SOCIETY’S ILLNESS

“American Epidemic,” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, is very timely and relevant in describing how resurgent infectious disease outbreaks in U.S. cities are tied to increasing economic inequality.

I am a paraplegic who is retired because of health problems, and most of my medical bills are paid through Medicare. I also receive other government support, such as Social Security, food stamps and a housing subsidy. There is an agenda against such funding for the poor and the disabled, as has been evident in the Trump administration’s attempts to cut Medicaid.

Although I cannot even stand and must use a wheelchair, I have been harassed by people who seem to believe that I don’t deserve the support I get from the government. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was supposed to remedy the exclusion of disabled people from public services and employment, but because of opposition from the very people who insist that people like myself should be employed, it has not delivered on most of its promises.

I have tried to explain to many such people that we are a society and must work together for the common good. If some people suffer in our society, then we may all suffer because we have an effect on others. Moyer’s article really helps to back up what I argue. The same individuals who don’t seem to care if the poor and homeless get sick will ultimately reap the results of their own callous attitudes when diseases caused by poverty spread to the wealthy. Maybe if we can get people to realize that they have a stake in good welfare, then they will begin to care about themselves, if not others.

JOSEPH JAGELLA via e-mail

“American Epidemic” should be required reading for every politician in this country. Moyer does an excellent job of pulling together disparate strands of information and weaving them into powerful conclusions that suddenly seem so simple and obvious. I hope she expands this article into a book. It could be a very important one.

ERIC SMITH Woodbury, Minn.

SMOKING PROBLEM

In arguing that federal marijuana laws are too harsh in “End the War on Weed” [Science Agenda], the Editors assert that the drug is “relatively safe for adult recreational use.” While that may indeed be so, I have to ask: Do any of them live in an apartment?

I voted against “legalization” here in California because nobody seems to have considered the exposure of nonconsenting adults and children with developing brains to secondhand marijuana smoke. Advocating a policy of legalization for recreational purposes seems premature until you consider the rights of those who do not wish to be compelled to partake in the drug use of others and the welfare of children who live in proximity. But I have no objections to the legalization of ingested marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes for adults.

DONALD D. DEROSIER via e-mail

POWERING EDUCATION

“The Suns in Our Daughters” [Forum], Lisa Einstein’s commentary on her experiences teaching young girls in Guinea through the Let Girls Learn program, brought tears to my eyes. It truly illustrates untapped human potential restrained or blocked by custom and social oppression that exists almost everywhere.

ROBERT SVEC Portland, Ore.

CHEATING DILEMMA

In “You Kant Be Serious” [Skeptic], Michael Shermer discusses different approaches to morality and mentions the well-known dilemma in which a runaway trolley will kill five people unless you switch it to a side track, where it will kill one person. A humorous accompanying illustration shows a means of cheating the problem with a helicopter. (There’s an easier way: derail the trolley by throwing the switch before the rear wheels go through.) Shermer’s example of a doctor who can save five patients by harvesting organs from one could be similarly cheated if the doctor can manufacture organs from stem cells.

I suspect that most, if not all, such moral dilemmas could be cheated through the appropriate technology today, so such dilemmas do go away as we advance.

DENNIS ANTHONY via e-mail

SHERMER REPLIES: The point of philosophical thought experiments such as the trolley problem is that you’re not allowed to cheat, thereby forcing you to choose one evil over another and then inquire about your reasoning or feelings behind your decision. But in the real world, many workarounds abound, such as those Anthony proposes (or an even easier solution in the case of the trolley problem: shout, “There’s a train coming!” to the workers). And with the right knowledge and technology, most moral dilemmas can indeed be reconfigured as soluble problems.

In my Skeptic column on abortion in this issue, for example, I argue that instead of intractable moral problems of determining when life begins or when it is permissible to take a life, we should treat unwanted pregnancies as a problem to be solved through birth control and comprehensive sex education. The animal-rights debate over factory farming will disappear when synthetic meat becomes economically viable. Income inequality will vanish as a problem when poverty is completely eradicated and everyone has abundance. Not all moral issues are so readily soluble, but many are, which is why science and technology should be in the moral philosopher’s toolkit.

OBJECTIVE MEMORY

In “Our Stuff, Ourselves,” Francine Russo reports on research showing a connection between low emotional security and greater attachment to inanimate objects, including a 2015 study involving young children and their favorite possession.

Russo does not describe the experimenters as having accounted for the feelings or significance that the adult providers of those youngsters may have had toward objects. As a child of the Depression, I did not have as many possessions to attach my affections to as children do today. My relationship with my mom was clearly established, and she did not seem to attach a great deal of extramaternal meaning to her gifts of time or kitchen tidbits. Things that gave meaning to my life in those days were things more related to a child’s developing skills than to possession: climbing trees, riding a trike, creating imaginary landscapes out of mud or melting ice, singing songs, skipping rope. Possessions still mean little to me. My furniture is old and unfinished and serves only the purposes for which it is used.

I wish Russo’s article had considered adult providers and the present-day culture they represent, which could have exposed deeper issues than an individual child’s mental equilibrium.

JUNE HARNER via e-mail

CLARIFICATION

“Our Planet, Ourselves,” by Mariette DiChristina [From the Editor], referred to mosquitoes and the viruses they carry spreading diseases such as malaria and Rift Valley fever. And “Catching Fever,” by Lois Parshley, noted that the expansion of habitats of mosquitoes and other insects has exposed new populations to viruses, as well as that malaria is globally on the rise. To clarify, Rift Valley fever is caused by a virus, and malaria is caused by a parasite.