Ideas in Progress: Ethical Arguments, Cultural Consensus, and Elinor Ostrom

Professor Jessica Flanigan has argued that vaccine refusal is “harmful and reckless conduct” that is “morally similar to firing a weapon into the air.”

Ideas in Progress Newsletter

An Institute for Humane Studies Newsletter

Ethical Arguments for Vaccine Mandates

In a New York magazine article on vaccine skepticism, writer Jonathan Chait cites articles on vaccine mandates by two professors in the IHS community — Jessica Flanigan (“A Defense of Compulsory Vaccination,” 2013) and Jason Brennan (“A Libertarian Case for Mandatory Vaccination,” 2018). Both articles predate COVID-19 but contain general ethical arguments for vaccine
mandates. Flanigan, a University of Richmond associate professor who has spoken at IHS on bodily rights, argues in her article that vaccine refusal is “harmful and reckless conduct” that is “morally similar to firing a weapon into the air and endangering innocent bystanders.” Brennan, a Georgetown University professor who participated in a IHS manuscript workshop last year, argues in his article that “people who refuse vaccinations violate the ‘clean hands principle,’ a (in this case, enforceable) moral principle that prohibits people from participating in the collective imposition of unjust harm or risk of harm.”

Read Flanigan’s article on Springer Link

No Cultural Consensus in the United States

In a podcast interview with Dissent magazine’s “Know Your Enemy,” IHS senior fellow Samuel Goldman says that in writing his book “After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division,” he didn’t set out to make a case for or against nationalism. “Rather, I proceeded more in the spirit of inquiry,” Goldman explains, “trying to figure out what we mean when we talk about ‘the American people’ or ‘the American nation.’” There’s been a revival of interest in nationalism over the last five or six years, Goldman
notes — interest that was “actualized and energized” by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This revival of nationalism has put “hard and important questions on the agenda,” Goldman says. He notes that the United States population is about five times greater than the population of the Roman Empire at its zenith. It contains a multitude of divergent interests, practices, and preferences. And so, Goldman says, “appeals to national solidarity and cohesion, that assume we can once again enjoy a kind of basic political and cultural consensus, are almost certainly not going to be realized.”

Listen to Goldman’s interview at Dissent magazine

The Optimism of Elinor Ostrom

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo featured the work of late Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom in his August column, “What if Humans Just Can’t Get Along Anymore?” Ostrom’s research showed countless examples of people coming together to create rules and institutions to manage resources, Manjoo notes. However, “she died in 2012, so she did not witness what came next: the rise across much of the world of conspiratorial alternate realities and intense polarization that have hampered progress on so many global problems,” Manjoo writes. “As a species, we are still searching for the institutions Ostrom predicted we’d need to focus humanity’s collective power. I hope she was right that we are up
to the task — but I can’t say I’m optimistic.” In an Ideas in Progress podcast episode dedicated to Ostrom, Jeanne Hoffman, an IHS senior faculty liaison,  explains how Ostrom disputed the concept of the tragedy of the commons — the idea that if multiple people have access to a resource they can profit from, they’ll use it up without thinking of how they’ll suffer when it’s gone. “But what Ostrom saw was that this isn’t exactly how it ends up working out,” Hoffman explains, “because when you have local communities, they’re not thinking in the short term as the tragedy of the commons would have you think. They’re thinking in long terms because it’s their livelihood. So, they end up
working out different norms and practices among themselves in order to figure out how to share these resources.”

Listen to Hoffman on Ideas in Progress

Epistemic Pitfalls in Democracies

“If information is not freely shared within a group due to social pressure, deliberation on very important issues can be distorted,” IHS senior fellow Hrishikesh Joshi writes in his book, “Why It’s OK to Speak Your Mind,” excerpted in Quillette. Democracies are able to avoid some of the “epistemic pitfalls” common in authoritarian regimes, Joshi says. But even democracies are not immune. “For example,” Joshi writes, “the infamous Bay of Pigs Fiasco, a failed US-backed landing attempt on Cuba in 1961, resulted in part
because those who had doubts about the plan suppressed their reservations. Moreover, social pressure need not always come from government authorities. Think of college students who feel pressure to binge drink, the many of us who feel pressure to dress in particular ways, teenagers who (used to) feel pressure to smoke cigarettes — or, what’s more relevant here, people who feel pressure not to publicly express certain social or political opinions.”

Read Joshi’s excerpt on Quillette

How ‘Woke’ Became an Insult

Linguist John McWhorter writes in his New York Times column about the changing use of the word ‘woke.’ A short time ago, woke was “the hot new badge of enlightenment,” McWhorter says. Now? “These days, ‘woke’ is said with a sneer.” He traces the history of the word from its early use in Black slang to recent usage, then explains our social process of replacing words once they begin carrying negative associations. McWhorter cites IHS senior fellow Amna Khalid as helping him understand how the word “problematic” is now used. “The unbiased anthropologist would term the reason that a few episodes of ‘30 Rock’ with mock blackface sequences are no longer streamed ‘censorship,’” McWhorter writes. “However, as the historian and podcaster Amna Khalid taught me, the perspective behind decisions like this is more commonly wielded via terming
something ‘problematic,’ which in modern usage so often implies not just that something is abstractly a problem but also that it ought to be classified as inconsonant with civilized sensibility and cordoned off from it in some way.” The word “problematic” allows people to talk about censoring something without using the baggage-laden word “censorship.”

Read McWhorter’s column in The New York Times

The Struggle for a Better World

On the final day of IHS summer seminars, Peter Boettke, professor of economics and philosophy at George Mason University, spoke about liberalism as an emancipation project. “Liberalism was born in the idea of overcoming the dogma of the altar, the subjugation of the crown, the violence of the sword, the bondage of slavery, the drudgery and poverty of the plough, and the exploitation of the mercantilist class,” Boettke said. He acknowledged that the history of liberalism is rife with inconsistencies and imperfections. “Is Jeffersonian hollow,” he asked, “or is it just an unfinished revolution?” Injustices of the past and present should not make us lose confidence in liberalism as a project, Boettke argued. “My teacher, Jim Buchanan, used to like to say to us, in a paradoxical way, ‘To say a situation is hopeless is to say it’s ideal. Since, when we
look out the window, the world is certainly less than ideal, it must not be hopeless.’” Boettke is the author of “The Struggle for a Better World,” published earlier this year.

Watch Boettke’s lecture on YouTube

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