Everyday Ethics

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Ray Rice and the Expressive Nature of Action

July 28th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Last February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on video physically assaulting his fiance, to the point that she was rendered unconscious.  Rice has now completed legal proceedings related to this incident, and the NFL recently announced their own disciplinary action.  Rice received a suspension of 2 regular season games.

This decision was understandably met with shock, derision, and outrage from both the world of sports and the court of public opinion.  It has been widely agreed that Rice’s punishment is much too lenient, especially in light of other recent suspensions that have been handed out for things like using performance-enhancing drugs or driving under the influence.

If a player can be suspended for four games for things like inadvertently taking a medication that contained a banned substance, it only seems fitting that something like domestic violence ought to receive a harsher punishment.

I won’t comment on the egregious nature of Rice’s actions, nor the inadequacy of the NFL’s response.  Domestic violence is a serious social issue, far more so than something like performance-enhancing drugs or recreational marijuana use by players.

Instead, I want to note something important about the public response to the NFL’s decision in this case.  Our actions, whether as individuals or representatives of institutions, often express our values.  For example, when I make a decision to spend my time with family, rather than working on my research, I’m making a statement about my values.  Time with family is, for me, more important than getting another article published.

Court decisions, institutional policies, even individual actions say something about what we care about.  And in the case of the NFL’s decision about Ray Rice, the public backlash is due to a conflict between society’s values and what the NFL’s action expresses about those values.

A two game suspension for domestic violence expresses a value hierarchy where things like PED’s and marijuana use are more serious than violently assaulting another person.  These are not the values that, socially, we endorse.

Hopefully, when the times comes, we will all have the wherewithal to express our disagreement with the values expressed by the NFL in this case, and change the channel on America’s most popular professional sports league.


→ No CommentsTags: Applied Ethics · Ethics and Sports · Social Ethics

When is Impropriety a Moral Problem?

July 23rd, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Nothing brings out bad behavior in others quite like air travel.  I was reminded of this on a recent flight back from San Diego.  As we were leaving the plane, there was a man attempting to retrieve his bag from an overhead compartment that was in the rear of the plane, many rows back from his current seat.  Rather than simply waiting until the plane was empty, he was attempting to move against the flow of humanity exiting the plane, in order that he might retrieve his belongings more quickly.

As you might imagine, this involved awkwardly passing the other passengers in the much-too-narrow aisle, often with a great deal of shoving on his part.  Apparently, there was some concern that his bag might leave the plane without him, or perhaps be stolen by another passenger.  Either that, or he was simply a very rude person that couldn’t be bothered to wait his turn.

This incident, while both annoying and largely unnecessary, got me thinking about a challenging distinction in moral philosophy–the distinction between propriety and ethics.  It’s pretty clear, at least intuitively, that these are not the same sort of thing.  “Don’t murder,” isn’t on par with “don’t eat your salad with a dinner fork,” for example.

However, both are systems of norms that govern our interpersonal interactions, and both are quite important to the functionality of social groups.  So while ethics and propriety don’t seem like the same sort of thing, there is an important sense in which they are the same sort of thing.

Philosophers have often puzzled over how to account for this  For example, some have suggested that while rules of propriety apply only to those who care about following them, morality applies to everyone.  This is a good first pass, but it doesn’t fully do the trick.  Some might hold that propriety applies equally to all members of a social group, irrespective of their concerns about it, while others might claim that morality applies only to those who care about doing the right thing.

My point here is somewhat different.  It seems that at least some of the time, rules of propriety are themselves also rules of morality.  Take the airline passenger example above.  What this man was doing was clearly improper.  In fact, it was quite rude.  But it also had a distinctively moral connotation.  His actions expressed an attitude of superiority over others, as though his concerns took precedent over the wishes or preferences of others.  One might think that for this reason, his impatience wasn’t just improper, but also immoral.

What do you make of this distinction?  Are morality and propriety really as distinct as we seem to think?  Are some rules of propriety also of moral significance?  If so, how do we account for this?  Post a comment, and let’s see if we can figure it out together.

→ No CommentsTags: Personal Ethics · Social Ethics

What is Group Agency?

July 10th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

My friend Josh Shepherd is blogging about agency, free will, and consciousness over at Flickers of Freedom, and one of his posts has inspired me to think a bit more about a related topic that has always interested me, but that doesn’t get much attention from philosophers that work on these sorts of questions.

The discussion over there is pretty technical, so I want to keep things simple over here.  It seems pretty clear that given the nature of many of our contemporary moral issues, there’s a need to try to make sense of the notion of group agency.  By group agency, all I mean to refer to is the notion that groups are things that can act, in roughly the same way that individuals can act.

Agency is a complicated notion.  But there’s a common-sense, intuitive level where the idea of group agency sounds fairly plausible.  For example, when corporations do things that are morally problematic, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, it sounds pretty sensible to talk about the corporation as though it were an agent.  We seem to be able to coherently say, for example, that BP caused the oil spill, and that they are responsible for cleaning it up as a result.  These sorts of statements are fairly common, and they don’t obviously involve any sort of linguistic error or conceptual mistake.

However, as I’ve noted recently, things get difficult when we attempt to assign moral obligations where individual agents cannot be said to have caused the morally problematic outcome.  For example, what exactly are we saying when we say that BP caused the Deepwater Horizon spill?  Are we saying that the employees caused it?  Surely that can’t be right.  Many of BP’s employees had nothing to do with this event, while many others committed actions that contributed in some way to this event, but can’t reasonably be said to have caused it to occur.

The problem is this–our understanding of concepts like action, agency, and moral responsibility has traditionally been formulated in terms of individuals.  It turns out that what we think about these concepts at the individual level doesn’t neatly transfer over to a discussion of these concepts as they pertain to groups.  And yet, given the role these concepts play in our moral practice, along with the social need to apply our moral practices to groups, it seems really important that we retain these concepts at the group level.

A notion of group agency can be helpful here.  If we can get clear about what it means for a group, such as a corporation like BP, to be an agent, we can perhaps begin to make sense of the idea that the group is morally responsible for their actions, and that they bear certain moral obligations as a result, even if the individuals that constitute the group are not morally responsible for any moral wrongdoing.

But this presupposes that our intuitions are correct, that it really does make sense to talk about groups in this way.  What do others think about this?  Do you share the intuition that it makes sense to talk about groups in the same way we talk about individual agents?  If not, what do we do about group wrongdoing?  Are we better of trying to identify individual agents who are morally responsible in these sorts of cases, or do we simply abandon the idea of group moral responsibility?  Are there any other options?  Share your thoughts, and let’s talk about it.

→ No CommentsTags: Moral Theory

Should We Have Boycotted Brazil’s World Cup? Contemporary Social Issues and the Fragmentation of Agency

July 7th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · 2 Comments

The World Cup is coming to a close soon, and by all accounts, soccer fans have largely enjoyed it.  However, just prior to its start, there were national protests all over Brazil, part of a concerted effort to draw international attention to the fact that this World Cup has come at an extremely high cost for Brazil’s citizens.

Brazil’s economy is in shambles, and it stands in dire need of improvements in health care, education, and transportation infrastructure.  While the Brazilian government spent billions of dollars building soccer stadiums, and will soon spend billions more on Olympic venues, a significant number of Brazil’s citizens engage in a daily struggle to simply survive.

Brazil’s World Cup raises a familiar problem in moral philosophy:  What is the moral significance of actions that are not themselves morally wrong, but that indirectly contribute, though in causally negligible ways, to morally wrong actions or morally bad situations?

Lots of contemporary social issues are like this.  For example, no one person is responsible for the negative effects of global climate change.  In fact, even if huge numbers of people made drastic changes to their ways of life, very little would change at the level of global climate.  There’s a sense in which no one is responsible for these effects, and no one person can do anything about it.

And yet, it’s nearly indisputable that human actions cause these effects.  We all contribute to the effects of global climate change, but in a way that is both indirect and causally insignificant.  The negative effects of global climate change create a morally bad situation that no individual is responsible for causing, and that no individual can do much about.

These features, referred to by philosopher Stephen Gardiner as the “fragmentation of agency,” make it difficult to support definitive moral claims about what ought to be done.  For example, some might say “you should get a hybrid car to reduce emissions, because climate change has morally bad effects.”  But it’s not unreasonable to say that since my driving a hybrid car will make no measurable difference to global climate change, but be much more expensive for me, really what I should do is NOT buy a hybrid car.

Further, it’s not as though I’m responsible for the negative effects of climate change, such that I’m obligated to purchase a hybrid car. These effects are the result of billions of morally permissible actions that have almost no causal significance in themselves.  In the absence of any causal powers, it’s very difficult to make the case that such actions can give rise to moral obligations.

Traditional ways of thinking about morality are ill-suited for addressing contemporary social issues of this kind.  Some have argued that what’s required is a “new” way of thinking about morality.  But it’s not yet clear what that new way might look like, nor how we integrate it into our current moral thinking.

As I watched portions of the World Cup, and thought about the protests in Brazil that preceded it, I found myself wondering if doing so amounted to the same sort of problem.  Is there something morally bad about watching the World Cup, knowing the social circumstances surrounding it?  Am I contributing, however indirectly or insignificantly, to problems of social justice in places like Brazil?

Or, like climate change, is this another example of the limitations of our traditional ways of thinking about the moral aspects of contemporary social issues?

What do others think of these sorts of questions?  Do we need a “new” way of thinking about morality?  What would that new way look like?  Are these contemporary social issues as morally significant as they seem?  Post a comment and let’s talk about it.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Applied Ethics · Social Ethics

How Does Information That Would Not Have Changed One’s Decision Bear on Informed Consent?

May 21st, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

In general, it’s thought that for a person to give informed consent to a medical procedure, they must understand certain things about it.  Understanding of risks, benefits, alternatives, and facts about what the procedure will actually involve are relevant considerations when evaluating whether a person’s consent is fully informed.

This requirement can be more difficult to satisfy than one might think.  In many cases, a medical procedure has lots of potential risks, side effects, etc., but many of these are exceedingly rare or uncommon.  If we interpret the understanding requirement as a requirement that the patient be told everything about the procedure in question, there’s a concern that this requirement is unduly burdensome, or worse, that it can’t be met at all.

To deal with this problem, the understanding requirement is sometimes interpreted as a requirement that the patient be told all information that might make a difference to what they decide.  This requires a judgment call on the part of the person seeking the patient’s consent, but it provides some measure of leeway with regard to what degree of informational disclosure is adequate for informed consent.

The thought here is that if a bit of information would make no difference to what the patient decides to do, failing to disclose it doesn’t undermine the person’s ability to give informed consent.

Here’s where this way of thinking about informed consent is of contemporary interest.  Recently, a lawsuit was filed by former NFL players, charging the NFL with providing painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to injured players, without informing them about the risks of using them.  Many players used these drugs to excess, became addicted, and suffered numerous negative consequences as a result.

However, when these sorts of lawsuits are filed, players not involved in them frequently claim that had they been told about the risks involved in playing with a concussion, a serious knee injury, taking painkillers to be able to play, etc., they would have played anyway.  So while team doctors clearly did fail to provide certain information typically thought to be relevant to informed consent in this case, there’s also a sense in which the withholding of this information made no difference to what players decided to do.

Evaluating cases of past consent are difficult, because standards for informed consent, as well as documentation requirements, are much higher than they used to be.  That said, there’s a general theoretical question here regarding whether withholding information that would have made no difference to what a person decides undermines their ability to give informed consent.

One might think that if a piece of information would have made no difference, withholding it does not undermine informed consent, because the patient would have opted for the same course of action.

On the other hand, one might claim that certain information is required for informed consent, irrespective of whether it would have made a difference to one’s decision.  On this view, there’s a difference between choosing a course of action without knowledge of the risks involved, and choosing that same course of action in full view of the risks.

What do you think?  If a piece of information would have made no difference to what a person decided about their care, can that person legitimately claim that they were denied the opportunity to give informed consent?  Post a comment and let’s try to figure it out together.



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Should We Deny Treatment to People Who Want to Live?

May 8th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Consider the following case, from a recent article by Jennifer Hawkins, entitled “Well-Being, Time, and Dementia.” :

“Rupina wrote an advance directive stipulating that if she should ever develop Alzheimer’s, she should not receive treatment for any potentially fatal condition. Rupina was well informed about Alzheimer’s dementia. She understood that it progresses slowly, so that honoring her request might substantially shorten her life.

She also understood that the experience of dementia is variable and that some dementia patients seem quite happy and content. By making her request, she was not simply trying to avoid either the final vegetative stages of the illness or the objectless confusion and distress that some patients experience throughout. She just did not like the thought that the final stage of her life should be a demented phase.

Unfortunately, Rupina developed Alzheimer’s. Luckily for her, she has turned out to be happy and content most of the time, as opposed to anxious, distraught, or sad. She is now in the middle phase of Alzheimer’s, which means that she still has certain cognitive capacities, as well as many things she cares about.

Overall, she appears to be enjoying her life. And she has expressed to her caregivers a fear of dying. Suppose she were to develop a case of pneumonia. It is often fatal if not treated but responds well to antibiotics. What would be
best for Rupina?”

You can check out the discussion of Hawinks’s article over on PEA Soup, a popular philosophy blog about ethics.

Hawkins utilizes this case as a vehicle for considering whether a person’s past desires have any bearing on what would be good for them now.  She argues that when it comes to what’s good for a person, past desires do not matter.  Instead, what matters is whether they would respond positively to a particular course of action.

Since Rupina would not respond positively to being denied antibiotics, Hawkins concludes that this would not be good for her.  Instead, what would be best for Rupina is that she continue to live.

There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff about Hawkins’s paper, and if you’re interested, I highly recommend heading over to PEA Soup to check it out.  But in the meantime, I want to briefly introduce a further question that follows from accepting Hawkins’s conclusions about this sort of case.

Suppose we thought that for dementia cases where the patient is happy, it would be best for them to continue to live.  If someone like Rupina were to contract a potentially fatal but treatable condition, this fact would give us a reason to treat her.

However, that her advance directive requires that we do otherwise gives us a reason not to treat her.  These cases are difficult because there are reasons in favor of both courses of action.

What’s crucial to resolving these sorts of cases is that we assign some sort of weight to the reasons we have.  We need to arrive at an all-things-considered conclusion, because ultimately, we must make a decision about whether to treat the patient.

For the most part, the Western medical tradition has decided to assign greater weight to the advanced directive in these sorts of cases.  So long as the advanced directive reflects what someone like Rupina truly wanted at the time it was written, its contents reflect her autonomous desires.

Unless there was some reason to doubt the legitimacy of the advanced directive, or whomever is serving as a surrogate decision-maker for such a person opposes the decision, these sorts of cases are likely to be resolved by declining to treat the patient.

Does this seem right?  Is our current emphasis on patient autonomy justified?  Post a comment to share your thoughts about these sorts of cases.

→ No CommentsTags: Bioethics

What Counts as Discrimination?

May 5th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Recently, a friend of mine wrote a Facebook post lamenting the fact that his child had been made fun of at school for having a fat parent.  This post was met, rightly, with condemnation of the cruelty and unfairness that children sometimes display toward one another.  People expressed sympathy and encouragement, toward both my friend and their child.

There was one feature of this discussion, however, that particularly caught my attention.  Several people expressed general negative sentiments about children being taught that it’s bad to be fat.  This struck me as surprising.  Clearly, there’s a health-based perspective from which it is bad to be fat–it’s bad for the person who is overweight.

On the other hand, that a person is fat is clearly not a reason for treating them differently from the way that we treat others.  Like racism and sexism, body size is morally irrelevant.

This led me to the following question:  what sorts of features are a legitimate basis for discrimination?  By discrimination, I mean to refer to the negative treatment of a subset of persons, on the basis of some feature that all members of this subset have in common.

Not allowing black people to vote is an example of discrimination of the sort that I have in mind.  All members of this subset of persons have a feature in common, and this feature is utilized as a basis for treating them poorly.

There are lots of examples of impermissible discrimination.  Paying women less than men for the same work or refusing to hire persons of a certain race are clear examples of impermissible discrimination.

Further, there seems to be widespread agreement that failing to provide certain kinds of accommodation counts as discrimination.  It is discriminatory, for example, to not provide wheelchair access to a public space, like a library or courthouse.

But other examples are not so obvious.  For example, is it discriminatory to refuse to hire smokers, on the basis of being a “non-smoking workplace?”  Would it be discriminatory to decline to hire a dietitian that was significantly overweight?  What about an overweight nurse?

Many questions about discrimination have to do with employment, but there are more general versions of the same questions available.  Is it discriminatory to avoid association with smokers?  What about people who are overweight?  Is it morally permissible to refuse certain sorts of associations with people that have particular characteristics, on the basis of their having those characteristics?

The question here is simply stated, but not easily resolved–what, exactly, counts as morally impermissible discrimination?

What do you think?  Leave a comment, and we’ll try to figure this one out together.

→ No CommentsTags: Personal Ethics · Social Ethics · Uncategorized

Donald Sterling and Freedom of Speech (Again)

May 1st, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Earlier this week, I talked about the offensive, racist comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and asked why we seem to respond to overt racism so strongly, in comparison to other, more serious crimes. Since then, Sterling has been banned from the NBA for life, fined the maximum allowable amount according to the NBA’s bylaws, and will be pressured by the other owners to sell the team.  All of these consequences seem entirely appropriate.  And yet, there are some who are crying foul.  On what grounds could someone defend a scumbag like Sterling?

While few people are defending what Sterling said, there are some people who are bothered by the fact that Sterling is being held publicly accountable for his private remarks.  Sterling was in the privacy of his own home when he said these terrible things, and he was not aware that he was being recorded.  He did not give permission for his private remarks to be aired publicly either, so some are concerned that despite the vile nature of his remarks, the punishment handed down by the NBA is a violation of his rights.  The rights in question, people seem to think, are privacy and freedom of speech.

Neither of these rights are relevant to this case, insofar as neither tells against the punishment Sterling received.  Here’s why.  Sterling surely has a right to privacy, and that right entitles him to freedom from things like being photographed or recorded by others in his home, without his permission.  It also gives him grounds for a grievance against individual citizens  or institutions who invade his privacy.  Sterling can take legal actions against whomever recorded this conversation and shared it with the media, because that’s who violated his right to privacy.

But it doesn’t follow that the information obtained by this violation can’t be held against Sterling.  For example, if I receive photos of my spouse being unfaithful, I can justifiably hold her accountable for her actions, even though her right to privacy was violated when the photos were taken.  She, in turn, has grounds for a grievance against whomever took the photos.  A right to privacy requires that others respect one’s private sphere, and gives one grounds for recourse when that sphere is violated.  But it doesn’t follow that persons whose right to privacy is violated are not accountable for information that is obtained in this way.

A right to freedom of speech is also irrelevant here, for reasons that I’ve discussed elsewhere.  Sterling does, indeed, have a right to say vile, racist things, whether in public or in the privacy of his own home.  His right to such speech offers him protection against others who would prevent him from speaking this way, and it prohibits the government from holding him legally responsible for his remarks.  But it doesn’t follow that one’s speech acts must elicit no consequences whatsoever.  Sterling has a right to say what he did, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of serious professional and social consequences.

In banning Sterling, this is precisely what the NBA has done.  They have not violated his right to freedom of speech, because they have not interfered with his ability to say what he said, nor are they pursuing any state-sponsored sanctions against him.  Rather, they are holding him to account within the social sphere.  Just as Starbucks can fire one of its baristas for using racial slurs at work, the other owners can fire Sterling for making racially insensitive remarks.  A right to free speech protects one from undue interference with one’s speech acts.  It is not a shield against all manner of social consequences for one’s speech.  Nor was it ever intended to be.





→ No CommentsTags: Applied Ethics · Social Ethics · Uncategorized

Why Do We Care So Much About Racism?

April 28th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

I often use events that occur in the world of sports as a jumping-off point for discussing topics in ethics.  The explanation for this is partly autobiographical–I tend to find “real” news depressing and sensationalist, so I pay more attention to sports news instead.  But this strategy is also somewhat intentional.  Sports is something that a lot of people can relate to, and even for those who don’t really care about it, sports have a way of bringing out the best and worst in human beings.

Some of the worst was on display this weekend, when an audiotape of overtly racist comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling became public.  This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Sterling’s history–he has settled multiple discrimination lawsuits out-of-court, where most of these lawsuits have involved Sterling attempting to prevent black and Hispanic people from living in buildings that he owns.  Sterling is a life-long bigot, but that fact is hardly news.

Despite the in-character nature of Sterling’s comments, this issue is a hot topic in the world of both sports and politics.  Even Barack Obama was asked to comment on it.  The dominant thread of discussion thus far has concerned what should be done about Sterling.  Should he be forced to sell the team?  Should the players play for him?  Should he be suspended and fined?

Within that dominant thread, however, a subtext has emerged.  In the past year, numerous athletes, both black and white, have committed far more egregious crimes.  These have included domestic violence, assault,  and illegal ownership of dangerous firearms.  And yet, in each such case, the player in question has remained with his respective team.  The media coverage of these events has also been rather tepid.  Such stories make headlines for a day, or perhaps the better part of a week.  Then, they are forgotten.

Why is this?  Why do we treat racism with such vigor and prolonged enthusiasm, while far more serious wrongs are glossed over, given little more attention than the morning traffic report?  What is it about racism that we find so much more objectionable?

One explanation for this disparity is that racism sells better than things like domestic violence and assault, so the media spends more time covering it.  If we take breadth of media coverage as an indicator of social significance, racism will seem more important to us than domestic violence or assault.

There’s something to this explanation, but perhaps more to it than this as well.  There’s something about racism that makes it worthy of our prolonged attention.  Racism expresses an attitude that some people are inherently more important than others.  What’s objectionable about racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, is that seemingly irrelevant factors about people are treated as though they make a moral difference.  Racism is a denial of absolute human equality.

I think this is why, for at least some people, racism initiates a more fervent response than domestic violence, assault, and other serious criminal wrongdoing.  Racism expresses the sort of attitude that makes these other wrongs possible.  When a person is assaulted, their attacker is treating that person’s interests as though they do not matter.  One who commits domestic violence does the same thing.

We care so much about racism because it expresses the very attitude that facilitates egregious moral wrongdoing.  So long as we see others as less important, as unequal to us, as unworthy of equal respect, we remain capable of treating them in ways that are morally wrong.  To oppose racism is to affirm the belief that all humans are due equal respect and regard.

We care so much about racism because of the attitude it expresses.  By rejecting this attitude, we subsequently express our disapproval of the actions facilitated by it.  To reject racism is to affirm what’s most important about morality.  And that’s why we care so much about it.

→ No CommentsTags: Applied Ethics · Ethics and Sports · Social Ethics

‘Thug,’ ‘Bossy,’ and the New Etymology of Prejudice

March 12th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments

Words are a powerful thing.  Historically, certain words have been used to debase and degrade historically marginalized groups, with the goal of reenforcing their lesser social standing.  Today, most of these words have become socially unacceptable, rejected on the same grounds that we reject the underlying attitudes from which they typically flow.

Now, a new set of words is coming under the same set of criticisms.  Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman recently made headlines when he commented that calling someone a “thug” is really just “the accepted way of calling someone the n-word.”  Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook and Lean In fame, has raised similar concerns about the word ‘bossy,’ contending that its use is a means of discouraging women from taking leadership roles and actively participating in group decision-making procedures.

There is, I think, something to both of these concerns.  Richard Sherman is clearly not a “thug” in the sense of being some sort of gang-affiliated criminal.  He’s an eloquent, thoughtful, Stanford educated man, a modern-day Horatio Alger who worked himself out of a difficult home life in Watts, CA to the pinnacle of success in his chosen profession.  But he’s also a confident, at-times arrogant man whose in-your-face style is off-putting to certain people.  One might worry that those who would call him a “thug” are expressing the attitude usually associated with the n-word, but in a manner that society seems to tolerate.

One might have similar concerns about the word ‘bossy.’  Clearly, a big part of Sheryl Sandberg’s success is due to her willingness to reject the idea that being a leader is a negative character trait for a woman to possess.  And the notion that women are socialized to avoid taking on leadership roles is at least one plausible explanation for the overwhelming gender disparity that exists in virtually every corporate boardroom in America.  If ‘thug’ is the new n-word, perhaps ‘bossy’ should be regarded as the new b-word.

But are these updated versions of seemingly prejudiced language really comparable to their outdated counter-parts?  There’s at least one way in which they are not.  The n-word, as well as various derogatory terms for other racial minority groups, women, and gay people, were directly utilized in the historical subjugation of the groups to which these terms typically refer.  Quite simply, black people were viciously beaten, sexually abused, and killed while being referred to using the n-word.  Women have been called the b-word as they are raped, sexually assaulted, and systematically denied the same privileges that men receive.  ‘Thug’ and ‘bossy’ don’t have these sorts of historical associations, and one might think that this makes in difference for how seriously we ought to take their usage.

The deeper question is how much historical factors matter.  While ‘thug’ and ‘bossy’ do not have the same history of oppression behind them, they do seem to carry similarly negative attitudes of disapproval and inferiority.  These newer terms also suggest, as do their historical predecessors, that certain sorts of conduct are inappropriate for certain sorts of people, but based on factors that seem irrelevant to the appropriateness of that conduct.  Being a leader is no more improper for a woman, for example, than being a voter is for a black person.  If the attitudes behind a word are what matters, rather than the history of its use, then perhaps ‘thug’ and ‘bossy’ ought to be treated with the same social stigma that is currently accorded to derogatory terms with deeper historical connections .

What do you think?  Are words like ‘thug’ and ‘bossy’ comparable to other negative words that have been directed at particular groups?  If so, what should we think about this?  If not, how are they different?



→ No CommentsTags: Applied Ethics · Political and Legal Philosophy · Social Ethics