The Meaning of Technology and Drug-Detecting Nail-Polish

ThinkProgress has an interesting story today about anti-rape activists’ mixed feelings toward a new nail polish that can detect various “date rape” drugs. I think there are three related arguments against this product: technologies that allow individual women to prevent date rape 1) are an individual rather than collective solution to the problem of date rape, 2) lead their user to believe that she bears primary responsibility for preventing rape, and 3) may perpetuate that expectation and thereby entrench “rape culture.”

The first criticism of this product seems to me like a category mistake. It seems like a very good thing that women will prevent some date rapes with this new technology. If the choice is between 100 drug-induced and 90 ones, all other things equal, we would clearly prefer 90. So the objection that individual use of this technology doesn’t fundamentally transform unjust social norms seems inapt to me–that option is not part of an individual woman’s choice set. Still, however, it is better for each individual woman that she foils a would-be rapist.  Individual use of this technology solves an individual problem, and it’s no objection to individual use that it doesn’t solve a collective problem because the two are categorically different.

Of course, technologies do have social and collective effects, which leads to the second criticism. It’s certainly possible that the collective effect of this technology would be to reinforce the sense that women bear an unfair responsibility for preventing rape. But I don’t think that’s a necessary effect.

Consider what might have been said about another technology that made women’s lives easier–the washing machine: “Washing machines make individual women’s lives a lot easier. But, women shouldn’t have to buy products that make their housework easier because the sexual distribution of household labor is fundamentally unjust. In fact, focusing on making women’s housework easier might actually distract and even reinforce the idea that women should be homemakers.”

This argument is very similar to the argument made here against the collective impact of technologies like date-rape detecting nail polish. In fact, however, technologies like the washing machine were instrumental in liberating women to participate fully in public life. Rather than further entrenching and imprisoning women in the home, technologies like the washing machine helped women undo the social norm of “separate spheres.” As the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed:

“Is it, then, consistent to hold the developed woman of this day within the same narrow political limits as the dame with the spinning wheel and knitting needle occupied in the past? No, no! Machinery has taken the labors of woman as well as man on its tireless shoulders; the loom and the spinning wheel are but dreams of the past; the pen, the brush, the ease], the chisel, have taken their places, while the hopes and ambitions of women are essentially changed.”

Washing machines by themselves didn’t secure women’s suffrage. But women did use their newfound independence made possible by technology to bring about changes in their political status. Obviously, drug-detecting nail polish has a much smaller effect. But the essential similarity is this–intentions matter when it comes to technology. Indeed, it is a strange form of technological determinism to suggest that this new product will reinforce existing norm around rape prevention. A better model to guide users of these of products would be that these put would-be rapists of the world on notice.

The third argument is simply an extension of the second. Technologies that make individual people safer don’t necessarily express or entrench victimhood. They don’t necessarily entrench or express anything. Anti-rapists are right that social norms around rape prevention need to change, and drug-detecting nail polish is one small part of the solution for policing and disciplining would-be rapists.

Salovey Claims the Free Speech High Ground

Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, chose free expression as the subject of his welcome address to freshman this year. In particular, he singled out the tension between two ideals of the university–community and knowledge–which is important to understanding why so many people attracted in the abstract to free speech often oppose it in practice. But moreover, this tension illuminates a distinction that’s often overlooked in “humanitarian” objections of free expression: objections to free expression in the context of background injustice, and objections to the intrinsic value of free speech. 

Some people (such as the dissent in Yale’s Woodward Report) object to free expression on grounds that it perpetuates background injustices. To put it far too briefly and clumsily, free expression advantages people with more power over people with less. In an unjust world, therefore, where powerful groups oppress power-less groups, free speech should be regulated so as to limit the powerful and empower the power-less.

Importantly, this objection to free speech should be distinguished from the objection that free speech leads to error. The “humanitarian” objection does not object to the truth-value of the particular propositions or implicit claims a speaker makes, but rather the effect that speech-acts have on individuals and groups. It objects to free speech on the grounds that speech can make people feel unwelcome and even lose their dignity. 

What is often overlooked in the “humanitarian” objection so formulated is that the objections is really to the existence of background injustice and inequality. That is, the objection says, “Free speech would be great if we lived in a just society. But in an unjust society, we have to limit free expression in order to help the victims of injustice. Once we get to a just society, we’ll enjoy the full bounty of free speech.” 

My point is that there is different kind of humanitarian objection to free speech, one that holds that even a just society, free speech would not be very important. Rather, community and solidarity would trump the value of free speech. In ideal conditions, we would prefer not to have the rough-and-tumble of free speech with all the potential for hurt feelings and conflict it causes. We would prefer a gentler, more harmonious community. Free speech would be an unwelcome interloper in a scene of tranquility.

The humanitarian objection to free speech under ideal conditions is more severe than the objection under non-ideal conditions. It claims that we should prefer the ideal of community to the ideal where a thousand flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend. 

Salovey’s deep point is that the ideal of a university and a society characterized by free speech is in fact desirable. Free speech will of course generate friction and error, but a system that permits us to make, recognize, and learn from our mistakes is the only one that can generate truth. Free speech allows us to develop and mature by allowing us to hear the opinions and views of those with whom we disagree. Free speech reflects the humble judgment that we don’t know where knowledge will emerge, and that the speaker who we would wish to silence may in fact have something to teach us. Free speech is a constitutive feature of a society where no one has the last word–a profoundly rare and precious kind of society.

Critics of free speech still of course have the non-ideal objection available to them. It is a separate question whether in an unjust world, free speech harms victims of injustice more than it helps. Salovey’s remarks, however, suggest that defenders of free speech have the moral high ground. In a perfectly just world, we should embrace free speech rather than shy away in favor of some other value. 

Some Considerations on Suicide

Suicide remains a well-entrenched taboo in American culture. We see this taboo in discussions of how media should cover the suicides of public figures like Robin Williams, and in criticism of a commemorative tweet by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which some felt romanticized suicide.

Suicidal behavior is far and away pathological. In the vast majority of cases, it is irrational, deeply hurtful to one’s community, and the result of self-deception about one’s quality of life. Suicide survivors deserve compassion and inclusion rather than shame and rejection.

There are difficulties with assembling a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for suicide, especially involving the mental state of the suicide victim. Should we describe a participant in a “suicide mission” as “suicidal,” for instance? The vagueness of the concept, however, doesn’t affect what I take to be the core intuition behind the suicide taboo, or the paradigm case of morally blameworthy suicide. The paradigm case is suicide resulting from nihilism–a judgment not only that there is nothing of value in one’s life, but that one’s life, a precondition of value, lacks value itself.

I take this thought to be the basic idea behind the classical, Christian, and Kantian prohibition against suicide. Suicide on this view repudiates and disrespects the existence of value in the world.

There is something important to this view. Consider what would happen if every human person tomorrow decided to stop living. The result would be a disaster worse than any world war, disease, or natural calamity–it would foreclose all future human progress, expressing the thought that “this is good enough”, or perhaps express the conclusion that what achievements the human race had made were illusory and temporary. In either case, it conveys an attitude of hopelessness and despair.

I think the analogy holds with individual suicide, where one’s life is a project whose undertaking has intrinsic value. The paradigm case of blameworthy suicide denies that value.

Suicide reflects loneliness, but it needn’t signify despair or hopelessness–it can signify principle and defiance. Cato the Younger took his own life, for example, as an act of defiance against the new Roman Empire. As we learn from Plutarch’s report of his death, Cato’s choice of suicide reflected his moral unwillingness to compromise with the new regime:

“I suppose,” said he, “that ye also have decided to detain in life by force a man as old as I am, and to sit by him in silence and keep watch of him: or are ye come with the plea that it is neither shameful nor dreadful for Cato, when he has no other way of salvation, to await salvation at the hands of his enemy? Why, then, do ye not speak persuasively and convert me to this doctrine, that we may cast away those good old opinions and arguments which have been part of our very lives, be made wiser through Caesar’s efforts, and therefore be more grateful to him? And yet I, certainly, have come to no resolve about myself; but when I have come to a resolve, I must be master of the course which I decide to take.”

The possibility of suicide arises in tragic cases. Often, our objection to suicide reflects our sadness at the situation itself. A tragic choice set, however, shouldn’t make us indifferent among its members.

The sense of a suicide is plastic, not fixed. We have some control over the meaning of our deaths, and in the appropriate circumstances express the values of our lives through them.