Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

A Social Ethics of Belief: Two Lessons from W. K. Clifford

Photo Credit of Sinking Boat to Pok Rie

The nineteenth century British philosopher, W. K. Clifford, is one of a small handful of individuals who titled an essay so effectively that it became the name of an entire philosophical literature: the ethics of belief.

It has been (correctly) observed that “Clifford’s essay is chiefly remembered for two things: a story and a principle.”

The story is that of the negligent shipowner who, by wishful thinking, convinces himself that an unsafe ship is seaworthy, and who thereby sends his passengers to their death when the ship sinks.

The principle is that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As a result, Clifford is often viewed one-dimensionally as an (unreasonable) evidentialist, most interested in defending a stringent epistemic position. I think this is unfortunate.

It is unfortunate because such a view of Clifford overlooks what are probably the most relevant aspects of his essay for a “misinformation age” like ours.

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How Should We Talk About the Pandemic?

In this post, Mark Bowker (Lund University) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on our responsibility to be careful with scientific generalisations.

In a pandemic it is extremely important for the public to know how they can keep themselves and others safe. This requires effective communication to circulate information about scientific developments. In a recent article, I argue that even the most basic statements can be misleading, so we must think very carefully about the words they use. You may have heard, for example, that children do not transmit coronavirus, but this statement is not as simple as it may seem.

Why Language Matters

‘Children do not transmit coronavirus’ is what we call a generic generalisation, or simply a generic. It is a generalisation that doesn’t include a word like ‘always’ or ‘never’ to make the generalisation precise. ‘Children never transmit coronavirus’ is very precise. It tells you that it is impossible for children to transmit the virus under any circumstances. But the meaning of a generic is not entirely precise. What was does it mean to say simply that children do not transmit the virus? Does it mean that it is impossible for any child to transmit the virus, or does it mean that children don’t generally transmit the virus, though there might be some exceptions? Compare ‘Squares don’t have three sides’, which means that it is impossible for a square to have three sides, and ‘Dogs don’t have two legs’, which means that dogs don’t generally have two legs but allows exceptions like dogs that have been in accidents.

Neither of these interpretations is obviously the best, so different people might interpret the generic in different ways. Some might take it to be very strong, like ‘Squares don’t have three sides’, and others might take it to be weaker, like ‘Dogs don’t have two legs’. This isn’t a problem in itself. For many purposes, it doesn’t matter whether people take the generic to be stronger or weaker. Swiss coronavirus spokesperson Daniel Koch, for example, used the generic when explaining why Switzerland decided to allow grandparents to hug their grandchildren. In this context, perhaps, it doesn’t matter exactly what the generic means. Whether it is impossible for children to transmit coronavirus or it’s only rare, the risk to the population might be acceptable.

Problems arise, however, when generics are taken to answer other questions. Koch’s statement was used to support the global reopening of schools, for example. Afterall, if children don’t transmit the virus, then what is the risk? This reasoning is very natural, but it relies on a strong interpretation of the generic. If it is impossible for children to transmit the virus, then perhaps schools should be reopened. But if it is only rare for children to transmit the virus, then millions of children around the world mingling in schools with friends and teachers might still lead to dangerous spread. As a generic spreads throughout the community, it might be used to answer all kinds of questions, and there is a risk that these answers could be misleading.

What Can We Do?

So what should we do about this problem? One option is for scientists to avoid using generics altogether, but that risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Generics are extremely useful because they are a simple way of expressing complex findings that most of us wouldn’t have any chance of understanding. Rather than eliminating generics entirely, I suggest scientists think more carefully about the generics they use and the questions that people might take them to answer. If Koch wanted to avoid appearing to support the reopening of schools, for example, then he could have said ‘Children with COVID-19 pose a low risk to their grandparents’. This is still generalisation, but it doesn’t have any obvious connection with reopening schools.

Journalists have a role to play as well.  Various outlets reported Koch as having said that ‘Children cannot pass on coronavirus’. This is a very strong interpretation that is far more likely to lead people to strong conclusions. When reporting scientific generalisations, journalists should think about the questions that the scientist intended to answer and exactly how strong the generalisation needs to be to answer them. Like scientists, they should also think carefully about the questions that a generic might be used to answer and to avoid repeating generalisations that might be misleading.

We, the public, can also help. Just like the journalist, we should be careful not to exaggerate scientific generalisations or to repeat generalisations that might be misleading. We are all part of the network through which information spreads, and it is good for everyone if that information spreads efficiently and accurately. If you find yourself using a generic generalisation, you might want to clarify exactly what you mean.

What is cultural decolonization?

In recent years, calls for cultural decolonisation have attracted renewed public attention. While there are many understandings of cultural decolonisation, I want to discuss one particular view (call it the agency approach) that draws on some ideas from the Martinican poet and anticolonial activist-thinker Aimé Césaire, and contrast it with a view (call it the authenticity approach) that many have found problematic.

On one understanding of cultural decolonisation, decolonisation is about recovering what is authentically non-Western, whether that consists of art, cultural practices, philosophical traditions, and/or knowledge. This authenticity approach to cultural decolonisation is often fraught with tension as efforts are spent on showing that something is indeed authentically non-Western—for example, showing that a musical tradition has somehow maintained its integrity as traditionally African, Chinese, etc.

Remembering Sunny Ade's feats as he clocks 74 | Premium Times Nigeria
Image: King Sunny Ade (Premium Times Nigeria)

This is often hard to prove given the pervasive influence of the colonial encounter on postcolonial societies (and, as Edward Said has argued, on former metropoles whose national identities were built against images of the Orient).[1] Moreover, as Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has recently argued, this approach to cultural decolonization may do more harm than good, as it encourages a comprehensive repudiation of ideas and practices that are seen as “tainted” by their European origins while ignoring the fact that anticolonial and postcolonial actors have often appropriated these for subversive or constructive purposes.[2] Decolonization of this kind, Táíwò argues, “denies or at least discounts the agency of the colonised. That is, it must and does foreclose the possibility that the colonised could find anything of worth in the life and thought of the coloniser which they could repurpose for their own societies, both during and after colonialism.”[3] Considering Jùjú, a genre of Yoruba music, for example, Taiwo asks rhetorically, “Does the genesis of Jùjú music under colonialism make it ‘colonial music’, or music that was framed, or even created, by the coloniser?”[4]

Finally, another danger of the authenticity approach is that it lends itself to authoritarian appropriation, as postcolonial authoritarian regimes can set out to define what counts as the authentic national culture while censoring others. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, has recently criticized Christmas as an example of “Western spiritual opium” that endangers “traditional Chinese culture”. [5]

Image: People celebrating Christmas in China (NPR)

Aimé Césaire’s diagnosis of cultural imperialism provides us with a different approach to cultural decolonisation. Although he was deeply concerned about the destruction of indigenous practices and ways of life under colonialism, he also argued that resisting colonialism would not be a simple matter of trying to recover an authentically non-European culture.[6] Instead, speaking to a congregation of anticolonial writers and artists that he helped organise in 1959, Césaire points out that colonialism had created a “hierarchy of creator and consumer”, whereby non-Western practices and knowledge such as African science were regarded as primitive and mere folklore.[7] On this critique, the problem with cultural imperialism is that it erases the agency of colonial subjects in producing valuable practices and contributing to the betterment of humanity. Instead, colonised peoples are seen as passive recipients of European genius.

Tribute to Aimé Césaire | Institut français du Royaume-UniImage: Aimé Césaire (Institut Francais)

On this understanding of cultural decolonisation, then, what matters is the re-centering of non-European agency in cultural and knowledge production—a reversal of the hierarchy of creator and consumer so that, as Césaire argues, “the historic initiative” is restored to colonial subjects.[8] Instead of being concerned with whether certain ideas or practices are authentically non-Western and policing the boundaries of indigenous culture, the agency approach focuses on recovering the role of non-European actors in creating both “Western” and “non-Western” cultures, as well as empowering postcolonial citizens to exercise their creative agency.

To this end, this understanding of cultural decolonization emphasizes efforts to rewrite narratives of how modern cultures and practices were shaped by the work of non-Western knowledge and cultural producers as much as Western ones. For example, we might think of projects that uncover the extent to which modern science is built on appropriation of traditional African or Chinese medicine, or the influence of African and Caribbean music—such as calypso—on European music. By showing how former colonial subjects have always been part of the story of cultural production and scientific discovery, these efforts address a central wrong of cultural imperialism under European colonialization: the erasure of subaltern agency. Along the same principle, the agency approach also supports efforts to empower postcolonial citizens to continue to exercise their creative capacities, through initiatives such as technology transfers, research and arts funds that target marginalized groups, exhibitions that center historically marginalized artists’ work, and so on. Finally, the agency approach cuts against authoritarian appropriation of decolonization. If cultural decolonization is centrally about enabling historically oppressed groups to exercise their creative agency, then this exposes authoritarian censorship of that very agency for what it is—as a betrayal of the emancipatory goals of decolonization.

To be sure, much more needs to be said on the topic, and there are other views of decolonization that I haven’t covered here. But I hope this short essay helps broaden our understanding of competing views of cultural decolonization and shows how, on some interpretations of what it amounts to, cultural decolonization need not entail, as Taiwo worries it does, the reproduction of a Manichaean worldview that ultimately acts as a “limit on [our] horizons”.[9]

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (Pantheon Books: 1978).

[2] Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously (London: Hurst Publishing, 2022).

[3] Táíwò, ibid, 7.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] “ ‘Festival of shame’: Why China has cracked down on Christmas,” Independent, Dec. 2021 <https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/china/china-nationalism-christmas-xi-jinping-b1978101.html >

[6] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 45.

[7] Aimé Césaire, “Man of Culture and His Responsibilities”, Presence Africaine (1959): 125-132.

[8] Césaire, ibid, 127.

[9] Táíwò, Against Decolonization, 19.

Is it possible to trust Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

In this post, Pepijn Al (University of Western Ontario) discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on trust and responsibility in human relationships with AI and its developers.

Chances are high that you are using AI systems on a daily basis. Maybe you have watched a series that Netflix recommended to you. Or used Google Maps to navigate. Even the Editor I used for this blogpost is AI-powered. If you are like me, you might do this without knowing exactly how these systems work. So, could it be that we have started to trust the AI systems we use? As I argue in a recent article, I think this would be the wrong conclusion to, because trust has a specific function which is absent in human-AI interactions.

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Factory farm abolition the moderate way

This guest post is written by Ben Sachs-Cobbe. Ben has recently published a book entitled Contractarianism, Role Obligations, and Political Morality exploring the connection between foundational questions in political philosophy and important issues in public policy, including the political and legal status of sentient animals.

Factory farms inflict suffering on the animals they produce. At a young age animals are torn away from their mothers and mutilated to prevent them hurting themselves and others; they’re then kept in squalid conditions with their movement and access to the outdoors restricted while they grow at a dangerously fast rate; before they’re finally killed by a machine after a mercifully brief life. Estimates of the number of farmed animals produced for food worldwide each year range from 50-70 billion (not including fish), with anything from two-thirds to 90% of those being factory farmed. This is misery on an almost incomprehensible scale.

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Does hate speech express hate?

In this post, Teresa Marques discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on whether hate is an essential component of hate speech.

Does hate speech express hate? Why would we call it hate speech if not? In my recent paper, I argue that hate speech is speech that is constitutively prejudicial because it is expressive of hatred (and not just because it may have harmful consequences).

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A puzzle of liberal childrearing: may neutral states allow parents to dominate children’s value-formation?

This is another post about childrearing and, like my previous ones, it is complaining about the status quo. This time I’m thinking about what we actively do to expose children to various ways of living and views about what makes for a good life (too little) and about how much we let parents screen such sources of influence out of children’s lives (too much.)

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What, if any, harm can a self-driving car do?

In this post, Fiona Woollard discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the kinds of constraints against harm relevant to self-driving cars.

We are preparing for a future when most cars do not need a human driver. You will be able to get into your ‘self-driving car’, tell it where you want to go, and relax as it takes you there without further human input. This will be great! But there are difficult questions about how self-driving cars should behave. One answer is that self-driving cars should do whatever minimises harm. But perhaps harm is not the only thing that matters morally: perhaps it matters whether an agent does harm or merely allows harm, whether harm is strictly intended or a mere side effect, or who is responsible for the situation where someone must be harmed.

I argue in a recent article that these distinctions do matter morally but that care is needed when applying them to self-driving cars. Self-driving cars are very different from human agents. These differences may affect how the distinctions apply.

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Welcome back: Launching our 2022/23 season!

Justice Everywhere returns this week for a new season. We continue in our aim to provide a public forum for the exchange of ideas about philosophy and public affairs.

We have lots of exciting content coming your way! This includes:

  • Weekly posts from our a wonderful team of house authors, offering analysis of a vast array of issues in moral and political philosophy, as well social policy and political economy every Monday.
  • Lots more from our special series on Teaching Philosophy and Beyond the Ivory Tower where we discuss pedagogy and working at/across the boundary between theory and practice.
  • The continuation of our collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy, introducing readers to cutting-edge research being published on justice-related topics in applied and engaged philosophy.

So please follow us, read and share posts on social media (we’re on both Facebook and Twitter), and feel free to comment on posts using the comment box at the bottom of each post. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

From the Vault: Philosophy in Teaching and Public Life

While Justice Everywhere takes a short break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2021-22 season. 


Justice Everywhere has several special series that explore philosophical issues relating to an important theme. Here are links to those that ran in 2021-22 with a flavour of the topics their posts address:

In our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, organised by Aveek Bhattacharya, which speaks to researchers about their engagement with “real world” politics:

In our Teaching Philosophy series, organised by Sara Van Goozen, which interviews scholars on ethics issues involved designing and delivering university courses in philosophy:

In our series on fatigue, organised by Zsuzsanna Chappell, which explores the political and social consequences of fatigue that have come to the fore in recent years:

Stay tuned for even more in these series in our 2022-23 season!


Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 1st September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors (published on Mondays), in addition to our Journal of Applied Philosophy series (published on Thursdays). If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

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