On Trigger Warnings

Everyone's talking about 'em--like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic and Kate Manne in yesterday's New York Times.  The Atlantic article is interesting and no doubt trigger warnings are overdone in some quarters, but when push comes to shove...yes, I've been issuing warnings for many years (though without using the word trendy word "trigger").  For example, when I show gruesome videos about factory farming and slaughterhouses, I let students know ahead of time they may find the images disturbing and are free to close their eyes briefly if necessary.  When I teach the topic of death, and especially suicide, in my course on the meaning of life, I go much further, based on knowing that college age students are a vulnerable population.  I advise them to seek help if the topics of the course make them feel depressed.  This is appropriate, I've found. In fact, I've had students have to drop the class because the topics do occasionally exacerbate pre-existing problems. So, content warnings? Yes.

But why, in a world full of disturbing material, should a college classroom be a more protective environment?  For this reason:  Instructors have the power to say "you're going to watch this, read this, talk about this."  Students can't walk away, once they're enrolled, without serious consequences.  Also, in a classroom, they're not just subjected to material, but asked to interact with fellow students about the material, answer questions from the instructor about the material.  So their reaction, whatever is, gets exposed.  Beyond the classroom, people can avoid material they find disturbing, and certainly don't have to reveal their reaction to the material, or enter into conversations about it with strangers, or with people who react to the material completely differently.  If we're going to demand that students wrestle with disturbing topics, it's only considerate and responsible to give them fair warning. I would even say that in extreme situations, it make sense to let students opt out--for example, a suicidal student might be given alternative readings if the death section of my syllabus is too disturbing.

So yes, I'm for warnings.  One worry about them, though, is that they get issued with liberal bias.  We care about the gay student but not about the homophobe who's genuinely very disturbed by acceptance of gay marriage--yes indeed, there are such people, especially in Dallas, Texas.  We care about the person who's disturbed by the slaughterhouse images, but not the person who's disturbed by the message that "meat is murder."  We care about the female student who's been sexually assaulted, but not about the male student who's being charged with sexual assault without due process.  I probably need to work a little harder to be equitable when it comes to protecting student mental health, but should I protect student mental health?  Yes, I should, to the greatest extent I can, without compromising course content unduly--because of the power I have to force students to be exposed to and publicly engage with highly disturbing topics.


The Well-Being Trap

There's a pattern of thought I keep seeing. It goes like this.  You reason that X isn't really so important to pursue, because it doesn't necessarily improve our well-being.  Or you reason that Y isn't really so important to avoid, because it doesn't necessarily reduce our well-being.

Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times this past Sunday is part of his crusade against elitism in higher education.  He wants college-age kids to know they can do quite well in all sorts of colleges, so they will stop the intense obsession with getting into the very best.  I get this, up to a point, but is there really no reason to go to the best college you can get into and afford?  That's basically what he says, based on a new report on the way different schools affect a student's later well-being.  The Purdue index...
measures success not in dollars and lofty job titles but in graduates’ professed engagement in their employment and, separately, their assessments of their own well-being, as determined by their reported satisfaction with five dimensions of life: their relationships, their physical health, their community, their economic situation and their sense of purpose.
As it turns out, among all graduates, 10% describe themselves as thriving in all five areas; among students who go to the top 50 schools (as measured by US News & World Report), only 11% describe themselves as thriving in all areas.  No big difference!  So there's no good reason to go to Harvard, Stanford, or whatever you were hoping for?  That seems to be the idea.

Bruni apparently can't imagine someone reasoning that they want to go to Harvard or Stanford for the simple reason that they can learn more and develop better skills thereThe great faculty at these schools don't have anything outstanding to offer prospective students, he seems to think, unless there's a later pay-off in terms of a student's own personal well-being.  Knowledge, skill, creativity, and the like aren't goods worthy of pursuit unless they're well-being-enhancing.

My next example is going to involve disabilities, which Elizabeth Barnes regards as "mere differences" because a disability "doesn't by itself make you worse off." Like Bruni thinks the greater knowledge offered by Harvard can't be better for prospective students unless better for well-being, Barnes seems to think blindness can't be worse simpliciter, so to speak, but if bad at all, must be bad for well-being.  And she thinks it can't be shown that disabilities by themselves make people worse off, apart from society's failure to be accommodating.  We can't regard a disability as a bad difference because absence of an ability is intrinsically bad--it must be a well-being reducer to be bad.

I think Barnes and Bruni are both over-focused on well-being.  It's not incoherent to value and pursue knowledge as an ultimate end, instead of as a means to greater well-being. It's not incoherent to disvalue and avoid having a disability, because you see ability as a better thing, regardless of how a disability may (or may not) reduce well-being.  Well-being is not the measure of all things!


Ain't I a Woman?

My column for the next issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is about "Tangerine"--a new movie about transgender sex workers--and the E! reality series "I am Cait." The very day I turned in the column, I became aware of a major battle over at Freethought Blogs about whether transgender women are women.  I don't think I "get" all the details of the battle, but I take it one side says "simply yes" and the other says something like "politically yes, but ontologically I'm not sure." This is regarded by the Yes-ers as a very bad answer.

I really don't see why it's a very bad answer, though I understand the attraction of "simply yes."  I'm drawn to "simply yes" when I focus on transgender memoirs like She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (she's delightful on "I am Cait" in episodes 2 and 3!) and these compelling videos by Standford psychologist Ben Barres.

The other answer gets you to the same place, practically speaking.  "Politically yes" means something like:  people are entitled to their own gender-spectrum decisions.  It's up to me whether I'm girly or not girly, not girly or androgynous, androgynous or downright butch.  I get to cross over from one spot on the spectrum to another, if I like--even going all the way from female to male--and have my decision socially respected.  When it comes to our gender identity, we have "first person authority," as Talia Mae Bettcher puts it in "Trans Identities and First Person Authority."  By this, she doesn't mean we know a fact about ourselves, introspectively, but that it's up to each person to choose a gender presentation and everyone else's duty to respect that choice.

I would add "ontologically I'm not sure" to "politically yes" because I'm not clear that a person's choices, gender-wise, create the sort of robust facts that could make it simply true that Boylan is a woman and Barres is a man.  If it were simply true, what would the truth of the matter hang on?  One option is to say Boylan has a female brain and Barres a male brain, but to the very limited extent that brains are dimorphic, they're dimorphic with respect to a little bit of reproductive machinery (see this, by Donald Pfaff), and Boylan is presumably the one with the male brain, Barres is presumably the one with the female brain.

Apart from a little bit of reproductive machinery, brains are a mixture, with males only statistically leaning toward certain traits and females to other traits (see this, by Daphna Joel).  Even if Boylan's brain leans female (does it?) I don't believe it really makes sense to say that a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in females is a female brain; or a brain with lots of traits that are a little more common in males is a male brain. 

Another option is to say that the truth of the matter hangs on gender identity feelings.  So a male is someone with a sense of being a male; a female is someone with a sense of being a female.  This seems like at least a possibility, but there are legitimate worries. A lot of people don't spend a whole lot of time feeling like members of their gender.  We're encouraged to do so, but some resist, and some just don't.  Or maybe we do, but gender identity recedes very far into the background?  It's quite possible that there are more vivid gender identity feelings in people who find their gender complicated and difficult.

Loose analogy.  I once sat at a table of 12 Jewish women discussing whether we believed in God.  We all went around expressing one degree of skepticism or another, and then came to the last person, who had converted to Judaism.  She believed!  Her transition to Judaism had given her a rather different experience of being Jewish than the others had. In order to ensure her inclusion in the class of Jewish people, you could say having Jewish beliefs is definitive of being Jewish, but then the other 11 of us would be excluded!  I worry that defining gender membership in terms of gender identity feelings could possibly have the same effect.

Perhaps being Jewish is actually a disjunctive property--you have it based on parentage OR based on beliefs.  Could gender be similarly disjunctive--you're female based on gender identity feelings OR simple biology?  That sounds attractive, but what's going here if we take the disjunctive route? Are we really getting at realities as to who belongs to which gender category (or religious category) or have we entered the realm of ethics and politics? Is there really a class of entities that share one property-- female--based either on having a sense of being female or female biology?  Could the femaleness instantiated in these two ways be the very same property?

Certainly the ethics and politics here is far simpler than the ontology or metaphysics. Yes, as far as social practices go, trans women are women (and trans men are men).  We're entitled to be self-determining gender-wise, and to have our self-determinations socially respected.  As to the underlying ontology or metaphysics, that's more puzzling, and sure it isn't a bad thing to be puzzled about what's truly puzzling, instead of having a settled view. 

More links:  on the metaphysics of gender, I've found this anthology useful.  There's some interesting stuff about trans identities, including the Bettcher article, in "You've Changed," edited by Laurie Shrage.  Especially interesting is the article by Christine Overall, "Sex/Gender Transitions and Life-Changing Aspirations." 


Accutane Ethics

My son has been taking Accutane for the last several months.  Boy it works well (for acne).  It also raises some first class ethical questions.  There's an extremely strict regimen for taking Accutane, because apparently if a woman takes it and conceives a child, the child will likely be born with significant but not super-serious abnormalities. For example, the child's external ears may be malformed.  As a result of this (and for other reasons), patients taking the drug have to see a doctor every 30 days. Women have to promise to use two forms of birth control while using the drug. Every time you break the seal on a pill, you see a warning about avoiding pregnancy.  The assumption behind all this is that it would be wrong or bad to conceive a child with malformed ears, when you could easily wait just 6 months (the usual course) and conceive a child with normal ears.  Of course it would be wrong or bad!

But maybe ... (Note: I truly love the Louis C.K. "Of course...but maybe" routine.  Do watch if you haven't seen it.  Start at 34:00.)   Enter: David Boonin's new book The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People, reviewed here by Molly Gardner. At least in the review, the focus is on a slightly different sort of case.  Boonin contemplates Wilma, who can either conceive now and have Pebbles, who will be blind but will have a life worth living, or take a pill for two months and have Rocks, who won't be blind.  Boonin embraces the argument that concludes it wouldn't be wrong to conceive Pebbles. Here's how it goes--

According to Garnder, Boonin's book looks at all sorts of ways of rebutting this argument and finds them all wanting.  So we should just accept the conclusion. It really wouldn't be wrong to conceive Pebbles.

There's an Accutane version of the argument, and I would rather see that be the focus for two reasons. First of all, Wilma and Pebbles are just cartoon characters--literally.  These issues have a different feel when they come up in real life.  Thousands of women are right now considering whether to heed their doctors' warnings about conceiving while taking Accutane.  It's easy to give Wilma the green light to conceive Pebbles, but surely not so easy to give a real woman the green light to conceive on Accutane.  I'm not sure we're thinking seriously about these things until we're thinking about real people's decisions.

The Accutane version is more real world-ish, and also has some parameters that may make a difference to our intuitions.  In the Accutane scenario, a drug causes the undesirable features--the malformed ears. In the Wilma scenario, a drug causes the desirable features--sight, rather than blindness.  Unconsciously, what might make someone accept (C) in the Wilma argument is the intuition that nobody has to go out of their way, taking special drugs, to have a "better" child.  It might not really be that the conclusion gains whatever plausibility it has from the argument's explicit premises.

So let's look at an Accutane scenario. Mary is thinking about ignoring all the warnings and conceiving in July while taking Accutane. If she does so, she'll have a baby we'll call "July"--a baby with malformed external ears. If she waits until she's finished taking the drug, she'll have a different baby we'll call "December," one with normal ears.  Is it wrong to conceive July?  The argument parallel to the Wilma argument would go like this:

Now that we're talking about real decisions in the real world, not cartoon characters, the conclusion looks quite a bit more amazing, even thought the abnormality in question is far more minor.  Or so it seems to me.  I would be absolutely amazed if the wisdom of our best ethics gave permission to Accutane users to ignore all the warnings and conceive while using the drug.  That would be incredible.

So what's going on here?  July is not worse off for being born--P1 seems right.  So she's not harmed by being conceived--P2 seems right.  Let's ignore P3, since even if it were false, that's not the heart of the matter, surely.  If July is not harmed by being born, then she's not wronged--that's what P4 says.  OK, that seems plausible.  That leaves P5.  If an act wrongs no individual could it still be wrong?

Yes.  Mary wrongs no individual yet she causes more suffering than necessary.  The suffering of July about her ears--surely inevitable--just didn't need to be. It would have been no worse to create December, and creating December would have eliminated that suffering.  Usually what matters is harming individuals, wronging individuals and moral categories of that sort, but it doesn't seem surprising that in the special area of procreative ethics, other principles kick in.  "Cause no more suffering than necessary" is that sort of non-individual-specific principle.  Not that this is the only principle relevant to procreative decisions--the one and only master principle--but it seems relevant if you're a woman wanting to both clear up your acne and have a child.  Refusing to wait six months to conceive is wrong because you'll thereby cause more suffering than necessary.

I bet somewhere in Boonin's book this response is discussed and disparaged--I will have to read the book and find out.  Truth be told, I'm sure I'd shift to some other explanation if I could be convinced that this one was wanting, because what I'm absolutely sure about is that Mary shouldn't conceive while taking Accutane.  That's what's so extremely evident, not the reasons why.


Swastika Cakes and Gay Weddings

It's so rare that Jon Stewart reasons badly, but I wonder about the reasoning in his Indiana piece last night.  Start at 3:45--

Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, etc., compare the baker who refuses to "do" a gay wedding with--
  • A gay printer who refuses to print signs saying "God hates fags"
  • A black baker who refuses to bake a KKK cake
  • A Jewish baker who refuses to bake a swastika cake
Stewart than faults them for thinking a gay wedding is anything like a "God hates fags" sign, a KKK cake, or a swastika cake. Making these analogies, he says, just reveals their bigotry.

But no, I take it the idea is that all these business owners are being alleged to be alike in having reasons of conscience to turn away customers.  Nobody's saying the various things turned away are exactly alike.  Huck & Co are arguing that the freedom of conscience in question shouldn't be spurned by liberals, since there are situations in which they will want to invoke it too.

This is at least worth thinking about.  When should a business owner be able to turn away customers? We wouldn't want to restrict that freedom too much and I don't think we do.  "No shirt, no shoes, no service."  If you can turn away shoeless people presumably you can turn away all sorts of people.
The law gives businesses a lot of freedom, I take it, so long as their reasons are non-discriminatory.

Now, the gay printer, black baker, and Jewish baker wouldn't have discriminatory reasons to turn away the customers in question. It's not discriminatory to be offended by bigoted messages.  So their freedom to turn away these customers is secure. But would a baker have non-discriminatory reasons to "do" opposite sex weddings and not same sex weddings?  At least once gay marriage is legal in every state (in June, I hope), it doesn't sound as if any conservative bakers are going to be able to fuss about gay weddings.  No worries--the liberal bakers are still going to be able to take a stand against swastika cakes.

Oh my god, that's actually a thing!