Despite being out of academia for several months now, I occasionally get invitations from academic book publishers to review book proposals and book manuscripts in ethics and political philosophy. Here’s a book proposal that somehow found its way to me:
Call “disease moralism” the thesis that disease outbreaks result from people’s moral failures. Disease moralism so defined need not mean that bad behavior magically causes disease, but rather than that morally bad behavior creates the conditions which spread disease. Moralism also usually includes moral prescriptions as solutions for the disease. …
Now we know many diseases are caused by viruses, bacteria, or other microscopic infectious agents. But that does not mean moralism is behind us. Consider the moralism that accompanied the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. And, of course, we see rampant moralism today regarding COVID-19. Many people say they would be ashamed to admit they were infected, as they expect to be judged and condemned. “Oh, you’re sick? Well, I guess you weren’t being careful. You probably spread it to others, too.”
Now we know.
Regrettably, I recommended rejection:
Author’s proposal involves a false alternative that regards the germ theory of disease as incompatible with human culpability for the spread of germs while asserting, offhandedly, that culpability for the spread of germs is somehow impossible. Author’s assertion notwithstanding, germs may cause disease, but moral agents can be co-causes of disease by culpably spreading the germs that cause the disease.
Consider Author’s own example, ‘the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s.’ AIDS is, to be sure, caused by HIV, but HIV can culpably be spread by failure to practice safe sex, by refusal to disclose one’s HIV+ status to an unwitting sex partner, or even by deceiving one’s sex partner about one’s HIV+ status in order maliciously to spread the disease. Something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to Author’s off-hand and ill-informed claims about COVID. Author’s failure to make elementary distinctions, or consider obvious facts, seems to render his/her thesis implausible from the outset, and render the book proposal pointless and without discernible interest.
Probably the easiest reviewer fee I’ve made in awhile. And this at a time when I could use the money–to buy books worth reading, for instance.
From the excerpts you quote (of course I haven’t read the whole prospectus), it’s not clear that the author and you are contradicting each other. In those excerpts, the author doesn’t seem to be saying that one cannot be at blame for being sick, but rather seems to be talking about a presumption that the sick person is to blame regardless of circumstances. The moralism about AIDS that the author mentions was more about *gay* sex than about unprotected sex; and the COVID example seems to involve simply assuming that anyone who contracts it must have failed to take care — nothing is said in the example of any evidence that the person *did* so fail.
I think that’s a very over-charitable reading of the prospectus that ignores what an Author does when he’s trying to gaslight his audience.
Yes, the Author pays lip service to the blatantly obvious fact that diseases can be spread by human action.
He then writes in such a way as to pretend out loud that this obvious fact plays no role whatsoever in his proposed book. An accurate summary of his procedure would be: “Yes, I am acknowledging the obvious, just to demonstrate that I am not completely out to lunch. I shall now proceed to write a book (proposal) on the subject that ignores the obvious, i.e., a book based on being completely out to lunch.”
This gloss of yours…
…is nowhere to be found in the prospectus. He doesn’t say a word about a “presumption” of any kind. In any case, if that’s what the book was supposed to be about, you’d expect a careful author explicitly saying so: “While I grant that human action can be a co-cause of the spread of infection, I focus here instead on the presumption that sick people are responsible for their own illnesses…”.
He doesn’t say that anywhere. And as far as I can see–as far as is apparent from what he wrote–he doesn’t even hint at it. He lets his thesis ride on an obvious confusion, leaving overly charitable readers to come up with interpretations that save a preposterous thesis from falling off a cliff. I don’t think they should. Unassisted by over-charitable readers, the thesis falls of the cliff. The bottom of the cliff is where it belongs.
Again, that’s an (over)-charitable interpretation designed to save the thesis, not a reading based on distinctions Author actually makes. Nothing prevents gay sex from being unsafe sex. Many gay men engaged in unsafe sex in the 1980s, during the outbreak Author mentions, and that unsafe sex played a significant role in the spread of AIDS (while also playing a role in terrorizing the part of the gay population that was trying to avoid getting AIDS).
So what about those obvious historical facts? Does Author acknowledge that they happened? If so, how does their occurrence bear on his proposed history? Inquiring minds and publishers would want to know. Or is Author trying to write a revisionist history in which these well-established facts are written out of existence? How does he propose to do that? Put differently, how could any competent historian write a book about any STD, from HIV to HSV, while resolutely pretending that unsafe sex has no bearing on their spread? Or minimizing that fact? Or treating it as a morally neutral phenomenon that takes a back seat to the truly important fact, “disease moralism,” defined and conceived in some idiosyncratic way that’s designed to avoid dealing with such facts?
At a bare, bare minimum, there’s a lacuna in Author’s presentation that amounts to a glaring defect. It’s fair to ask: What about all those facts you’re ignoring–those blatantly obvious facts that would play a blatantly obvious role in any competent history of AIDS or of disease? An Author who dealt with that by saying, “Oh, well–I was focusing on the other cases without telling you” is simply gaslighting or bullshitting his readers.
Put another way, “disease moralism” is a thesis formulated either to attack the straw man that moral failings rather than germs cause disease, or to cast doubt on ascriptions of epidemiological culpability by insinuating that it contradicts the germ theory of disease. I don’t think there’s any way of reading what he actually wrote except in one of those two ways, regardless of how Author loads his examples to give a contrary impression. But a book written on those assumptions would be silly, misleading, and dishonest–which is how I would characterize the proposal itself. And if it turned out that Author is himself incredibly moralistic on the topic, just in a way that happens not to be covered by his definition of “disease moralism,” we could add hypocrisy or disingenuousness to the list of offenses. For instance, if he wrote a hectoring, misleading paper like this:
…and then decided that “disease moralism” was a problem that only afflicted the other side in the COVID controversy, we could legitimately ask questions about his moral standing to write a book of the kind he proposes (or even to write a proposal intended to inspire another writer to write the book). Not that I would ever break blind during the reviewing process.
So Rejection it is–not Revise & Resubmit. If Author is still intent on writing the book, Author would be advised to market the manuscript with a different publisher. I hear AIER does in-house publishing? I don’t review manuscripts for them, alas. And don’t plan to.
For a bit of perspective, imagine a book proposal, A History of Adjuncting, which argues that once upon a time, we used to blame people like adjuncts for the bad decisions that led to their immiseration, but now we know that labor economics shows us otherwise. The history then proceeds as though bad decisions by adjuncts, whether culpable or otherwise, could simply be wished out of the historical picture. Every example mentioned just happens to be an adjunct pushed to penury by force of circumstances, with individual decisions playing no causal role whatsoever. Asked about those decisions, the author acknowledges, pro forma, that adjuncts make them, then proceeds with his analysis as though they didn’t. What verdict would Author render on such a book proposal?
You may also be interested to know that, just a few months before proposing this book, Author published an article in which he argued that, in the context of COVID, “there is a moral obligation not to participate in collectively harmful activities” such as “gathering in large crowds” (https://press.princeton.edu/ideas/covid-19-crisis-what-we-owe-each-other). You wonder, then, which Author is serious. Is it the one who believes that there’s a moral obligation to behave in such a way as to minimize the spread of disease? Or is it the one who thinks that any such moral obligations amount to “magic” claims about epidemiology?
Or, perhaps, is Author just a fundamentally unserious person with no discernible intellectual standards? I suppose that’s always an option.
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Er, sorry – I got caught up in the bit .It’s not that he says it’s magical, just that he’s pro-“moralism” in one case and anti-“moralism” in the other. You get the idea…
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Yeah, he doesn’t use the word “magical,” but you’re not wrong to attribute the view to him. The implication really does seem to be that moralized explanations of the spread of disease involve a sort of magic epidemiological causality which contrasts with the germ theory of disease. Taken at face value, that’s just stupid. To rescue it from stupidity, you have read what he wrote with a charitability equivalent to a large-scale grant from the Gates Foundation. I’m a little too Scrooge-like for that.
Apologies to take so long to respond; have been busy lately, and neglecting my blog. I had somehow missed the piece by “Author” you’ve cited, and am surprised by it–or surprised by the contrast between what he says there and what he’s been saying since. I have to sit down awhile and think it through, because I can’t make heads or tails of his overall position at this point. Even if his view is internally incoherent, I don’t understand how he’s managed to become that incoherent.
I hesitate to embrace your explanation, or at least adopt it wholeheartedly–that he’s a fundamentally unserious person without discernible intellectual standards. Actually, some of his work strikes me as quite good. What puzzles me is the sheer contrast between what’s good and what’s bad. What’s good is quite good, but what’s bad is complete shit. I find that puzzling. Why would a person of his obvious talents feel compelled to produce a regular stream of shit alongside the genuinely good stuff? Not sure.