Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

With Friends Like These, Free Speech Doesn’t Need Enemies

Conservatives are the only people who believe in free speech nowadays. At any rate, that’s what many conservatives seem to think. Witness the wearying succession of anti-leftist think-pieces about how progressives have turned into authoritarian censors. Or notice the meteoric rise (and fall) of Parler, a social media site touting itself as a free-speech-friendly rival to censorious Silicon Valley tech giants. Or see the many comedians who, while mostly sharing the progressive sensibilities of coastal elites, bemoan the chilling of free speech at universities. Today, if you care about free speech and you’re looking for staunch allies, they’re more likely to be found in conservative circles.

In the UK this notion is becoming a prominent part of the Conservative Party’s self-image. The 2019 Tory manifesto promised to scrap section 40 of the Crime and Courts act, in the name of press freedom. It also called for strengthening free speech in universities. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has since pushed ahead with the latter, with a recent memo pledging to force university leaders to commit to free speech on campus. In this piece Williamson says “higher education gives the chance to hear a variety of beliefs and philosophies”; that this is “one of the best ways to encourage a respect for diversity and cultivate an open and inquiring mind”, and that the principle of free speech means “that everyone should be free to have their say”. Williamson sees free speech as an ideal that’s been betrayed by regressive leftists, and whose only hope for survival lies with its conservative champions. And a similar mindset is found in the editorial tone of conservative media outlets. For example, at Conservative Home, a major conservative blogging site, dozens of articles can be found banging the “thank goodness we’re here to protect free speech” drum.

The problem with this narrative is that precious few UK conservatives evince any commitment to free speech, outside of cases in which it aligns with their political goals. And to support free speech only in such cases is not to support it at all. The true test of a commitment to free speech is in how you apply it to speech that offends against your own values, or which contests your political programme, or which your corporate sponsors disapprove of. And the Tories’ self-appointed free-speech-champions have been failing this test with flying colours. To take just a few examples

  • Charities and NGOs have been threatened with defunding if they fail to pull their punches in criticising Tory ministers or policy
  • The Tories have demonstrated their commitment to freedom of political protest – a cornerstone of a free speech culture – by pressuring the courts to prosecute Extinction Rebellion protestors over minor public order offenses at an unprecedented scale
  • They’ve also displayed their commitment to a free press by boycotting media outlets that dare to hold their feet to the fire over mismanagement of the pandemic crisis
  • Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for the 2021 London Mayoral election, has signalled his support for freedom of artistic expression by lobbying for the suppression of drill music, based on (patently dubious) claims that it exacerbates violent crime among urban young people
  • Perhaps most inspiring of all, for those with liberal convictions, Williamson has made good on his bid to strengthen free speech in universities by threatening universities with sanctions unless they adopt a definition of anti-Semitic speech that deliberately blurs the boundaries between hate speech and legitimate criticism of Israel’s military policy

With friends like these, free speech in the UK hardly needs enemies. Indeed, if it weren’t such a demoralising omen for the UK’s political culture, the level of doublethink and double-standards on display would be farcically amusing. (Surely someone in Whitehall noticed the irony of issuing a de facto gag order to school leaders, banning schools from using “extremist” materials in their teaching (“Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”), while in the same document identifying “opposition to the right of freedom of speech” as an example of the kind of extreme stance that places an organisation beyond the educational pale. This memo effectively forbids sharing ideas put forward by any opponents of free speech, thereby embodying the kind of anti-free speech ethos that would presumptively disqualify the very same memo from being used as resource by schools. As a philosopher I’m grateful for this example of a self-abnegating prescription, which sits in a peculiar spot in the pantheon of paradoxes, somewhere between a performative contradiction and a variant of the Liar Paradox. Paradoxes aside, though, I worry about what kind of miseries await this country if this Kafkaesque hybrid of authoritarianism and libertarianism is allowed to fester.)

Saying you’re in favour of free speech, while at the same time jumping at opportunities to censor and repress the speech that you disapprove of, isn’t a new trick. Two of the most influential books in the American free speech culture wars of the 1990s – by Stanley Fish and Nat Hentoff, coming from very different intellectual and political starting points – were premised on the claim that both sides of (American) politics are similarly guilty of this.

Of course free speech hypocrisy needs to be criticised wherever it appears, however much it feels like Groundhog Day doing so. The more distinctive and more pressing question for our political moment, though, is how progressive minded people should think about free speech in a political culture where conservative culture warriors have forcefully – but disingenuously – positioned themselves as the defenders and custodians of this ideal.

The jaded response would be to see free speech as an ideal that’s beyond redemption. That many progressives – young progressives in particular – are deeply jaded about free speech is impossible to ignore. One recent manifestation of this, which is admittedly flippant, but at the same time telling in its flippancy, is the use of “freeze peach” on social media as an ironic near-homophone intended to mock conservatives constantly crying free speech. The forceful backlash to broad church concerns about cancel culture betrayed a similar sort of jadedness. And for some time now, progressives have been noticing and calling out the weaponisation of free speech. As I have argued elsewhere, this is a rhetorical tactic which in principle implies some kind of allegiance to the bona fide (non-weaponized) ideal of free speech, but which in practice fosters mistrust and disenchantment in that ideal.

The jadedness is understandable. Twitter and YouTube currently doing their best to avoid facilitating Trump’s incitement of antidemocratic terrorist acts in America. Classical liberal views of free speech have always permitted restrictions on free speech in cases where speech functions as an incitement to criminal violence (see J. S. Mill’s famous corn dealer example). And yet an alarming number of people seem to believe that this constitutes an unjustifiable infringement of free speech. It’s hard to fault anyone for being jaded about free speech while watching these sorts of episodes play out.

But it bears remembering that there is another interpretative response available, for progressives seeking to understand and contest the conservative push to assume ideological ownership of free speech. Progressives can, if they choose, set out to reclaim free speech as a properly progressive ideal. The cost of this is that it will require a rethink on – or at any rate, a more nuanced thinking through of – some of the repressive and censorious tendencies that have been normalised on the activist left in recent years. These tendencies are, after all, part of what instigated the ideological recalibration that allowed conservatives to style themselves as free speech’s champions.

The benefit of reclaiming free speech, though, is that it gives a progressive politics something that it genuinely needs in order to work towards its political goals. Progressives want to transform existing power structures, and challenge the status quo in a way that moves us towards a better and more just society. There is no effective way to do this that doesn’t involve things like disruptive protest, hard-bitten critique of the government, and horizon-expanding work in entertainment, the arts, and academia. In short, progressive politics needs a protected capacity to speak truth to power in the face of hostile resistance. Conservatives have seized a moment in styling themselves as free speech’s champions, only to disqualify themselves from the office in their irrepressible urge to silence their opponents. In the wake of this progressives shouldn’t abandon free speech as an ideal. We should take it back.

How Much Does Slaughter Harm Humanely Raised Animals?

In this post, Coleman Solis discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the harmfulness of death in humane farming.

The way that we think about death can have a profound impact on our answers to the moral questions we encounter in ordinary life. Take the case of humane meat farming. Those of us who feel repulsed by contemporary animal-rearing as practiced in grotesque “factory” farms have a few options. We can transition to vegan diets – which are becoming more popular and feasible by the day – or we can choose to source our meat and animal products from humane farms, from animals in decent-to-very-good living conditions. At first glance, humane animal products strike many of us as ethically sound – we picture an idyllic pasture with cows and chickens roaming free, a far cry from your typical factory farm. But, as vegans will point out, meat farming, humane or not, involves the slaughter of sentient creatures. Can humane meat, then, possibly constitute an ethically acceptable alternative?

Our answer to this question will turn on a great many factors – the environmental impact of humane meat, the ethicality of imposing human control on animals, the possibility of animal rights, and so on – most of which I will not discuss here. Rather, I intend to focus in on one particular aspect of this ethical debate. In recent years, some critics of humane animal farming have argued that death itself constitutes a harm to farm animals. Assuming that we are opposed to harming animals (otherwise, why oppose factory farms?), humane farming cannot then be ethical. This position has power, both emotionally and philosophically. In my recent article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, however, I argue that typical humanely raised animals are not, in fact, harmed much by their deaths. This finding may vindicate humane meat farming – or it may give us reason to change the way we think about death.

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The Left, the Right and Political Realism

Realism Vs Idealism Quotes. QuotesGram

Stating that it is difficult nowadays for a state to pursue ambitious redistributive policies through a highly progressive tax system: is it right-wing or simply realistic? Claiming that it will not be possible to fund a universal basic income sufficient to cover the basic needs of all citizens, or to open borders and offer quality social protection to everyone at the same time: are these instances of taking economic constraints seriously or defending the status quo?

Is realism right-wing?

On closer inspection, many political issues that tend to be placed on the left-right spectrum could be interpreted as opposing an idealistic and a realistic perspective. However, these two oppositions are not identical.

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Is it fair to select immigrants based on skill?

On the first of January, 2021, the UK’s new “points-based” immigration system came into force. The creation of a “fairer” immigration system, which doesn’t treat EU citizens differently from anyone else, was one of the promises of the current UK government and at least on that count they have delivered: the new rules apply equally to all new would-be migrants (except for those from Ireland, and asylum seekers).

The new rules could, in certain respects, be considered an improvement: there are no longer differential standards for EEA and non-EEA migrants. The general salary threshold is lowered (from £30,000 to £25,600), and the six-year rule which required migrants to either switch into another immigration category (e.g. apply for residency) or leave after six years is removed. These changes are clearly positive from an equalities perspective (even if we can easily imagine an alternative immigration system which would be even better). In this post, I will ask: how fair are the new rules really?

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Should Uber Become a Worker Cooperative?

In this post, Thomas Ferretti discusses his recent article in the Journal of Social Philosophy on A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective on the Platform Economy.

Uber Eats worker – Pixabay License

The rapid growth of the ‘sharing’ or ‘platform’ economy, with the rise of well-known brands such as Zipcar, Uber, Airbnb, or CouchSurfing, has raised enthusiasm but has also generated concerns about precarious work. In my new article in the Journal of Social Philosophy, I investigate, from a broadly liberal egalitarian perspective, how public administrations should regulate these new kinds of economic organizations in a way that respects principles of justice and that maximizes the prospects of the least advantaged. In particular, I argue that preventing unfair inequalities could require changing the kind of organizations running these platforms.

A driving motivation is to contribute to the renewed and much-needed attention that political philosophy is giving to the different forms and ownership structures of economic organizations and their respective impact on the distribution of resources in society. Recent examples include the work of Elizabeth Anderson, Abraham Singer, or Martin O’Neill.

One contribution of the article is to make organizational transformations central to our understanding of the platform economy. I use theories of organizations to distinguish and to shed light on two processes facilitated by information technologies. First, I investigate the replacement of private goods with club goods: a car-renting organization like Zipcar, for example, proposes to replace your ownership of a ‘car’, an excludable and rival private good, with a ‘membership’ to the Zipcar club giving you access to the use of a car. While clubs have always existed, information technologies improve the capacity of organizations running clubs to manage the shared use of goods by facilitating user coordination in real-time, thus reducing coordination costs and congestion. This means that for a given pool of goods, clubs can now include more members, thus reducing the per capita cost of the pool and the membership cost. I note that this also allows sharing a wider variety of goods in new ways such as kick scooters.

Second, I investigate the creation of new markets through online platforms. Such platforms allow market agents to gather, pool, and analyze market information about suppliers and consumers in much more effective ways which reduce the costs of contracting directly on the market. This allows firms to externalize more transactions previously performed within their organization to market contractors. The distributive effects of such ‘creative destruction’ are more complex but I explain how it can negatively affect the worst off in at least three ways: a. because good jobs are replaced by more precarious ones and the risk of fluctuating demand is shifted from firms to contractors, b. because workers having to change occupation face transition costs, and c. because existing regulations and social protections are disrupted.

A second contribution of the article consists in clearly distinguishing two distributive strategies to mitigate inequalities resulting from these organizational transformations. Following a mitigating strategy, public administrations could simply implement policies such as redistributive taxation and adapted social protections to compensate people on the losing side of these market disruptions. But they could also go further and follow an organizational strategy: in addition to the previous mitigating policies, public administrations could aim at changing the kind of organizations running clubs and platforms.

In the article, I briefly give reasons to believe that clubs have mostly positive distributive effects because they cut the cost of accessing various goods such as books, tools or cars. Therefore, in my view, public administrations may not need to change the kind of organizations running these clubs and may simply need to intervene to help the least well-off access club goods through targeted subsidies to further cut membership costs, to help launch service points in poorer neighborhoods, and to improve digital literacy.

By contrast, I argue that the mitigating strategy may be insufficient to limit unfair inequalities created by online platforms and we may need to change the organizations running them. This strategy includes subsidies supporting more egalitarian cooperative platforms (of contractors and users) to help them outcompete current investor-owned platforms as well as more intrusive policies aiming at breaking the monopolistic tendencies of many platforms by forcing them to share their data and by making contractors’ and users’ reputational data portable to alternative platforms to improve competition.

The article ends by discussing the merits of the organizational strategy as well as an important challenge. Indeed, I underline that a presumption of formal freedom could lead us to believe that the more intrusive policies of the organizational strategy are justified only if they are necessary to realize justice and maximize the prospects of the least well-off; so, if changing the organizations running platforms is not absolutely necessary to maximize the situation of the least-well-off (if mitigating policies are sufficient and/or if promoting coops is inefficient) then, more interventionist policies may not be justified. In the paper, I outline the kind of arguments needed to respond to this challenge but more research is needed to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the necessity of the organizational strategy.

What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?

In this post, Spencer Case discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the problem of moral extremism.

Some reformers have embraced the label “extremist” as a badge of courage. In 1964, Republican  presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater famously said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The grain of truth here is that some reasonable views are labeled “extreme” for being outside of mainstream opinion. Nevertheless, I think that genuine moral extremism really is a bad thing. In my new article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, I give an account of moral extremism as a vice. Roughly, a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should. Pace Goldwater, it’s plausible that intense devotion to justice – as fallible humans understand it – might cause us to miss nuances, or to demonize people who disagree with us.

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From Armchair to Engaged Philosophy

by Leslie Herman.

Philosophy as a method of study is perceived as detached from reality. When we think of a philosopher, we tend to imagine him (unfortunately, we usually imagine a man) with his books, locked in a room, roaming in a field alone with his thoughts. Traditionally, philosophy is considered as a detached exercise: it is a research process between me, my books and my thoughts; at best, it is considered as an exercise of Socratic dialogue with peers and colleagues. Even in more “engaged” philosophical subdisciplines (political, social, moral philosophy, or ethics), philosophers have tended to work in a vacuum; unencumbered by the contingencies and general messiness of everyday reality, they attempt to find absolute truths about justice, inequality, the good, or society, without looking out the window to see what justice, inequality, the good or society are in real life.

While there are, indeed, benefits to armchair philosophising, I want here to briefly explore its limitations, and to encourage the use of an alternative philosophical method, especially when working on topics or issues that are relevant to our society, our political system, and our understanding of justice. Namely, I want to encourage direct engagement with our subjects of research, not only as sources of information, but as structural contributors to the development of our research projects and its priorities.

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Why We (Usually) Shouldn’t Fund Rebellions

In this post, Helen Frowe discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how funding rebel fighters can cause unjust harm.

Consider the following scenario, Rebellion.

Rebellion: A rebel group in Eastland is waging an armed revolt against its unjust, murderous government. If they are successful, they will avert significant harm to their people. A foreign state, Westland, is providing the Eastlandic rebels with financial support, hoping that this will enable the rebels to replace their oppressive government and thereby save lives.

This kind of indirect support for foreign uprisings has been rather fêted in recent years. It enables governments to assist those in need without risking the lives of their own armed forces. But is it the right thing to do?

Philosophical discussions of the ethics of assisting rebellions have, thus far, focused on features of the rebellions. For example, they worry about the moral character and aims of the groups that are being funded, whether foreign support will prolong war, or render a new regime less stable, and how foreign interference bears on issues of self-determination. But in a recent article, I argue that there can be decisive moral objections to funding rebellions that are independent of these features of rebellions. These objections are grounded in the contours of our duties to rescue.

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The case for an independent environmental agency

In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.

Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.

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Selling Weapons to Oppressive Regimes: Does it Make a Difference?

In this post, James Christensen discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how selling weapons to oppressive regimes harms their victims.

Liberal states often promote arms sales to oppressive regimes. Though these sales are controversial, politicians and other public figures often seek to defend them. According to one line of defence, the sales are inconsequential; they make no morally relevant difference to the harms that oppressive regimes can inflict. This is said to be because these regimes would inevitably acquire weapons from somewhere. In defence of an appearance he once made at a Dubai arms fair, it has been alleged that Prince Charles once argued: “if the UK doesn’t sell [arms] someone else will.” A similar argument was made more recently by former British foreign secretary Philip Hammond. We can refer to this line of defence as the inconsequence argument. In a new article, I offer a reply to this argument.

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