The title might seem melodramatic even though we are all on the edge right now. Humanity has survived many epidemics, two world wars, natural and technical disasters such as tsunamis or reactors exploding. The costs have been high though, and ethics has often shied away from providing answers for these tough times. In this post, I will argue that philosophers must be prepared to undertake a form of non-ideal emergency ethics to be able to help with the pressing moral questions, for instance in the medical sector.
In this post, guest contributor Gottfried Schweiger reflects on recognition of “everyday heroes” in the current COVID-19 crisis and what it says about our recognition regime.
Times of crisis are times when heroes are made and tales of heroism are written. The COVID-19 pandemic knows some heroes: all the medical staff in the front line, but also the many other people who keep society going and fight the pandemic. There are also more and more voices publicly acknowledging these “everyday heroes” (for example, Owen Jones in this recent opinion piece for The Guardian).
While some professions, such as doctors, are used to being at the top of the recognition hierarchy, people who are normally excluded from such public recognition are now also benefiting from it. These include the poorly paid employees in supermarkets and warehouses, but also the many who provide care and assistance in hospitals, nursing homes or private arrangements for the needy and chronically ill.
Two questions arise: how do recognition regimes shift in times of crisis and what about all those who are not everyday heroes, what does the crisis do to them?
This a guest post by Chris Armstrong (Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton). He researches matters of global justice. Here he discusses his recent work on dealing with dictators.
Dictators have been responsible for many grievous crimes. They have left behind them a trail of genocides and ill-considered wars. Even when they are not killing innocent people, dictators commit a major wrong by denying a voice to their subjects. They also frequently squander their countries’ wealth on Western luxuries even in the face of grinding poverty at home. There is little doubt, therefore, that a world with fewer dictators would be a far better one in many respects.
This leads naturally to the thought that those of us who are fortunate not to live under tyrants ought to do whatever we can to avoid supporting dictators – and indeed to avoid incentivising the emergence of more of them. But what can we do? One thought is that we should avoid buying goods such as oil from them, because in so doing we provide a stream of income for continued repression, and remove from dictators the need to rely on their own citizens for revenue (a reliance which, many political economists believe, can lead to improvements in governance over time). Another suggestion is that we should deepen our engagement with dictators, trading with them to an even greater extent. While this will strike many readers as deeply controversial, in a recent paper I argue that this is the more persuasive view: we should probably buy more, not less, from dictators.
Schools are closed. Flights cancelled. Highways and trains deserted. People are asked to minimise social contact. At first, the coronavirus appeared to be not much different from a normal flu. But then it spread in almost no time across 100 states around the world. Initially, the measures taken by the Italian government seemed extreme, perhaps exaggerated – now several countries are following the Italian example, including Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. The most urgent ethical issue raised by the coronavirus will be the allocation of limited resources, including hospital space. There are also concerns of global justice, given the huge differences between states with regard to their ability to deal with the virus. Despite the fatal effects of this pandemic, we also hear voices that view it as a chance and express the hope that it might bring about some positive changes in society. How will covid-19 affect us – as individuals and as a society? Will it make us more egoistic (“My family first!”) or will it bring us closer together, making us realise how much we depend on each other? Can we expect anything positive from this crisis, and what could that be?
Looking at Lewis Hine’s photographic chronicles of working children in the United States (see video above) gives me a particularly conflicting feeling. While his pictures provide a surprisingly sensitive, personal, and even sweet approximation to the life and plights of the children he snapped, I cannot help but feel discomforted by the reality he is portraying. Personally, I think that my discomfort when looking at these pictures lies in the tension between, on the one hand, the moral reflexes that inevitably pop-up, telling me how wrong the condition of these children is; and, on the other hand, the sensation that many of these children seem absolutely comfortable and at ease (maybe even happy?) with their working life.
This a guest post by Marius Ostrowski (Examination Fellow in Politics at All Souls College, University of Oxford). He is the author of the recently published book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance.
‘Being on the left’ can mean a variety of different things. Most commonly, it refers in a partisan sense to support for ‘progressive’ policies designed to bring about political, economic, or social equality. More generally, it is seen as synonymous with radicalism of opinion, and a greater willingness to reform rather than preserve the status quo. In a religious context especially, ‘the left’ is used to describe anti-dogmatic or anti-orthodox tendencies in favour of departing from inherited customs or scriptural interpretations. Sometimes it is identified with activism or protest in defence of specific groups in society: the working class, women, people of colour, national/religious minorities, LGBTQ*, or the disabled. Not all of these meanings of ‘leftness’ are compatible with one another. But despite the differences between them, one thing emerges very clearly: ideas such as ‘leftness’ and ‘being on the left’ play a central role in many areas of social life.
Where the concept of ‘leftness’ is not typically so much at home is in social philosophy. This is not to suggest that social philosophers themselves are hostile to the left or uninterested in left causes. Many are card-carrying activists and partisans of the left movement. Rather, the concept itself—like its relatives ‘centre’ and ‘right’—is somewhat alien to social-philosophical analysis. In general, it is rare to hear social philosophy make any explicit mention of ‘ideologies’. We are far more likely to encounter ‘theories’, ‘accounts’, or ‘comprehensive doctrines’, even when applied to what are clearly ideological constructions, such as ‘political liberalism’. Key social-philosophical concepts such as democracy, authority, or rights are dealt with as if in a vacuum, removed from any ideological connotations or parsing they might have. It is as though social philosophy is embarrassed by ideology—with ‘leftness’ only one of several victims of this embarrassment.
Should political parties organize their internal affairs in a (more) democratic way? By this, I do not mean merely allowing party members to select candidates for a presidential election or to elect the president of the party. The question is also whether party members should be involved in the writing of political programs and in deciding which policies to pursue.
The answer might seem obvious at first sight: given that parties play an important democratic function (aggregating multiple demands and uniting citizens behind competing political projects), it would seem odd if they were themselves organized undemocratically. And yet we know that parties tend to be very hierarchical – it has even been described as an “iron law”. To what extent is this regrettable?
Indigenous philosophies of the Americas provide epistemic resources that are needed to attend to the widespread marginalization of Latin American Indigenous identity in the United States. In a recent article, I argue that politicians, policy makers, activists, and other members of settler society should carefully engage this work as part of an informed effort to combat the attendant injustices.
This is the third interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (previous interviewees: Onora O’Neill and Marc Stears). Back in December, Diana Popescu spoke to Jonathan Wolff about his experience working on public policy committees and what philosophers have to learn from engaging with real-life problems and social movements.
Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Before coming to Oxford, he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL. He is currently developing a new research programme on revitalising democracy and civil society. His work largely concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling, and the regulation of recreational drugs. He has been a member of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, the Academy of Medical Science working party on Drug Futures, the Gambling Review Body, the Homicide Review Group, an external member of the Board of Science of the British Medical Association, and a Trustee of GambleAware. He writes a regular column on higher education for The Guardian.
Today, thousands of academic and professional support staff from 74 universities will begin a rolling 14-day strike action over a four-week period. This will be the largest industrial action ever taken by higher education workers in British history, surpassing the scale of previous disputes in November – December 2019 and in 2018. A considerable amount of ink has been spilled on the technicalities of the strike (Mike Otsuka, in particular, has written extensively on the pension dispute). My focus in this post is different: I want to establish some of the moral aspects of the strike through the principles governing the resort to war – jus ad bellum.
Let me first address a concern to this approach, namely the applicability of the just war framework with regards to something like strike action. The two issues, war and strike, do not share any commonalities. How could moral principles used to govern war be deployed to understand strike action? I think that the content of individual ad bellum principles can be useful in revealing morally relevant facts in a number of contexts other than war. For example, the principle of proportionality, which demands the benefits of an action must outweigh its potential harm is relevant in almost all situations. The principle of last resort, which demands other less harmful options to be tried first, is also relevant to the undertaking of strike action, given the enormous financial and educational costs. Taken together, the framework of jus ad bellum gives us a substantive moral picture of the action.
My aim here, to reiterate, is simply to show a substantive moral picture of the strike through the lens of jus ad bellum. I make no claims regarding the overall moral permissibility of the strike. All just war criteria are individually necessary and jointly sufficient in order for a war to be justly fought. I don’t know how many criteria would need to be met to justify a strike like this one (or should more criteria be introduced). This is an interesting query, though not one I’ll pursue here.