The New York Times Magazine’s Kwame Anthony Appiah, aka “The Ethicist,” chose to respond to a question about the fictional ethical conflict posed by a Black Lives Matter supporter who is so torn. Should she follow her sense of moral outrage to participate in protests against systemic racism and police brutality (as proven by a single death -by-cop in Minnesota that had nothing to do with race, and a botched no-knock police search with a warrant that had nothing to with police brutality or race), even though it risks spreading the Wuhan virus?
It’s not a tough question in ethics terms. It really isn’t. Even leaving aside the clear (at least to me) verdict that the George Floyd protests themselves are unethical, being contrived, dishonest, destructive, and aimed at substituting one kind of racism for another while unfairly demonizing police, it’s no contest as a utilitarian calculation. The protests are accomplishing nothing positive while harming many and much, and would be unethical to participate in even if they did not contribute to the Wuhan virus resurgence—and if they don’t, then public health officials have been lying to us all along.
This isn’t a difficult balancing problem at all, but sadly, the usually rational Appiah tied himself into rhetorical knota to avoid saying, “Are you kidding me? Stay out of mobs! How could you even ask such a thing?”
Instead, he comes up with rationalizations, false analogies, and ethically invalid arguments. Some low points:
- “How do you balance political progress and public health? Many philosophers would say there’s no easy moral arithmetic that would allow you to compare the two concerns”
Irrelevant. The current “protests”—let’s pretend they aren’t riots–are politically destructive; there’s no “progress.”
- “In 1965, when John Lewis, the young chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped lead a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., he did not consult first with his physician…[though]Maj. John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers…warned them through a bullhorn that’it would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march.”’
Ugh. The civil rights protesters were only risking their own safety, not that of non-participants. There was no rampaging epidemic. Terrible analogy. Appiah is better than this.
- ” Responsible protesters this summer have worn masks and tried to maintain some distance from one another.”
A lie! There has been no social distancing among protesters.
- “But public safety is jeopardized when law-enforcement officials use tear gas and other irritants that cause respiratory problems, leading people to cough or to remove their masks. It is jeopardized when riot police engage in “kettling,” boxing protesters into confined spaces and cutting off exits.”
Wow! How many rationalizations in that section?
- “But not protesting also has significant costs. Our country seems to be on the cusp of necessary reforms, not just in policing but in other areas where racial injustice is pervasive, and careful analysis by social scientists tells us that protests of the right sort can spur political change. We shouldn’t assume that this summer’s political energy can be recaptured when vaccines become available. Many people believe that, at least for this generation, it is now or never.”
Oh, no! The “many people believe” canard!
- “The right question is: Am I taking part in a process that’s making a positive contribution over all?”
And the answer is: no.
Let me point to this article by Michael Tracy, in which he derides the misinformation spread by the news media—like Appiah’s employer—that the “mostly peaceful” protests haven’t caused massive property and economic damage. Tracy writes,
From large metro areas like Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, to small and mid-sized cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Green Bay, Wisconsin, the number of boarded up, damaged or destroyed buildings I have personally observed — commercial, civic, and residential — is staggering. Keeping exact count is impossible. One might think that a major media organisation such as the New York Times would use some of their galactic journalistic resources to tally up the wreckage for posterity. But roughly six weeks later, and such a tally is still nowhere to be found.
- “Had no one ever paid costs in health and mortality for political change, we might still be living with slavery or Jim Crow.”
Again, ugh. That’s an outrageous straw man. The question isn’t whether personal sacrifice can’t be justified by defined social goals that will be achieved through that sacrifice. The question is whether it is ethical to sacrifice others who have not consented in order to maybe bring about vague and ill-defined, or outright reckless changes, while inflicting social, economic and political damage in the process.
The Ethicist began the inquiry with a predetermined bias that the George Floyd mob offers a benefit. That is far from established, and I think the evidence contradicts the assumption.
Bias makes The Ethicist stupid.