Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Values in Science & Science in Normative Theorising

Last year, Kevin C. Elliott published three new books on ‘values in science’:

                        

Given that empirical research is often used by moral, social, and political philosophers in scholarship on questions of justice, we thought it would be interesting to chat to Kevin about his recent work and its implications for moral, social, and political philosophy.

Erin Nash: Hi Kevin, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by Justice Everywhere. To start us off, perhaps you could tell us about how philosophers of science understand the term ‘values’, and how values influence science.

Kevin Elliott: Thanks, Erin. Briefly, I think values are qualities that are desirable or worthy of pursuit, but it’s important to keep in mind that many different things fall under this description. For example, when theories have qualities like explanatory power, wide scope, or predictive success, we typically consider these things to be values because they tend to indicate that a theory is true or reliable. Some label these ‘epistemic values’. Other qualities of theories, such as their tendency to promote environmental protection, public health, economic growth, or gender equality, are also typically regarded as values (often called ‘non-epistemic values’) insofar as they help us to achieve ethical or social goals. The question that permeates all my recent books is what role, if any, ethical and social values like the promotion of environmental protection or gender equality should play in scientific research.

For example, values can subtly influence the questions that get asked in socially relevant fields like agricultural research. There are many ways of trying to improve agricultural production so as to benefit poor farmers, produce more food, and lessen our impacts on the environment; they involve efforts to develop higher-yielding seeds, more ecologically sensitive farming strategies, or more efficient markets for agricultural goods. Even if researchers are not consciously being influenced by values, decisions to focus on some of these questions or approaches rather than others are value-laden insofar as they serve the interests of some individuals and institutions rather than others.

Values can also affect the assumptions and choices that scientists make when they are analysing or interpreting their results. For example, chapter four of Tapestry discusses how economic predictions about the costs of climate change are influenced by value-laden decisions about how much to “discount” costs that occur in the future relative to costs that are borne at present. Values can also influence how much evidence scientists or policy makers demand before they are willing to draw conclusions – this is the basis for what is often called the ‘argument from inductive risk’. In the seventh chapter of Exploring Inductive Risk, Robin Andreasen and Heather Doty discuss studies designed to identify inequalities in the retention or promotion of women university faculty, and especially women faculty of colour. They note that even when the available data suggest that disparities could potentially be present, one still needs to decide how much evidence is sufficient to conclude that problematic forms of discrimination are genuinely occurring. Choosing what rule to use for inferring that discrimination is occurring depends on value-laden decisions about what mistakes we are most concerned to avoid.

Erin: What is unclear, though, is whether philosophers of science take non-epistemic values to play a role in all aspects of science or only in some. For instance, in Tapestry, on one hand you say things like “…scientific reasoning is thoroughly imbued with value influences” (pp. 166–167). But on the other hand, you use caveats such as “…it is often unrealistic to find a perfectly value-neutral way of communicating scientific information” (p. 133). I’ve found this sort of hedging to be common in the literature. But I think this can be quite confusing! If it is the case that value judgements can be avoided in some circumstances, we are left with at least two further questions: (1) How do we identify those circumstances? (2) Where non-epistemic values are currently playing a role in science, should they be, or should they to be in the way or to the extent that they currently do?

Kevin: You make a very perceptive point. I don’t think I have this issue totally sorted out in my own mind. At present, my inclination is to say that non-epistemic values are always at least somewhat relevant to scientific reasoning, but I acknowledge that the extent of their relevance and the best ways of addressing them vary a great deal from case to case. One reason for insisting that values are always relevant is that all scientific research has at least some potential to influence society over the long term. So, given that scientists always run the risk of being incorrect when they draw their conclusions, social values are always somewhat relevant for deciding how much evidence they should be demanding. However, most of the work done in some fields, such as theoretical physics, does not have the sorts of immediate and obvious social impacts that we saw in the research I described earlier about gender discrimination, so in these cases it makes sense to consider social values more indirectly.

Erin: So how can we determine whether certain value influences are appropriate?

Kevin: In my Tapestry book, I suggest three criteria for determining whether value influences are appropriate: transparency, representativeness, and engagement. First, it is important for scientists to be as open as possible about the details of their work and the ways in which values might have influenced it so that others can recognise those influences. Second, when scientists make value judgements, those judgements should be informed by ethical principles and social priorities. Third, it is important to engage key stakeholders in efforts to identify important value judgements and to reflect on how to address them. However, much more needs to be said about the nature of these criteria and how they work together. For example, I don’t think we can draw the simple conclusion that whenever these three criteria are met, value influences are appropriate, or whenever they are not met, value influences are inappropriate. I see them more as rules of thumb that can help us to incorporate values in science more responsibly.

Erin: I like your criteria, but I have a few concerns. For instance, with regards to your second criterion, it doesn’t seem like we have broad common ground on ethical principles and social priorities within our societies. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we endorse value pluralism. A commitment to democratic values and a concern for the proper place of science and scientists in democratic societies also motivated W.E.B. Du Bois’ early defence of the value-free ideal for science, as Liam Kofi Bright has recently explained. Along similar lines, Stephen John has argued that because people hold different values, science that is value-laden may fail to contribute to ‘public knowledge’. Do you find these arguments persuasive?

Kevin: I’m very sympathetic to the sorts of concerns that you are highlighting. This is partly why I suggest with Ted Richards in the concluding chapter of Exploring Inductive Risk that in some cases, scientists should try to avoid making controversial value judgements themselves. For example, when there is a great deal of disagreement about how to interpret the available scientific evidence, it might make the most sense for scientists to report the state of the evidence as clearly as possible, and let others decide what conclusions they want to draw. Similarly, sometimes it is possible to report more than one way of interpreting the available evidence so that decision makers can decide which approach fits better with their values. For example, economists studying climate change can report how their analyses of climate impacts differ based on the decision to use different discount rates. However, Ted and I would respond to the work of Bright and John by emphasising that even in these cases, an array of implicit value judgements have probably still played a role in how the available evidence was collected, analysed, and communicated. Thus, despite the limitations of my criteria, I don’t think we can avoid them. Scientists need to acknowledge value judgements as best they can (transparency), make them as responsibly as possible (representativeness), and invite critical reflection about them from an array of perspectives (engagement).

Erin: What advice can be derived from the values in science literature for political philosophers, social theorists, and policymakers who use empirical research to support their normative arguments?

Kevin: It’s really important for scholars and practitioners who draw on scientific research, and perhaps social-science research in particular, to recognise the potential for this research to be subtly influenced by non-epistemic values. As I noted earlier, the questions scientists ask, the assumptions underlying their interpretation and analyses, the evidence they demand before drawing conclusions, and the ways their results are framed and communicated can all involve value-laden judgements. Thus, when this research is informing important decisions that will have social consequences, it is important to scrutinise potential value influences and recognise how they may have influenced the research and its communication.

Erin: So perhaps this debate is best thought of as being situated at the interface of philosophy of science and moral, social or political philosophy? If this is the case, how do you think moral, social, and political philosophers might be able to contribute to, and help advance, this debate?

Kevin: I totally agree. We actually just had a discussion about the need to bring together moral, social, and political philosophy with the philosophy of science at a conference session devoted to my Tapestry book. An important theme was the fact that my criteria (transparency, representativeness, and engagement) need a good deal more elaboration, and this is the kind of work that moral, social, and political philosophers are well placed to do. For example, moral philosophers can help us think through the ethical principles that are most appropriate for guiding particular value judgements, such as decisions about what discount rates ought to be used when analysing the economic costs of climate change. Moreover, there will almost always be disagreements about these ethical principles, so we also need political philosophers to provide guidance about how to address these disputes. What forms of engagement should we employ for responding to disagreements about important value judgements? Which stakeholders should be involved in the deliberations? One of the most obvious lessons to be gleaned from the recent work on values in science is that philosophers of science desperately need guidance from moral and political philosophers, so I’m really grateful that you provided this opportunity to talk about my books on this blog!

A full review of Kevin Elliott’s A Tapestry of Values: An Introduction to Values in Science by Erin Nash can be found here.

On Striking as a Privilege

As the readers of this blog probably already know, UK-based academics have been on strike for five days over the past two weeks, and the industrial action is likely to escalate further. The current dispute concerns pensions, is quite major, and many good things have been written about it – including, and indeed especially, by other political theorists.

The question I would like to address here has less to do with the specifics of the current dispute and more with a general point that circulates among fellow-academics – and philosophers in particular – nearly every time the possibility of a strike is raised: are we, as comparatively privileged workers, justified in striking to keep and sometimes even improve our privileged status? The point is made in a particularly forceful manner when strike for pay is at stake, but is actually equally relevant to pensions – after all, UK academics are currently striking to defend their current defined benefit pension plan, and the very fact of being in a defined benefit pension scheme (even if one whose conditions have worsened over time) is a rare luxury these days.

Over the last two weeks, I have myself been suspiciously quiet about the fact that I am on strike in many of my daily interactions. This is especially the case with people who might reasonably regard my being on strike as a luxury – such as the carers at my daughter’s nursery, who are on minimum wage, do not get sick pay, and could not even dream of being in a union. That is, I feel self-conscious not only about what I am striking for, but about the very fact of being on strike: just that, in itself, feels like a privilege.

And yet I have little symapathy for the argument that academics should not strike; indeed I believe that too much self-reflection on our relatively privileged status is a display of complacency rather than virtue.

So, why do the comparatively privileged have a claim to strike?

  1. Because it’s either us or nobody else. The practice of withdrawing labour comes well before the establishment of the right to do so within a framework of labour law: the first strikers were engaging in industrial action at their own risk. Then, at least in Europe, strike has (fortunately) become a right. In so doing, it has come to be perceived as something that requires certain some guarantees to be in place: strong union-friendly legislation, the guarantee that one will not lose one’s job over industrial activity, etc. But as labour standards – after a steady improve over the golden era of the welfare state (apologies for the oversimplification) – have been deteriorating again in OECD countries over the last decades, this right has become less of a universal guarantee and more of a privilege of the few who still enjoy a permanent and secure contract, robust labour guarantees, the luck of working in strongly unionized sector, etc. If you come to see something as a right (and rightly so, don’t get me wrong!), then something is obviously problematic when only some enjoy it, and on arbitrary grounds at that. The question of whether those privileged few should exercise a right which others are deprived of has some prima facie legitimacy. But we are not doing atypical and vulnerable workers any favour by not exercising our right to strike. We are only actively contributing to erasing striking from the toolkit of progressive politics. If the very idea of striking is to stay alive, the last thing to do is tell those who can still strike relatively safely that it is bad taste of them to do so. Of course, we want to find ways of enabling those who are even much more vulnerable than us to engage in industrial action again, and this is a tricky task to say the least – but making industrial action a vestige of the past is certainly not a sensible way of achieving said aim.
  2. Because the benefits we would be giving up on would exacerbate, not mitigate, inequality. Yes, the demand for a pay increase that reasonably follows the trajectory of growth and inflation, and for keeping a defined benefit pension scheme, are a privilege of the few these days. But we all know perfectly well that we are not being asked to give up on those in order to redistribute down. By refusing to resist, we would only contribute to making inequality steeper.
  3. Because it is about relational goods. For decades now, academics have been asked again and again to do a little bit more, a little bit better, for a little bit less – and often with no good justification. Whether or not there are workers whose conditions are incomparably worse, this is not a way to treat people in the workplace and ought to be resisted, period.
  4. Because it is about showing disobedience, defiance and will to fight back. UK universities are increasingly run like businesses, with all the problems that this entails – short termism, disregard for the specific nature of higher education, job insecurity, hierarchy in decision-making, and the treatment of staff as disposable goods being only some of them. Those of us who can still do so without bearing prohibitive costs should simply engage in all the push backs they can. The idea that workers should just shut up, get their heads down, and get s%&t done must encounter resistance.

Are there other reasons why the comparatively privileged should strike? Or are there other, stronger objections to the right of the relatively privileged to strike which deserve a fair hearing?

 

Workplace Democracy – a proposal for saving democracy

This is an interview with Isabelle Ferreras, who has just published a book on workplace democracy – to my knowledge, it’s the most detailed argument and proposal for a specific form of workplace democracy that has been provided in recent years. To get a sense of what it is all about, check out the animated trailer at www.firmsaspoliticalentities.net. We asked Isabelle to tell us more about her book, and we are very happy that she immediately agreed to do so.

Q: How did you get interested in the topic of workplace democracy?

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What’s wrong with an epistocratic council?

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "experts cartoon"

Why do we trust experts to take care of our health and not to take care of our interests in the political realm? This is a very old question of democratic theory. Epistocracy is a neologism frequently used in recent works to refer to a form of government by those who know more or are wiser than the mass.

Two different aspects might differentiate an epistocracy from a democracy: the absence of political equality in the selection of the rulers, or the absence of egalitarian accountability. In addition to these undemocratic aspects, an epistocracy would differ from other non-democratic regimes by some mechanism allowing people who distinguish themselves from the mass by their wisdom or expertise to rule or at least enjoy an important degree of political power. The best example and – to my knowledge – the most interesting challenge to our democratic convictions is Jason Brennan’s idea of an “epistocratic council”. Members of this council would be selected on a meritocratic basis, passing a competency exam. And all citizens would have an equal voice in the choice of the expertise criteria.

Leaving aside the practical challenges such as the choice of the people in charge of preparing the exam, what would be wrong with such an epistocratic council?

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Against Indiscriminate Killing Even in Supreme Emergencies

For the past few weeks, people on- and offline have spoken up to question Winston Churchill’s legacy. They generally highlight his racism, his support for the use of concentration camps, his treatment of Ireland, his complicity in the Bengal famine, and more. Some protested in a Churchill-themed café. In response, others argue that he nevertheless deserves to be remembered for his role in fighting off the Nazis and inspiring the British public in dark times. There are, however, important questions to ask even about Churchill’s role in fighting the Nazis. Churchill authorised the indiscriminate killing of civilians by bombing German cities. In justifying this tactic, Churchill appealed to the extraordinarily dangerous nature of the situation. But does this justify indiscriminate killing? This question still has relevance today. US drone strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan in many respects resemble a campaign of indiscriminate violence, and so it is necessary to ask if this campaign can be justified. I will here argue that the logic of Churchill’s defence does not, and indeed cannot, justify the use of indiscriminate violence.

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Winner of the 2nd Jonathan Trejo-Mathys Essay Prize Announced

2018 Jonathan Trejo-Mathys Essay Prize to Francisco Garcia Gibson (Buenos Aires)

The Global Justice Network is very pleased to announce the winner of this year’s Jonathan Trejo-Mathys Essay Prize, awarded annually to recognize a stellar contribution to the political theory and philosophy of global justice, which was one of Jonathan Trejo-Mathys’ areas of scholarship. The prize is sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College.

This year’s prize goes to Francisco Garcia Gibson, postdoctoral researcher at the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET) and the Centro de Investigaciones Filosóficas (CIF) at the Universidad de Buenos Aires for his essay  “Guns or Food: On Prioritizing National Security over Global Poverty Relief”. The committee believes that the essay makes an important contribution to the scholarship in political theory, philosophy and international relations through its discussion of the normative commitments of political realism.

Honourable mentions go to Nicole Hassoun, Associate Professor at Binghampton University, for her piece on “Fair Trade: An Imperfect Obligation?” and Anahi Wiedenbrüg, doctoral research student at the LSE, for her submission “On the Responsibilities of Dominated States”.

Congratulations to all three authors. All three papers will be published in the next issue of Global Justice: Theory, Practice, Rhetoric.

 

Recent Vacancies in Political Theory/Philosophy/Ethics

Lecturer in Human Rights, University College London (closing 11/02/18)

Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London (closing 11/02/18)

Assistant Professor in Political Theory (tenure-track), Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (closing 15/02/18)

Hoover Chair Fellowships, Universite Catholique de Louvain (closing 23/02/18)

Lecturer / Senior Lecturer in Social & Political Philosophy, University of Edinburgh (closing 27/02/18)

Postdoctoral Fellowships in Political Theory/Philosophy, Justitia Amplificata, University of Frankfurt / Free University of Berlin (closing 01/03/18)

Lecturer/Senior Lecturer/Reader in Political Theory, University of Essex (closing 04/03/18)

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Western Australia (closing 04/03/18)

What, if anything, is wrong with private money in political philosophy?

Recently, there have been increasing worries about the role of private money that funds libertarian political philosophy (see e.g. here or here). The role of private money in academic research is not precisely a new problem; it has plagued other fields for decades (see e.g. here for a study of some of the more problematic forms). But it seems to be rather new for political philosophy, or at least it seems to have gone to levels it has not had in the recent past. But what exactly is wrong with it? Isn’t it simply an exercise of freedom of expression to use one’s money to sponsor scholarship one is interested in?

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Iris Young, Bad Dates and #MeToo

Can Iris Young’s analysis of structural injustice, problematic norms, individual guilt and forward-looking responsibility contribute to contemporary feminism as #MeToo broaches the subject of bad dates and male privilege?

This blog post comes with a trigger warning as it contains discussions of sexual harassment and sexual assault and controversial opinions regarding them.

Last week much of my facebook feed was again  full of discussion regarding accounts of sexual abuse  and comment regarding the #MeToo movement.

One of last week’s stories concerned the behaviour of a male celebrity who publicly endorses calls to end sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and beyond. A woman who dated the celebrity detailed to a reporter how he acted in a pushy, forceful  manner. She explained how he ignored non-verbal cues to slow down their encounter and end more overtly sexual activity, and then re-initiated sexual activity after she stated that she was feeling pressured. The woman left their date feeling violated and miserable. The report has been broadly discussed with a spectrum of opinions emerging regarding the case: some sympathetic to the celebrity, others criticising his hypocrisy and abuse and some suggesting we are reluctant to acknowledge this as abuse because we want to protect ourselves from facing the reality of the problems we have encountered in our own sex lives.

Last week also saw criticism of the #Metoo movement gain momentum. A letter was published by concerned women in the French entertainment industry who believe that the movement has gone too far and begun to stigmatise men who make clumsy and persistent advances. The letter also suggested that the movement has begun to undermine women’s power and self esteem, prohibit people’s legitimate sexuality, censor artistic expression and prevent the enjoyment of art made by perpetrators of sexual violence.   The letter too has provoked extensive discussion, clarification, criticism and response.

How should we think about these cases and positions? There are two sorts of understandings that opponents in the debate often identify each other as falling into.

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Recent Vacancies in Political Theory/Philosophy/Ethics

Assistant Professor PPE – Politics & Governance, Utrecht University (closing 31/12/17)

Assistant Professor PPE – Philosophy, Utrecht University (closing 01/01/18)

Assistant Professor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, University of Groningen (closing 14/01/18)

Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Moral and Political Philosophy, University of New South Wales (closing 18/01/18)

Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Reading (closing 22/01/18)

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