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Anarchist Responses to a Pandemic: The COVID-19 Crisis as a Case Study in Mutual Aid

Nathan Jun & Mark Lance

[This is an advance copy of an article that will appear in print in September 2020 as part of the KIEJ’s special double issue on Ethics, Pandemics, and COVID-19.]

ABSTRACT: When central authority fails in socially crucial tasks, mutual aid, solidarity, and grassroots organization frequently arise as people take up slack on the basis of informal networks and civil society organizations. We can learn something important about the possibility of horizontal organization by studying such experiments. In this paper we focus on the rationality, care, and effectiveness of grassroots measures to respond to the pandemic and show how they illustrate core elements of anarchist thought. We do not argue for the correctness of any version of anarchist politics, nor claim that the bulk of this grassroots work was done with anarchist ideas explicitly in mind. Nonetheless, the current pandemic, like many social crises before it, serves as a sort experiment in political implementation.

Two things have been striking in the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the chaos, incompetence, irrationality, and often cruel misguidedness of the centralized government response; and the rationality, care, and effectiveness of grassroots measures in many parts of the country. In this paper we focus on the latter—especially the case of Washington, DC—to illustrate core features of anarchist politics. We do not argue for the correctness of any version of anarchist politics here, but merely illustrate guiding ideas that have been a part of anarchist theory and practice for well over a century. We also do not claim that the bulk of this grassroots work was done with anarchist ideas in mind, or explicitly out of a commitment to anarchist politics. Some was, and some arises out of related ideological commitments, but most simply functions out of no more than a desire to support one another.

The current pandemic, like many social crises before it, rather than providing a stand-alone argument or functioning as an implementation of any political theory, serves as a sort of laboratory experiment. When central authority fails in socially crucial tasks, mutual aid, solidarity, and grassroots organization frequently arise as people take up slack on the basis of informal networks and civil society organizations. We can learn something important about the possibility of horizontal organization by studying such experiments, including how it arises through spontaneous action. If political thought is best illustrated through its implementation in practice, the functioning of grassroots individuals and organizations in a time of crisis is one way to understand the political mechanisms core to anarchist thought.[1]


A. National Government Responses

It is widely recognized that the US government has largely failed to meet the demands of a dangerous emerging new disease. Despite the fact that public health experts in multiple countries and international organizations raised the alarm early and urged aggressive policies of social distancing and testing, the US government lurched between dismissing the worry and a range of different responses. The US was massively short of protective gear, of (accurate) testing equipment, of ventilators, and of ICU beds, and there was no coherent leadership from the top for dealing with these problems. The president downplayed the danger in direct contradiction of the consensus of experts. When he did offer public statements, they veered from bragging to insistence that keeping official US numbers down was more important than public health,[2] to incorrect statements of his own administration’s position,[3] to attacks on journalists,[4] and to outright falsehoods about test availability, time for a vaccine, numbers of infected, and status of an anti-viral treatment.[5]

In response to such an extraordinary failure, it fell to lower levels of social organization to mobilize a response. A great many layers of society took up the slack.

B. More Local Responses

            In contrast to the chaotic, inadequate, and often counter-productive national response, several governors and mayors instituted aggressive, empirically grounded, and scientifically supported policies on their own. But they were far from alone in taking initiative. At all levels of society—from state governments, to corporations, to major civil society organizations, to grassroots networks and organizations—groups of people began to provide services and support in novel ways. Major corporations closed operations voluntarily. Virtually all sporting events in the US were cancelled by professional leagues, the NCAA, etc. Universities nationwide moved to online instruction. Restaurants voluntarily instituted delivery and carryout-only policies. Civic organizations, clubs, and venues closed to implement social distancing. Much of this was eventually required by local governments in some areas—one of the worst aspects of the lack of national leadership has been the massive variation in response between states and even regions within states, variation that is disastrous in the face of a virus that is indifferent to political boundaries[6]—but most was initiated autonomously.

            Even more impressive, we claim, were the steps taken entirely at the grassroots, the steps that involved forming new coalitions and organizations. In tracing the way this happened, it is crucial to keep in mind a truism of social movement theory—that movements arise not utterly spontaneously out of nothing, but by way of existing networks, systems of contacts, and established organizations. Consider the DC Mutual Aid Network.[7] Originating in the easternmost wards of DC, Wards 7 and 8—a majority African American region that has the lowest family income in the District (DC Economic Strategy, n.d.)—it has spread to every other ward in the City. The network was initially convened by Black Lives Matter-DC (BLM-DC), an organization initially formed five years ago to combat police violence against African Americans. Since then, they have expanded their work to include food insecurity, grassroots domestic violence support, work against gentrification, support for public housing, and more. BLM-DC not only has a large number of direct participants, but it has also developed ongoing relationships with numerous other organizations in the city, some centered in the African American community, but many in others. These networks were easily called upon to quickly build the larger coalition in response to the pandemic.

In Ward 6, for example, the initial work was taken on by a group called Serve Your City (SYC). SYC is a youth-focused organization that primarily provides tutoring and youth sports opportunities for underserved youth in DC (SYC, n.d.). Since much of their typical work was shut down as a result of the municipal response to the pandemic, SYC was able to take on direct service work. Importantly, their previous outreach efforts in economically disadvantaged communities created contacts and a history of trust to draw on when providing new forms of support.

In other wards, the lead was taken by groups as vague as neighborhood listservs, or sometimes Neighborhood commissioners or churches. But in all cases, the work quickly spread through existing loose associational networks.

The outreach efforts of DC Mutual Aid Network involve work with the elderly, public housing residents, unhoused citizens, and other vulnerable people. People have made grocery runs for seniors and those at high medical risk. Programs have been established to feed at-risk children who are out of school. Fundraising has provided laptops for students learning at home. People have coordinated driving for essential needs and to medical care as well as in-home nursing visits. Social media sites provide centralized information on resources provided by the city, by NGOs, and by individuals. DIY solutions to a shortage of masks and numerous other problems are proposed and debated in real time. New scientific information is centralized and disseminated through the network and its social media platforms, and social pressure to follow best practices is disseminated by people trusted in local communities. (This network has been so effective that the DC government hotline has taken to directing people to DC Mutual Aid Network—without, of course, acknowledging or supporting its work (O’Gorek 2020).)

In DC alone, dozens of neighborhood listservs and social media sites offer skillshares and direct support—everything from money to rides to grocery deliveries to dog walking. Hundreds of efforts to support precarious workers exist in the city.[8] In all these ways a community of mutual aid has come into being in the midst of a disaster, largely without centralized leadership. And, of course, DC is not unique in this regard. Similar work is happening in numerous cities and rural areas.


Among the classical nineteenth-century political philosophies, anarchism is the least studied within the academy and most widely mischaracterized. A systematic theory of non-hierarchical social organization designed to maximize both freedom and cooperation, with well over a century of sophisticated theory developed largely by anti-capitalist organizers and revolutionaries, it is routinely equated in popular discourse and the press with nihilism or chaos, while academics even coin oxymoronic notions like ‘anarcho-capitalism.’ In what follows, we move through the core elements of anarchist thought, illustrating how each can be found in the praxis of grassroots responses to COVID-19.

A. Mutual Aid

Mutual aid—solidarity, free cooperation—is a core concept of anarchist thought. It is the principle around which just social organization must be built. To embrace mutual aid as the sole legitimate organizing principle of society is to reject the institutionalization of any means of coercion, or of violence and the threat of violence. It is to embrace the idea that we can cooperatively reason with one another, and thereby instantiate our common inclination to build a society that benefits all without instituting any sort of hierarchy that functions to enforce such arrangements.

The grassroots DC response to COVID-19 is a clear and vivid illustration of mutual aid. The actions of DC Mutual Aid Network, neighborhood groups, etc., were all undertaken without any demands of local authorities or hope of personal gain. People saw a need, worked together through existing networks, offered help where needed, engaged in discussions of best practices, listened to established experts, and acted in concert with one another in the interests of all. In many cases, people volunteered activities that were dangerous—delivering materials to potentially sick community members, doctors coming out of retirement to serve[9]—and in no case do these fit the logic of self-interest and competition. As noted on the DC Mutual Aid Facebook page:

We want to take this moment to uplift the purpose and spirit of the group: mutual aid. This group is about solidarity, NOT charity. Protecting each other, not policing each other. Replacing oppressive systems and practices, not replicating them. And, as Dean Spade recently said, “banding together to meet immediate survival needs, with a shared understanding that the systems in place aren’t coming to meet us…fast enough, if at all, and that we can do it together right now.[10]

It is a presupposition of anarchist thought that humans have fundamental social inclinations—inclinations to live together and to care for one another. Anarchists have consistently maintained that the actualization of “the material, intellectual, and moral powers that are latent in each person” (Bakunin 1972, 261) and “the all-around development and full enjoyment of all physical, intellectual, and moral faculties” is not possible “outside of human society or without its cooperation” (Bakunin 1992, 46). For anarchists, the fact that human beings are “collective product[s]” born of “collective and social labor” implies that our most basic dispositions—which are “immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being”—are ultimately social in nature (Bakunin 1972, 236). This suggests, in turn, that “the isolated individual cannot possibly become conscious of [his or her] freedom” and, by extension, that “the freedom of other [people], far from negating or limiting [individual] freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation” (1972, 237). Similar points are made by Errico Malatesta, who argues that solidarity “is the only environment in which [a human being] can express [his or her] personality and achieve [his or her] optimum development and enjoy the greatest possible wellbeing” (1974, 29), as well as by Emma Goldman, who contends that individual freedom is “strengthened by cooperation with other individualities” and that “only mutual aid and voluntary cooperation can create the basis for a free individual…life” (1998, 118).

It must be emphasized that none of this entails a “unitary concept of human essence” according to which human beings are naturally benevolent, altruistic, and cooperative, rather than selfish, acquisitive, antagonistic, and the like (May 1994, 13). In point of fact, anarchist thinkers have unfailingly rejected traditional conceptions of “human nature,” maintaining instead that individuals are socially constructed and that human personality is socially produced. Mikhail Bakunin, for example, argued that “the real individual”—no less than “his family, his class, his nature, [and] his race”—is constituted by “a confluence of geographic, climatic, ethnographic, hygienic, and economic influences” (1972, 89, 239–41). Like other anarchists, Bakunin resolutely denied that human beings possess “underlying intrinsic properties” or “innate ideas and sentiments.” For him, there is no such thing as “human nature” apart from basic biological capacities and inclinations—“rudimentary faculties without content”—that individuals express in different ways and to different degrees. Human personality results from the production of content within these faculties via the complicated array of social, cultural, economic, and political forces that act upon them. In a key sense, nothing is truly “natural” to a human individual-qua-individual except the forces that are “exercised over him.”

Even Peter Kropotkin—who, more so than any other major anarchist thinker, attempted to ground the human inclination toward sociability in biological fact—rejected the notion it is fully biologically determined. In his seminal work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Kropotkin’s overarching thesis is that although “there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense,” which suggests that “sociability” plays as much of a role in biological evolution as “mutual struggle” (1902, 5).[11]

Just as the nature and development of biological species results from the tension between competing inclinations toward mutual struggle and mutual aid, so, too, is human personality constituted by the conflict between sociability and individual processes of self-development. From the outset, human beings inhabit a reality that is shaped by a struggle between diametrically opposed forces, both internal and external (Kropotkin 1924, 24). Far from being founded on any essentialized conception of human nature, the ethical significance of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual aid is itself a reflection of this struggle (Kropotkin 2002, 119–20).

Although the state, capitalism, and other institutions rooted in hierarchy, domination, and coercion serve to amplify the impulse toward competition and antagonism while simultaneously causing immense damage to human sociality, there nonetheless remain many ordinary contexts of life—friendships, clubs, churches, families—in which people routinely do things for and with one another from a sense that cooperation is good for all. Anarchism is a political philosophy built around this simple idea: that we can solve social coordination problems by talking about them and working together. In pursuing this aim, moreover, anarchism doesn’t just seek to tear down institutions, but also to marshal already-existing forms of cooperation and solidarity in the service of creating new social forms. As Kropotkin writes, the ultimate goal is not simply “to destroy authority in all its respects, [to] demand the abrogation of laws,…[to] refuse all hierarchical organization,” but rather “to build,…to maintain and develop such relations between men that the interests of each should be the interest of all” (2002, 136–37).

This is not to say that anarchists reject all coercion, or even all violence. In particular cases of harmful or anti-social action—say a person attempts a murder, rape, or assault—anarchism lacks specific prescriptions for what others should do to prevent this. As a revolutionary theory, moreover, anarchism acknowledges that coercion—and, on some accounts and in some contexts, violence—may be necessary “in order to put an end to the far greater, the permanent, violence that keeps the majority of mankind in servitude” (Malatesta 2015, 49). That said, anarchism is also fundamentally committed to prefiguration which, “in its most general form…denotes an identity between political methods and political goals or ends” (Franks 2017, 29). Because anarchists “explicitly distance themselves from the position that the end justifies the means” (Franks 2009, 99), the question of whether to engage in particular acts of coercion or violence must be addressed in relation to the ultimate aim of building a free and peaceful society. As Malatesta (2015) puts it, although “violence is justifiable when it is necessary to defend oneself and others from violence” (45), it must nonetheless “be controlled by such considerations as that the best and most economical use is being made of human efforts and human sufferings” (50). I might forcefully stop you from assaulting someone. If you persist in your attacks, our community might even gather and decide to restrain or expel you. What anarchists will not do is create an institution of police—a group of people whose social role, and, by extension, permanent power, is to engage in such coercive action. All of this is consistent with anarchist politics, which doesn’t (necessarily) reject coercion and violence per se so much as their use as organizing principles of society.

B. Organization vs. Rule

            Though superficially oxymoronic, anarchism can be thought of as a theory of organization. A clear illustration of this principle is the work of BLM-DC in the pandemic. An organization that was initially formed to confront the most violent civil institutions—police, prisons, etc.—is using its capacity to provide services that other aspects of hierarchical organization cannot adequately deliver. Thus, new horizontal relations between individuals and communities are developed in the work of meeting direct needs. According to anarchism, just social organization is motivated by and originates in mutual aid. It is sustained by instituting mutually beneficial forms of cooperation. As Malatesta writes:

Organization—which is, after all, only the practice of cooperation and solidarity—is a natural and necessary condition of social life; it is an inescapable fact which forces itself on everybody, as much on human society in general as on any group of people who are working towards a common objective. (2015, 77)

People strive to create and maintain just institutions because they see that it is in the interests of their own, and others’ lives to do so. As noted above, what anarchism opposes are unjust forms of organization built around coercion, domination, and exploitation—all of which come about as a consequence of people failing to organize themselves (2015, 79). One can see an at least implicit commitment to this structure of organization in the grassroots response to COVID-19.

First, grassroots networks of solidarity, being fully voluntary, have no choice but to be internally horizontalist. No one can be coerced to follow decisions of a group that they can simply leave at any time. And given that most of these groups were spontaneously brought together to deal with a sudden crisis, even more subtle patterns of coercion that can arise in longer term organizations that are embedded within a society marked by multiple dimensions of hierarchy are unlikely to arise here.

One can see a commitment to horizontalist organization as well in the ways that many mutual aid networks relate to the institutions of dominant society. The DC Mutual Aid Network explicitly refuses any cooperation with police. In the view of the collective, police are the distillation of coercive authority, an institution whose entire function in society is to enforce social organization by threat or use of violence. It is also an institution that, in the view of those involved in this project—especially but by no means exclusively BLM-DC—has a history of harming the very communities they aim to support.

Other institutions while not embraced, are seen as tactically useful allies for specific purposes. Though BLM-DC has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the current DC mayor, and the broader DC government, there is no prohibition on cooperating with city efforts to provide aid and resources in a time of crisis. In fact, the DC Mutual Aid Network collates lists of services and advertises these to at-risk populations, sometimes providing translations. As an ideology that encourages the unity of means and ends and scorns dogmatism of any sort more generally, anarchism has never objected to forming and deploying such tactical alliances—as is made clear, for example, by anarchists’ participation in the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War. What anarchism repudiates, on the contrary, are vanguards—i.e., “particular group[s] with claims to either superior knowledge or more fortunate location in the political terrain…which can take strategic priority and win battles for others (and often speaks on behalf of the client group)” (Franks 2009, 99). Consequently, as Kropotkin writes, “the business of any revolutionary party is not to call for insurrection but only to pave the way for the success of the imminent insurrection” (1993, 41). Cooperating with other groups (which is not the same thing as deferring to them) is more often than not a strategic necessity in pursuing this aim.

A third category of mainstream institution includes groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other scientific organizations. Grassroots work has been vastly better empirically grounded than national responses to COVID-19. Grassroots organizations facilitate social distancing in all manner of ways. They establish collectives to make masks and other supplies that government and capitalist industry have failed to produce in sufficient numbers. They pass on the latest scientific information on sterilization, social distancing, when and how to seek medical help, and more. All of this involves embracing the authority of serious scientific work.

C. Authority

This brings us to the question of authority. As Bakunin famously wrote:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer.…But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. (1972, 229–30)

Again, our claim is that this distinction arises spontaneously in the practice of groups like DC Mutual Aid Network. We just noted that the entire project was based upon a respect for science. Not an uncritical respect—a quick perusal of the Facebook page will show active debates about some dimensions of official guidance—but a respect nonetheless. Comments promulgating conspiracy theories, racist theories, and anti-science superstition are shut down or removed. Would that the elite institutions of US society were as able to recognize the difference between wishful thinking, nonsense, and outright lies.

In terms of internal process, authority here is based on a careful balancing of organizing experience and commitment to equality and democracy. Some of this is laid out in documents.[12] Other times practical matters do not conform to pre-existing rules, and tough decisions have to be made on the fly. At one point a number of highly damaging accusations were made against organizers in an online forum. Though no evidence was presented to support the allegations, they were taken seriously. A mediation process was proposed. Only after numerous efforts to work with this person were all rejected in favor of continued vitriolic attacks were they removed from the process and banned from DC Mutual Aid Network social media sites.

But is this not coercive? Is it not authoritarian to ban people?

Of course, social banning can be authoritarian, but two distinctions are in order: first, the “punishment” here was simply non-association. No one was assaulted, imprisoned, or even prevented from engaging in similar work with some new group that they could convince to work with them. Principles of non-coercive social organization are not violated every time we decide not to associate with someone.[13] Second, no one was institutionalized as the “banning minister.” The use of such a punishment was not institutionalized in ways that could coalesce around a power center. It was a decision taken collectively, after attempts to reconcile and mediate, by those responsible for the work.

Though a sort of coercive authority was deemed necessary in order to continue the work, it was exercised in a horizontal manner as a last resort, and with minimal harm to the status and freedom of the person coerced.

D. Localism

Localism is another core idea that emerges from many currents of anarchist thought: the idea that whenever possible, decisions should be left up to local communities.[14] This is both a principle that supports democracy and freedom—if there is no compelling reason to require uniformity, then it would be an assault on freedom to require all communities to act in the same manner—as well as an epistemic principle. Local communities know best what their own needs are, what local conditions are relevant to meeting those needs, and what social conditions and historical associations will constrain just solutions.

In the case of DC Mutual Aid Network, this meant that networks were organized by wards. While there were coordinating calls and sharing of resources, each ward organized autonomously, determining priorities for themselves. And, of course, many other initiatives within the city grew up either through informal regional networks, friend groups, sports clubs, etc.

In addition, leadership in these networks was local. One of the Ward 6 leaders is Maurice Cook, an adjunct instructor at the University of the District of Columbia and founder of Serve Your City, someone personally known to the residents of Ward 6 public housing neighborhoods and to youth throughout the city.[15] Here is the work in his own words:

It’s been one of those weeks. One of the longest weeks of my life. Since Tuesday I helped build the foundation of a hyper-localized bloc of organizers. The Ward 6 Mutual Aid Team has utilized the model initiated by an amazing group of DC organizers who formed the DC Mutual Aid Network. This grassroots, community-led effort initiated by Black Lives Matter DC, No Justice No Pride, Black Swan Academy, BYP 100 and others formed in response to the inevitability that our systems will not protect, support, or sustain the lives of poor, working class Black and Brown people here in Washington, DC. No political candidate, local public official, charitable foundation, higher education institution, corporate mitigation fund, public health reps…will do whatever is necessary to ensure that our people receive what is needed to live in dignity while facing this imminent catastrophe.…

The DC Mutual Aid Network is organizing ward by ward and have already helped thousands of residents across the city. We were so successful this week that at least two DC agencies called the various ward specific hotline numbers.…Serve Your City is serving as the network hub for our Ward 6 Mutual Aid Team connecting resources including food and supplies to the community-based, grassroots orgs and community leaders on the ground. Serve Your City had to cancel all of its programs this spring. That means that Black and Brown children won’t learn how to row, swim, snorkel, scuba, play tennis, practice yoga, receive college prep and early career engagement. And I think everyone can imagine how much that hurts me. I’m going to channel that pain and use the very same skills I practice bringing resources to the kids we support to bringing resources to the kids and families we support. The organization is called “Serve Your City” for a reason. I just never imagined that these skills would be necessary to mitigate the massive harm from something so powerfully devastating and destructive.

Serve Your City never works alone. It’s impossible to do what we do without the power of collectivism, unity, and a shared purpose and vision. We have the most powerful family of people, leaders, and organizations like AquariusVann-Ghasri, Beverly Smith, Frank Muhammed, Kareem, Amy Moore, Mommas Safe Haven, Brothas Huddle, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, and others, playing a role in the supply chain. Fighting to make sure those without won’t have too long to wait for support. Managed and organized by a team of incredible people representing the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Team who were strangers on Monday but forever comrades from a previous life.

…I’ve known a secret that the coronavirus is teaching and/or reinforcing for all of us. My wellbeing is connected to your wellbeing. The coronavirus is the greatest manifestation of equality that I have ever seen. It cares nothing about your identity, your perceptions, your values, your beliefs, your dogmas, your weapons, or your wealth.[16]

            These comments illustrate not only the leadership of deeply socially engaged people, but also the transformative effect that the work has on all involved.

Localism is not an absolute principle of anarchism. Obviously, some matters need to be addressed on a broader scale. What one community does with a river affects those down and upstream on the same river, to mention the classic example. And one might well think that dealing with a pandemic is a paradigm of something that calls for centralized coordination. Viruses do not recognize national, state, or ward boundaries. And anarchism has developed numerous mechanisms to institute genuinely democratic centralized decision-making, organization, and planning, without falling into hierarchical modes.

This recognition that localism is merely a defeasible principle is implicit in much of the work in DC. First, virtually all the local initiatives include demands being made of the DC and national government. One need not endorse government as an ideal structure to demand—in a world in which it is the mode of centralized organization—that it provide evidenced-based and morally decent support to communities. Second, the grassroots efforts are themselves coordinated where possible. Though ward by ward work is largely independent, organizers have regular calls to coordinate, share lessons and resources, and keep up on the latest science from around the world.

E. Congruence of Means and Ends

A final core anarchist concept is the congruence of means and ends. Unlike traditional Marxists, anarchists do not believe in bringing about a free society through seizing state power or other institutionalized authority.[17] The core reason for this is that freedom, according to anarchist thought, is a social skill. Anarchists embrace not merely negative freedom—an absence of coercion—but a rich and substantive sort of positive freedom.[18] This positive freedom requires both material and social conditions necessary to achieve meaningful and flourishing ends[19]—I am not free, in this sense, to be a jazz saxophone player if there are no saxophones and unless there is jazz with all the rich historical and social background that this genre implies—but also active and meaningful involvement in the construction of the conditions of one’s life. That is, one is not free in the sense embraced by anarchism merely by being the recipient of a range of life options, but one must as well be in a position to influence what those options are and how they are made available.[20] But to participate in politics, to construct with others a world in which all can flourish, requires skills, knowledge, and practice. And those capacities do not arise by fiat. If a new world is brought about by a vanguard party handing down even genuinely egalitarian conditions from on high, the only people who will gain skills at organizing society are those in the party. Of course, history gives no reason to suspect that this centralization of power will wither away. Hierarchical power protects itself and moves inexorably to ever greater control.[21] But even if it did not, no capacity for broader involvement is built through an authoritarian movement toward collective liberation.

Grassroots responses to this tragedy do build capacity. In the face of such a devastating and sudden disaster, there are obvious downsides to leaving the response up to the spontaneous organization of local grassroots networks. A meaningful government response would have vastly greater capacity to meet human needs and to control dangerous anti-social behavior—not just congregating in defiance of public health advice, but things like profiteering, abandoning the most economically vulnerable, etc. So, in these ways, grassroots responses to COVID-19, however successful, seem like distant second-best matters of necessity.

But in terms of their ability to build capacity and to show us new non-individualistic, non-competitive ways that we can be together, they are far superior to a competent government. Every time a neighbor delivers loaves of homemade bread to each house in their block, each time someone provides a ride to a medical appointment, a toy to a child, or a grocery run, we learn who we can count on and why. Each time we get together and build a food distro, a community porch singalong, or an online gaming night, we learn both that we can organize ourselves non-hierarchically and that we care enough to do so. These actions teach us new ways of being—ways that capitalism and a capitalist health system systematically hide. In the immortal words of the Industrial Workers of the World, it is building a new world in the shell of the old. And that would be worth doing even in the context of a competent government.


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Solis, Ruben. 1997. “Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing.” Mothers Out Front. April.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2010. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin Books.

SYC. n.d.. “Serve Your City.”

Timm, Jane. 2020. “Fact-checking President Donald Trump’s Claims about Coronavirus.” NBC News. April 2.

[1] The classic statement of an argument along these lines is from Rebecca Solnit (2010).

[2] “I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” Mark (2020).

[3] See, for example, Collinson (2020).

[4] See, for example, Reuters (2020); Roig-Franzia and Ellison (2020).

[5] See, for example, Dale and Subramaniam (2020); Timm (2020).

[6] While California, New York, and DC, for example, were shutting down all large gatherings, the governor of Florida kept beaches open for Spring Break partiers. While Fairfax County, Virginia closed schools, the governor refused to do so.

[7] See and the broader online Mutual Aid Network:

[8] One of us lives in DC and is at high risk due to age and underlying lung conditions. He has been contacted by at least a dozen different neighbors offering support and help.

[9] See, for example, Stickings and Dyer (2020); Fox5DC (2020); DemocracyNow (2020).

[10] For the group, see For the post, see For the full Spade quote, see DemocracyNow (2020).

[11] Further, “[I]f we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: ‘Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization….In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense— not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress” (Kropotkin 1902, 3, 293).

[12] For example, Solis (1997); People of Color Leadership Summit (1991).

[13] Of course, things like shunning can be coercive, even violent in extremes. But deciding collectively not to work with someone in response to repeated aggressive actions that are seen as contrary to the point of our association is not such an extreme.

[14] See, for example, Kropotkin (1974), especially chapters 1–3. See also Bakunin (1973, 170–72) and Gordon (2018, 208–9).

[15] Serve Your City is an organization supporting underserved youth in DC, providing tutoring, sports, and material aid.

[16] Quoted from a public Facebook post. See,

[17] Again, this is not to say that anarchists eschew coercion as a tactic in changing society. Classical anarchist certainly endorsed things like the expropriation of the means of production—which they took to be illegitimately seized by private or corporate power in the first place. But there is no temporary stage in which the anarchist “leadership” or “vanguard party” would take over such power “on behalf of the proletariat.” Rather, seized businesses are to be immediately controlled by those who labor within them.

[18] See Goldman (1998, 98); cf. Goldman (1910, 67).

[19] Goldman (1910, 61); cf. Bakunin (1972, 261); Guérin, (1998, 57).

[20] For a detailed version of this argument see May (2009).

[21] See Rudolf Rocker (1998, 63); cf. Malatesta (1974, 14).

Special Issue, Uncategorized

Continued Confinement of Those Most Vulnerable to COVID-19

Suerie Moon, Eva Maria Belser, Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Pascal Mahon, Cornelia Hummel, Settimio Monteverde, Tanja Krones, Stéphanie Dagron, Cécile Bensimon, Bianca Schaffert, Alexander Trechsel, Luca Chiapperino, Laure Kloetzer, Tania Zittoun, Ralf Jox, Marion Fischer, Anne Dalle Ave, Peter G. Kirchschlaeger, and Samia Hurst

[This is an advance copy of an article that will appear in print in September 2020 as part of the KIEJ’s special double issue on Ethics, Pandemics, and COVID-19.]

ABSTRACT. Countries deciding on deconfinement measures after their initial lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic often include, as a matter of course, the continued confinement of those most vulnerable to the disease in these plans. Such continued confinement, however, is neither innocuous nor obviously justified. In this paper, we systematically examine issues such as: the requirements to sustain and protect vulnerable persons, the situation in institutions, legal implications of confinement, and the role of self-determination. Based on this exploration, we recommend that continued confinement cannot be the only measure in place to protect vulnerable persons. Protections are needed to enable the participation in the public sphere and the exercise of rights for persons particularly vulnerable to fatal courses of COVID-19. The situation in long-term care homes warrants particular caution and in some cases immediate mitigation of lockdown measures that have isolated residents from their caregivers, advocates, and proxies. Vulnerable persons should retain the choice to place themselves at risk, as long as they do not impose risks on others. Vulnerable persons who choose to remain in confinement should be protected against loss of their jobs or income, and against the risk of discrimination in the labor market. Associations and lobbies representing the views of groups of those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 should be consulted and involved in outlining deconfinement measures. Moreover, most vulnerable persons are autonomous and competent and should be allowed to voice their own opinion.


Continued confinement of those most vulnerable to COVID-19—e.g., the elderly, those with chronic diseases and other risk factors—is presented as an uncontroversial measure when planning exit strategies from lockdown measures. Policies for deconfinement assume that these persons will remain confined even when others will not (see, for example, European Commission 2020). This, however, could last quite a long time, and for some this could mean that they will remain in confinement for the rest of their lives.

In a policy brief on the ethical, legal, and social issues of transition strategies, the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force stated that:

Specific interventions should target the risks associated with isolation and immobilization in the >65 population: put in place “safe spaces” for the elderly (clubs, gym classes, walks); support local shopping options, without queueing, or maintain provision by volunteers while allowing some contacts (move away from the zero contact of dropping bags behind a door and no interactions between volunteers and elderly people); allow older persons who are willing to take the risk of becoming infected to not quarantine themselves from persons in low-risk groups (for example grandchildren). (Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force 2020)

When discussing the option of continued confinement of those at particular risk of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, the elderly (i.e., those over sixty-five) and those with chronic conditions and/or multimorbidity are the usual target groups that are now largely understood to be (medically) vulnerable. Defining entire categories to determine who is vulnerable, and determining public policy based on these categories, is, however, problematic. Considering all people aged over sixty-five, for example, as vulnerable is simplistic. Social scientists have regretted that it has long been assumed that those over sixty-five represent a homogeneous category. People over sixty-five, however, represent a very heterogeneous category, with varying socioeconomic statuses, family circumstances, and health conditions. The distinction between three global health statuses—independent, frail, dependent (Spini et al. 2007; Lalive d’Epinay and Spini 2008)—has been coined to underline the heterogeneity of the so called 65+ category and the multiplicity of health trajectories therein (Spini et al. 2016). The same consideration applies to persons with pre-existing conditions placing them at differential risk of dying should they contract COVID-19. Protections need to take this heterogeneity into account.

From a legal standpoint, a strict age criterion for continued confinement is problematic as well. According to many national constitutions (and international law), age discrimination is prohibited. Strict age limits can only be ethically and legally permissible if they are based on highly convincing reasons (e.g., adulthood as a condition for marriage). The fact that health risks generally tend to increase at the age of sixty-five is insufficient to apply strict age limits. Healthy sixty-six-year-old people cannot be bound by the same legal rules as people with multiple additional risk factors without violating the principle of equality. People have a right to be treated equally if they are equal regarding the matters at stake, and they have a right to differentiated treatment if there are relevant differences. Furthermore, the diseases bringing people into the group of “vulnerable people” must also be clarified. Current lists tend to be vague and explicitly not exhaustive. Here again, further differentiation is crucial.

While the protection of those most vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 is a duty, we content that it is far from obvious that this duty requires continued confinement. Moreover, confinement alone cannot provide such protection. In this paper, we explore what such protection requires, outline legal implications, and sketch some practical implications in our conclusion.


Four reasons can be put forward to maintain confinement of those particularly vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19: (1) protecting them as equally worthy of life in a situation where their life is more at risk; (2) preventing health system shortages; (3) protecting others in case the particularly vulnerable are also particularly likely to pass on the disease to others; and (4) protecting others from the risk of complicity in making those most vulnerable more likely to become ill, and thus risk severe disease and death.

Regarding the first reason, protection of vulnerable persons themselves cannot justify compelled confinement if they are the ones at risk. They should have the right to protection, but should be able to choose freely whether or not to place themselves at risk. State authorities are prohibited from discrimination and are obliged to take active measures to reduce inequalities. Persons with a high risk of morbidity or mortality from COVID-19 have a right to be provided access to special protection. Whether state authorities may limit their rights and freedoms in order to protect them is an entirely different question. Protecting people against their free and informed choices is not justified from a human rights perspective. The rights of vulnerable people may thus only be limited to protect the health system or other human rights holders, such as caregivers.

Regarding the second reason, vulnerable people are more likely to need special or even intensive care. Should there be a shortage of such care, this would indeed provide a prima facie reason to confine those who are most likely to be in need of it more strictly. This justification exists when intensive care structures are at risk of becoming overwhelmed, but ceases to exist when case numbers are sufficiently controlled to avoid this.

Regarding the third reason, it must first be noted that no evidence currently points to a heightened risk of contagion on the part of those most vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 as compared to other population groups. While their risk of becoming seriously ill or dying is increased in case of illness, their risk of becoming infected with the virus does not seem higher than that of others (NCPERET 2020). An exception exists in long-term care institutions, where the number of people living in close quarters could pose a risk and this could justify continued confinement, provided it were expected to protect other residents. Outside long-term care facilities, continued confinement may still protect healthcare professionals, since increasing the number of COVID-19 cases in hospitals would increase their risk of infection, even if structures are not at risk of being overwhelmed. This may be particularly true in the case of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, since other groups would be less likely to require hospitalization when ill and thus less likely to become a risk for healthcare providers. However, this argument is not specific to those most vulnerable to COVID-19: it would also apply, albeit with lesser weight, to anyone at risk of becoming ill and requiring hospitalization. Where personal protective equipment is available, however, this risk to health professionals can be mitigated (Jefferson et al. 2020).

Finally, if those most vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 are not confined, it could make the rest of us very likely to be complicit in increasing their risk of becoming ill. Avoiding such complicity in the absence of confinement could significantly change what is allowed for the rest of us. It could mean that barrier measures, such as wearing masks, performing hand hygiene, and maintaining six-feet’s distance, could remain required in public spaces for much longer in order to limit the risk of contagion to particularly vulnerable individuals who may be there. It could also mean that we should all limit close contacts to as few persons as possible to decrease the overall risk of viral circulation and thus, again, protect particularly vulnerable individuals in the public sphere. In this case, we may have to forgo the services of hairdressers, for example, avoid parties where people mingle and distances are more difficult to keep, or going to restaurants or nightclubs, where masks would interfere with some of our central reasons to be there. Continued confinement of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 would thus protect the rights of others to access a greater part of the components of life while COVID-19 is still in circulation.

None of these justifications, however, is sufficient on its own to justify continued confinement. Rather, when they are pertinent, they must be taken into account and balanced against the rights of the vulnerable to everything that confinement takes away from them.


Confinements and lockdowns are commonly accepted anti-pandemic measures on the basis of their effectiveness in protecting life and health (Thunstrom et al. 2020; Zhang et al. 2020; Douglas et al. 2020), and in particular for those who are more vulnerable to serious illness and death. Consistent concern for the protection of life and health for those who are vulnerable cannot be limited to confinement, however. Special accommodations also need to be made for vulnerable individuals during court and administrative procedures, including asylum procedures—where their presence is required, other protections must be provided. Similarly, protective refuge should be available for their family members who become ill with COVID-19 and do not require hospitalization, in order to avoid the risk of contagion within the home for these persons. Vulnerable persons should also be considered for early release from prison, as the risks of contagion are greater there. When protective measures, such as masks, are recommended, they should be free of charge. As the elderly may place themselves at risk if they take care of their grandchildren, free access to childcare for parents should also be part of an overall protection strategy, and this should be the case for all on equity grounds. Those who are vulnerable are also listed by the Swiss pandemic plan among the populations that should receive priority for a vaccine once it becomes available (SFOPH 2018). Protection should not be a privilege dependent on income for vulnerable persons, but a right.

Risks are also associated with confinement itself. Early signs of the adverse effects of confinement are being observed by professionals (Miller 2020). References have been made to the ‘failure to thrive,’ a condition that includes four aspects: weight loss, decreased appetite, poor nutrition, and inactivity (Robertson and Montagnini 2004). It can be expected that long-term confinement will lead to an increased number of deaths as a result of isolation, lack of exercise, and limited access to basic resources among the elderly. The balance of benefits and risks of mitigation measures is thus uncertain. Protection against exposure to the virus comes at the cost of other components of health when the balance between biological, psychological, and social factors is taken into consideration (Engel 1977).

In exploring components of a good life, the influential Capabilities Approach lists ten elements: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation, including social interaction and the social bases of self-respect; contact to other species and the natural world; play; and control over one’s political and material environment (Nussbaum 2003). Particular attention should thus be paid to maintaining equal protection of life in all circumstances, but also equal political rights, equal possibilities for social interaction, for play, and, perhaps most importantly, equal access to the social bases of self-respect—the image mirrored back to us by society, which constitutes an important part of our assessment of our own worth. Social distancing should mean neither social exclusion, nor social devaluing. This is important, since official recommendations to continue confinement only for those vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 could result in stigmatization and grievous harms to the social bases of self-respect. Robeyns (2016) proposes the addition of further capabilities—sensory comfort, communication, being understood, being loved, and receiving attention—several of which are at risk during the present confinement, especially in populations unaccustomed to communicating through digital technologies. In the absence of sustained communication, those who remain confined must rely entirely on others to tell their story and cannot sustain their narrative identity (Hurst 2020; Lindemann 2014).

Since vulnerability in the face of COVID-19 is both a diverse and shifting condition, no single trade-off between these components can be described for them all. Decisions about confinement of the vulnerable should include their needs and own definition of the situation—either directly or through representation such as, for example, Pro Senectute for the elderly in Switzerland. Their perceptions of risks are likely to be different from those of other segments of the population, and from those of health professionals. Concurrent perceptions of risks thus need to be taken into account—and note, this holds for all vulnerable groups—especially in a context characterized by high uncertainty and in which trade-offs might be difficult to calculate.

Protection should be a right, not a duty. Individuals vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19 should be afforded the same liberties and personal choices as others, and these include placing themselves at risk, as long as they do not unfairly increase the risk to others.

In situations that would pose a risk to others, such as a risk to health professionals when personal protective equipment is scarce or a risk of complicity by heightened exposure in public spaces, there is clearly a balance of rights. Far from being an obvious component of deconfinement strategies, then, continued confinement of those most vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 is a difficult political trade-off between types of risks and rights for different populations. Taking dignity, equality, and vulnerability seriously implies that we cannot just ask the most vulnerable to bear any burden, however great, to allow more total rights fulfillment for others during a pandemic. It also cannot, however, imply that others must make any sacrifice, however great, to enable the vulnerable more total fulfillment of their rights either.

How might this balance be struck? A first attempt could start with an attempt to rank the importance of different rights. This is likely to be thwarted by moral pluralism regarding how rights ought to be ranked, but this may not apply to the whole endeavor. For example, we are likely to agree that the right to be in the presence of family members is more important than, say, the right to stand close to another person at a non-crowded bus stop. Rather than a ranking of rights themselves, however, this sort of consensus is more likely to result from agreement on the ranking of transgressions of these rights. In the example above, seeing family members could be based on rights to family life, belonging, or proxy representation in case of incapacity. Standing at the bus stop could be based on rights to freedom of movement. In this case, however, agreeing that having to keep a distance at the bus stop is less severe than having to refrain from seeing family does not commit us to considering the right to freedom of movement to be less important than the rights to family life, belonging, or representation, or indeed any combination of these rights. All we need is to consider that the transgression made by control of standing positions while waiting is a lesser one, as compared to the transgression made by banning visitors from seeing the vulnerable.

A second approach could start by identifying where the rights of the particularly vulnerable and of the less vulnerable could be made more compatible. Rather than continued confinement, for example, protection could require that those particularly vulnerable maintain protective measures in the public sphere: distance, masks, and hand hygiene. It could also require collective efforts to decrease the risk of contagion through test-trace-isolate-quarantine strategies. Giving those particularly vulnerable the possibility to participate more safely in the public sphere would certainly require some inconvenience to others, but it is unlikely to require outright infringements of their rights. In many situations, then, the balance of rights could be resolved.

The requirement to balance rights would remain in situations where such precautions were not feasible, such as restaurants or nightclubs. Where personal protective equipment is scarce, these places may have to be off-limits to the particularly vulnerable in order to protect health professionals down the line. The problem of complicity would then remain. Complicity, however, requires some form of participation or proximity to wrongdoing, Lepora’s account of complicity in healthcare is helpful here (Lepora and Goodin 2013). Patrons of restaurants and nightclubs do not go there with the intent of placing vulnerable persons at risk. Rather than complicity, their action is closer to what Lepora calls contiguity—remaining close to the wrongdoing, when you could have avoided it. More importantly, however, what exactly would be the wrong involved in such a case? Vulnerable individuals who come to a restaurant in circumstances where there is no scarcity of personal protective equipment are not wronging healthcare providers, who can protect themselves. Are they wronging themselves? That we even can wrong ourselves, particularly when we make conscious and deliberate choices, is controversial (Ogien 2007). Even if such a wrong to ourselves is recognized, and complicity in this wrong therefore conceivable, contiguity may not, on balance, be important enough to warrant banning vulnerable persons from restaurants if they choose to come.

The Situation of Institutions

Persons who are more vulnerable to dying of COVID-19 and who also reside in institutions can become at greater risk of contracting the disease not necessarily due to their health condition, but due to the funding, staffing, and infrastructural weaknesses of these institutions (Oliver 2020). Special protections ought to be extended to them Accommodations, including adequate personal protective equipment for staff and, where appropriate, for residents should be put in place to decrease this risk.

In many places, protections have included bans on visitors. This has had the unfortunate consequence of making residents inaccessible to their family, and also to their advocates and legal representatives, resulting in an increased vulnerability to suffer violence and abuses of power (Gardner, States, and Bagley 2020). This situation must be corrected and solutions developed to enable contacts with these persons while still limiting the risk of contagion. Strategies enabling this should be shared among institutions in order to facilitate the diffusion of successful processes. Residents who are capable of decision-making must also be allowed to take risks if they so choose, as long as they do not endanger others.

Currently, explicit provisions exist in certain cases to discourage, restrict, or even prevent the referral of residents from nursing homes to hospital. This is a striking inequality if the actual place of care (and not the medical condition and needs) is the sole condition for (denying) admission. In any case, concepts of care compatible with accepted standards of care (both curative and palliative) must exist on site. Legal representatives must be actively involved in the case of a lack of mental capacity. The possibility to contact the guardianship authorities and “see behind the curtains” of those confined in institutions must be proactively granted by these institutions. The authorities must monitor these measures. These institutions have to be staffed with adequate resources to fulfill this task, which is assigned to them by the civil code.

Those confined in long-term care institutions should also continue to have access to some forms of social contacts, as well as daylight, sun, and fresh air daily—similar to the rights of persons under detention. Especially if conditions have to change in order to decrease the risk of contagion, accommodations need to be made to enable the maintenance and continuation of people’s meaningful daily activities, their “engagements” that have existential values. Many of these activities have complex functions.

Finally, residents of institutions have the same rights to clear, loyal, and truthful information regarding the pandemic situation and the reasons why measures are in place as the rest of the population. This will require active engagement by the staff in order to overcome sensory and cognitive impairments when they are present, and to inform residents on measures taken by the institution itself and their reasons.

While some institutions kept visitors out and residents in, others shut down entirely, leaving elderly and dependent individuals to the care of family members. As a consequence, they were either very isolated with only sporadic visits from professional caregivers and family members—who were afraid of bringing a risk of contagion with them—or left only with the option of living with a relative for whom the burden was suddenly very heavy (Young and Fick 2020).


If confinement for specific groups should continue, there would be a great need for clarification: Is the confinement a government recommendation or a legal obligation? What exactly does confinement involve? What are confined people allowed or not allowed to do? Who exactly is concerned? Is there one category of vulnerable persons or several? Who decides whether a person falls in the category or not, and how can such a decision be challenged? What is the situation of people living in the same household with confined people?

All these questions would need to be clarified in order to provide such continued confinement on a legal basis. The legal implications of an obligation would also be considerably different from those of a recommendation.

Legal Implications of an Obligation

A legal obligation would involve very numerous and serious legal issues. Some of the legal problems involved are so great that we would qualify them as insurmountable. As the restrictions to fundamental rights would be severe, the legal basis would have to (1) be a law made by parliament (federal or cantonal, depending on competencies), as the decision would have to be made by an authority with the legitimacy to strike a balance between the competing rights outlined above; (2) be based on an overriding public interest (which cannot be to protect vulnerable people against their will); and (3) be proportionate. Human rights limitations cannot be justified by the political will of protecting people from themselves. Persons who are capable of judgement enjoy the right to self-determination, which includes the right to take unreasonable and risky decisions. Any person capable of judgement, vulnerable or not, has the right to accept health risks.

Mandatory confinement could only be justified in three situations:

  1. The vulnerable person is not capable of decision-making (because she suffers from dementia, depression, etc.). In such a situation, the civil law rules on the protection of adults, and an agency or legal representative decides what is in the best interest of the person.
  2. The person fulfills the requirements of a mandatory care accommodation (Art. 426 Swiss Civil Code) and is deprived of liberty because no other means guarantee the person’s health and security.
  3. There is an overriding public interest other than protecting the confined person, such as a risk to the rights and freedoms of other people, or a need to protect the overall health system from becoming dysfunctional. In our view, this is the only public interest on which confinement policies could be based.

Even if one of these situations is given, all confinement measures would still have to be proportionate. Even a person incapable of decision-making could thus not be confined without ensuring that this measure is necessary to protect her and that the confinement is reasonable given her overall situation. Family members or legal representatives would have to make the necessary decisions. If the confinement is established to protect the overall health system, only a flexible system (reacting to the situation in the hospitals, to the number of available intensive care beds and ventilators) would be proportionate. In addition, it would not be proportionate—and hence would not be constitutional—to confine vulnerable people who have renounced the use of intensive care/ventilators in an advance directive.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case law is quite clear on this issue. Deprivation of liberty, according the ECHR, involves the following:

Taking the above principles into account, the Court finds that the essential criteria when assessing the “lawfulness” of the detention of a person “for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases” are whether the spreading of the infectious disease is dangerous to public health or safety, and whether detention of the person infected is the last resort in order to prevent the spreading of the disease, because less severe measures have been considered and found to be insufficient to safeguard the public interest. When these criteria are no longer fulfilled, the basis for the deprivation of liberty ceases to exist.

Confinement measures can thus only be examined under the criteria of contributing to the prevention of disease spread and when this is the last resort. Where other preventive measures can prevent disease spread, such as distancing or test-trace-isolate-quarantine strategies, confinement measures become unjustified.

Numerous aspects of the situation of mandatorily-confined people would have to be determined, such as: work, social security, health services, political rights, religious rights, tenancy, family, social, and cultural life, and more. Appeals procedures would have to be in place. The government, severely limiting fundamental rights and freedoms, would have to take special responsibilities for all concerned people and be obliged to make best efforts in order to limit harm and to enable maximum human rights enjoyment. Such confinement could not take place at home without negating the entire aim, since others living with the confined individual could still transmit the virus outside the home.

Overall, then, a legal obligation for continued confinement of the vulnerable seems to entirely lack feasibility and justification. We conclude that this path should not be pursued.

Legal Implications of a Recommendation

A government recommendation would raise very different questions than a legal obligation. As long as vulnerable people are not legally bound to stay at home, the government can use its soft power to protect specific groups and the health system. As long as people are free to follow or not follow a recommendation, freedom rights are not limited. The issuing of recommendations as such is thus not a legal problem. A recommendation may not be enforced, not even by soft measures.

However, numerous questions would need to be clarified. What is the legal situation of vulnerable people deciding to follow the recommendation? And what would be the situation of people not following it? If negative legal (e.g., financial) consequences are attached to such a decision, a recommendation can turn into a de facto obligation. This is to be prevented, as it blurs rights and obligations.

In Switzerland, for example, employers are obliged to allow persons at-risk to work from home. If their presence is indispensable, the employer must take necessary measures to protect these persons. Still, a particularly vulnerable person may refuse to work if he or she considers the health risks to be too high. If working at home or from the workplace is not possible, the employer must allow the person to stop working while continuing to pay wages. This regulation, as it stands, is not fully clear (when is working from home or from the workplace “possible”?). In addition, the individual employer can be overburdened by it. She or he can take all necessary measures at the workplace and the vulnerable person is still allowed to refuse to work. The refusal to work might be caused by the risks of commuting, or the fear of endangering other vulnerable persons living in the same household, etc. The obligation of the employer to continue to pay wages is currently not limited—in contrast to the rules that normally apply.

If people vulnerable to COVID-19 are allowed to opt out of work obligations, the duty of the employer to pay wages would have to be limited in time as well. After this period, social security would have to step in. Otherwise, there is an (increased) risk that employers stop employing vulnerable people or terminate work contracts. The continued confinement would then further disadvantage vulnerable people in the labor market.

The situation of vulnerable persons without a work contract (e.g., the self-employed) would also need to be clarified.

The effects on families and on childcare would have to be taken into account as well. Of all grandparents in Switzerland, 40% take care of their grandchildren weekly. Overall, they spend about 160 million hours a year looking after children. If there is a recommendation (or an obligation) not to do so, young families (and childcare institutions) will have to carry new burdens. These burdens would have to be borne collectively, at least in part. If grandparents are prevented from looking after children—they (and their families) would then be obliged to make special efforts to protect the health system in the interest of all and should not have to shoulder the financial costs of it.


What is our responsibility to take certain actions so that the more vulnerable can have more freedom to participate in social and public life without exposing themselves to unacceptable levels of harm? Individual rights that are balanced with safety during a pandemic do not go away. Rather, they are balanced against the right to life and health during exceptional circumstances. When the situation is acute and leaves no time for measures other than confinement, this balance can be justified. When the situation persists for a longer time, however, providing safe spaces and measures that re-enable the exercise of individual rights becomes necessary. Societies are adapting to living with COVID-19 and re-organizing many activities. This reorganization to re-enable life and the exercise of individual rights, then, needs to happen for everyone and not only for those who are professionally active and not particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Examples could include reserved times in shops, museums, libraries, or cinemas, where fewer people would be allowed in at any one time so that those particularly vulnerable to dying of COVID-19 could interact without placing themselves at risk. It could include safe transports for those at particular risk: as the lockdown measures ease and more people move around, it will become more problematic for high-risk persons to go out (in order to get regular cancer treatment, for instance). In a situation where distance is being promoted, special measures aimed at re-establishing social ties will also be needed. And so on.

When assessing whether to make such accommodations—and whether to accept the attendant costs—it should be remembered that everyone’s freedom is assisted and that this always has a cost. We have collectively invested in transportation infrastructure to allow us to come, go, earn a living, exercise our social and political rights, etc. We need to invest in such institutions for the benefit of everyone, not of some only. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reorganize many aspects of our collective life. It should also force us to reorganize the possibilities for everyone to participate. Equal regard for the dignity of all persons, considered to be the basis for all fundamental rights, would seem to require it.

Inevitably, however, trade-offs will arise. The question then becomes one of balancing the rights and interests of different groups against others. It seems unjust to disregard the rights of the ‘vulnerable’ or the ‘non/less-vulnerable’ entirely, meaning neither confinement of vulnerable groups nor total freedom to engage in any action by non/less-vulnerable groups is acceptable. This must be informed by science and public health principles, but ultimately these are decisions that must be made in a democratically legitimate manner.


From a risk management perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic does not appear as a riskier situation than many of the other—sometimes serious—health problems facing the elderly or those with chronic conditions. Where confinement aims to protect the vulnerable themselves, then, there is no justification to withhold the choice from them. If the pandemic can be sufficiently controlled, then an individual should have the right to decide how much risk they are willing to take. For many, the level of acceptable risk is above zero. The health system is there to care for those who become ill, in the same way that it cares for those who get into ski accidents or develop chronic illnesses linked to personal choices. A low-level, sustainable steady rate of cases may be inevitable and tolerable, in the same way that a low-level, steady rate of car accidents happens every year, despite reasonable precautions by the state.

This means that it is important to distinguish situations where choices made by individuals actually harm others (for example, a resident in long-term care who insists on holding a birthday party with all the other residents and invites her family) from situations where these choices do not harm others (for example, a resident in long-term care who insists on receiving a visit from her seven-year-old granddaughter, who can visit without crossing paths with anyone else).

It also means that taking away the choice wrongs the vulnerable in two distinct ways: first by limiting their self-determination, but also by sending the implicit message that vulnerable individuals are not competent to make their own decisions.

A prolonged confinement based on age will mean age segregation and could reinforce current negative reactions towards those who do not follow the ‘stay-at-home’ message. Messages advising for self-determination could undermine such stigmatization. They would also limit intra-family conflicts of younger generations being overprotective towards their parents and grandparents as a result of official messages.


Far from being an obvious component of deconfinement strategies, then, continued confinement of those most vulnerable to morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 is a difficult political trade-off between types of risks and rights for different populations. Confinement cannot be the only measure in place to protect vulnerable persons. Protections are needed to enable and sustain participation in the public sphere and the exercise of rights for persons particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Many long-term care homes have currently banned visits from residents’ next of kin and legal representatives. Solutions must be developed to enable contacts with these persons while still limiting the risk of contagion for residents. Such strategies should be shared among institutions in order to facilitate the diffusion of successful processes. Concepts of care compatible with accepted standards of care (both curative and palliative) must exist on site. Institutions must be staffed with adequate resources to fulfill these tasks. Those confined in long-term care institutions should also continue to have access to some forms of social contacts, as well daylight, sun, and fresh air daily. Residents of institutions have the same rights to clear, loyal, and truthful information regarding the pandemic situation and the reasons why measures are in place as the rest of the population. The authorities must monitor these measures.

Vulnerable persons should retain the choice to place themselves at risk, as long as they do not impose risks on others. Vulnerable persons who choose to remain in confinement should be protected against loss of their jobs or income, and against the risk of discrimination in the labor market. If people vulnerable COVID-19 are allowed to opt out of working obligations, the duty of the employer to pay wages must be limited. After this period, social security should step in. If confinement persists, retraining through invalidity insurance may have to be considered in these cases. As the elderly may place themselves at risk if they take care of their grandchildren, free access to childcare for parents should also be part of a protection strategy.

Risk and crisis communication stresses the importance of listening to the people themselves, and to set up participatory approaches. Associations and lobbies representing the views of groups of those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 (both the elderly and those with diseases placing them at particular risk) should be consulted. Most vulnerable persons are autonomous and competent, and should be allowed to voice their own opinion.


This work was initially developed for a policy brief by the ELSI group of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force. Five of the authors (CBJ, EMB, SM, PM and SAH) are members of this group. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, or of the Swiss government.


The authors wish to thank an anonymous reviewer, whose insightful comments helped us to substantially improve this paper.


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Special Issue, Uncategorized

Should I Do as I’m Told? Trust, Experts, and COVID-19

Matthew Bennett

[This is an advance copy of an article that will appear in print in September 2020 as part of the KIEJ’s special double issue on Ethics, Pandemics, and COVID-19.]

ABSTRACT. The success of public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is sensitive to public trust in experts. Despite a great deal of attention to attitudes towards experts in the context of such crises, one significant feature of public trust remains underexamined. When public policy claims to follow the science, citizens are asked not just to believe what they are told by experts, but to follow expert recommendations. I argue that this requires a more demanding form of trust, which I call recommendation trust. I argue for three claims about recommendation trust: recommendation trust is different from both epistemic and practical trust; the conditions for well-placed recommendation trust are more demanding than the conditions for well-placed epistemic trust; and many measures that have been proposed to cultivate trust in experts do not give the public good reasons to trust in expert-led policy.

1. Introduction

In 2019 public trust in politicians was at an all-time low in many parts of the world. Then again, it had been low for quite some time.[1] Public trust in epistemic authority is a more complicated matter. The success of many right-wing politicians—Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, etc.—is partly due to their efforts to discredit traditional sources of information, including the “mainstream media” and whichever scientific institutions prove inconvenient to their political interests. But worries about the erosion of epistemic standards in public discourse are easily overstated, and some polling data have shown that publics are not as distrustful of experts as we might fear.[2]

Nonetheless, there are some political and social crises in which even a small degree of suspicion of scientific authorities can have disastrous consequences. One such crisis is the climate change emergency. It is often with a focus on the climate crisis that social epistemologists and philosophers of science have tackled a range of questions around trust in expertise, including how we can defend the rationality of trusting experts and what measures we can take to cultivate such trust (see e.g., Anderson 2011; John 2016). Public health crises are also highly sensitive to public trust in experts, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to the principle that when epidemics pose serious threats to the health of whole nations, distrust of the relevant public health experts can have serious consequences.

Despite a great deal of attention to attitudes towards experts in the context of such crises, one significant factor in public trust in experts remains underexamined. The vast majority of philosophical work on public trust in experts has addressed questions about epistemic trust: forming beliefs on the basis of the testimony, broadly construed, of scientists and scientific communities. But as the COVID-19 pandemic shows us, a distinct kind of trust in experts is needed when experts not only provide information and data, but also play an instrumental role in the formation of science-led policy. When public policy claims to follow the science, citizens are asked not just to believe what they are told, but to follow expert recommendations. I argue that this requires a distinct form of trust, which I call recommendation trust.

I will argue for three claims about recommendation trust. The first is that recommendation trust is different from both epistemic trust and a third form of trust, also popular among philosophers, which I call practical trust (Section 3). The second is that the conditions in which recommendation trust is well-placed are more demanding than the conditions for well-placed epistemic trust (also Section 3). This is because to have good reason to follow an expert recommendation I must not only believe that the expert is sincere and competent in their field, but also that the action they recommend is in my interest. This leads me to argue for my third claim (Sections 4 and 5): because the norm that governs the rationality of recommendation trust is more demanding than that which governs epistemic trust, many measures that have been proposed to cultivate trust in experts do not help to cultivate recommendation trust in science-led policy. In short, experts have a higher bar to clear when we are asked to follow their recommendations. If we are to ask the public to trust the recommendations of scientists, we must acknowledge that this is different from asking novices to accept facts. When science leads policy, it must work harder to merit public trust


My account depends foremost on the assumption that public trust in experts is both necessary and desirable for an effective public health response to the coronavirus pandemic.[3] One reason to think trust in experts is particularly important in the context of the pandemic is that most current public health policies in response to the crisis depend on a significant degree of voluntary compliance. Many countries have taken social distancing measures to reduce infection rates to a manageable level. This usually involves radical lifestyle changes for citizens, including the closure of businesses, workplaces, and many public spaces, bans on travel for all but essential journeys, and complete self-isolation for those at greater risk of serious illness. It is fair to assume that it would be wholly unpractical to apply social distancing solely through comprehensive policing and direct enforcement. And I am confident that even if compliance with social distancing could be guaranteed wholly through coercion, this would be undesirable.

A state could coerce compliance with social distancing in ways that are less direct than totalitarian policing. The simple threat of such measures might be enough to persuade the public to comply. I am also taking for granted that we would prefer voluntary compliance with a public health policy to compliance secured solely through public fear of what the state might do to them if they do not comply. But note that this is not an all-or-nothing test of the desirability of a public health policy, as if such a policy either depends on states applying coercive power to all citizens, or it does not depend on such power at all. Any state-enforced policy, even where it is granted democratic legitimacy through public trust, will involve exercising coercive power over the few who refuse to comply. In this respect, trust in government secures not just a sufficient level of compliance with government policy, but also sufficient public support for the policing of that policy. It would be wrong to think that a public health response secured through trust would involve no coercive state power at all.

Though I am taking for granted that public trust is a necessary part of a desirable response to the pandemic, I do not assume it is sufficient. There are many reasons for this. One is that citizens may be willing but unable to comply with government policy. Emerging research on public behavior during the pandemic in the UK indicates that although willingness to follow social distancing measures is generally high, the ability to self-isolate is not evenly distributed, with the most economically disadvantaged unable to comply (Atchison et al. 2020). Thus, some citizens who trust policymakers enough to be willing to follow policy might not be able to do so.

It is also possible for citizens to trust policy that does not merit trust, and I will be assuming that the kind of public trust that features in a desirable response to the pandemic is specifically trust that is well-placed. Here it helps to invoke a distinction sometimes made by social epistemologists between trustworthiness and credibility (Rolin 2002). An authority is credible when it is likely to be believed. Credibility is vulnerable to faulty reasoning by individuals when making judgements about whom to believe, but the more insidious threat to well-placed trust is posed by structural injustices that grant illegitimate authority to privileged social groups (Fricker 1998). By contrast, an authority is trustworthy when its claims should be given credence. Following Onora O’Neill’s work on public trust (see e.g., O’Neill 2020), I will assume that desirable public trust must be trust in the trustworthy, and it is only accidentally related to credibility. However, one of the tasks of good science-led policy is to bridge any extant gaps between credibility and trustworthiness. I will return to this challenge in Sections 4 and 5.

My framing of the issues so far might be accused of confusing two very different matters: public trust in scientific experts and public willingness to comply with government policy. If some readers worry about this, then all the better for the purposes of this paper, for the distinction I wish to argue for is very similar to the distinction between trust in science per se and compliance with scientifically-informed policy. But before proceeding to put some conceptual distance between trust in science and trust in technocracy, it is worth noting some observations about the tandem pairing of government policy and scientific expertise that we see in many (though not all) government responses to the coronavirus crisis. What we find in the pandemic is that when science has a significant role to play in policy, trust in experts and compliance with government go hand in hand.

In the UK, where I write this paper, the government’s response to the pandemic has been consistently presented to the public as “following the science.” Daily press conferences began on March 12, 2020 with a briefing delivered by the prime minister flanked either side by the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief science officer, Patrick Vallance. Vallance and Whitty have since played a prominent role in communicating the government’s policy on the coronavirus, standing alongside government ministers in many more press conferences and appearing on television, on radio, and in print to explain the UK’s public health strategy. Between March and May, Whitty and Vallance have been joined in this communications effort by inter alia Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, and NHS England’s medical director, Stephen Powis.

Each of these government spokespersons are scientists—epidemiologists, clinical pharmacologists, mathematicians, public health physicians, and medical professors. Their most evident role in the current emergency appears to be to amplify the message that there is authoritative scientific reasoning that supports the social distancing measures the public are being asked to adopt. This “following the science” message depends on the public believing not just that these scientists are part of the communication of the policy, but also that they are involved in deliberations that result in that policy. That the UK government is in fact following the science is very much open to question, but it is evident that the UK’s approach to communicating its message to its citizens is to heavily emphasize its (putative) technocratic nature.

Most other national government responses lie somewhere between two extremes: namely, policy that is directly contradicting the recommendations of most scientists and policy that is designed and implemented by scientists. These extremes are somewhat idealized insofar as the question of whether a given national policy denies or follows “the science” ignores the fact that there is no single authoritative scientific perspective on what should be done. Nonetheless, some notable examples approximate these extremes. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has argued publicly with regional governors and the national health ministry about the wisdom of advice to all citizens to stay home. In the US, Donald Trump has made a series of dangerously ill-informed claims about possible treatments for COVID-19, from hydroxychloroquine to disinfectant, prompting multiple high-profile corrections from Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. By stark contrast, the Swedish government has in large part handed over their public health response to state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has become the public face of the Swedish government during the pandemic and leads a state science agency with a significant degree of autonomy from the government. Though it would be easy to overstate the level of political authority granted Swedish public health agencies (responsibility for policy still formally lies with government ministers), the Swedish case is perhaps the closest thing we have to a purely technocratic response to the pandemic.

For those governments that are not actively discrediting the recommendations of scientific experts, public trust in experts and public compliance with government policy go hand in hand. The significance of public trust in experts increases with the degree to which government policy is presented as technocratic. Note that this does not mean that a government’s strategy for dealing with the pandemic must in fact be technocratic in order for public trust in experts to be a significant factor in securing public support. Public trust in experts can support policy implementation by ensuring that citizens are willing to comply with government public health responses that are perceived to be led by science, regardless of whether they are in fact led by science. Public trust in experts is also a significant factor in public support for genuinely technocratic policy, provided we wish to avoid measures to secure public endorsement that involve coercion or dishonesty.[4]


Limited though they are, there are lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic about the nature of the public trust that supports acceptance of (at least putatively) science-led policy. Before outlining those lessons directly, it will help to be more precise about the kinds of trust that are relevant to the pandemic.

I will be treating trust in all of its forms as a tripartite relation: one person trusts another with regard to a particular object of trust.[5] What I call practical trust is to stake something of importance on a particular action or range of actions that I expect another to perform. Thus, what I mean when I say ‘I trust the babysitter’ is that I place the wellbeing of a child in the hands of the babysitter, and I am confident in doing this because I expect the babysitter will take good care of the child. Moreover, the domain of my trust in the babysitter is restricted, insofar as I do not trust them to do just anything. Epistemic trust is to believe something because another person has told us it is true. Epistemic trust requires that the truster ascribes sincerity to the trusted, but also competence in the matter about which the trusted is providing testimony. A similar domain restriction applies. I might trust a classicist to help me with Greek etymology but not trust them on matters of bicycle repair, even if I expect them to be sincere when answering questions in either area.[6] Both epistemic and practical trust differ from a third form of trust that I will call recommendation trust. I recommendation-trust someone when I believe I should do something because they have told me I should. The domain restriction also applies to the act recommended by the person I recommendation-trust: when I trust the recommendation of another it is because there is a particular area in which I take that person’s recommendations to be trustworthy.

As I am primarily interested in differences between recommendation trust and epistemic trust, I will stop short of a full account of these three forms of trust. A comprehensive definition of recommendation trust would need to do more to distinguish it from other, deceptively similar ways in which we form beliefs about what we should do. Say I am taking a trip by car with a friend. The friend recommends I avoid the M25 this afternoon because of the likely traffic. But I have good reason to think that taking a detour route will take just as long, despite the heavy traffic on the M25. There are a number of ways I might do as my friend suggests, in response to their suggestion, without thereby following their recommendation. Perhaps I avoid the M25 to humour my friend (I know they tend to be insecure about others not taking their travel advice). Perhaps I avoid the M25 because I know that my friend has a phobia of traffic jams and is too proud to cite this as the reason for asking that we take a detour. Perhaps my friend is an intimidating person, and I fear the consequences of questioning their advice. Doing as my friend recommends for any of these reasons is not trusting their recommendation.

Note also that the same principle applies to public trust in the recommendations of politicians and experts. If members of the public accord with the recommendations of government because they fear what the government would do were they not to follow its recommendations, then the public is not acting on trust, but on fear. Policy that depends on this form of compliance is precisely the coercion-based policy that earlier I suggested we would prefer to avoid. Moreover, compliance with public health recommendation is significantly different from compliance with law. I will restrict my focus to the question of when we have good reason to follow public health recommendations issued by experts.

One very common concern about epistemic trust is that to believe what we are told by experts we must believe without the warrant available to other kinds of belief (Burge 1995; Hardwig 1985, 1991; John 2018; Kukla 2007). Experts know about things I do not know about and sometimes could not know about. But many areas of expertise are areas in which it is important for non-experts to form true beliefs. Such beliefs must be formed without access to all of the evidence and without expert ability to understand the evidence. This threatens the possibility of both knowledge and rational belief about a wide array of basic facts. Do I know whether the Earth is flat without travelling? Should I believe that penicillin can be used to treat infection without first studying biochemistry? Knowledge of such matters depends on the rationality of beliefs grounded in the testimony of others, and the rationality of such beliefs is questionable in ways that the rationality of other beliefs is not.

John Hardwig’s influential solution to this problem was to argue for the following principle:

(T) If person A has good reasons to believe that person B has good reasons to believe that P, then A has good reasons to believe that P. (1991, 697–98)

Hardwig suggests that if such principles can be demonstrated, we can rescue testimony-based beliefs from scepticism. If (T) holds, Hardwig argues, then we can be epistemically justified in believing what others tell us is the case without having to investigate the evidence ourselves. If Hardwig is right, the principle also gets us part of the way to understanding how epistemic trust in experts could be rational. Say that I believe my doctor to be competent, well-informed, and sincere. This same doctor tells me that if a person’s heart stops outside of hospital there is a 20 percent chance that CPR will save their life. Provided I have good reason to believe the doctor to be competent, well-informed, and sincere, I have good reason to believe that if a person’s heart stops outside of hospital there is a 20 percent chance that CPR will save their life.

With much greater complexity, a novice can adopt a comparable relation of epistemic trust in public experts communicating facts about COVID-19. The greater complexity comes partly from the fact that it is very unlikely that most non-experts would have direct access to the testimony of experts. Most of us will read about what experts have to say about the pandemic as it is reported by journalists. Thus, for example, the question of whether I should (epistemic) trust UK chief medical officer Chris Whitty is made more difficult if, rather than watching the press briefings led by Whitty, I instead read reports based on the briefings in a national newspaper. Most obviously the problem of the rationality of my trust in this situation is compounded by the additional question of whether I can trust the newspaper; I must have reason not just to believe that Whitty is competent and sincere, but also to believe that the journalists working at the newspaper are competent and sincere.

Hardwig’s principle does not render epistemic trust easily won; there are many obstacles to rational epistemic trust.[7] It nonetheless does give us an account of how epistemic trust can be rational, and it is not implausible that its conditions for rational trust might sometimes be met. But even if the conditions set by Hardwig’s principle for rational trust are met, we have not thereby met conditions for rational recommendation trust. This much is evident when we attempt to adjust Hardwig’s principle to apply to recommendation trust.[8] When a person provides factual testimony, they communicate their belief that something is the case, and the question is whether this gives the receiver of testimony good reason to believe the same. When a person makes a recommendation, they communicate their belief that the receiver of the recommendation should do something. Accordingly, the analogous question is whether the recommendation gives the receiver good reason to agree that they should act as recommended. If we adapt Hardwig’s principle to apply to recommendations, we arrive at the following:

(R) if A has good reasons to believe B has good reasons to believe that A should act a certain way, then A has good reasons to believe that they should act that way.

But (R) is not true.[9] Consider again the doctor who has told me about the likelihood of a person being revived through CPR. Imagine that this same doctor follows up with a recommendation: given the low likelihood of resuscitation and the potential for distress if CPR is attempted unsuccessfully, it would be best if I signed a Do Not Attempt CPR (DNACPR) form. Grant that the doctor has good reasons to believe I should sign the DNACPR and that I still think my doctor competent and sincere. And set aside for the sake of argument the significant ethics violations involved in a physician making a recommendation on the decision to sign a DNACPR. Do I have good reason to sign?

Not necessarily. If the doctor’s good reason to think I should sign is that their employer has imposed perverse targets for DNACPR signatures, then this is not likely to be a good reason for me. Perhaps that is stretching what counts as a good reason for the doctor to recommend signing. But say instead that the doctor recommends signing because they have seen too many patients and families suffer the indignity of a failed CPR attempt at the end of life or that they think it is likely that patients whose lives are saved by CPR would only live for a few days more with broken ribs and severe pain. Though these are still questionable reasons for the doctor, they are not evidently bad reasons for them to believe I should sign the DNACPR. But even if they are good reasons for the doctor to think I should sign, they are not necessarily good reasons for me to think this. For I may, for example, have a deeply held conviction in the value of life or in the purpose of medicine to preserve life at all costs. The doctor’s good reasons are not necessarily even reasons that I accept but decide are overridden by other reasons (“I agree, but I consider other things more important”), for I may altogether repudiate the value of a dignified end of life. Thus, even if I am in a position, given the sincerity and competence of the doctor, to believe that they have good reasons to think I should sign the DNACPR, I do not thereby have reason to sign.

An additional condition must hold for it to be rational to trust in the recommendation of an expert. That additional condition is that the person has good reason to believe that the expert bases their recommendation on values that are held by the recipient of the recommendation. To be more specific, a recommendation is based on the values of another when B recommends an action to A because B believes that action is in A’s interests. The ambiguity of “interest” here helps to keep this condition flexible enough to cover actions that are valuable for a person in virtue of their desires (“Given you wish to lift heavier weights, I recommend you work on your shoulder mobility.”) and actions that are valuable for a person despite their occurrent desires (“Smoking is bad for you; stop it.”). This flexibility is important because without it we would be committed to thinking that one can never rationally trust a person who is trying to teach us to change our values. Sometimes we turn to experts not just because they can show us the means to our ends, but because we want their advice on the ends themselves.

We thus reach a more demanding version of a principle for recommendation trust:

(R*) if A has good reasons to believe B has good reasons to believe that a certain action is in A’s interest, then A has good reasons to believe that they should perform that action.

One way in which this is a more demanding principle than that which governs epistemic trust is that it requires that we have good reason to think that the expert issuing the recommendation understands what is in our interest. In some cases, this condition might be easily met. Most of the time when we ask a doctor for a recommendation we expect them to tell us what is good for our health, and we will be happy to defer on precisely what health means and what we should do to preserve it. But even in medical cases we will sometimes encounter situations in which we cannot take for granted that a competent doctor’s recommendations will be in our interest. The potential divergence of values in a decision about a DNACPR is one example of this.


The difference between epistemic trust and recommendation trust has ramifications for the measures appropriate to cultivating trust in experts. Much of the literature theorising ways in which we could help to build trust in science focuses on the sceptical problem posed by the decline of the value-free ideal of science (see, e.g., Anderson 2011; John 2018; Schroeder 2019). In doing so, this work focuses on how we can cultivate epistemic trust. There is no one answer to this challenge for epistemic trust in science, nor is this the only challenge.[10] To keep things manageable, I will focus only on the problem that values in science poses for trust, and to a selection of solutions to this problem. The question I raise is whether any proposed measures to cultivate epistemic trust in experts could also build recommendation trust. The purposes of this are twofold: to demonstrate that not all measures that help to cultivate epistemic trust help to build recommendation trust; and to arrive at a positive—though provisional—proposal for two measures to cultivate recommendation trust in experts.[11]

Consider first a popular argument against the value-free ideal of science, namely the argument from inductive risk (Douglas 2000; John 2016). Evidence gathered to test a scientific hypothesis typically underdetermines whether we should accept or reject the hypothesis because it fails to support deductive inferences either way. This introduces an inductive risk of either false positives or false negatives, depending on the level of caution we exercise in rejecting or accepting hypotheses. The level of caution we exercise cannot be grounded in epistemic reasons, and so we must appeal to non-epistemic reasons—primarily ethical values—to decide how cautious we will be.

Such judgements about the inductive risk we are willing to accept are particularly prevalent in our current emergency, where decisions need to be made quickly and data are scant. The parameters of our epidemiological modelling, for example, will partly be determined by non-epistemic reasons for whether we are more willing to risk overestimates or underestimates in infection and mortality rates. These decisions are sometimes said to be based on a trade-off between COVID-19 deaths now and deaths or decreased wellbeing in the future as a result of the economic impact of social distancing. However, the role of values is likely to be much more complex than this. Our values will affect, among other things, what we consider to be possible responses to a pandemic-generated recession, and political decisions will partially determine the outcomes of a recession, including who bears the brunt of its negative effects. Even setting the terms of the trade-off is influenced by our politics.

In response to such reasons to think science cannot be value free, some have called for greater transparency about the way in which values affect scientific results.[12] Greater transparency promises two benefits. First, transparency encourages novices to believe that scientists are honest about their procedures and findings. This belief in honesty is one of the crucial components in epistemic trust in science. Second, greater transparency could mitigate whatever tendency there might be among the public to think that the collapse of the value-free ideal of science warrants a blanket scepticism about all scientific claims. Values influence science in a variety of ways, some of which merit much less scepticism about the results of science than others. Heather Douglas (2008) has argued that there is a significant difference between direct and indirect influence of values on science. Values play an illegitimate direct role in science when they are used to warrant an empirical claim. Values play a legitimate indirect role in science when they determine what we accept as sufficient warrant for an empirical claim, with the warrant provided solely by epistemic evidence. Thus, for Douglas values should guide our judgements about acceptable levels of inductive risk, but they should not guide our judgement of the probability that an empirical claim is true. If greater transparency reveals that values play a legitimate role in science, then it can help to allay suspicion.

Transparency is by no means an unquestionably effective measure even for building epistemic trust (John 2018; Schroeder 2019). But aside from the problems that arise for using transparency to increase epistemic trust, there are three new problems that arise if we wish to use transparency to build recommendation trust. First, confidence in the sincerity of experts is not enough to meet conditions for rational trust in the recommendations of experts. An individual expert or an expert community could disclose as much information as possible about their methods, procedures, and even value assumptions that lead to their results, without giving the public reason to accept their recommendations. In order to have recommendation trust in experts, we need to know not just that their testimony about their area of expertise is sincere, but also that their recommendations are in our interest. Our confidence in this is not secured by transparency alone.

Perhaps this requires simply that our attempts to increase public transparency of science focus specifically on the values, goals, and ends that inform expert recommendations, thus allowing the public to judge for themselves whether the values of the experts align with their interests. But this fails to address the other two problems with using transparency to build recommendation trust. The second problem for transparency is that the way that values inform scientific results is very often not as simple as we need it to be in order to have reliable ways of communicating this to non-experts. A basic principle of precautionary reasoning used in epidemiological modelling of infection rate may be simple enough to communicate effectively to non-epidemiologists, but transparency about the political assumptions involved in economic modelling of the effects of the pandemic could be much more difficult to achieve. Indeed, the role that values play in setting the parameters for an expert community may not even be transparent to the experts themselves; not all scientists are philosophers of science. Revealing the values that influence scientific recommendations and expert-led policy might sometimes be possible, but often such transparency is highly impracticable.

But even if we can achieve transparency, it is not clear that it will benefit recommendation trust in the same way it can benefit epistemic trust. This leads to the third problem with transparency. One of the purported benefits of transparency is to show non-experts that values are playing the role they should play in science. Provided that everything is running as it should—that the science in question is trustworthy—transparency can allay suspicion that values play an illegitimate direct role. But this relies on a distinction between direct and indirect use of value judgements that does not apply to expert recommendations. Values must play a direct role in a recommendation because values must feature in the reasoning that supports the recommendation. There is thus nothing to be gained simply by showing non-experts what role values play in an expert recommendation, because there is no relevant distinction between more or less legitimate roles for values to play in such recommendations.

In fact, showing the public that their interests are aligned with the values informing science is not just an unhelpful and often unworkable step, but it is an unnecessary step.[13] For my trust in an expert recommendation to be rational, I need to have well-placed confidence in the alignment of the ends of the recommendation and my own ends. But confidence in this can be secured through means other than first learning about the values that inform the expert recommendations and then comparing them with my own. Instead of allowing the public to examine recommendations through transparency of values, we could instead secure confidence in the alignment of values through building public values into the procedures used to arrive at recommendations. If I have good reason to believe that my interests have played a significant role in the procedures used to arrive at expert-led policy, then I need not examine each element of the policy and each expert recommendation for alignment with my interests, because confidence in the procedure can provide confidence in the policy outcome.


How might we build public interests into decision-making procedures in a way that supports recommendation trust in experts? Many have proposed a range of measures for democratizing science to build public trust in experts, but, again, not all of these proposals will help us deal with the extra demands when building trust in expert recommendations. One popular option is James Fishkin’s deliberative polling (2009).[14] The deliberative polling process reaches policy verdicts through face-to-face deliberation between representative samples of the population, informed by relevant scientific information and bound by norms of appropriate discussion. The role of experts in the process is to explain the relevant scientific consensus, where there is one, and as much as possible the relevant concepts, methods, and standards of evidence used in reaching that consensus. Citizen participants are also informed of the most significant robust opposition to the consensus, with an opportunity to learn about the reasons that could be given for dissent, and to hear more from the experts about their defence against objections. Non-expert participants are thus given opportunities to resolve doubts as much as possible before coming to a collective conclusion about the correct policy decision, informed by the expert advice.

As Elizabeth Anderson has noted, one of the virtues of Fishkin’s deliberative polling model is that there is evidence that such a procedure mitigates the effects of cultural cognition, a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are more likely to accept information that is compatible with their existing values and to deny information that challenges those values (Anderson 2011, 158). Interaction with participants with other political views and a much more extensive interaction with experts than would usually be the case can help to increase the chances that a non-expert will respond to the data regardless of whether they affirm previously held convictions.

But the distinctive challenge of generating recommendation trust in experts is not to overcome cognitive bias. Even if the outgroup prejudice against experts is overcome through deliberative polling, a non-expert participant could still be warranted in refusing to accept what the experts tell them when the experts are issuing recommendations and not just giving factual testimony. Deliberative polling could successfully disabuse a citizen of epistemic prejudice against expert testimony without thereby giving them a reason to accept that the same epistemic-trustworthy expert is issuing recommendations that are in their interest. If this is the case, as I have argued above, the citizen will have good reason to epistemic-trust the expert without having good reason to recommendation-trust them.

Perhaps deliberative polling is used to tackle the problem not by showing citizens they have good reason to recommendation-trust, but instead by eliminating the need for recommendation trust in the first place. It could be that in deliberative polling experts no longer play the role of issuing recommendations for policy, and instead they simply provide information for the non-expert deliberators to use in their collective policy verdicts. But though this might be valuable so far as it goes, it leaves us without a solution for the emergency situations in which expert-led policy, trusted by the public, is desirable and cannot be substituted with policy decisions made solely by novices. As I have argued in Section 2, this is precisely the kind of scenario we find ourselves in during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is another way to secure confidence in the alignment of public interest and expert recommendation that relies on neither transparency nor novice participation in policy deliberation. We can look instead to the way in which science-led policy is communicated to the public. In addition to Fishkin’s deliberative polling model, Anderson (2011) proposes two other means by which we can overcome cultural cognition and persuade the public to become better disposed to trusting experts where indeed they have good reason to do so.

The first, “expressive overdetermination,” is borrowed from Braman, Kahan, and Grimmelmann (2005, 297): investing policy with multiple meanings such that it can be accepted from diverse political perspectives. Braman et al. cite French abortion law reform as an example of this. After decades of disagreement, France adopted law that made abortion permissible provided the individual has been granted an unreviewable certification of personal emergency. Evidence that such an approach would be effective pre-existed the new law, but such evidence had proved unconvincing to concerned parties. This new policy was sufficiently polyvalent to be acceptable to the most important parties to the debate; religious conservatives understood the certification to be protecting life, while pro-choice advocates saw the unreviewable nature of the certification as protection for the autonomy of women. With this framework in place, acceptable to all, opposing sides to the debate were able to converge on the details of implementation (ibid., 298).

Anderson’s second alternative is to recruit spokespersons who are identifiable to diverse groups as similar to them in political outlook. The strategy is to overcome cultural cognition by convincing citizens that the relevant scientific consensus is likely not to be a threat to their values because that same consensus is accepted by those with similar values. Anderson cites Barack Obama establishing links with Evangelical Christians such as Rick Warren, one of the 86 evangelical leaders who had signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative two years before the beginning of Obama’s presidency (Frazier-Crawford Boerl 2010, 153). She suggests that Obama’s public association with Warren was an attempt to win over conservative Christians to his climate-change policy. Braman et al. call this “identity vouching” (2005, 297).

Can these strategies for communicating science to sceptical publics also work for building recommendation trust? I believe they can, with the right caveats. First, given that we are looking for measures to build well-placed recommendation trust, it must be the case that the evidence-based policy that is communicated through expressive overdetermination and identity vouching is in fact in the interests of the public whose trust we are soliciting. These strategies could also be used to mislead the public into accepting recommendations from experts that are not in their interest, if, for instance, the spokespersons are dishonest about whether this is the case. But this would not be a strategy to cultivate well-placed recommendation trust, because the public would not have good reason to trust such recommendations.

Second, if we are to use these strategies specifically for recommendation trust, the goal of the strategies is different, and this will likely affect the details of how we implement them. Expressive overdetermination and identity vouching support epistemic trust by encouraging citizens to believe expert-testimony that would otherwise be resisted as a threat to those citizens’ values. The same strategies support recommendation trust only if they encourage citizens to see that the relevant expert recommendations are in their interests. But it is not difficult to imagine how these strategies could do this. Braman et al. (2005, 297) suggest that French religious conservatives were more willing to accept the evidence in favour of abortion law reform once they saw that the law affirmed the sanctity of human life. However, it is also likely that this adjustment gave those same religious conservatives good reason to believe that this policy was in their interests (“If you want a policy that respects the sanctity of life, this is the policy for you.”). Similarly, evidence-led policy could be presented to the public by spokespersons whose interests are already thought to align with the relevant members of the public. Thus, an American Evangelical Christian might think that if recommendations to cut carbon emission are good for Rick Warren, then they are good for them too.

With these caveats, using these communication strategies to cultivate recommendation trust is, I submit, preferable to other proposals. Expressive overdetermination and identity vouching avoid the problems of transparency measures: they demonstrate specifically that public interests align with expert recommendations, and  they do so without relying on novices (or even experts themselves) understanding the complex ways in which expert values shape scientific recommendations. And these communication strategies also provide an approach that is preferable to deliberative polling in times of crisis. When an emergency situation precludes a lengthy process of expert-informed citizen deliberation, expert-led policymaking might be necessary. Where this is the case, trust must be won by demonstrating to the public that expert recommendations are in their interest.


The account I have given offers reasons for a cautious optimism about the possibility of building well-placed trust in science-led policy. I am afraid I will conclude on a more pessimistic note. I have argued for the view that there are additional challenges to rational trust in experts when those experts are leading public policy and not just providing policy-relevant information. The additional demands of this kind of trust boil down to three claims that I have argued for: recommendation trust is different from both epistemic and practical trust; the conditions for rational recommendation trust are more demanding than the conditions for rational epistemic trust; and many measures that have been proposed to cultivate trust in experts do not help to cultivate recommendation trust in science-led policy. The measures that can help involve communicating science-led policy to the public in a way that allows the public to see, where it is indeed the case, that it is in their interest to follow the policy.

But the success of such a strategy is likely to be limited by factors that I have not had space to address. One such factor is the fragility of public confidence in the very idea of science-led policy. Where governments present their policy as technocratic, only for their claim to be “following the science” to be exposed as false, citizens will have good reason to be suspicious of future policy that is sold to them on a similar basis. Another significant factor is the broader climate of public trust, most notably the levels of public trust in politicians and government. Perhaps science-led policy is the product of experts and politicians working together. Perhaps science-led policy is the product of a full-blown technocracy, where experts become our political leaders. Either way, once science is corrupted by politics, its authority is vulnerable to public trust in the political system. Rebuilding this kind of trust is a much more difficult task.


Anderson, Elizabeth. 2011. “Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony.” Episteme 8 (2): 144–64.

Atchison, Christina, Leigh Bowman, Charlotte Vrinten, Rozlyn Redd, Philippa Pristera, Jeffrey W Eaton, and Helen Ward. 2020. “Perceptions and Behavioural Responses of the General Public During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-sectional Survey of UK Adults.” medRxiv doi: 10.1101/2020.04.01.20050039

Braman, Donald, Dan Kahan, and James Grimmelmann. 2005. “Modelling Facts, Culture, and Cognition in the Gun Debate.” Social Justice Research 18 (3): 283–304.

Brennan, Johnny. 2020. “Can Novice Trust Themselves to Choose Trustworthy Experts? Reasons for (Reserved) Optimism.” Social Epistemology 34 (3): 227–40.

Burge, Tyler. 1995. “Content Preservation.” Philosophical Issues 6: 271–300.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What it Takes to be an Expert.” Philosophical Quarterly 69 (274): 1–21.

Douglas, Heather. 2000. “Inductive Risk and Values in Science.” Philosophy of Science 67 (4): 559–79.

–––––– 2008. “The Role of Values in Expert Reasoning.” Public Affairs Quarterly 22 (1): 1–18.

Fishkin, James. 2009. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frazier-Crawford Boerl, Christopher Wayne. 2010. “American Evangelicals and the Politics of Climate Change.” St Antony’s International Review 5 (2): 147–63.

Fricker, Miranda. 1998. “Rational Authority and Social Power: Towards a Truly Social Epistemology.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 98 (2): 159–77.

Hardwig, John. 1985. “Epistemic Dependence.” Journal of Philosophy 82 (7): 335–49.

–––––– 1991. “The Role of Trust in Knowledge.” Journal of Philosophy 88 (12): 693–708.

Holton, Richard, and Jacopo Domenicucci. 2017. “Trust as a Two-place Relation.” In The Philosophy of Trust, edited by Paul Faulkner and Thomas Simpson, 149–260. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ipsos MORI. 2019. “Trust in Politicians Falls Sending Them Spiralling Back to the Bottom of the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index.” (Accessed 15 May 2020)

John, Stephen. 2016. “From Social Values to P-Values: The Social Epistemology of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (2): 157–71.

–––––– 2018. “Epistemic Trust and the Ethics of Science Communication: Against Transparency, Openness, Sincerity and Honesty.” Social Epistemology 32 (2): 72–87.

Kappel, Klemens. 2014. “Believing on Trust.” Synthese 191 (9): 2009–28.

Kitcher, Philip. 2001. Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kukla, Rebecca. 2007. “How do Patients Know?” The Hastings Center Report 37 (5): 27–35.

O’Neill, Onora. 2020. “Trust and Accountability in a Digital Age.” Philosophy 95 (1): 3–17.

Pew Research Center. 2019a. “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2019.” Accessed May 15, 2020.

–––––– 2019b. “Trust and Distrust in America.” July. Accessed May 15, 2020.

Rolin, Kristina. 2002. “Gender and Trust in Science.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 17 (4): 95–120.

Schroeder, S. Andrew. 2019. “Democratic Values: A Better Foundation for Public Trust in Science.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science axz023.

Watson, Jamie Carlin. 2020. “Hunting the Expert: The Precarious Epistemic Position of a Novice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (4): 51–58.

Wilsdon, James, and Rebecca Willis. 2004. See-through Science: Why Public Engagement Needs to Move Upstream. London: Demos.

Wylie, Alison. 2003. “Why Standpoint Matters.” In Science and Other Cultures, edited by Robert Figueroa and Sandra Harding, 26–48. New York: Routledge.

[1] Ipsos MORI data on public trust in the UK in November 2019 showed that 14% of the public trusted politicians to tell the truth, matching previous recorded lows in 2016, 2011, and 2009 (Ipsos MORI 2019). Data from the Pew Research Center in April 2019 showed that 17% of respondents in the US trusted the government to do what is right at least “most of the time” (Pew Research Center 2019a), but this same figure has passed 50% only three times since 1972 (ibid.).

[2] Ipsos MORI’s data show that 86% of respondents said they generally trusted professors to tell the truth, 84% scientists (Ipsos MORI 2019). Pew Research Center data from 2018 showed that 83% of respondents said they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists, with very little (1%) variation between age groups (Pew Research Center 2019b, 19).

[3] What is an expert? The account of trust in experts I give here will remain neutral on debates about how best to define experts. However, I am inclined to what Michel Croce (2019) calls novice-oriented accounts because the experts I am concerned with are those that play the role of providing information and recommendations to non-experts.

[4] Where decisions really are exclusively within the remit of politicians, science-led policy can only be such if politicians trust experts. The norms governing when it is reasonable for politicians to trust experts, and the measures that we can take to build this trust, might well differ from those relating to public trust in science.

[5] It is not universally accepted that trust is tripartite. For more see Holton and Domenicucci (2017).

[6] The domain restriction can also reflect a principle that underpins some standpoint epistemology: some facts about, for instance, social and political injustice are better understood by those who suffer those injustices (Wylie 2003). Thus marginalized groups might be more epistemic-trustworthy in relevant domains.

[7] Hardwig is also not without his critics (see e.g., Kappel 2014; Rolin 2002). Nonetheless, the criticisms of Hardwig that I am aware of do not give us reason to adjust his principles in ways that would threaten the distinction in norms of rational trust that I am arguing for. Demonstrating this would, I suggest, take me beyond the scope of this paper.

[8] Note my argument in this section is not an argument against Hardwig, because Hardwig does not claim his principle would apply to anything other than epistemic trust.

[9] Does this mean that Hardwig’s principle (T) is not true? (R) appears to be a more specific version of (T) insofar as it specifies the nature of the belief professed by B and accepted by A. But if (R) is entailed by (T), and (R) is false, then (T) must also be false. Given that the truth of (T) is not at stake in this paper, I will remain agnostic on this issue, though I provisionally suggest that (T) might be saved were we to specify that B’s belief is about non-moral facts—this adapted (T) would not entail (R). I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this.

[10] Other concerns include the difficulty for novices of identifying experts. See e.g., Brennan 2020 and Watson 2020.

[11] I am also setting aside matters of practical trust in experts, not to mention practical trust in government.

[12] See e.g., Kitcher (2001, chapter 6) and Wilsdon and Willis (2004).

[13] It could also be a dangerous step, as Schroeder (2019) has argued, insofar as it could encourage non-experts to be selective about the experts they prefer to follow, and as a result it might politicize science such that scientists and the public become divided along ideological lines.

[14] This has been endorsed as a means to build trust byAnderson (2011) and Kitcher (2011, chapter 8).

Special Issue, Uncategorized

How Government Leaders Violated Their Epistemic Duties during the SARS-CoV-2 Crisis

Eric Winsberg, Jason Brennan, & Chris W. Surprenant[1]

[This is an advance copy of an article that will appear in print in September 2020 as part of the KIEJ’s special double issue on Ethics, Pandemics, and COVID-19.]

ABSTRACT. In spring 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, many world leaders imposed universal lockdowns. We argue that these restrictions have not been accompanied by the epistemic practices morally required for their adoption or continuation. While in theory lockdowns can be justified, governments did not meet and have not yet met their justificatory burdens. We will not argue that less stringent policies were optimal or better justified. Rather, we explain how government leaders failed and have continued to fail to meet their epistemic duties by relying upon data, models, and evidence of insufficiently good quality to justify their actions.

Sovereign is he who provides the exception.…The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition. (Schmitt 2010, 1, 15)


In spring 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, world leaders imposed severe restrictions on citizens’ civil, political, and economic liberties. These restrictions went beyond less controversial and less demanding social distancing measures seen in past epidemics. Many states and countries imposed universal lockdowns. Lockdowns, as we define them here, require people to stay home; in some countries and places, citizens must have ad hoc licenses to leave their homes for any reason. Citizens are often forbidden from playing outside, e.g., by jogging alone in the park. Citizens are forbidden from gathering in groups larger than ten, and in some cases they are forbidden from visiting friends and family even in small groups. Lockdowns do not merely prohibit large gatherings, such as conferences or concerts, but also prohibit small backyard parties. Most places of work are ordered to close, resulting in mass unemployment.

In this paper, we argue that these restrictions have not been accompanied by the epistemic practices morally required for their adoption or continuation. While in theory, lockdowns can be justified, governments did not meet and have not yet met their justificatory burdens.

This paper will not attempt to assess or determine which suppression mechanisms governments ought to have imposed, either in light of the information they had or have now. We will not argue that less stringent policies were optimal or better justified. Rather, our goal is to explain how government leaders failed and have continued to fail to meet their epistemic duties. We will argue that states relied upon bad data and flawed models, and they lacked the other kinds of evidence they would need to justify lockdowns. Again, we do not thereby claim that lockdowns were bad policy, nor are we assessing how dangerous COVID-19 is. Instead, we argue that most governments have failed to meet their epistemic duties.

As a partial analogy, imagine the state strongly suspects a person is a dangerous serial killer. Suppose there is indeed some evidence he is. To ensure he does not further endanger the public, they arrest and detain him. Months later, however, he remains in prison, yet the state has not convicted him; in fact, it has barely begun to collect the evidence it needs to demonstrate his guilt. Moreover, suppose we learn that the state has made demonstrable errors in its reasoning in accusing the person of the killings. Here, civil rights lawyers might well complain that the state has not met the epistemic obligations needed to hold the prisoner. This does not mean the lawyers necessarily deny the suspect is a killer. They may not even want him set free. But to justify infringing the suspect’s rights, the state needs to be more than factually correct: it needs to have strong epistemic grounds for its claims. For state agents to imprison someone without proper evidence is a severe ethical failing. Note that we are not, in this analogy, claiming that lockdowns are equivalent to imprisonment; our point is simply to provide an example where governments are required to possess a certain level of justification before they may restrict citizens’ liberties.


Liberal political philosophies regard liberty as the fundamental political value. All citizens possess an extensive sphere of individual liberty. Governments may restrict such liberties only in exceptional cases and upon meeting high justificatory burdens.

Consider John Rawls’s theory as an exemplar. Rawls’s theory claims that each person is “entitled to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties…compatible with like liberties for all” (2001, 42). “Basic liberty” here is a technical concept, referring to a liberty which may not easily be overridden by concerns for social stability, economic efficiency, economic fairness, or general welfare. While non-basic liberties (such as the right to invest) may be restricted in order to promote other values (such as equity or welfare), basic liberties may not. Any reduction of basic liberties must meet standards of strict scrutiny. While trade-offs among the basic liberties are permitted, trade-offs between the basic liberties and various other social goals generally are not, except perhaps in extreme cases.

Rawls claims that not all liberties are basic. He defends an enumerated list of particular liberal freedoms, including liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of association, rights of due process and equal protection under the rule of law, freedom of occupation, and a right to own personal property (Rawls 1996; Freeman 2006, 46).

Of course, a major debate within liberalism is which liberties are “basic” in Rawls’s sense. We will not resolve this debate here. We simply remark that lockdowns restrict and reduce citizens’ basic liberties according to any major liberal theory.

The equivalent of the distinction between basic and non-basic liberties appears in most liberal democratic constitutions. For instance, in the United States, political speech is more strongly protected than commercial speech, while the right of free association for religious, political, or social purposes is more strongly protected than commercial freedom of association. For Congress to restrict citizens’ religious expression or to forbid their gathering for friendship or private events, the state must meet a high burden of justification, both in terms of the values it purports to promote through such restrictions, and in terms of the evidence it must give in support of any causal claims (Killion 2019).

Liberals have a variety of grounds for such views. Some appeal to the long run utility of rights (Mill 1859; Schmidtz 2008), others to autonomy, equality, and personhood (Rawls 1971; 1996; Gaus 2011). Others claim rights prevent state overreach (Spaulding 2009).[2]

Note, however, that the liberal position is not that basic liberties can be impeded or reduced only under conditions of strict scrutiny, while all other liberties can be reduced at will. Instead, all liberals believe in a “presumption of liberty” (Feinberg 1984, 9; Benn 1988, 87; Gaus 1996, 162–66; Rawls 2001, 44, 112; Gaus, Courtland, and Schmidtz 2018): Liberty is presumed to be normatively basic. By default, citizens are presumed free to do as they please, and by default, liberty does not need to be justified. However, any restrictions on liberty must be justified by appeal to various public values. Basic liberties can be restricted only if justifications survive strict scrutiny, while restrictions on non-basic liberties still require significant justification. The stronger the imposition and the greater the potential harm it imposes, the stronger the needed justification.

Our discussion here abstracts from these theoretical details in order to appeal to the generic principles that liberals share, and which supposedly undergird modern democratic nation-states. Liberals and constitutional democrats generally believe that (a) all restrictions on freedom must be justified, and (b) freedom cannot easily be overridden or silenced in the name of the common good, though some freedoms are more easily restricted than others. Further, liberals believe that (c) the justifications governments offer for overriding basic rights must be grounded in and appeal to public reasons and information that is appropriately available to all citizens.


Nevertheless, many liberals do believe that restrictions on basic liberties, including forced quarantine and social isolation (Parmet and Sinha 2020), are in principle justifiable. Even many libertarians, whose rejection of state interference is especially strong, share this view. For instance, although Robert Nozick argues that the state may not violate rights just because doing so produces better consequences, he suggests that rights may be violated to “avoid catastrophic moral horror” (Nozick 1974, 31). Along similar lines, Jessica Flanigan (2014; 2017) and Jason Brennan (2018) argue that mandatory vaccination can be justified. Although both reject paternalistic grounds for mandatory vaccination, they agree that states may mandate vaccines to prevent citizens from imposing undue risk onto others. Flanigan argues that firing a gun in the air over a crowded place imposes an undue risk of harm upon innocent bystanders (Flanigan 2014, 6). She claims that infected people who venture into crowds behave analogously. Brennan (2018) revises Flanigan’s argument by accounting for problems of uncertainty, collective action, and overdetermination, but reaches a similar conclusion.

Thus, even libertarian liberals, despite their anti-statism, often defend restrictions on basic liberties, particularly in the name of preventing harm. In the case of mandatory vaccination, this argument is made on the grounds that the people have no right to expose others to undue risk of infection. Considering these arguments, then, one might think it trivial to justify COVID-19 lockdowns on the same grounds. Such restrictions on liberty prevent citizens from exposing their neighbors to undue risk—potentially resulting in catastrophic moral horror as infections spread rapidly through the population—and thus they are justified from a liberal point of view.


Liberals and constitutional democrats agree that under the right conditions, states may restrict or remove people’s liberty, force them to accept medicines, deprive them of their jobs, imprison them, or even kill them. But in order to do these things justifiably, the state must meet certain conditions, including certain epistemic conditions. For example, it may not mandate an untested vaccine. It may not imprison a suspected killer without proving his guilt. It may not start a war concerning possible weapons of mass destruction on poor intelligence. It may not place citizens in internment camps on mere suspicion of disloyalty.

Epistemic norms are sometimes also moral duties (Chignell 2018). In some cases, individuals or groups have moral duties to collect good evidence, reason carefully about that evidence, engage in proper self-skepticism, and overcome their cognitive biases. This often occurs when one person is the fiduciary of another, when one person exerts significant power and authority over another, or when two people have certain contracts with each other. For instance, parents owe their children duties of care; these duties of care require parents to reason properly about issues related to their children’s welfare. Similarly, a financial advisor owes it to her clients to assess possible investment plans with high levels of competence and rational evaluation.

In recent work, Jason Brennan (2011; 2016) argues that governments have strong epistemic duties when making high stakes decisions. He motivates this idea with the example of a murder trial.

Imagine a defendant is charged with first degree murder. During the trial, both sides present evidence, question witnesses, and make arguments. The defendant will likely be executed or imprisoned for life if found guilty. Suppose the members of jury find him guilty. However, they are ignorant of the facts of the case, decide on the basis of false or pseudoscientific information, lack the cognitive capacity to understand the case, or process the information presented in the trial in irrational and biased ways. Alternatively, suppose they have improper motivations, such as malice toward the defendant, a conflict of interests, or simply want to please the judge and the press with a guilty verdict regardless of the defendant’s actual guilt.

If we knew a jury found the defendant guilty for any of these reasons, we would conclude they have acted unjustly. The jurors owe it to the defendant—and to society, as our representatives—to conduct a fair, impartial, and unbiased trial, and to reason in truth-conductive, reliable ways. In this case, we would conclude the jury’s decision should be thrown out and the trial conducted again. This judgment is reflected in the laws of many US states, which entitle a defendant to a new trial if he shows his jury had these problems.

We would not excuse the jury’s behavior if they claimed they acted on the best information available, but the available information was very bad. For instance, suppose the trial is held three days after capturing the defendant. Because of the lack of time, neither the prosecution nor the defense have much evidence for their side, and the evidence they have is of poor quality. In this case, if the jurors find the defendant guilty, they act wrongly. Saying they acted on the best available information is not sufficient justification. Instead, the evidence must meet an objective rather than relative standard; in this case, there must be no reasonable doubts that the defendant is guilty.

It would not be acceptable for a government to convict a person on the basis of poor evidence, and then collect good evidence later, after the fact. If critics complained about this behavior, it would make little sense for apologists to say, “Sure, everyone admits the government needs better evidence, which thankfully they are now, two months after the conviction, starting to collect.” The evidentiary bill comes due before conviction. Even if we discover later that the defendant was guilty, any liberal or constitutional democrat must nevertheless condemn the state’s behavior and demand the state follow pre-established rules of evidence in the future.

Liberals or democrats in the public reason tradition (e.g., Benhabib 2002; Christiano 2010; Eberle 2002; Estlund 2008; Freeman 2009; Gaus 1996; 2003; 2011; Habermas 1995; 1996; Larmore 2008; Rawls 1996; 2001; Tomasi 2001; 2012; Vallier 2018)—now the dominant paradigm in English-language political philosophy—hold that governments are subject to additional constraints. When they impose policies upon citizens, these policies must be justifiable to those citizens in light of certain publicly shared values and publicly available evidence which all reasonable citizens can accept. Governments are generally forbidden from acting on private, inaccessible, or non-public sources of information. They must instead appeal to widely shared values implicit in a democratic conception of personhood, which views everyone as free and equal (Rawls 1996; Gaus 2011). Public reason liberals in particular have reason to avoid claiming that citizens should blindly follow government leaders without demanding a public justification for their decisions.

Note that in using these analogies, we are not claiming that COVID-19 lockdowns are like imprisonment or punishment, though governments’ use of the word ‘lockdown’ does tend to push public rhetoric in that direction. Nor are we arguing that the appropriate remedy here is the same as in the case of a trial. In the case of a trial, if the state fails to meet its epistemic duties, the defendant goes free. We are not arguing that when the state fails to meet its epistemic duties, a quarantine must be immediately ended. Instead, Brennan argues that the point about the capital murder trial generalizes. When governments make high-stakes political decisions, decisions which can greatly harm people, or deprive them of livelihood, property, liberty, or even life, they are morally obligated to make such decisions competently and in good faith. What should happen when the state fails to meet its duties is a separate question that we do not address here. We simply argue that meeting the epistemic duty means relying on good information—not the best information available, but good information, period. The jury example motivates this intuition, but it generalizes to a wide range of political decisions. Below, we will explain why the COVID-19 lockdowns are “high stakes” in the relevant way, though we suspect this point is obvious.

Liberal democrats have good reason to endorse something like this in light of their own principles. They hold that certain liberties are basic and that liberty in general is normatively fundamental. Overriding, silencing, or forfeiting freedom requires that governments meet a strong justificatory burden. Governments must make such decisions using proper epistemic reasoning procedures, on the basis of good information, and while acting in good faith.

The foregoing comments provide the basic normative background of our argument. Appealing to ideas and principles shared within democratic or liberal traditions, we will show why governments have failed to meet the justificatory burdens required to legitimate the COVID-19 lockdowns. First, we will argue that the quality of the data and models used by officials was poor. We will argue that work on the philosophy of science and the reliability of experts gives us further reason to be cautious in deferring to such models. Second, we will argue (though this is far more obvious) that the decisions were extremely high stakes, imposing significant harms and costs upon people everywhere, especially those in extreme poverty. Together, this provides strong evidence that governments violated the Competence Principle and have failed to meet their justificatory burdens. We will not try to draw a precise line at which governments would meet their epistemic obligations to justify the lockdowns. Any precise line would be controversial. Instead, we will argue the information, models, etc., that governments used were sufficiently poor that they fall below any plausible line we might draw.

One might object to this entire line of argument by saying that while imprisoning a defendant is “high stakes,” so is letting him go. In the same way, lockdowns are high stakes—involving mass suppression of freedom of movement and association, serious psychological trauma, and severe economic loss—but refusing to impose lockdowns is also high stakes—as it could lead to serious death. First, as we have emphasized, we do not argue for the analog of “letting the suspect go.” We argue for no general form of remedy to the situation of states failing to meet their epistemic duties when they deprive their citizens of rights. Second, even though it is true that there is a parity of risks, it also misses the point. If one simply rejects the ideals of constitutional democracy or simply rejects liberalism, then the question of whether to impose lockdowns or not becomes a utilitarian issue. At the time lockdowns were imposed, the quality of information in support of any choice was quite poor (as we will explain below), and so from a utilitarian standpoint, it is just as difficult to justify staying open as it is to justify closing things down. But our point here is that constitutional democrats and liberals do not take all options to start on equal footing. They regard freedom as the default from which departures must be justified; the greater the imposition, the stronger the justification needed. While not all readers are liberals or constitutional democrats, these are nevertheless the dominant paradigms in political philosophy and actual political practice in the West.


           Cooper/Smith epidemiologist Dylan Green reports the following:

I’ve been asked to generate modeling results in a matter of weeks (in a disease which I/we know very little about) which I previously would have done over the course of several months, with structured input and validation from collaborators on a disease I have studied for a decade. This ultimately leads to simpler rather than more complicated efforts, as well as difficult decisions in assumptions and parameterization. We do not have the luxury of waiting for better information or improvements in design, even if it takes a matter of days. (Cowen 2020)

When epidemiologists model an emerging epidemic, data are sparse. In constructing their models to make forecasts, they have myriad methodological decisions to make, many of which are unconstrained by data or existing background knowledge.

Consider the Imperial College London (ICL) model, which had significant impact on policy decisions in the UK and US.[3] The model was used to estimate what public interventions would be needed to prevent hospital systems from becoming overwhelmed. The model’s primary job was to predict the impact of various policy choices on demand for hospital beds, intensive care unit (ICU) beds, and the like. Thus, the model needed inputs for the expected death rate, hospitalization rate, and ICU admittance rate for each 100,000 people infected. In all, the model employed almost 700 different parameters.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, and even now as we write this sentence, these magnitudes were not well estimated. The WHO’s early estimates used case rates from China and other early areas of infection. But case rates are directly a product of surveillance /selection bias. When medical professionals predominantly test people who demand care, the resulting data are biased toward more severe results. Not all infected people become sick, and not all sick people need treatment, but the most severely ill people are most likely to seek treatment. Early WHO estimates were extremely high, with fatality rates as high as 3.4% and hospitalization rates well into the double-digit percentages. The correct numbers are still unknown, but early estimates were clearly too high.[4]

A bar graph comparing predicted weekly ICU cases. It is labeled "Figure 4: Illustration of adaptive triggering of suppression strategies in GB, for R-0=2.2, a policy of all four interventions considered, an "on" trigger of 100 ICU cases in a week and an "off" trigger of 50 ICU cases. The policy is in force approximate 2/3 of the time. Only social distancing and school/university closure are triggered; other policies remain in force throughout. Weekly ICU incident is shown in orange, policy triggering in blue."
Figure 1. (Ferguson et al. 2020)

The ICL model is a massive extension of so-called “SIR” models. SIR models divide an epidemiological population into three groups: Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered. SIR models excel at explaining, in retrospect, why epidemics tend to fit a familiar curve pattern. But to be useful for making policy recommendations, such as closing schools, ordering people in general to stay home, ordering the elderly in particular to stay home, closing restaurants, etc., SIR models must be considerably more complex. Each of the three main groups must be now divided—for example, into age categories, into those that stay at home, go to school, go to work, etc.

Let’s examine the ICL model in further depth. The ICL code creates a hypothetical random population for each country it models. Each individual is assigned to a household and, depending on age, to a school/university or workplace. (The sizes of these are chosen in proportion to their real values in the world.) The model is then simulated in six-hour steps; it determines the probability that each individual gets infected based on where s/he is in the model, and then randomly decides (against a background probability estimate) whether each individual is infected, and what happens to infected individuals (hospitalization, death, etc.).

There are a huge number of decisions behind such models. One must choose and code in a death rate, hospitalization rate, and rate of admittance to intensive care; one must choose a time step (which can have a large impact, since people move around in the world on a diurnal basis, and the time step is a significant fraction of the day), as well as the probability of infection at work, school, or at home.

For example, the ICL model assumes that when people socially distance, their probability of getting infected at home increases by 25%. But why 25%? Why not 35%? In fact, there is no data or research to support any particular choice in the model, since we have few well-established rates for any past virus, let alone rates for the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus. In retrospect, it appears now that SARS-CoV-2 is particularly virulent at home, relative to other places and relative to other viruses (Qian et al. 2020). There was enormous uncertainty concerning nearly every parameter built into the model’s coding. Most modeling choices were relatively unconstrained by data or background knowledge; when there was data, it was of poor quality. Our complaint here is not that the ICL model relied upon hundreds of parameters, but that the inputs into these parameters were largely arbitrary and unsupported by evidence.

A single run of the ICL model requires about 20,000 processor hours. It was impossible, on short notice, to explore how varying the (largely arbitrary) parameter values would impact the model’s predictions.[5] It was impossible to determine to what extent the model’s predictions were robust under varying parameter values. Indeed, now that a cleaned-up version of the model’s code is available, it is clear that the ICL model can generate significantly different estimates even with the same parameters inputted. In the end, therefore, the outcome of the simulation was highly dependent on the largely unconstrained choices that the modelers had to make, as well as on chance.

In a recent working paper, economists Christopher Avery et al. (2020) identify many other shortcomings of the major models, including the ICL model. These include failing to account for heterogeneity in degree of viral exposure, failing to account for endogenous behavioral changes (such as that people will self-isolate or reduce their contact with others as the disease spreads), a lack of parameters for hospital capacity, and a lack of parameters for underlying comorbidities. The authors complain, as we do, that many of the assumptions in the SIR and related models are ad hoc and unsupported by evidence, that the arbitrary choice of parameter values greatly changes the models’ predictions, and further that the data fed into these models suffer from heavy selection bias. They conclude that the “each type of model can be reasonably well-calibrated to an initial period of spread of disease, but further assumptions, often necessarily ad hoc in nature, are needed to extend either type of model to later phases of an epidemic” (Avery et al. 2020, 13).

It is no wonder, then, that the model performed poorly at anticipating ICU demand, which was at the heart of the policy recommendations that emerged from the model. Recall that the ICL scientists recommended a policy of “maximum suppression”(Ferguson et al. 2020). This was the most draconian set of policies the group imagined. They anticipated that even maximum suppression would at first barely avoid overwhelming the UK’s existing ICU and ventilator capacity, and it would then require cycling the economy on and off until a vaccine was available. Despite less than maximum suppression, this did not occur. It projected, for the US, that unless maximum suppression measures were used to “reverse epidemic growth, reducing case numbers to low levels and maintaining that situation indefinitely,” the US would experience over a million deaths (Ferguson et al. 2020). On March 20, 2020, Ferguson told reporter Nicholas Kristof that the US’s “best-case” scenario with moderate social distancing would be 1.1 million deaths (Kristof 2020).

A strong indictment of the ICL model comes from examining what it would have predicted for Sweden, which has not implemented any lockdowns. Of course, ICL never ran their model on Sweden, but the model has few country-specific inputs. A group of epidemiologists based in Sweden, Belgium, and the United States (Gardner et al. 2020, 31) ran a model very closely based on the ICL model[6] using parameters adjusted for Sweden’s population density, demographics, etc. They reported, “Our model for Sweden shows that, under conservative epidemiological parameter estimates, the current Swedish public-health strategy will result in a peak intensive-care load in May that exceeds pre-pandemic capacity by over 40-fold, with a median mortality of 96,000 (95% CI 52,000 to 183,000).” Their best-case estimate, if Sweden used maximal suppression and lockdown techniques, was that Sweden would have over 15,000 deaths by the end of April. Of course, Sweden is not actually suffering from overload of its healthcare system. According to their article, Sweden under its current policies should be crossing 70,000 deaths sometime in the next week. As of this writing on May 19, 2020, Sweden has experienced 3,743 deaths from COVID-19.

It’s unclear what the ultimate death toll will be in the US or the UK. But it is clear that this and other models’ projections of ICU and ventilator demand were overly pessimistic. (See Figure 1 above.) Note, also, that the ICL and most similar models did not make projections for deaths of individuals in nursing homes or other critical care facilities.

Another egregious (though not particularly exceptional) example of modeling failure can be seen in the projection stated by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 25, 2020, that, unless the state went into severe lockdown, it would need 40,000 ventilators by April 7, but that the best case scenario was a need for 40,000 ventilators by April 14. Here are the actual data according to

A chart, showing the two predictions of levels of ICU beds needed, compared to actual ICU beds used in New York. The predictions called for 40,000 beds needed by 4/7 or 4/14, and in fact, at most only 5,039 beds were needed.

Figure 2. (Adapted from

Here, Cuomo relied on a regression model of the kind used by the now famous Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). The IHME is a “mixed effects non-linear regression framework” (IHME 2020). It basically takes death, hospitalization, ICU, and ventilator data, as well as the date that particular location has gone on lockdown as inputs, and then fits it to a modified Gaussian curve that looks like the red and yellow lines in Figure 2. The projections of the IHME models of hospitals’ needs, ICU needs, and deaths, for each state, are now legendary for their poor performance and frequent massive updating. These failures have not been limited to New York. For example, consider the IHME’s central projections for how many ICUs the state of Florida would need on April 20, 2020. On the April 7 version of the projection, it was 2,409 units. By April 13, that number had fallen to 763. By the seventeenth, it had fallen again to 354.[7] These were not minor changes, given that Florida was said, at the time when the first projections were released, to have only 1,695 ICU beds available. So, the model predicted on the seventh a large and rapidly approaching shortage, which turned on the thirteenth into a long-delayed shortage, and then finally into a lasting surplus on the seventeenth. As one recent survey put it, “the true number of next day deaths fell outside the IHME prediction [95% confidence] intervals as much as 70% of the time, in comparison to the expected value of 5%” (Marchant et al. 2020). The IHME model has consistently performed far worse than chance, even as the modelers revise it in light of new data.

Given the internal deficiencies of the models being used to justify the policy responses to COVID-19 (such as lockdowns), we might hope that the models themselves (and the policy recommendations stemming from them) would be bolstered by empirical evidence from past pandemics. However, a literature search reveals there are no published, peer-reviewed papers demonstrating the effectiveness of universal lockdown procedures to combat any epidemic. To be clear, there are papers showing that closing schools reduces flu transmission in children (e.g., Chowell et al. 2014). There many papers demonstrating the effectiveness of centralized quarantines, in which infected individuals are confined in designated state facilities. But we lack empirical evidence that extensive lockdown policies or maximal suppression work at all, never mind that they are superior to other, less draconian practices. In Paediatric Respiratory Review, Rashid et al. (2015) survey and review eighty major studies examining various kinds of mild to moderate social distancing (though not lockdown) measures imposed in response to the 2009 influenza pandemic. They note that most papers conclude that social distancing measures are “moderately effective,” but at the same time, they find that “overall, the quality of the evidence was quite weak, drawing primarily on observational or simulated data.” Only one of the eighty papers used “more established methods” such as quasi-randomized control trials (Rashid et al. 2015).

The best paper we can find defending lockdowns is a working paper by Friedson et al. (2020), but this paper has significant limitations. In particular, it counts drops in deaths five days after California’s closing as evidence that lockdowns work. Since the virus takes longer than that to incubate, this drop could not have been caused by the lockdowns.

Issues like these are not unique to the field of epidemiology. On the contrary, we have strong grounds in general to be skeptical about experts’ predictions on hard problems. For instance, in Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock (2005) examined nearly 83,000 predictions made by experts in a variety of fields. He focuses on what the experts themselves consider hard problems rather than easy problems. In general, he finds that on such questions, experts performed poorly, barely better than Berkeley undergraduates. Tetlock’s work warns us against simply “deferring to the science” on hard predictions, since the science in fact shows the scientists are bad at such predictions.

Basic liberties are not to be suspended lightly. Governments must meet high standards of evidence before doing so. We might debate just what the standards need to be to justify lockdowns. However, as the forgoing discussion shows, the actual quality of evidence was quite poor. No plausible theory claims governments may engage in the mass suppression of civil and economic liberty on the basis of poor evidence.


Why did so many expert epidemiologists fail so badly, or rely on speculative parameters within their models? Why did so many liberal democracies massively restrict their citizens’ civil and economic liberties on the basis of poor levels of information? Here, we turn from critiquing the models to reminding readers of what the literature on the philosophy of science tells us about the modelers themselves (Douglas 2000; 2009; Winsberg 2012; 2018; Parker and Winsberg 2018; Rudner 1953; Hempel 1965). Philosophers of science have long recognized that when scientists face unconstrained modeling decisions, their choices are often strongly influenced by their social and ethical values—as well as the various pressures the scientists are under. Insofar as the way we design our models has a strong effect on which policies the models will tend to make look attractive or unattractive, these underlying choices can play an important role in determining how useful a model is for guiding complex public policy decisions.

By way of illustration, suppose you would like to use a scientific model to help decide which of two policy choices you ought to implement. But in making the model, there are two ways you can proceed. On the first way of designing the model, the first policy option ends up looking attractive. On the second approach, the second policy option looks more attractive. Which model do you go with? What if both approaches seem reasonable on the basis of the limited evidence you have? This kind of dilemma is very common when model builders face methodological choices.

One way of resolving this dilemma is to ask which version of the model aligns the balance of inductive risks in the way that accords with your values. For instance, consider the ICL model and the choice of value for the parameter representing the probability of infection transmission at home while socially isolating. If you assume that the probability of getting infected at home goes up by 25% while socially isolating, this makes social isolation look far more attractive than if you assume that the probability of getting infected at home goes up by 35% while socially isolating. If you think that social isolation is the more prudent policy, because you think that risking losing lives to disease is a more serious risk than risking losses to the economy or to political freedoms, this may be reason enough to choose the former specification. The reader might think this is a small change. And indeed, maybe it is. But a model with almost 700 such unconstrained choices, each of which produces non-linear effects on the model output, creates a highly flexible model.

Alternatively, you might consider what will happen if you choose the wrong approach. Imagine that you are an epidemiologist who faces the kind of pressures that Dylan Green describes—asked to instantaneously deliver policy-defining predictions about a disease you know little about, with potentially hundreds of thousands of lives on the line. What are you to do, particularly when you have no independent evidence upon which to determine the correct value of that parameter? Any choice you make will reflect a value decision about the danger of overpredicting deaths vs. the danger of underpredicting deaths. We hope it will not be terribly controversial to say that epidemiologists, faced with Green’s pressures, are inclined to avoid underpredicting rather than overpredicting deaths (see, e.g., Green and Farahany 2014). They will be inclined to recommend policy choices that minimize the risk of death as opposed to, say, minimizing the chances of overreaction. Moreover, they will focus primarily on reducing the risk of death by disease—given that this is the subject of their expertise—and not on potential collateral damage resulting, for example, from hunger and dislocation that might result from an overly aggressive policy choice. The nature of the work they do directs their attention more to the damage caused by viruses like COVID-19 then to damage done by economic loss or reduction of political freedom. The consequences to themselves, their careers, their discipline, their own sense of moral culpability will be much larger if they underpredict rather than overpredict death by disease. It is the primary social role and responsibility of epidemiologists to focus on avoiding disease. It is their role to make their best guess when information is lacking. In contrast, it is the social role and responsibility of policymakers, and our political representatives, to make policy decisions that reflect the whole spectrum of our moral values. It is their role and responsibility to make the hard decisions and to take uncertainty and scientific ignorance into account.

Given these influences, it is unsurprising to find a great deal of evidence from past experiences that epidemiologists favor a balance of inductive risks that leads to over-forecasting the severity of diseases. The infection fatality rate of Mad Cow Disease, H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, and MERS all were considerably lower than what epidemiologists predicted. And while SARS 2002 actually ended up being twice as fatal as originally predicted, its infectious spread was tiny compared to what they predicted (Yu et al. 2013; Wang, Parides, and Palese 2012; Lipsitch et al. 2015; Cauchemez et al. 2014). Repeated cases of overprediction can even be diagnosed in single individuals. For example, Neil Ferguson, the famous epidemiologist behind the ICL model, has often overestimated disease dangers. To cite one example, he claimed in a 2001 New York Times article that it would be “unjustifiably optimistic” to think Mad Cow Disease would kill only a few thousand people; his group claimed it would kill around 136,000 (Blakeslee 2001). So far, the actual number of deaths, after 20 years, is under 200. In 2005, he told the BBC that the deaths from bird flu could be between 5,000,000 and 150,000,000; the actual number was around 300 (Sturcke 2005).

These reflections should give us pause in endorsing restrictions on citizens’ basic liberties that are rooted solely in expert policy recommendations during crises. Government leaders may claim that their actions are justified purely in deference to expert recommendations regarding SARS-CoV-2. But we have strong empirical evidence that experts in most fields are systematically awful at making predictions in difficult situations that require them to predict the effects of untried policy measures on a brand new, poorly studied, and poorly understood problem. As a general matter, the demand that we simply defer to what scientists tell us is based on a largely falsified theory of scientific expertise.

Even so, it might be appropriate, at the beginning of a potential catastrophe, for policymakers to adopt a very cautious stance. In doing so, it might be excusable to accept, provisionally, the extremely cautious predictions of epidemiologists, despite the problems in their data and models. It might be fine to act first and ask questions later. It should be stressed that even this concession is questionable—after all, governments must have strong and solid evidence, rather than poor evidence, that a potential disaster of a certain size is occurring in order to justify their behavior. Historically, “we must avert disaster” has been the main excuse for government overreach. But even so, as Nozick (1974) rightly observes, the potential to avert “catastrophic moral horror” through speedy action can license many responses that would normally go beyond the pale.

Regardless, this kind of justification will not do beyond the very short term. Even in the direst emergencies when immediate action is required, we expect policymakers to supply the needed justification shortly thereafter, to rely upon established standards of evidence, to rely on high quality evidence, and to show their work in which they balance various social and ethical values against each other.

For all the reasons outlined above, it will not do, in more than the very short run, for policy makers to declare, as Governor Newsom of California has done, that they are simply “following the science” in responding to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interest of transparency, they should make it clear that they are adopting precautionary reasoning and inform their constituents what the plan is to quickly move to a more substantive cost-benefit analysis—and explain what values are to undergird that analysis. But states are under more substantive obligations as well. They should begin collecting the data needed to properly assess their strategies and determine whether continued restrictions of citizens’ basic liberties are justified. The longer they neglect to take measures like these, the more their impositions look incompatible with the foundational commitments of liberalism.

Making decisions under uncertainty is hard. It is likely impossible to avoid over- or undervaluing various considerations depending on social mood and other similar factors. But one thing that can help mitigate the influence of individual scientists’ values on the advice they offer to policy makers is to follow established methodological standards.

Policy makers have a moral obligation, as soon as they are even considering restricting the political and economic rights of citizens, to immediately begin gathering the best and most systematic data available. We do not try suspected criminals in the absence of standards of how to evaluate DNA or fingerprint evidence. Likewise, we should not be reacting to fears of pandemics by limiting people’s rights in the absence of clear standards regarding how to collect and evaluate evidence of the severity of the threat we face from such a pandemic. In responding to the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, however, Western governments have largely failed to put such standards in place, or even to collect evidence in a minimally adequate way.

Consider that it quickly became clear that SARS-CoV-2 case counts undercount actual infections. To some extent, this undercounting was inevitable: we could have easily predicted that some amount of infection would be asymptomatic, and the widespread lack of adequate testing capacity meant that tests could not be administered to all suspected victims. But it is indisputable that undercounting went beyond these factors. In every case where there have been “natural experiments” with SARS-CoV-2 infections—on cruise ships, navy ships, among women giving birth in hospitals, in testing people experiencing homelessness, prisons, etc.—it has been made clear that infection is much more widespread than case counts suggest, although we do not know quite by how much.

One very promising avenue for filling this hole is antibody serological testing. If you can test a representative sample of a population of people with such tests, and you know their rate of false positives and false negatives, you can very easily, with a reasonably large sample, get a very good picture of how much infection there is. But very little of this testing has taken place, and what testing has been done has failed to appease skeptics who have legitimate worries about how representative the sampling is. As a general matter, we know that small n studies will be biased toward false positives. Worse, we still have no clear sense of what the rate of false positives and false negatives of these tests are.

Yet, these problems would be relatively trivial for well-organized policy makers to fix. Around the world, governments have imposed unprecedented and dramatic restrictions on citizens’ civil and economic freedom. For instance, at least 30 million Americans have so far lost their jobs. Governments could easily have opened a few blood banks storing SARS-CoV-2-free blood and run 5000 tests on these antibody kits to determine their rate of false positives. They could have done extensive representative sampling of citizens in various locations around the country and sample the rate of infection using both blood testing and PCR testing. But governments have not done this, even now. They should have done much of this testing beforehand. The balance of civic considerations here makes little sense. It is as if generals decided to invade a foreign shore but chose not to acquire aerial photographs of the enemy’s defenses.

We have been criticizing the major public models and data which various world leaders reference as justifying their actions. We admit it is possible government leaders have private, classified, and otherwise non-public data and models of higher quality which would justify their actions. Nevertheless, we remind readers that in liberal, democratic, constitutional governments, acting on such private information and refusal to disclose such information is prohibited except in truly exceptional circumstances. We can understand not disclosing military secrets, but the SARS-CoV-2 is not a strategic actor which would take advantage of classified information. Governments must disclose their best information to the public.

Before moving on, it should be emphasized that while although we have criticized the quality of the COVID-19 data and the models which policymakers have used—and while we criticize policymakers’ deference to such models—our core contention is not that the danger of SARS-CoV-2 has been overstated, or that lockdowns were the wrong policy to adopt. Nor is our aim to establish what the optimal suppression strategy would have been in light of what information governments had. (Doing so would require an extensive cost-benefit analysis, which would take another paper’s worth of work at least.) Our concern is more procedural in nature. Whether or not governments have encountered correct information or adopted the right policies, the process by which they have made their determinations cannot be reconciled with basic liberal commitments. States must meet strong epistemic standards if they are to justifiably restrict their citizens’ basic liberties, and they have failed to do this. This failure cannot be dismissed by saying that the governments got it right in the end. By analogy, if we criticize a colleague’s data and evidence, her model, and her reasoning process, we are not thereby claiming to know the paper’s conclusion is false. A poorly researched paper could still have a correct conclusion. But without performing the appropriate epistemic work, our colleague would still be unjustified in drawing that conclusion, and we would be justified in criticizing her right to assert it.

Academics frequently make bold claims in journals or public opinion pieces, and the bolder an academic’s claims the more likely he will receive attention for his work. For academics, there are often no negative consequences for being wrong, even horribly wrong. But for policymakers, especially chief executives, the story is far different. State governors, mayors, and other chief executives can order their citizens to stay in their homes, to close their businesses, and otherwise make themselves dependent on the state for their survival because all of these orders can be backed up by overwhelming force. Even when policymakers do not issue formal orders but provide strong suggestions for how citizens should behave, these suggestions are taken seriously by most people and impact how they choose to live their lives.


As of April 20, 2020, governors of 42 US states have issued stay-at-home orders to slow down the spread of COVID-19 (Mervosh, Lu, and Swales 2020). Political leaders around the world implemented similar measures. Almost without exception, political leaders claim such drastic measures are necessary because people will otherwise die. But the lockdown has caused and will cause deaths as well—along with a range of other maladies. Deaths connected to layoffs that are the result of COVID-19 might already be in the same ballpark as the number of deaths caused by the virus itself (Cordle 2020), and, over the long-term, we are likely to see more deaths and a decreased life expectancy connected to rising unemployment (Forster 2018). Reports of child abuse and domestic violence have both increased significantly since the stay-at-home orders have taken effect (Taub 2020; Da Silva 2020). Hospitals are laying off staff and closing from a lack of revenue as most procedures are postponed. Deaths from untreated cancer will increase in the long-run. Many businesses deemed “nonessential” will also die because they have been forced to close, even if there was no good reason to close them—hobby shops, specialty food stores, cobblers and tailors, art studios, various factories. We do not equate the death of a business with a death of a person, of course. But for many business-owners, their businesses are not merely the means to support their families but also life projects from which they derive meaning and fulfillment. Further, mass job losses and workplace closures will have serious negative effects on citizens’ welfare. These decisions should not be taken lightly, especially as we do not know how to model the long-term economic effects of shutdowns.

The stakes are higher in poorer places. UN officials complain that the COVID-19 shutdowns may lead to “famines of biblical proportions” (McNamara 2020). Of course, such dramatic claims partnered with requests for money should be taken with a grain of salt. (After all, the same dynamics that led epidemiologists to overpredict the impacts of SARS-CoV-2 hold for the UN’s forecasts.) Nevertheless, the point remains that putting, say, 30 million relatively rich Americans out of work is one thing; putting those in extreme poverty out of work (while also possibly shutting down food supply chains) is another.

As we have emphasized throughout this paper, these mandates also impact civil liberties. Evacuation and shelter-in-place orders normally are issued when there’s an immediate threat that is visible or otherwise easily recognized by everyone in the community—natural disasters, active shooters, etc. For the COVID-19 pandemic, there were far more unknowns than knowns about the level of the danger when shutdown orders were given. Citizens will tolerate government restrictions to basic civil liberties from immediate, known dangers. But when we allow these restrictions even under circumstances where there are so many unknowns, we create conditions susceptible to abuse and oppression, especially for members of historically disadvantaged groups. And we are seeing this situation play out now.
Expanding the conditions under which the state is willing to impinge on civil liberties requires us to broaden the conditions under which agents of the state are directed to use force against citizens who are not complying with these mandates. In the US, this will often create situations in which citizens are subjected to police interventions. Invariably, some of these end in the death of citizens who are unarmed or otherwise doing nothing wrong. These encounters are especially dangerous for members of historically disadvantaged groups. Initial data surrounding the enforcement of COVID-19 orders have shown that these orders have been disproportionately enforced against minority citizens. In New York City, nine out of ten people arrested for COVID-19-related issues have been Black or Hispanic (Associated Press 2020). In Ohio, Black Americans were four times more likely to be charged with violating stay-at-home orders than White Americans (Kaplan and Hardy 2020), even though in Ohio White Americans make up 79% of the population while Black Americans make up only 12% (State of Ohio 2019). As more arrest data starts to trickle out in the coming weeks and months, similar data is likely to come out from cities across the US.

It’s clear that lockdown orders are high-stakes decisions which significantly harm certain people, impede their liberties, and deprive them of their livelihoods. They reduce people’s freedom to work, freedom to associate, and freedom of movement. To what degree they impede basic vs. non-basic liberties will vary from liberal theory to liberal theory. Our point here is simply that these are high-stakes decisions, and thus subject to the epistemic considerations we defended above.


Government officials must meet certain evidentiary standards before they detain someone. They must meet stricter standards before they arrest them. They must meet stricter standards to hold that person in prison before trial. They must meet even stricter standards to convict that person and imprison them over the long term. Even if one thinks a particular suspect is in fact guilty, it is nevertheless crucial in the name of preserving the rule of law and protecting constitutional rights to hold the government accountable if it fails to meet its epistemic duties. Likewise, in cases of such failure, it is important to demand better behavior in the future. Emergencies and dangers are often pretexts for government overreach and abuses of power, and it is precisely when the stakes are highest that government officials must use the best possible epistemic practices.

This paper offers a general indictment of government leaders across the world, though the specifics vary from leader to leader. The models and data used in support of lockdowns were poor. There was not sufficient evidence to justify lockdowns over other less restrictive policies. Governments did not and have not yet collected the data needed to continue their practices. Even if aggressive actions were initially excusable in the name of precaution, such pretexts cannot be sustained now that governments have broadly failed to remedy the deficiencies in their epistemic positions. Even if governments had acted on the best available evidence­ at the time—a highly controversial claim—nevertheless, the information and evidence available was objectively poor, as we argued above. To suppress liberty, they must act on sufficiently good information, not merely the best available information.

Again, we are not thereby making any claims about which suppression policies governments should have implemented in the short or longer term. We claim only that governments have systematically failed to meet their epistemic obligations in this crisis and that, for this reason, their actions cannot be reconciled with the values of a free society.


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[1] Authors’ names appear in random order.

[2] See also In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970).

[3] See (Ferguson et al. 2020). See also (Lemoine 2020) on which we draw heavily for this section.

[4] In places where testing is extensive, even case fatality rates are lower than this. There is much debate about various serological testing, but little disagreement that it indicates an upper bound of at most 1%.

[5] In climate science this is called running a “perturbed physics ensemble” and it plays a central role in estimating model forecast uncertainty (Winsberg 2018).

[6] “We employed an individual agent-based model based on work by Ferguson et al. Individual-based models are increasingly used to model epidemic spread with explicit representation of demographic and spatial factors such as population distribution, workplace data, school data, and mobility” (Gardner et al. 2020, 8).

[7] Source This is not even a tiny bit cherry picked. We picked Florida because the author who researched this lives in Florida and the date for its humorous overtones. Any other state and date could have revealed a similar pattern.

News, Special Issue

Call for papers – Time Sensitive!

Call for Papers – Time Sensitive!

The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal announces a special emergency, open-access issue on Ethics, Pandemics, and COVID-19

Papers from 3,000-12,000 words on ethical issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic are invited. Papers on resource allocation; duties towards the vulnerable; rights to privacy and mobility; pandemics and xenophobia; the ethical and existential significance of social distancing; and any other ethical issues (in a broad sense of ethics) raised by the pandemic are welcome. In keeping with the mission of the journal, we wish to publish papers that are practically relevant and engaged as well as conceptually rigorous. We are aiming for an extremely fast turn around. Submissions will be reviewed in-house at Georgetown University for speed, and they will receive at least one anonymous review, so this will count as an anonymous peer reviewed article for curriculum vitae purposes.

We are aiming for online publication by midsummer, to come out in print as our September issue. Please direct any questions to Editor-in-Chief Quill Kukla at, or Acting Editor Travis Rieder at Papers may be submitted through our usual submission portal at Deadline for submissions is May 15, 2020.

Editor's Pick, Uncategorized

Editor’s Pick, December 2018: Alison Reiheld

Our Editor’s Pick for our December 2018 issue is Alison Reiheld’s paper, “Rightly or for Ill: The Ethics of Individual Memory.” This paper takes up a rich issue that has yet to receive significant philosophical attention: the ethics of memory. The paper asks questions such as: when are we morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for remembering, forgetting, or encoding a memory in a specific way, and what are the ethical principles that should govern our practices of remembering and forgetting? By understanding remembering and forgetting as constructive activities involving agency and choices, Reiheld examines and answers these questions with admirable philosophical clarity.

Download a copy of Reiheld’s paper here.

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Climate Policy in the Age of Trump

by Mathias Frisch

ABSTRACT. The Trump administration is in the process of undoing what were the two central planks of President Obama’s climate policy: First, Trump has called for a review of how the social cost of carbon is calculated in used in analyses of regulatory rule making and, second, Trump has announced that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. In this paper I examine some of the conservative critics’ objections to the first plank: calculations of the social cost of carbon in climate cost benefit analyses. I argue that while some of these criticisms are justified, the criticisms end up strengthening arguments for the importance of the second plank: the urgent need for an ambitious climate policy, in accord with the Paris Agreement, as precaution against exposing others to the risk of catastrophic harms.


As the record-breaking heat of 2016 continues into 2017, making it likely that 2017 will be the second hottest year on record just behind the El Niño year 2016, and as Arctic heat waves pushing the sea ice extent to record lows are mirrored by large scale sheets of meltwater and even rain in Antarctica—the Trump administration is taking dramatic steps to undo the Obama administration’s climate legacy.

In its final years, the Obama administration pursued two principal strategies toward climate policy. First, by signing the Paris Accord it committed the U.S. to contribute to global efforts to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2017, Article 2a). The Paris agreement in effect commits its signatories to reduce carbon emissions to levels close to zero by mid century. The Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Clean Power Plan’ was intended as the U.S. government’s initial effort to work towards this ambitious goal.

Second, the Obama administration attempted to put a price on carbon emissions by charging an Interagency Working Group (IWG) to calculate the social cost of carbon (which is the cost associated with emitting an additional ton of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent, into the atmosphere). The IWG’s results were used in cost–benefit analyses of regulatory actions (Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon 2010).

The two strategies presuppose two starkly different conceptual frameworks for arriving at a climate policy. The Paris temperature goals are motivated by broadly precautionary thinking. Temperature increases of 2°C or more would take us outside of the temperature band that we humans have experienced in our 200,000-year history (Jaeger and Jaeger 2011). Moreover, there is evidence that many climate tipping points are located at around 2°C above pre-industrial levels or slightly above 2°C (Schellnhuber, Rahmstorf, and Winkelmann 2016) (Knutti et al. 2016). Thus, limiting the temperature increase to well below 2°C promises significantly to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. By contrast, the IWG’s calculations are situated within the framework of expected utility theory. The cost of carbon is calculated by running so-called optimization Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that balance the costs of mitigation measures against their future benefits to determine the optimal climate policy.

The Trump administration is dismantling both strategies. In an executive order signed March 28, 2017, Trump ordered a review of the Clean Power Plan, with the aim to “suspend, revise, or rescind” the Plan (Sec. 4a). He also called for a review of the social cost of carbon and ordered that the IWG be disbanded and all documents issued by the IWG pertaining to the calculations of the social cost of carbon “be withdrawn as no longer representative of governmental policy” (Sec. 5). And on June 1, 2017 Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, claiming that “the Paris Accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.” (Trump, 2017)

With his executive order, Trump is following the advice of Thomas Pyle, head of the Department of Energy transition team, who has advocated that the use of the social cost of carbon in federal rulemaking be ended: “The Obama administration aggressively used the social cost of carbon (SCC) to help justify their regulations. During the Trump administration the SCC will likely be reviewed and the latest science brought to bear. If the SCC were subjected to the latest science, it would certainly be much lower than what the Obama administration has been using.”[1] Pyle here echoes criticisms made by Robert Murphy, a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research (EIR), who in written testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has argued “that the ‘social cost of carbon’ is not an objective empirical feature of the world, but is rather a very malleable figure dependent on modeling assumptions, and can be made large, small, or even negative depending on parameter choices” (Murphy 2013). The basic criticisms Murphy and others make of the IWG’s use of integrated assessment models to calculate a social cost of carbon are, first, that scientific uncertainties are too large to permit any reliable estimate of the SCC and, second, that some of the assumptions going into the construction of IAMs are normative assumptions and, hence, that any model output cannot serve as an objective basis for climate policy decisions (see also Johnston 2016).

Michael Greenstone and Cass Sunstein, two of the architects of the Interagency Working Group, have defended the use of the SCC in regulatory analysis in The New York Times. Citing the central estimate of the IWG of $35 per ton of carbon dioxide they maintain that “this figure plays a central role in the cost–benefit analyses that agencies use in deciding whether to issue regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions” and that “without it, such regulations would have no quantifiable benefits. For this reason, the social cost of carbon can be seen as the linchpin of national climate policy” (Greenstone and Sunstein 2016). Others share the view of the importance of the SCC. Thus, the climate journalist Andrew Revkin wrote that “there’s probably no more consequential and contentious a target for the incoming administration [as far as climate and energy policies are concerned] than an arcane metric called the ‘social cost of carbon’” (Revkin 2017).

I want to argue here that the conservative criticisms are to some extent correct: models contain deep uncertainties and they rely on normative assumptions. Yet the conclusions the critics want to draw do not follow and their criticisms do not justify Trump’s decision also to undo the Obama administration’s initial steps to satisfy U.S. commitments under the Paris agreement. The models used by the IWG downplay uncertainties by making unjustifiably optimistic assumptions about the values of certain key parameters. Instead of trying to correct for this error by broadening the class of assumptions under investigation, the conservative critics reinforce the error further by cherry-picking predictions that lie at the optimistic end of the spectrum found in the peer-reviewed literature.

In addition, some of the normatively loaded assumptions have the consequence that potential harms to the populations most vulnerable to (and least responsible for) climate change are effectively ignored. Thus, a proper accounting of the uncertainties in our knowledge of how climate and economic systems interact and of the moral challenges of climate change puts us exactly in the epistemic and moral situation to which the Paris temperature targets are a response: in a situation in which we face scientifically plausible catastrophic harms; a precautionary approach is warranted, as embodied in the 2°C or 1.5°C targets. What is more, when many of these potential harms fall in the first instance upon the poorest populations and will do so as a result of our own activities, we have a moral duty to cease these activities and adopt policies that protect the most vulnerable populations from catastrophic harms.

Those associated with the Trump administration and with Republicans in Congress have offered a wide variety of criticisms of climate science and of the Obama administration’s climate policies. Trump himself has famously called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.[2] William Happer, an atomic physicist who at one point seems to have been under consideration for the position of Trump’s science advisor, points to the fact that during the last 520 million years there have been periods when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were much higher than at present, as reason for why the current increase in emissions presents no cause for concern (“Trump’s Potential Science Adviser Will Happer: Carbon Dioxide Demonized Just Like ‘Poor Jews Under Hitler’” 2017). As dangerous and as false as these views may be—Trump’s claim is flat out wrong and Happer’s claim while true is solace only for those who do not care about coastal cities or for a planet inhabited by the species with which we have coevolved in the last 100 million years—these views are not very interesting philosophically. Thus, I will here focus on what is arguably a more interesting criticism of at least one plank of the Obama administration’s approach to climate policy: criticisms of the cost–benefit approach pursued by the Office of Management and Budget under Obama.

While some of the conservative criticisms of this approach are not without merit, the right conclusion to draw from the deep uncertainties that plague the IWG’s calculations and from the ethical context of the climate problem is that we need to act even more aggressively on climate change than the Obama administration was prepared to do.



According to expected utility theory, we should adopt the climate policy that maximizes expected utility. Calculating the expected utility associated with a climate policy requires as inputs, first, the costs and benefits of different policy choices, including the economic costs of mitigation measures as well as future benefits of reductions in temperature increases, and, second, a probability distribution over costs and benefits. In practice, the maximization calculation is performed with the help of so-called ‘optimization integrated assessment models’ (IAMs). These models couple an economic general equilibrium model to an extremely simplified climate model with the aim of representing the impacts of climate change on human welfare, the impact of changes in economic activity on GHG emissions, and the effect of mitigation measures on economic growth. The IWG considered three widely discussed IAMs in its calculation of the social cost of carbon: William Nordhaus’s DICE model (Nordhaus 2008), which is one of the earliest optimization IAMs and remains one of the most influential models; the PAGE model used in the Stern Review (Stern 2007); and Richard Tol’s FUND model (Tol 2002a; Tol 2002b).

The two core components of optimization IAMs—the climate model and the economy model—are coupled through two different channels: economic activity is assumed to affect climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs); and economic activity is modeled as being affected by climate change through a so-called ‘damage function.’ Optimization IAMs are used to determine what the optimal emission abatement strategy would be by maximizing the present value of overall utility, which consists in an aggregate of utilities across time. Any such cross-temporal aggregation faces the problem as to what relative weight to assign to utilities at different times. It is common practice to discount future utilities with respect to the present. The IWG calculated values for the SCC for three different discount rates, 2.5%, 3%, and 5%. The results, reported on the EPA website, are $56, $36, and $11.[3]

In what follows I want to briefly discuss three areas in which uncertainties arise: an IAM climate model, the discount rate chosen in the economy model, and the damage function that models climate impacts.[4]

2.1. Climate Sensitivity

The climate model of an IAM consists of a small number of equations with parameters, whose values need to be calibrated with the help of more complex climate models. One central parameter is the so-called ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’ ECS, which is defined as the equilibrium mean surface temperature response to a doubling in atmospheric CO2. The IPCC report (AR5) reports probability density functions for the value of ECS derived from complex climate models or paleo-climate data (Bindoff et al. 2013, Figure 10.20a). Now the first thing to note is that the basic physical mechanism by which an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations affects the Earth’s energy balance is extremely well understood and that climate scientists know a lot about the value of the climate sensitivity. According to the (AR5) “there is high confidence that ECS is extremely unlikely less than 1°C and medium confidence that the ECS is likely between 1.5°C and 4.5°C and very unlikely greater than 6°C.” (Bindoff et al. 2013, 10.8.2) Thus, we know a range of values within which the climate sensitivity is very likely to fall. The second thing to note is that the climate sensitivity is much better constrained on the lower end—it is, with high confidence, extremely unlikely to be less than 1°C, but that it is only very likely less than 6°C and this statement is made with only medium confidence.[5] The third thing to note is that even though we know a lot about the value of the climate sensitivity, what we know is not enough to perform a cost–benefit analysis or welfare maximization analysis. In order to calculate the optimal emissions policy we would need to know the probabilities with which different consequences would occur. But in order to derive a single probability distribution for ECS we would have to know what the probabilistic dependencies between the different models are from which the IPCC distributions for ECS are derived. And these dependencies are unknown. Thus, despite the fact that we know quite a bit about the value of ECS, we are in a situation of deep uncertainty with respect to its value—that is, not only is the exact value of ECS unknown but we do not even have grounds for associating a specific probability distribution with ECS.

IAMs ‘solve’ this problem by simply positing a probability distribution that is peaked at the center of the IPCC range, but no formal justification for this procedure is given. Moreover, the probability distributions posited by different IAMs are symmetric and do not have fat upper tails and hence ignore the possibility of extreme runaway climate change, which according to some models has a low but non-negligible probability of occurring.[6] Hence, IAMs turn deep uncertainties into precise probabilities and do this in a manner that skews uncertainties towards less serious threats.

There is a fourth point to note. The different probabilities for ECS summarized by the IPCC are derived within the frameworks of various climate models and are not adjusted for any idealizations or factors left out in the models. The IPCC probabilities for ECS are model-based probabilities and not yet decision-relevant probabilities. Sophisticated climate models offer an increasingly fine-grained representation of the climate system and include more and more factors that are believed to be relevant to the overall state of the system. Even so, many potentially important factors are omitted. These include melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; melting of the permafrost and large-scale release of methane from Siberian methane clathrates; and release of seabed methane. The factors not represented in the models tend to be positive feedback factors that are likely to exacerbate the rate of warming and could even result in ‘tipping point’ behavior. Indeed, Previdi et al. (2013) argue that ECS would be between 4°C and 6°C if the ice sheet and vegetation albedo feedback were included. As Sir Nicholas Stern puts it, quoting Sir Brian Hoskins: climate models predict “the climate we get if we are very lucky” (Stern 2013, 842). Decision-relevant probabilities would have to take into account the probabilities of futures in which we might not be so lucky, but these probabilities are unknown.

2.2. Future Discounting

The second core component of an IAM is an economy model with a welfare function representing overall global welfare at a time. In principle, the concept of welfare equivalent consumption is meant to be broad and include not only consumption but also environmental goods and other goods that are not marketable. Thus, Nordhaus says: “Economic welfare should include everything that is of value to people, even if those things are not included in the market place” (Nordhaus 2008, 13). In practice, however non-marketable goods are simply ignored and IAMs measure welfare equivalent consumption in terms of GDP.

IAMs aggregate welfare across time. The discount rate allows us to calculate the net present value of future welfare. There is widespread disagreement in the literature not only on what choice of discount rate is appropriate but even on what the proper methodology for choosing a discount rate ought to be. What makes matters worse is that predictions derived from IAMs are extremely sensitive to the choice of discount rate, as is evident from the different values for the SCC derived by the IWG.

Here I want to focus on one aspect that highlights both the uncertainties affecting IAMs and the normative import of some of their assumptions. There are at least two normative issues that affect the discount rate.[7] First, the value of the pure rate of social time preference captures to what extent present welfare should be valued more highly just because it occurs in the present. Second, it is common to posit the law of diminishing marginal utility and assume that marginal utility declines. If we adopt a temporally egalitarian position (as many philosophers and economists argue we should) and set the pure rate of social time preference equal to zero, the discount rate becomes a measure of inequality aversion.

Standard IAMs posit a representative consumer at each time and consider the wealth transferred between representative consumers at different times. If we take the rate of pure time difference to be zero and assume positive worldwide economic growth, then we are justified to discount future welfare just in case the future will be richer than the present. But as Fleurbaey and Zuber( 2012) show, this assumption changes dramatically if we adopt a slightly more complex model and allow for different populations at each time with different levels of wealth. If in modeling the transfer of wealth we distinguish between the transfer between different populations at different times the overall inter-temporal discount rate will in the long run be mathematically dominated by the discount rate governing the transfer from the worst-off population in the present to the worst-off population in the future.

The effect of this is that discount rates may very well be negative. If the costs of a climate policy are carried by the high emitters of greenhouse gases, who also tend to be among the most affluent, and the beneficiaries include many of the future poor, then such a policy will have a negative discount rate. What is more, if we make the not implausible assumption that there will be climate change losers among the poorest populations, wealth transfer from the present poor to the future poor will be transfer from a comparatively richer population to even poorer populations in the future. Thus, even a climate policy that asks the present-day poor to contribute to mitigation costs could have a negative discount rate.

The overall discount rate reflects normative assumptions and has a large effect on the value of the SCC. Does this show that the Institute for Energy Research (IER) economist Murphy is correct when he says that the overall SCC is “a very malleable figure dependent on subjective modeling assumptions” (Murphy 2013)? This does not follow. First, for many scientific predictions it will be the case that they are “very malleable figure[s] dependent on modeling assumptions,” as Murphy says. Quite generally, scientific predictions are derived by constructing a model of a phenomenon. That predictions are sensitive to modeling assumptions, which invariably will include idealizations and abstractions, is to be expected. The crucial question is how well supported the modeling assumptions are.

I have argued above that any choice of probability distribution for ECS cannot be fully supported by predictions from climate models and our physical understanding of the climate system and is to some extent unprincipled. But not every modeling assumption that is not underwritten by the relevant science is subjective in the sense of being arbitrary. There may be principled and legitimate reasons supporting an assumption even when it is not justified empirically. Normative assumptions are a case in point. While normative assumptions might not be objective in the same way as physical assumptions are they might be intersubjective and reflect widely shared commitments. Thus, just as we can hope that our choice of climate parameters represents the climate system adequately (for a given purpose), so we can hope that normative parameters adequately represent either our actual intersubjectively held ethical values or the values we ought to have (given our other shared ethical commitments). Moreover, just as uncertainties concerning the value of ECS do not imply that there exist no scientific facts about how the climate system responds to anthropogenic changes in atmospheric GHG concentrations, uncertainties in the value of the discount rate do not imply that there are no normative facts about how inequalities among and between different generations should affect climate policy.

The problem with the IWG’s calculation of the social cost of carbon is not, as Murphy charges, that it is based on moral or ethical assumptions. The climate problem is a moral problem just as much as it is a scientific problem, and any adequate discussion of climate policy has to engage with the moral challenges raised by climate change. Rather among the problems are the following:

First, existing deep uncertainties concerning both normative and scientific assumptions—that Murphy correctly highlights—undermine our ability to apply expected utility theory to the climate problem in a principled manner. Second, as Fleurbaey and Zuber’s argument shows, by considering only discount rates greater than or equal to 2.5%, the IWG’s calculations ignore climate risks for the future poor. And, third, the choice of the expected utility framework restricts the type of ethical considerations that can be brought to bear on our policy choice. Not only do our choices for some of the models’ parameters have normative implications but also the choice of modeling framework itself is not ethically neutral.

By modeling each generation in terms of a single representative consumer IAMs ignore inequalities among each generation with significant consequences for the choice of discount rate. But the problem runs deeper than that and points to the limitations of treating climate change within the framework of expected utility theory in that the utilitarian framework within which the IGW’s calculations are performed is blind to considerations of justice and harm, which arguably are at the core of the moral problem posed by climate change.

There are strong intuitions, I take it that Fleurbaey and Zuber’s result gets at something important: a model allowing for different contemporaneous populations with an overall discount rate that is dominated by that between the worst-off at different times seems to get something right. I want to submit that this intuition has less to do with the fact that the model takes inequality aversion more comprehensively into account than models with a single representative consumer do. Rather, the intuitive appeal of the result lies in the fact that it is sensitive to the needs of those who both are the most threatened by climate change and are the least responsible for climate change. Fleurbaey and Zuber themselves hint at this when they support their analysis by saying that “mitigation efforts, when they are well conceived, should put the burden on the high emitters who are typically among the affluent members of the present generation” (Fleurbaey and Zuber 2012, 15). But that well-conceived mitigation measures should put the burden on high emitters is not an obvious consequence of a cost–benefit analysis, which at best can favor a redistribution of welfare from the rich to the poor. Instead, that high emitters should carry the main costs of a climate policy is suggested by principles of fairness or justice (Shue 2014a). We, as high emitters, are harming future generations, and in particular the future poor in less developed countries, by threatening to deprive them of an environment in which they can support themselves and thrive. A cost–benefit analysis is blind to this fact.

2.3. The Damage Function

IAMs couple a climate model to a welfare function in two ways: first, consumption is taken to affect GHG emissions and, second, climate change is taken to affect consumption through a damage function. Nordhaus’s DICE model assumes that the effects of climate change on the economy can be represented in terms of a single temperature-dependent quadratic function—a choice that has become particularly influential in IAM modeling. The PAGE and FUND models contain more complex treatments of damages, aggregating several sector- and region-specific damages. Climate damages are significantly more uncertain than the climate system’s response to GHG emissions. While IAM modelers point to climate impact studies in support of their treatment of damages, the empirical constraints are much weaker than in the case of climate models.

Moreover, damage estimates on which the IWG draws appear extremely optimistic. For a difficult-to-fathom 8°C increase in global temperatures, the DICE and PAGE models predict ‘only’ damages of roughly 15% global GDP—a loss that would correspond to taking the 2016 U.S. GDP back to its 2004 level—while the FUND model predicts even smaller damages of roughly 6% GDP.[8] Indeed, a recent study (Burke, Hsiang, and Miguel 2015) reaches dramatically different conclusions about climate damages: Burke et al. consider economic data from 166 countries in the years 1960–2010 to determine how changes in economic activity are coupled to annual fluctuations in temperature. They project that under business as usual, damages in 2100 will be an entire order of magnitude higher than those predicted by standard IAMs even when ignoring sea-level rise. Moreover, damages are extremely unequally distributed and will lead to an extreme widening of global income inequalities. While damages in North America or Central Europe may be small enough to allow overall economic growth, Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia are projected to see a catastrophic 75% decrease in GDP per capita. Thus, as in the case of the discount rate, we find that standard IAMs do not adequately represent the uncertainties associated with climate change and underestimate the threats to the poorest and most vulnerable populations.



Our brief survey of some of the core features of IAMs used by the IWG to calculate the social cost of carbon suggests that some of the conservatives’ criticisms of the IWG’s approach are warranted. In particular, the IWG posits precise values for some parameters and probability distributions for the values of other parameters even though the values of the parameters in question are deeply uncertain and we do not know what appropriate probability distributions associated with their values would be. Thus, the critics are right in contending that the IWG’s estimates depend on scientifically not sufficiently constrained modeling assumptions and that the IWG treats climate change as a problem of risk with known probabilities rather than as a problem of deep uncertainties. We have also seen that at least some of the modeling choices in IAMs reflect normative assumptions.

One might argue that the IWG is aware of the uncertainties and responds to it by not just calculating a single value for the SCC, but by proposing three different values. In fact, one response to the problem of deep uncertainties might be to run IAMs under a whole range of different assumptions exploring the space of scientifically (and normatively) plausible values for its key parameters and thereby derive a range of value for the SCC. But, first, this is not really what the IWG is doing, since the only quantity varied in their three estimates is the discount rate, and the IWG dramatically underestimates the range of plausible values of this quantity. On the one hand, one of Murphy’s complaints is that the IWG does not also calculate a SCC for a discount rate of 7%, even thought the U.S. Office of Management and Budget instructs that a 7% rate should be used for regulatory analysis in addition to a 3% rate. On the other hand, as we have seen, there are compelling arguments for using a negative discount rate.

Second, IAMs were intended to enable us to calculate the optimal climate policy. If we were to use IAMs merely to explore the space of plausible values for the SCC, we still need an additional decision strategy that tells us what climate policy to adopt given a range of plausible values for the SCC.

We can glean two different decision strategies that policy advisors associated with the Trump administration appear to endorse. The first strategy, which has more or less explicitly been advocated by Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is that in situations of deep uncertainty we should ignore any uncertain costs (or benefits) associated with our policy decisions. Thus Tillerson has said: “It is a judgment of balance between future climatic events which could be catastrophic but are unknown, by the IPCC’s own acknowledgement, and more immediate needs of humanity today to address poverty, starvation, broad-based disease control, and the quality of life that billions of people are living in today, which is unacceptable to many of us.”[9]

The current poor, Tillerson claims, are energy-poor. They rely on energy—and, hence presently still on carbon emissions—not only to escape poverty but as a means of survival. On this point Tillerson will find broad agreement. But while some would argue that the energy needs of the current poor are a constraint on climate policy just as much as the threats associated with unabated emissions are (see, e.g., Shue 2014b), Tillerson suggests that, because of the deep uncertainties in climate predictions we ought to focus exclusively on the needs of the present poor (and on the value associated with maintaining our “quality of life”!). The deep uncertainties associated with precise predictions of climate impacts are sufficient to trump any concern about climate damages, no matter how catastrophic they might be.

Now, one might think that it is obviously a mistake to ignore threats simply because they are associated with deep uncertainties. Yet there is an argument that suggests that not ignoring deeply uncertain threats can result in paralysis. Take a situation in which uncertain threats suggest a certain policy response, perhaps based on precautionary considerations. In many such cases we can imagine highly speculative chains of events, according to which the proposed policy would itself result in catastrophic consequences. And while the chain of events we are imagining might be utterly implausible, the more outlandish the scenario we are imagining is, the less likely it might be that we can give a precise, albeit small probability for the scenario’s occurrence. Now, if we could associate probabilities with various catastrophic outcomes, expected utility theory would tell us how serious we ought to take these outcomes. The worry is that under conditions of deep uncertainty—that is, without being in possession of probability distributions—we have to treat all catastrophic threats on a par. But then we may frequently find ourselves in situations of paralysis in which a decision strategy will counsel both for and against a given policy. In effect, Tillerson’s strategy responds to the problem of paralysis by proposing that deeply uncertain threats ought to be ignored in decision making.

But do we really need to consider all uncertain threats? Just as considering uncertain purely speculative threats may lead to paralysis, ignoring threats just because we cannot associate precise probabilities with them may strike us as reckless. A more promising reply to the argument is the following. Allowing that some uncertainties cannot be represented in terms of precise probabilities does not imply that all deeply uncertain outcomes have to be treated equally. It may be possible to introduce yet more fine-grained non-probabilistic distinctions, but at the very least we should distinguish between threats that have at least some minimal plausibility and arise as the result of reasonably well-understood mechanisms and threats that are outlandish and purely speculative. We have to consider only the latter in decision problems. That is, threats only have to be taken into account if they do not violate what Henry Shue has called an “anti-paranoia requirement” (Shue 2010, 49).

Climate threats clearly satisfy Shue’s requirement. Recall our discussion of the climate sensitivity above. The basic physical mechanisms behind anthropogenic climate change are well understood. Even though no precise probability distribution for ECS can be given, we know that it is likely to be between 1.5°C and 4.5°C (at least under climate models’ idealizing assumptions). And while the science of climate damages is much less settled than basic climate science is and, hence, for example Burke et al.’s estimate of the damage function is a lot more uncertain than estimates of ECS, their study is based on a wealth of historical data and suggests a robust relationship between temperature changes and economic activity.

Tillerson’s strategy is to completely ignore threats in situations characterized by deep uncertainty. A second decision strategy is implicit in the claims by Murphy and by Trump’s advisor Perry that the SCC ought to be close to zero. Murphy and Perry’s strategy amounts to cherry-picking data and modeling assumptions in the face of uncertain predictions. As Murphy and others correctly point out, there does exist a selective body of evidence that jointly appears to support the view that climate change poses no serious threat. Thus, there are some studies that arrive at a value for the climate sensitivity at the lower end of the IPCC range (e.g., Otto et al. 2013) the FUND model posits that the effects of climate change will be positive up to a temperature increase of 2.5°C and, some argue, still overestimates damages (see Johnston 2016) and the OMB instructs that a discount rate of 7% be one of the values used in regulatory analysis. Combining these assumptions may indeed result in a value for the SCC that is close to zero or even negative.

Yet Murphy and Perry’s cherry picking of assumptions appears even less justified than Tillerson’s strategy. While some climate models predict a value for the ECS of only 1.5°C, others allow for a value of up to 6°C (see Previdi et al. 2013). While the FUND model predicts that economies will be relatively resilient in the face of rising temperatures, Burke et al. (2015) predict damages an order of magnitude higher than standard IAMs and catastrophic declines in economic activity in many regions of the world. And while the OMB instructs that a discount rate of 7% also be used, taking the threat to poorer populations seriously suggests that we use a negative discount rate.[10] Now, there may be scientific reasons to trust some of these predictions more than others. But if, as Murphy himself argues, our knowledge of the relevant parameters ultimately remains deeply uncertain, proposing to base policy decisions on a combination of the most optimistic assumptions suggests a reckless preference for an extremely risk-seeking decisions strategy.

There is, of course, another approach to decisions under conditions of severe uncertainty that provides an alternative to the strategies advocated by Tillerson and Murphy—an approach that in light of the severity of the threats posed by climate change seems significantly more prudent than its two rivals—and that is a precautionary approach. Henry Shue (Shue 2010) has identified three conditions under which prompt precautionary action is required. These conditions are: (i) we are facing the possibility of massive, catastrophic losses; (ii) the mechanisms by which these losses can occur are well understood and are scientifically plausible, even though we cannot give precise probabilities; and (iii) the costs for preventing these losses are not excessive. The second condition is the anti-paranoia requirement. The third condition, like the second condition, helps to prevent paralysis. If there were uncertain possible costs of preventing a catastrophe that are comparable to possible losses from the catastrophe, then a precautionary approach might recommend for and against taking preventive measures (see also Steel 2014). All three conditions are met in the case of climate change.

Now one might think that the choice between Murphy’s or Tillerson’s decision strategies and a precautionary approach is ultimately a matter of taste. Prudence might suggest a precautionary approach, particularly in light of the stakes involves, but those brave or reckless enough might favor a more risk-seeking strategy. But there is a further feature of the climate problem that implies that a precautionary approach may not only be prudent but is in fact morally required. What is morally odious about Tillerson’s or Murphy’s extreme risk-seeking approach to climate change is that they seek risks not for themselves, but that their strategy exposes future generations, and in particular the future poor, to grave threats. In deciding on a climate policy we are in the main not considering threats of possible harm to ourselves but threats to others—we are considering whether or not to engage in activities that threaten to expose others to grave harms. If future generations, and in particular future populations in less developed countries and in countries more exposed to climate risks, have a right to food, to water, to shelter, and, more generally, to an environment that sustains them and in which they can thrive, then we have a moral duty not to engage in activities that seriously put these rights in jeopardy. Moreover, as Shue has argued, our duty is not mitigated by the fact that the threats at issue are uncertain. As Shue says: “If I play Russian roulette with your head for my amusement as you doze and the hammer of the revolver falls on an empty chamber, I will have done you no physical harm. But I will have seriously wronged you by subjecting you to that unnecessary risk” (Shue 2010, 152). We wrong future generations by exposing them to the risk of serious harms as a consequence of our actions.

A broadly precautionary approach underlies the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, the signing of which was at the core of the second plank of the Obama administration’s climate policy. As Knutti et al. (2016) and others have argued, there is no purely scientific argument for the 2°C temperature limit. Rather it is an anchoring device that was agreed on based on a combination of scientific arguments, moral arguments, potential costs, and feasibility. Deep uncertainties, some of which I have discussed in this paper, imply that it is a mistake to think of 2°C as a guardrail or as a safe upper limit. Yet, there is evidence that suggests that various climate tipping-points will be reached at or above 2°C. Thus, limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels promises significantly to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, but no precise calculation of expected damages associated with these tipping points has (or can) be given.



I have here argued that some of the conservative criticisms of the Obama administration’s use of cost–benefit analysis to calculate the social cost of carbon are justified. The deep uncertainties characterizing our knowledge of the future climate and of climate damages make the exercise of trying to calculate a single well-supported value for the social cost of carbon impossible. Moreover, the framework of cost–benefit analysis used by the IWG is blind to important moral dimensions of the climate problem. At best, then, the type of calculations performed by the IWG could provide us with a range of possible climate costs associated with our emissions, which might inform but cannot determine a specific choice of climate policy.

I also argued that there are moral reasons to adopt a precautionary approach: unless we want to gamble immorally and recklessly with the lives and the wellbeing of future populations, the uncertainties to which Murphy, Tillerson and others point suggest the need for the U.S. to remain committed to the Paris agreement. Since even the final climate plan proposed by the Obama administration fell far short of the emissions reductions that likely will be needed to remain with the 2°C target (let alone within the 1.5°C target),[11] one might have hoped that those within the Trump administration, who understand both the basic science of climate change and the deep uncertainties concerning precise predictions of future damages, would advocate vocally and vigorously for an even more aggressive climate policy than the Obama administration was prepared to adopt.


Mathias Frisch is a professor of philosophy at the Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany. Prior to that he taught at the University of Maryland from 2003 until 2016. His main areas of interest include philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, and the philosophy of climate change.



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———. 2013. “Modeling Climate Policies: A Critical Look at Integrated Assessment Models.” Philosophy and Technology 26 (2): 117–137.

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———. 2014a. Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2014b. “Human Rights, Climate Change, and the Trillionth Ton.” In Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection. New York: Oxford University Press.

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———. 2013. “The Structure of Economic Modeling of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change: Grafting Gross Underestimation of Risk onto Already Narrow Science Models.” Journal of Economic Literature 51 (3): 838–59.

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———. 2002b. “Estimates of the Damage Costs of Climate Change, Part II. Dynamic Estimates.” Environmental and Resource Economics 21 (2): 135–60.

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[1] In a memo leaked to the press. See accessed 17. Feb 2017, 1 pm EST.

[2] On Twitter:

[3] accessed on 2/25/2017

[4] For additional criticisms of IAMs and their use by the IWG see (Masur and Posner 2010; Frisch 2013; Pindyck 2013).

[5] For an explanation of how the two axes along which the IPCC report expresses confidence, see the IPCC Guidance Note (Mastrandrea, M. D., C. B. Field, T. F. Stocker, O. Edenhofer, K. L. Ebi, D. J. Frame, H. Held, E. Kriegler, K. J. Mach, and P. R. Matschoss, G.-K. Plattner, G. W. Yohe, and F. W. Zwiers 2010)

[6] The consequences of fat-tailed distributions for climate policy are explored in (Weitzman 2012).

[7] For discussions to what the choice of discount rate is a normative or ‘descriptive’ issue, see (Posner and Weisbach 2010), which is critically discussed in (Fleurbaey and Zuber 2012; Frisch 2012).

[8] See (Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon 2010).

[9] . Accessed 2/28/2017

[10] Murphy refers to the OMB Circular A-4 of September 17, 2003 (Regulatory Analysis), which states that discount rates of 3% and 7% be used in cost–benefit analysis. Trump’s executive order from March 28, 2017, also refers to this circular, instructing that “agencies shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that any such estimates are consistent with the guidance contained” in that circular (Sec. 5c). It is worth pointing out that Circular A-4 has a separate discussion of intergenerational discounting, which explicitly recommends using lower rates (as low as 1%) for benefits and costs across generations reaches the following conclusion: “If your rule will have important intergenerational benefits or costs you might consider a further sensitivity analysis using a lower but positive discount rate in addition to calculating net benefits using discount rates of 3 and 7 percent.”

[11] See the 2016 Emissions Gap report by the United Nations Environmental Program:

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Refugees, Narratives, or How To Do Bad Things with Words

By Anna Gotlib

ABSTRACT. This paper addresses and critiques the anti-refugee rhetoric and policies, as well as their uncritical uptake, which developed around the candidacy of Donald Trump. My intent is to examine some of this election’s cruelest, most violent, and most racist rhetoric, reserved for Syrian (and other) refugees, and to consider some possible responses to such speech in the future. To that end, I problematize the representations and treatment of refugees within the United States from three distinct groups: European Jewish refugees of the Second World War; the Eastern Bloc refugees of the mid- and late twentieth century; and the current Syrian, largely Muslim refugees. I begin by defining the concepts of homelessness and moral luck. Second, I examine the three varying histories of refugee policies in the context of these two notions. Finally, I conclude with a combination of despair and hope: First, I offer a few observations about the role of language in the recent presidential election; second, I propose alternatives to the resulting linguistic and political violence by extending Hilde Lindemann’s notion of “holding” into sociopolitical contexts.

“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

I.  Introduction

The American election of 2016 was, in its vitriol, polarization, and outcome, unlike any in recent memory. This paper addresses and critiques the anti-refugee rhetoric and policies, as well as their uncritical uptake, which developed around the candidacy of Donald Trump. My intent is to examine and confront the fact that some of this election cycle’s cruelest, most violent, and most racist rhetoric was reserved for Syrian (and other) refugees, and to consider some possible responses to such speech in the future. This anti-refugee rhetoric, I suggest, both contributed decisively to Donald Trump’s victory and created potentially lasting toxic, nativist narratives about who matters and who does not; about who gets to survive, and whose survival is doubtful at best. And before we simply answer that American (and more generally Global North) refugee policies, and Americans (and more broadly Westerners) themselves, have simply always tended toward isolationism and suspicion of the outsider, I argue that we ought to consider that historically, there were notable exceptions to this rule. I examine the checkered history of refugee-related policies, and contrast and problematize the representations, perceptions, and treatment of refugees within the United States (and in a more limited way, Western Europe) from three distinct groups: European Jewish refugees of the Second World War era fleeing Nazi invasion; the Eastern Bloc refugees of the mid- and late twentieth century fleeing Soviet totalitarianism and anti-Semitism; and the current Syrian, largely Muslim refugees fleeing war, poverty, and other oppressions. And while the paper emphasizes public, political speech, my motivations are also personal: My own experiences as a Soviet refugee, and as a beneficiary of politically motivated American openness to the refugees of my generation, move me to problematize the distinctions between the political narratives that shaped my own flight and those developing presently. This is a paper, then, that insists that we pay closer attention to how and why the powerful nations of the Global North create, shape, and undo the identities—indeed, the lives—of refugees through historically situated public narratives that in turn create policies often determining nothing less than life or death.

By “refugee,” I mean, broadly, people who are directly or indirectly forced to flee their homes with no reasonable prospects of returning in the foreseeable future. In this, I am largely following Michael Walzer, who argued that refugees differ from immigrants in general because of the moral dimension of their claims. Refugees, he writes, “make the most forceful claim for admission. ‘If you don’t take me in,’ they say, ‘I shall be killed, persecuted, brutally oppressed by the rulers of my own country’” (Walzer 2008, 163, quoted in Parekh 2013). These are people whose moral claims “cannot be met by yielding territory or exporting wealth, but only by taking people in” (Walzer 2008, 48, quoted in Parekh 2016). I am also following the definitions established in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which (together with its 1967 amendment) states that refugees are persons outside their country of origin because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” at home, and to whom the host state is obligated to offer asylum. Refugees cannot be sent back to a place where their lives or freedom would be at risk from persecution (UK Refugee Council 2001). Refugees, then, are fundamentally “homeless” people whose legitimate moral claims can be met only by admission to a state—to a new home.

Because so many narratives about refugees touch upon broad notions of home, this is also a paper about homelessness. By that, I mean the kind of estrangement that disempowers and denies the moral worth of those who are not storied as claim-makers against others. I say “storied” because I take the differences in the rhetoric of how the various groups of refugees are defined to be both identity-constituting and born of historical accidents, circumstances, and socio-political climates that have little to do with the actions or agency of the migrants themselves. In other words, how refugees are viewed, how their moral agency is construed, have a lot to do with moral luck: the blaming or praising of agents who possess little or no control over an action or its outcome.

Yet American policymakers and the media held wildly differing attitudes toward three groups of oppressed people: World War II-era European Jewish refugees were regarded as potentially dangerous and “other”; Russian Jewish refugees of the 1970s–1980s were held as courageous and defiant; and the current generations of Syrian and other Muslim refugees, in an era marked by a “war on terror,” are painted as morally suspect and dangerous. This, then, is a paper about the power of moral luck to create and undo personhood, for it is the luck inherent in the vicissitudes of history that can constitute existentially-perilous public narratives about those least empowered to formulate or control them. I claim that by challenging the dangerous certainties of the current Western sociopolitical rhetoric about refugees, we might generate new narratives, and thus new policies, which may move us toward helping vulnerable populations not merely survive, but find some measure of belonging, well-being, and agency.

The paper is composed of three parts. I begin by briefly defining the concepts of homelessness and moral luck. Second, I examine the three varying histories of refugee policies in the context of these two notions. I argue that an existential, as well as a sociopolitical, homelessness that robs refugees not only of a sense of physical and psychological security, but of a sense of themselves as persons, is very much a matter of luck (good or bad). I suggest that because the narratives employed by those empowered to shape the fates of the refugees have shown to be powerful creators of not only public attitudes but of outcome-determinative policies, the historical contingencies that seem to govern these responses ought to be made clear. Finally, I conclude with a combination of despair and hope: First, I offer a few observations about the role of language in the recent American presidential election; second, I propose alternatives to the verbal and political violence designed to exclude by extending Hilde Lindemann’s notion of “holding” into sociopolitical contexts.

II.  Homelessness and Moral Luck

a. Homelessness

I began by noting that refugees are fundamentally homeless. While this might seem like an obvious claim to make, I want to clarify what I specifically mean by homelessness here. For this, I turn to Hannah Arendt.

Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that citizenship (a kind of a social, political, and emotional home) uniquely grants to human beings the “right to have rights”—that it is a prolegomenon to any other discourses about state membership. Homeless, stateless persons, however, are different: they are not merely home-less in the sense of not having a place to call their own, but in the sense of not having the right to demand it (Arendt 1968). In other words, they have lost the possibility of making a claim on others for an opportunity to regain a home.

This loss of claim-making is crucial: Refugees are not only fleeing violence and persecution, but socioeconomic deprivation, racism, sociopolitical ostracism, and many other barriers to a minimally acceptable existence. Thus, even before they are relegated to the status of non-citizens, they are already one step removed from being fully at home in the land of their origin. Being thus estranged from their home in ways that are independently de-centering and destructive, they are unable to begin again. The rejection by their intended destination is thus not merely social or political—in losing their home without regaining one, they lose their story. And the closing of the door that they hoped would be open also destroys the hope that the story could continue. The self becomes the self-in-exile—physical, emotional, psychological, political, without a reasonable possibility of rebuilding.

Thus, homelessness can be understood as a kind of liminality, a state of permanent non-belonging. One is no longer of a rejecting place of origin, and one is not of any other place, either. What remains is an unending process of transition, where uprootedness is a permanent condition. The homelessness of today’s Syrian refugee, therefore, is twofold: First, there is the loss of one’s home and one’s identity as a rightful citizen—a rightful member—of one’s community of origin. Second, there is the lack of any reasonable ground on which to re-build one’s new identity. Thus, the newly homeless, stateless refugee has lost access to her familiar moral and political spaces in which her agency was once enacted and granted uptake without replacing it even with an ersatz home. In this way, these refugees are liminal not necessarily in

that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion…but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. . . . They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. (Arendt 1968, 295–296)

This pariah-like status not only places these newest refugees in physical danger, but also does something else: it renders them homeless in that deep Arendtian sense of being deprived of an appeal—of being existentially disowned not just by a particular nation-state, but by the global community itself.

b. Moral Luck

Refugee homelessness does not happen in a moral and political vacuum. Sometimes, one’s mere presence in particular circumstances tragically seals one’s fate. I will now consider what this means for refugees, both lucky and unlucky.

People can be lucky, and their luck can also run out due to factors beyond their control. One person trips over a curb while walking and texting, landing on a small child, while another, engaged in exactly the same activity, happens to lift her foot a quarter of an inch higher, thereby stepping over the curb and avoiding harm. And seemingly counter to a Kantian ethic of an unconditioned will, we judge the former harshly, while letting the latter go without much note. When we are speaking of moral luck, then, we usually mean that a particular set of circumstances, one’s luck, makes a difference in how we perceive, and evaluate, one’s actions—how one is viewed as a person. Thus even though our intuitions might suggest that (good or bad) moral luck ought not make a difference in our judgments of how good, blameworthy, or responsible a person is, the phenomenon of moral luck suggests that it indeed does. Nothing less than a person’s moral standing rides on the presence or absence of such luck (Williams 1982; Nagel 1993).

But moral luck does not occur in an epistemic or social void, and those whose lives are affected by its vagaries are already located in circumstances that make such luck more or less likely. Or, put more simply, moral luck has a lot to do with what agents can, and cannot, control—and not all agents are situated in the same way in regard to levels of control. As Margaret Walker has noted, when we are talking about moral luck, what we really mean is that our “responsibilities” have “outrun [our] control” (Walker 1991, 247). That is, regardless of our actions and intent, we might still nevertheless be held responsible. Claudia Card, in The Unnatural Lottery, noted that all human beings are vulnerable to moral luck, and the role that moral luck plays in the options available to oppressed moral agents might leave them only with bad ones (Card 1996). Lisa Tessman, in part adopting Card’s account, offers another conception of moral luck: “systemic” luck that comes from “circumstances that are systematically arranged and that tend to affect people as members of social groups” (Tessman 2005, 13). In this way, “systemic” luck is distinguished from “natural” or “accidental” luck (Tessman 2005). For my purposes here, I build on Tessman’s distinction within the broader moral luck paradigm between “systemic luck and that which is non-systemic or accidental.

I call my version of Tessman’s systemic luck refugee systemic luck. This turn to systemic luck as a way to talk about the moral luck of refugees might at first seem odd: After all, if one of my contentions is that refugees are precisely not in control of the unpredictable circumstances that determine their fates, why would I rely on a conception of moral luck that is grounded in an idea of systemic social arrangements that are not at all accidental?

The short answer is that the deepest sense of unpredictability and historical accident of their circumstances is experienced by the refugees as an already-oppressed class of people. From their perspective, the chances of success of escape might very well seem to be more like the vagaries of the weather: some get a storm, and some get fair skies. But there is also the other side of the equation—the systemic one. The fate of the refugees has to do with the actions of those empowered to help or to reject them. That is, my claim is that refugee systemic luck traps refugees in a two-tiered system of oppression: While an unpredictable and uncontrollable bad-luck force acts on an already-oppressed people by making their flight existentially necessary, a more systematically and deliberately enacted luck-making one takes over once they are homeless and stranded between an impossible home and an uncertain future.

This second force is the socio–political and economic circumstances of their intended destination, and how it reacts to its own circumstances. What this means is that on the one hand, no nation to which the refugees flee can be said to systematically arrange and control every policy (for they inevitably inherit the domestic and foreign policies of their predecessors). On the other, these (usually Western, more well-off) nations do have agential control over how they approach the historical circumstances that they have been dealt. And it is in how they respond to the political and moral dilemmas before them that these leaders and government representatives create the systemic luck of those whose lives are bound by their decisions.

Thus, refugee systemic luck can be understood in two steps: First, the refugees are thrown into historical, geopolitical circumstances not of their choosing. Second, they must contend with the actions and the powerful master narratives of those who may, or may not, offer them asylum. A system of luck is thus created: some refugees are storied as undeserving and unwanted, and thus experience refugee homelessness via systemic (bad) luck; others are storied as wanted and deserving, and thus can begin again via refugee systemic (good) luck. I argue in the final section of this paper that other choices and responses to the refugee’s needs are possible. I now turn to a consideration of what this refugee systemic luck looks like in practice.


III. “Model” Refugees

Part of my argument about the relationship between moral luck, public narratives, and the fate of refugees is predicated on the claim that some refugees, such as the Soviet Jews of the 1960s–1980s, were model refugees— “model” not only in the sense of being (mostly) well-educated, European, and ready to assimilate, but also in the sense of being wanted by their intended destinations. My point, however, is not to make a blanket statement about particular ethnicities, educational levels, or faiths as being outcome-determinative. Instead, I take the happenstance of one’s historical moment to be at the heart of the presence or absence of one’s moral luck.

What follows is a reminder that a lack of moral luck has worked against a population very similar to the one that was welcomed decades later. Just before (and certainly after) the outbreak of World War II, it became increasingly difficult for (mostly Jewish) refugees fleeing Nazi persecution to leave: the combination of fewer passenger liners crossing the Atlantic Ocean, SS-generated prohibitions, capricious, expensive, and complicated visa requirements, and other barriers stood in the way of European Jewry’s escape westward, and away from the growing Nazi threat (Lind 2017). Moreover, fearing the possibility of Nazi spies and saboteurs who could pose as refugees, the American State Department put great pressure on its diplomatic consuls in Europe to screen potential refugees carefully, and to reaffirm strict admission quotas, especially from southern and eastern Europe. Add to this fear of sabotage ongoing anti-Semitism and the generally isolationist, xenophobic posture of the United States, and a picture emerges of a nation that was neither willing nor ready to receive the tens of thousands desperately attempting to flee a nightmare (US Holocaust Museum 2017).

But this is how refugee systemic luck works. Given the background politico–historical conditions, the public messages of those in power were getting through: In July of 1938, Fortune magazine asked its readers whether European refugees should be allowed to come to the United States. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans surveyed believed that the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing fascist states in Europe (Tharoor 2015). Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out” (Tharoor 2015). Similarly, a 1938 article in the Daily Mail warned of “German Jews Pouring into This Country.” It began with: “The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage” (Tharoor 2015). The people were clearly listening.

But that was another time, with differing domestic and international political priorities, bringing with them different fears, different alliances—and different narratives about who was deserving of rescue and who was just an “ugly” refugee. When, decades later, the descendants of those European Jews again turned toward the West for asylum, a very different narrative shaped their flight. With the Cold War at its apex, images and articles depicting the flight of the persecuted Russian Jewry appeared in the Western press on a regular basis, storying them as defiant of a failed social system, of a failed economy, as well as of political and cultural totalitarianism—and most importantly, of an unrelenting, cruel anti-Semitism. Calls for support of the newly arrived and wanted citizens-to-be were loud and growing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the United States (Beckerman 2010). This was, of course, not universal, as anti-Semitism and general xenophobia were a part of the general background hum of the Western world. But, importantly, this anti-Semitism and xenophobia were not a part of the official master narratives about Soviet refugees: the stories heard on the radio, seen on television, and printed in most major newspapers set both the tone, and the policies, of collective openness. Officially, these refugees were welcome from the frozen totalitarianism of the Soviet gulag, and American policymakers and the media storied them as the educated, the intellectual, the courageous. And for most of these new refugees, that was enough to begin again.

And here is where the other side of refugee systemic luck—the good kind—began to gain momentum. The conservative political advisor, consultant, and Senator Henry Jackson’s staffer, Richard Perle, noted in an interview that Jackson, as a co-sponsor of the refugee-friendly Jackson-Vanik Amendment, viewed the right to leave and to find a new home as a singularly important and powerful human right: “if people could vote with their feet, governments would have to acknowledge that and governments would have to make for their citizens a life that would keep them there” (PBS 2002).

This public narrative of political—and, crucially, moral—rights of refugees was echoed in 1989, when the U.S. Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment, classifying Soviet Jews and certain other religious communities as persecuted groups, qualifying them for refugee status, and thereby opening the doors over the next decade or so to increasing number of Russian–Jewish refugees, bringing as many as 25,000 individuals a year to New York alone—with some measure of public approval (Rosenberg 2015). When in the 1970s and 1980s the news broadcasts in the West began to be filled with stories about Soviet “refuseniks,” the very public messages about the oppression of religious beliefs, as well as of the threat to Western-oriented intelligentsia, predominated as a narrative of the West’s moral responsibility to offer safe harbor (Beckerman 2010). Indeed,

“[s]ince the mid-1970s, a number of programs were adopted by Congress to encourage the smooth adjustment of refugees from . . . the former Soviet Union. The most important of these was the Refugee Act of 1980 [reauthorized in 1991]. This legislation was intended to provide transitional assistance to refugees in the United States, and assist them with, among other things, job training and placement, as well as English language training and cash assistance” (Bruno 2011).

Thus, American policymakers found it politically advantageous to challenge the Soviet Union both culturally and geopolitically by targeting their most public political critiques and actions at what they viewed as the soft, vulnerable underbelly of the Soviet machine—its human rights record, and in particular, its longstanding record of anti-Semitism and the persecution of both religious and intellectual communities. In this way, by encouraging Soviet refugees, they were able to accomplish two simultaneous goals: to (less publicly) maneuver their central Cold War foe politically and economically, while (quite publicly) doing so under the umbrella of human rights pressure, mobilizing national (and world-wide) sympathies for the beleaguered Soviet Jewry, which could now be rescued by the United States and its allies. This acceptance of refugees from the Eastern Bloc would not only demonstrate the failure of communism, but it would do so by painting those seeking to leave it as heroic, and those taking them in as morally righteous (Beckerman 2010).

And it worked. Families such as my own were assisted not only by the federal legislation, but by those who heard and responded to the call for refugee assistance: local groups of assimilated refugees and American citizens organized to help new arrivals, assisting them with finding homes, helping them with the language and cultural norms, and so on. Newspaper columns, editorials, entire books were written about the process of welcoming those fleeing totalitarian oppression in the East. And the American public, always historically suspicious of newcomers, generally made an exception for those who were storied as communism-defying, freedom-seeking, educated—and white—families, seeking only to plant new roots in the quest for the American Dream. No longer crypto-spies, German agents, or “ugly” foreigners, these refugees were publicly, repeatedly storied as objects of sympathy, empathy, and support—of enormous systemic luck. Although not having much personal control over their circumstances, these refugees happened to find themselves in a historical moment when their needs matched those of powerful systems that were themselves neither natural nor accidental. Approvingly narrated by Western socio–political forces, these particular refugees were favored as useful agents of the West’s growing dominance over the East. And it is out of this luck—this tremendous, unearned luck of being a convenient “humanitarian” pawn—that my family, and so many others, found a way to a home out of the homelessness and darkness of political flight. But these favorable narrative winds can also be capricious.


IV. New Refugees, New Stories

This pro-refugee narrative is largely absent for the current generation of Syrian refugees. Since the 2011 civil war began, an estimated 11 million desperate Syrians have fled their homes, and about 13.5 million are in need of assistance (Syrian Refugees 2016). As more Syrians are forced to flee war, terror, hunger, and other disasters, wrought in no small part by the lethal combination of religious extremism and wars of economic and geopolitical advantage, the Global North has taken a dramatically different attitude toward their needs. Austria passed tougher asylum laws, allowing itself to declare a state of emergency if refugee numbers “threaten public order” or overwhelm public institutions. The Austrian media reported that the government was planning to build a fence at its border with Italy for protection in the event of rising migrant numbers (BBC 2016). And though the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, argued for a “moral responsibility” to welcome Syrian refugees, he quickly announced that the U.K could accept only 20,000 over a five-year period (Wintour 2015). Cameron’s flagging support of the refugees was, however, not sufficiently meager for the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, unleashed a lengthy public campaign of openly racist speeches, written commentary, and ads designed to frighten the British public and turn them against the “hordes” of Muslims about to land on their shores.

The infamous Brexit vote that followed was spurred largely by anti-immigrant and anti-refugee narratives. In fact, an overwhelming number of Britons who voted for Brexit did so in response to the anti-refugee messaging prevalent in the media, the political sphere, and elsewhere (Forster 2016). Not surprisingly, incidents of violence against immigrants and refugees have risen significantly following the Brexit vote (Forster 2016). Even in Germany, which opened its borders to more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, relying on its Wilkommenskultur (welcoming culture) for national support, the welcome has been noticeably eroding as support for extreme right-wing anti-immigration groups such as Pegida and the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland party has increased, with violent nationalist-led confrontations on the rise (McCarthy 2015). In fact, 2016 saw the German parliament pass laws forcing Syrian refugees who are not “personally persecuted” to wait two years to even begin their application process to bring their families to Europe. The phrase “national suicide” has been repeated by large numbers of influential European nationalists when discussing the crisis (Brown 2015).

But perhaps nowhere has bad systemic luck been put into practice as successfully, with the official endorsement of a general election, as in the United States. From casual anti-refugee sentiment, to the gubernatorial resistance to allowing the crossing of state boundaries, to the unabashed racism and xenophobia of Donald Trump, many narratives painted this new generation of refugees as a feared and unwanted “other.” And despite calls for tolerance and compassion, much louder, shriller voices told frightening tales of the “Islamization of America”; about thousands of terrorists “sneaking through” the immigration process; about the establishment of “Sharia Law” and the disappearance of jobs and opportunities for “real Americans,” and so on (Steinback 2011).

For example, American Thinker declared that the United States was “Expediting National Suicide with ‘Refugees’” (SPLC 2015). When the Obama administration announced plans to resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next fiscal year, the organizing Islamophobic movements reacted angrily:

Pamela Geller, head of the anti-Muslim hate group American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), called the announcement a Trojan horse, writing on her website, “The Islamic State threatened to send half a million Muslim migrants to Europe as a “weapon” against the West. Obama is bringing them here.” (SPLC 2015)­

Ann Corcoran, founder of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim website “Refugee Resettlement Watch” has similarly called the Obama administration’s policies a part of the “human rights industrial complex” and claimed that the “mostly Muslim” refugees are “many more than most Americans want to take care of” (SPLC 2015). Meanwhile, “Numbers USA,” the largest grassroots anti-immigrant and anti-refugee group in the country, called for a ban on Syrian refugee relocation to the U.S., insisting that “the risk is simply too great” (SPLC 2015). Compare this to the American press in November of 1976, when The Washington Post focused the public’s attention on Soviet human rights abuses and argued for the necessity of helping those trying to flee; the Los Angeles Times ran five such stories; and in 1977, the New York Times ran fifty-eight stories addressing the plight of Soviet dissidents (Beckerman 2010).

This national battle cry against the threat of the other was heard, granted uptake, and reproduced in the smallest of towns: In Twin Falls, Idaho, anti-refugee activists targeted refugee centers and loudly opposed the relocation of refugees, repeating what they have heard: that most refugees entering the U.S. are Islamic extremists. Even before the relocation process was to begin, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees planned hearings on the national security “threat” Syrian refugees pose:

[i]t took about a day and a half for Republican politicians to move from “What happened in Paris was awful!” through “Barack Obama is weak on evildoers!” to “Terrorist foreigners are coming to kill your children!” . . . 26 Republican governors . . . have said publicly that they oppose bringing Syrian refugees to their states, with most saying they’d refuse to accept them. . . . Meanwhile, every major GOP presidential candidate has come out against bringing Syrian refugees here, and Ted Cruz has introduced a bill to bar any Syrian refugees from settling in the United States. (Waldman 2015)

These narratives—these voices—had their effect. The current generations of refugees face the barriers of an historical American moment particularly drenched in xenophobic, anti-Muslim sentiment, reified into policy that paints the least powerful as the vilest, the most dangerous, the most unwanted. And even if we grant that the current generations of politicians and other leaders perpetuating these master narratives cannot help but respond to what they take to be the dominant national zeitgeist, we can still wonder at the seeming readiness with which they give into the worst impulses and sentiments of their political base. The fact that this racist narrative of the “dangerous refugee” succeeded even though not all prominent persons participated is, first, demonstrative of the need for a more focused, cohesive, and powerful response by those empowered to shape the national anti-racist counternarratives; second, it is demonstrative of the power of strategically wielded public narrative itself. It is an object lesson in how to do very bad things with effectively deployed words.

So, words and contexts matter—that much seems clear. But Trump’s 2016 victory is odd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of his own conservative bone fides. That is, while the majority of those engaging in racist, oppressive narratives were not only historically well-positioned to do so, but were already of a certain public stature that would lend immediate credence to their political views, Trump was not necessarily included in this “vetted” circle. This raises two questions: First, to what extent is Trump’s victory predicated on narrative prestidigitation? Second, what do we do about this power of public speech—especially when its content and manner hold the fates of those less powerful in the balance? The last section of this paper offers some possible answers.


V. Holding as a Political Act

While polls have shown that many Americans echoed vague suspicions of Islam and of refugees more generally, when they heard Donald Trump as Presidential candidate loudly calling for “extreme vetting” of foreigners, they listened (Kahn 2017). And enough of them liked what they heard when Trump declared:

I can look at their [Syrian refugee children’s] faces and say, Look, you can’t come here. . . . Their parents should always stay with them. But we don’t know where their parents come from. We have no documentation whatsoever. . . . There’s absolutely no way of saying where these people come from. (Allen and Sherlock 2016)

But consider that for most of his pre-presidential career, Trump was neither a consistent Republican, nor a “true” conservative. He supported universal health care, additional tax on the super-wealthy—he even claimed to “love” Hillary Clinton (Schwarz 2015)! His run for President as a Republican was in many ways an odd move: questions about whether he was genuinely reflective of the increasingly-right, anti-foreigner Republic Party was a central one of the 2016 electoral season. And so Trump chose to re-create himself in an act of legerdemain that might very well be studied by political scientists for decades to come. In order to rid himself of every left-signaling shibboleth, certain drastic narrative re-alignments had to take place—certain words needed to be uttered, and certain stories spun (Tierney 2016). Knowing where “his people” were in relation to their views on refugees was key—and tapping into the suspicions, the Islamophobia, and the fear required repeated, public calls to reject, to deny, to label, to hate. More than others. Louder than others. Most importantly, more “genuinely” than others. Not only did Trump signal to his voters that he was on their side, but that he has always been there, creating what psychologists call “cognitive consistency” for his supporters (Tierney 2016). Importantly, “[w]hat Trump has discovered was that to win the GOP nomination, it’s not enough to attack the Democrats. He must speak the unspeakable” (Tierney 2016). In this case, the “unspeakable” was nothing short of dehumanization of the Muslim refugee. And in order to assume this position of the master narrator of anti-refugee messages, Trump had to be a convincing mimic: Trying to reflect, and increase, the existing anti-refugee sentiment, he gave official, eventually Presidential, voice to messages of suspicion, otherness, and exclusion.[1]

Thus, Trump turned his extreme anti-refugee rhetoric into a transgressive discursive act by construing Muslim refugees in a way that othered them as no traditional Republican candidate was able to do. Through his words—from his campaign promises to single Muslims out for “extreme vetting,” to the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim nations, to his repeated mantras that what is to be feared the most from desperate refugees is “radical Islamic terrorism”—what emerges is a creation of a subclass of people who are simply not deserving of basic human compassion, assistance, or refuge. And through these words, Syrian and other Muslim refugees encounter the worst of refugee systemic luck: more than finding themselves thrown into socio–political circumstances over which they have no control, and more than being storied as dangerous interlopers by those empowered to make policy, they have become victimized by a new kind of demagoguery—the rhetoric of a political outsider who desperately desired to be the ultimate insider. With not much expertise or credibility behind him, Trump relied on his anti-refugee words and posturing to not merely capture the imagination of his intended audiences, but to win them over completely as the genuine article, the only one truly concerned about American safety. And through his narratives, he determined, and continues to determine, refugee fates by publicly destroying their moral and political personhood—their identities themselves.

So what is to be done? Let’s turn once again to narratives and identities. The idea that one’s identity is largely shaped and defined by others is one that is familiar to narrative ethicists, bioethicists, and others (Gotlib 2015; Charon and Montello 2002; Lindemann 2001; Eakin 1999; Frank 1997). Hilde Lindemann (2001) has argued that our personal identity is largely a function of the first-personal stories we tell others about ourselves in combination with the third-personal stories others tell about us, or include us as participants in the stories of others. These stories constitute us as moral agents who are held responsible, who can hold others responsible, and who engage in practices that allow us to become a part of a universe of mutual moral understandings with other such agents (Walker 1997). In other words, through stories, we become precisely the kinds of people that moral theorists take to be central to questions of moral judgment and accountability. And although my intention here is not to offer a defense of narrative as an approach to normativity, I do want to suggest that a narrative approach to identity makes both theoretical and practical sense if what one wishes to do is to examine morality as a real-time practice: theoretical, because of the serious explanatory gaps and epistemic weaknesses of top-down, hierarchical moral theories; practical, because if we are interested in the questions of how we understand and address the oppressions of actual refugees in real-life dilemmas, we must engage with their lived realities (Lindemann 2001). My claim, then, is grounded in the idea that we are natural storytellers, and that this storytelling is a fundamental part of how we create, (mis)understand, and destroy each other. Thus, if we are to challenge the destructive narratives of the anti-refugee movement, it will have to be with other, better narratives.

But we would first need to grant that if identities are narratively constructed, the consequences are not only interpersonal and moral, but political and public. Stories that are shared about one as a political subject are told not just by individuals or groups, but by institutions, organizations, nations. This political self is then situated not only in the universe of normative judgments, but also in the social and political sphere of policy and law. The self is thus located not only within narratives about who she is as a person, a friend, a daughter, or so many other matrices of personal identity, but also within stories of who she is as a citizen, a rights-claimant, a participant in political and socio-economic institutions.

One’s political identity, one’s political self, can be said to delineate which political roles one can, and cannot, occupy; to what kinds of treatments one might be subjected; whether one’s narratives about what one deserves receive social uptake; whether one can choose one’s communities of belonging. And these narrative practices are deeply political not only because they create identities—citizens, non-citizens, refugees, illegal aliens, the wanted, the unwanted—but because they reify them with policies that can be nothing short of weaponized instruments of identity-assassination, where the only intelligible narrative about a disfavored group is that of “other.” And what is not said also matters: when Donald Trump fails to refer to refugees as fellow human beings, what remains between the lines of his narrative is heard clearly by the audience—these are not only dangerous hordes, but as persons, they do not matter.

I hope that the direction of this argument is clear: the master narratives that shaped, and are shaping, the experiences and fates of different sets of refugees call for, among other things, narratively-based responses. European Jews were denied rescue. Soviet Jewish refugees saw a door open. Syrian refugees have heard too many of them shut.

I suggest that the beginning of a narrative response starts with the idea of holding. What I mean by “holding” here is largely borrowed from Lindemann’s 2014 book, Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities, where she defends a view of the moral universe that is not only shared and relational, but where we are fundamentally dependent on the stories, attitudes, and actions of others for our flourishing (or its lack), for our ideas about who we are, and, importantly for our socio–moral position in that very universe. In fact, she notes that “[t]o have lived . . . as a person is to have taken my proper place in the social world that lets us make selves of each other” (Lindemann 2014, 159). Lindemann’s central insight is that human beings cannot help but create and undo each other as persons, and that this process begins before birth and does not end with death. It is this process that she calls “holding”—the moral practices of narrative recognition of, and response to, who someone is (Lindemann 2014). As holders and the held, we are constituted through webs of stories about what matters to us, about what our central characteristics are (or should be), about our relationships, commitments, experiences, and so on. It is the narrative tissue of these stories that shapes our personal identities not just as particular people, but as kinds of persons— “lesser” persons, or non-persons (Lindemann 2014).

I noted earlier that Trump’s extreme anti-refugee rhetoric is a kind of holding. By this, I mean to suggest that Lindemann’s concept of holding can be empowering and liberating, but also oppressive and dangerous as a political linguistic practice. Indeed, as Lynne Tirrell eloquently argues, this practice can be one of

derogation . . . made up of many kinds of language games, which comprise many kinds of speech acts. These derogatory acts, games, and practices are repressive prima facie but even more, they produce a positive set of licenses and permissions which foster behaviors that both construct the positive identities of all parties to the games, and permit destructive actions which undermine the very logic of the game and practice. (Tirrell 2012, 216–217)

Through these stories—and by “stories” here, I am emphasizing expressly public narratives and speech acts directed at large audiences, designed to influence opinion and subsequent policies—vivid and outcome-determinative pictures are painted of who is wanted, who is unwanted, who is to be welcomed, and who is to be rejected and denied refuge. An aspect of Lindemann’s earlier work (Lindemann 2001) is especially useful here. Her emphasis on the power, and the effects, of master narratives clarifies what holding can do: It not only matters that one is held, but it matters how, by whom, and under what circumstances. Practices of holding by individuals with relatively little sociopolitical power and influence might not be as identity-constituting, or as outcome-determinative for the held—some kinds of holding are simply not equal to others. But the narratives of those who engage with others on a massive scale can matter greatly simply by holding a group as inferior, dangerous, or alien.

A detailed and fully realized analysis of holding as a political counternarrative is beyond the scope of this paper—but I do want to conclude by moving in that direction. If we allow that public narratives about others can hold them in ways that increase their vulnerabilities, then how we hold them certainly ought not be a function of political expediency, party politics, or refugee moral luck. What this might mean in practice is a question complicated by the imbalances of power between the subject and the object, between the holder and the held. But what seems to be a not impossible set of initial moves includes first, paying and bringing attention to the kinds of speech and actions that are indicative of bad holding; second, understanding the significance of the historical and political contexts in which damaging narratives tend to occur, for it is far too tempting to view one’s sociopolitical predicament as special, or as ahistorical; and third, de-weaponizing certain at-risk identities by responding to oppressive, and often existentially-threatening, public speech with public counternarratives of holding well, of holding in ways that contribute to personhood rather than destroy it.

This might include an increased amount of vigilance and responsiveness on all of our parts—to construct and to publicize counterstories about Syrian and other threatened refugees, and to push back on the pervasive narratives of terrorism, danger, and otherness. To call out those political and social leaders whose words can hold the most vulnerable so badly—or not at all—and to challenge their narratives on the grounds of the deep injustices born of bad moral luck. And even if we are somewhat successful, these leaders might be reminded that the refugees they see as threats are fleeing horrors much like generations of refugees before them, and that the question of whether we open our doors ought not be a function of our own expediency or electoral politics.

Lindemann argues that narratives hold us by expressing and signaling who we take others, and ourselves, to be (Lindemann 2014). I have suggested that not only can this signaling be extended into the political realm, but it can, and should, be applied to groups—especially to those who are oppressed, threatened, or otherwise exposed to exploitation, isolation, and othering. To put it simply, we have to learn to do less damage with words, to recognize bad holding, and to take a stand when others do damage—especially the kind of damage that is only possible with public language wielded by powerful people. We have to do so urgently, given the role that moral luck can play in the lives of the vulnerable. Arendt tells us that “[w]e humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human (Arendt 1968, 24–25). And so it is imperative that we deepen and broaden our practices of humanization—of our politics, our words, ourselves. The other way lies the unthinkable.

Anna Gotlib is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College CUNY. Her areas of research and teaching include bioethics/medical ethics, moral psychology, social/political philosophy and the philosophy of law, and feminist philosophy. Her work has appeared in Hypatia, The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Humana Mente, and several edited collections. She has two edited volumes on the moral psychology of the emotions coming out with Rowman and Littlefield International in 2017 and 2018, and is currently working on a monograph.


I would like to thank Rebecca Kukla and the entire fantastic staff at KIEJ.  I am also grateful to Hilde Lindemann and Jade Schiff for their invaluable advice and feedback.  Finally, thanks goes to the lively audience at the Night of Philosophy & Ideas (sponsored by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and Brooklyn Public Library), and to my colleagues at the 33rd International Social Philosophy Conference at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.



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Kahn, Chris. 2017. “A Third of Americans Think Trump’s Travel Ban Will Make Them Safer.” Reuters, February 1. Accessed March 5, 2017.

Lind, Dara. 2017. “How America’s Rejection of Jews Fleeing Nazi Germany Haunts our Refugee Policy Today.” Vox, January 27. Accessed March 5, 2017.

Lindemann, Hilde. 2001. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. New York: Cornell University Press.

Lindemann, Hilde. 2014. Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identities. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, Barbara. 2015. “Refugee Crisis: Voices from the Streets of Germany.” Al Jazeera, September 17. Accessed February 17, 2017.

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Parekh, Serena. 2016. Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement. New York: Routledge.

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Steinback, Robert. 2011. “Activists Attacking Muslims and Islam Are Springing up around the Country.” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17. Accessed December 17, 2016.

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[1] Compare Trump’s rhetoric with that of Cold War-era Vice President George Bush, echoing Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall demands: “Let’s see not five or six or 10 or 20 refuseniks released at a time, but thousands, tens of thousands. Mr. Gorbachev, let these people go!” (Beckerman 2010, 526).


Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Trump is Gross: Taking Political Taste (and Distaste) Seriously

by Shelley Park 

ABSTRACT. This paper advances the somewhat unphilosophical thesis that “Trump is gross” to draw attention to the need to take matters of taste seriously in politics. I begin by exploring the slipperiness of distinctions between aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics, subsequently suggesting that we may need to pivot toward the aesthetic to understand and respond to the historical moment we inhabit. More specifically, I suggest that, in order to understand how Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and in order to stem the damage that preceded this and will ensue from it, we need to understand the power of political taste (and distaste, including disgust) as both a force of resistance and as a force of normalization.

My 5-year-old granddaughter refers to foods, clothes, and people she does not like as “supergross.” It is a verbiage that I have found myself adopting for talking about many things Trumpian, including the man himself. The gaudy, gold-plated everything in Trump Towers; his ill-fitting suits; his poorly executed fake tan and comb-over; his red baseball cap emblazoned with “Make America Great Again;” his creepy way of talking about women (including his own daughters); his racist vitriol about Blacks, Muslims and Mexicans; his blatant over-the-top narcissism; his uncontrolled tantrums; his ridiculous tweets; his outlandish claims; his awkward hand gestures and handshakes; the disquieting ease with which he is seduced by flattery; his embarrassing disregard for facts; his tortured use of language; his rudeness toward other world leaders; the obsequious manner in which other Republicans are treating the man they despised mere months ago; the servility of many Democrats in the face of a military–industrial coup. All of this is gross—indeed, supergross. This is not a sophisticated language; it provides no careful analysis of, or reasons for, my attitude toward the 45th U.S. President, his policies, or the people and objects that surround him. It is, moreover, a language that lacks nuance—that lumps together what are merely aesthetic infractions of good taste with seemingly much more serious failures of epistemic responsibility and ethical character. Is this not a mistake?

I answer this question with a (cautious) “no.” In what follows I adopt the deliberately unrefined language of “gross” (and, for additional emphasis, “supergross”) to draw attention, first, to the slipperiness of our distinctions between aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics and, secondly, to suggest that we may need to pivot toward the aesthetic to understand and respond to the historical moment we inhabit. More specifically, I suggest that, in order to understand how Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and in order to stem the damage that preceded this and ensues from it, we need to understand the power of political taste (and distaste, including disgust) as both a force of resistance and as a force of normalization.



The American Heritage Dictionary defines gross as follows:

  1. a. Exclusive of deductions; total: gross profits
    b. Unmitigated in any way; utter: gross incompetence.
  2. So obvious or conspicuous as to cause or heighten offense: gross injustice.
  3. a. Brutishly coarse, as in behavior; crude: “It is futile to expect a hungry and squalid population to be anything but violent and gross” (Thomas H. Huxley).
    b. Disgusting or offensive: Don’t you think slugs are gross? He told a gross joke.
  4. Overweight; corpulent: “Sally is fat. She is gross. She must weigh twelve stone and more”(Margaret Drabble).
  5. a.On a large scale; not fine or detailed: gross anatomical similarities; gross motor skills
    b. Broad; general: the gross necessities of life.

There are several things to note about these definitions. First, the five different meanings of “gross” offered are not altogether distinct. For example, we may find those who are “obvious or conspicuous” (def. 2) to be crude or ill-mannered (def. 3) due to their lack of subtlety (def. 5). Many will find those who are large (def. 5), especially but not exclusively women, to be oversize or overweight (def. 4), a bodily condition that is frequently aligned with hypervisibility (def. 2) and which elicits disgust (def. 3). Secondly, as these examples demonstrate, the typical connotation of the adjective “gross” is negative. While the first and fifth senses of the term “gross” offer potentially neutral meanings, the ways in which these definitions intersect with the others may render even those senses of “gross” less than neutral. For example, impoverished populations, concerned (objectively speaking) with the gross necessities of life, may be viewed by other more privileged segments of a society as having “unrefined” tastes and thus as being crude or even disgusting. Alternatively, workers or consumers may view the corporation whose gross profits are large as grossly unjust; in such circumstances, the gross (total) profits become gross (disgusting) profits symbolized by images of “fat cats” with bulging (gross) waistlines. Third, as these examples and those provided by the dictionary itself make clear, both explicit and implicit biases frequently creep into our characterizations of this or that as “gross.”[1] What is obvious or conspicuous to one person may be difficult to see by another whose tastes have been differently shaped. Contemporary Euro–American beauty standards align female beauty with thinness; in other times and places, Sally’s weight may be considered neither excessive nor gross. The hungry populations considered squalid and violent in Huxley’s Brave New World are, from another perspective, engaged in righteous social justice struggles.

When we are compelled or repelled by something, however, we rarely reflect upon the legitimacy of our affective attitudes. This is especially true, perhaps, of repulsion. When my granddaughter proclaims cat vomit to be “supergross,” she is describing it as something obviously repulsive, something of which I am warned to steer clear; when she uses the same term to describe the broccoli on the dining table, she offers a description of the food as offensive and thus justifies her refusal to put it near her lips. When I go near the vomit (to clean it up) or the broccoli (to eat it), the negative properties of the offending object now adhere to me, as I become “supergross” for engaging with it.[2] In calling something “gross,” we both describe and prescribe an attitude, an orientation, an aversion. We also offer a reason for our aversion: we are disgusted because it is disgusting; we are offended because he is offensive. In short, we are grossed out by something, someone, some event, or some circumstance that is gross.[3] And because it/he/she/they is gross, we should be grossed out.

Our culinary, fashion, sexual, artistic, and political distastes frequently follow the same pattern. Mild distastes may be compatible with accepting alternative tastes. However, the stronger our distaste the more likely we are to both rationalize and moralize our taste. Some vegetarians find the smell and taste of meat repulsive; some non-smokers are grossed out by the smell and taste of cigarettes. Neither wants to kiss (get too close to) someone who ingests the offending object. Some feminists, understanding the burqa as a deeply offensive symbol of patriarchy, wish to ban it from their nations. The evangelical Christian does not merely refrain from engaging in acts of sodomy himself; he is repulsed by the idea of anyone else engaging in such behavior and wishes to have no proximity to it (including the baking of wedding cakes). Congressional legislators who find works of art offensive may react by defunding the arts. The aptly named “divided electorate” during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election followed this pattern also. Voters did not merely “lean” in one direction or the other, “preferring” one candidate to another. Most citizens found one major party candidate so repulsive that they could not vote for that candidate, nor could they understand how anyone else could (“In their own words” 2016). Some found both major party candidates disgusting and “held their nose” while voting for the so-called “lesser of two evils” (much as we learn to hold our breath while cleaning up cat vomit). Others could not stomach voting for either candidate, choosing thus to cast their vote for a third party or failing to vote at all.

While the labels “Crooked Hillary” and “Dangerous Donald” cast aspersions on the ethical temperament of each candidate, these labels “stuck” in part because they provided a seemingly legitimate reason for rejecting a candidate who was already reviled (McGill 2016).[4] Clinton had a much touted “likeability problem” that had little to do with her honesty. Indeed, fact checkers ranked her as the most honest candidate—especially as compared to Trump who was deemed a “pathological liar” (Palmer 2016). If the truth were to be told—as in some social media quarters it was—Hillary was disliked because of the perception that she was an unmitigated power-grabbing bitch with a gross sense of entitlement (“it’s my turn”) (“Hillary Clinton” 2014; Card 2015). What her opponents reviled as a conspicuously elitist attitude was confirmed by her offensive description of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” (Reilly 2016).[5] She was castigated for throwing other less elite women (e.g. those who had accused her husband of sexually inappropriate behavior) under the bus in order to protect her own proximity to power (Crowder 2015; Thomas 2015). And she was, of course, deemed physically as well as emotionally repulsive (fat, old, mean, and “nasty”). Others found her presumption that she could trump Trump by playing “the woman card” both obnoxious and audacious (Rappeport 2016).[6] Found to be gross along several different definitional axes, Hillary Clinton became reviled and ridiculed as supergross by those who attended Trump rallies, as well as by many of those who stayed home on election day. Such portrayals of Clinton persisted post-election. After her re-emergence onto the public scene, she was castigated for blaming others for her loss and cast as a sore loser who demonstrated “little grace and even less class” (Limbaugh 2017; Croure 2017).

Trump’s “toxic favorability ratings” (Martin and Sussman 2016) were (and are) also attributable to his perceived “grossness” in each of the senses offered by the dictionary: He is unmitigated, utterly himself, he holds nothing back. He is obvious and conspicuous, as are the hotels that he builds; he likes—indeed demands—to be noticed. His behavior is coarse, his jokes are crude, his taste is questionable, his demeanor is unrefined and disgusting (James 2016). He is corpulent in both a physical and a metaphorical sense, i.e. he is “too much”; he is an unapologetic “fat cat.” He speaks in generalities, he thinks and acts in grand—indeed, grandiose—terms, leaving the details for others to sort out. Voters who were and are grossed out by Trump respond to his unmitigated narcissism, his absence of decorum, his offensive comments about women, ethnic minorities, and disabled folk, his conspicuous consumption, and his lack of delicacy or nuance. Tellingly, 45% of Clinton voters polled chose the word “disgusted” to describe their reaction to Trump’s victory (“Low Marks” 2016). Voters were not merely disappointed in the outcome (as is often the case when one’s preferred candidate does not win), but disgusted. Disgust is an emotion that is both stronger and more intense than disappointment. It is also an attitude more likely to affix itself to its cause than its bearer. Quite simply, Trump opponents were (are) disgusted because Trump was (is) disgusting.

In shifting responsibility for our aversion to political candidates to the candidates themselves, we claim that other citizens should share our aversion. The stronger our aversion, the stronger our sense that others will be, like us, compelled to work against—or at least vote against—that candidate. Thus, many who found Trump grossly repellent were stunned by his victory. The sense of unreality (how could THIS be?) following Trump’s election was not merely a matter of feeling misled by inaccurate polls. The outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was not merely implausible to Trump opponents; it was inconceivable. Like a small child who cannot understand how anyone would eat broccoli, we could not imagine a possible world wherein any sizable portion of the populace would choose Trump. Many of us continue to have a sense of unreality about the political world we inhabit (Hemon 2017; Gabler 2017), finding it unimaginable that Trump’s base, most rank-and-file Republicans on Capitol Hill and the women closest to him continue to defend and excuse behaviors that late night television hosts have characterized as “abusive,” “repulsive,” “repugnant,” and “disgusting” (Maddow 2017; Lemon 2017; Meyers 2017). How are we to make sense of the fact that many of our fellow citizens did not and do not share our aversions?



If another fails to share our strongly felt aversions, we are apt to find that other deficient epistemically, morally, or aesthetically. We find them guilty of bad judgment, bad character, and/or bad taste. After the November 2016 U.S. Presidential election, media commentators and political analysts, attempting to answer the question “How did Donald Trump become President?” focused heavily on the epistemic failures of Trump voters with secondary attention to their moral failures.[7] Although post-election polling showed it false, some clung to the common wisdom of the campaign season that Trump’s victory was attributable to support from “uneducated,” working-class voters (Ross 2015; Hamilton 2016). Others contended that Trump’s support was linked to a constituency of “low-information voters,” namely voters “who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a ‘need for cognition’” (Fording and Schram 2016). Echoing concerns about the “stupidity” of the American voter voiced after the election of President George W. Bush, political scientists claimed that Trump voters were particularly susceptible to emotional appeals and other cognitive fallacies. (Fording and Schram n.d.; cf. Caplan 2007; Shenkman 2008). Many voiced concerns about the vulnerability of voters to “fake news” stories as circulated on social media (Maheshwari 2016; Meyers 2016; Wolff 2016). Claiming that Trump voters will regret their choice, some implied that the President’s supporters are also the victims of false consciousness (Johnston 2016).

Denying that Trump’s win was rooted in voter ignorance, other commentators pointed to the flawed ethical character of Trump voters. “You shouldn’t assume Trump’s voters are experiencing false consciousness,” wrote opinion columnist, John Barrow; “in many cases, they just want bad things” (Barrow 2016). One widely held explanation for Trump’s victory contends that it represents a white backlash (“whitelash”) against the gains made by minoritized populations during the Obama era (Blake 2016; Ryan 2016). Others have pointed to sexism—including the internalized sexism of women who voted for him and sexism in the media—as a primary explanatory factor in Trump’s win (Barbato 2016; Bordo 2017). That a majority of white women would vote for the man who was caught bragging about “grab[bing women] by the pussy” pointed to persistent intersections of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny within a key demographic upon which Clinton’s team relied (Anderson 2016). The willingness of Trump voters to overlook Trump’s pervasive stereotyping and scapegoating of people of color, immigrants, and non-Christians, his verbal and sexual assault of women, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his belittling of POWs (among other things) strongly suggested that such voters were not just plain ignorant but willfully ignorant and thus, whether overt bigots or not, deserving of the label “deplorable” (Schram 2016; cf. Pohlhaus 2012; Lynch 2016).

Much to the dismay of those who hoped Trump supporters might suffer buyer’s remorse, President-elect Trump’s nomination of record numbers of CEOs and Wall Street insiders to his cabinet (despite his earlier pledges to “drain the swamp”) did little to dislodge the support of his base. Similarly, when President Trump—who, as candidate Trump, had excoriated Clinton for jeopardizing national security through her use of a private e-mail server—established a private server for himself, those who had previously chanted “lock her up” did not question the ethics or legality of his actions. Indeed, Trump’s base seems unconcerned by clear breaches of national security combined with Trump’s fairly obvious conflicts of interest in his Mar-a-Lago resort and other properties following the election. As the President chatted with the Japanese Prime Minister about Korea’s nuclear missile test in the midst of a restaurant, those who could afford escalating resort fees to be in proximity to such power took pictures. As the U.S. intelligence community confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, President Trump—who has a history of business dealings in Russia but refuses to disclose current financial interests—revealed classified information to a Russian Ambassador during a visit the U.S. news media were not allowed to cover. How could the Trump supporter be unconcerned about such violations of Presidential protocol? Here again, it is tempting to critique the Trump supporter as either ignorant or morally suspect: they are either idiots or moral hypocrites (or both). To stop at this conclusion, however, is to lock ourselves into one half of a self-perpetuating cycle of mutually assured disgust. As MSNBC host Chris Matthews accurately noted post-election, Trump’s supporters “don’t care what he says [or does] as long as he snarls at elitists while he says [or does] it” (Hardball 2016). When we—disgusted at their stupidity, stunned at their hypocrisy, and grossed out by their uncritical support for policies we deem disgusting—pity, belittle, ridicule, or shame the Trump supporter, we exemplify the very “elitism” at which they sneer.

We must quit playing the very role into which we have been cast by the opposition’s narrative.



Actor Mike Daisey (2016) suggests that our inability to understand Trump’s popularity stems from a failure to understand how theatre works: “Trump’s popularity doesn’t erode when he lies because the people supporting him are supporting a lifelong performer. When they hear him say things that aren’t true, they don’t hear a trusted source betraying them any more than when Hamlet says he will die onstage we then demand our money back because the actor is alive at curtain call and didn’t actually die” (28).[8] Reminding us that a successful performance depends not on duping the audience but instead on engaging them, Daisey describes the contract between Trump and his supporters as follows:

They are playing the role of an audience, connecting with the image of the person onstage. The people who don’t care that Trump tells the truth aren’t idiots who don’t understand how the world works. . . . They know he is spinning a story, and they like the performance so much they have actively decided that they do not care. . . . He promises with each lie and boast that he will absolutely always be Donald Trump, and he delivers. . . . [I]t is through this unspoken contract of trust that Trump gains power. (28, emphasis mine)

Of course, this contract is dangerous when the principal actor is a demagogue. Nonetheless, if this theatrical rendering of our situation is plausible—and I think it is—we should take a moment to consider what, exactly, the Trump supporter “likes so much” about Trump’s performance. Why do some people “consent to be moved” (Sontag 1975) by political performances that others find offensive and crude? What are the “mobilizing passions” (Paxton 2005) that consolidate Trump support?

Daisey emphasizes that “we do not have to personally trust a performer to trust the integrity of their performance” (28). I would add to this that we can like a performance—and the performer—while simultaneously being disgusted with the actions of the character they portray. We can, for example, be enthralled with Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter while continuing to find serial murder and cannibalism both morally and aesthetically repugnant. We are not moved by the film to become cannibals. Similarly, we may be delighted with Divine’s outrageous performance in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos without ourselves developing a taste for eating shit. So what moves us? And what are we moved to do? We may be moved to not give a shit; indeed, a generation of queers were inspired by Divine (and others) to be shameless about their non-normative desires and appetites. What we loved about Divine was that she was always divine, even as—indeed, precisely as—she and Waters pushed against the boundaries of good taste.[9] In parallel fashion, Trump supporters are freed to be shameless about their appetites and aspirations by Trump’s performance. What they love about Trump is that he, as Daisey notes, is always Trump—namely someone who unapologetically transgresses the boundaries of what is normatively acceptable. Trump is gross—indeed, super (hugely, bigly) gross. This fact is not lost on his supporters; it is precisely what mobilizes his base.

A central concern—perhaps the central concern—of Trump supporters is their loss of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986). If one listens to Trump supporters, one hears resentment directed at “cultural elites” that has less to do with an inability to achieve the American dream than it does with a perceived derision of the dream itself (Friedersdorf 2016; Lee et al. 2016; Altman 2017). Members of so-called rural America,[10] namely those living outside of major metropolitan areas on the East and West coasts, are tired of being treated as disgusting rubes, hicks, and rednecks because they don’t aspire to leave their hometowns, pursue advanced degrees, read the New York Times, travel internationally, or attend the theatre. What is wrong, they ask, with wanting nothing more (nor less) than to own a modest home, watch football, and go to church on Sunday, while living near family and carrying out family traditions? How did small town (and Christian) values become synonymous with being a shameful, uneducated bigot (Zito 2017)?

Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to rust-belt and coal-mining communities were no doubt one factor leading to his electoral success (material capital was not irrelevant); however, the larger success of his campaign was in positioning himself as an unlikely representative of middle American values, a putative “voice of the people.” Crudely put, Trump garnered support from middle America by encouraging them to tell their critics to eat shit. As Benjamin (1936) described in analyzing the “aestheticization of politics” under fascism, fascism gives the masses “a chance to express themselves” while preserving property relations as they are.[11] Trump’s “performance of everyman vernacular” (Masciotra 2016) combined with his unapologetic lack of self-censorship made the New York real estate mogul a cultural champion for “Cracker Barrel Americans” (Powers 2016). What we (“the intellectual elite”) ridiculed as rambling, incoherent speeches and ungrammatical tweets were applauded by those who found his spontaneity refreshing. What we (“the liberal elite”) pathologized as offensive, repugnant characterizations of women, people of color, disabled people and others was viewed by Trump voters as courageous speech. What we (“the coastal elite”) viewed as crass, vulgar behavior unbecoming a President solidified Trump’s “outsider status” among voters in middle America. In short, everything we found an unforgiveable gaffe (gross and repellant) was interpreted by Trump supporters as a sign of virtue.

Trump’s ongoing criticism, in both word and deed, of “elitism” and its perceived close-cousin, “political correctness,” had (and has) a strong affective appeal that “forged an unlikely but unshakable bond between a Manhattan billionaire who had manifestly lived a life of ‘New York values’ with conservative white Americans who feel under constant assault by a cultural elite that treats them with contempt” (Powers 2016). This sense of white victimhood is not new; Donald Trump did not create it nor is he the first politician to attempt to mobilize it. Sarah Palin invited ridicule for her folksy ways during the 2008 Presidential campaign and, for a while, successfully turned it into a narrative of victimization. This “politics of resentment” fueled the Tea Party movement who saw both financial and liberal elites as setting out to destroy white middle-class mores and virtues. Mike Huckabee complained that the powerful and arrogant elites also mocked God and attempted to stifle “biblical” views of marriage and homosexuality—a victim narrative that has been strengthened in the wake of the Obergefell decision (Kilgore 2015). Ted Cruz used Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy strategy during the 2016 election season, deploying Duck Dynasty stars to appeal to rural and working-class Americans disenfranchised by U.S. liberal elites. It was Trump, however, who used the narrative most masterfully. Refusing to apologize for even the most outlandish and inappropriate criticisms of others—from “Lil Marco” and “low-energy Jeb” to “bleeding from everywhere” Megan and “nasty” Hillary—Trump positioned himself as a politician with the courage to “tell it like it was” and stand up to the forces of political correctness.[12] And in so doing, Trump also “inoculated himself against the very allegations that many believed would be his undoing: that he was a racist and misogynist who bragged of sexually assaulting women” (Powers 2016). Worse yet, as news host Rachel Maddow has noted, President Trump’s willingness to shamelessly break the “norms of decency,” his willingness to behave in ways that are not merely unpresidential but gross and repulsive, calls upon us—as “decent” people—to respond (Maddow 2017). But when we do, we refuel debates about political correctness while turning our focus (and the focus of Trump’s supporters) away from legislative agendas that may actively harm millions of people.

Where do we go from here? How can those who oppose Trump and his supporting cast of Republicans rewrite the script to mobilize a renewed passion for democracy? Put another way, how can the resistance become a more sympathetic character in the unfolding U.S. drama?



There are no easy solutions to the predicament in which we find ourselves—a situation in which we face a neo-fascist regime[13] that has artfully cast racial, religious, sexual, and other minority populations as the fascists and the most privileged members of the population as their victims. If we shame the audience who applauds Trump’s demagoguery for their bad judgment, bad morals, or bad taste, we feed the narrative that disables us. This is true whether or not some of the members of that audience are deplorable. Making a commitment to “go high” when they “go low” will suffer the same fate. The assumption that we have, or even that we should take, “the moral high ground” suggests that we are or wish to become superior to those who are already convinced that we have a superiority complex.

We cannot wait for Trump to pivot. He will not. Nor will those who are enjoying the current torment of the left: techniques of rational persuasion will have little effect on those who are openly “ecstatic” about watching us (and the academic institutions we inhabit) “commit ritual suicide” (Schlicter 2017). In order to stay alive—the first order of business for any successful resistance—we are the ones who must pivot. To accept some advice from those who ridiculed us in the wake of Trump’s election and Hillary’s defeat, we cannot continue to gaze into the mirror and say to ourselves, “Well, you look terrific. No problem here. It must be that normal Americans are racist and stupid” (Schlicter 2017). As distasteful as it will be, we may need to look at ourselves through the eyes of our critics. (That is, after all, what a good actor does in order to improve her craft.) Through that opposing aesthetic lens, we may find that at least some parts of cultural liberalism are—like Trumpism—gross.[14] Are we (sometimes, often, ever) self-righteous? Paternalistic? Dangerous? Detached? Narcissistic? Uncritical? Lazy? Probably.

I am not suggesting that Trump resisters engage in self-flagellation (which is rarely useful). Nor am I suggesting that we cease direct action against policies and actions of the Trump regime (this would be a critical mistake). I am, however, suggesting that the size and the shape of the resistance matters. Continuing to grow the resistance is imperative, given the amount of work there is to do. This means that we need a big tent. We cannot afford to alienate those who may have good reason to revolt against “liberal elites.” The fact that someone isn’t well-versed in the languages of gender theory or decoloniality, for example, doesn’t make them a bad person; nor does it mean there is nothing we can learn from them. To assume that only those who read the same books, share the same tastes, and travel in the same circles that we do can be trustworthy allies is both disgusting and unnuanced—in a word, gross.

At the same time, size is not all that matters and we would do well to avoid becoming as fixated on matters of size as Donald Trump. As others have suggested, “we need to be attentive to the ways that injunctions to coalition and unity have historically been advanced by way of subordinating, excluding, or erasing the most radical critiques and transformative practices of black and indigenous traditions, among others” (Langstaff 2017). Arguably, Clinton’s loss was attributable, in part, to such failures of attentiveness.[15] To take but one example, the symbol of the pantsuit as a sign of feminist resistance (pantsuit nation) and of the white pantsuit in particular as evocative of women’s rights both elided the racist history of women’s suffrage and ignored the classist and culturally biased signification of the “suit” as an article of women’s liberation. This was a gross (obvious, large, and disgusting) error.

Finally, I am suggesting this: Instead of questioning the taste of others, we need to question our own matters of taste. I have two examples in mind. (You may have others.) The first concerns the twin images of “patriarchy unbuttoned” and “patriarchy buttoned” developed by Rebecca Solnit (2017) in her insightful essay, “From Lying to Leering: Donald Trump’s Fear of Women.” Describing the nightmare-producing, PTSD-eliciting debate performance of Trump wherein he “lurched around the stage gaslighting, discrediting, constantly interrupting, . . . sexually shaming, and threatening to throw [Hillary Clinton] in prison,” Solnit suggests that “Trump is patriarchy unbuttoned, paunchy, in a baggy suit, with his hair oozing and his lips flapping and his face squinching into clownish expressions of mockery and rage and self-congratulation.” This she both contrasts and likens to “buttoned-up patriarchy” in the personage of “the lean, crop-haired, perpetually tense Mike Pence, who actually has experience in government.” Although Solnit does not explicitly argue this, the two side-by-side images imply that working-class (“unbuttoned”) sexism is more distasteful than is white-collar (“buttoned up”) sexism. Paunchy bodies with oozing hair, flapping lips and clownish expressions are gross. Lean bodies with styled hair, tight lips, and experienced postures are not. Like many women, I too find Donald Trump more offensive, disgusting, and nightmare-producing than the many political examples of “buttoned up patriarchy”—including Mike Pence—that we could cite. But I am not at all certain that my affective sensibilities are warranted. Pence’s form of misogyny may be just as dangerous; if so, I should be just as repulsed by him. And, indeed, perhaps I would be, were it not for a set of implicit biases that cause me to align certain class markers (posture, haircuts, buttons, patience, etiquette) with morally superior conduct.

The second example, related to the first, concerns the felt distinction between the post-Trump era (neo-fascism) and the pre-Trump era (neo-liberalism). After Trump’s election, many Clinton supporters felt depressed and afraid. Since the election, many left-leaning white women also felt a much greater urgency about political activism than previously. This is not to say that none of us were activists previously; but it is to say that, for many, political resistance has felt more necessary, critical, and urgent in both its quantity and quality since November 10, 2016. Here too, it is less than clear that this shift in affective sensibilities is warranted. As some have argued, the reading of fascism (both historically and in its most recent incarnation) as “a radical deviation from or negation of the liberal democratic social contract” fails to recognize that it is liberalism’s social contract—steeped in coloniality—that sets the stage for fascism to emerge. In the U.S. context, “the mundane operations of U.S. national sovereignty have always comprised a state of emergency [for Black and American Indian peoples], and this officially undeclared state of emergency has been and continues to be the very ground upon which the liberal democratic state and the normative subject stand” (Langstaff 2017; see also Hartery 2016). My point is not that the present circumstance lacks urgency. It is rather that it may be a mark of privilege to feel this urgency (depression and fear) as new. Why didn’t I feel such urgency before? More importantly, how can I train myself to continue to feel it when (if) neo-liberalism resumes?

Tastes change and we can acquire new tastes and abandon old ones. One of the challenges before us at the present moment is resisting the normalization of the new (neo-fascist) regime while simultaneously learning to be disgusted with the old one (neo-liberalism) from which it arose.[16] Both are incredibly gross. Part of our training as members of a new resistance movement must be to cultivate our revulsion (and the revulsion of our children and grandchildren) at the normalization of all injustice—including that in which we ourselves may be implicated.

Shelley Park is Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL. She is the author of Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended and Polygamous Families (NY: SUNY Press, 2013), Co-editor of a special issue of Hypatia on “Women of Color and Third World Women, Feminisms and Geopolitics” (Volume 32:3, Summer 2017), and Associate Editor of Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture. Her current work focuses on how technology mediates caring relationships.



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[1] There is a vast and growing literature on implicit (or unconscious) bias, namely the biases we hold that are not the end result of conscious reflection. See e.g. the essays collected in Brownstein and Saul (2016).

[2] My analysis here is influenced in part by Sara Ahmed’s (2004) analysis of emotions as “sticky.” See especially her analysis of disgust in Ch. 4.

[3] I am also influenced by Kristeva’s (1982) and Butler’s (1990) analyses of abjection here.

[4] “No past candidate [came] close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election.” Moreover, Clinton and Trump’s “strong favorability” ratings were far lower than those of any of their predecessors (Enten 2016).

[5] “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

[6] This portrait of Clinton emerges clearly on right-wing social media feeds. Close-ended survey questions do not reveal these data, as they did not provide respondents an opportunity to provide such answers (“Questionnaire Design” 2015; McGill 2016).

[7] In the early post-election days and weeks, significant attention was also paid to mistakes made by the RNC, the DNC, Clinton, the media, third-party candidates, and third-party voters, FBI Director Comey, and others. (See e.g. Krieg 2016; Montanaro 2016; Morris 2016.) I agree there were variegated threads of responsibility for the 2016 election outcome. However, my focus here is on the widespread critiques of those who actively supported Trump.

[8] I am reminded here also of musician Gil Scott-Heron’s (1981) claim that “[w]e [were] starring in a B movie” after the election of Ronald Reagan. See also Havel (2011) on politics as theatre.

[9] Contra Kant (1951, §48), disgust may produce aesthetic satisfaction.

[10] Arguably, the urban/rural divide is more an imagined geography than an actual geographical division.

[11] While beyond the narrower scope of this paper, some have persuasively argued that fascism is as much an aesthetic as it is an ideology. See e.g. Schmid 2005; Sontag 1975.

[12] Even after several women testified that Trump had, in fact, assaulted them, Trump was able to position himself as the victim of a “liberal media” who were punishing him for leaving the “special club” of establishment insiders. Claiming the allegations were malicious and hurtful lies spread by a liberal elite, Trump stated that he was willing to take these vicious “slings and arrows” for his loyal supporters (Collinson 2016).

[13] Paxton (2005) defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion” (218).

[14] “The pustule of cultural liberalism must be popped . . . and it’s going to be messy” (Schlichter 2017).

[15] To say that her loss was attributable, in part, to such failures does not mean that such failures belong exclusively to her.

[16] The almost immediate nostalgic yearning for the Obama years after Trump’s election erases the complicity of Obama, Clinton, and others in furthering the formation of the neoliberal surveillance state that set the stage for the policies and practices of the current regime (e.g. Wall Street bailouts, approval of multiple pipeline projects, the privatization of prisons, deportations of undocumented immigrants, IMF restructuring programs, drone strikes, etc.). We cannot “Make America Great Again” by going back several decades or a single decade.



Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

All the Difference in the World: Gender and the 2016 Election

by Alison Reiheld

ABSTRACT. In this paper, I analyze multiple aspects of how gender norms pervaded the 2016 election, from the way Clinton and Trump announced their presidency to the way masculinity and femininity were policed throughout the election. Examples include Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Gary Johnson. I also consider how some women who support Trump reacted to allegations about sexual harassment. The difference between running for President as a man and running for President as a woman makes all the difference in the world.


IMAGE DESCRIPTION: This image shows Donald Trump on the left and Hillary Clinton on the right. Trump’s eyes are narrowed, his brow furrowed. He looks serious, and there is no hint of a smile. On the right, Clinton has a composed look with a slight, close-mouthed smile, her eyes open to a typical degree. Both are white and have greying blonde hair.

The May 21, 2007 cover of TIME magazine showed a close-up image of Mitt Romney’s face with the cover tagline “. . . he looks like a President . . .”, the first of many such claims. In 2011, as Texas Governor Rick Perry geared up for a run at the presidency, Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen said that Perry “actually looks like a President” (Cohen 2011). The term, here, is used as praise. Yet the power of its use as an epithet when people fail to look adequately presidential cannot be understated. During the primaries for the 2016 election, while watching Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump said in front of a reporter, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” (Lawler 2015) Campaigning in Cleveland in early September, Trump said of Hillary Clinton, “Does she look presidential, fellas? Give me a break” (Nguyen 2016). It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that Romney and Perry are both men, while Fiorina and Clinton are both women. What difference does this difference make? And what difference did it make to the 2016 election? Rather a lot, as it turns out.

It would be folly to claim that the 2016 election involved more gender performance than previous elections. Indeed, the presence of Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee’s Vice Presidential Pick in 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s effort for the Democratic Presidential nomination at the time heightened attention to gender in politics. Saturday Night Live effectively lampooned this feature of the 2008 election in a skit featuring “Sarah Palin” and “Hillary Clinton” uniting to call the nation out on its attention to their appearance. However, it is the 2016 election on which I focus, and which presents us with ample opportunity for seeing gender in play. This is in part due to the very competitive Republican primary, the persona of the eventual Republican nominee (Donald Trump), and the presence of women candidates in the Republican primary (Carly Fiorina) and as the Democratic nominee (Hillary Clinton). I argue that gender as performed in this election makes crystal clear the role gender plays in American society. This is exemplified in the behaviors and treatment of candidates throughout the election. Let us begin at the official beginning: with the announcement of the major party candidates’ intentions to run for President.

On April 12, 2015, Hillary Clinton released the announcement video formally putting herself forth as candidate for President of the United States (TimesVideo 2015). In this short video, she featured the stories of a diverse group of Americans who are “getting ready” to plant their gardens (an older white woman), watch their kids start school (a young white woman), have a baby (an African–American couple), get a job after college (a young Asian woman), get married (a gay couple), and start a company (a burly white man). Clinton then appears and says she, too, is getting ready to do something:

I’m running for President. . . . Everyday Americans need a champion, and I wanna be that champion. So you can do more than just get by. You can get ahead, and stay ahead. Because when families are strong, America is strong. . . . I hope you’ll join me on this journey. (TimesVideo 2015)

The images that flash on the screen include a lesbian couple as well as some of the families seen earlier. The image is a clear image of inclusion, nurturing, and defending families. Indeed, Clinton’s campaign slogan for the next year and a half would be “Stronger Together.”

By contrast, on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President in a live speech in which he entered a packed lobby via escalator, waving and smiling, as Neil Young’s guitar-driven “Rockin’ in the Free World” blasts. Ivanka Trump then introduced her father, saying:

We don’t need talk, we need action. We need execution. We need someone who is bold, and independent. . . . I can tell you that there is no better person than my father to have in your corner when you are facing tough opponents or making hard decisions. He is battle-tested. (C-SPAN 2015)

Trump then proceeded to talk for over forty minutes about what he sees as the problems facing America. It is in this speech that he first positions Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, acknowledging that some may be good people. It is also in this speech that he introduces a theme he will repeat throughout the election and into his presidency: that America hasn’t been winning, but with his skills America will begin to do very well and start winning again. Indeed, Trump’s campaign slogan for the next year and a half would be “Make America Great Again.”

These two announcements set the tone for the remainder of the election. Clinton’s announcement performed key aspects of femininity: defense of family, preparation and planning, social and emotional labor, interdependence, asking rather than demanding, serving as a champion by advocating for people. As Marilyn Frye (1983) has argued, women are taken most seriously when they put themselves into traditionally masculine roles such as politics but only on behalf of traditionally feminine values and roles including advocacy for the family and concern for the welfare of others. These were themes on prominent display in Clinton’s announcement. However, the toolset we will need to make sense of the 2016 election goes beyond this and requires careful examination of the norms of both femininity and masculinity.

As the election wore on, Clinton was increasingly attacked for how she looked and comported herself: for her “masculine” pantsuits, for how she carried herself, for how she didn’t smile enough, for how old she looked. In short, she was critiqued for how she performed femininity. The key notion behind gender as performativity, as developed by Judith Butler in the influential Gender Trouble, is that gender is not natural but rather is manufactured through repeated acts. When people perform gender in ways that don’t fit into gender norms, their existence becomes socially unintelligible, and so we police their actions to bring them into conformity. The alternative would be to allow gender norms themselves to be disrupted. This would make their artifice, their nature as a performance, startlingly clear (Butler 1999). Such policing is precisely what happened to Hillary Clinton. The media and populace went on to demand behaviors of Clinton that we can see as clearly fitting into the double binds of femininity. Consider the following images:

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: The first image shows a screen capture of a headline from the Washington Post which reads “Is she likable enough?” The second image shows a screen cap of an Opinion piece by Estelle Erasmus featuring a photo of Jennifer Lee’s book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox with the title of Erasmus’s piece: “Hillary should play up her feminine side.” Finally, there is an image of Hillary Clinton’s Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, released during the campaign.

Was Clinton too strong and independent and cold and not likable enough, not lovable enough? Would being more feminine help her, or cause her to be seen as too emotional and relational and domestic, playing right into sex-stereotyped comments by opponents about whether a woman could be trusted with “the red button” at certain times of the month? Frye discusses such double binds as a classic experience of oppressed people. These are “situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation” (1983, 2). This is a textbook case.

Another classic, and related, double bind is revealed in the constant policing of women’s affect complete with injunctions to “smile” so as to be pleasing to others who find unsmiling women to be distressing. How can one be friendly without reinforcing gender norms? Frye provides us with an elegant elucidation of this particular double bind:

. . . it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signal our docility and our acquiescence in our situation. We need not, then, be taken note of. We acquiesce in being made invisible, in occupying no space. We participate in our own erasure. On the other hand, anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry, or dangerous. This means, at the least, that we may be found ‘difficult’ or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one one’s livelihood; at worse, being seen as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous has been known to result in rape, arrest, beating and murder. One can only choose to risk one’s preferred form and rate of annihilation. (1983, 2–3)

Women’s comportment is also often policed via their literal voices. From picking on upspeak—ending statements with a higher pitch so that it sounds almost as if the speaker is asking a question—to volume and the way that one speaks about facts vs. narratives, gender is enforced in myriad ways by examining women’s voices. Alas that after decades of criticisms of such policing, they were still levied at Clinton. Consider the following images which embody the oft-levied critiques of Clinton’s affect as well as her voice and speaking style.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: We see here two screen caps of tweets. The first tweet, by Steve Clemons, is from July 28, 2016. In it, Clemons says [condensed twitter abbreviations replaced with full English words] “Instead of lecturing to citizens Hillary Clinton needs to have conversation with us. Modulate voice. Tell stories. Set hopes. Smile.” A hashtag reveals that this was in reference to her speech at the Democratic National Convention. The second tweet, by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, is dated March 15, 2016 and reads “Smile. You just had a big night.” The hashtag reveals this is in reference to primary results.

To truly demonstrate the nature of affect policing, and smiling in particular as a double bind à la Frye (1983), it would be most useful if we had an example of another person critiquing Clinton for later beginning to smile too much. Consider:

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: We see here one screen cap of a tweet. It is by David Frum, dated September 26, 2016. It reads “Who told Hillary Clinton to keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party?”

These critiques all fall on Clinton for the performance she gives the public; they are not simply about political efficacy. Rather, they both embody and rely on gender norms and sexism for their power. When these comments are made, they bring into play a whole host of prior beliefs and stereotypes in the mind of the audience. Without those, the critiques would seem silly: “doesn’t smile enough” is not a good criterion for President of the United States, after all.

Philosopher Sandra Bartky (1998) addresses precisely these kinds of critiques when she discusses femininity as a disciplinary regime. Bartky argues that there are three types of these disciplinary practices that create “styles of the flesh” (while these apply to both masculinity and femininity, Bartky focuses on the latter):

  1. Practices which aim to produce a body of a certain size and general configuration (diet; weightlifting; not too heavy/large for women and not too small/slight for men);
  2. Those that bring forth from this body a specific repertoire of gestures, postures, and movements (including “steering”: when someone puts their hand on another’s body to patronizingly guide them in where to go);
  3. And those that are directed toward the display of this body as an ornamental surface (makeup, tattoos, jewelry, lotion, perfumes, hair dye, etc.) (Bartky 2010).

It is worth noting that on Bartky’s account, these disciplinary practices create a highly constrained and time-consuming femininity that literally weakens women relative to how strong they could be if they took up more space, lifted weights to get strong, and so forth. This dominant set of norms of femininity also literally makes women and feminine persons take up less space by urging them to make their bodies small, sit with knees crossed close together and elbows in, and so forth. By comparison, men and masculine persons are encouraged to take up space, both in sitting and in moving, and are encouraged to lift weights to grow larger and more muscular. In the image below, you can see these comportment norms on display. These are typical masculine and feminine postures. If a man were to position his body as is done on the right, he would be seen as feminine. If a woman were to position her body as is done on the left, she would be seen as masculine.


IMAGE DESCRIPTION: On the left a man with close-cropped hair sits on a chair. His feet and knees are spread shoulder-width apart and he leans forward, resting his elbows on his thighs with his hands clasped. Both feet are firmly planted on the floor. He is wearing a full-coverage long-sleeved olive sweater with a white t-shirt underneath, a pair of jeans, and brown sneakers. On the right, a woman with straight shoulder-length hair wears a white knee-length sundress with thin spaghetti straps, with knee-high black leather boots with a high heel. Her arms are bare. One leg is crossed tightly over the other, with her heel held in close to the other lower leg. Both her hands rest on her top knee. This brings her shoulders in, making them narrower than if she were sitting back with her arms at her side.

Even though masculinity can also be a disciplinary regime in that it requires one to be muscular, have thick hair, and avoid displaying emotion, these do not have the subordinating effect that femininity does. As Frye notes, for men, “a steely tough or laid-back demeanor (all are forms which suggest invulnerability) marks [a man] as a member of the male community [who] is esteemed by other men. Consequently, the maintenance of that demeanor contributes to the man’s self-esteem” and to the respect men receive from others (1983, 14). Echoing Bartky’s analysis, Frye goes on to say:

Like men’s emotional restraint, women’s physical restraint is required by men. But unlike the case of men’s emotional restraint, women’s physical restraint is not rewarded. What do we get for it? Respect and esteem and acceptance? No. They mock us and parody our mincing steps. We look silly, incompetent, weak, and generally contemptible. Our exercise of this discipline tends to low esteem and low self-esteem. . . . The woman’s restraint is part of a structure oppressive to women; the man’s restraint is part of a structure oppressive to women. (1983, 15)

Or as Bartky (2010) puts it, women cooperate in making themselves “object and prey” when they comply with the norms of femininity. Thus we see how complying with the comportment norms of femininity puts female candidates such as Hillary Clinton at a terrible disadvantage, while complying with the norms of masculinity puts male candidates at an advantage.

By contrast with the way that Hillary’s announcement embodied many of the norms of femininity, Trump’s announcement performs key aspects of masculinity: independence (including a lack of concern for others’ opinions), combativeness in defense of what is right, serving as a champion by winning, virility, and strength. Indeed, in a later appearance on Dr. Oz, Trump made sure to get Dr. Oz to discuss how high his testosterone is. This turned out to be a big applause line. Trump went on to say that when he looks in the mirror, he sees a 35-year old man and that when he plays golf with NFL player Tom Brady, “I feel the same age as him” (de Moraes 2016). Add to the previous list not only strength and aggressiveness and virility, which the general public strongly associates with testosterone, but also youth and general vitality. These are classic traits of what R. W. Connell, in a groundbreaking work on Western masculinities, termed “hegemonic masculinity.”

‘Hegemonic masculinity’ is not a fixed character type, always and everywhere the same. It is, rather, the masculinity that occupies the hegemonic position in a given pattern of gender relations, a position always contestable. (2010, 236)

An effective way of dropping a masculine person’s social status is by accusing them of not being masculine in the right way, but instead embodying one of what Connell calls the ‘subordinate masculinities.’ One can do this in many ways including accusing a man of being too like a woman, or accusing them of being homosexual.

Hegemonic masculinity is not only independent, heteronormative, aggressive, virile, and youthful, but also white. As Patricia Hill Collins argued, part of hegemonic masculinity is wealth and property, a set of social positions long closed off to black men. Thus, Collins argues, race is an important aspect of hegemonic masculinity (2004, 193). So important is it to approximate hegemonic masculinity as closely as possible, that gay men (Sanchez et al. 2009; Tattelman 2005; Wright 2005) and black men (Collins 2004, 190) can find themselves intensely embracing the aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are open to them: virility, youthfulness, aggressiveness, muscularity, independence, strength, and domination over women. Devising alternative masculinities may be a necessary step forward (Heasley 2005; Mutua 2006; Neal 2006), but it has its costs. Because of the need for men to position themselves within the hegemonic masculinity instead of within subordinate masculinities, violence and the language of violence are used to draw and enforce these boundaries, not only against women but also between men. As Connell notes, “violence can become a way of claiming or asserting masculinity in group struggles” (2010, 241). Trump’s insistence on Making America Great Again through economic domination rather than trade agreements, and through expanding America’s standing military and its array of military equipment, is precisely in this vein. Coupled with a “rich vocabulary of abuse” against men who are too feminine or gay (“sissy,” “wimp,” “candy ass,” “mama’s boy”) or who are black (“boy”), it is possible to police gender most effectively (Connell 2010, 238). Many of these terms derive their bite by accusing the man in question of being too like a woman. They thus reinforce the low value of women.

We can see this in the way that two prominent men responded to Trump publically: then-President Barack Obama, and then-rival Gary Johnson. Let us begin with Johnson. The astute reader will recall that in the waning days of the campaign, an audiotape was revealed of Trump discussing the liberties that he as a wealthy and famous man could take with attractive women: without waiting for permission, he could just “grab ’em by the pussy” (Farenthold 2016). But slang for female anatomy is not the only way this word is used. In fact, it has a second life as precisely the kind of “rich vocabulary of abuse” Connell discusses that is so often used to police masculinity. In that sense, the word “pussy” means a man who is not genuinely courageous, essentially an unmasculine man, a man who is like a woman’s sexual anatomy: to be used by others.

This is precisely the sense in which Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party nominee, deployed it. During his first debate, Johnson said “Donald Trump’s a pussy.” Later, given a chance to explain himself, Johnson said it was a “misfire” and then proceeded to reinforce his own masculinity over and against Trump’s with reference to a number of feats that also clearly reveal his wealth:

But you know what? I’ve climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, I’m going to do a three-thousand mile mountain bike ride here, upcoming. Trump’s a pussy. . . . If it gets down to being in the presidential debates and he’s got anything to say about me, which I’m sure he will, I’ll just start off with the fact that he’s a pussy.

Reflecting on Johnson’s utterances, J. Wilson wrote at A Libertarian Future that

If people are looking for some machismo in their candidate, Johnson is a much better choice. . . . Donald Trump is a pampered, overweight, urbanite who’s driven around in limos and waited on hand and foot. . . . Gary Johnson is right to call him a pussy. (2016)

This rhetoric uncritically accepts hegemonic masculinity, and polices it in typical ways. In addition, Wilson’s affirmative response details a number of features about Trump that go against the norms of masculine persons as strong, independent, hard workers. The use of “urbanite” as an insult draws its power from its opposite, namely the image of a man who works with his hands and provides for himself and his family in an admirable, physical way. Having seen the gender mechanics of Johnson’s attack on Trump—who, himself, performs masculinity as a major part of his political persona—let’s take a look at Obama’s.

During late summer and early fall of 2016, Trump began working to lay the ground for contesting election results. He repeatedly tweeted, spoke at rallies, and said in interviews that if he loses the election it would be because it was “rigged,” and that there will be massive voter fraud. On October 18 of 2016, President Obama responded to these claims outside the White House, saying:

It doesn’t really show the kind of leadership and toughness that you’d want out of a president. You start whining before the game’s even over? If whenever things are going badly for you and you lose you start blaming somebody else? Then you don’t have what it takes to be in this job. (TimesVideo 2016)

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: This image shows a screenshot of a New York Times video of Obama. He is frozen in mid-sentence, his close-cropped hair grey against his dark skin. He is wearing a black suit, white shirt, and patterned grey tie with an American flag pin on his lapel. The header says “Obama to Trump: Stop Whining”; the caption reads “Speaking at the White House with the Italian prime minister, President Obama responded to a journalist’s question about Donald J. Trump’s claims of a rigged election by saying Mr. Trump should “stop whining.” Image Credit: Al Drago/The New York Times.

Here Obama, like Johnson, uses language that is particularly telling against men. Part of being masculine is that one is supposed to be tough, not show vulnerability, and be stoic. Whining is precisely against these normative traits. And thus, to accuse a man of whining is to accuse him of not being masculine in much the same way that boys are told growing up to not be a “cry-baby.” This, too, is policing masculinity.

When directed at women, language also shows their subordinate status. Consider the term “bitch,” commonly directed at Hillary Clinton. As many have noted, “bitch” is almost always used to insult women who are too uppity, who refuse to cooperate, who don’t put others’ emotional and physical well-being always above their own. This is one way femininity is enforced and regulated, but it is inextricable from masculinity, for physical and other forms of violence against women also sustain hegemonic masculinity: “Intimidation of women ranges across the spectrum, from wolf-whistling in the street, to office harassment, to rape and domestic assault. . . . Most men do not attack or harass women; but those who do are unlikely to think themselves deviant” (Connell 2010, 238). For this reason, today’s hegemonic masculinity is often referred to as “toxic masculinity.”

Now, we almost have the tools we need to approach Trump’s own use of the word “pussy.” As I mentioned earlier, a recording was released of Donald Trump and entertainment host Billy Bush talking with each other in 2005. Just before they pull up in a bus to meet a soap opera star, the following conversation ensues (Fahrenthold 2016):

BUSH: “Sheesh, your girl’s hot as shit in the purple.”

TRUMP: “Whoa! I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. [nervous or hysterical laughter from Bush] Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

BUSH: “Whatever you want.”

TRUMP: “Grab them by the pussy. [brief pause, Bush laughing] You can do anything.”

Now, it might be argued charitably that this was 11 years prior to the election. So what was the modern Trump response to the release of the tape? He issued a statement saying “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended” (Fahrenthold 2016). As many have noted, this is a very bad apology. Genuine apologies don’t put the onus on the listener for having been offended, but rather take responsibility for the utterance by the wrongdoer acknowledging the wrongdoing. As Nick Smith (2008) writes in I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, one may reasonably question whether admissions that “mistakes were made” or that the speaker “regrets if anyone took offense” qualify as apologies at all (Radzik 2015). At no point does Trump actually issue a genuine apology. Instead, he normalizes his behavior by saying that his opponent’s husband does worse, and that this is “locker room” talk. He apologizes that anyone was offended, not that he talked or thought about women in these ways. And why should he feel that he must?

Trump is enacting the norms of hegemonic masculinity: he takes what he wants, he is independent, he is aggressive, and he is sexually successful. And as Connell said, men who assault or harass women hardly think of themselves as deviant. Sociologist Michael Kimmel (2008), who studies masculinity, expands on hegemonic masculinity usefully. He describes the way in which dominant masculinity norms structure men’s social status so that it depends on how they are seen by other men, as Connell also acknowledged. It is no accident that Trump said this on a hot mic to Billy Bush, a younger and conventionally attractive man. Kimmel notes that a large part of men’s social status with other men depends on how good they are at “scoring,” which is to say, at collecting sexual conquests of women. This is not concerned with consent so much as with sexual access to women and posturing.

The time-honored way for a guy to prove that he is a real man is to score with a woman. It indicates both his desirability and his virility and proves that he’s succeeding in the often complicated task of attaining manhood. The problem, however, is that for guys, girls often feel like the primary obstacle to proving manhood. They are not nearly as compliant as guys say they would like them to be. By declining guys’ sexual advances and not allowing guys to use them as currency, they are often as much of a threat to masculinity as they are a booster. (Kimmel 2008, 170)

Trump’s 2005 claims play into exactly this sociological picture of ignoring consent and of the role of scoring, and posturing about scoring, in shoring up masculinity. But his justification of the behavior as locker room talk also plays into the sociological picture of masculinity. As Kimmel says, “What I learned in the locker rooms of my youth was ‘Tell her anything if it’ll get you laid.’ I can still hear my friend Billy. . . .‘The most important thing is to keep going. If she pushes your hand away, keep going. You only stop if she hits you’” (2008, 217). In interviews with men, Kimmel finds the same patterns again and again: fundamentally, this kind of sexual posturing is not about interest in the girl (2008, 219). It is about capturing the esteem of other men. Both Trump’s 2005 utterance and his 2016 publicity statement about it show a desire to perform and embody hegemonic masculinity.

We see how typical and dominant these attitudes about sex and locker room talk are not only by considering Kimmel’s work, but also by considering the reaction to Trump’s 2005 and 2016 statements. As much as men who assault and harass women may not think themselves deviant, observers also may not think them deviant. Indeed, while many people were outraged—a rallying cry of many women was “this pussy grabs back”—others considered it normal behavior and typical locker room talk. On his show Anderson Cooper 360, CNN’s Cooper interviewed Trump supporters on October 11, 2016, who had no problem with his behavior. Said one woman: “It was just a man being a man in a men’s world talking to men.” In response to the female interviewer asking “How many of you are willing to write this off as locker room banter. . .?” all of the ten women on camera raise their hands. One woman elaborates:

I have two brothers, my dad, military family. I’ve heard words worse. I’ve seen things worse. The word is a little derogatory. I wish if he had said it, he said it another way. But you know, he wasn’t saying it to females, he was saying it to men. Locker room, [is like the] bus. . . . (CNN 2016)

Another woman says she would have found it offensive if said around her, but again dismisses it as just locker room talk, the boys’ club (CNN 2016). All of the women in the video appear to be white.

The women interviewed here do not fully distinguish between the descriptive and the normative. By saying that it is normal locker room talk, and both adopting and confirming the language of Trump’s 2016 response to the tape, they are describing what they know to be true: that men are very often this way with each other. But that this is so does not make it right. That next normative, analytic step doesn’t take place in their discourse. And for many men and women in the United States for whom this is typical, and for women for whom sexual harassment is the cost of being around men in public, this is simply the way things are. As Judith Butler has noted, when gender is performed, it is “not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization” (1999, xv). Consistent performance of the norms of gender makes all other ways of being appear unintelligible, and makes the norms of gender seem intrinsic: “what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts . . . an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” (Butler 1999, xv). The doing of gender produces gender, and that produced gender makes established ways of doing gender seem, well, both unalterable and right. It is no wonder at all that we refer to locker room behaviors as “just boys being boys” and sometimes despairingly describe them as incorrigible (literally, they cannot be corrected). In addition, as Frye (1983) has noted, it is a fundamental component of efficient exploitation that those being exploited buy into and adopt the norms that endorse their exploitation. Women’s locker room talk often consists of policing femininity according to norms that are not good for women. What’s more, as both de Beauvoir (1949) and Frye (1983)—both white women philosophers—acknowledge, white women often ally with white men, even against other women, as this represents their greatest chance of security. Perhaps we should be unsurprised that 53% of the white female voters in the United States voted for Trump (Lett 2016); by contrast, 94% of black women supported Hillary Clinton (Williams 2016). Given all of these considerations, it is no wonder at all that some substantial subset of women have adopted and live according to, and are unable or unwilling to critique, the inextricable norms of femininity and hegemonic masculinity.

These analytic tools are essential for understanding the 2016 election, and how gender norms have been directed at, and exploited by, the campaigns. Taking them together with Bartky’s discussion of comportment—the specific repertoire of gestures that makes people recognizably masculine or feminine—we can move on to analyze several telling images of how both Trump and Bernie Sanders navigated their physical interactions with Hillary Clinton.

Consider the following images depicting Trump’s behavior at the September 26, 2016 presidential debate, and Sanders’ during the primaries. Watch closely for steering behavior, in which a man patronizingly uses his hand—often on a woman’s back—to guide her body through space as though she cannot do so on her own. Look also for what Bartky describes as “the economy of touching,” which is out of balance in favor of men: men touch women more often and on more parts of the body than women touch men (2010, 408).

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: In all three images, we see variations of steering behavior and the economy of touch. The top images both show Trump and Clinton. Clinton is wearing a red pantsuit and Trump is wearing a dark suit with a blue tie. In the left image, Clinton is walking toward the front of the stage while Trump awkardly extends his arm to maintain contact with her lower back as she does so. In the right image, the photographer stands behind Trump and Clinton at the same event. Clinton and Trump are looking at each other and smiling. Trump has his arm extended to touch her upper back. In the lower image, we see Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the primaries on a stage. Clinton is wearing a dark blue suit with a white shell underneath, while Sanders is wearing a navy blue suit with a striped blue and pale blue tie. The two are smiling. Clinton is looking at Sanders and her mouth is wide open. Both face the camera and Clinton shakes Sanders’ hand, each using their right hands. Sanders’ left hand is behind Clinton’s back, touching her shoulder. This is almost exactly the same set of conditions we see in the top right photo with Trump where the photographer is behind the pair.

Careful reflection on these images shows recurring patterns with both of the men whom Clinton spent the most time debating in this campaign: both touch Clinton in addition to shaking her hand, on her back, and Trump engages in classic steering. These patterns will be familiar to most people who share mainstream American experiences with gender norms, steering, and the economy of touch. In addition, during one of the debates, Trump followed Clinton around the stage even when it was her turn to answer questions. While this was likely to ensure she never had screen time without him in the picture, it came across to many viewers as creepy and stalking. At a minimum, it reveals that he felt entitled to be present and visible during her designated time to be answering questions. He refused to yield attention to her. This, like the steering, is a dominance move and as such is entirely consistent with the interplay of masculinity and femininity as dominance and subordinance described by Connell, Bartky, and Frye. Femininity and masculinity are inextricable: to be truly masculine, one must not be seen as feminine and must exert dominance over those who are.

As we have seen, the campaign and its key performances are shot through with gender norms. Now, we see it all the way down to the level of positioning on stage.

I have considered what each candidate did to make themselves appear fit candidates for President, how they played upon gender norms or were undermined by them. There are many more theorists we could deploy in a longer-form analysis. Indeed, there are many more examples I could have drawn upon from this particular election including the internet rhetoric of “cuck” (cuckold) for men who buy into “social justice warrior” rhetoric, or from the treatment of Clinton and Palin in 2008, of Geraldine Ferraro in 1980, and of many other path-breaking politicians including Republican Olympia Snow. Campaigns for national office involve a level of scrutiny unlike any other for both candidates and their supporters. But what I have found most intriguing in writing this examination is how much it is like the daily scrutiny we all face for our gender performances. It is not that the candidates were running for President that makes the difference, but rather their gender and the mechanisms of gender. The difference between running for President as a man and running for President as a woman makes all the difference in the world.


Alison Reiheld, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, where she specializes in medical ethics and feminist theory. She has published on civility and on ethical issues in health promotion, medicalization, food, and treatment of miscarriage. Her current research interests lie in medical epistemology and ethical issues in the treatment of transgender patients. She is also working on the NASA grant to CosmoQuest on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM through citizen science.



Thanks are due to Destiny Green for advice on intersectional analysis of masculinity and to the SIUE Women’s Studies Program for support in developing this paper.



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