Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

UCU Strike Meets Jus ad Bellum

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.

Just cause:

The principle of just cause dictates that a war can only be fought to achieve aims that are just. Applying this to the strike, it asks: is the strike being called to achieve just aims? I think so. The strike is a continuation of the 2018 dispute on proposed pension reform and the newly-formed four fights. The five issues at stake are: pension, fair pay, equal pay (gender + BAME pay gap), precarity and unsustainable workload. To add some context, academia is one of the most casualised professions in the UK with more than 100,000 staff hired on fixed-term or other types of precarious contracts. The gender/BME pay gap remains unchallenged. At my institution, the mean gender pay gap is at 18,4% while the ethnic pay gap is at 10.5%. These factors have negatively impacted the mental health of academic staff with record numbers of cases being referred to professional support services. Ultimately, the strike aims to achieve better and fairer working conditions for staff in higher education. It’s difficult to refute the legitimacy of this aim.

Right Authority:

This principle asks if the strike was called by a legitimate authority? In (traditional) just war theory, this is to rule out the possibility of private wars (wars waged and fought by individuals). Only the sovereign has the power to declare war on the behalf of the community which it governs. The strike was called by the HEC (Higher Education Committee), the body with the legal power to do so. This principle is met.

Last Resort:

Is this strike action the last resort? Note that ‘last resort’ here should not be understood as literally last resort. This would imply an action (war or others) can never actually be just for there is always something else to do. A more plausible understanding of this principle demands all actions short of strike which can be reasonably expected to work to be attempted before a strike is called. This includes negotiations, threats of strike, working to contracts (or ASOS). There is a case to be made that all actions that can reasonably be expected to work have been tried. Before the first round of strike in November last year, the employers were unwilling to acknowledge the severity of some of the issues (especially on precarity and workload). Strike action in November and the threat of more strikes have moved the employers to make some concessions. But the latest (and only) UCEA offer on four-fights was rejected outright as it was deemed as insufficiently substantive by the negotiators and a majority of HEC members. Most recently, Mark E Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton and chair of UCEA has said that the employers will not concede any further. It seems that all other options short of a strike have been explored and failed.

Proportionality and Prospect of Success:

This is perhaps the thorniest issue. Some UCU members have questioned if 14-day of strike action is proportionate to the massive financial loss and disruption to students’ learning, especially since the notion of success is murky in this instance. The strike must have a good chance of achieving its aims within the constraints of the proportionality requirements. It cannot, for instance, employ disproportionate measures even if doing so would increase its chance of success. Now, part of what makes this criterion difficult to answer is the non-quantifiable nature of some of the aims being pursued. How are we to answer questions such as: what is proportionate to end precarity? What is proportionate to end the gender/ethnic pay gap? The systemic nature of these issues adds to the difficulty in defining what, exactly, constitutes success for this strike. The gender/ethnic pay gap, casualisation and unsustainable workload are not going to be fully addressed by a 14-day strike. Does this mean that any achievement short of this indicates a failure?

I think this might be too strong a claim. Changes have to start somewhere but systemic changes take time. In this light, each industrial action is not an isolated incident. Rather, strikes that are closely connected, i.e. waged on the same issues against the same employer, should be seen as part of the same dispute, despite the staggered timeline and occasional spikes (like this one) in intensity. Each round of strike action moves the employers and employees closer towards an acceptable compromise. The notion of success, in this sense, should be defined more modestly. That is to say if the strike doesn’t fully end precarity, the gender/ethnic pay gap, the assault on pension, etc. for good then it doesn’t necessarily mean that the strike has failed. If this round of strike action can achieve a nationwide framework with specified commitments from the employers to address staff’ concerns on the 5 issues within a reasonable timeline then that could be seen as a success. The costs of walking out for 14-day are undeniably high. But the costs of not striking, the continued pay gap, the casualisation of academia, the routine 55-hour working week, etc. are even higher.

To Strike or Disrupt? (take 2)

In November and December 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) – the trade union that represents many academics and other university staff in the UK – went on strike. On that occasion, in his post To Strike or Disrupt, Liam Shields discussed whether people not doing any teaching during the strike should go on strike or not, seeing that their striking does not result in significant disruption.

At the end of this week, the UCU will embark on a new wave of 14 days of strike spread over four weeks because the dispute remains unsettled. It therefore seems a good occasion to recall Liam’s argument and to flesh out some implications a bit further.

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Climate Change, Family Size, and Upbringing

In this post, Fay Niker interviews Dr Elizabeth Cripps (University of Edinburgh) about her recent work at the intersection of two themes we write about a lot on Justice Everywhere, namely, climate justice and the ethics and politic of children and upbringing.

Fay Niker [FN]: Recently, you’ve been thinking about a particular dimension of the question about the duties to reduce carbon emissions in the era of (impending) “climate crisis”. Can you tell us about this dimension, and how you came to be interested in it?

Elizabeth Cripps [EC]: Having kids is the biggest contribution most of us make to increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, so the question naturally arises of whether, as individuals and couples, we should be having small families, or no children at all. I’ve written on individual climate justice duties and on population and global justice – plus I’m a parent myself – so it was natural for me to be drawn to this area.

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The Capitalist Cage: Rethinking Structural Domination in the Market

In this post, Nicholas Vrousalis discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on structural domination and collective agency.


In his 1938 film The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir depicts the relationship between French prisoners of war and their German gaolers during World War I. Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece invites the question how fundamentally decent humans, on both sides of the conflict, can end up enslaving each other. Renoir’s answer is that war is a class phenomenon, such that all participants, including the ruling classes, get caught up in its vile machinery. It follows that Renoir does not want to lay the blame for the machinations of war on any particular individual or class. War is the upshot of a structural relationship, in which no individual or collective ascription of blame or wrongdoing suffices to account for the sum total of wrongdoing.

How are we to make sense of this idea? In a recent article, I provide an account of what it means to be ‘caught up’ in a pattern of domination, such that the wrongs involved do not disaggregate without remainder into the wrongdoing of agents, the groups they belong to, and the relations between them. And I show that the very concerns that motivate Renoir’s depiction of domination may apply to many other unjust structural relations, including those of sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism.

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Can we solve the dilemma between pursuing personal projects and the demands of morality by limiting the scope of morality?

Morality is hard work. It’s not easy to make sure our actions do not negatively affect other beings in this universe or to do good to them. How can we carve out some space for the pursuit of personal projects without violating the demands of morality? In this post, I discuss strategies that exclude certain areas of life and activities from moral assessment, and find them wanting.*

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Against Pharmaceutical Libertarians

In this post, David Teira discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy defending pharmaceutical paternalism.


On January 11, 2020 The New York Times (NYT) published an opinion piece by their Editorial Board: “The F.D.A. Is in Trouble. Here’s How to Fix It”. The F.D.A. is the US Food and Drug Administration, a regulatory body with gatekeeping powers over pharmaceutical markets. Since 1962, patients can access new medical treatments only after the F.D.A. has declared them safe and effective, on the basis of evidence gathered in clinical trials. This is a form of pharmaceutical paternalism: patients’ right to try whatever treatment they see fit is partially restricted – they will find in chemists only those drugs that the F.D.A. judge good for them. Yet, argues the NYT Editorial Board, “libertarian groups bent on deregulation at any cost” are exploiting the frustration of patients who don’t find any treatment option in the market to put pressure on the F.D.A., curtailing its “already diminished powers.” I think that the NYT is right to be concerned with this trend, and in a recent article, I provide an account of why exactly we should value pharmaceutical paternalism.

Let’s begin by considering what could thought wrong with the FDA’s remit. Several philosophers have recently put together a battery of arguments to show that patients would be better off without regulatory paternalism. What patients need is reliable information on the safety and efficacy of drugs so that they can decide on their own whether it is worth trying them. Jessica Flanigan contends that the F.D.A. should just provide that information without any gatekeeping prerogatives. Julian Reiss, more radically, defends that markets alone will deliver the necessary evidence. If, in a worst case scenario, patients feel they have been cheated, they can always litigate.

Libertarian arguments have some appeal. Who would not want to have the last word on what pharmaceutical risks to take? Yet, I argue, there is something that all but the staunchest libertarian should fear: the asymmetries of information that pervade pharmaceutical markets.

First, nobody (except chemists) can tell apart a legitimate and a fake treatment, and this provides a huge incentive for rogue manufacturers to flood markets with cheap counterfeit drugs that crowd out the real treatments. Economists call this adverse selection.

Second, gathering the necessary evidence to prove in court that a drug is defective is too costly for the average patient. After all, pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars to generate this evidence in long and expensive clinical trials, and they are rarely beaten in court.

Think, for instance of the class actions against the analgesic Vioxx, usually considered a success story about patients obtaining redress thanks from pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, Merck, the manufacturing company, reached a settlement compensating patients with $4.85 billion. Yet, Merck’s initial strategy was precisely not to settle, winning in 11 of the first 16 trials completed. Merck’s line of defence hinged on lack of evidence about Vioxx being the proximate cause of death. Jurors occasionally declared Merck guilty, perhaps moved by the claims of alleged corporate dishonesty (withholding information about cardiac risks). But after the first sixteen trials, it became clear for the plaintiffs that it was too difficult to show that Vioxx had actually caused the patients’ death against Merck’s legal and scientific firepower. The company then offered $4.85 billion settlement just to avoid further legal costs. The settlement imposed tight conditions on the plaintiffs –e.g. they had to accept it without a clear estimate of the compensation they would individually receive. If the number of plaintiffs had been smaller (around 50.000), Merck could have chosen to defeat them in court. When the evidence of harm is not sustained by big numbers, litigation may simply fail and impose serious costs for plaintiffs.

Given this huge asymmetries of information, I argue, it is better for patients to defer on an impartial regulatory agency to test treatments and, like Ulysses, tie themselves up to the mast of the agency’s verdict, consuming only approved drugs. Courts or markets provide no viable alternative for most patients to obtain redress from snake oil seller exploiting their uncertainty.

If patients are indeed frustrated with the lack of treatment options, compromising on safety is usually not a good solution. The F.D.A. has done an extraordinary job at keeping truly dangerous compounds outside pharmaceutical markets: less than 2% of the drugs approved by the F.D.A. between 1950 and 2011 have been withdrawn for a mistaken assessment of safety. Yet, according to the World Health Organization database, just in between 2000 and 2005, the United States contributed 953.919 adverse effects reports (or 537.6 reports per million inhabitants). In other words, even with drugs tested for safety and efficacy there is real uncertainty. Weakening the regulatory paternalism of the F.D.A. will make the uncertainty bigger and it will work no miracles for those who need a cure.

An Interview with Marc Stears (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

This is the second interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, following Onora O’Neill. Back in November, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Marc Stears about his experiences in politics, focusing on his time as a close adviser to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.

Prof Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. Stears was Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford in 2010 when his university friend Ed Miliband was elected leader of the opposition Labour party. After a secondment to the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears left academia in 2012 to become Chief Speechwriter for Miliband. He was a co-author of the 2015 Labour election manifesto and a member of the party’s general election steering committee. In 2013, the Telegraph ranked him the UK’s eighth most influential left-winger. After Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Stears joined another British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, as Chief Executive, before his move to Australia in 2018.

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Why citizens should choose which refugees to admit to their states

In this post, Patti Lenard discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethics of citizen selection of refugees.


The situation for refugees world-wide is persistently horrendous.  Globally, there is pressing, urgent, need to adopt create ways to support them. In a recent article, I argue that governments should adopt private or community sponsorship of refugee schemes, which permit citizens to select specific refugees for admission, if they are willing to bear the costs of resettlement.  They are one crucial way forward in bleak times.

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No more victims: Machismo and gender violence in Latin America advertising

In this guest post, Marta Mensa writes on machismo culture and gender violence in Latin America, and argues that advertisements for social campaigns against gender violence should be carefully designed.

Latin America is one of the continents with the highest rate of violence against women. The most extreme form of this crime is called femicide, the murder of a woman for the fact that she is a woman. Advertising can be a good tool to reduce this violence, but social campaigns have portrayed women as victims and not as empowered. Unfortunately, Latin American advertisements for social campaigns reinforce the idea that women need protection, which is used as an excuse for machismo to control them.

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Was the Killing of General Soleimani Justified? An Ethical Analysis

This post is co-written with Anh Le (University of Manchester)

The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force, has, once again, ignited the debate surrounding the practice of targeted killing. Much has been said about the legality and prudence of this strike. In this post, we assess the morality of this strike. From an ethical perspective, there are two paradigms that can justify the state’s killing of individuals: just war and law enforcement (there is, in addition, the emerging framework of jus ad vim but we’ll stick with the two familiar paradigms in this post). Any justified state-sanctioned killings have to fall within the purview of these two paradigms. If a particular act of killing fails to meet the rigorous demands of both paradigms, then such killing is unjust. In this post, we will analyse both possible justifications.

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