Skip to content
Contact Us

Students in Northeastern’s ethics and policy courses grapple with contemporary issues and problems in theoretically robust and empirically informed ways.

In some courses, students are asked to present a succinct statement of a problem, their view on it, and the evidence and reasoning that they believe supports their position in the form of an op-ed.

Below are some of the op-eds produced by our students. The view expressed in them, and the arguments in support of their views, are theirs.

Latest Work

Brittany Clottey

Contemporary Political Thought, Spring 2022


On January 9th, 2022, 17 residents of the New York City borough of the Bronx were killed in a fire that suffocated an apartment complex known as the Twin Parks North West[1]. Nine of the victims killed in this fatal accident were children and almost all of them came from West African countries[2]. According to the New York Daily News, this tragic event was due to a space heater malfunction that spread through an open door and across several apartments within the complex. Although the smoke detectors rang furiously, this alarm was ignored, due to the series of false alarms that residents knew to ignore; a common occurrence that took place frequently as a result of poor electrical maintenance. The mayor of NYC, Eric Adams was quick to blame the tenants, stating: “If we take one message from this …Close the door. Close the door. Close the door.” But this wasn’t the fault of the tenants that occupied the apartment building. Throughout the winter, several tenants have complained about the lack of heat in the apartment complex. Over the years, more than six violations have been placed on the building by New York’s department of housing preservation and development[3]. As a result, the tenants took it into their own hands to purchase a space heater to keep them warm during New York’s harsh winter season; and due to a broken self-closing door,[4] -a fault of poor maintenance- the fire spread furiously throughout the apartment complex.

This infrastructural neglect is a serious issue that is unfortunately not unique to the Bronx.  In addition to the crumbling infrastructure, food deserts and inaccessible modes of transportation are also phenomena that have become significant features of poor urban communities. Black and Brown communities have been demanding healthy and safe living environments across the United States, and whether it be a lack of government funding or politicians with capitalistic stakeholders, legislators are willful to neglect these communities. This willful neglect affects the livelihood and well-being of the residents, oftentimes leading to devastating and deadly situations like the Bronx fire.

Using Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics, we can begin to understand why such communities are neglected. A historian and philosopher, Mbembe defines necropolitics as the ability of a state (or nation) to kill, allow to live, and/or expose to death[5]. With necropolitics, Mbembe offers an insightful analysis of the tactics partaken by the state to get rid of unwanted populations. And in the case of the Bronx fire, as well as other contemporary issues in the United States like the Flint water crisis and the influx of police brutality over the last few decades, jurisdictions have flexed their necropolitical muscle. With Mbembe’s theoretical framework it is revealed how poorly managed urban communities experience a form of passive necropolitics in which lack of funding and infrastructural neglect indicates the state’s unwillingness to care for its residents, allowing them to die.

In addition to poor maintenance of infrastructure, food deserts are also another example of this passive form of necropower embedded within the structure of urban populations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a food desert is an environment where a significant number or at least one-third of a population lives “one-half mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store for an urban area or greater than 10 miles for a rural area.”[6] They have become a growing concern within the United States, disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities. Often within poor urban populations, access to healthy and nutritional food exists miles from their homes, and smaller convenience stores lack a robust menu of options. In addition, the income per capita in poor urban communities makes food shopping in major supermarkets unaffordable[7]. In an article written by NY City Lens, journalist Paroma Soni interviews several residents of the Bronx community, who’ve been experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19  pandemic. She interviews Janet Clark, a single mother of 5, who states that it is more accessible to buy groceries at a deli than it is to access expensive supermarkets which are over 7 blocks away from her neighborhood[8]. The unwillingness of the state to provide access to nutritious food can have long-lasting effects on the health of these communities, making them at risk of developing long-term health conditions like diabetes[9], which Janet was recently diagnosed with.

In addition to food and healthcare insecurity, there exists another layer of necropolitical power that engages with the space and location of these urban populations. How these neighborhoods are physically arranged are essential to the food and healthcare insecurity they experience. Mbembe describes this spatial arrangement as the state of exception, a strategic tactic of necropolitical power where the state of law and judicial order is suspended.[10] Within this spatial arrangement, the political legislators have the ability to enact total sovereign rule and control over its inhabitants. This includes limiting access to resources that affect their livelihood. Although Mbembe focuses on instances of direct violence on colonized lands such as African colonization and the occupation of Palestine when describing the state of exception,[11] it is a framework that can be applied to the makeup of urban landscapes. According to Medical News Today, “many food deserts also provide limited or unaffordable healthcare services. This contributes to negative health outcomes for people living in these areas.” The spatial arrangement that urban communities occupy limits their access to necessary services vital for their well-being, leaving them with limited options to care for themselves and their families.

Mbembe’s assessment of the present-day necropolitical occupation of Palestine demonstrates how sovereign states enact violence on those within the Global South. The spatial arrangement of US urban populations is akin to the territorialization of Palestine as Mbembe describes. According to Mbembe, territorialization is the process of organizing a territory and producing artificial boundaries and borders around certain populations of people. The act of territorialization establishes hierarchies and affects the distribution of resources[12]. Like Palestine, urban populations are subjected to this territorialization through legislation like redlining, which is the illegal practice of denying entry to certain neighborhoods based on racial discrimination[13]. Redlining pushes Black and Brown people out of communities that have access to necessary resources like the healthcare facilities and supermarkets aforementioned. Although redlining can take many forms, it is an aspect of territorialization that establishes spatial boundaries and zones that enables states to enact sovereignty over these populations.

The necropolitics of Black and Brown life in America is a serious and critical investigation and is oftentimes ignored due to its unrecognizable, yet violent characteristics. The establishment of food deserts, the willful negligence of crumbling infrastructure, and the racialized territorialization of land are all methods of necropolitical power present in the United States. Our inability to reckon with the destruction of these populations may be because we view poor urban neighborhoods as isolated instances of underfunding, which can be simply solved through active legislation and better policies. However, necropolitics brings us closer to uncovering the intentionality behind these acts. Through this lens, it becomes revealed to us that the treatment of these urban populations is state-sanctioned, and occupies a similar social situation to other populations in the Global South, who have been subjected to colonial rule. Let us not write off the treatment of urban populations as an issue of policy making. Instead, positing the mistreatment of urban populations as an intentional act of sovereignty allows us to take these issues seriously, and pushes us to fight for better legislation that diminishes the state’s ability to rid these populations completely.

 

References:

[1]Hernández, Diana. “Heat, Housing and the Horrific Bronx Fire.” New York Daily News, 14 Jan. 2022,

[2]Westhoff, Kiely, and Alaa Elassar. “New York Mayor Signs Fire Safety Order after Fatal Bronx Fire.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Mar. 2022

[3]“Why Is New York City’s Mayor Blaming Tenants for the Deadliest Fire in Decades? | Ross Barkan.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Jan. 2022

[4]Sommerfeldt, Chris. “NYC Law Mandating Self-Closing Doors in the Spotlight after Fatal Bronx Building Blaze.” New York Daily News, 11 Jan. 2022

[5]  Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 12

[6]Food Access Research Atlas.” USDA ERS – Food Access Research Atlas\

[7]“Access to Affordable, Nutritious Food Is Limited in ‘Food Deserts.’” USDA ERS – Access to Affordable, Nutritious Food Is Limited in “Food Deserts”

[8]Soni, Paroma. “How the Bronx Is Fighting Food Insecurity during a Pandemic.” NY City Lens, 8 Jan. 2022

[9]“Food Deserts: Definition, Effects, and Solutions.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International

[10]   Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 13

[11]   Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 24

[12]    Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 26

[13]Weintraub, Elizabeth. “Redlining.” The Balance

 

Hayden Ventrella

Contemporary Political Thought, Spring 2022


“Man dies after setting himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court,”[1] reads the CBS headline of an article that glosses over an extremely important event on Earth Day, April 22, 2022. Wynn Bruce, a Buddhist climate activist, set himself on fire in an act reminiscent of the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk protesting the persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists in 1963.[2] As the article provides no insight into Bruce’s actions, Kirtee Kanko, a Buddhist priest, and friend of Bruce, took to Twitter to explain the context of his self-immolation: “This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to [the] climate crisis.”[3]

Climate change is a global phenomenon that requires immediate radical local and global action. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, released on April 4, 2022, paints a grim image of our future at the current rate of action: “Global GHG emissions in 2030 associated with the implementation of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) announced prior to COP26 [26th annual Convention of the Parties] would make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius during the 21st

century.”[4] Simply put, climate change mitigation efforts after the year 2030 will not prevent global warming from exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius that is expected to effect irreversible climate consequences. The Paris Climate Agreement, enacted in 2016, set the global goal to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and it is this goal that is no longer achievable without extremely radical action within the next seven years.

Unfortunately, global climate agreements like the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an agreement to convene annually for the Conference of the Parties (COP) to discuss mitigation efforts, have zero enforcement power over the countries in the agreement. There is no legal requirement for countries to meet the goal of their NDCs, nor punishment for failing to meet these NDCs. This forces the people of the world to rely on each country’s desire to maintain positive international reputations relating to mitigation efforts as the enforcement mechanism—which is discouraging as it has become increasingly clear that reputations relating to climate change are insignificant to top emitting countries. China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan, the top five emitting countries that make up 58.41%[5] of global carbon emissions, continue to emit at the highest rates with no consequence other than countless extreme climate deaths they are ensuring for the world.

This power over the life and death of every person on earth lying in the hands of these five countries is what Achille Mbembe, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, describes as necropower. Necropower identifies the “ultimate expression of sovereignty” for the state as the “power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”[6] The intentional perpetuation of, and the inaction in addressing, climate change by the countries mentioned above is an exertion of necropower which expands beyond the territorial definition of sovereignty as climate change is a global phenomenon. The lack of climate mitigation efforts from these top five countries is an extremely blunt dictation of “who must die” by extreme climate death in the present and future; and, often, the who of “who must die” is the people of the Global South where extreme climate events are more frequent and many of these countries lack the resources and adaptive infrastructure to withstand these events.

The catalyst for state action is the people; the people become that catalyst through protest. Global climate protest, however, has continuously failed to produce much meaningful action from these top five countries. Here, we need to look toward bell hooks’ “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance,” in which she argues that the struggle for Black liberation requires the movement to recognize its anger and use that anger in its reaction to and protest of its oppression. We can effectively use hooks’ idea of “killing rage”[7] for the climate protest movement as we view perpetuation and inaction relating to climate change as necropower. hooks’ argument is especially relevant as she explains that the Black liberation movement is justified in using “killing rage” as it is responding to the exercise of necropower by the white supremacist state.

Killing rage is an empowering rage—it empowers the individual to act angrily, yet productively, against necropower. hooks channels her own killing rage into her writing; the climate protest movement can channel its killing rage into consistent, provocative, non-cooperative disruption and coercion. In a 2020 study on the effectiveness of climate protest, sociologist Dylan Bugdan found that peaceful protest and civil disobedience are complementary in raising public support for climate policy.[8] The Scientist Rebellion provides incredible examples of the killing rage protest needed: in November of 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, scientists with the Rebellion occupied a bridge for five hours and glued themselves to a Scottish Power building, both of which resulted in several arrests.[9] Using these tactics of civil disobedience in embracing killing rage exemplifies the kind of provocative action required to effect productive climate progress.

Disruptive, non-cooperative protest empowered by killing rage can be an effective response to this exercise of necropower, but it will require greater participation. Not acting is complicity; embracing your killing rage to take persistent action in whatever ways you are able is resistance. Climate progress requires what Kirtee explained as “deeply fearless act[s] of compassion.” Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in a terrifying coercive act of self-violence, but we shouldn’t have to burn ourselves alive to produce the action we need; yet here we are. Earth does not have to burn. Climate protest needs to get louder, more provocative, and more disruptive, to force global leaders to act.

References:

[1] Victoria Albert, “Man Dies after Setting Himself on Fire in Front of the Supreme Court, Police Say,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, April 24, 2022), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/supreme-court-person-sets-themselves-fire/.

[2] Andrei Tapalaga, “The Monk Who Burned Himself to Death as a Form of Protest,” Medium (History of Yesterday, July 26, 2020), https://historyofyesterday.com/the-monk-who-burned-himself-to-death-as-a-form-of-protest-35008d0ed8e2.

[3] Chris Cameron, “Climate Activist Dies after Setting Himself on Fire at Supreme Court,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 24, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/24/us/politics/climate-activist-self-immolation-supreme-court.html.

[4] “WGIII Summary for Policymakers Headline Statements,” IPCC.ch, April 4, 2022, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/resources/spm-headline-statements/.

[5] “CO2 Emissions by Country,” Worldometer, 2019, https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-by-country/.

[6]  Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics. Duke University Press.

[7]  hooks, bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995

[8] Mallika Talwar, “Do Climate Protests Shift Public Support for Climate Change Action?” Yale Environment Review, February 23, 2022.

[9] “Past Actions,” Scientist Rebellion, accessed April 25, 2022, https://scientistrebellion.com/past-actions/.

2021-2022

Connor Lardi

Business, Ethics, and Human Rights, Spring 2022


After years of battling in court the Sandy Hook victims’ parents reached a $73 million settlement with Remington. Sandy Hook had always been in the back of my mind, but I never thought Remington would be held accountable. However, the families were finally able to
expose Remington’s marketing schemes and gain justice.

I remember, as if just yesterday, sitting in my fourth-grade classroom in Monroe,
Connecticut, just 19 minutes away from me in Sandy Hook Elementary in December of 2012. A 20-year-old named Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people committing one of the deadliest
shootings ever. Having working parents, there was no one to pick me up from school. Still, I watched as my friends went home with their parents. My teacher reassured me that everything
would be okay. My school went into a complete lockdown. We were surrounded by armed police, concerned there would be a second attack at nearby schools. As I left for school in the afternoon, I was escorted to the buses by armed officers. When my mother finally returned
home, relief filled our faces when we realized we were both safe.

Guns were a big part of my life over the next few years. Locked doors were implemented in the front of our schools, security checkpoints were created leading to our school, and armed officers were stationed around the premises ready for anything. My middle school was right next to an abandoned school, Chalk Hill, that ultimately was reconfigured to be used by the students of Sandy Hook. As I would walk over to the shared field armed officers would track our every
moment, and so over time I became numb to seeing guns. Parents in the town were distressed as 12-14 year olds were constantly surrounded by weapons, and everyone was treated as a threat. When we arrived to school, officers would approach us with hands on their guns and would thoroughly interrogate parents before sending them to the next checkpoint.

Since 1970 there have been 1,316 school shootings, and 18% took place after the Sandy Hook tragedy. The families of nine of the Sandy Hook victims argued that Remington marketed the weapons to target people such as Adam Lanza. The Remington gun company ultimately
settled for 73 million dollars. However, the money was not the main focus of suing Remington, but the desire to make a societal change. Guns companies up until this settlement were protected
by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). However, the victims’ families were able to use Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, a consumer protection law. The Sandy Hook families argued that Remington attempted to reduce risk of dangerous gun use, but instead promoted it. They argued that they suffered a measurable loss because of the result of the unfair and deceptive acts of Remington. Adam Lanza was one of the people Remington targeted. His walls were covered with posters of guns and other military equipment. He spent
hours playing video games such as Call of Duty where he was exposed to such weapons like the ones produced by Remington.

Marketing is a large part of companies. It promotes the new user to purchase the product and existing users to continue purchasing. In today’s generation, because of the desensitization to
guns, younger people often overlook the lethality of such items in marketing. Activision Blizzard, a creator of “Call of Duty,” gives thanks to companies such as Remington. Gun producers, like Remington, use marketing that can be considered unethical. Instead of trying to
prevent young people from being exposed to guns, most of the gun producers see video games as
a way of free marketing. One of Remington’s notable brands is called Bushmaster, which is the
brand of gun Adam used. In one of their AR-15, there was a caption “consider your man card reissued.” Remington plays on the desires of younger males to be seen as masculine, especially
those who might feel emasculated from bullying at school.

The Sandy Hook Victims’ families have opened the discussion to how the unethical marketing of products such as guns leads to violence that causes mass trauma. Now that big companies are held accountable for how they market their guns, we have hope that there will not
be another Sandy Hook. The door has been cracked open into the world of gun marketing now; we must act to protect future lives. I feel a sense of relief knowing that gun control is becoming a
prevalent topic in America.

Olivia Henry 

Contemporary Political Thought, Fall 2021 


What makes an “It” bag? For years, the most coveted “It” bags have come from luxury brands like Chanel and Hermes. With price points over 3,000 dollars, how do these brands maintain such intense desirability? Recently, there’s a new “It” bag on the rise: the Telfar Shopping Bag. The bags, which consistently sell-out in minutes, retail for a range of 150-300 dollars. Disruption is built into every aspect of the Telfar Shopping Bag, not necessarily because of the design, which was modeled off of the Bloomingdale’s shopping totes. Instead, Telfar as a fashion house is fundamentally redefining luxury and fashion across the globe. From its establishment in 2005, Telfar has been paving the way for accessible androgenous fashion, representing “black-adjacent, queer-adjacent” consumers.[1] For a bag that is built to maintain accessibility and represent groups that are historically excluded from high fashion, the design has been highly sought after by white communities and companies. The Telfar Bag’s new position as an “It” item has contributed to the recent growth and intense desirability, but it has also had implications for the disruptive nature of the company and its revolutionary ideals. The Telfar Bag represents how Black queer fashion is frequently co-opted and consumed by white audiences, ridding the creative practice of its’ subversive potentials. White consumers ought to hold themselves to a higher standard of interrogation when it comes to Black designs and fashion practices.

Originally released in 2014, the simple unisex monogram bag has quickly become one of the hottest accessories on the market. The bag itself is a faux leather tote featuring the Telfar logo in a variety of colors. The ubiquitous bags are credited to Telfar Clemens, a Black and queer, self-made designer. The Telfar Shopping Bag has quickly risen to levels of fame similar to that of designers like Virgil Abloh, the creator of fashion house Off-white and former artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear until his recent passing. One thread stands out in both Telfar and Abloh’s rise to fame: “they weren’t supposed to be there.”[2] Telfar previously noted that  being a queer, Liberian-American eighteen year old in 2004 trying to establish 100% unisex fashion was trying “to make clothes that do not exist on the market – just as you don’t exist in the world.”[3] As an outsider to the realm of high fashion, Telfar was unintelligible to wealthy white audiences, but as the desire to consume Black culture became more apparent in white spaces, Black independent labels began to see mainstream appreciation.

While the brand’s foundation is rooted in “genderless, democratic, and transformative” values, there have been recent discussions about the consequences of a brand like Telfar occupying white spaces. According to Clemens, the design is “about visibility and power,” and the “trend for diversity without change” is something he has attempted to push back against.[4] Some may say the Telfar Bag’s recent growth can be credited to the Buy Black movement, justifying the mass consumption of the bag without the historical recognition. While white audiences may have good intentions regarding uplifting Black experiences and stories, in practice they can have adverse effects on Black resistance and expression. Even if the desire to participate in the Buy Black movement explains the dilution of Clemens’ message, it doesn’t rectify the harm. Clemens has noted his dissatisfaction with the language used to describe Telfar and the lack of authenticity behind representation.[5] Telfar is always used as an example of inclusive brand practices, but there are a plethora of consumers who aren’t interested in becoming more inclusive—they’re interested in the association that comes with owning a Telfar Shopping Bag. Often white activists take over minority movements and confound the messages to be less radical, which can be seen in movements like Buy Black and #BlackOutTuesday. The colloquial name for the Telfar bag, the “Bushwick Birken,” has the direct consequence of associating the bag with symbols of white respectability. Bushwick is a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City that has been experiencing high levels of gentrification similar to other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Ridgewood by wealthy and white New Yorkers. Comparing the Telfar to the infamous Birken, a luxury handbag famous for its exclusive nature, is an equally problematic juxtaposition. The likening of Telfar’s designs to products that were always intended for wealthy people strips the Telfar bag of its defining characteristic: its attainability. The role of Telfar as a brand is to sell to common consumers typically excluded from the realm of fashion, not to assert its position as a luxury bag designer. When white and wealthy consumers create images of scarcity and tradition, it’s at the expense of Telfar’s mission. The bag is taking the world by storm because it’s unique in its purposeful accessibility; the design subverts our notion of luxury because it was always meant to be for everyone.

Much like in bell hooks’ critique of Paris is Burning, white audiences have made a “spectacle” of Telfar’s accessible and subversive design practices and commodified the brand’s values and ideals. The values and ideals behind Telfar’s designs have been removed and watered down. According to the Telfar artistic director, Radboy, the brand turns down sponsors that want to market to the “desire for vicarious black authenticity.”[6] The brand wants to work with companies “that can introduce Telfar to people beyond cosmopolitan centers.”[7] In her essay titled “Is Paris Burning?,” hooks explains the process through which Black ballroom culture and queer experiences were mythologized by Jennie Livingston in the film Paris is Burning. Livingston, a white, gay woman, documents ballroom culture in New York City during the late 80s in her film. hooks critiques Livingston’s production as exploitative because she has no relation to the subject matter as an outsider and does not interrogate her position’s effect on the film. The same process hooks critiques, in which white audiences view Black creativity from an outsider position, contributes to the popularity of Black fashion brands like Telfar and the commodification of their values and designs. This can be seen with the juxtaposition of the Telfar Bag’s new symbol of luxury and scarcity in the fashion industry to Clemens’ foundation of the brand. The fundamental tenets of accessibility and gender nonconformity have been twisted into a watered-down and neutral position, robbing the brand of its subversive nature.

One of hooks’ central critiques is that Livingston avoids confronting the role of her position as a white woman in the production of Paris is Burning. Avoiding commodification requires “awareness of the way white supremacy shapes cultural production.”[8] There is an understanding that white audiences have the power to determine “what representations of blackness are deemed acceptable, marketable, as well worthy of seeing.”[9] White consumers like Livingston who ignore this understanding and context will always be consuming Black creativity as entertainment from the position of neutral outsiders looking in. hooks writes that the “ability to assume” a position of neutrality “without rigorous interrogation of intent is rooted in the politics of race and racism.”[10] At first, the popularity of Black brands seems deserving and impactful. When white audiences remove the value of the brand and creators from a product, it starts to feel much more divorced and commodified. Purely demonstrative purchases strip Black art of its value while white consumers gain social credibility on the backs of Black artists. It is because of this that white and wealthy audiences who want to participate in up and coming fashion trends or the relevance of Black creativity need to do the necessary interrogation of how their actions are inline with the brand’s values.

At its core, Telfar is a brand built upon accessibility and approachability. Their motto of “it’s not for you, it’s for everyone” is meant to challenge how fashion has historically been an indicator of luxury and rampant consumerism. While these values may resonate with everyone, white consumers should abandon their sense of neutrality in favor of thoughtful interrogation. The only way to avoid the spectacularization of Black fashion is for white consumers to be cognizant of the long-standing effect they have had on the respectability and acceptance of Black fashion and culture.

 

References

Allaire, C. (2020, July 24). Telfar Clemens says the frenzy over his bags is ‘beautiful’. Vogue. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.vogue.com/article/telfar-clemens-shopping-bags-frenzy

Blacksher, D. (2020, January 7). When a Bag Becomes a Community How the ‘Bushwick Birkin’  became a fashion status symbol. The Cut. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.thecut.com/2020/01/how-telfars-shopping-bag-became-the-bushwick-birkin.html

hooks, bell. (2015). Is Paris Burning? In Black looks: Race and representation (pp. 145–156). essay, Routledge.

Mowatt, R. (2020, September 2). How the TELFAR shopping bag became the most popular black-owned accessory on the internet. Okayplayer. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/how-the-telfar-bag-became-the-most-popular-black-owned-accessory.html

Solway, D. (2017, April 20). Virgil Abloh and his army of disruptors: How he became the king of social media superinfluencers. W Magazine. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.wmagazine.com/story/virgil-abloh-off-white-kanye-west-raf-simons

Witt, E., Félix, D. S., & Allen, E. (2020, March 5). Telfar Clemens’s mass appeal. The New Yorker. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/16/telfar-clemens-mass-appeal

 

Footnotes: 

[1] Witt, E., Félix, D. S., & Allen, E. (2020, March 5). Telfar Clemens’ mass appeal.

[2] Solway, D. (2017, April 20). Virgil Abloh and his army of disruptors: How he became the king of social media superinfluencers.

[3] Mowatt, R. (2020, September 2). How the TELFAR shopping bag became the most popular black-owned accessory on the internet.

[4]Blacksher, D. (2020, January 7). When a Bag Becomes a Community How the ‘Bushwick Birkin’ became a fashion status symbol.

[5] Witt, E., Félix, D. S., & Allen, E. (2020, March 5). Telfar Clemens’ mass appeal.

[6] Witt, E., Félix, D. S., & Allen, E. (2020, March 5). Telfar Clemens’ mass appeal.

[7] Witt, E., Félix, D. S., & Allen, E. (2020, March 5). Telfar Clemens’ mass appeal.

[8] hooks, bell. (2015). Is Paris Burning? In Black looks: Race and representation. p. 152

[9] hooks, bell. (2015). Is Paris Burning? In Black looks: Race and representation. p. 152

[10] hooks, bell. (2015). Is Paris Burning? In Black looks: Race and representation. p. 153

Ella Hutnick

Contemporary Political Thought, Fall 2021


“Every time I shoot I feel so sassy and so glamorous,” said Megan Barton-Hanson, Love Island star and a top earner on OnlyFans, a subscription-based social media platform used mainly for adult content. Barton-Hanson makes an estimated $1.06 million per month selling sexual photos on the platform. “I know a lot of people who have struggled with body confidence in the past and since doing OnlyFans, they now feel beautiful and it makes them happy.”

For many women who open an account on the site, the reality Barton-Hanson describes is the reality they go in expecting.

It’s get-rich-quick without the scheme.

It’s empowerment without exploitation.

Proclamations like these lure in often young and economically vulnerable women, naive to the OnlyFans’ dark underbelly, leading to long-term damage that more nuanced characterizations of life on the platform could prevent. OnlyFans is only one such pornographic social media platform, but its prevalence in the zeitgeist positions it as the perfect lens through which to examine the way we market soft sex work as a means of female empowerment.

Through OnlyFans, content creators sell photos and other digital services, overwhelmingly pornographic in nature, to subscribers, or “fans.” Subscribers pay any given creator $4.99 to $49.99 per month, providing them access to the creator’s general feed (think Instagram liberated of those pesky adult content restrictions) in addition to messaging privileges with the creator and personalized photo requests. OnlyFans takes a hefty 20% cut of any and all transactions made on their platform, a loss many creators supplement with ‘tips,’ off-platform payments that subscribers make via apps like Venmo for access to even further exclusive content.

Before March 2020, the platform saw perfectly respectable growth. COVID changed that. Furloughed, hordes of cash-strapped individuals flocked to and set up shop on the site, quintupling the creator count to 1.6 million. Viewers matched creators’ enthusiasm, leading to a 2020 revenue of $400 million, 540% growth in a single year. The appeal of OnlyFans was clear; it combined the entrepreneurial spirit of the gig economy with the convenience of working from home.

Naturally, this staggering growth vaulted OnlyFans to near-ubiquity in the national conversation. Liberal feminists began touting its myriad benefits for women, as most creators identify as female, most subscribers as male. They said it was economically and bodily empowering, a means of raising self-esteem. Proponents of OnlyFans spouted the buzzy aphorism “Sex work is work,” encouraging listeners to set sexual stigma aside and think critically about the actual differences between “normal” work and sex work. Sure, being an OnlyFans creator can put a strain on personal relationships, and clients can be difficult… but are those not the same side effects of the average 9 to 5? If so, what’s wrong with joining up?

Well, the answer is complicated. To clarify, I do not question whether soft sex work is legitimate. Women’s rights to autonomy dictate that they can do anything they like with their bodies, from selling risque lingerie photos to videographed, consensual pornography. Criminalizing sex work doesn’t stop sex work, but it does stigmatize and endanger sex workers by eliminating safe spaces and painting them as criminals.

Issues arise, however, when successful women in the trade market OnlyFans, and sex work by extension, as a fastpass to economic and internal empowerment. These women, often white, often both financially secure and self-secure, hold an incredible amount of influence. By nature of the ‘content creator’ condition, a strong OnlyFans following often goes hand-in-hand with a powerful presence across all major social platforms. As is the case with Megan Barton-Hanson, her OnlyFans following owes itself to her substantial Instagram following from Love Island. Thus, when Barton-Hanson speaks, her message does not only fall upon the ears of her subscribers. It reaches potential creators as well.

While promotion of the platform by non-users, such as its male owners, is ethically difficult to navigate, female creators engender in women on the fence about joining a level of trust that non-creators cannot. In “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” author Linda Alcoff warns speakers of prominent social locations against using a single facet of their identity to speak for all those who share it. In the case of OnlyFans, these influential women are the ‘speakers,’and their gender the “facet,” which they use to conflate their experiences on the site with those of the less privileged. When outrageously wealthy creators like Barton-Hanson speak for “other” creators and ambiguously assert that they have found happiness and confidence on the site, they mischaracterize the experiences of many. Alcoff states that “the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for,” which begs the question; what harms does OnlyFans bring about, and how does this false advertising of empowerment affect groups of a lower social location?

In terms of economic empowerment, we can’t ignore the financial life raft that OnlyFans possibly provides. Countless creators make more money on OnlyFans alone than in their previous full-time jobs. The recent aforementioned bump in creators however, exacerbated an already all-too-common finding among new users- making a significant income on the site is very very difficult. The average creator takes home about $150 per week, hardly a fortune to quit one’s job over. And for those who do view $150 as a fortune,  we must recognize the coercive factors that drive them toward OnlyFans as a lifeline- racism, unequal pay, suboptimal childhood education, and lack of gainful employment with a livable salary- for what they are. For these women, a meager online following is likely, one that’s just as unlikely to lift them up and out of poverty.  It’s not as simple as snapping a few photos before bed. Creators often have to buy photography equipment, lingerie, and more to remain competitive in an already saturated market. And investments aren’t just monetary- creators must promote themselves across various social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter, upload constantly and consistently, and heed their subscribers’ incredibly specific requests. It takes time to make real money, time a woman already working a low-paying job may not have.

When comparing the fortunes advertised by top creators to the reality of building and maintaining a profitable account, OnlyFans begins to lose its economic luster. The difference between the monetary challenges posed by minimum wage and those posed by OnlyFans is that the latter holds much more negative influence on future employment complications, child custody battles, and housing discrimination. Though this assessment may seem to place more blame on the woman for entering sex work than on an unfair, stigmatizing, puritanical society, women deserve to know the reputational risk they take before entering the world of sex work.

Although we should not actively shame women for joining OnlyFans, we should critically evaluate the less quantifiable side of female empowerment, the side that imbues women with heightened love for their bodies. When influential users advertise OnlyFans as a means of self-actualization, this too harms those of a lower social location. In the words of Alcoff, these adverts beget “often, though not always, erasure and reinscription of sexual, national, and other kinds of hierarchies.”

Numerous creators report heightened self-esteem from OnlyFans. There, it matters not if your body diverges from the platonic ideal- someone, multiple someones, will find it attractive enough to want to see it naked. The problem here is that said self-esteem is propped up by the objectifying male gaze, in the form of male financial contribution, and then conferred by that same gaze, time and time again, as one’s platform grows. In this respect, OnlyFans engenders an extrinsic, and therefore not entirely legitimate, brand of self-love.

Also important to consider is the fact that the type of attention given to these bodies that don’t fit the societal ideal differs from the attention given to those that do. “I have been asked before, ‘Do you do race play?,’ said creator Lena Lolita, offering a sample of messages she received that fetishized her Black identity. Cisgender, white women like Barton-Hanson field subscriber requests relating to every possible sexual fantasy, some of which they choose to turn down. For minorities who are forced to field these same requests in addition to requests relating to a fetishization of their minority identity, that self-esteem boost comes with a reinscription of the degrading, oppressive forces that affect their lives off-platform. Established workers who operate outside of WASP-y beauty ideals, such as curvy, Black creator Wynter Moseley, can afford to reject requests that make them uncomfortable, embracing her body and her identity on her terms. Moseley, however, possessed an online following before OnlyFans. More notably, she is an adult who already felt secure in her body.

For one key group of OnlyFans hopefuls, we must note the absence of these two factors.

You have to be an adult to open an account on the platform, but you can also figure out how to cheat the age-screening process long before your eighteenth birthday. On any given day, about ⅓ of Twitter accounts utilizing the hashtag “nudesforsale” belong to minors, and it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate at least a fraction of that finding to the makeup of OnlyFans creators. While these disturbing statistics obviously necessitate more aggressive policing for traffickers and minors on these sites, it also highlights the population most vulnerable to the promise of empowerment, economic or otherwise, through OnlyFans: young girls. Though it’s possible to find success on OnlyFans, literal children’s absorption of the empowerment narrative exemplifies all the ways a user can fall victim to the dark side of the platform outlined above.

While we attempt to find the balance between destigmatizing OnlyFans creators and encouraging the de-objectification of women, OnlyFans and its most powerful creators must self-identify with nuanced language, foregoing “empowerment” for “empowerment, but with a high possibility of exploitation.” Before speaking for others, influential creators need to invoke Alcoff’s key question- “will it enable the empowerment of oppressed peoples?” Doing so can save countless women from making a decision that they themselves (as well as a still-puritanical society) may make them regret.

 

References

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, no. 20, 1991, pp. 5–32., https://doi.org/10.2307/1354221.

Barton-Hanson, Megan. “Megan Barton-Hanson’s Guide to Cleaning Up on OnlyFans.” VICE, 12 May 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/epnndj/megan-barton-hansons-guide-to-cleaning-up-on-onlyfans.

Bernstein, Jacob. “OnlyFans Reverses Its Decision to Ban Explicit Content.” The New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger, 25 Aug. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/style/onlyfans-ban-reversed.html.

Brewster, Thomas, and David Dawkins. “The Shady, Secret History of Onlyfans’ Billionaire Owner.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 June 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2021/06/16/the-shady-secret-history-of-onlyfans-billionaire-owner/?sh=7f428f0e5c17.

Boseley, Matilda. “’Everyone and Their Mum Is on It’: OnlyFans Booms in Popularity during the Pandemic.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Dec. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/dec/23/everyone-and-their-mum-is-on-it-onlyfans-boomed-in-popularity-during-the-pandemic.

Calicchio, Dom. “AOC Responds ‘Sex Work Is Work,’ to Report of NYC Paramedic Posting Racy Photos for Cash.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/aoc-responds-sex-work-is-work-to-report-of-nyc-paramedic-posting-racy-photos-for-cash.

Chris. “OnlyFans Statistics – User Demographics, Usage & Revenue.” InfluencerMade, 13 Oct. 2021, https://www.influencermade.com/onlyfans-stats/.

Cole, Samantha. “OnlyFans Is Cutting Referral Bonuses Because So Many People Are Signing Up.” VICE, VICE Media, 4 May 2020, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xg8qqq/onlyfans-cutting-creator-referral-program-bonuses-payout.

Friedman, Gillian. “Jobless, Selling Nudes Online and Still Struggling.” The New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger, 13 Jan. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/business/onlyfans-pandemic-users.html.

Gupta, Ankita. “Top 10 Earners on OnlyFans!” Best Toppers, 22 Aug. 2021, https://besttoppers.com/top-earners-on-onlyfans/.

Hollands, Thomas. “The Economics of OnlyFans.” Xsrus, 24 Apr. 2020, https://xsrus.com/the-economics-of-onlyfans.

MacKinnon, Catherine. “OnlyFans Is Not a Safe Platform for ‘Sex Work.’ It’s a Pimp.” The New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger, 6 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/06/opinion/onlyfans-sex-work-safety.html.

Morgan, Jessica. “#Nudes4Sale Uncovers The Shocking Truth About Selling Nudes Online.” Refinery29, Vice Media, 7 Apr. 2020, https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/bbc-onlyfans-nudes4sale-young-women.

Steadman, Otillia. “Her Colleagues Watched Her OnlyFans Account At Work. When Bosses Found Out, They Fired Her.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 25 Apr. 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/otilliasteadman/mechanic-fired-onlyfans-account-indiana.

Sung, Morgan. “Influencers Are Flocking to OnlyFans but Not Everyone Is Happy About It.” Mashable, Mashable, 19 Aug. 2020, https://mashable.com/article/influencer-onlyfans-sex-work.

Titheradge, Noel, and Rianna Croxford. “The Children Selling Explicit Videos on OnlyFans.” BBC News, The CPS, 27 May 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57255983.

Vanwesenbeeck, Ine. “Sex Work Criminalization Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree.” Archives of sexual behavior vol. 46,6 (2017): 1631-1640. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1008-3

Yang, Allie, et al. “Selling Sexy: The Men and Women of OnlyFans Discuss Reality behind the Scenes.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 17 Feb. 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/US/selling-sexy-men-women-onlyfans-discuss-reality-scenes/story?id=75934010.

Sofie Duntugan

Contemporary Political Thought, Fall 2021


The 2020 United States presidential election was widely viewed as the most consequential election in a lifetime.1 Sharing this view, I anxiously counted down the months until the election. But when the time finally came to cast my vote, I couldn’t. My mail-in ballot never arrived–even after multiple calls to my county registrar. Thousands of miles from my voting center, I was stuck at home as others went out to vote. Still, I wasn’t missing out on much.

We typically believe that our right to vote is sacred and that elections are a fundamental part of democracy. Voting decides who sits in office and, by extension, what policies are made. Yet I can hardly argue that my vote would have decided anything–not just because I would’ve cast it in a state that was obviously sending its electoral votes to Joe Biden, but also because it’s unclear if our votes have much influence over policy at all. One widely-cited study found that legislation caters to corporations rather than the public,2 and most Americans agree.3 As philosopher Alexander Guerrero describes, we cannot depend on elections to hold legislators accountable to us. Most Americans lack the capacity or will to keep track of what their representatives do. When Americans know nothing about issues, incumbents can do whatever they want–including catering to powerful corporate interest groups–without fear of facing repercussions at elections. Furthermore, even if voters did want to vote out an incumbent, they often lack good alternatives. Challengers to incumbents face a plethora of electoral disadvantages, such as the financial barriers to running for office, meaning that voters rarely find candidates that they would vote for over the incumbent on their ballot.

Since we can’t hold the people we vote for accountable, it hardly seems appropriate to say voting is a meaningful right. Voting is supposed to mean participating in politics, being a part of deciding our future. But it seems clear that this isn’t the case. Worse, our elections undermine a foundation of democratic participation: our ability to respectfully discuss issues with each other.

Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that democracies need institutions that promote respect between political opponents by grounding them in a shared commitment to liberty and equality and giving them the space to discuss political issues.4 Without such institutions, those who have political disagreements are inclined to see each other as enemies. Thus, they forsake the idea of working with each other and instead engage in a battle of identity politics, where each political group attempts to dominate the other.

As such, we need these institutions to protect our right to political participation. Without them, political groups will resort to identity politics, denying outsiders the right to partake in democratic governance. Further, without speaking to people of diverse viewpoints, we’ll be unable to develop and share reasonable beliefs, undermining the meaning of our political participation. Thus, we need institutions that foster respectful relationships across the aisle, especially since most Republicans and Democrats have negative or strongly negative views of the opposing party.5 However, our election system is not such an institution. Rather, it is the exact opposite: a driving force of political polarization.

Consider how our elections work. As an institution, they are structured as a high-stakes game, not a discussion forum. There are clear teams led by candidates, distinct winners and losers, and visible scores (such as polling results or the final vote count). While this structure effectively allocates the limited representative seats available, it also pits Americans against each other and compels us to forget our democratic values in favor of victory.

We vote to decide how to govern ourselves, but the nature of elections reduces this goal to ensuring that our team gets more votes than our opponent. While getting more votes could mean discussing issues with voters across the aisle, it could also mean pushing voters that already agree with you to the voting booth, targeting undecided voters in swing states, and gerrymandering voters of the opposing team out of relevance–tactics that, while perhaps undemocratic and inflammatory, are much easier and more effective.

Sure, we don’t have to adopt this “whatever it takes to defeat the enemy” mentality, but our electoral system encourages us to–and we generally do. A study found that an overwhelming majority of participants would vote for their party even if it meant forsaking democratic principles.6 Campaigns often frame elections in terms of defeating the opposition, with one 2020 campaign literally named Defeat Trump.7 The media is happy to play along, announcing victors and losers based on vote counts. Yet considering this system only fuels political polarization while corporations get their way, the reality is that we’re all losing.

This might seem like a drastic conclusion. Plenty of others who dislike our electoral system only propose modest reforms. For instance, we might implement ranked-choice voting to increase the likelihood that a representative will reflect a voter’s views or require campaigns to disclose their donors so voters know who is trying to influence them. However, such reforms fail to address how the gamified nature of elections encourages political polarization. We could increase campaign finance transparency, but candidates will still look to vote counts as a score, voters will still divide themselves into teams, and the goal will still be to win office. Nor do such reforms ensure that legislators are accountable to us after being elected. Even if we elect a legislator by ranked-choice voting, the vast majority of citizens will still remain ignorant of their actions, allowing them to neglect public interests.

The only solution is to replace elections with an institution that gives citizens more power in decision-making processes and fosters respectful discussions across the political spectrum. Guerrero suggests we replace Congress with several legislatures. Each would write legislation on a single issue and be made up of 300 randomly selected adult US citizens.8 This system has numerous advantages over elections. For instance, it is not competitive in nature and thus would not be as polarizing as elections. Further, legislators wouldn’t receive campaign donations from interest groups, preventing corporations from having undue influence over policy. Legislators also couldn’t solve ideological differences by electorally kicking the opposition out of the room, so they would be encouraged to work across the aisle. While the media might still declare winners based on who is selected, journalists would write about how legislators might reach agreements rather than how parties could win the next election.

I expand on Guerrero’s idea to give every American more opportunities to participate. Let’s have a national open-response poll every two years to create a list of issues that concern a statistically significant number of Americans. We’ll form one of Guerrero’s legislatures for each problem on the list. We’d pick the 300 legislators for each from Americans interested in the issue.

Under this system (let’s call it Participocracy), election campaigning would be less polarizing. Although interest groups would still campaign to get their issues on the list, they would do so by motivating Americans to consider others’ concerns instead of antagonizing them against a political party. Since the poll is open-response, political parties would no longer appear on the ballot and identifying with a political party wouldn’t help everyday citizens vote. Thus, Participocracy’s issue-based voting system would empower Americans to identify less strongly with traditional political parties, weakening our propensity to hate those of the opposing political party.

Participocracy could also increase political participation. While up to 60% of Americans today don’t vote because it seems pointless or they don’t identify with a candidate,9 Participocracy would make participation more meaningful and personal by empowering everyone to identify what matters to them and giving them an equal chance to write legislation. Further, since multiple legislatures require more legislators, lawmaking would no longer be the duty of an elite class of politicians. Thus, Participocracy would make meaningful political participation more widespread and base lawmaking in discussions rather than strategic attempts to defeat political opponents.

As we’ve been conditioned to believe that elections are a sacred part of democracy, it’s hard to imagine doing away with them. But as they continue to fuel the rising political animosity in America, we need to rethink how we participate in democracy. Participocracy shows that imagining a more meaningful and democratic replacement to our electoral system is hardly impossible. It’s time for us to start making these replacements a reality.

 

 

 

Notes

  1. Montanaro, Domenico. “The Most Consequential Election in a Lifetime (and This Time They Mean It).” NPR. NPR, November 2, 2020. http://www.npr.org/2020/11/02/930077437/the-most-consequential-election-in-a-lifetime-and-this-time-they-mean-it.
  2. Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 564–81. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592714001595.
  3. “Poll: Three-Quarters of Americans Find They Don’t Have Enough Influence on Washington.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, July 13, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-three-quarters-of-americans-find-they-dont-have-enough-influence-on-washington/.
  4. Mouffe, Chantal. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research 66, no. 3 (1999): 745–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349.
  5. “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, April 9, 2021.
  6. Cummings, Mike. “Study: Americans Prize Party Loyalty over Democratic Principles.” YaleNews, November 18, 2021. https://news.yale.edu/2020/08/11/study-americans-prize-party-loyalty-over-democratic-principles.
  7. “Defeat Trump Florida.” Defeat Trump Florida, July 23, 2020. http://www.defeattrumpfl.com/.
  8. Guerrero, Alexander. “Forget Voting – It’s Time to Start Choosing Our Leaders by Lottery.” Aeon. Aeon Magazine, January 23, 2014. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-voting-it-s-time-to-start-choosing-our-leaders-by-lottery.
  9. Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Jasmine Mithani, and Laura Bronner. “Why Millions of Americans Don’t Vote.” FiveThirtyEight. ABC News Internet Ventures, October 26, 2020. https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/non-voters-poll-2020-election/.

 

Bibliography

  • Cummings, Mike. “Study: Americans Prize Party Loyalty over Democratic Principles.” YaleNews, November 18, 2021. https://news.yale.edu/2020/08/11/study-americans-prize-party-loyalty-over-democratic-principles.
  • “Defeat Trump Florida.” Defeat Trump Florida, July 23, 2020. http://www.defeattrumpfl.com/.
  • Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 564–81. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592714001595.
  • Guerrero, Alexander. “Forget Voting – It’s Time to Start Choosing Our Leaders by Lottery.” Aeon. Aeon Magazine, January 23, 2014. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-voting-it-s-time-to-start-choosing-our-leaders-by-lottery.
  • Montanaro, Domenico. “The Most Consequential Election in a Lifetime (and This Time They Mean It).” NPR. NPR, November 2, 2020. http://www.npr.org/2020/11/02/930077437/the-most-consequential-election-in-a-lifetime-and-this-time-they-mean-it.
  • Mouffe, Chantal. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research 66, no. 3 (1999): 745–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349.
  • “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, April 9, 2021. http://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.
  • “Poll: Three-Quarters of Americans Find They Don’t Have Enough Influence on Washington.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, July 13, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-three-quarters-of-americans-find-they-dont-have-enough-influence-on-washington/.
  • Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Jasmine Mithani, and Laura Bronner. “Why Millions of Americans Don’t Vote.” FiveThirtyEight. ABC News Internet Ventures, October 26, 2020. https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/non-voters-poll-2020-election/.

Megan Bouton

Business, Ethics, and Human Rights, Fall 2021


Filled with nerves and excitement, I eagerly sat in front of my laptop last April waiting to view my decision from Harvard College. I hoped that my hard work inside and outside of the classroom would culminate in a Harvard acceptance. But, disappointment quickly set in when I learned that I was waitlisted. I felt despondency spread throughout my body. The disappointment continued in the shadow of the recent appeal of the case SFFA v. Harvard College in which the Students for Fair Admission continue to accuse Harvard of unlawfully discriminating against White and Asian-American applicants by practicing race-conscious admissions. The true reason that I was waitlisted may never be known, but as a white female applicant, I couldn’t help but wonder if my decision was made for the sake of diversity. Despite not having a seat at Harvard this year, I continue to support affirmative action and argue that it is ethical.

Affirmative action is necessary in order to create equal opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds, and it takes on forms in business and university admissions. In business, hiring processes that favor underrepresented groups are considered to be affirmative action. For example, The State of California mandated that companies have female representation on their Boards of Directors in light of the common lack thereof. Universities create diversity via race-conscious admissions, and to do this, they favor previously underrepresented groups. Despite seeming unfair to some on the surface, affirmative action is critical in business and higher education admissions to build diversity and ensure equal opportunity.

Affirmative action is utilitarian. Utilitarianism strives to maximize general happiness and well-being, and affirmative action accomplishes this in two ways. First, it reaps great benefit to minority students over time while inflicting virtually no harm on non-minority students. Disappointment on an individual basis, much like my experience being waitlisted, is the only harm that non-minority applicants suffer. Berkeley Economist Zachary Bleemer conducted a study that shows that banning affirmative action in California (Proposition 209) harmed Black and Hispanic students while barely benefitting Whites and Asian-Americans. Adverse effects on Black and Hispanic students included significantly lower levels of income and matriculation at other schools with much fewer resources. White and Asian students, on the other hand, were minimally positively impacted by Proposition 209. They did not make significantly more money than they otherwise would have. Affirmative action is ethical because the positive impacts on minority students outweigh the negative impacts on non-minority applicants, therefore maximizing utility.

Second, affirmative action increases diversity which benefits everyone. The Supreme Court has supported diversity and affirmative action. The case Grutter v. Bollinger solidifies that race-conscious admissions practices are legal because of the enrichment resulting from diversity. Race can be considered a “plus factor” in admissions, and it is one. As a Northeastern University student, my educational experience is enhanced from learning in an environment that unites a variety of experiences and opinions. Additionally, diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams in business, and they broaden knowledge in educational settings. These teams manifest significantly higher innovation rates, and diversity in the classroom challenges students to consider things from a variety of perspectives, therefore enhancing learning. Since diversity benefits everyone, the general well-being is maximized, making it utilitarian.

Opponents see affirmative action as indefensible quotas and reverse discrimination. They argue that discrimination cannot be remedied with discrimination and that admissions should be merit based. There are two critical considerations here. The first is that diversity brings benefits to everyone, including opponents. The Supreme Court is spot on in the decision that affirmative action is valid due to the benefits of diversity, and this is the primary argument in favor of affirmative action in general. There are no quotas, and it is no longer a question of correcting past wrongs; rather, it is forward-looking and exists to enrich businesses and universities by welcoming various backgrounds and experiences. The second consideration is that merit-based admissions cannot rule in practice with the existence of implicit bias. With implicit biases, all things will never be equal. Admissions decisions cannot be purely merit-based when admissions officers unconsciously act on the basis of prejudice. The only way to overcome implicit bias is to confront it and engage in practices that consciously support diversity and inclusivity, much like affirmative action does.

So, back to the Harvard applicant portal. It is possible that a seat that could have been mine was filled by an applicant that would help Harvard build a diverse class. But, my personal loss of not being able to attend Harvard is minuscule compared to the value that diversity brings to the college. Affirmative action is ethical because it increases diversity in business and higher education to everyone’s benefit and creates a society with more equal opportunity for all.

2020-2021

Devon Burrill 

Contemporary Political Thought, Fall 2020 


In 1953, at the height of the Red Scare, a Republican member of the Indiana Textbook Commission argued for the removal of all references in state teaching materials to the legendary figure of Robin Hood. The mythology, she argued, was being employed as propaganda for communism, glorifying the hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Although this brand of paranoia was typical of the McCarthy era, the motion failed, and the only tangible result was a student organized protest in defense of the mythological hero. 

Today, public perception of Robin Hood varies. For some, he represents class struggle and the fight against economic injustice. For others, he represents rebellion against tyranny, and a commitment to liberty. For socialists and libertarians who so often disagree, the virtue of Robin Hood is a rare point of convergence. This may owe to the fact that Robin Hood predates capitalism by several hundred years, and in his day political and economic power were more explicitly synonymous. The greedy Prince John acted as both the decadent Bourgeoisie and the oppressive state, villain to both sides. Some may ask if Robin Hood’s archetypal mission “to take from the rich and give to the poor” is obsolete in our modern, capitalist economy. I will argue it isn’t. 

Before I discuss the merits of redistribution, I should acknowledge that in several key ways, capitalism is distinct from the oppressive monarchy of Robin Hood’s time. The free market carries information about supply and demand throughout the economy, incentivizes innovation, directs resources towards productivity, and encourages competition between companies. All of these have positive effects on the standard of living, the quality of goods and services, and the affordability of products, even for the working class. Unlike Prince John, who hoards his tax revenue, companies like Apple and Amazon contribute to society through employment, the development of products, and the spending of revenue on other goods and services within the economy. 

In fact, Jason Brennan argues that the basic structure of capitalism is not only practical, but also morally preferable to the socialist alternative. In Why Not Capitalism?, he considers both the realistic and ideal cases of human nature. In the realistic case, people are selfish and uncooperative, while in the ideal case, people are altruistic and cooperative. If people are selfish, then capitalism exploits that selfishness for universal benefit, employing human greed for economic growth. If people are altruistic, then they still maximize their altruism by operating within the capitalist market due to its ability to coordinate vast systems of individuals along with their desires and preferences. Brennan details many functions of the market, some of which I mentioned above, but the core argument is that capitalism successfully coordinates much more information than a central authority can manage, and that natural coordination allows individuals and businesses to flourish. 

Does this mean we should write off the figure of Robin Hood as a remnant of simpler economic times? I don’t think so. 

While our system may be preferable to some alternatives, it is by no means perfect. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously pointed out, “this country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Government bailouts of large corporations, business stimulus during the pandemic, and federal subsidies are clear examples. But more fundamentally, there’s something inherently unsettling about the growing inequality in our country, with a few individuals passing the $100 billion mark while the bottom half struggles to get by. If capitalism has so many positive effects on society, why do the benefits seem to flow towards the upper class, rather than “trickle down” to the lower classes? 

The typical justification is that CEOs and founders contribute value to society. For example, if I use Amazon, Jeff Bezos surely deserves some compensation. Critically, however, this system overcompensates founders by protecting intellectual property. The success of Amazon is a result of the efforts of many people, but only Jeff Bezos can control the distribution of profit among his employees. In a hypothetical market without governance, there would be no intellectual property, and competitors could create their own versions of Amazon to attract customers. By enforcing intellectual property rights, the government protects Jess Bezos’s monopoly on Amazon, artificially distorting market forces to his advantage. 

One of the central ideas here is economic rent. A rentier is someone who derives value from the passive ownership of a means of production such as a factory, a piece of land, or a piece of intellectual property. In the United States today, most of the immensely wealthy have gained their fortune through intellectual ownership of large economic entities which include the efforts of many other people. These entities usually occupy a critical position in the market with limited competition. For example, Warren Buffett intentionally seeks out companies that resemble small monopolies, such as pharmaceutical companies that can inflate prices by owning patents for drugs. The possibility of these monopolies is not an inherent feature of markets, but is a direct result of government enforcement of intellectual property. 

So while markets may offer important benefits to society, our version of capitalism inherently leads to monopolies and increasing wealth inequality. By giving founders total power over the profits generated by their ideas, we give them control over large portions of the economy. This begs the question: should we abolish intellectual property? Again, I don’t think so. Intellectual property provides an important incentive to entrepreneurs. While Jeff Bezos may not be responsible for all of the success of Amazon, the very existence of founders and their willingness to start companies depends on intellectual property rights. By abolishing intellectual property, we would not only reduce Jeff Bezos’s incentive to start Amazon, but also the incentive of his competitors to start analogous companies. Much like the market itself, intellectual property has many important functions, and its benefits are worth defending. 

Instead, I think we need to counter the stratifying tendencies of the system through redistributive taxation, a Robin Hood policy for modern capitalism. Rather than abolish the incentive to start companies, we can partially siphon the profits generated by those companies through individual and corporate taxes, and then redistribute the revenue to society as a whole. Income taxes for individuals are susceptible to loopholes and workarounds, so in order for this taxation to function properly we must eliminate the numerous tax breaks that can be exploited by the upper class. Unlike abolishing intellectual property, taxing the wealthy can be managed without destroying the incentive to innovate. In fact, the value added to the lower classes would itself have many practical benefits for society. For example, decreased inequality leads to lower crime rates, increased cohesion, decreased health problems, and an increased capacity of those in the lower classes to compete in the market. 

So while the functions of the market are necessary, they are not sufficient. Modern American capitalism in particular has a tendency to produce monopolies and inequality, largely as a result of our protection of intellectual property. The best way to address this problem is with redistributive taxation, which reduces the injustice of an imperfect system and, like Robin Hood, returns value directly to those who have been deprived of the benefits and special protections granted to the privileged and the powerful. 

  

Word Count: 1210 

Sources 

  • Eschner, Kat. “Students Allied Themselves With Robin Hood During This Anti-McCarthyism Movement.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 Nov. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/students-allied-themselves-robin-hood-during-1950s-anti-mccarthyism-movement-180967156/. 
  • Kramer, Leslie. “What Are Current Examples of Oligopolies?” Investopedia, Investopedia, 29 Sept. 2020, www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/121514/what-are-some-current-examples-oligopolies.asp. 
  • Nutting, Rex. “Billionaires Haven’t Earned All They Have.” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 9 Feb. 2019, www.marketwatch.com/story/billionaires-take-more-than-they-make-2019-02-07?mod=article_inline. 
  • Nutting, Rex. “Why Raising Taxes on the Rich Isn’t so Crazy.” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 14 Dec. 2019, www.marketwatch.com/story/why-raising-taxes-on-the-rich-isnt-so-crazy-2019-12-09. 

Jasmine Chan 

Sex in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Fall 2020 


An update from Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan regarding COVID-19 policies for the Spring 2021 semester at Northeastern opens with the statement, “Working together this semester we successfully reimagined almost every aspect of university life — from teaching to dining to recreation.” The keyword here is “almost.” All official statements about adapting to the public health crisis on campus have avoided the elephant in the room: The sex life of students. 

College is often regarded as a place where young adults have sexual freedom, and this sentiment will not be erased amidst a pandemic. Northeastern’s COVID-19 policies that ignore sex and dating in student life jeopardize the health of the Northeastern community. 

Harm reduction strategies have been proven to be more effective at reducing adverse consequences associated with substance abuse and sex than promoting abstinence, particularly in adolescents. The philosophy of harm reduction involves accepting the continuation of a certain behavior and providing resources to lower the potential risks when the behavior does occur. 

While COVID-19 is not classified as a sexually transmitted disease, we know the spread of infection through sexual contact is highly likely. The virus is not going away anytime soon, so Northeastern should implement the harm reduction philosophy to promote safer sex practices during the pandemic. This is a more effective and sustainable option than expecting students to abstain from sex. While the university encourages harm reduction strategies for safe socialization — through outdoor, socially-distant hangouts with masks or in a virtual setting — Northeastern offers no adaptations for physical intimacy which can be just as important for mental health as interacting with friends. 

The update to Northeastern’s visitor protocol prohibits any guests in student housing. Sanctions for attending or hosting unsafe gatherings (defined as lacking masks and not staying six feet apart at all times) both on and off campus include suspension and/or expulsion. The university is not explicitly saying “do not have sex,” but to fully comply with the rules as stated, sex is not an option. 

With the school’s urban location and a national spike in dating app usage, however, these rules do not stop students from secretly engaging in sexual activity off campus where the policies cannot be enforced. Therefore, if students will continue to have sex anyway, and Northeastern is committed to “protecting the pack,” the school has a responsibility to inform students on how to be as safe as possible if they choose to be physically intimate with a partner. 

This resource from the Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern, or OPEN, provides information on how to navigate safer sex during the pandemic, including where you can get free sexual health supplies and how to talk to a sexual partner about one’s boundaries related to COVID-19. However, I believe it is not a mistake that this resource was hard to find and not linked anywhere in Northeastern’s main communications with students. COVID-19 related conversations will never be sexy, but an upfront, open dialogue about sex and health concerns from the university would normalize their neccessity. 

Another troubling consequence of Northeastern’s lack of consideration for the sex life of students is that those who choose to be sexually active during this time will avoid seeking medical care that is crucial for their health. For some students, Northeastern is their only resource for sexual health resources such as contraception and STI testing. When most instances of sexual activity go against Northeastern’s COVID-19 policies, students can be deterred from turning to the University Health and Counseling Services out of fear of punishment. 

Some may argue that a school should have no say in private matters like a student’s sex life, but Northeastern’s existing policies already control how students conduct themselves everyday. So why is sexuality left out of the conversation? I admittedly would feel awkward if Provost Madigan addressed sex in an official capacity, but that is simply because it is expected that educational institutions hold conservative values when it comes to sex. Northeastern’s silence on sex as a part of social life is a reflection of the Protestant framework of morality that governs public life in the United States. At the very least, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex becomes a public matter with relevant health consequences. 

No one will die from abstaining from sex for a year, or however long being sexually active during the pandemic is seen as a selfish choice that puts the lives of others at risk. However, no one passes moral judgement on those who prefer to attend in-person classes even though it still involves potential risks, and online learning is another viable alternative. Universities can and should play an active role in reimagining a sex-positive society. That involves looking the elephant in the eye by adjusting policies to reflect a harm reduction approach to sex, just as universities do for every other part of student life. 

Jasmine Chan is a recently graduated Media & Screen Studies and Communications combined major. She can be reached at chan.jas@northeastern.edu. 

James Nicoloff 

Contemporary Political Thought, Fall 2020 


 “THUGS” is what President Trump called protesters in Minneapolis-Saint Paul in a tweet in May, claiming those involved were “dishonoring the memory of George Floyd,” who was killed in police custody by Officer Derrick Chauvin. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck till he died while three others assisted him after a call about an alleged fake $20 bill. The riots and destruction of property that took place in the following days were loudly condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike. In September, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi expressed her support of “peaceful demonstrations” and made sure to note “that does not include looting, starting fires, or rioting.” The question of the “right way” to protest has come up yet again, as another Black life is taken at the hands of the police with the discussion around the form of protests in Minneapolis dominating much of the early coverage of Floyd’s death. 

From politicians, to news anchors, to the average American, the belief that Black protests must be peaceful is widespread and deeply rooted in our society. Those on both sides of the aisle have used the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to call for peaceful protests, arguing for both its moral superiority and effectiveness. But in the half-century since the civil rights movement, Black Americans continue to face systemic white supremacy permeating through every level of the United States criminal justice system and are all the while universally expected to protest peacefully in the face of these injustices. The basic demand for Black protest in America to be peaceful is misguided at best and must be reevaluated. The recent riots over the summer are not acts outside of real and justified protest, instead they should be understood as legitimate expression of Black anger at continued racial injustice in a society that values the destruction of material capital over Black lives. 

The current Black Lives Matter movement is constantly compared to the civil rights movement of the 1960s as a means to condemn violent protest and champion Black pacifism. In a campaign speech over the summer, President Elect Joe Biden declared that “rioting is not protesting,” adding that it “makes things worse across the board” and is “not what Dr. King taught.” This understanding of the 1960s movement has been told, and even taught in schools, to the point that it is now seemingly understood as basic knowledge. However, when taking a closer look, this popular narrative turns out to be premised on a significant degree of falsehood. 

In her 2016 article, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradox of US Black Politics,” Professor Juliet Hooker dissects the underlying false assumptions that make up the very shaky ground for arguments against Black uncivil protest. One such assumption is what Hooker refers to as a “romantic narrative of the civil rights movement,” a whitewashed retelling of the events in a way that ignores the important role of more radical players in the movement like Malcom X and the Black Panther Party and advantageously leaves out any disagreement between Black activists at the time over the most successful forms of protest. She argues that this misconception of the movement “functions to foreclose other (possibly more radical) forms of black politics, and preemptively delegitimizes them.” 

Hooker is right. King did not encapsulate the entire civil rights movement. In fact, important actors like Stokely Carmichael, once chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, along with many other young activists gradually came to oppose King’s slow nonviolent method of peaceful integration, forming the influential Black Power movement. Similarly, riots like the Little Rock Uprising in 1968, were integral parts of the movement for justice. Even King himself was viewed as a potential violent threat to the government so much so that the FBI launched a COINTELPRO investigation, believing he was on path to become a “messiah” of a violent army. The current misrepresentation of the civil rights movement as a peaceful and popular Black pursuit of equality is extremely counterproductive to the Black Lives Matter protests of today. This narrative places Black activists into what Hooker refers to as a “tragic political trap” in which they are condemned to peaceful protest based upon a false perception of the past. 

After setting the historical record straight, we can better understand rioting as legitimate means of expression of anger and pain for Black citizens living in a country deeply ingrained with white supremacy. Between 2013 and 2018, one in every thousand Black men died at the hands of the police, making them two and a half times more likely to be killed than white men. In Minneapolis, police are at least seven times more likely to use force against Black citizens rather than whites. For Black women, especially transgender women, this racial injustice coupled with sexism and transphobia amounts to widespread discrimination across all facets of daily life. Juliette Hooker’s article was in response to the discussions following the death of Eric Gardner in 2016. Four years and many peaceful protests later, we are still having the same discussions today with little to no progress towards righting this country’s deep racial wrongs. How can we justifiably ask Black citizens to protest peacefully when their incessant oppression has been anything but peaceful? 

In an article he wrote for the Cincinnati College of Law, Paul Butler points out that because of such limited Black progress since the 1960s and the evidence of widespread racial inequality today, “there is a surprisingly robust debate about exactly what good the civil rights movement did for African-Americans.” Black Americans have been peacefully protesting year after year, and yet they still continue to face systemic white supremacy across the board. Riots in response to such unchanging oppression should not be anything but expected and understood. 

Understanding rioting as a means of protests becomes even more clear when taking a closer look at how news is shared today. The events over the summer have shown that news media networks are incentivized to portray chaos to their audience, making violence the central focus of surrounding discussions. According to a study from the US Crisis Monitor, 93% of all racial justice protests this summer were peaceful, yet the violence against private property is what captures our attention most and is thus most emphasized in the news. A familiar response from those in favor of progress but against rioting is the notion that looting and burning pulls attention away from the overall message of racial justice. But if destruction of material property is enough to distract from the incessant loss of Black life and the devastating injustices that Black citizens continually face in this country, it seems the peaceful cry for change had no chance of truly being heard to begin with. 

The US has become numb to years of Black oppression and peaceful unrest. With each police execution of a Black citizen, calls for peaceful protest follow, before the news switches stories and forgets the issue until the next death. Riots may be the inevitable and much-needed shock to this all too comfortable cycle. The discussion around recent Black Lives Matter protests, in large part due to the constant coverage and debate surrounding the riots in Minneapolis and across the country, has brought a new level of awareness to current problems of racial injustice. 

Praising the civil rights movement while condemning current uncivil protest is both means for politicians to deny culpability for injustices that drive the unrest and overall counterproductive to the movement’s goals. For real anti-racist change to occur we can no longer deny these riots as legitimate protest. Instead of condemning violence against storefronts and hotel buildings, it’s time we truly listen to the riots, what Dr. King himself referred to as “the language of the unheard,” and shift our focus towards achieving its so necessary and justified demands. 

References 

  • Butler, Paul. “The System Is Working the Way It Is Supposed to: The Limits of Criminal Justice Reform,” Freedom Center Journal: Vol. 2019: Iss. 1, Article 6, 2020, https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/fcj/vol2019/iss1/6. 
  • Edwards, Frank, et al. “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States by Age, Race–Ethnicity, and Sex.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 20 Aug. 2019, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116. 
  • “Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, Stanford, 21 May 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/federal-bureau- investigation-fbi. 
  • Global News. “Joe Biden Condemns Violence in Ongoing U.S. Protests: ‘Rioting Is Not Protesting.’” YouTube, 31 Aug. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzVc-f5g6EY. 
  • Gstalter Morgan. “Twitter puts warning on Trump ‘THUGS’ tweet, says it violates standards, glorifies violence.’ The Hill, 15 March 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500072-twitter-says-trump-thugs-tweet- violates-standards-glorifies-violence. 
  • Hooker, Juliet. “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics: From Democratic Sacrifice to Democratic Repair.” Political Theory, vol. 44, no. 4, Aug. 2016, pp. 448– 469, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0090591716640314. 
  • HRC Staff. “Report Details the Experiences of Being Black & Trans in the U.S.” Humain Rights Campaign, 3 Oct. 2017, www.hrc.org/news/new-report-details-the-experiences-of-being-black-and-transgender-in-the-u. 
  • Kirk, John A. “Little Rock Uprising of 1968.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Central Arkansas Library Systems, 20 Oct. 2020, encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/little-rock-uprising- of-1968-9181/. 
  • Kishi, Roudabeh, and Sam Jones. “Demonstrations & Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020.” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 11 Dec. 2020, https://acleddata.com/2020/09/03/demonstrations-political-violence-in-america-new-data-for-summer-2020/. 
  • Oppel, Richard A., and Lazaro Gamio. “Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites.” The New York Times, 3 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/03/us/minneapolis-police-use-of-force.html. 
  • Pruitt, Sarah. “How the Black Power Movement Influenced the Civil Rights Movement.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 20 Feb. 2020, www.history.com/news/black-power-movement-civil-rights. 
  • @thehill. Speaker Pelosi: “We support peaceful demonstrations. We participate in them. They are part of the essence of our democracy. That does not include looting, starting fires, or rioting. They should be prosecuted. That is lawlessness.” Twitter, 17 September 2020, 1:15PM, https://twitter.com/thehill/status/1306642824469725185?s=20. 

Brittany Clottey 

Social and Political Philosophy, Spring 2021 


The American Medical Association, the largest and only national medical association in the United States, affirms that throughout history, they’ve always followed the mission of promoting the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health. However, the US medical system fails to uphold this premise, as its structure inherently contributes to the death of African Americans. It remains a graveyard and a site of loss and distrust, especially for the most marginalized groups such as Black women. For example, regardless of income or education level, Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Also, Black Americans are 22% less likely to receive any pain medication than their white counterparts.  

 

Many of us are very familiar with the current disparities in medicine, and historical disasters such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and other inhumane practices done by the U.S. medical system have caused Black Americans to become fearful and avoid participating within it. These racial underpinnings of the medical system are rooted within the framework of essentialism, more specifically race essentialism, which describes race as a biological grouping of people with distinct inherent qualities and genetic predispositions that determine one’s personality, characteristics, behaviors, and abilities. 

 

Proponent of scientific racism and social Darwinism, Francis Galton, coined the term ‘eugenics’ as a way of framing race essentialism within a context of sexual selection, and the elimination of flawed peoples. Racist and sexist essentialist ideologies were what constituted a so-called healthy and just lifestyle in the United State, and such ideologies continue to permeate today, establishing themselves as a legitimate force to analyze Black bodies. Pulling from the scholarship of Sabrina Strings, Michel Foucault, and bell hooks, I call for the reimagination and undoing of healthcare and medical practices in the US. I call for a system that doesn’t ground itself within white ideologies and normative clauses of human flourishing, but rather one that models its practices under a phenomenological structure, concentrating on the direct experiences of the most marginalized. 

 

The US medical system’s racial and hierarchical origins are a historical account. During Reconstruction, when slavery was no longer a plausible clause for the separation of the races, the eugenics movement became a popular force for establishing differences and providing ‘legitimate’ justifications for racial hierarchies. While slave-master relations had originally been designed to position Black people as inferior, essentialism and eugenics in the late 1800s to 1900s drew this distinction farther and wider apart. The eugenics movement relied upon racist philosophical and scientific predispositions as to what constitutes one as human, and the ongoing efforts to get closer to this truth relied upon improving the quality of humankind. This feat required the continuous extrapolation of traits that were not seen as necessary for the pinnacle of humanity. Eugenics required the constant erasure of characteristics and phenotypes that did not align with what it means to be human within a white supremacist context. As a result, scientists and theorists deemed phenotypes and ways of living that were associated with Blackness as non-human, thus, the demonization of such characteristics was necessary to ‘cleanse’ the human genetic makeup, leading to the desire to erase Blackness as a whole.  

 

For example, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, Sabrina Strings draws the connection between fatness as a racial category, and as a negative ideological construct that has gained its popularity and legitimacy through the medical system. She states, “the phobia about fatness and the preference for thinness has not, principally or historically been about health. Instead, they have been one way the body has been used to craft and legitimate race, sex and class hierarchies.” From this excerpt and her book at large, String proves that hierarchies of body type have no true basis in health, but rather scientists and medical practitioners have used body type as a way of separating the races. Scientists, Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea A. Heuer have researched how obesity and fatness have been stigmatized and associated with characteristics such as “lazy, weak-willed, unsuccessful, unintelligent, lack self-discipline, have poor willpower]”—  characteristics that are often also associated with Blackness. As fatness was (and is) often associated with Blackness, the desire to erase fatness was derived from this desire of furthering oneself away from or eliminating Blackness. 

 

Furthering Strings’ point, it is the dehumanization of Othered groups that upholds these eugenic standards of human life which are practiced today. Michel Foucault states, “racism justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower, by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger.” As biopower functions as a tool for controlling the life of populations, the healthcare system has been used as a disciplinary technology for eliminating criteria that did not promote this biopower. This explains that the ongoing efforts to prioritize a “healthy and thereby good citizen,” as stated by Strings, rely on the exclusion and extrapolation of Black bodies. Norms about the “healthy citizen” are directly antithetical to what is deemed as “black characteristics” as the dehumanization of Black people was necessary to promote such eugenic standards of human life. This dehumanization continues to affect Black individuals today. 

 

For example, statistics supporting the under-diagnosis of pain amongst Black women have both racial and gendered origins because the very construct of gender itself was born out of the need to separate whiteness from Blackness. The ungendering of Black women initially occurred during slavery as a means of justifying inhumane treatment and rape. Perceiving Black women as objects relieved the moral pressure of seeing them as human beings, and therefore justified the idea that they are incapable of experiencing pain. To objectify them also meant to take away their womanhood, and in efforts to separate white women from Black women, categories of femininity and womanhood had to be constructed in direct opposition to what Black women “were.” This has contemporary manifestations as Black women are constantly masculinized. Consequently, white women became the standard of femininity, and characteristics such as fragility, softness, and gentleness became attributed to (white) womanhood, therefore allowing the public to be more empathetic to white pain. Understanding the racial and gendered underpinnings of fatphobia and pain management sheds light on how Black people have been used as a category to measure “humanness” against, and thereby creating healthcare that is fundamentally anti-Black.  

 

Given the historical precursors that have established the approaches of diagnosis and treatment in medicine, I propose the answer to undoing these injustices must be rooted within a framework of phenomenological analyses as a significant method. Although medicine and scientific inquiry are generally removed from subjectivity of any kind, scientific inquiry still operates within a social framework. Thus, assessing medicine from a race and class perspective is important for alleviating these issues. In an article written by Neubauer et al., the authors see phenomenology as a valuable tool for health professional education (HPE) scholars. They quote phenomenology as, “an approach to research that seeks to describe the essence of a phenomenon by exploring it from the perspective of those who have experienced it.[14]” This means that researchers and practitioners in medicine should approach research and practice from the direct experiences of groups that are experiencing the domain of investigation materially. Consequently, one cannot look at medicine from a pedagogy of objectivity.  

 

I agree that phenomenology is necessary for assessing the reality of health situations in the US. However, to undo the harm that the US medical establishment has produced against Black Americans, I propose that this phenomenological approach be based upon bell hooks’ theory of the centralization of the most marginalized. Although hooks’ argument, in her book, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, is based upon the inclusion of Black women within feminist spaces and movements, these ideas are necessary within the medical system as well, simply because the medical system is a social reality and necessity for all kinds of human life. hooks states that Black women are situated within a unique position, as they collectively occupy the bottom of the occupational ladder and the social strata. She thereby states, “occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist and classist oppression.” Although both Black men and women deal with racism, hooks states that Black male sexism undermines the struggle to erase racism. Also, the ‘ungendering’ of Black women has shown how they’ve been excluded from the assessment of issues that affect women, such as maternity. Viewing issues of medical disparities from the perspective of Black womanhood accounts for the intersections of race, class, and gender disparities in health. This helps to alleviate biases of fatphobia and pain management, as many of these studies were done in correlation with Blackness and gender identity. 

 

Focusing on the most marginalized, such as Black women, provides a holistic approach to medicine. It provides an approach that is not focused on historical and false genetic predispositions, but rather one that humanizes all kinds of people. It assesses treatment within the context of lived experiences, rather than assumptions about one’s humanity.  

Bibliography 

Megan Larson

Social and Political Philosophy, Spring 2021


The advent of practical artificial intelligence (AI) has been heralded to be as revolutionary as the advent of electricity. Akin to electricity, the new field of AI has its share of Thomas Edisons; engineers who lay the wires, write the code, and do their best to make sure no one gets electrocuted. Dr. Timnit Gebru is one of them. After earning her doctorate in computer science from Stanford, Dr. Gebru became one of the 0.7% of Black women who work in a technical role at Google. She quickly ascended past the rank-and-file engineers to co-found Google’s AI ethics team. On this team, she became one of the few people trying to solve the issue with artificial intelligence: AI is only as good as the engineers who write it and the data you feed it.   

            Take the AI called BERT. It’s a brainchild of Google that learns language like a baby would, by passively processing huge swaths of language in order to understand how people put words together. Babies do this implicitly while lying in a crib listening to their parents talk. BERT does this by ‘reading’ the internet. Now imagine if you taught a baby language by reading aloud every news article, blog post, and tirade available to the public online. What kind of person would this baby become? Likely, it would learn the biases that characterize much of the speech on the internet. BERT certainly did. Tests found that BERT learned to associate computer programming with men and was even unable to correctly classify the word ‘hers’ as a pronoun. The same system had no problem with the classification of the word ‘his’. Racial biases were found to be common in BERT as well.  

            Dr. Gebru wrote a paper questioning biases in BERT with another researcher from the University of Washington and submitted it to a conference. Upon learning about the paper, her manager at Google asked her to either retract her name from the paper, or retract the paper from the conference. Dr. Gebru, rightly outraged, asked that her manager either explain why the company wanted her off the paper or she would have to resign. His reply? An acceptance of her resignation. 

As bell hooks writes in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “we (Black women) bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression.” No other technology or industry embodies this brunt better than artificial intelligence. This is in part because no group of people are more immune to this sexism, racism, and classism than the people who have power in the industry and write the code. Statistics speak to this. 76% percent of tech workers at Google are men. Across the entire company, only 3.7% of employees are Black. The people developing AI have never experienced the biases they are inadvertently teaching the technology, and therefore are unable to recognize or understand the power of these biases. 

Black women understand their power. Deborah Raji, a 21-year-old AI engineer, was scrolling the pictures of faces that her company’s facial recognition software studied when she realized something unsettling. The majority of the faces were white and male. Upon closer investigation, 80% of the faces were white, and 70% of the faces were male. It was a known problem that the company’s facial recognition software had trouble recognizing Black faces, and Ms. Raji was the first to realize why; the data didn’t include Black people. Her company was also developing a content moderation tool to determine if images were pornographic or not. These algorithms were trained on benign stock images and pornographic images. However, there was once again an issue with the data the AI was trained on. Most of the stock images were of white people, while the pornographic images were diverse. Unsurprisingly, the system started disproportionately categorizing Black people as pornographic. To Ms. Raji, it was obvious why the AI was racist. Her white colleagues, on the other hand, hadn’t even realized the data was biased. 

In the paper that got Dr. Gebru fired from Google, it is written that: “the tendency of training data ingested from the Internet to encode hegemonic worldviews… presents real-world risks of harm, as these technologies are deployed.” In bell hook’s work, she writes of this hegemony as well and asserts that Black women are best positioned to recognize and revolt against them. She states: 

“It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony. I am suggesting that we have a central role to play in the making of feminist theory and a contribution to offer that is unique and valuable.” 

Black women are central to AI development for the same reason bell hooks argues that Black women are central to developing feminist theory. They understand how society works against women of all races and Black people of all genders because they sit at the most subjugated crossroads of identity. This is the understanding that AI desperately needs in order to address its encoded biases.  

Because of this, Google and other AI companies should be doing everything they can to diversify and support their engineers. The firing of Dr. Gebru has had the opposite effect. As Mutale Nkonde of the Stanford Civil Society Lab said, the event “only indicates that scientists, activists and scholars who want to work in this field — and are Black women — are not welcome in Silicon Valley.” A tech group that worked to help connect and get recent tech graduates from historically black colleges hired even cut ties with Google over the firing.  

Instead of firing underrepresented employees who advocate for their peers, tech companies should be actively recruiting a more diverse set of engineers. Of course, not all developers agree. Many see hiring practices that prioritize minority groups as exclusionary. This view was most notably espoused by James Damore, a former Google engineer, who wrote an internal memo railing against what he saw as reverse discrimination against white, male, and conservative developers. Despite the blatant sexism, racism and his immediate termination at Google following the release of the memo, Damore received a lot of support from other engineers and computer science academics 

What resonated most with his supporters was that focusing on diversity would result in lowering the ‘hiring bar’ and thus would undermine technological progress. Looking past the sexist and racist underbelly of that assumption, what Damore and his supporters fail to realize that technological progress is already undermined by racism and sexism. Only through hiring those who understand the many manifestations of these biases can the problem be addressed. Simply put, things will not change unless the people writing the code change. 

Furthermore, it is not enough to just hire Black women and expect them to act like their white and male colleagues who have not been calling out bias because they don’t experience it. Rather tech companies should encourage and support criticism of their products. To use bell hook’s language again, AI needs a ‘counter-hegemony’ in order to work against the oppression it otherwise reinforces. AI is the future, and it is high time those tasked with developing it ask themselves what sort of future they want to build. 

Emma Fox

Contemporary Political Thought, Spring 2021


“I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment” recounted Tarana Burke in a 2015 interview with the New York Times. In 1997, she sat across from a 13-year-old girl who described her experience of sexual abuse. Although she was a victim of sexual assault herself, Burke was at a loss for words: “I couldn’t even say ‘me too’.” When confronted with a situation in which an unthinkable violation against a person’s body and psyche occurs, what can be said?  

Burke went on to work as a fearless advocate for those who experience sexual assault and harassment. She founded the organization “Just Be” in 2003 to provide Black girls aged 12 to 18 with the resources she wished she had growing up in the Bronx. Her desire to increase awareness was not misplaced. Until recently, the reality of sexual assault and harassment was denied by its perpetrators despite its fervent practice. A 2021 study by U.N. Women reported 97% of women aged, 18 to 24, in the UK were sexually harassed, while a 2015 report by the National Sexual Violence Research Center disclosed that one out five women in the U.S. were a victim of rape or attempted rape. With sexual assault and harassment such a widespread issue globally, it is fair to ask why its prevalence has been dismissed until the Me Too movement.   

In 2006, Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” on Myspace to bring awareness to the epidemic of sexual abuse experienced by women. Eleven years after Burke’s declaration, “Me Too” garnered global recognition when it was tweeted by actress Alyssa Milano amidst the Harvey Weinstein accusations. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” wrote Milano. And women answered: Her tweet garnered over 61,000 replies. Women around the world united empowering each other, sharing stories, and demonstrating the magnitude of the sexual harassment they, until then, silently endured. The work done by Burke and Milano, and thus the emergence of the Me Too movement, can be observed through philosopher Lida Maxwell’s book, Insurgent Truth, which details how outsider truth tellers create solidarity to transform the world.   

While Ancient philosophers question the definition of truth, Maxwell seeks to unveil its objectivity. To Maxwell, the “truth only appears in society and politics by virtue of a system of representation; and modern systems of representing truth have been deeply hierarchical, engendering an apparent commonality and unity for some, and oppression and division for others.” She articulates that one’s social identity—race, gender, and class, influences how the truth they tell is accepted by the public. As such, there are insider truth-tellers and outsider truth-tellers: speakers of the dominant social class whose experiences are embraced because they reinforce society’s status quo, and those who struggle to have their voices heard because they fall outside of these norms. Characteristics of the dominant social class in society include being white, male, wealthy, and heterosexual. As the perpetrators, the presiding social class is incapable of understanding, and thus often deny, outsiders’ experiences. Burke and Milano are outsider truth-tellers because they speak from a position of social illegibility that the dominant social class is blind to and created solidarity through a shared space to discuss their experiences.   

Yet, identity isn’t clearcut; it’s multifaceted. Although Burke and Milano can be perceived as outsider truth tellers because of gender, they do not enjoy the same privileges when speaking the truth. Milano is a White actress with a platform of 2.9 million followers, while Burke is a Black activist with 155 thousand followers. Prior to gaining recognition for the Me Too movement, Burke’s platform was significantly smaller. When Burke coined #Me Too it took 11 years for the term to take off, only after it was used by Milano. Although a woman, Milano is advantaged by being white, which renders her voice more credible. This is not to say that people who enjoy certain privileges afforded to them by society should not advocate for marginalized groups. As Burke says, “Inherently, having privilege isn’t bad, but it’s how you use it, and you have to use it in service of other people.” They should use their privilege to elevate the voices of those who most directly experience oppression, while being mindful not to exclude or speak over all involved in the conversation. 

Our society, and thus our system of representing the truth, is shaped by a broader “truth-security regime,” put simply, a set of norms embedded in our society such as patriarchy and capitalism. According to Maxwell, “this truth-security regime demands, and renders hearable and significant, truths and truth-tellers that appear to offer stability and security, namely, speakers whose truth-telling limits risk [and] sustains the status quo.” Burke and Milano challenge the patriarchal security regime of truth-telling that deem their experiences incredible based on their gender and race. Under the patriarchal regime, women are silenced because their experience of violence risks the security of the system, thus the status quo. If men acknowledged the voices of women, it would be to recognize their active role in oppressing women. It would force men to assume a sense of accountability they likely would not otherwise confront. Along with holding men accountable by challenging the broader security regime, Burke and Milano bridge the public and private sphere.   

Society ingrains in us the importance of steering clear of “taboo” conversations, as they could lead to debate or make people uncomfortable. This is in part because the dominant social class establishes society’s norms and benefits from maintaining the status quo. Categorizing certain people or topics as fit to appear in the public realm, and others only within the private realm, is a form of reinforcing the dominant truth-telling system. By reducing the conversation of sexual assault and harassment to the private realm, the oppression that women experience is perpetuated. It would have been easier for Burke and Milano to stay silent, along with countless other women who share similar experiences. To declare the truth cost women their jobs, friendships, and often, their sense of dignity. Opening the discussion of sexual assault and harassment to the public sphere gives women the ability to talk about their experiences, further legitimizing them.   

When Burke and Milano moved the conversation on sexual assault and harassment to the public sphere, they did not seek male validation for their experienced violence. Instead, they confront the “hermeneutic circle of credibility” that establishes which truth and which truth tellers are hearable. Although it may first appear that the circle is expandable and open to everyone, for instance a truth teller can gain credibility by providing evidence for their claims, it is not. It is a hermeneutic circle because an outsider truth teller’s identity and the type of truth they’re telling still deems them unhearable, despite evidence. As Maxwell writes, outsider truth tellers “respond to the hermeneutic circle of credibility not by trying to break or transform it, but instead…by transforming and creating spaces where it does not apply.” Instead of asking men to dismantle the hermeneutic circle of credibility and deem their experiences credible, Burke and Milano devise a space for women to discuss their experiences and validate each other. When Milano tweeted “Me Too,” she created global solidarity among women. Collectively, women saw their common experiences and ability to support each other in ways they could not in the past.  

Although they are outsider truth tellers, Burke and Milano successfully altered the conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment by creating a space for women  

to discuss and validate their experiences. As Burke said in a 2017 interview, “[Me Too] is more than just about the amplification of survivors and quantifying their numbers. The work is really about survivors talking to each other and saying, ‘I see you. I support you. I get it.’” 

 

  

References 

2019-2020

Brianna Pereira 

Seminar in Religion, Fall 2019 


Marianne Williamson shocked the political world by qualifying for the first two Democratic debates. Best known as the spiritual leader of a New Thought megachurch that centers its beliefs in mind-healing, she beat out experienced politicians like U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton. While she has only been polling at 1 percent, her impact on politics and voters is still important to note. As a political science major who works on campaigns, I noticed Williamson targets a demographic that has been rapidly growing – spiritual but not religious Americans – which is likely a large part of her success. 

Since I myself identify as spiritual but not religious, I am glad Williamson is paying attention to this often-ignored group and even encouraging us to become politically active. However, as a Hispanic, I find her campaign is not trying enough, if at all, to attract the attention of people of color. 

Williamson is primarily hosting grassroots events in white-dominated locations, which prevents people of color like myself from joining her movement. 

For instance, last month Williamson hosted a meet and greet at New Haven’s Balanced Yoga Studio. But as she explained how she would implement her $500 billion reparations plan for African Americans, she spoke to a sea of white faces. The photo of the event posted by the Hartford Courant makes this clear. 

Although Williamson’s campaign does not hold all of her speaking events in yoga studios, very few are not. In November alone, her campaign scheduled seven events in mindfulness spaces. While she aims to reach the spiritual-not-religious demographic, the spaces she targets signify that she is missing the 35 percent of minorities in that demographic. She is choosing to speak in locations where people of color do not always feel welcomed. 

If you think the Balanced Yoga event was just a unique situation, let me assure you it is not. A 2012 Yoga Journal study found that while one in 15 Americans practice yoga, over 80 percent of them are white. Whiteness within the yoga world is studied by many scholars and activists, all of whom find that mindfulness caters mainly to young, white, affluent individuals. 

Other campaigns use more accessible and inclusive locations for grassroots events. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s town halls and meet and greets are mostly located in public libraries and high school auditoriums. Sen. Bernie Sanders hosts events at arenas, museums, and community colleges. The bottom line is that Williamson’s campaign events would be more successful if they were held in locations where all voters are welcomed, even if that location is a middle school gym. 

Many people are not aware that yoga studios are places where people of color don’t always feel welcome, but it is a topic that is heavily discussed within the yoga community. Williamson has been involved in the mindfulness industry for 35 years and counting. She should know better, which is why it is so disappointing that her campaign has spent the past year ignoring voters of color. 

As someone who has worked with both Massachusetts and U.S. legislative campaigns, I hope Williamson will heed this warning about campaign venues. If she wants to catch up with the leading candidates in this presidential race, Williamson must open a dialogue with not just white voters but minority ones as well. A good first step? Holding events in spaces that aren’t predominantly white. 

Brianna Pereira is a fourth-year politics, philosophy and economics major. 

 

Catherine Reynolds 

Seminar in Religion, Fall 2019 


The Kardashian-Jenners are no strangers to appropriating culture for monetary gain, from using images of hip-hop legends on merch to naming a shapewear brand after the Kimono, a traditional Japanese garb. With the release of his latest album, “Jesus is King,” Kanye West has finally joined the family business of exploiting culture for profit. 

Like so many televangelists before him, Kanye profits off of his Christianity. He’s taken the parts of Christianity he deems profitable, broken them up into easily consumable pieces and presented them without context, except for how they relate to himself, his image and his politics. Since my first marketing co-op, and current class on “Selling Spirituality” with Professor Liz Bucar, it’s hard to not see his actions as a money grab. 

Let’s start with the album itself. Six years after the release of “Yeezus,” which included a track titled “I Am A God,” Kanye has returned to incorporating religious themes into his music. This time, instead of exalting and praising himself, he’s decided to focus his energy toward his love for Christ. Sort of. The opening track features a gospel choir occasionally joined by Kanye, and the lyrics are pretty standard gospel music. But in the second track, “Selah,” he compares himself to biblical figures and justifies screaming at an employee in the name of his faith. If you can hear it over his yelling, he even cheers himself on using his own self-appointed nickname of Yeezus (like Jesus but the Kanye version). It all kind of goes downhill from there. 

The fifth track, “On God,” is really where the politics ramp up. The line “he’s the new commander in chief” followed by “that’s on God” could be taken as reverence for Kanye’s recommitment to faith, but given his outspoken support of the current President, this line is probably serving double duty. Later in the song, Kanye blames the IRS, or Internal Revenue Service, for wanting “50 plus our tithe,” implying the government is preventing him from giving to the church. 

The album has some songs asking for forgiveness, while others make clear he intends to continue living his life pretty much the same as always, minus some sex, drugs and debauchery. At the end, I’m left wondering, what does any of this have to do with being a Christian? It seems like Kanye is using faith to scam people out of their money and then using that money to maintain his celebrity lifestyle. 

Looking at the official merchandise, the first thing you notice is the extreme prices: $60 for a t-shirt and $250 for a sweatshirt. Most of the merch is covered in strangely cropped images of angels, crosses, Jesus and saints. Out of context, the customer doesn’t know anything about their religious meanings. A clear case of Christian aesthetics and appropriated imagery being branded by Kanye West for profit. 

To be clear, Kanye has done something different than his Kardashian-Jenner family members. He hasn’t pulled elements from minority groups and turned them into commodities. Instead he’s taken from the dominant religion of the West, something he claims membership to. This does not mean it comes without problems. Where cultural appropriation strips marginalized communities of credit, cultural exploitation removes the context and turns the stolen thing into a commodity. 

Just like the 2018 Met Gala exploited the aesthetics of Catholicism for donations, Kanye has taken his own religion and twisted it into a platform for his own agenda. His family profits off the backs of underrepresented communities, but with this album, Kanye has turned Christianity into his own personal piggy bank. 

A man who once said he could never be profitable rapping about Jesus has found a way to do so. But this album is not about Jesus. It is about Kanye West. He has pulled the sounds and imagery of Christianity to create a multi-faceted product launch including overpriced merchandise, an IMAX movie experience and a new concert tour presented as a traveling religious service. All of which is sold in the name of his faith with the end goal of making Kanye richer. 

Kanye was someone who used to rail against the oppression of capitalism on Black communities that “make us hate ourself and love they wealth.” Since joining with arguably the most commodified family in the world, Kanye has abandoned his roots in favor of monetary gain, even though it means selling his faith to any and all who will buy it. 

Catherine Reynolds is a fifth-year politics, philosophy and economics major. 

 

Sebastian Chávez

Contemporary Political Thought, Spring 2020


It’s happened to all of us: we look up one-too-many videos of puppies playing around and, suddenly, we’re only seeing ads for dog toys. Search algorithms are scary; nobody wants to consider the idea that their every move on the internet is being tracked. They’re even scarier when we hear that this data is being used to manipulate the kinds of information that we’re exposed to. Increasingly efficient search algorithms have made it easy to quickly surround ourselves with “relevant” content. This becomes dangerous when individuals are shown biased content that shapes and reinforces their beliefs. 

The phenomena I’m alluding to are known as “filter bubbles,” and they occur whenever a person becomes engulfed in information online that only reflects and reinforces their own personal beliefs. This makes it difficult or even impossible to encounter opinions different from their own, creating a reinforcing feedback loop in which a person cycles through biased information and shields themselves from anything to the contrary. The loop fosters online communities around likeminded individuals who are exposed to similar kinds of information and allows them to perpetually reinforce their beliefs. 

 Filter bubbles undeniably exist; however, their causes are misunderstood. These misunderstandings make it more difficult to address fundamental issues in our society such as narrowmindedness and heightened partisanship. In order to better grapple with these problems, we must understand that people are responsible for choosing the type of content they engage with online. We must therefore ultimately recognize that the root cause of filter bubbles are people themselves. 

Filter bubbles are often blamed on data and algorithms which allegedly present a person with search results, media, and ads that are custom-tailored to their browsing history. This is ultimately a constricted view that seeks to minimize the responsibility of individuals in the creation of filter bubbles by placing widespread focus on Big Tech companies. However, these views aren’t completely unfounded. Some studies show that Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook do track our browsing history and use it to manipulate what we’re presented with online. Armed with data such as prior searches and the websites we tend to visit, these companies can modify their results to move links up or down based on the likelihood we’ll click on them. This raises the concern that those who occasionally click on radical or polarizing links will become entrapped in a radical or polarizing filter bubble. 

Despite this data, there are even more studies that show that search algorithms are nowhere near as impactful on filter bubbles as we give them credit for. While ads may be custom-tailored, these studies report that “in real-world testing on a diverse sample, news recommendations [are] homogeneous” and “99.9% of recommendations [reach] both conservatives and liberals.”[4] Even when presented with the same information, some individuals willingly discredit it. So, while technology undoubtedly plays a role in perpetuating bias beliefs, it can’t be the fundamental cause that forms them. 

Given widespread blame on algorithms, the true cause of filter bubbles is largely unacknowledged. This view denigrates technology and, according to Australian media scholar Axel Bruns, prevents us from being able to address “the unwillingness of polarized political groups in society to engage with one another in order to develop mutual understanding and consensus.” By scapegoating technology, we eliminate the possibility for human intervention and decision-making. We’re able to operate under the false pretense that even if filter bubbles exist, we can’t do anything about them. Perpetual belief in this allows us to continually seclude ourselves in our respective circles as we observe others doing the same. This makes us more unwilling to engage with others on the political spectrum in order to challenge their thoughts and opinions. 

 It is imperative that we address the issue of filter bubbles. Not only are they dangerous to social relationships and political infrastructure, but they’ve put lives as risk as well. The January 6th Capitol insurrection, saw a mob seeking to undermine the counting of electoral votes by violently storming the D.C. Capitol building. These rioters operated under the false belief that challenger Joe Biden had “stolen” the presidency from incumbent Donald Trump. In doing so, they believed their violence to be an attempt to free others and expose them to the “truth.” In reality, their own self-entrapment in a filter-bubble prevented them from acknowledging the true outcome of the election. 

After the insurrection, many blamed the rioters’ actions on filter bubbles. They argued that the rioters’ views were formed from personalized searches generated by selective algorithms, and that they were further reinforced within online communities. In reality, these rioters weren’t stuck in filter bubbles, but rather disregarding truth. 

Late political philosopher Hannah Arendt explores the way in which individuals disregard truth in her 1967 article, Truth and Politics. In it, she discusses the vulnerability of factual truth, which she describes as truths that are observable such as the witnessing of an event: “factual truth is no more self-evident than opinion,” making it easy for opinion-holders to “discredit factual truth as just another opinion.” While search algorithms augment this vulnerability, they don’t create it. This is because the vulnerability isn’t inherently technological, but rather intrinsically human. 

It’s human nature to want to reinforce our own beliefs with information, even misinformation, that supports them. People want to be able to feel like their thoughts and opinions are valid and will therefore choose to gravitate towards media and social circles that’ll confirm this. In some instances, these circles can become dangerous and even violent. Observers from the outside are then faced with either taking responsibility to alleviate tension by engaging in discussion with members of these bubbles, or absolving themselves from the responsibility by blaming big tech. As a convenient escape, search algorithms’ minor role in this process is emphasized so that technology can be scapegoated. In order to adequately address these dangers and societal ills, we must collectively refrain from placing blame strictly on technology that we can’t control. Instead, we must assume the responsibility of addressing our own role in propagating and perpetuating filter bubbles. 

 

Bibliography 

2018-2019

Myrna Cox, “We Can Shop Online, But We Must Be Better at it For the Sake of All People”

Global Justice, Fall 2018


As Black Friday and Cyber Monday loom in our future, we are warned; Consumerism is bad. Consumerism is especially bad after Thanksgiving. We should boycott consumerism. We should especially boycott Black Friday and Cyber Monday. People die in Walmart raids. It’s embarrassing for our country’s image. We hear the same warning over and over. I’m not here to give you the same warning again.

Because you understand and you still shop and I understand that. I shop too. Especially online and especially on Cyber Monday. And it’s not because I’m evil or misguided by thinking the more shoes I buy the happier I’ll be. Last year I just needed black flats. I wore my black flats almost every day for over 5 years. Until last November, when I accidentally stepped in one of Boston’s salty after-snow-storm puddles and ruined them. We all have our stories have your story. I believe a lot of us of shop because we need things.

But here’s the thing, last Cyber Monday I realized I did something pretty bad. It started when ordered 12 pairs of black flats with the intent of just keeping one. I didn’t know how different brands would fit or whether they would fit I would fit different brands. I didn’t know which pair looked best. I had my reasons.

In the next two days, I received each pair of shoes in its own box. In each box, there was another box surrounded by plastic air packs. And in each of those boxes there was loads of tissue paper. And under the tissue paper were my shoes. But in each shoe, there was plastic that needed to be taken out to try them on.

When I finally unpacked all my shoes there was a mountain of trash. I knew this wasn’t environmentally great. In the end, I decided that I didn’t like any of the shoes I ordered. So, I got in my gas guzzling car and returned all my shoes to the stores.  If I had shopped at brick and mortar stores, I could have avoided the amount of garbage I made. Yet I didn’t. And at these stores, I cringed when I realized that they were going to use yet more boxes and packaging to send my shoes back to. I did something bad— I create a lot of garbage for no reason. I was bad.

Online shopping in general creates a lot of garbage. We buy a lot of stuff. There will be 800 million deliveries between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Which means there will soon be 800 million cardboard boxes. That’s a lot. In the past decade, waste management companies have seen a 20% increase in cardboard boxes alone.

And then there’s the packaging in those boxes. We want our things to arrive in perfect condition. Companies don’t want to lose money over damaged items. The average box gets dropped 17 times. Therefore, to prevent damage, companies over compensate and stuff each box with an excessive amount of packaging.

Fuel is then burnt to deliver all our boxes. There’s some salvation here. Before, we all drove back and forth to the mall, which used ton a fuel. But now delivery trucks find the most efficient route to reach all of us. This means there’s a lot less driving and fuel burnt. And if we order more than one thing from the same store, companies will wait to put all your items into 1 box instead several. In these ways, online shopping is greener.

There is salvation unless we order something to be delivered quickly. All environmentally friendly measures are thrown right out the door to make fast delivery possible. Your items will be shipped separately and even driven separately. But worst of all, your items are likely to be put on a jet. Jet fuel is incredibly worse for the environment. Our carbon footprint would be better if we just went back to driving back and forth to the mall again.

Creating a larger carbon footprint so we can have our goods quicker is also unfair. People think that because global warming is a global phenomenon that we are all equally effected by climate change. Unfortunately, though climate change effects the global poor more than anyone else. Therefore, it’s unfair because we benefit from having our goods quickly, while the poor suffer the consequences more than we do.

The same unfairness applies to our garbage from all our packaging too. While we have the benefit of our goods, we don’t deal with the negative consequences of our waste. Once again, the poor disproportionality take on these negative costs. And if you think you’re better because you recycle your boxes, sorry you’re not. Due to lack of domestic infrastructure, most of our recycled boxes still end up in a landfill.

So, while we enjoy the benefit of getting stuff quickly and conveniently, the poor suffer from our garbage and our contribution to climate change. This is bad. We can do better. Here’s some simple things you can do to be a better person this Cyber Monday:

  1. Be patient. If it’s not absolutely vital you have your order quickly, choose standard delivery.
  2. Buy all at once. Don’t make a bunch of separate orders from the same place.
  3. Don’t buy things with the idea of returning them. Don’t be like me last year.
  4. Recycle if you live in a location that has the infrastructure.
  5. Reuse your boxes when possible.

 

Simple. You can do those things. But it’s also not just up to you. Companies have a part in this too. In their efforts to save money, a lot of companies have come up with some creative solutions that just so happens to help the environment. Broadly they have been able to cut back on the number of boxes they use, the amount of packaging, and the amount of time people are driving. But companies need to step up from just considering ways that cut cost and actually focus on the environmental impact they’re creating. In fact, the UN and its guiding principles for business and human rights demand this very notion.

At the very least, companies need to stop incentivizing you to do things that are unjust and bad for the environment.  They should never make 2-day delivery free and standard shipping more expensive. They should not be tempting us with cheap quick delivery. Consumers should always have to pay a steeper price on quick deliveries. Companies should have zero tolerance of customers who buy and return constantly. Companies should not allow us to make many small separate orders in the same day or at least they should always consolidate your orders if we do. Companies should also have their sales earlier so we don’t feel like we need to rush packages to be on time for the holidays.

Companies should also be held responsible for their garbage. They should be designing and using eco-friendlier boxes and packaging. They should be paying for the infrastructure needed to make recycling possible in your neighborhood. They should be paying for programs to help the poor effected by their climate change contribution and their garbage.

Myrna Cox and Alastair Pike

Global Justice, Fall 2018

 

Alastair Pike is a fourth-year student studying journalism with a minor in photojournalism.


Australia is the newest nation to join the club of countries to lift taxes on tampons. Included in this club of tax-free female sanitary are Canada, India, and Kenya leaving many to wonder when, if ever, the United States, which still has 36 states with taxes on such products, will join the movement.

The movement for lifting taxes on menstruation products, such as tampons, pads and diva cups stems from the idea that access to menstruation products, a public health issue, is a human right. The argument for this comes from two places.

First, a lack of female sanitary products create a substantial health risk. Poor menstruation hygiene poses serious, and even fatal health infections such as Hepatitis B, various bacterial infections, and toxic shock syndrome. Persistently poor menstrual hygiene can also lead to infertility. In the absence of menstruation products, many women use rags, old socks, even sticks, increasing substantially their risk for infections.

Access to healthcare is a human right. The World Health Organization’s constitution signed back in 1946 envisages “the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being” and states that a rights-based approach must focus on disadvantaged populations, in this case women, and must prioritize the needs of “those furthest behind first” which was echoed in the recent 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Universal Health Coverage.

Second, access to menstruation products is a human right due to the domino effects concerning rights to education and dignity that follow a lack of access.

To begin, many women who do not have access to menstruation products will avoid going to school due to social stigma. While missing school may be due to the period itself, many women also skip school after their period is over because they are embarrassed by the blood stains their clothes received due to not having access to any products or enough money to replace their stained clothes. In some instances, women will not go to school even if they do have access as a period itself is so socially stigmatized due to various cultural and religious beliefs and practices.

Valarie, a 13-year-old girl who goes to school in Papua New Guinea, spoke with World Vision International in 2017 about how she was scared and stayed home when she had her first period. She also recalled when one of her classmates had her period at school. “All the students, especially the boys, were pointing at her and laughing,” she told World Vision. “At that time, I didn’t have my period yet, so I didn’t think much of it. But when I had it, it frightened me.”

The lack of access to sanitary products and social stigma results in many women not having an equal access of education. Many then argue that this lack of equal access is another human rights violation.

A 2016 UN report explored the correlations between poor sanitation and hygiene to academic performance in school. The report noted that school facilities and hygiene education are important for changing harmful perspectives, behaviors and expectations. Surveys in Kenya, Cameroon and Senegal found that between 10 percent and 47 percent of the girls interviewed said that they missed school for at least one day a month because of menstrual pain and inability to change at school.

Even with cleaner facilities and access, menstrual hygiene is related to power and dignity. In the U.S., in July 2017, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Woman Act that banned shackling pregnant women or placing them in solitary confinement, as well as a directive to distribute quality pads and tampons to inmates for free. Even with access, the issue, as pointed out in a New York Times piece following the legislation, had “everything to do with power.”

Restricting or preventing the access to sanitary menstruation products are used as manipulative tool to control women. Last year a defendant in a court in Kentucky appeared before a judge wearing no pants and while menstruating. She said correctional officers had, despite multiple requests, refused to give her sanitary products or a change of clothes when she told them she was having her period. It’s clear it’s isn’t just a basic public health issue, it is also a basic human rights issue that ensures rights to education and rights to dignity.

Because of the human rights violations of health and education, public sanitation, and equality, it is clear that access to sanitary menstruation products or methods are morally imperative. What this access means though is controversial. At a high level, it appears pretty clear that at the very least, any taxation on sanitary products is wrong. Because taxation makes products more expensive, it affects all women but disproportionately affects lower income or homeless women.

Thus, perhaps abolishing taxation is the first step. The second step is to ensure equal access to these products and also consider those of lower income who cannot afford products. We should consider these lower income groups as they are forced to make unethical decisions with unethical results. Women on food stamps often must decide between eating or buying proper menstruation products. Female prisoners must decide between menstrual products or other basic necessities. For example, Chandra Bozelko, a former female prisoner in Connecticut and prison reform advocate, explained to WomensHealthMag.com in 2016 that pads are “a quarter of your weekly paycheck, keeping in mind that you’d also have to buy soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and all the other hygiene items that are basic to human existence.” In prisons especially, the prices of tampons are marked up to be as high $5 a pack and many women do not have prison jobs in the first place. While they are some women who can rely on outside funds the bureaucracy of the commissary-ordering process is so bad that, “even a millionaire might not be able to buy a pack of maxi-pads for months.” Women in lower income families are often not even granted a decision as the little income their family has is controlled by the man of the household who often decides for her that funds for menstruation products are not necessary or as necessary as other family needs.

The American women’s magazine Bustle reported in 2017 that worldwide only 12 percent of young women with periods have access to the products they need. Out of those who have access, 100 million women worldwide cannot afford the products they have access to. In the U.S. alone, there are 24.6 million women who cannot afford adequate menstruation products. While there are no statistics on the global effect this has on women’s school attendance, in the U.K., 137,700 women skipped school on their period meaning that on average these women were 145 days behind their male counterparts, according to a 2018 survey by OnePoll.com. One can only imagine the global impacts on school attendance, considering that the U.K. is a developed country and most countries are not.

Thus, there should be more of an effort to provide free sanitary products in sanitary private locations in all public spaces such as schools, prisons, and government buildings.

Furthermore, our various poverty programs should include incorporating sanitary menstruation products.

Lastly, it is important to note that access is not the only part to eliminating this human rights violation–addressing and eliminating the stigma around menstruation is very important too. As a basic biological process, women should not be subject to myths or taboos that ultimately affect their self-esteem and dignity.

There have been some notable attempts to eliminate stigma in the United States. For example, actress Bella Thorne announced on Instagram recently that her dog’s name is Tampon. To the instant backlash to the name, Bella responded, “When did tampon become a bad thing?

When did someone buy a tampon and it didn’t come in handy” where a discussion of period positive briefly followed in the internet and media.

Other celebrity stunts have occurred too, such as Amy Schumer at the Emmys who listed the brand of her tampon when asked who she was wearing on the red carpet. While these celebrity stunts are honorable, it is to say that much more is needed.

There needs to be more conversation and institutional change. Perhaps it is to say as we wait for the remaining US states to join the club of no taxation on menstruation, each and every one of us should can keep this human rights conversation alive.

Christian “Mish” Culbert

Social and Political Philosophy, Fall 2018


Everyone’s talking about refugees. As conflict in the middle east rages on, a small subset of refugees has captured the attention of western media. “While we in the West debate whether we should resettle 1% or .5% of refugees,” most of them are left without a place to resettle (Parekh, 49). Displaced from their homes, but unable to find new ones, these people live within the borders of a different state. “Close to 30 million people, are considered to be in need of and dependent upon international protection [and not just] food or temporary shelter as you would after a natural disaster, but for a home and membership in another political community” (Parekh 24). I believe that this system is problematic in execution and principle. Using Aristotle’s conception of life outside the “city,” I argue that refugees in camps are denied an essential part of the human experience.

Most refugee camps provide the bare minimum; makeshift shelters, scarce food, and limited resources. Education is lacking, if present. Sexual violence is rampant. Refugees are expected to sit idly, unable to leave, relying solely on the support from the international community. People cry out about the obvious human rights violations occurring in these camps. The conditions are awful, and those seeking refuge are often treated more like beasts than humans. Many demand reforms for refugee camps, so policies are made but little actually changes. The focus is always on fixing the camps. But if “man is by nature a political animal” then camps are unfixable (Aristotle 1253a). The current system deprives the refugees of something essential to being human: being a part of a state.

Aristotle, in his Politics, argues “that the city is both by nature and prior to each individual” (Aristotle 1253a). His conception of a city is that of a unified political community. Though our modern states are a far cry from what he ever imagined, they provide opportunities (for the most part) of political participation. This is a fundamental part of the human experience, according to Aristotle. Humans alone are political creatures. Bees and other animals may work together, but only humans have language. It is natural for humans to form political bonds to one another. Such a “city” of interconnected people is ontologically prior to the people themselves, for they have meaning only as part of a whole. People band together in nature for the sake of survival, but they form cities for the sake of the good life. Anyone outside the political group is “no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god” (Aristotle 1253a).

I doubt anyone would argue these refugees are akin to gods. And comparing them to beasts is dehumanizing. Yet they are part of no state. They reside in a strange limbo within the borders of their host state. What whole do they belong to that gives them meaning? Aristotle would label this the life of beasts. Limited bathing, bland food, lack of luxury goods, and no autonomy all sound like the conditions of animals, not people. Aristotle observes that humans alone have language. We use it to express not only pleasure and pain, but also what is just and unjust. Our forum is the “city.” By calling those without a city beast or god-like, Aristotle identifies political participation as an essential part of being human.

I agree with Aristotle. I believe that participation in something larger than oneself is essential to the human experience. This extends beyond survival and productivity. In refugee camps, theoretically, resources are not a problem. Everything is provided by aid groups.  The city (or in today’s case, the state) allows for discourse about the best kind of life and regime.

“Of course, though refugees in camps are supposed to be idle, not work, and passively sit back and wait for the UNHCR, this is not what many refugee camps are actually like” (Parekh 51). It is so natural for humans to form community, that even when displaced miles from home in makeshift shafts with minimal supplies, people will make their own cities. Camps “contain thriving black markets where many things can be bought and sold, both licit and illicit, and complex social networks have developed” (Parekh 51). This was not intended. Refugee camps were not designed to create micro-societies. Yet the humanity of their residents is so strong that it partially usurps the flawed design of “temporary” refugee housing.

Refugees in camps are certainly not beasts, yet they are treated like them. It is all too common for “women and children [to] experience sexual violence in refugee camps at the hands of other refugees, members of the local population, as well as NGO and other aid workers” (Parekh 54). This is precisely because, despite all their unofficial bonds, none of the refugees are part of a real state. They lack the protection from and responsibility to a city. Aristotle foresaw this violence. He expected that those outside the city would be “the most unholy and the most savage animals, and the worst with regards to sex and food” or in many of today’s case, refugees are treated like the most savage animals with regards to sex and food. Having autonomy and decision making in a state is essential for maintaining justice, since “justice is a thing belonging to the city, for adjudication is an arrangement of the political community” (Aristotle 1253a). Trying to reduce violence in refugee camps is only a bandage. The root of the problem is the idea of camps in the first place. With no city or state to establish a sense of justice, injustice will thrive.

Today’s refugee crisis is unprecedented in scale. The solution for over 30 million refugees is the camp system within the borders but without the membership of another country. This is a deeply flawed system. In practice, it violates fundamental human rights and even in theory it undermines refugees’ humanity. Refugee camps undermine the very nature of humankind to join together and establish a political rule. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were merely a temporary state of living. But these camps are more than just a transition stage, “the average length of time you can expect to live in one in the 21st century is 17 years; for those fleeing conflict zones, the average is 25 years” (Parekh 49). Entire generations are born and raised in camps with no political community to participate in. Not only are they unable to achieve the good and virtuous life that Aristotle stresses, but their conditions fall short of what is naturally human.

And yet everyone talks about the 1% of refugees entering western countries. So many are left at the whims of the international community, but with no voice. Until we are able to incorporate these people into the political community they cannot be fully human in the Aristotelian sense. If “every community is constituted for the sake of some good,” then it is wrong for us to deny so many people that good (Aristotle 1252a).

 

Bibliography:

 

Aristotle, and Carnes Lord. Aristotle’s Politics. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Parekh, Serena. No Refuge for Refugees: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis. Draft ed., 2018.

Alexandra Eby

Social and Political Philosophy, Fall 2018


On August 2nd of this year, the Trump administration successfully repealed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measure, which would have required states to track and reduce carbon emissions on the national highway system. On March 27, 2017, President Trump signed a resolution that repealed a regulation that would improve federal contractor compliance with labor laws. On February 3rd, 2017, Trump issued a memo that called for a review of a regulation that would require financial advisors who work with retirement assets to act in the best interest of their clients, and a little over a year later this fiduciary rule would be rendered null and void on appeal.

Many, and I mean many, more deregulatory measures by the Trump administration could be listed here, in arenas such as financial, environmental, educational, technological, pharmaceutical, etc. And even more arguments for the dangers they pose to everyday people could be listed as well. To take one niche yet illuminating example is the current push from republicans and lobbyists to deregulate the speed of poultry assembly lines previously set by the Obama administration. Their goal is to increase production beyond the current 140 birds per minute limit in order to increase profit. However, poultry assembly line employees work with dangerous tools and chemicals in handling the poultry and are already six times as likely to sustain a workplace injury than workers in other private sectors. According to NBC news, “Two poultry and meat processing plants, Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, are among the 10 companies with the highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations, out of more than 14,000 companies reporting to the federal government.” Any increase in production rates would jeopardize these employee’s safety even more.

But taking a break from the overwhelming evidence of corporate unaccountability and the statistically known harms of deregulation, let us instead approach the topic from a new perspective. Economists and politicians have always been in tension over the laissez-faire vs. regulated market, but now I ask: how can ancient philosophy weigh in?

Though our modern, centralized economy was not exactly on Plato’s radar, what Plato spoke in no uncertain terms of was justice. More specifically, how it could exist in the individual, emphasizing that the polis must be just for the individual living in it to be. In The Republic, Plato writes through the character of Socrates and outlines this ideal, just polis: in charge are the rulers, who are the wisest of the citizens, in the military are the guardians, who are the most courageous, and in the general population is everyone else, who are to be temperate, docile, and graciously ruled over. Why does Plato argue for this strict aristocracy, that is the exact opposite of the idea of freedom we’ve been peddled by most of the “important” philosophers after? Because, he says, what justice requires of us is regulating ourselves, and letting the wisest part of us control the basest part- our desires. For example, in myself this plays out when instead of watching Netflix in my bed all day (my desire), I instead go for a run, do homework, and run errands (my reason). Plato also argues that in regulating yourself, you actually are more free, because you are not a slave to your worst self. And his point is deeply felt when my to-do list is empty rather than my Netflix queue at the end of an day, and I feel a sense of fulfillment and control over my life. Plato puts forth that this is true on the big stage, the polis, as well. In having the wisest individuals be rulers and regulate the military and the general populous, we all end up satisfied, safe, and ultimately free. And for him, that is justice.

While I would not argue for a full meritocracy in the same way, and there is a strong case that Plato was wrong in saying the majority of people in the polis are comparable to our basest desires, I believe his general principle that appetites should be regulated holds true and is especially applicable when you look at our current capitalist economy. Capitalism is a system that encourages constant growth and constant competition. If you are not gaining, you’re losing. This description is exactly what Plato meant when he spoke of how appetites operate: they are never satisfied, never self-regulating. However, he acknowledged it is an unalienable part that exists within us and within the polis. He writes in the Republic, “There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless.” Likewise, our economy is at this point essential and deep-rooted in our country’s functioning. Therefore, Plato’s idea of how to keep that in check is especially relevant. Plato would say we must regulate the growth of our corporations, protect our consumers, and create accountability to operate according to the overall good. According to his philosophy, and as we’ve seen in our history, our appetites (capitalism) does not regulate itself. And unregulated, we are consumed by an economic system that overtakes our reason and enslaves us to the idea of satisfaction, putting aside all other values.

“Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” Plato’s words on liberty is a picture of our desires running unchecked, leading us to be slaves to them. A modern equivalent easy to compare to his words is unregulated capitalism, which knows no boundaries in growing, producing more, and always getting a better bottom line. Plato’s philosophy of regulating, both the soul and the polis, is a concept to keep in mind as we watch President Trump dismantle many regulations on the market and introduce further leniencies for corporations that have a history of harming the greater good.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

“Brookings Deregulatory Tracker.” Brookings, Brookings, 18 Oct. 2018, www.brookings.edu/interactives/brookings-deregulatory-tracker/.

 

Khimm, Suzy. “Another Obama Decision Reversed? Now It’s about Food Safety.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group

 

Plato, et al. Republic. Harvard University Press, 2013.

 

Rothbard, Murray (2006). “It all began, as usual, with the Greeks”. Mises Institute. Retrieved 2006-06-22.

Sawyer Hammond

Social and Political Philosophy, Fall 2018


On November 6th, 2018, a huge victory was won. Not only was it a victory over the prison industrial complex but more importantly over white supremacy in our democracy. With the passing of Amendment 4 in Florida, a voting ban on released felons who had served their sentences was knocked down, paving the way for an estimated 1.2 million to regain their voting rights as soon as early 2019. While the restoration of felon’s voting rights is something to be celebrated all around, it’s particularly worth celebrating for the Black Floridians that are disproportionately imprisoned and stripped of their rights. Voter suppression is just one way that Black felons are mistreated, and just one way that Black Americans are discriminated against on a daily basis. This racist oppression is just one contemporary manifestation of the Racial Contract, the contract which relies on white supremacy that “underwrites the modern social contract and is continually being rewritten” (Mills, 1997, pg. 62).

The Racial Contract is the brain child of Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills. It serves as “a bridge between two areas now largely segregated from each other: on the one hand, the world of mainstream (i.e., white) ethics and political philosophy, preoccupied with discussions of justice and rights in the abstract, on the other hand, the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth World political thought, historically focused on issues of conquest, imperialism, colonialism, white settlement, land rights, race and racism, slavery, Jim Crow, reparations…” (Mills, 1997, pg. 4) and more. Mills developed the Racial Contract while thinking about the biases that philosophers such as Kant and Hobbes carried with them in their work, and in turn their thinking on social contracts. Mills writes that “the ideal ‘social contract’ has been a central concept of Western political theory for understanding and evaluating the social world” (Mills, 1997, pg. 6) but the concept itself is built on a racial contract, which supposes that social contracts are only discussing white folks. He continues that “the most important political system of recent global history – the system of domination by which white people have historically ruled over, and in certain important ways, continue to rule over nonwhite people – is not seen as a political system at all” (Mills, 1997, pg. 2). The fact that it is unnamed is problematic to Mills because something unnamed is something unchecked, and white supremacy unnamed and unacknowledged allows for it to actively operate in the fabrics of society.

Florida’s ban on felons voting was an example of disguised white supremacy at work. With the passing of Amendment 4, it’s been eradicated, and an estimated 1.2 million voters are in the process of being added back onto the registry, 43% of whom are Black. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done for many. The Palm Beach Post published a report that outlined Florida’s racist treatment of voters and felons, particularly the recent treatment under current governor, Rick Scott. The Post alleged that Rick Scott grants clemency to white felons twice as often as Black felons (Ramadan, et. Al, 2018). That number is three times as often when comparing granting clemency for white men in comparison to Black men (Ramadan, et. Al, 2018). Additionally, Rick Scott has only granted clemency to a total of 412 felons since 2011. This stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Charlie Crist, who granted clemency to 38,808 felons during his four-year tenure as governor of the Sunshine State. While even former republican governors have had clemency statistics that match the general prison population, Scott racist policies falls short of matching up to any population metrics. While 43% of the prison population released in Florida is Black, only 27% of those with voting rights restored by Scott are Black., While 38% of the prison population released are Black men, only 16% of those with their voting rights restored were Black men.

It’s no secret what Rick Scott is trying to accomplish here: his goal is to suppress black voters and carry Republicans through state-wide elections like the mayoral race we just witnessed. Scott is disproportionately dismissing the voting rights of black felons and under-delivering on his numbers because Black voters often vote Democrat. With an estimated 9% of Florida’s population being former felons, that’s a huge demographic that is out of the voter registry. On top of that, 43% of those released are Black. The numbers don’t lie, there is a large Democratic base locked up in Florida’s prisons or floating in a limbo, released from prison but without the civic right to cast votes for representatives in the government. Scott’s actions put him in a long line of government employees, choosing to focus on suppression and dismissal rather than developing policies that fit his agenda while serving the best interests of a majority of his statewide constituents.

No matter how despicable Scott’s actions and the felon ban on voting are, it should come as no surprise. Mills states that, “the Racial Contract is continually being rewritten to create different forms of the racial polity” (Mills, 1997, pg. 72). In order to maintain control, power has to shift forms. Racial minorities aren’t blind to the ways that these systems operate, so as certain discriminatory laws and practices are rolled back or outlawed once identified as perpetuating white supremacy, others are silently folded in as replacements. Whether admitted or not, the goal of such policy is exactly as Mills claims with the Racial Contract: for whites to stay on top of the social pyramid (Mills, 1997, pg. 30). This includes the use of “exclusionary juridical mechanisms” that go unchecked and continue to perpetuate racial inequality in the United States.              Mills breaks down various contracts that make up the Racial Contract, including the Slavery Contract and the Jim Crow contract, but they aren’t limited to America.  He argues that the Racial Contract began in Europe and spread through the colonization of the Americas as well as through occupation in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Today, we are tied up in more contracts than ever before. As climate change becomes increasingly violent, the climate change contract is going to prove to be monumental in generating Western accountability for the effects of climate violence. The contract that operates on the exploitation of cheap labor is only going to come under more scrutiny as developing nations grow and become independent. Domestically, we are on the precipice of shattering the Gerrymandering Contract which disenfranchises minority voters across the nation. Flint, Michigan is still without clean drinking water. Children are making the clothes we wear on our backs in America, earning mere pennies. We can bask in the victories like the passing of Amendment 4 in Florida, however we can’t lose sight of the larger, global workings of the racial contract that is actively and increasingly harming billions of nonwhite folks on a daily basis.

 

 

Works Cited

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Ramadan, L., Stucka, M., & Washington, W. (2018, October 26). Florida felon voting rights: Who got theirs back under Scott? Retrieved December 6, 2018, from https://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20181025/florida-felon-voting-rights-who-got-theirs-back-under-scott

Maxwell Huber

Social and Political Philosophy, Fall 2018


As a man in America, I rarely think about sexual assault. When I walk around in public, I don’t worry that a stranger might catcall, grope, or kidnap me. Not only don’t I worry about sexual assault, until recently I was unaware that most women in America live with constant anxiety of sexual assault and harassment. As a result, I never considered how my actions and words could affect women by contributing to that anxiety. The #MeToo movement began to change this. For a society that values free speech, we continue to suppress women’s ability to speak out and share their perspectives on the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our culture. Even as the #MeToo movement draws out women’s perspectives and experiences, it does so against persecution and a social tyranny attempting to suppress it. Men occupy the position of power in this tyranny which means that if we want to learn from female perspectives, we need to dismantle this tyranny to institute proper freedom of speech for women talking about sexual assault and harassment. Before dismantling women’s barriers to free speech, we have to understand the value of free speech as well as barriers to it. In “On Liberty”, J.S. Mill argues that while humans often make errors and misjudgments, humankind’s great virtue is that “He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience”. Our ability to correct our judgment in this way 1 therefore necessitates freedom of speech in order to make those corrections and progress as a society. Along with the value of free speech, Mill also reveals how persecution and social tyranny undermine free speech. Regarding persecution, Mill claims “the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes”. In short, 2 persecuting new opinions will suppress people from speaking out no matter the value of that opinion. Even in the absence of persecution, Mill describes how social pressures create a tyranny that discourages people from expressing opinions that challenge the orthodoxy. Essentially, free speech can’t exists if there are social costs to expressing an opinion. Addressing social tyranny leads Mill to propose that “If either of two opinions has a better claim than the other… to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority”. Encouraging minority opinions counters social tyranny, thus making it vital to 3 free speech. Taking Mill’s ideas on barriers to free speech into account, it’s apparent that we have denied women the ability to freely speak about their perspectives and experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Foremost, we persecute women who come forward with experiences of sexual assault from powerful men. In high profile cases like Christine Blasey-Ford’s, the media


1 ​John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in ​Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts​ , ed. Steven M. Cahn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 757. 2 Ibid, 761. 3 Ibid, 771.


scours her personal life and broadcasts the most personal details of her worst experience while (male) trolls on Twitter torment and threaten her mercilessly. Beyond persecution, we maintain a social tyranny that discourages women from voicing their experience. Everytime we refuse to listen, claim she’s lying, or focus on how allegations affect the men, we signal to women that they are not welcome to freely speak about their experiences with sexual assault. With the threat of persecution and the power of social tyranny, it’s astounding and a testament to the courage of women that we’ve been able to hear these perspectives. The #MeToo movement will likely fail to teach men to correct our errors if we continue to withhold free speech from women trying to speak about sexual assault. In order to have the opportunity to hear women’s perspectives in a free discussion, men must challenge the social tyranny suppressing free speech for women. Regarding the persecution, we must stop participating ourselves and condemn those who do. On the other side, we need to enact Mill’s idea of encouraging minority opinions. This means treating allegations as serious and credible rather than denouncing them. Furthermore, men need to let the conversation stay focused on the women’s perspectives and experiences rather than on the how and why of an offender’s redemption. As a man, I know that the last one can be difficult. It’s easier for us to imagine ourselves in the positions of other men which means we often want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are reasons to be hopeful even though women lack the ability to speak freely about sexual assault. That the #MeToo movement could happen at all indicates that the tyranny against women speaking out is weakening. Some people might object to the notion that we have to have this conversation between men and women before our culture can start treating women appropriately. To them, women’s perspectives and the way men should view their actions towards women is obvious. They expect that men already know how their actions affect women and simply ignore that knowledge. While this it likely true in extreme cases like rape, it skips a critical step in more common cases like inappropriate comments or coerced sex. In these cases, it’s not that men are acting in ways they know are wrong, but that they are acting in ways that they don’t know are wrong. And the reason they don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong is because they’ve never heard a woman’s perspective explain why it’s wrong. And that right there is precisely why we, especially men who want to change, need to give women the freedom to speak when it comes to sexual assault and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement.

 

Bibliography Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” In ​Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, edited by Steven M. Cahn, 747-807. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

John Hughes

Global Justice, Fall 2018

John Hughes graduated from Northeastern in 2018, majoring in Philosophy and Mathematics. He interested in finding applications for both those fields, specifically in data analytics, all while traveling as much as possible.


Last week, the United States Border Control agents fired tear gas at migrants trying to cross into the country. This is just the latest episode in a worldwide debate about immigration policy, and is sure to draw strong opinions from both sides. It’s increasingly clear that closed borders are not good policy, and states should recognize that restrictions on immigration have the potential to harm economies and impact diversity. However, while much of the political left might argue otherwise, states are under no moral obligation to allow immigration, even with restrictions.

The utilitarian view is that immigration increases an overall measure of utility—usually happiness of some sort. Supporters of immigration point to ample evidence that immigrants moving from developing countries to developed countries see significant income gain. This is great for those immigrants of course, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy the utilitarian requirements. Wealth or income are not guarantors of happiness, or any utilitarian values for that matter. In fact, research at Princeton has shown that the link between income and happiness is mostly an illusion. Even if it does increase happiness for the immigrants themselves, that’s not the only relevant factor.

We also need to take into account the effect of immigration on the destination country. Many people are quite unhappy with the idea of foreigners coming into their countries. In Europe, where immigration laws are extremely relaxed, there has been a significant backlash. Anti-immigrant sentiment is increasing and nativist political leaders are gaining support. Whether or not the anti-immigrant sentiment is justified is beside the point—if it makes residents of a country unhappy, that must be factored into the moral calculation. Utilitarianism is useless as a measure of morality if there is some other moral justification needed for one’s happiness to “count”.

In some cases, though, there is a significant positive economic impact on the destination state. In the United States, this fact is often used as justification for reducing barriers to immigration. However, our moral scheme shouldn’t exclusively rely on the improvements to one country. There can be detrimental economic impact to immigrants’ home countries that are not insignificant. Developing countries suffer “brain-drain”—where the best and brightest emigrate—leaving the unhealthy, the uneducated, and the poor behind. Does this really increase a global measure of happiness, or does it just increase happiness in the developed counties which profit?

Similarly, many people argue that distributive justice requires developed countries to allow immigrants from developing countries. This is compelling but misleading. Distributive justice is a strong moral theory which requires fair outcomes and a diminution of inequality. It does not, however, prescribe specific methods to achieve justice. Even if it did, immigration would not be on the list. The inequalities of birthplace luck should be remedied, but international movement doesn’t do anything to help. Imagine a hospital with low standards of care: we could move every infant born there to a new hospital immediately after birth, or we could improve the hospital itself. The best way in the long term to satisfy the requirements of distributive justice is not to move people away from bad conditions, but to fix the conditions themselves.

The last moral argument for immigration rests on the foundational right to individual autonomy. The right to autonomous movement is important on some scale, but it’s clearly not a universal moral imperative.  I can’t freely move into my neighbor’s house, but no moral values are compromised with that restriction. As a matter of fact, I have no moral right to go onto any property which is not my own. There is a very strong analogy here to international movement. One is entitled to move freely within the public space of the country to which they belong—space which is essentially theirs. However, the right to freedom of movement does not allow them to move to another country, to which they have no claim.

Utilitarian arguments for immigration do not accurately take into account all sides of the calculation, and arguments of justice and autonomy do not actually require any kind of open borders. While prudent policymakers should look for ways to increase immigration, to make it more appealing to all parties, and to address global inequality, there is no moral obligation for them to open state borders.

Daniel O’Leary

Global Justice, Fall 2018


When President Trump spoke to the United Nations General Assembly this September he articulated a nationalistic view of the world. Each country will stand on its own, because they invest in themselves they will succeed. This reasoning is unique to the political right but they conclusion certainly isn’t. The idea that we should look inward and invest in our own people at the expense of investing in others is also shared on the left. These critiques go beyond criticism of United States military adventurism. They critique the entire global order as a manifestation of US hegemony. That’s a mistake. Whatever the problems of US foreign policy the US abandoning its role directing the global future will cause a worse future. A future worse for the US. And importantly a future worse for people globally.

The US has spent vast resources promoting democracy globally since WWII. In 2016 alone, the United States spent $49 Billion on foreign aid. Whether it’s investment into postwar Europe via the Marshall Plan or its the development of the Peace Corps and USAID. The US has put significant time and money into promoting and supporting democracy globally.

If you want a peaceful world you want a world of liberal democracies. The last 70 years has been the most peaceful in world history. The rate of global armed conflict is at the lowest point in history. It is no accident that this peace has coincided with the number of democracies in the world. Just as Immanuel Kant argued in the 18th Century democracies are less likely to go to war with one another.

Even if, the research turns out to be false and democracy doesn’t lead to peace between states it will protect human rights within states. Democratic countries have far more checks against abuses by the government than non-democratic ones. Not only is there direct democratic accountability, but strong liberal democracies are also more likely to have strong institutions which can check abuses of power.

If none of that is persuasive, then just consider that that self determination is a human right worth protecting in and of itself. Article 21 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights enshrines a right for everyone to participate in their own government.

Often this conflicts with strong standards of sovereignty within the international system. When we allow the US government to respect states as they come to the negotiating table and not try and change them, we let the rights of their citizens go by the wayside. Just look at the human rights record of Saudi Arabia for an example of what can happen when the US supports a global system that lets you come to the table as you are without trying to change each state for the better.

The left is certainly fair to claim that US intervention promoting democracy has gone too far. History is rife with examples of the US making the wrong choices when intervening in elections. But, if the US chooses to abdicate all of its role in democracy promotion it risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The government can do this well, just look to the efforts of USAID.

Abdication of this job is a choice to ced the ground to other actors. Are China or Russia more likely to push countries towards an equitable world? The Uyghur people and the people of Chechnya would say that those countries won’t.

Unfortunately a long and unjust history has foreclosed the option of allowing countries to fend for themselves. The spectre of colonialism spreads over many countries where the US has spent time and money trying to promote democracy. Yet if you care about the injustices the system has brought about the US engaging with the world is a step towards solving those injustices.

Maybe the US is not perfect but neither is democracy. For the good of the world’s people the US should remain strong in its commitment to promote and support liberal democracy globally.

Justin Rohan

Social and Political Philosophy, Fall 2018


How do we measure the health of the US economy? While there are hundreds of varied and nuanced ways to answer this question, I will focus on three of the most common measures: GDP per capita[1], the unemployment rate[2], and the performance of the stock market[3]. These indicators cannot consider ever single element of the economy, rather they can only can paint a broad picture of the economic prospects for an average person. This fact raises the question of whether these indicators fail to account for any important aspects of the economy. I argue the answer to this question is yes. All of these measures fail to account for the differences in economic opportunity for different individuals. When considering the health of the economy, we have a responsibility to consider the economic prospects of all types of people and not just the prospects of an “average” person.

To form a philosophical basis for this argument, I will discuss Elizabeth Anderson’s essay, What’s the Point of Equality. In this essay, Anderson critiques liberalism’s current approach to egalitarianism and puts forth a new approach called democratic equality. Anderson states “[the] proper positive aim [of democratic equality] is not to ensure that everyone gets what they morally deserve, but to create a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others.[4]” Anderson’s main critique of egalitarianism is that it focuses too much on starting line equality and ignores the issues of inequality that arise throughout life. Democratic equality on the other hand stresses that all people should “stand in relations of equality” regardless of whether inequalities arise because of poor decisions or luck.

Anderson believes democratic equality can only be achieved if people are able to truly function as individuals. She defines three aspects to individual functioning: “as a human being, as a participant in a system of cooperative production, and as a citizen of a democratic state[5].” The ability to act as a “participant in a system of cooperative production” implies that people have the ability to participate in the economy unencumbered by external factors and receive a fair wage for their work. Anderson justifies the idea of equal participation with the previous assumption that all individuals have equal worth and thus have the ability to contribute to society. Her rationale for fair wages comes from her conception of the division of labor in the economy. Anderson explains how “each worker is as an agent for the people who consume their products and for the other workers who, in being thereby relieved from performing that role, become free to devote their talents to more productive activities[6].” Workers deserve to be fairly compensated for their work not simply because of the idea of fairness, but because the entire economy relies on their labor and benefits from their productivity.

Using Anderson’s concept of democratic equality we can better answer the question of why our current indicators—GPD per capita, unemployment, and the performance of the stock market—fail to accurately describe the health of the economy. Democratic equality stresses that all people should have economic opportunity; however, our current measures of economic success do not consider such notions of equality. Rather they report on the opportunity of an “average” individual. This approach to measuring the health of the economy fails to account for wealth disparities and disparities in economic opportunity between people of different races, genders, sexualities, and levels of physical/mental ability. Take for example the performance of the stock market. A 2016 Gallup survey found that only 23% of people making less than $30,000 a year owned stock, compared to 79% of people making about $75,000. Moreover, only 52% of all Americans were shown to own stock at all[7]. How can the stock market represent everyone’s economic prospects when only half of Americans own stock and there is such a strong correlation between income and stock ownership? Additionally, studies show income remains highly correlated with both gender[8] and race[9] in the US. Therefore reporting on an indicator that is only relevant to the wealthiest Americans means it is irrelevant to entire races/genders of people. In order for an economy to truly be healthy, it must meet Anderson’s idea of equal opportunity and not just provide opportunities to the “average” individual.

There are many other ways in which these indicators fail to accurately measure the country’s economic health. For instance, while Anderson believes that all individuals have an inherent worth to society, this hardly appears the case based on these economic indicators. Take for example, GDP per capita. While childcare services are counted in GDP, the work of stay-at-home-parents (SAHPs) is not included in GDP. This seems crazy considering the two groups do the same work. Moreover, as previously discussed, Anderson views the economy as a system of join production where an individual’s contribution to the economy is thought of as raising the productivity of everyone around them. Thus, the partners of SAHPs are not working in isolation, and benefit directly from the work of their stay-at-home partners. Similarly, SAHPs are considered to be “outside” the labor force and thus they are not included in unemployment figures.

The ability of an economy to incorporate disabled workers is another important aspect of its overall health. Consider the following three employment possibilities for disabled workers: they are able to successfully perform the job they want, their disability prevents them from performing their preferred profession, or they are unable to perform any job because of their disability. The unemployment rate considers workers in the first and second categories as being equally employed, while the third category is not considered as unemployed at all (these workers are “outside” the labor force). This approach ignores the loss of productivity caused by the lack of accessibility in the economy forcing disabled workers to take less productive jobs or to exit the labor force. For a measure to truly measure the health of the economy it must consider this loss of productivity due to unequal economic opportunities.

An easy criticism of my argument is to say that measures of equality do not equal measures of overall economic health. I would contend that it is incorrect to consider the health and equality of an economy as separate from one another. In ignoring equality of opportunity, economists ignore the disparities that exist among different groups in the economy, and fail to realize the economic worth of all citizens. Moreover, how society measures and discusses the health of the economy guides public discourse and helps shape policy. Thus it is logical for us to reevaluate which metrics we use to measure the health of the economy and embrace metrics that considers the economic reality not simply for the “average” person, but for a greater diversity of individuals.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, Jan. 1999, pp. 287-337., doi:10.1086/233897.

Graf, Nikki, et al. “Gender Pay Gap Has Narrowed, but Changed Little in Past Decade.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 9 Apr. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/09/gender-pay-gap-facts/.

Kochhar, Rakesh, and Anthony Cilluffo. “Racial and Ethnic Income Inequality in America: 5 Key Findings.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 July 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/12/key-findings-on-the-rise-in-income-inequality-within-americas-racial-and-ethnic-groups/.

McCarthy, Justin. “Just Over Half of Americans Own Stocks, Matching Record Low.” Gallup.com, 20 Apr. 2016, news.gallup.com/poll/190883/half-americans-own-stocks-matching-record-low.aspx.

 

[1] GDP per capita measures the total dollar value of goods produced in a country per person in that country

[2] The unemployment rate measures the percent of the labor force who are not currently working but are actively looking for a job.

[3]There are many different indices which track the performance of various US stock markers. When using the term in this paper, it is meant to refer to the most common indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500.

[4] Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, Jan. 1999, pp. 289., doi:10.1086/233897.

[5] Ibid, 317.

[6] Ibid, 322.

[7]McCarthy, Justin. “Just Over Half of Americans Own Stocks, Matching Record Low.” Gallup.com, 20 Apr. 2016, news.gallup.com/poll/190883/half-americans-own-stocks-matching-record-low.aspx.

[8]Graf, Nikki, et al. “Gender Pay Gap Has Narrowed, but Changed Little in Past Decade.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 9 Apr. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/09/gender-pay-gap-facts/.

[9] Kochhar, Rakesh, and Anthony Cilluffo. “Racial and Ethnic Income Inequality in America: 5 Key Findings.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 July 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/12/key-findings-on-the-rise-in-income-inequality-within-americas-racial-and-ethnic-groups/.

Jamie Spingeld

Ethics and Philanthropy (Honors), Spring 2019

Jamie Spingeld graduated in May 2019 with a B.S. in Criminal Justice and an Ethics minor. She is continuing at Northeastern as a master’s student and is expecting to complete graduate school in December 2019. She wrote this post in Philanthropy and Ethics.


People are empathetic. We want to help others for a variety of reasons: it makes us happy; we get help in return when we need it; there is mutual benefit; or simply because it is the right thing to do. Many affluent people give some of what they can spare to help other people. However, some individuals, as much as they want to give to others, have concerns that stop them. What if it doesn’t do any good? What if I need the money for myself or my family down the line? What if I give so much that I end up being the one who needs help?

For these people, giving while alive may not always be the best option. But that doesn’t mean they can’t donate to those in need at all. While it may not always be clear during the average lifetime that one has any excess money to spare for others, deciding what happens to everything we own upon death (estate planning) can be a far simpler and less worrying way to give. After all, we don’t have to worry about “what-ifs” in our futures if we’re dead. It also allows for more time to research the causes where our money can do the most good. For the average person, who is neither particularly rich nor particularly poor, if your motivation for giving is ethically justifiable from a utilitarian perspective, then it is permissible, and even morally better in certain ways, to bequeath money to those who need it most rather than donating excess during life.

Although this line of reasoning is utilitarian, the thesis is not inconsistent with other normative ethical theories. Charity remains a virtue and ensuring that money is given to a good cause remains charity, regardless of whether the transaction is completed during your lifetime or not. Deontologists are more concerned with motivations for giving than I am, but those reasons they would consider ethically pure can justify giving after death as easily as giving while alive.

There are benefits to donating during life, but they do not outweigh the benefits of charitable bequests. They also tend to apply more to an extremely wealthy donor than the average person who has to decide whether to give now or later. Giving while alive makes one more accountable to the public and those who receive the money, since the donor can respond to pressures and requests as they are made instead of trying to anticipate them. While certainly important, the public and recipient are unlikely to have many opinions on the donations of the average person. There are some causes that have a time limit, such as preventing the extinction of an animal species, for which it may be too late to donate if one chose to wait until death to give. This, too, is a valid reason to give as soon as possible, but unless the average person has the money to fully solve the problem, their donation is, regrettably, unlikely to make much of a difference. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if they wait until death to donate to a cause for which they can make a difference. Finally, there is the ability to repair direct harms one has caused that can be solved with money, such as through civil lawsuits or other reparative justice scenarios. This is a valid reason to give as soon as possible, since I consider the recipient as someone to whom money is already directly owed, and earlier I pointed out that all previous obligations should be filled before donations are made from any excess.

From a utilitarian perspective, however, the goal is to give the most money possible to a good cause. This is best accomplished by giving later, and this ability outweighs the benefits of giving while living. The process by which this occurs is simple: rather than donating it directly, a certain percentage of income (whatever is excess) should be invested in long-term stocks, where the money is highly likely to grow, until it is donated at death according to the terms in a will. Investments should be chosen carefully to avoid companies that cause harm by, for example, contributing to violence, climate change, or human rights violations. There is the option to invest in companies that are likely to make the most money, or to practice social enterprise investing to grow your money and have it do good while you’re still alive. Either is acceptable in this framework.

In addition to growing your money, there are other benefits to this type of giving. A major one is the ability to feel secure in how much you have during life if something goes wrong. Having savings you can pull emergency funds from stops you from being the one who ends up in debt. Additionally, as one approaches death, having this money means that care and/or funeral costs aren’t forced on relatives, which would cause them harm. Another consideration is that there will always be problems in this world, and some solutions will be more cost effective in the future than they are now. For example, there are new medical discoveries all the time, and innovative technologies take time to develop. In the future, we might know more about the root causes of currently unsolvable problems, and solutions may be more effective and less expensive the longer you wait. Consider how long it took to figure out to use mosquito nets or vaccines, and how many lives just a few dollars can save now because of them.

Finally, in addition to being able to give more money due to the nature of long-term investments, there are a couple of other ways in which leaving money in a will is actually better than giving while alive. Although bequeathing money is less accountable to the desires of the public, by the same logic is holds less influence over foundation or governmental decision-making. Therefore, it is less likely to undermine democracy or result in a single donor making decisions for the public. Another major benefit is the time estate planning leaves for research and consideration of relevant factors like charity effectiveness and most worthy causes. Those who leave money in their will have sufficient time to make less rushed decisions or be influenced by proximate stimuli like advertising or pulled heartstrings. With the ability to change where you want to bestow your money right up until you die (or lose power of attorney), you don’t have to regret making a choice to donate on a whim.

Donating money to those who need it most is a morally good decision, regardless of when you choose to give. Poor individuals are not, and indeed cannot be, obligated to give. As for other groups, in many circumstances it is better for the average individual to wait to give until after they are dead so they have savings for unanticipated problems, the time to research a charity and wait for costs to go down, are less likely to undermine democracy, and, of course, so they can give the most money possible to those who need it. The uber-wealthy should give while alive if they are targeting problems they can stop or prevent completely. If they are planning to donate to other types of problems (such as persistent ones like hunger), a lump sum can be equally effective, and timing matters less overall.

In summary, this recommends that the average individual donate their money to effective charities by bequeathing it in their wills, rather than giving while living. Why put off for tomorrow what you can do today? Because if you can do it better tomorrow, if you can make more of a difference in the lives of the people who need it most while being better off yourself, then it absolutely makes sense to wait.