Activism and the worst-case scenario

Let’s say that an activist believes that a law (or collection of laws) needs changing.  Because the law exists, bad things happen that would not otherwise occur.  How should an activist raise awareness about the need to reform the law?  One popular strategy is to focus on the worse possible consequences of the law.  Say we’re arguing for universal health insurance.  Our goal is to make the case that things need changing.  Instead of highlighting the person who doesn’t go to the dentist for a few years, we bring up someone who goes bankrupt from medical bills or dies.  Two questions about this strategy come to mind.   First, is the worse possible outcome representative of the existing institution?  That is, is focusing on it reasonable?  Second, given the emotional make-up of the intended audience, is focusing on this worst outcome a good motivator for social change? I don’t have clear answers to these questions; mostly I just want to raise them and then discuss the blog post that inspired me to ask the questions in the first place.

The answer to the first question depends on how best to render moral judgment.  For instance, the political philosopher John Rawls suggests that we should assess economic policies by considering the people who gain the least from them.  The worst case is the case that determines the character of the policy as a whole.  A utilitarian, on the other hand, would look at the average outcome of the policy.  A strict egalitarian would care only that outcomes were equal along the dimension that she considered relevant.  Many other standards of judgment exist, though some of them would probably seem perverse to most people. 

The second question—the emotional question—is the one I found myself asking earlier this month when I read a post on a blog (  that addresses the interests of the transgendered community.  In the post, the author describes a transgendered woman who got into a car accident four years after she began her sex change.  While she was in a coma, the doctors and her parents decided to reverse her decision by giving her male hormones.  They justified their decision by arguing that restoring her to her original hormonal profile would maximize her chances for emerging from the coma.  However, her friends strongly believed that she would not have consented to this course of action had she been able to do so.  As friends, not family members, they had no power over her treatment.

I noticed various things about this post.  First of all, the outcome is, I believe, unjust, and a worst-case scenario from the point of view of transgendered people who want their autonomous decisions respected by the medical establishment.  In my opinion, the fact that it happened at all is an institutional failure.  Second, the story seemed to overwhelm some transgendered readers of the blog.  A lot of the comments expressed feelings of helplessness and exhaustion and suggested that reading about this worst-case scenario was not in any sense empowering or energizing.  In fact, the blog moderator wrote a second post warning that it, and other posts, could be disturbing to readers (  On the other hand, as I scrolled through the comments, later readers began to discuss legal changes/stopgaps that could prevent the situation from happening to other people.  Thanks to these readers of the post, there is now a website at that is gathering legal information useful to the transgendered community.

(Since I started this entry, the post in question became password protected for a whole other set of reasons.  You can read about it here:

I guess I will end with some questions.  In the situation that I just described, some community members seemed paralyzed and others energized by the worst-case scenario that was presented.  Can we say whether worst-case scenarios are motivating or paralyzing for activists in general?  If it depends, what does it depend on?

1 Comment

  1. lauren Said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    Wow. That’s such a nightmare situation. Thanks for the excellent post inspired by it, though. You end with a great set of questions. I wonder if I can find any relevant literature from psychology. I’ll have a look around.