

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

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Hickory Interlude” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Tuck and Point” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Lemon and Melon” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Dill Pickles” by Heftone Banjo Orchestra from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-SA 4.0

Homeless in Utah, Desperately Seeking a Backyard

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.


For more than 60 years, the sprawling Utah State Prison sat nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountain range in Draper, Utah.  The prison was home to such notorious inmates as serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Gilmore, and serial pedophile and cult leader Warren Jeffs.  Utah was the first state to reinstitute the death penalty after the Supreme Court’s moratorium ended in 1973, and the state has since executed 51 people.  In 2015, the Utah legislature made the decision to relocate the prison to West Salt Lake City.  In its place, Draper Mayor Troy Walker proposed to house something that, as it turns out, struck Draper citizens as far more distasteful than even the prison—a shelter for the homeless.

The proposal was part of a plan to disperse the burgeoning 1,100-resident caseload of the The Road Homea homeless shelter located in Salt Lake City.  Walker’s specific proposal was for Draper to take on the responsibility of a subsection of that population—a group of women actively looking for work, and their dependent children.  Explaining his decision to throw Draper’s name into the ring for the site of the new shelter, Walker said, “It’s the right thing to do; it’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the thing that will set us apart and make us the kind of people we are.”

Dutiful to his constituency, Walker held a town hall meeting on the topic at a local middle school.  Nearly 1,000 people attended.  Some of them packed the halls outside of the auditorium to avoid fire code violations.  Video of the meeting that ensued quickly went viral on the Internet.  Attendees of the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to the relocation of the homeless shelter in their town.  At one, point, a homeless man stood up to testify to his experience with how homeless shelters benefit their charges.  He was booed into silence.

Many watching the situation closely are concerned by the gentrification that they are seeing.  The Salt Lake bedroom community of Draper is becoming more and more upscale. Property on the base of the mountain is prime real estate.   The new site of the prison is near the Salt Lake International Airport and Rose Park, one of the least affluent communities in the area.  Already home to a number of halfway houses, rehab centers, and a parole violator center, Rose Park can expect a new prison instead of the remodeled fairgrounds that they were promised.  The refusal of the homeless shelter seems to be motivated by similar considerations. The “not in my backyard!” mentality seems to entail either a desire for institutions like prisons and homeless shelters to not exist at all, or for their location to be in other, poorer, backyards.

Many moral theories emphasize the value of universalizability.  The idea is that, if you want to ensure that your decision is a moral one, it has to be a decision that you wouldn’t mind if someone else made under circumstances that were sufficiently similar.  If we want to bar homeless shelters from our own communities, we must be comfortable with everyone else barring homeless shelters from their communities as well.  Of course, we can’t do that unless we simply want homeless shelters to no longer exist.  After all, every community is someone’s community.  

Of course, the concerns of the citizens of Draper are not entirely baseless.  Homeless shelters are not good for property values.  Though we don’t want to confuse correlation with causation, it is true that property values are 12.7 percent lower in areas with homeless shelters than they are in other areas (all other things being equal).  Homeowners have obligations to provide for themselves and their families.  Their ability to do this may be compromised if they lose equity in their homes.

Homeowners also have a legitimate interest in their own safety, and the safety of their families.  Mental illness is common among the homeless population, and so is drug and alcohol abuse.  Residents of the area may have justifiable concerns that their communities will be less stable if the homeless population is introduced.

It is worth pointing out, however, that less affluent families living in lower-income communities have the same safety and stability fears as the Draper residents.  If the concerns of the Draper residents are justified, and if those concerns are sufficient for the Mayor of Draper to withdraw his offer of the prison as a location for the needs of the state’s homeless, why aren’t the identical concerns of those living in less affluent communities deserving of equal consideration?

Let’s not forget the plight of the homeless population.  Many moral philosophers have suggested that the best measure of the morality of a society is the way the least advantaged members of that society are treated.  Booing a homeless person into silence at a town hall meeting doesn’t say anything good about the society in which that kind of thing happens.

There is a silver lining to this cloud, however.  Though this particular situation suggests that there is room for some serious character development on the part of many Utah citizens, Utah has been making international news in a more positive way for a different approach to homelessness.  Implementing a novel new approach called “Housing First,” Utah has reduced homelessness by 72 percent over nine years.  The idea behind this approach is to do what the name suggests—provide housing to homeless people right away, without making that housing contingent on mental health or sobriety.  When dealt with in this way, 88 percent of the homeless population remains in the housing a year later, at a cost to the state less than it incurred when the homeless people were on the street.

The success of the Housing First program suggests a need to change our collective mindset toward the homeless, and perhaps about access to crucial human goods and services as well.  It makes sense, not just from a legal perspective, but also from a moral perspective, to attend to the basic needs of all human beings, especially those that are much less fortunate than the rest of us.

Ethics of Protest: Part 1

On this episode, producer Sandra Bertin tells the story of the Freeman Field Mutiny, a protest that led to the desegregation of the United States military. Even though the men who participated in the protest were peaceful and nonviolent, they still received criticism for their activism. This got us thinking about the ethics of protest. Is it ever okay to criticize a protester’s methods? Or should we be focusing on something else?

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. More information about the photograph we’ve used for this episode
  2. Tuskegee Airmen
  3. J. Todd Moye, professor of history at University of North Texas
  4. Alan Gropman, author of Air Force Integrates, 1945-1964
  5. Coleman Alexander Young, the lieutenant colonel who organized the protest
  6. Wendell Freeland, one of the Freeman Field protesters
  7. Roger “Bill” Terry, the Freeman Field protester who was charged with “jostling”
  8. Larry Bothe
  9. Freeman Army Airfield Museum
  10. Derek Ford, assistant professor of education at DePauw University

Credits

Special thanks to the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, who allowed us to use parts of their interview with Wendell Freeland. Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Galoshes” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

A Catalog of Seasons” by Blue Dot Sessions

Tweedlebugs” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Dixie Outlandish” (Public Domain)

The Complexities of Reforming Indiana’s Bail System

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.


Every year, thousands of bills are written and proposed during Indiana’s legislative session. The Indiana General Assembly takes place during the first few months of the year, and is a chance for state representatives to advance their agenda. Many Americans pay more attention to what happens at the federal level, but state and local government also has a large influence on the lives of citizens. The 2017 session, Jan 3 through April 29, is taking place during a budget year, and in the wake of an extremely contentious and important state and national election. Legislation authored this session ranges from bills that deregulate environmental protection to resolutions aimed at honoring professional athletes. One bill that has not gained much attention, however, raises numerous ethical concerns in regards to criminal justice and the prison system.

Senate Bill 228, authored by Senator Michael Young, aims to reform Indiana’s approach to bail and release after arrest. This bill involves the rules regarding pretrial risk assessment system which assist courts in assessing an arrestee’s likelihood of: (1) committing a new criminal offense; or (2) failing to appear.

At first glance this bill doesn’t seem particularly unusual. After all, using risk assessment in the criminal justice system doesn’t sound particularly radical or unethical. However, a closer examination of the bill reveals a large ethical dilemma. According to S.B. 228, the Indiana Supreme Court will revolutionize the standards for bail and release. Instead of basing bail and release off of a standard punishment for crime, it will rely upon risk assessment “based on empirical data derived through validated criminal justice scientific research” regarding individuals and the groups to which they might belong.

Proponents of the bill would argue that this not only humanizes those arrested on bail but also saves taxpayers money. Ideally, fewer people would be stuck waiting for their bail to be posted or for their trial, and therefore less taxpayer money would be dedicated to detaining those arrested. It is estimated that at any given time, there are nearly half a million Americans detained in local jails awaiting their trial, which costs approximately $17 billion every year. Many also argue that the notion of bail is outdated, and inherently favors wealthy individuals over poorer ones, further reinforcing societal inequalities surrounding income. Evidence-based risk assessment has been implemented in Kentucky, and supporters point to the fact that the average arrest rate for released defendants has declined. Additionally, many legislators are aiming to improve the reputation of the United States, which has one of the highest prison populations in the world, based on the fact that this bill would most likely result in less pretrial prisoners.

But will abolishing bail and relying upon risk assessment truly improve the stark inequalities present in the criminal justice system? Risk assessment aims to allow those who are detained for non-violent crimes and are not repeat offenders out of jail before their trial. But what are the complications of individualizing criminal offenses? Though fewer people would ideally be sitting in jail awaiting pretrial, those who are detained may be treated differently than those who committed the same crimes, or even more serious ones. If two people are arrested for the same crime, shouldn’t they be treated the same regardless of differences in criminal record and history?  

Factors such as race, criminal arrest record, or even gender could influence how risk assessment is measured and change how two people who commit the same crime are treated. A report on bail and pretrial risk assessment admits that “researchers have documented that racial bias can influence how juvenile offenses are described in post-arrest narrative reports, which could influence pretrial release decisions.” Though one could argue that educating law enforcement officials about implicit bias could eliminate this problem, S.B. 228 does not encourage or mandate doing so. Additionally, there has been increased debate about whether or not crime statistics can stand alone if they do not take into account racial and socioeconomic inequalities.

Though controversial, S.B. 228 passed its Senate Committee vote 8-1, passing an amendment on February 19. Though it is too early to tell if S.B. 228 will make it through the legislative process and become law, it should be considered seriously. The ethical implications of transforming pretrial requirements to individual considerations as opposed to a standard should not be taken lightly.

Identity and Pluralism in Merkel’s Call to Ban the Veil

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.


Germany would be far from the first country to ban the veil. France was the first Western European country to do so in 2011, with the administration using the reasoning that the veil is a vehicle of oppression of women as justification for the fines imposed on women who leave their house with their faces covered.

Despite the fact that a number of countries in Europe, including the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland, have some sort of legal restriction on the wearing of headscarves, this is the first time the prospect of a federal ban on the full veil in Germany has been raised (Though half of Germany’s states have banned teachers from wearing headscarves after a Constitutional Court case in 2003). That leadership in Germany have joined the movement against Muslim headscarves speaks to a shift in approach to what has long been a thorny question. How can a nation balance a liberal respect for pluralism and the autonomy of its citizens while at the same time preserve a national identity?

Merkel said in her speech defending the idea of the ban: “The full veil is not appropriate here, it should be forbidden wherever that is legally possible. It does not belong to us.” Her move towards banning the veil has widely been taken as a tactic to mitigate the negative response to her allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants to enter Germany in the wake of the migrant crises of recent years. What it means to be German is implicated in the discussion, and the public display of practices that are interpreted to be “foreign” are less than welcome in the current climate. Thus, the proposal of a ban on headscarves will likely help Merkel gain support of constituents who have been less than pleased with her handling of the migrant crisis and its effects on the economy and other aspects of German life.

Bans like these bring out the tension between the formal and substantive values underlying modern liberal societies. On the one hand, there is a commitment to allowing people to live as they wish: the value of protecting civil liberties and individual autonomy, which is a formal value (it does not implicate any particular value systems or commitments to promote). On the other hand, there is a commitment to promoting something resembling a national identity, values which would be German, or French, or British, or American, which would be substantive.

This formal commitment we can call a commitment to respect autonomy, or the value of pluralism. This is the value in respecting an individual’s autonomy in shaping her life according to her values, especially in practices that are in significant areas of life. Practices and choices regarding child-rearing, partner selection, educational strategies, meals and dietary customs, burial and worship, etc. shape the meaning and significance of our lives. Crucially, at the root of this commitment is the notion that there are multiple reasonable value systems that could shape a good life, and therefore in order to have a society that respects all individuals, it must acknowledge that they could arrive at different ideas about how to live. Given a full set of human competences, well-informed people can disagree as to what will constitute a life well-lived.

It can be important to one family to raise children in authoritarian, achievement-focused manner. In another household, particular eating practices could be highly significant. Expressions of religious belief and worship vary from diet to clothing to structural family choices. These practices are ways that the world and life makes sense to us and is meaningful, and in the last few hundred years especially, societies have trended towards more pluralist approaches to governance where citizens can hold a variety of value systems and fully participate in the government and society.

France has embraced a further value: a deep separation of church and state, in other words, a commitment to secularism. Public spaces are meant to be free from “conspicuous” displays of religious expression. For instance, displays of religious expression in public schools have been banned since 2004, and this restriction has been met with wide public support: BBC reports, “Most of the population – including most Muslims – agree with the government when it describes the face-covering veil as an affront to society’s values.” The justification for these restrictions is largely framed as an appeal to what it means to be “French,” and the substantive values that come with citizenship. This is a move away from pluralism, a move towards the promotion of particular nationalist values.

The commitments here are distinct from a commitment to pluralism and a respect for autonomy, for expressions of differing values (specifically, values that arise from religious commitment) in certain public places are outlawed. It is telling that along with a fine, the sanction for wearing the full veil includes taking a class on citizenship. Despite being the country with the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe, in order to be a proper citizen of France, expressing this religion in particular ways in particular places is legally prohibited.

The value of pluralism is underwritten by the notion that there are multiple ways of living that may be equally valid, or at least that are not inherently wrong. With a commitment to secularism, France is avoiding saying that these practices are wrong, and instead saying they are not appropriate for the public sphere (though President Sarkozy, who was in power and behind the ban on full veils, cited the oppressive nature of the veil at the time). Attempting to outline appropriate behavior for the public sphere, while maintaining that individuals can live according to their values in private is giving priority to the commitment of secularism over pluralism, which is relegated to a particular sphere of life.

A commitment to secularism could be underwriting the current move in Germany, with the foreign minister’s language citing the veil’s inherent conflict with Germany’s “open society”, and Merkel claiming that the veil “doesn’t belong to us.” The foreign minister seems to attempt to appeal to formal values of German society – values that wouldn’t favor one religious or secular value system over another – when he mentions the importance of communication: “Showing the face is a constituent element for our communication, the way we live, our social cohesion. That is why we call on everyone to show their face.” This would suggest that the issue isn’t with the expression of religious faith that is foreign to Germany or an oppression inherent in wearing the garment, but rather that Germans have a formal commitment that this specific instance of religious expression is in conflict with. If someone is covering their face, the suggestion is that communication is undermined. (Our ability to successfully communicate via a plethora of digital media would seem to be a counterexample to this appeal to the necessity of seeing the face of our interlocutor.)

The restriction of public expression of personal adherence to a value system has been justified on a variety of grounds recently in Western Europe. Whatever is taken to justify it, the case must be weighed against the nation’s commitment to pluralism, and the extent to which the nation wishes to preserve that value as part of its national identity.

Compulsory Voting in America

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Voter turnout in America is infamous for being extraordinarily low. Consistently, between 50% to 60% of eligible voters actually turn out to vote in presidential election year; the number is even lower during midterm elections, when the election is perceived as lower stakes. The 2014 midterm elections saw a dismal turnout of 36%. In 2016, voter turnout was at a 20-year low, with 55% of the age-eligible population voting in the presidential election. This means that a very small percentage of the country actually votes for the winning presidential candidate, and/or the members of both Congressional chambers, and that nearly half the country does not participate in the selection process. Some countries have taken what appears to be a drastic approach to resolving this problem: compulsory voting.

More than 20 countries around the world have adopted compulsory voting programs. Compulsory voting is just what it sounds like: by law, all those who are eligible to vote must vote. While compulsory voting sounds like a policy that would take place in an authoritarian regime at first glance, compulsory voting laws tend to have relatively lax punishments for refusal to vote. The Atlantic reports a $20 to $50 fine in Australia for those who fail to have an excuse for not voting, and no laws prohibit voters from simply turning in a blank ballot if they so choose. Turnout in countries with compulsory voting can be as high as 85%. This turnout remains consistent in most elections. Due to the strikingly low voter turnout in the U.S., President Obama endorsed the idea in 2015 when asked about economic inequality.

A compulsory voting law may in fact be beneficial for the U.S. Countries with compulsory voting laws have lower wealth inequity, next to no political corruption, and higher faith in the democratic process. Working class voters who tend to not participate in elections or those voters disengaged from the political process would have to get involved; Australia also experienced a low voter turnout rate before switching to compulsory voting in 1924. Voter disenfranchisement has been a hot topic across the nation for years – whether it’s voter ID laws that restrict access to the polls, elections happening on days in which low-income workers find it nearly impossible to get off work, or polling locations that are not easily accessible. Therefore, the well-off have significantly more power in politics than the average citizen. Compulsory voting laws would serve to level the playing field at least somewhat, giving those who are typically underrepresented a more significant voice, thus forcing politicians to address the needs of those communities.

Some of these issues could also be resolved through expanding access to voting. Some proposed solutions include extending early voting, moving Election Day from a Tuesday to a weekend, automatic registration upon receiving a driver’s license. One issue with compulsory voting laws is enforcement – a $20 to $50 fine every two years isn’t a steep enough fee that most households can’t pay it and have to vote. Laws like this are difficult to enforce when the consequences are not steep. Other experts told Business Insider that, since Americans tend to value individual liberty very highly, adding another mandatory civic duty on top of taxation and jury duty would generate too much political backlash. Finally, compulsory voting tends to make the country swing to the left, since many non-voters lean Democratic. Therefore, predominantly Republican states would likely not support the laws on a state level, and the federal level would likely not be able to implement the laws if Republicans held both or either chamber and/or the White House.

Given that such a low percentage of Americans actually vote in elections, some changes to the voting system need to be made to ensure that Americans are fairly getting their say in elections. While compulsory voting may never be a policy in America, or at least not in the foreseeable future, taking steps to improve voter turnout by revamping the voting process would be beneficial to those who are underrepresented in our democracy.

Back to Basics: The Ethics of Voting

The 2016 election day is coming up very soon, so we thought we’d give you all some things to think about as you head to the polls (or if you’re thinking about abstaining). Our producer Sandra Bertin shares some reporting she did on the ethics of voting. Listen in with our other producer Christiane Wisehart to hear the voices of experts and everyday people discussing their thoughts on how to vote. We managed to get through the entire episode without even mentioning who you should vote for!

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. Second presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri
  2. Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative
  3. T.M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Emeritus at Harvard University
  4. What Happened in Ferguson?” (New York Times)
  5. Daniel Hopkins, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania
  6. Derrick Darby
  7. Jennifer L. Hochschild, H.L. Jayne Professor of Government, Professor of African and African American Studies, and Harvard College Professor at Harvard University
  8. Tommie Shelby, Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University
  9. Elizabeth S. Anderson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at University of Michigan
    • The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Credits

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

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Lahaina” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Should Civilians Be Spared? with Seth Lazar

On today’s episode, we have one major question for philosopher Seth Lazar: is it ever acceptable to kill civilians in war? As with all good questions in philosophy, it turned out to be a lot more complicated than we initially thought. Lazar wrote Sparing Civilians, out now from Oxford University Press. He lays out what it takes for a civilian or soldier to be considered a threat, what it takes for someone be responsible for that threat, and how to weigh risking harm to other people. Then later in the show, we discuss what responsibility civilians in the United States have for foreign wars.

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. Seth Lazar, Sparing Civilians
  2. Last Week Tonight: Drones
  3. Ted Cruz debate: “What it means is using overwhelming air power…”
  4. Donald Trump: “You have to take out their families.”
  5. Just War Theory
  6. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations
  7. Rethinking Just War Theory (Jeff McMahan)
  8. Some other contemporary critics of Walzer’s Just War Theory
  9. Immanuel Kant’s “kingdom of ends
  10. Daniel Pearl

Credits

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

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

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Lahaina” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Ritual Two” by Jason Leonard from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Thaw (Outro)” by Kai Engel from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Individuals vs. Groups: Lori Gruen and Martin Wilkinson

Many of the biggest issues in ethics come down to a dispute between individuals and groups. We explore this idea first with the philosopher Lori Gruen. She explains why keeping pets or incarcerating people does harm to the autonomy and dignity of the individual. Then, we interview the public health and ethics expert Martin Wilkinson, who explains that because of a worldwide organ shortage, we have an interest in procuring organs of the recently dead. Martin Wilkinson will explain to us how difficult it is to balance that need against individual rights (even after they’re dead).

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. Lori Gruen (The Ethics of Captivity)
    1. Lori Gruen’s website
    2. Manuel Wackenheim v. France Case
  2. Martin Wilkinson (Ethics and the Acquisition of Organs)
    1. Martin Wilkinson’s website
    2. Singapore: the problem with mandatory organ donation

Credits

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

“Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Dowl” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

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

“Heavenly Choir” sound effect by SOUND FX TV

Pineapple” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

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

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