Long ago, when I was a student, people often took out loans to pay for college. While these loans could be substantial, most found them manageable. Over the years, the cost of college has increased dramatically, and student loans have become increasingly burdensome. There is also the issue of predatorial for-profit schools—which is an issue in itself. Because of this debt burden, there have been proposals to address the student loan problem. Some have even proposed forgiving or cancelling student loans. This proposal has generated some hostile responses, although Roxane Gay has advanced some well-reasoned arguments in its defense. I paid my loans long ago, so my concern with this matter is a matter of ethics rather than pure self-interest. In this essay and those to follow I will consider the ethics of student loan forgiveness and provide some logical assessment of various relevant arguments.
As Gay noted in the New York Times, Damon Linker tweeted that “I think Dems are wildly underestimating the intensity of anger college loan cancellation is going to provoke. Those with college debt will be thrilled, of course. But lots and lots of people who didn’t go to college or who worked to pay off their debts? Gonna be bad.” I think Linker is right. Even if there is not genuine grassroots anger at student loan forgiveness, many Republicans and the right-wing media will endeavor to generate rage against this notion. But is there any merit to the anger argument?
Put a bit simply, the anger argument against student loan forgiveness would be that because federal student loan forgiveness would make many people angry, then it would be incorrect to do it. This is obviously the appeal to anger fallacy; a fallacy in which anger is substituted for evidence/reasons when making an argument. Formally, the fallacy looks like this:
Premise 1: X would make people angry.
Conclusion: X is wrong or incorrect.
This is bad logic because the fact that something makes people angry has no connection to whether it is true or correct. People can, obviously enough, be angry about claims that are true and enraged about things that are good. They can, of course, also be angry about claims that are false and enraged about things that are evil. But the anger people feel does not prove (or disprove) falseness or wrongness. A silly example illustrates this:
Premise 1: The triangle haters get angry when it is claimed that triangles have three sides.
Conclusion: Triangles do not have three sides.
Less silly examples are as follows:
Premise 1: Some people got angry about the American colonies rebelling.
Conclusion: The colonies were wrong to rebel.
Premise 1: Some people are angry about evolution.
Conclusion: Evolution does not occur.
Premise 1: Atheists would be angry if God exists.
Conclusion: God does not exist.
As these examples show, drawing a conclusion about the truth of a claim or the morality of something from people being angry is bad reasoning. As such, the anger people might feel about student loan forgiveness is irrelevant to whether it is the right thing to do. But perhaps there is a way to make a non-fallacious argument from anger. One way to do this is to switch from concerns about truth and morality to pragmatism. That is, perhaps it could be argued that the anger of some people would provide a practical reason to not have student loan forgiveness.
While this greatly oversimplifies things, pragmatic arguments are aimed at establishing what would be the most prudent or advantageous thing. This is essentially an argument from consequences. The idea is that the correct choice is the one that generates the best consequences for those who matter. While people tend to think the correct choice is the one they think is best for them, working out an appeal to consequences requires arguing to establish who matters and how to assess the value of the consequences. Laying aside all these concerns, pragmatic arguments from anger can easily be made.
To illustrate, imagine that a politician sees that the polls for their district show that most voters are angry about student loan forgiveness and this anger is strong enough to influence their vote. From a pragmatic standpoint, the anger of their voters does give them a practical reason to oppose forgiveness: if they want to increase their chances of being re-elected, then they should oppose it. While this could be for selfish reasons (the politician might want to stay in office to keep cashing in on that sweet insider trading) it could also be for benevolent reasons (the politician might want to stay in office to try to improve the lives of their constituents). From a purely pragmatic standpoint responding to the anger could be the prudent or advantageous thing to do. While these pragmatic reasons can be strong motivating factors, they obviously still do not prove (or disprove) anything about the rightness or wrongness of student loan forgiveness. But there is still an option for using anger in a non-fallacious moral argument.
Utilitarianism, a view argued for by the likes of Bentham and Mill, is the moral view that the morality of an action depends on the consequences for those who are morally relevant. Put in simple terms, an action that creates more good for those who count would be better than an action that creates less good (or causes harm). Since utilitarian arguments deal with consequences, it is often possible to re-tool a pragmatic consequentialist argument into a moral argument. Here is how it could be done.
Suppose that there is good reason to believe that Linker is right and the anger at loan cancellation “gonna be bad.” If the harms generated by this anger outweighs the benefit of the loan cancellation when considering all Americans, then the loan cancellation would be wrong. Thus, it would seem that the right sort of appeal to anger can work. But there is an obvious concern about the role of the anger in generating the harms.
If cancelling the loans itself resulted in greater harms than not doing so (such as pulling money from critical social programs), then it would seem right to not cancel them. But the anger argument rests on how people respond to the cancellation, not the harm done by the cancelling itself. That is, the harms in question would arise because of what people do because they are angry in response to the cancellation. This leads to an old ethical debate about how to factor in responses when doing the utilitarian calculation. On the one hand, it does seem reasonable to consider how people will respond when sorting out consequences. On the other hand, there is the obvious problem that people could force a change in the moral calculation by responding in ways that would create harms. That is, they could “rig” the moral argument by threatening to respond with terrible actions.
To use a fictional example, imagine a debate over raising minimum wage in which businesses said they would hire criminals and mercenaries to kill all their minimum wage employees, their pets, and their loved ones if the wage was increased. In terms of simple consequences, this would make increasing the minimum wage extremely harmful—so it would be wrong to increase it. As an alternative fictional example, imagine the much feared radical leftists threating to kill business owners, their pets, and their loved ones if the wage is not increased. This would make not increasing it wrong. But there is clearly a problem with assessing the morality of an action based on what the worst people might do in response to that action—this would make morality forever hostage to the worst people. The easy and obvious fix is to consider the action apart from such efforts to prevent the action by intentionally increasing the harms while also, obviously enough, assessing the ethics of these efforts. So, when considering student loan cancellation there is the moral issue of the consequences of the cancellation itself and there is the distinct moral issue of whether the responses to it would be morally appropriate or not. That is, we need to see if the anger against loan cancellation is morally warranted. If it is not, then the anger might have negative consequences but yielding to that anger would be wrong. In the next essay I will consider the fairness argument, free of anger.