Morality

Think Like an Abolitionist

Donovan Lewis, Age 20

A tragedy happened in Columbus this week: Police officer Ricky Anderson fired one bullet, killing 20-year-old Donovan Lewis. Police entered Donovan’s home, hunted him down with dogs, and murdered him. Such awful events are all too common. According to the Washington Post Fatal Force Database, 690 people have been shot and killed by the police so far in 2022 (as of August 31st). As a comparison, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 456 people have been killed in a mass shooting so far in 2022 (as of August 31st). Rationally, as Americans, we should be more afraid of being killed by the police than in a mass shooting—especially if we’re poor, Black, or brown.

This is a primary reason I am an abolitionist. I believe that the United States Police Force should be abolished. We cannot simply abolish mass shootings (though we could ban assault weapons), and so that makes lessening the harm from mass shootings more challenging. But when it comes to reducing the number of people murdered by police officers each year, there is one obvious solution: get rid of police officers. But I digress; my goal is not to argue for this position here. I’m working on a book about that, though, so stay tuned.

Instead, today, I want to give you an inside peek into how I think. As an abolitionist learning about the latest fatal police shooting, here’s what goes through my mind. Whenever I consider stories about the police, FBI raids, judge and jury verdicts, or other functions of the United States Justice System through the lens of someone who wants to abolish all of it, I recall a famous quotation from Albert Einstein:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

A central tenant of my abolitionist view is answering this call to widen my circle of compassion. It provides the framework for me to expand my awareness with curiosity, primarily through asking questions, imagining situations from multiple perspectives, and hopefully increasing the size and number of my spheres of concern to include more awareness for more creatures. Once my awareness is expanded, compassion soon follows, but it takes practice and gratitude to get there. I invite you on the journey.

Sphere One

In the smallest sphere of compassion, where you’re restricted to thoughts of yourself and your loved ones, you might have the following thought: thank goodness my loved ones are safe. Learning about a fellow parent’s loss can encourage us to take stock and to hug our children a little tighter. That is surely a good thing. Out of curiosity, how could we take that seed of gratitude and expand it, just a bit?

Sphere Two

In the next sphere, we might feel compassion for folks affected by the tragedy with whom we identify in some way. Mothers instinctively think of Donovan’s grieving mother. Young Black men think of Donovan’s fear and pain. Police officers think of Ricky. I invite you to embody each of these perspectives. How would it feel if you are a police officer to think of Donovan’s grieving mother? If you’re white, how might you feel if you were a Black man living in Columbus, OH in the aftermath of this tragedy? Considering these different perspectives and imagining how others might be feeling right now is one way to expand the diameter of this sphere.

Check in with yourself. Is there a perspective you’re not willing to consider? Is there a person affected by the tragedy you’re unable to identify with or you refuse to even consider because you deem them unworthy of your care and affection? This is a growth opportunity. Try to find one, small thing you might be able to have some awareness of. Notice I said awareness, not compassion. Start with simply acknowledging that something might be difficult for this person; you don’t need to go all in on empathy in a growth moment. For example, I have a difficult time taking the perspective of the police officer because it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine ever choosing that profession in the first place. Nonetheless, I have never taken someone’s life before. I do not know whether Ricky has ever taken a life in his thirty years as a police officer, but I can imagine that coming to terms with this fact (as well as being on administrative leave and enduring the media attention and upcoming investigation) is putting stress and strain on him and his loved ones. That would be a difficult situation for anyone to endure.

If you find yourself saying “fuck him” to Ricky, then again, I invite you to sit with that feeling and imagine a different perspective. Other folks in this arena might be unable or unwilling to take the perspective of Donovan—a “criminal.” They think that if you don’t do anything wrong, then you won’t be shot by police. From what I’ve read, the arrest warrant for Donavon was for domestic abuse, assault, and the improper handling of a gun. And while we must remember that under the current American Justice System Donovan would be innocent until proven guilty, these are still very serious charges. As someone who has endured domestic abuse in the past, I tend to believe women (I’m making the statistically probable assumption here that the domestic partner in this case is a woman, but I’m open to new information proving me wrong about that), and so while the burden of proof is on the state, I tend to believe women when they say men beat them. Someone else—maybe a Ricky supporter—who believes that Donovan is a “wife beater who hid from police instead of opening the door when they first knocked,” may find themselves similarly saying “fuck him.” Both are genuine human responses. You do not need to conceptually align yourself with a perspective to see it.

While awareness of these different perspectives helps us to expand our spheres of compassion, I would never ask victims to identify with oppressors as that may cause significant harm. For instance, I would never ask Black men today to have compassion for cops. I will always draw a line at giving away so much compassion that it diminishes your own power. Stand in your power today. Leave that work to others and practice some community and self-care instead. You deserve it.

Sphere Three

In the next sphere, we might grow the number of people we consider affected by the tragedy. Who else is struggling today? I can imagine that the woman who reported Donovan to the police is having some conflicting feelings. While she may have been trying to keep herself safe, I can imagine she did not mean to start a process that ended with Donovan dead. That’s got to be very difficult to manage, emotionally.

I believe that the Chief of Police in Columbus, Elaine Bryant, a Black woman with children, likely feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. I imagine she feels a sense of loyalty and duty to her police force and to her Black community, and she’s trying to thread that needle. I don’t know much more about her or Ricky’s history on the force, but I feel for her, and I know she does NOT want her police officers out on the street murdering Black men.

What about the other two men in the apartment who were taken into custody? Why didn’t they answer the door for ten minutes? Were they afraid for their lives, having police banging around outside at two o’clock in the morning? Were they protecting their friend, Donovan? Did they also do something against the law (maybe they were high?) that they didn’t want to be caught for? They were handcuffed and taken to police headquarters. I’m not sure if they’re still there but spending a night or more in jail must be very difficult, regardless of the reasons.

Finally, we might expand further to include Mayor Ginther, the City Council and others who might be involved in the upcoming investigation, the brave and dedicated protestors who will come out in droves this weekend, the police officers who will face off with their dissenters, the other police officers at Donovan’s house that night who witnessed him being shot, the paramedics who initially treated Donovan, the Emergency Department doctors who declared him dead, and the friends and families of all the people mentioned so far. The more we understand our communities, the people involved in horrific events such as this, and how they all operate, the greater we can expand our awareness of the difficulties they face. The more we practice awareness and openness to their experiences, the more compassion will grow inside us.

Sphere Four

Can we expand further? I think we can reach out into the domain of societal institutions, higher than any particular individuals. We can ask deep, fundamental questions about how we created a structure that landed us in the midst of this tragedy. The central question for me is: why were armed police officers in Donovan’s home in the first place? Is this necessary to successfully “protect and serve?” You can see from the body cam footage that police officers outside have their weapons pulled, in hand, ready at the waiting. They’re anxiously moving from one foot to another, from one stance to another, clearly full of adrenaline as they pound the door, demanding entrance. It’s worth noting again that it’s two o’clock in the morning. Why are adrenaline-fueled, armed police officers banging on Donovan’s apartment door in the middle of the night? Is this the first line of action? Has he been notified in any other way that there is a warrant out for his arrest? Is there another time or place where police could arrest Donovan?

After the first two young men answer the door and are taken into custody, police officers on the scene decide to call for additional back-up from the K-9 unit. What changed to make the situation so dangerous as to request back-up? And the big question: if the person being arrested was a rich, white, middle-aged man living in Upper Arlington, how would this situation be different? I can tell you that the police would not be knocking in the middle of the night! They’d approach in broad daylight rather than under the cloak of darkness. They surely wouldn’t even think to call for K-9 backup. And I know they wouldn’t be so quick to conclude a vape was a gun. There is a deep bias in the minds of police that being on Sullivant Ave at two o’clock in the morning arresting a Black man is automatically dangerous, and that makes them more likely to take more severe action, thus increasing the probability of lethal force. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Sphere Five

We can expand this societal thought even further: does arresting, trying, and imprisoning one person make anyone else safer? But I’ll leave that thought for another day.

The Abolitionist’s Future

Finally, what happens next? There will be an investigation, and many people will be rooting for justice, which in their minds means that Officer Anderson will be found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison. As an abolitionist, I wholeheartedly want an investigation, especially one that could answer some important questions about this event. What caused officers to go to Donovan’s apartment at two o’clock in the morning and what could we do differently next time? What caused officers to call for a K-9 backup unit? How does bias of location, the nature of the arrest warrant, and race factor into this decision? Why did Officer Anderson—dog in his left hand—fire his weapon so quickly without nearly enough time to make a good judgment? Why do officers need to be carrying weapons at all? An investigation is helpful because answering these questions might help us prevent future Donovan’s from being murdered, lives cut far too short.

As an abolitionist, however, I cannot root for Ricky to go to prison. I understand and have empathy for those who are suffering today, and this suffering may lead us down a path of wanting Ricky to pay for what he’s done. We are human, after all. But we must also realize there’s no way for Ricky to pay his debt. Nothing will bring Donovan back. Nothing could ever happen to Ricky that is as bad as what he did to Donovan, and in my heart of hearts, embodying my highest self, I cannot wish for such horrors to happen to any living being. I believe that transformation comes when we focus on what we could do differently in the future to prevent such senseless tragedies rather than spending even an ounce of energy on backward-looking retribution (or revenge). Healing and prevention are the mantras of abolition.

I mourn with the community today, and I pledge allegiance to doing whatever I can to contribute to a future free from such deep wounds. In solidarity, sending light and love to all.

I’m Writing a Book!

Working Title: The End of Ethics

The Buck Moon by Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

I’ve been writing for some time about my yearly meditations, where I pick a word of the year to guide me. My first word was narratives in 2016, followed by boundaries in 2017, and then authenticity twice, once in 2018 and again in 2019; my 2020 and 2021 words are yet to come, so stay tuned for that. I’ve written about how each of those words led to massive changes in my life, changes I never thought could arise from simply thinking about one word for 365 days. This practice has deepened my relationships with others, enriched my understanding of myself, and improved my intuitive abilities. I highly recommend you give it a try. There’s no better time than now, under the magnificent super buck moon.

In addition to recounting past words, I’m posting about my journey through my current word of the year, voice. My hope is that you can see in real-time how I open myself up to the ways the word works through my life. I believe the openness to the word, the curiosity, the willingness to see where it leads all give enormous power to this meditation. It pulls us out of our heads, disrupts our typical patterns, and invites us to leave our safe spaces and explore. I think I’ve felt silenced for many years, and so choosing voice this year has encouraged me to express myself again. It’s helping me lift my inner voice with passion and stamina. Ultimately, it’s led me to writing a book. How exciting!

I had an epiphany a few months ago—more like a visceral flight of ideas—and ever since, I’ve been obsessively researching, planning, and discussing this new book I’m writing. Quite literally, I was sitting at a local restaurant’s bar, enjoying a glass of wine, and reading Philippa Foot’s beautiful book, Natural Goodness. I’m sort of known for reading in bars these days, ha. Anyway, I’ve been reading this one, tiny-but-mighty work of philosophical genius for nearly twenty years. It has notations in the margins I no longer comprehend, vestiges of my undergraduate honors thesis. I love this book. As I read it through new eyes, however, I felt a sudden rush of excitement. My heart began to race. My cheeks flushed. Suddenly it all made sense. Everything I’d struggled to understand as an undergraduate philosophy major, the parts of my dissertation that never quite sat right, and strange experiences teaching my own undergraduate students all came together in one, unifying conclusion: we’ve made a crucial mistake spending thousands of years trying to make sense of morality. It’s time to abandon the project. Instead, let’s set a new agenda for understanding human behavior that might be more fruitful. Here’s my working abstract, which is continually evolving:

What if the framework for evaluating some actions as right and some actions as wrong never existed? That’s my big question: what if we went back far enough in hypothetical time, before anyone ever judged an action as wrong, and instead of judging actions as right or wrong, we did something entirely different? Throughout the history of philosophy, we have assumed morality needed elucidation. We built complex theories of what moral terms mean, where morality comes from, what moral reasons are, the nature of moral facts in relation to natural facts, and normative theories justifying why particular actions are right or wrong. None of these theories is without devastating flaw. I will argue we need to start in a different place, and if we start anywhere but “I will provide a moral theory,” we will never get to a moral theory. If we stop assuming morality from the outset, we’ll discover there is no reason for it.

I will start with a pragmatic argument for abolishing punishment in the home and throughout society. A few surprising things will follow. Most importantly, morality won’t follow. Then I’ll argue that instead of acting on moral reasons, human beings more simply express their various mental states, including beliefs, desires, values, emotions, needs, and appetites. If we want to build a better society, our focus should be on proactively improving and enriching our mental states for success as a species rather than judging, evaluating, and punishing each other after the fact through the limited, flawed, and divisive lens of morality.  

The thought surprised even me! I’ve been a believer in moral objectivism—the idea that there are moral facts independent of human beliefs—my whole (philosophical) life. As I sat at the bar astounded that I could even think this thought, I began to outline my argument. I wrote it all out in my notebook with my palms sweating and my forehead pressed into my left hand, seeing my way through the maze that had mystified me for decades, as if I suddenly had access to the bird’s eye view. I packed up my books and scooped my heart off the floor, then moved to another venue, my favorite local jazz bar. I pulled out my notebook, turned the page, and wrote the argument again, just to see if I still had it. And I did. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. I decided to put the notebook away and wait until the next day to re-write it on my computer, just to see if I could. And I did again. I almost passed out from the thought of it. I simultaneously thought “this is genius” and “this is absolute nonsense.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the physical joy and chaos of a new idea, but it is overwhelming. How can my body know the truth before I do? The feeling of reaching both hands in the air, snapping a few times as you smile from ear to ear, then clap once or twice before pounding the desk, “that’s it!” It’s surreal. John Stuart Mill might’ve been right; intellectual pleasures might be of the highest kind. It reminded me of a familiar feeling, sitting in seminar or during a Friday talk, when suddenly I could feel in my chest I knew the problem, the crux of the issue, the Achilles heal. My body told me when I was onto something, and I trusted that feeling implicitly. I’d try to see where to wedge my way in, and the pricked skin and racing heart always confirmed when I was on the right track.

Since writing the abstract, an introduction, and working my way through an outline, I began researching what other, recent philosophical thought had been published on the theme of abolishing morality. I found some very interesting threads! There was a special edition of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice in 2007 dedicated to the work of J. L. Mackie, who famously argued for what’s called “moral error theory.” Error theory basically says that since there are no objective moral facts, all moral judgments are false. That is, whenever anyone says, “killing is wrong” or “keeping your promises is right,” they are saying something intelligible, but strictly speaking, such sentences are all false because there’s no such thing as wrong or right in the world. Error theory is often used as an objection in philosophy more than a viable theory (like the way relativism is used), and so this resurgence of adherents is remarkable.

The part of this thread I felt in my body, reassuring me I was on the right track, though? This special issue of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice features a paper titled “Abolishing Morality” from Richard Garner, who was professor emeritus at Ohio State, where I got my PhD! We even overlapped a bit. I had been his graduate TA for one metaethics course back in 2006 or so. Then he went on to edit a follow-up book titled The End of Morality in 2019. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2020 from COVID-19, at age 84. Not only am I connected to one of the main champions of the modern idea of abolishing morality, but he also serves as an inspiration to me. He was doing this important work in his seventies and eighties, after a long career in academic philosophy. He gives me great hope that good ideas can come from anywhere, at any age, in any circumstance.

A final thread. Dick Garner’s friend and collaborator, Joel Marks, featured in both the Ethical Theory and Moral Practice special issue and in The End of Morality, argues that morality should be replaced with what he calls “Desirism.” In a nutshell, Marks advocates for a view like my own expressed in the Authenticity posts that we should do whatever we want to do. There are differences that will be worth fruitful philosophical analysis, but the thread is there, which is very exciting to me. It’s always better to be connected to an existing literature than to be an island. I can’t wait to pull all these threads together.

As I stare at the glorious super moon this evening, I want to set an intention. I’m sharing it with you to hold me to it. This is the moon of power, and I want to harness it on this special day. I plan to keep posting bits and pieces of the book, working them out, testing out theories, begging for feedback. If you read anything here that piques your interest, reach out! Let’s get coffee or a drink and chat about it. Please also make all the recommendations. Is there something I should be reading? Tell me! Is there someone I should be following or a cool podcast I should listen to? Please send me all the links! Thanks for your support, friends. It means the world.

Income Inequality: Part 2

In Part 1 of the series on income inequality, I argued that being a “fiscal conservative” is a moral stance. One of the principles of fiscal conservativism says that we ought to balance the budget by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. In fact, a fiscal conservative will hardly ever encourage raising taxes.

The main reason a conservative doesn’t want to raise taxes is because she is opposed to redistributing wealth. We ought not take money from the rich, and just hand it over to the poor. (more…)

The Shame of the Privileged

“I personally think talking about it all the time just makes the problem worse.”

Racism is a difficult thing to talk about. We like to think we’ve reached equality. We like to think that soon enough, all the old racists will die, and racism will disappear with them. The problem will solve itself if we just give it enough time.

Shame is also a difficult thing. Shame is an emotion that represents the failure to live up to an ego ideal. We think of ourselves as caring, smart, funny, talented, moral, attractive, as a good parent, sibling, friend. We don’t simply think of ourselves these ways; we deeply value such characteristics. These are our ego ideals. On occasion, these ideas we have about ourselves are challenged. When others challenge the ideas we have about ourselves, we lash out in anger. We become defensive. We deflect your criticism by pointing out your flaws.   (more…)

Commentary on “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”

Justin P. McBrayer recently argued in the New York Times that our children don’t think there are moral facts. Here’s what I take his argument to be:

Argument 1:

  • Premise 1: Common Core defines ‘fact’ as something that is true about a subject or something that can be tested or proven.
  • Premise 2: Common Core defines ‘opinion’ as what someone thinks, feels, or believes.
  • Premise 3: Common Core says all sentences are either facts or opinions.
  • Premise 5: Common Core labels all value judgments (any claim with good, bad, right, wrong, etc) as opinions, never as facts.
  • Conclusion: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.

Argument 2:

  •  Premise 1: Common Core teaches that there are no moral facts.
  • Premise 2: The school teaches that students have certain responsibilities such as “do your own work.”
  • Premise 3: Premise 1 is inconsistent with premise 2.
  • Premise 4: Outside of school, if there is no truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong, then we cannot hold cheaters accountable.
  • Premise 5: We do (and should) hold cheaters accountable.
  • Conclusion: Outside of school, there is a truth of the matter about whether cheating is wrong (i.e., there are moral facts).
  • Conclusion: We should reject the Common Core teaching that there are no moral facts.

I agree with most of McBrayer’s argument. It is a rather elegant one. But his argument has come under serious attack by Daniel Engber over at Slate. In what follows, I shall defend McBrayer’s argument against Engber’s attack. I think Engber has built an elaborate strawman, but when he takes him down, McBrayer’s argument still stands tall.  (more…)