Book Reviews

Travis Rieder, Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation. Springer, 2016.

The global human population is currently about 7.6 billion people, and our numbers are still increasing. Although human population growth has not been a popular topic to discuss in the last quarter-century, its contribution to various environmental problems is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Travis Rieder’s Toward a Small Family Ethic confronts the effects of population growth and addresses what individual procreative obligations might follow from it.

This short book consists of five chapters. Rieder begins with a description of the population problem. More people need more land, more food, more fresh water, and more energy consumption to survive. Thus, a growing population puts greater strain on the environment that provides these vital resources. Rieder places a particularly strong emphasis on climate change and the ways in which mitigating climate change is made more difficult by the annual increases in emissions that result from population growth. Thus, the first chapter carries two important lessons: “population is a major driver of climate change, in addition to raising concerns about other limited resources” and “climate change is a morally urgent problem” (9).

With the nature of the problem established, Rieder turns to the main question of the book: in light of the impacts of human population growth, what obligations do individuals have with respect to their procreative decision-making? More specifically, might there be an obligation to limit one’s number of biological children? Ultimately, while Rieder does not affirm the existence of obligations to limit one’s biological procreation, he does conclude that “something disconcertingly close to this suggestion is true” (10). Or at least, he believes so with respect to wealthy individuals with large per capita ecological footprints.

In chapter 2, Rieder focuses on one of the strongest objections to the existence of duties to limit our procreation in response to the effects of population growth – the claim that one additional child makes such a small contribution to the large-scale environmental impacts under discussion that it really doesn’t make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things. Such reasoning reflects a moral principle akin to the following: “If the consequences of an act make no significant difference to the extent or severity of a moral problem, then the agent is not morally required to refrain from acting in light of the moral problem” (16). Consequentialists – those who regard the morality of an action as being determined exclusively by its consequences – are likely to find this line of reasoning persuasive. But Rieder believes such reasoning is misguided because there can be non-consequentialist reasons to refrain from certain activities even when one’s individual contribution makes a negligible difference to the overall effects of those activities.

In chapter 3, Rieder examines three non-consequentialist principles that could generate obligations to limit one’s procreation even if we grant that individual acts of procreation do not make a significant contribution to climate change and other environmental problems. The first is a duty not to contribute to massive systematic harms. Climate change, on Rieder’s assessment, is one of these harms, and along classic deontological lines, it can be considered objectionable to contribute to it regardless of how small one’s contributions are. The second is a principle of fairness. Overpopulation disproportionately harms the poor, and yet the wealthy, due to their carbon-intensive lifestyles, are the ones who contribute most to the problem. Such an arrangement is deeply unfair and violates the basic demands of social justice. The third is a duty to protect the interests of our possible children. Perils of the future – both environmental and otherwise – could cause serious harm to our children, and we ought not to expose them to severe risk of harm.

The first two of these three principles are better supported than the duty to protect our children from serious harm. The duty not to contribute to systematic harms is consistent with why many would find it wrong to buy cotton produced via slave labor even if individual purchases of cotton made no difference to the slaves’ welfare or their overall numbers. Certain practices are so morally repugnant that we are obligated not to participate in them even when our non-participation does not make a difference to thwarting them. Moreover, the unfairness associated with having a large, carbon-expensive family will resonate strongly with those who are aware of the enormous ecological footprints tied to western lifestyles and fact that developed nations have historically contributed so much more to the climate change problem than the global poor.

The risks to future children, however, do not seem severe enough (at least at present) to carry much weight in these decisions. People in the developed world are still very well-positioned to protect their children from serious harm. Rieder acknowledges this point briefly (37-38), but I think he overestimates the risks that people born in the near future (at least in the developed world) will face. Those who are more pessimistic about the future might find the duty to protect our children to be more stringent.

So what do these three principles entail? Rieder states that it is “plausible” that the moral considerations surveyed “entail a duty for many of us to have at most two children” (37). With this established, Rieder then examines objections to procreative obligations in chapter 4. The first major objection is that a moral duty to limit procreation threatens our integrity by hindering our abilities to pursue procreative projects – a central part of most people’s life plans. This objection is rather strong if the duty on offer requires having no children (since it would eliminate the possibility of biological parenthood), but its persuasiveness is less clear with respect to, say, a duty to limit oneself to two biological children. The second objection is that people have a right to have as many children as they want. Although Rieder acknowledges that rights can have limitations, he concedes that people may indeed have a right to unlimited control of their family size (50).

Interestingly, although Rieder suggests we might have the right to have as many children as we like, he thinks individuals in wealthy countries who have large families may still be subject to moral criticism. In chapter 5, Rieder notes that judgments about what is morally permissible can be separated from judgments about praise, blame, and our moral character more generally. Drawing on considerations tied to virtue ethics and the balance of reasons, he argues that many individuals will not be justified in having large families. Some people may be justified in having more than one child, but “the burden is on them to make the case” that their behavior is morally justified (66).

Toward a Small Family Ethic covers a lot of terrain given its length, and its brevity and accessibility make it a suitable introduction to the issues under discussion. Nonetheless, a 70-page text will inevitably have to gloss over or omit some important material. I will highlight three places where additional content would have been helpful.

First, the book does not feature much discussion of the positive externalities tied to procreation. For instance, as Julian Simon (Simon 1996) noted, a higher population means that there are more people with ideas that might lend themselves to technological innovation. More people who are well-educated and well-intentioned could, to some degree, be a good thing with respect to tackling a massive problem like climate change. Many also believe that, other things equal, the world is a better place when there are more people on it who are living good lives. I do not think these considerations outweigh the moral considerations that Rieder highlights, but other readers may disagree.

Second, Rieder briefly alludes to an argument by John Nolt (Nolt 2011) that the average American could be responsible for the severe suffering or death of 1-2 future people, which would be quite morally significant even if the individual’s relative contribution to climate change is small. This argument could provide a straightforward refutation of the claim that one’s contribution to climate change is not morally significant and would hold more sway with consequentialist readers than Rieder’s non-consequentialist arguments. Thus, it is unfortunate the argument is mentioned and dismissed only in a footnote.

Third, the discussion of offsetting (21-22) proceeds too quickly. Offsetting one’s emissions would be an obvious strategy for justifying the additional carbon footprint created by procreation. Rieder points out that some offsetting strategies effectively involve replacing long-term carbon sinks with short-term ones, which is not an optimal solution. However, since the costs of offsetting are not presently that onerous, a person could offset substantially more than what seems necessary to account for the possibility that some of the offsets turn out to be short-term. Additionally, some forms of offsetting do not have this feature. Certain offsetting schemes involve the creation of renewable energy (e.g., wind turbines), and while it might take a much larger financial contribution to ensure that one’s individual donations actually make a difference, such a strategy can be viable in some circumstances. For some individuals, it may also be possible to offset their own emissions by purchasing and installing solar panels on their own homes. Ultimately, Rieder needs to say more about why offsetting is not a permissible strategy for rendering one’s procreation justifiable.

Beyond these considerations, I also wonder whether Rieder is right to back away from the claim that we have concrete obligations to limit our procreation. Until the end of chapter 4, he appears on the path to endorsing the view that people living in nations with high per capita carbon footprints have a prima facie obligation to have two or fewer biological children. He shies away from this claim because he is unable (perhaps due to space) to examine how our right to procreate might be limited by the demands of others. Given the trajectory of the text up to this point, this concession is surprising. Rieder highlights in chapter 1 that climate change threatens many people’s most vital interests. The victims of climate change may have their rights to life, health, and the means of subsistence jeopardized. These rights seem much more fundamental than a wealthy person’s right to have an unlimited number of biological children, especially if adoption is a viable option for the family in question. Rieder (Rieder 2016) has argued elsewhere that procreative acts only contribute to causing harm to future people, and so we cannot straightforwardly weigh the right to unlimited procreation against the harms future people will suffer. Yet when the most fundamental rights of future people are threatened in large part because of the collective exercise of a much less fundamental right, there is a plausible case to be made that the less important right should be curtailed. Thus, I am not sure Rieder needs to concede that the right to procreate carries so much moral weight, and I would have rather seen him explore this issue in depth instead of devoting chapter 5 to a discussion of other moral considerations.

Nevertheless, despite my critical remarks, this book remains essential reading for those working on moral issues tied to population growth. Toward a Small Family Ethic presents novel arguments on a vital and underexplored moral issue. Problems tied to population growth will only get worse as the 21st century progresses, so we are fortunate that philosophers like Rieder are getting us started in thinking about this subject.

Trevor Hedberg,

University of South Florida

Tampa, FL, USA



Nolt, John. 2011. “How Harmful are the Average American’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” Ethics, Policy and the Environment 14 (1): 3-10.

Rieder, Travis. 2016. “Review: Sarah Conly, One Child: Do We Have a Right to Have More?Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 26 (2): E-29–E-34.

Simon, Julian. 1996. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Editor's Pick

Editor’s Pick, March 2018: Audrey R. Chapman, Adrian Carter, Jonathan M. Kaplan, Kylie Morphett, and Wayne Hall

Our Editor’s Pick for our March 2018 issue is “Ethical Guidelines for Genetic Research on Alcohol Addiction and Its Applications,” by Audrey R. Chapman, Adrian Carter, Jonathan M. Kaplan, Kylie Morphett, and Wayne Hall. In this important paper, Chapman and her coauthors examine the ethical issues surrounding genetic research on alcohol addiction. The authors take on this multiply complicated issue, where difficult questions arising out of genetic research combine with the urgent ethical issues alcoholism and other addictions raise, and conclude that “genetic testing is not yet ready for use in the prediction of alcohol dependence liability.” With ever-improving genetic technology and renewed public attention to the social issues addiction raises, this paper takes up questions that are of immediate practical significance.

Download a PDF of the paper here.

Book Reviews

Sarah LaChance Adams, Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence, Columbia University Press, 2014

When a mother deliberately harms her child, it is tempting to assume that she must be either insane (a “mad mother”) or lacking the “natural” love of a mother for her children (a “bad mother”). We want to believe that such mothers have almost nothing in common with “good” mothers. Drawing extensively on empirical research, Sarah LaChance Adams’ Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What A “Good” Mother Would Do shows that maternal ambivalence, simultaneous desires to nurture and violently reject one’s children, is both common and reasonable, the result of genuine conflicts between mothers’ interests and those of their children. Both appropriate support and deliberative agency are necessary to avoid maternal ambivalence finding its expression in filicide. As LaChance Adams shows, it is because of not in spite of these tensions that motherhood is an instructive case for ethics. When we appropriately reflect the lived experience of mothers, rather than relying on long standing stereotypes, we find a new paradigm for ethical relationships. This new paradigm reveals that we require an ethical theory that recognizes human needs to care for, to be cared for, and to maintain independence.

The book begins with a notorious example of purposeful filicide: LaShanda Armstrong, who deliberately drove her minivan into the Hudson River with her four children inside. Armstrong and all but one of her children died. LaChance Adams argues that dismissing such cases of purposeful filicide as simply the actions of “mad mothers” or “bad mothers” oversimplifies both these tragedies and the character of maternal love in general. Most maternal filicides do not meet the legal requirements of insanity, but nor can they be simply categorized as bad mothers. Indeed, in many cases, mothers who kill their children see doing so as, in the circumstances, being a good mother (Meyer and Oberman 2001 89; LaChance Adams 2-4). In the first chapter of the book, LaChance Adams connects our inadequate understanding of maternal filicide to a widespread idealization of the mother’s relationship to her child, which takes a loving willingness to self-sacrifice as a given. She outlines the major flaws in philosophical treatment of motherhood and shows how her more nuanced account will build upon and improve the philosophies of care ethics, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir.

Chapter Two explores the mother as ethical exemplar as portrayed in care ethics. Care ethics challenges individualistic ways of understanding ethics, which start from a conception of human beings as autonomous, independent beings whose main duty to others is non-interference. As LaChance Adams notes, simply thinking about human reproduction undermines the individualistic picture: “We do not pop out of the ground like mushrooms, as Thomas Hobbes would have us imagine, but out of the womb of a woman. Without a mother, or someone acting as a mother, no human infant would survive for a day.” (18). Unsurprisingly, therefore the mother-child relationship is repeatedly used in care ethics as an ethical exemplar. However, LaChance Adams argues that care ethics focuses too much on the interdependence between mother and child and does not pay enough attention to ways in which the needs of mother and child might conflict. It ignores the mother’s need for individual flourishing. LaChance Adams argues that motherhood is most useful as an ethical exemplar when we recognize both the interdependence of mother and child and the ways in which their needs can conflict.

LaChance Adams argues that maternal experience reveals deep internal conflicts that are relevant to all human beings: “we have simultaneous needs to nurture, to be nurtured, and to maintain independence.” We are pulled between two selves: the self as independent and the self as “entangled in indissoluble bonds with others” (LaChance Adams 24). Traditional rights-based ethics and care ethics each recognize one, but only one, aspect of the human condition. To bring the two together, LaChance Adams argues, we need a third approach which: “will be aware of the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of our existence”, addressing the need for constant negotiation between interconnection and independence.

In Chapter 3, LaChance Adams provides her new, nuanced account of maternal experience. This account provides a foundation, not just for the ethics of ambivalence which LaChance Adams develops in further chapters, but for better philosophical engagement with motherhood more generally. It is in many ways, the keystone of the book. Earlier, LaChance Adams stresses the need for an interdisciplinary approach to studying motherhood, making use of all available perspectives (LaChance Adams 23). This chapter provides a model for such an interdisciplinary approach: LaChance Adams weaves together first-person narratives, psychiatry, psychology, sociology, anthropology and history to show just how complex maternal experience can be. In her own words: “I… describe the experiences of women who are neither self-immolating saints nor pathological murderesses. Their feelings about their children are mixed and varied – not just from woman to woman but within the selfsame woman. A loving mother can be mean, a giving mother can be selfish, a content mother can be filled with rage” (LaChance Adams 28). The phenomenon of maternal ambivalence revealed by LaChance Adams shows a deep love for one’s children co-existing with a wish to “reverse the fact of their child’s existence” (LaChance Adams 28).

The breadth of research discussed by LaChance Adams brings home how pervasive maternal ambivalence is. The evidence of maternal ambivalence spans cultures, classes, races, and historical time periods. This is not simply a 21st century phenomenon. Indeed, LaChance Adams claims that maternal ambivalence is the result of mother’s needs for both connection to and separation from their children, which is likely to be part of all mother-child relationships. Nonetheless, LaChance Adams is careful to recognize the relationship between maternal ambivalence and cultural or individual pressures and constraints: the precise situation in which a mother is trying to negotiate these conflicting desires can either support her endeavors or undermine them by exacerbating conflicts.

Maternal ambivalence can lead to tragic outcomes: dramatically, as in the murder-suicide with which the book opens, or mundanely, as when a mother simply resigns herself to her identity quietly slipping away. Nonetheless, we should not see maternal ambivalence simply as a problem. LaChance Adams argues that we should recognize it as “a psychological achievement” (64) with a “wisdom of [its] own” (70). “The acknowledgment of ambivalence makes possible [a] genuine discovery of relationship as it unfolds and sensitivity to the developmental needs of both mother and child”(65).

Ambivalence is particularly striking in the maternal case because of the child’s vulnerability, the high expectations of society and the bodily connection between mother and child. Its lessons are relevant much more widely. First, relationships in general require both intimacy and individuation: even in the most intimate relationships we cannot “overcome the insurmountable alerity of the other” (70). Second, the thinking about maternal ambivalence, and its relation to situation, shows the need to both embrace our responsibilities to the defenseless and to provide caregivers with opportunities for independence – and that this must be the responsibility of both individuals and society as a whole (71). Third, recognizing the possibility of failure to help others is a critical part of an ethical orientation in both the maternal case and more generally (71).

The next three chapters engage with Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir in turn. Existential phenomenology provides a deeper exploration of the idea, already recognized by care ethics, that from the beginning of experience, I understand myself in relation to others. It recognizes both the way that our relationships to others pervade us to the core and the chasm between self and other. LaChance Adams shows how this aspect of existential phenomenology allows the work of each of these three philosophers to provide elements that are missing in care ethics’ approach to motherhood – while also identifying the ways in which a more nuanced account of maternal experience may have helped the existential phenomenologists. The structure of this section of the book is progressive: each philosopher is shown to contribute something that their predecessor missed, moving towards a more robust account of maternal experience and the ethics of ambivalence.

In Otherwise Than Being, Levinas uses pregnancy and motherhood as the image of all ethical relations. For Levinas, to be an ethical being is to be summoned to give despite oneself, without having chosen to give (Levinas 105). Indeed, on his view, this ethical responsibility is the true foundation of the self. Until we are compelled to face our responsibility to others, we do not become ethical subjects (Levinas 1998 114). The demands of the other interrupt our enjoyment and self-creation (Levinas 1998 72-72), enabling us to forge a new identity. Although our relationships with others are central to our self-identity, there is a gulf between the self and the other that cannot be overcome. This ‘radical alterity’ is a central concern of Totality and Infinity. LaChance Adams draws on the personal accounts of mothers to show that maternal experience does indeed reflect this kind of ambiguous intersubjectivity: unchosen compulsion to care for another coupled with awareness of the other as other.

Nonetheless, LaChance Adams argues that there are serious problems with Levinas’s account of maternity. “Unfortunately, Levinas appropriates the maternal perspective without consideration of the experience for actual women” (LaChance Adams 108). Levinas’ solution to conflicts of interest is to yield to the other, to be like the mythical mother who is infinitely compassionate. Levinas does not recognize that infinite demands deplete us, undermining our ability to respond to others (LaChance Adams 101). Even if we see this as simply an ideal for mothers to aspire to, this still lets mothers down: “When mothers think they should be able to give to their children infinitely and are unable to do so (as no human could), they feel guilty, angry worthless, ashamed, depressed and fearful of the judgment of others… What is more helpful to women is an accurate understanding of their own experiences; for this, the maternal icon must be dethroned.” (LaChance Adams 102).

LaChance Adams turns to Merleau-Ponty and De Beauvoir to provide what Levinas is missing: “a more careful logic of ambiguous intersubjectivity, an understanding of how asymmetrical relations can nevertheless be balanced, the factor of social context and support, and, finally, a better idea of how ethical failure relates to ethical success”(LaChance Adams 108).

LaChance Adams argues that Merleau-Ponty provides the best characterization of the ambiguity of our relations with others, enabling us to recognize our fundamental interconnections with others and our separation from others as two sides of the same phenomenon (153). LaChance’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty is rich, with many overlapping themes. I will only give a brief outline here. The understanding of maternity as a case of “dehiscence in the flesh” plays a key role. “The flesh” is Merleau-Ponty’s term for the continuity between the self, other and world (Merleau-Ponty 1968 123). According to Merleau-Ponty, we each perceive a prereflective coherence between ourselves and others: prior to reflection, we do not distinguish between ourselves and our perceptions. This continuity extends to others as well. We meet others as fellow sentient beings in a public world that we hold in common. (LaChance Adams 112) Nonetheless, inherent to the very idea of the flesh is a gap or dehiscence: “We both encounter the world through smell, taste, vision and thoughts. She sleeps she dreams, and wakes up, just as I do. Yet, there is always something of her that I cannot reach.” (LaChance Adams, 120). Pregnancy and motherhood in general bring this apparently paradoxical simultaneous interconnection and separateness “into relief” (LaChance Adams, 120). However, it applies much more widely, to all our connections with others. LaChance Adams argues that to fully understand Merleau-Ponty’s conception of human relations, and how he can see these two seemingly contradictory aspects of human relations as “two moments of one phenomenon – ambiguous intersubjectivity”, we must explore his use of Hegel’s immanent logic of human experience to (LaChance Adams 140).

In the fifth chapter, LaChance Adams explores Beauvoir’s understanding of motherhood and how it supports, and can be further supported by, the interdisciplinary work on maternal ambivalence. She argues, “Beauvoir’s characterisation of the mother-child relationship is a vivid, and at times raw, example of her philosophy of intersubjective ambiguity. Beauvoir realises that mothers often find themselves in violent opposition to their children, whose wellbeing is also essential to them” (LaChance Adams 170). Nonetheless, Beauvoir is sometimes optimistic about motherhood: it is a possible venue for transcendence (Beauvoir 1949 55) and enriching (Beauvoir 2010 554). Many of her negative evaluations of motherhood are best understood in the light of her emphasis on situation. Having children threatens a women’s wellbeing because of the oppressive circumstances in which mothers find themselves: the combination of the dependency of their children and the cultural belief that women are naturally solely responsible for them (LaChance Adams 174, 178, 183). “In a properly organised society where the child would in great part be taken care of by the group, where the mother would be cared for and helped, motherhood would absolutely not be incompatible with woman’s work.” (Beauvoir 2010 569).

In her exploration of Beauvoir’s work, as in earlier chapters, LaChance Adams displays maternity as both unique and an exemplar for human life in general (LaChance Adams 158). On Beauvoir’s account, we must all face the possibility of ethical failure: our own freedom depends on the wellbeing of others, but conflict – and thus failure to fulfill everyone’s needs – is inevitable. Because the mother, more than anyone else, is expected to provide complete care for her children, this ethical failure is a constant threat to her. The ethical ‘failure’ can be positive: “the ongoing struggle to meet the conflicting, yet interdependent, needs for care and freedom of both the self and the other- can contribute to both their flourishing” (LaChance Adams 171). It can help the mother to form an identity of authentic ambiguity (LaChance Adams 185), in touch with a central truth of the human condition (LaChance Adams 186). Indeed, Beauvoir sees failure as a necessary condition for ethics (LaChance Adams 185). Nonetheless, it can also be tragic. Sometimes, the needs of everyone cannot be met (LaChance Adams 171) and we must face the real pain of sacrificing the freedom or care of one for another (LaChance Adams 158, 174-176).

In the final chapter, LaChance sums up her proposed ethics of ambivalence. Our relations to others combine insurmountable conflicts and deep connections that are necessary for our own freedom and identity. This combination makes both ethical failure, and ethics itself, possible. These conflicts require active negotiation: the ethical subject needs to use deliberative agency to balance her own needs and those of the other – noting that each needs both connection and freedom. Sometimes, not all needs can be met. Sometimes, we must deny others even what is needed for life itself. “Love, even maternal love, does not conquer all” (LaChance Adams 151).

Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What A “Good” Mother Would Do has important lessons for both philosophers and for wider society. As a society, we must debunk the myths of maternal self-sacrifice and recognize both the reality of maternal ambivalence and our collective responsibility for the lives of children. Philosophers must engage properly with the realities of mothers’ lives. Rather than drawing on idealizations or shallow stereotypes, they must take seriously the complexity of motherhood. In doing so, they can both help to improve the way society understands and treats mothers and gain access to a rich philosophical resource for understanding our ethical life.

Fiona Woollard,

Department of Philosophy

University of Southampton

Southampton, UK.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York Philosophical Libraries.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2010. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier. New York, Knopf.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1998. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity. Trans Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Trans Alphonso Lingi. Evanston IL, Northwestern University Press.

Meyer, Cheryl L. and Oberman, Michelle. 2001. Mothers Who Kill Their Children. New York. New York University Press.

Book Reviews

Nancy Bauer, How to do things with Pornography, Harvard University Press, 2015

Nancy Bauer’s How to do things with Pornography is a difficult to review book. It sits in a somewhat liminal location somewhere between monograph and thematic collection. Bauer takes the reader on an intellectual journey that crosses a number of philosophical sub-disciplines but also moves between philosophical writing for a general audience and more technical writing exploring the same themes.

As the title suggests, Austin’s How to do things with words and the uses various feminist philosophers of language have put Austin’s ideas to are central to the book. Bauer argues for an interpretation of Austin much more radical than that often given to him in contemporary philosophy of language, and suggests that it is precisely because of a widespread embrace of the more common conservative reading of How to do things with words and the general development of “speech act theory” post Austin that the development of Catherine MacKinnon’s claim that pornography silences women has been unsatisfactory.

But Austin and the philosophical (mis)uses to which his ideas have been put are not the only central figures in contemporary philosophical discussions of women’s sexuality critiqued by Bauer. In her chapter on objectification she takes on Nussbaum’s classic article in which she attempts to provide a exhaustive accounting of types of objectification, and then provides an account of which forms are morally objectionable. This whole approach, Bauer argues, misses out on an essential component of the concept of objectification in feminist analysis, which is that possessing the concept changes how you see the world. Readers familiar with L. A. Paul’s work on transformative experiences will recognize the similarities to the phenomena Bauer is describing.

Part of Bauer’s underlying concern with Nussbaum’s work are the tensions inherent in being a feminist philosopher, a subject which she also explored in her 2001 book Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism . For Bauer the philosophical stance is inherently one that aims at neutrality — a pursuit of truth, regardless of where that takes you. This is not to say that actual philosophers in practice are neutral, or even have adopted methods that plausibly would aim at such neutrality, but just that the goal of neutrality is part of the philosophical enterprise as she understands it. In contrast, being a feminist is to adopt a political stance, even in its most minimal form as the ”radical belief that women are people” (Marie Shear). It is to adopt a way of seeing the world which is not open to all possibilities.

Nussbaum’s attempt to provide a definition of objectification is philosophical in its method, and in that, argues Bauer, it inevitably falls short of the concept as introduced and understood by feminist thinkers. For the feminist, objectification is by its nature bad, and to see something as a case of objectification is ipso facto to appraise it morally and find it lacking.

Despite this felt tension and frank acknowledgement of it, Bauer is clearly engaged in a philosophical enterprise. She starts the book not with the analysis of Austin alluded to above, nor with discussion of Nussbaum, but by turning her clear philosophical eye to the sexual experiences of college aged women in the US. She observes that there is plenty of judgment of “hook up culture” in the media, but little close attention to the motivations of the participants, and even less attention to the experience of women in particular. Bauer starts with her own puzzlement: why would these confident and accomplished young women enter again and again into a casual sexual encounter centred around un-reciprocated performances of fellatio? What exactly is in it for them?

Bauer is  not engaged in a sociological study of women aged 18-25. Rather she is reflecting on the sorts of things young women say in her classes and to her as a mother of a peer, and reflecting, in the tradition of both analytic philosophy and feminist theorizing, on what those sorts of utterances reveal about the society in which those young women are embedded. Her foil is a certain kind of ‘post-feminist’ theory, on which these young women, accomplished, independent, and ambitious as they are, no longer need feminism.

Bauer argues that they do still need feminism—that equality still eludes even these privileged, accomplished and ambitious women—and that this can be seen perhaps most clearly in their sexual relationships. Understanding the appeal of seemingly one-sided hook-ups requires us to return to de Beauvoir. One might think that heterosexual relationships had progressed since the publication of the The Second Sex , but from Bauer’s point of view the progression is largely at a superficial level. Men and women are still splitting the difference when it comes to the inherent difficulty of experiencing oneself as both subject and object, with women agreeing to play the role of sexual objects to men’s sexual subjects. Nor should we be particularly surprised by this. De Beauvoir is quite clear that the role of sexual object comes with numerous benefits for women. Bauer explores this in great detail in her chapters on the allure of self-objectification and on Lady Gaga . It is precisely because the role of object bestows upon young women an intoxicating sense of their own sexual power—even if they don’t exercise that power—that they continue to participate. The young men get an orgasm, and the young women get the rush of being able to walk away and leave him hanging.

For Bauer the practice of genuine feminist philosophy requires that one use your experiences of the world to ground philosophical inquiry while allowing that inquiry to transform your understanding of your experience (ix-x). Her critique of contemporary writing about pornography, objectification, and ‘hook-up’ culture is at the most basic level that it falls short on both grounds. The methodological status quo for thinking about these issues among feminist philosophers is, she argues, fundamentally flawed. Her goal for How to do things with Pornography is primarily to show what goes wrong in this way of thinking about things, though the book is not without positive theorizing.

There is something strange, in Bauer’s view, about the general acceptance among feminists of the US legal system’s treatment of pornography—and other visual media—as a form of speech, as if this was not just a legal contrivance but a decisively established philosophical analysis. The dispute about the role of ‘uptake’ in successful illocution, or communication; the staunch avoidance of attention to perlocutionary consequences; and the lack of attention to philosophical work on the rhetorical impact of photography and film are all consequences of this uncritical acceptance.

What is the relationship between the quest for knowledge of the thing itself, or things in themselves, and human sexual desire? What sort of epistemological wish, if any, is involved in the desire to gaze at pornographic photographs and films? Whatever answer one might be inclined to propose, it is clear that this wish cannot be identified or accounted for simply by the idea that pornography is a kind of speech. One wants to ask: who is doing the speaking? The subjects of the photographs? (And are they subjects or objects—or both?) The pornographers? And what exactly is being said? And to whom? And why are people so aroused by looking at photographs and films of other people’s naked bodies and their sexually explicit activity? (85)

The first two chapters of the book replicate two pieces Bauer wrote for a general audience, “Pornutopia” and “Lady Power”. Bauer’s goal in these pieces is primarily to draw our attention to our lived experience as sexual beings, and contrast this experience with common theorizing about this experience. In “Pornutopia” both the idea that pornography is not something that ‘decent’ people have interest in or find arousing (a line of thought found in the report of the famous Meese commission on pornography and in much feminist theorizing) and the idea that while we all find some pornography arousing we should inhabit a sense of deep shame about this arousal (a view advocated by Andrea Dworkin) are held up to scrutiny. The problem with the Meesian view is that we all, at least sometimes with some people, find objectification arousing. The problem with Dworkin’s view is that it is soul crushing.

Feminist philosophers, Bauer suggests, have an abiding faith that reason can be used to destroy desire. That is, they take if for granted that we come to properly understand objectification and what is wrong with it, then pornography will lose its power to arouse us. But this is to fail to understand how pornography operates. Within the pornutopia there is no space for the concept of objectification, because in porn everyone is desired by everyone who they desire, and in gratifying your own desires you automatically gratify the desires of others as well.

This same criticism lies at the heart of Bauer’s scholarly critique of Martha Nussbaum’s well known account of objectification. Nussbaum’s listing of the various forms of objectification, carefully distinguishing of one from another, and acknowledgement that some forms of objectification can be delightful, misses the point says Bauer. The concept of objectification, she argues, serves feminists by transforming their understanding of certain experiences. With the concept in hand one can transition from moving through the world uncomfortably to identifying the source of your discomfort.

The main problem  with the feminist treatments of objectification and pornography in Bauer’s view is that they fail to account for our enjoyment of either — of the happiness that one can get from playing by the rules. De Beauvoir’s observation that men and women have agreed to ‘split the difference’ when it comes to our phenomenological experience of ourselves as both subject and object, with men taking on the role of sexual subjects, and women the role of sexual objects, is salient here. De Beauvoir explains the powerful allure of self-objectification. By playing the role of object, women can exploit their own sexual power as objects for pleasure—and that pleasure is real. The alternative—what de Beauvoir calls an ‘authentically assumed existence’ is hard, and among other things, it requires both material and psychological means that women lacked in Beauvoir’s day and, albeit to a lessor extent, continue to lack now. The incoherent striving to be an object persists—and is intractable—because the system works, more or less. Women have achieved much great parity with men than they had in de Beauvoir’s day, but their physical vulnerability remains. Self-objectification is a risk reduction strategy—by objectifying ourselves we avoid something worse. And, as de Beauvoir was aware, the line between self-objectification and full personhood is whisper thin.

What about Austin? On the usual reading of Austin by analytic philosophers of language, How to do things with words inaugurates a new sub-discipline within the philosophy of language, the study of what is usually called pragmatics. On this ‘standard’ reading, Austin’s discussion is to be understood as leaving the usual study of syntax and semantics untouched, its practices endorsed, and as advocating merely that philosophers turn their attention also to the use of language in the wild, as it were. Bauer points out that if this is the correct reading of Austin then How to do things with words is unique among his writings. In every other area of philosophy on which Austin wrote he advocates nothing less than a complete upheaval of the sub-discipline, “and yet curiously, Words is routinely taken “straight”, as though here—and only here—Austin was perfectly content to till the same old philosophical soil and wished merely to draw attention to some adjacent virgin land”(55). In contrast, Bauer reads Austin’s ambitions to be as radical here as they are everywhere else. In Words she argues, Austin accuses his fellow philosophers of not understanding the first thing about language.

On Bauer’s reading of Austin he asks us to look anew at language, and at our history of philosophizing about language, and aims to point out the absurdity of imagining that words “bespeak themselves”—that they bear their meanings and truth conditions and nothing else openly for all to see; independent of the people who speak them, the people who hear them, and the histories and circumstances of their speakings. Austin, Bauer suggests, is arguing that our ability to mean things with our words is a consequence of our ability to do things with them. This is of course precisely the reverse of the standard picture, on which it is the meaning of words and sentences—the semantic content of language—that is a precondition for pragmatics.

Understood this way, Austin’s critique of philosophy of language is structurally similar to Bauer’s critique of feminist philosophy: Austin charges us with failing to pay sufficient attention to our experiences of using language in the world. Traditional philosophical theorizing about language, even that falling under the heading of pragmatics, suffers from a disconnect with the practical realities of using a language. And contemporary feminist theorizing suffers from an disconnect with the practical realities of women’s lives. In particular, on standard feminist understandings of sexual objectification and pornography, the day to day experiences of women (and men) remain something of a mystery.

The last three chapters of the book turn to Bauer’s positive and programmatic views. In ‘On Philosophical Authority’, she argues that our failure to pay attention to the experience of being a language user extends to philosophy itself, and in particular that we have failed to pay any attention to what is required for philosophical speech to be effective. The profession encourages writing, Bauer suggests, ‘as though the sheer rationality of our ideas and argumentation should be enough to effect change’ (117). This is, she argues, patently not true. Instead we must recognize that whatever cultural authority we have is to be found in our power to incite interest in thinking, and when we do not write with this in mind we abrogate that authority, and with it the ability to do things with philosophical speech.

In ‘Getting things right’ Bauer turns her attention to the issue of progress and diversity in the profession. The central thesis of this chapter is that both the demographic homogeneity of professional philosophy and the failure of philosophy to make much of a specific kind of progress are interrelated. Bauer’s particular target here is the view, advocated by Timothy Williamson, on which philosophy, like science, is and ought to be in the business of theory-making and nothing else . Whatever the merits of theory-making—and Bauer is clear that it has merits—we ought also, and perhaps more centrally, be concerned with the kind of progress that results when people work to make explicit their most deeply held assumptions and subject them to scrutiny (136). Focus on theory promotes a gap between philosophical discourse and the way in which people speak and experience the phenomena about which we theorize. As an example, Bauer asks us to reflect on the dominant understanding feminist meta-physicians have of gender as a product of social forces. We don’t, Bauer notes, reflect very much on how difficult it is, even for us, to actually live this view, or on how much it fails to easily mesh with our experience of our own gendered bodies. This is not to say that we should not theorize about gender, or that the idea that gender is a social construction is wrong. Rather Bauer is calling us to care about bridging the gap between theory and experience. But this is something that neither the scientistic model of philosophy advocated by Williamson nor the ‘great man’ model of philosophy which is seen by Williamson as the salient alternative make space for. We need, Bauer argues, to make space for voices that are neither great men–that is to say white men of a certain class–nor foot soldiers in a collective enterprise of philosophical theory-making. In doing so, she suggests, we will make space both for philosophical progress of the human kind, and for a more diverse range of philosophical voices.

Finally, in ‘Reel Girls and Real Girls: What becomes of women on film?’, Bauer returns to pornography, this time with the focus on the ‘look and see’ approach to philosophical theorizing, as advocated by Austin, Stanley Cavell, and Wittgenstein. In particular, Bauer urges us to take seriously that large amounts of pornography is not something done with speech, but with film, that is, with images. What Cavell teaches us, Bauer suggests, is that we must pay attention to the evocative and expressive powers of film, and in particular to the very real desires and pleasures we experience as viewers. These powers can obviously be used to objectify. But what Bauer argues in this last chapter, following Cavell, is that it is film itself which is best situated to reflect upon and call into question its own power to objectify.

The central theme of Bauer’s book is now perhaps obvious—whether our concern is with pornography, objectification, language, or philosophy itself, Bauer calls for us to attend to our experiences as sexual creatures, as women and men, as speakers and hearers, as viewers and makers of film, as philosophers and as people in the world. We must allow those experiences to interact with and shape our theorizing. We must also live with the threat that to do so will radically alter our theories.

Nicole Wyatt

Department of Philosophy

University of Calgary

Calgary, AB Canada


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words . Clarendon Press.

Bauer, Nancy (2001). Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism . Columbia University Press.

de Beauvoir, Simone (1989, c1952). The second sex . New York, Vintage Books

Cavell, Stanley (1979). The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film . Harvard University Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1993. Only words . Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1995). Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs 24 (4):249-291.

Book Reviews

Lisa Tessman, When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible, Oxford University Press, 2017

Lisa Tessman’s When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible offers an engaging and accessible exploration of the complex philosophical issues surrounding moral dilemmas and moral failure. Are there genuine moral conflicts? Is it true that in some situations a moral agent cannot help but fail? Tessman offers her own answer – yes, in some situations, moral failure is unavoidable – while guiding readers through the debates surrounding these questions, clarifying the various positions sympathetically and carefully.

Part of what makes the book so immediately gripping is the case study it begins with in Chapter One: Tessman focuses on the case Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. During the storm, the hospital was full of patients as well as a number of community members, off-duty staff and their families who were seeking shelter. In the aftermath, the hospital was seriously compromised—the air conditioning stopped working, the water became unsafe to drink or wash with, toilets stopped working, and medications ran low. Some critically ill patients were evacuated by helicopter, but many more were not. As time went on, exhausted staff and volunteers made mistakes, and doctors and administrators made pressured judgment calls, including the decision to go into lockdown and post armed guards to keep out desperate people (seen as potential looters) trying to get in. After being trapped in the hospital for four days, the backup generators failed and the situation worsened further. Staff, nurses, and doctors acted heroically: they pumped oxygen by hand for patients who had required ventilators, and designed IV drips that would not require electricity. But, in desperation, they began to make decisions about who would most deserve evacuation, now with a plan to leave those who were either most sick and therefore least likely to survive evacuation, or too large and unwieldy to move, for last. When it became clear, given complex and horrifying circumstances, that not everyone would be evacuated, according to some accounts, some doctors and nurses gave injections of morphine and other drugs to hasten the deaths of those who would not be.

The question Tessman raises from this case is the one at the heart of the book: are there situations in which what agents are morally required to do is something that is impossible to do? As in the case of the doctors and nurses, we might think they were both morally required to not leave patients in the hospital to suffer and die, and at the same time that deciding to give patients who might survive a drug to hasten their deaths was morally reprehensible. Or, put differently, we might think they were morally required to save their patients but also that saving their patients was impossible—they were morally required to do something they could not do. Giving a philosophical account of how this can be the case is complicated, given some fundamental commitments that shape much of philosophical ethics. For one thing, as Tessman notes, if we agree with her that there can be impossible moral requirements, then we must be willing to contradict the Kantian principle “ought implies can” (16).

Chapter two takes up the question of whether moral dilemmas can in fact exist. Tessman distinguishes moral conflicts (i.e., situations in which there is a moral requirement to do both A and B and one cannot do both A and B) from moral dilemmas (i.e., situations in which there is a moral requirement to do both A and B, one cannot do both, and neither ceases to be a moral requirement as a result of the conflict). In the case of dilemmas, even if an agent judges that moral requirement A overrides moral requirement B, B does not stop being a requirement. Failing to do B, even in order to successfully do A which the agent judged to be more important, would still be a moral failure. As Tessman notes, many philosophers believe that moral dilemmas do not exist. She canvasses two “anti-dilemma” philosophical positions: those who argue that there are no moral conflicts at all (the ‘no-conflict approach’), and those who argue that there are no moral conflicts that count as dilemmas (the ‘conflict resolution approach’). Tessman ultimately rejects both approaches, the first by rejecting the principle that ‘ought always implies can’, and the second by arguing that there are some cases of conflicting moral requirements where both requirements are non-negotiable and neither can be overridden or cancelled. As she concludes, “as long as some moral requirements are non-negotiable, then if there are conflicts among these kinds of requirements, there will also be dilemmas” (42).

The third chapter of the book considers how to distinguish between negotiable and non-negotiable moral requirements. Those that are negotiable may conflict without producing circumstances of moral failure: we can simply prioritize the more important, non-negotiable requirements over those that are less important. But where non-negotiable requirements conflict, moral agents can find ourselves failing no matter which requirement we fulfill. Tessman distinguishes different kinds of moral requirements—there is a plurality of kinds of moral values (47), and because not all moral values are of the same kind, they cannot always substitute for one another. In some cases, the value of an action can be replaced by some other value. In other cases, an action’s value is irreplaceable. In particular, there are cases of some values which, if sacrificed, could never be replaced. Tessman gives the example of the murder of someone you love. Nothing can substitute for what you have lost: it is a loss of an irreplaceable value. Irreplaceability seems to be one component of what makes some moral requirements non-negotiable, but not the only component, since some irreplaceable losses are not substantial enough to count as non-negotiable moral requirements (e.g., a child losing a beloved balloon may be an irreplaceable loss but not one her parent is obligated to prevent at all costs). As Tessman argues, drawing on Gowans (Gowans 1994) and Nussbaum (Nussbaum 2011), the more serious, non-negotiable requirements, are ones which nothing can substitute or compensate for fulfilling, and ones which provide what is of deepest value in human lives.

In the fourth chapter, Tessman turns to the work of empirical moral psychologists to consider further how moral agents could judge ourselves to be facing non-negotiable moral requirements. Contrary to the common philosophical assumption that processes of moral judgment are chiefly processes of reasoning, Tessman surveys Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene’s work on dual process models of moral judgment, which consider how moral judgments of non-negotiable requirements might more standardly occur through automatic, unconscious, intuitive processes. The difference between reaching moral judgments through intuitive processes and reaching them through reasoning processes suggests a way of distinguishing negotiable and non-negotiable requirements: the alarm bell emotions that accompany the intuitive process of moral judgment may be part of what distinguishes judgments that some moral requirements are non-negotiable. As Tessman writes, “If you see a vulnerable person in danger, for instance, and this immediately provokes an ‘I must protect!’ alarm bell, then you’ll experience the moral requirement indicated by this ‘I must’ as non-negotiable” (76).

In chapter five, Tessman considers the evolutionary development of moral practice more broadly. Focusing on multilevel selection theory, Tessman explains how traits tied to abilities to cooperate and be altruistic (specifically, the traits of individuals in groups who successfully practiced alloparenting) have been seen as more likely to be passed on (82). Having gone into detail on the view and common misconceptions to be avoided, Tessman highlights this as a plausible evolutionary explanation of why morality in general would have involved, and proceeds to concentrate on evolutionary explanations for the specific experiences of intuitively judging that we are required to do something. In brief, she notes that we have good evolutionary explanations for why humans rely on system 1 (the quick, intuition system of the dual system models) associating certain perceptions (e.g., of an object that looks like feces) with certain feelings (e.g., yuck) and behavior (e.g., do not eat) (94-95). Moral responses (e.g., “vulnerable person in danger/empathic fear for the person/protect the person!”) could have evolved similarly (98). The presence of such moral responses does not ensure that they are ones we can enact, of course, since we cannot always protect the person. In such cases, we may face impossible moral requirements.

Tessman turns in chapter six to a consideration of second-order judgments about our first-order judgments of what action is morally required. In particular, she argues that a specific class of first-order judgments arrived at by intuition should not be subjected to verification by a reasoning process, because to do so would actually undermine the value expressed in the first-order judgment. For instance, a parent’s first-order automatic judgment that they must stop their toddler from running into a busy street should not be subjected to second-order evaluation (108). To do anything other than stop the child is unthinkable. As Tessman writes,

“If intuitively judging some actions to be unthinkable is part of what constitutes loving someone, and if judgments of unthinkability preclude double-checking our intuition through reasoning, then in order to love in this way we’ll have to trust some of our intuitive judgments about what actions are required or prohibited, and to do so without relying on any reasoning about them” (109).

On Tessman’s view, this amounts to both a first order intuitive judgment (i.e., one must stop the child), and a second order intuitive judgment [i.e., “Don’t think the unthinkable by reasoning about what to do in this case!” (110)], at the same time. In some cases, agents might face either doing the unthinkable (e.g., not protecting one’s child) or doing the impossible (e.g., lifting a 5000-pound car off of them). In these sorts of tragic cases, one cannot help but fail.

In chapter seven, Tessman continues the consideration of unthinkable actions, but now in contexts of relationships beyond those of intimates. In some cases of moral action, it can be wrong to arrive at a moral judgment via controlled reasoning rather than an affect-laden, automatic, intuitive process. For instance, we should not need to think very hard about whether to save a child’s life. In the words of Bernard Williams, it can be possible to think ‘one thought too many’. As Tessman writes, “We should treat other people as beings whom it is unthinkable to do certain things to, and the mark of our finding these things to be unthinkable is that we don’t have to reason, or find justification, in order to grasp that we mustn’t do them” (133). While recognizing and honoring sacred values can be at the core of much of the most important moral actions, doing so can also be dangerous—we must also remain attentive to the values that conflict with them.

In chapter eight, Tessman concludes that, contra constructivists and theorists who think we should reach consistency among moral values by processes of reflective equilibrium, morality is not necessarily made up of a consistent set of judgments reached by reasoning. In fact, the set of our moral values is often arrived at through an automatic, intuitive process, and may persistently contain conflicting values. We should not respond to the existence of conflicting values with an attempt to tidy them up and produce a unified, consistent set.

One of the most important dimensions of Tessman’s work in this text as I see it is its reflection on why the possibility of unavoidable moral failure can feel so troubling to moral agents, despite the fact that such situations are not rare in our moral lives. As Tessman notes,

“It’s very distressing to think that, due to something completely outside of your own control, you might be caught in a situation in which you’re inevitably going to have to commit a moral wrongdoing. Perhaps we like to think that we can control how morally good or bad we are. If there are dilemmas, then even if we always try to do the right thing, we might end up with no right thing that we can do…We can expect our moral lives to be less clean than we might have previously imagined because we might fail in ways that we never would have, if only it were always in our control to avoid moral failure…The point of recognizing the phenomenon of unavoidable moral failure isn’t to identify more things that people can blamed for. Instead, the main point is to acknowledge how difficult moral life can be” (29-30, 159-160).

Her reflection on the allure of control in moral lives will be helpful both at the level of philosophical developments in moral psychology, as well as at the level of on-the-ground first-person moral experience.

This is an excellent book not only for philosophers working in ethics and moral psychology, but also for a much broader audience . It would be ideal for use in ethics classes, and is accessible enough for readers beyond academic contexts who are interested in understanding the complexities surrounding these all-too familiar experiences. Throughout, Tessman helpfully frames questions to the reader (e.g., “are you willing to agree that…?”), making the text especially engaging, and facilitating its use in classrooms and discussion groups. The book manages to maintain what is deeply relatable about situations in which moral agents cannot succeed, while introducing readers to the philosophical controversy surrounding such situations.

Ami Harbin,

Department of Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies

Oakland University

Rochester, MI


Gowans, Christopher. 1994. Innocence Lost: An Examination of Inescapable Moral Wrongdoing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Greene, Joshua, Brian Sommerville, Leigh Nystrom, John Darly, and Johnathan Cohen. 2001. “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment” Science 293 (5537): 2105-2108.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment” Psychological Review 108 (4): 814-834.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Editor's Pick

Editor’s Pick, December 2017: Joseph Stramondo

Our Editor’s Pick for our December 2017 issue is Joe Stramondo’s paper, “Disabled By Design: Justifying and Limiting Parental Authority to Choose Future Children with Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis.” In this fascinating paper, Stramondo takes up the increasingly visible question of when and whether eugenic steps to create a disabled child—for instance, to select an embryo with Achondroplasia or genetic deafness—can be morally permissible. Stramondo rejects some extreme views and argues that “future parents are not morally required to use PGD to select some vision of an objectively “best” child, but should be permitted to use PGD to select embryos according to their own conception of the good life, even if that conception of the good life includes disability.” This paper takes up important questions, provides nuanced analysis, and challenges our intuitions about what it means to care properly for the well-being of our future children.

Download a PDF of Stramondo’s paper here.

Editor's Pick

Editor’s Pick, September 2017: Yechiel Michael Barilan

Our Editor’s Pick for September 2017 is Yechiel Michael Barilan’s paper, “The Role of Doctors in Hunger Strikes.” Barilan provides “a critical examination of the social history of prisoners’ hunger strikes, the philosophy of nonviolence, and the debate on its medicalization.” As he notes in the paper, three paradigms dominate the existing literature on hunger strikes. These are: the “communicative,” the “extreme violence,” and the “psychiatric” paradigms. Barilan argues that another paradigm is needed, and in his paper develops the “wounded combatant” paradigm, “according to which hunger strikers are like enemy soldiers who are injured in battle.”

Book Reviews

Françoise Baylis and Carolyn McLeod (eds), Family-Making: Contemporary Ethical Challenges, Oxford University Press, 2014

This fascinating anthology focuses on the question of how we make families, and how bionormative assumptions shape or distort our collective thinking about parenting, children’s welfare, and state obligations to parents and children. The editors are primarily interested in the question of whether parents’ moral responsibilities toward children differ for children produced through assistive reproductive technologies (ART) compared to children brought into the family via adoption. As the editors point out, in the realm of ART, most of the philosophical literature has been focused on parental autonomy and rights to assistance in reproducing, while the adoption literature is almost entirely focused on the protection of children. The anthology does an excellent job of exploring this disconnect, and probing assumptions about moral responsibilities within family-making. Taken as a whole, the chapters explore “whether people should rely on others’ reproductive labour in having children, whether they should ensure that they will have a genetic tie to their children or that their children will have some connection to genetic relatives, whether they should bring a new child into the world at all, whether they should agree to what the government would require of them for an adoption, where they should live if the family they make is multi-racial, at what age they should forgo having children, and the list goes on” (6).

The first section of the book sets the stage with two excellent chapters on the goods of parenting (Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift) and the goods of childhood (Samantha Brennan). The goods of parenting are distinguished from other related goodsintimacy with another adult or friend, friendship with a child, being an uncle, having a pet, etc.and understood to be extremely valuable and non-substitutable (13). Brighouse and Swift identify at least four things that distinguish parent/child relations from these other intimacies: 1) they cannot have equal power, given that children do not enter the relationship voluntarily, are dependent, and cannot exit at will; 2) parents have the power to (indeed are often expected to) coerce children; 3) parents set up the environment that creates a child’s values and possibility for autonomy; and 4) parents receive unconditional intimacy from the child, and presumed trust (15-16). These distinct features of the parenting role lead to unique goods of parenting, and highlight some of the reasons we often consider access to family-making to be a fundamental right. The authors note that parenting is “likely to be one of the most important things one does with one’s life” (19). Like romantic relationships, parenting may not be necessary for a good life, but it is often a very significant component. Importantly, though, the goods of parenting are not necessarily tied to biological parenthood, but are instead gained through the intimate, unique relational role and resultant experiences.

Brennan’s chapter on the goods of childhood takes on the question of how much of children’s welfare (and parental obligations to promote it) is attached to the present child vs. the future adult she will become. A parent’s job isn’t simply to get the child to survive until adulthood, or even to have an “open future,” but also to help her enjoy the unique goods of childhood, including for instance, free play, a sense of time as endless, a sense that all doors are open, and absolute trust in others (43). On Brennan’s view, children aren’t small or deficient adults, but developing relational, autonomous creatures who need help to pursue their own temporal goods.

Part two of the book critiques the ways in which bionormativity (the idea that the “gold standard” of the family is having parents who are genetically related to the child) influences our thinking and policy-making on family creation. The chapter by Charlotte Witt takes on David Velleman’s arguments (Velleman 2005,Velleman 2008) regarding the importance of having “family resemblance” for developing a healthy and adequate identity or sense of self. Velleman considers it to be “universal common sense” to think it better to have one’s own biological parents (quoted on 54), and argues explicitly against making children with anonymous gamete donors. In his view, “Not knowing any biological relatives must be like wandering in a world without reflective surfaces, permanently self-blind” (quoted on 52). Witt does an excellent job of showing just how limited this view is, given the multiple ways we can see ourselves reflected in the behaviors, beliefs, and practices of our rearing parents, even if they are biologically unrelated. The fact that many adoptees seek information about their biological parents may show curiosity or the desire for medical information rather than “genealogical bewilderment” that impinges on healthy identity formation.

A more empirical chapter (Lucy Blake, Martin Richards and Susan Golombok) reviews the evidence regarding the health and well-being of children and families formed through natural sexual reproduction, ART, and adoption, and concludes that there is no good evidence in favor of the bionormative conception of the family. Children produced through ART with donor gametes had no significant health or psychological differences from children produced via natural sexual reproduction (78), and ART parents were just as likely (or more so) to have positive parenting ratings. Their comparisons for adopted children show somewhat greater psychological and behavioral issues, but they argue that these are more likely to occur in children adopted later in life, and are probably due to the lingering effects of early stresses (e.g., neglect, abuse, malnutrition) prior to the adoption rather than to having biologically unrelated rearing parents.

Part three looks at becoming a parent, with chapters from Christine Overall on the value of procreation, and Tina Rulli on the value of adoption. Overall argues that most of the reasons given in favor of procreation (e.g., bringing intrinsic value into the world, creating happy people, enjoying the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, fulfilling duties to family, obeying religious requirements, maintaining choice and control in reproduction) fail to justify procreation over adoption, because they misunderstand the parent/child relationship, have too narrow a vision of what parenting is, or lead to troubling implications.

Rulli offers a look at the unique goods of adoption, highlighting the ways in which adoption “provides a morally noble opportunity to extend to a stranger benefits usually withheld for one’s genetic kin” (110). She argues that adoption is sometimes superior to procreation; it’s a “pure and exemplary model of what is most valuable about parenthood” (110). Consider Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim (Hursthouse 1987) that it is tempting to consider “bearing a child as analogous to sacrificing a fair amount of time and effort to saving someone’s life” (quoted on 114). Rulli uses this insight to note that not only does adoption satisfy the moral features that give procreation value (e.g., having the courage, fortitude and endurance to create something of intrinsic value, investing time and energy toward “saving” lives, developing intimate relational connections that are central to morality), it does so in clearer ways, given that adoption involves the risk of taking on a stranger in need, rather than creating a new life. (“Procreation doesn’t meet needs; it creates them” 113.) As such, Rulli suggests that “adoption is not second-best. Morally speaking, it is the exemplar” (115). Importantly, she is not arguing for a duty to adopt, but against the assumption that adoption is always second-best. Rulli also considers objections about the “myth of the world orphan crisis” that may create a demand for children (and a market for babies in less developed or more impoverished parts of the world). She rightly notes that concerns about unscrupulous adoption markets and practices call for better oversight, not abandoning or maligning the value of adoption.

The fourth part of the book looks at state interests related to people who want to become parents. Jurgen De Wispelaere and Daniel Weinstock consider whether the state has an interest in restricting access to ART (or at least not subsidizing it) in order to address the needs of already existing children who are awaiting adoption. They note that while some have argued for a positive right to ART (under the banner of a right to reproductive health), using ART often looks more like enhancing reproductive function as opposed to restoring it, and the reproductive health right frame over-medicalizes the process of family-making. One might make a claim instead to a positive right to parent, but that right does not require any biological connection between parent and child (137). If the state should recognize a fundamental right to parent, but remain neutral between modes of fulfilling that right (i.e., natural sexual reproduction, ART, and adoption), then it might seem that the state would have no justification for promoting any one mode of family-making. But third party interests (those of existing children in need of adoption) alter the situation, giving the state reason to promote adoption and perhaps restrict access to ART. Nonetheless, the authors resist the conclusion that access to ART should be restricted, because they recognize costs of the adoption process, the limited pool of potential adoptees (especially given restrictions on international adoptions), and the potential difficulty in providing a good home for a child with special needs. A solution might be to open up the adoption process a bit more (making it more feasible for some prospective parents), and to institute some restrictions on access to ART. Regarding the latter, they suggest that we manage demand for ART through pricing (with the state partially subsidizing it only for impoverished infertile people). They recognize the right to parent, but think that right ought to be focused on intimacy and special relations rather than biological connection.

In their chapter, Carolyn McLeod and Andrew Botterell offer lessons from their own experience as adopting parents. They note that prospective adoptive parents are in for a time-consuming, frustrating, sometimes intellectually numbing process that involves extensive interviews, home visits, required parenting classes, letters of reference, criminal background checks, and more, in a process that can last more than two years. Their question is whether the state should have the right to impose these constraints on adoptive parents (and, to be specific, on non-related adoptive parents) but not on “natural” parents (or familial or step-parent adopters). They argue that the differential treatment is not morally justified, because all the reasons offered to justify licensing only non-familial adoptive parents (harm to prospective children, feasibility of licensing, transfer of parental responsibility during adoption, and lack of claim by prospective parents to a particular child) are not non-familial-adoptionspecific worries. They conclude that we either ought to support licensing for many more prospective parents, or not licensing at all (155).

Julie Crawford’s chapter takes on the issue of bionormativity in the law’s treatment of “second parent adoption” vs. parental presumption. As a lesbian co-mother who helped with the “ontological choreography” of creating a child with her partner, Crawford was nonetheless required legally to adopt her child in order to be considered a legal parent. Contrast this with the legal practice of parental presumption (176-177), which allows a man in her role to bypass the adoption requirement. An anonymous sperm donor for a couple using ART is removed from the legal parenting equation and “the social father seamlessly takes his place” (174) and is automatically the baby’s legal father. This is what Elizabeth Bartholet (Bartholet 1995) calls a “technologic adoption.” What could possibly justify this difference, given their structural similarities? Crawford notes also that second parent adoptions can run $4,000-6,000 and take time, during which the second parent does not have legal parental rights. She advocates for extending the parental presumption to parents in committed relationships (whether married or not).

Part five turns to special responsibilities of parents, with chapters on responsibilities of parents using ART (Jamie Lindemann Nelson), post-adoptive parental obligations in regard to openness and disclosure within and outside of the family (Mianna Lotz), and obligations for parents who adopt transracially to morally consider the geography (neighborhood of residence) of their new family (Heath Fogg Davis). Nelson’s chapter highlights how parental responsibilities are not the sorts of things that can be “unilaterally dissolved” (186). Nelson notes that what we cause to happen can matter morally, so even if we didn’t intend a particular effect, we can be morally responsible in relation to it (188). This means that the anonymous sperm donor may have some responsibility toward the child produced through ART, if only related to the provision of information. Similarly, parents who use ART and rely on a gamete donor may have the responsibility to share such information with their child. As Nelson smartly points out, “If some adults can find biological relationships with children so important that it makes going through ARTs with all their costs, risks, and inconveniences a rational choice for them, why should we assume that biological ties in the other direction won’t also matter greatly to some children?” (189).

Lotz argues that adoptive parents have obligations to communicate openly about the adoption within their family, in order to help address three vulnerabilities of adopted children: identity development, development of a sense of familial belonging and security, and development of emotional independence (201). Post-adoptive parental obligations, then, may involve initiating discussions about adoption and the child’s heritage rather than only being responsive to questions from the child. Still, she distinguishes between obligations of openness within the family, and outside of the family, noting that concerns about adoptee welfare may make extra-familial openness optional rather than required.

Fogg Davis’s chapter takes up the intriguing question of whether parents in transracial adoptions are morally obligated to make their homes in non-predominantlywhite neighborhoods. Fogg Davis argues that they are, not because a black adopted child cannot form a healthy self-concept in a white neighborhood (we have many examples to the contrary), but because such parents have a “magnified version of the general moral responsibility that we all have to make residential decisions that do not perpetuate longstanding patterns of racially segregated housing” (222). In transracial adoptions, the family itself is a site of racial integration (223), and the parents have assumed leadership roles in relation to racial integration. Parents are morally obligated to convey the message to their black adopted children that the racial integration of the family will not be entirely unidirectional, that they are willing to physically move out of their geographical racial comfort zones. The parents show good faith in leading the family’s process of racial integration by interrupting the unthinking cycle of selecting a neighborhood that is racially familiar to them” (227). He acknowledges that this obligation is held by all parents, but suggests that it is magnified in the case of white parents who adopt black kids.

The final part of the book includes chapters on contested practices, including the use of “right to know” analogies between ART and adoption practices (Kimberly Leighton), contract pregnancy in India (Françoise Baylis), and age restrictions for the use of ART (Jennifer Parks). Leighton argues that the circumstances of ART and adoption are different enough that the purported harms of not knowing one’s genetic parent are not easily comparable across these practices.

Baylis offers a damning look at contract pregnancy (surrogacy) practices in India, which in her view amount to unfair exploitation of impoverished Indian women by privileged Westerners, despite some surrogates’ testimony to the contrary. When a surrogate complains about the exhaustion of pregnancy but notes that her regular job (crushing glass 15 hrs/day for $25) is truly exploitative, Baylis acknowledges the truth of her testimony, but focuses on the structural injustices that make this kind of “choice” the best available option (268). She also points to less sanguine testimonies from women who say that contract pregnancy is far from what they would otherwise choose, but they really have no other feasible optioneven as their contracting couples from the West claim that the women think they are doing something good, and “in their eyes, they aren’t being exploited” (269). Paying the women more would not resolve the situation, given that in their situation, more money would simply constitute undue inducement (272). Baylis focuses less on the responsibility of individual women, and more on the governmental policies that encourage such international contract pregnancy: “The job of government is not to expand the range of exploitative work options available to its citizens, but rather to guard against exploitation and oppression” (274). She starts by examining the harms to the women who are exploited, but also considers the harms to the children who are created this way, including the potential difficulty of living with an autobiography that is incomplete or that includes complicity in exploitation, or being understood as a commodity. Finally, she does not let the contracting couples off the hook, but appeals here to the work of Iris Marion Young (Young, 2007), noting that we are individually responsible for structural injustices, given the ways that we play our parts in the process (282).

The final chapter takes on the issue of age restrictions for the use of ART. Several sensational media cases depict women in their sixties and seventies using ART in order to become parents. Critics raised concerns about the prospect of orphaning the children at a relatively young age, the parents not having the energy or ability to guide the child well (given the exhausting if joyful work of parenting), and the physical and psychological problems that might be associated with older age parenting (288). Parks argues that many of the reasons offered against the use of ART by older women) are not exclusive to them, but might be leveled against women in their usual reproductive years who use ART because of cancer or other health-related concerns. Additionally, she argues these objections could be assuaged through careful planning for help with chronic care, plans for transfer of guardianship, etc. Parks also notes that cryopreservation of one’s own eggs for possible use in IVF can aid women who want to be mothers beyond their typical reproductive years. While Parks recognizes critiques of those who frame cryopreservation as a feminist technologyBarbara Katz-Rothmann (Katz-Rothmann 2012) wonders why we don’t make other options feasible during women’s reproductive years (quoted on 289), and Patricia Smith (Smith 1993) worries it is technology that reinforces the importance of a women producing a biologically-related child for her partner (299)—she ultimately argues that it is rightfully considered a feminist technology because it provides “tools plus knowledge that enhance women’s ability to develop, expand, and express their capacities” (quoting Linda Layne et al. 2010, on 297). It offers women the option to put off reproduction while they pursue careers or other interests, and can serve as a kind of “insurance policy” for the future. Cryopreservation also decreases the number of women who would otherwise rely on donor eggs to attempt procreation, and thus may help to address concerns about exploitation and physical risk related to third party donation of eggs.

In sum, Family-Making is filled with philosophically rich explorations of the nature and limits of parental obligations to their children, whether the children enter their families through sexual reproduction, ART, or adoption. In reading these essays, I found myself longing for the goods of childhood, cherishing the joys of parenting, and marveling at the many-splendored nature of our familial structures and the weighty (and sometimes confusing) moral responsibilities that attach to them.

Sara Goering

Department of Philosophy
University of Washington

Seattle, WA, USA


Bartholet, Elizabet. 1995. Beyond Biology: The Politics of Adoption and Reproduction. Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 2 (1): 5-14.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. 1987. Beginning Lives. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Layne, Linda L., Sharra L. Vostral, and Kate Boyer, eds. 2010. Feminist Technology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Katz-Rothmann, Barbara. 2012. Yet Another Technological Fix to a Social Problem. Retrieved 25 August 2017 from

Smith, Patricia. 1993. Selfish Genes and Maternal Myths: A Look at Postmenopausal Pregnancy. In Menopause: A Midlife Passage, edited by Joan Callahan, 92-119. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Velleman, J. David. 2005. Family History.” Philosophical Papers 34 (3): 357-78.

— 2008. Persons in Prospect.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (3): 221-88.

Young, Iris Marion. 2007. Global Challenges: War, Self-Determination and Responsibility. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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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Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon. 2010. “Appendix 15A. Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis under Executive Order 12866. Final Rule Technical Support Document (TSD): Energy Efficiency Program for Commercial and Industrial Equipment: Small Electric Motors. U.S. Department of Energy. Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Energy.”

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Revkin, Andrew. 2017. “Will Trump’s Climate Team Accept Any ‘Social Cost of Carbon’?” ProPublica. January 11.

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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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[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).