Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

6 Tips for Graduate Political Theory Students

Academic political theorists are not always very good at telling students how to become political theorists. As a wise political theorist once said ‘nobody ever told me how to do [political theory], and, so far as I would guess, nobody will have told you how to do it, or is likely to tell you how to do it in the future.’

This is certainly true of the big questions around how to do political theory. But it also applies to the more mundane aspects of being a graduate political theory student. There is a lingering assumption that students will just muddle their way through three or four years of lonely research, and then *puff*, a fully-formed political theorist will appear, a copy of Hobbes in one hand and a CV in the other, ready to do battle with the modern academic job market.

This is obviously a silly way to organise the professional development of a discipline’s next generation. But a more nefarious aspect of this, is that the informal networks through which students eventually do learn about these things, are much easier to access for privileged students from big-name universities. One motivation for making this kind of knowledge accessible online, is that it can help democratise that knowledge.

The following tips are only suggestions. They should not be taken as necessary, and certainly not sufficient, steps for getting a job after the PhD! They are instead supposed to highlight some of the more everyday aspects that students don’t always know about.

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Unsettling Times – Between Tormenting Questions and Business as Usual

This summer my 2-year-old daughter and I were looking at a world map together. I would have liked to tell her something about the different continents and countries (about all the different languages, the food, music, local customs), but wasn’t able to because the sight of the map prompted only thoughts such as “There is war here, there are people starving there, refugees drowning here…” So I remained silent. We are currently overwhelmed by negative news. Almost everywhere things seem to go awfully wrong: more than 65 million refugees worldwide, 470000 deaths in Syria, the terror of ISIS, right-wing populists gaining more votes everywhere, Donald Trump for president, the Brexit, growing child poverty in Europe’s strongest economy (Germany), burning asylum seeker centres… (I could go on and on). Of course, the news we get through the media has always been mainly negative, but now it seems to have reached a new dimension. Whether this impression is accurate or not, it is certainly unsettling, raising perturbing questions: How long will we still be able to live in peace and with our basic human rights protected? Will the fear of terrorist attacks soon be part of our daily lives? Have all attempts after 1945 to create a more peaceful world been in vain? What kind of world will my children find themselves in? To what extent do our governments and we carry responsibility for what is going on? What does justice require from us as individuals? Is there a moral justification for focusing on one’s own comparatively small problems and not trying to help solving the big, global ones? How many resources are we allowed to spend on our own children? These kinds of questions are far from new, but they currently pose themselves with particular urgency.

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Evidence for a non-ideal theory of freedom of expression (Remembering Anna Politkovskaya)

About ten years ago Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian journalist, writer and human rights’ activist, died in her apartment building in Moscow, shot four times in a lift. After a long and highly charged trial-and-retrial, we still do not know who the instigators of Politkovskaya’s assassination are, though six people have been convicted of the murder. In her books and articles (she was one of the best reporters of Novaya Gazeta), Politkovskaya reported on the situation in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War and on the deterioration of the quality of Russian democracy, especially as far as human rights protection, transparency and good governance were concerned. She defined contemporary Russia ‘a failing democracy’ and she admonished her fellow citizens about the concrete risks of ‘hurtling back into a Soviet abyss’, thanks to the ‘information vacuum’ that the Russian power system was able to produce. Her investigative works as well as her popularity in the West – she won several important awards from human rights and international journalism and her books were translated in several languages – were certainly worrisome for the Russian government as well as for several crucial state agencies. In Russia, however, her influence was quite limited beyond human rights activists’ circles, as Vladimir Putin noticed after her brutal assassination.

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Resisting TTIP and Corporatocracy

TTIP protesters in Brussels, February 2015.

TTIP protesters in Brussels, February 2015. Greens EFA, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Valentin Beck teaches moral and political philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. He recently published Eine Theorie der globalen Verantwortung (Suhrkamp 2016). This post is the fourth and final part of our series on TTIP.

Traditionally, trade agreements have been a topic of debate chiefly for economists and other experts. Recently, however, TTIP, TPP and CETA have loomed large in public discourse. What is behind the intense public interest and vehement opposition by civil society groups? The debate does not centre solely on matters of distribution, as some would suggest. Instead, the most important critique of these agreements regards their power to undermine democratic procedures.

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Announcement – Book symposium: Sufficiency

Book symposium

Liam Shields – Just Enough: Sufficiency as a Demand of Justice

University of Louvain
2 December 2016

Twice a year, the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics organizes a workshop in Louvain-la-Neuve on a forthcoming book in the field of ethics or political theory. Several scholars are gathered to meet the author and discuss the various chapters of the book in progress.

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John Rawls and contemporary political philosophy

Last week, I was invited to say some introductory words at a non-academic event dedicated to the work of John Rawls. As the main speaker would tell more about the content of Rawls’ theory, I decided to focus on the following question: why is Rawls seen as the most important contemporary political philosopher? Robert Nozick’s claim of 1974, that contemporary political theorists either have to work within Rawls’ framework or explicitly explain why they don’t, is still applicable today. For Jerry Cohen, Rawls’ masterpiece A Theory of Justice is the third most important book in the history of Western political thought. Only Plato’s Politeia and Hobbes’ Leviathan have a higher status, or so does Cohen claim. But what is it, precisely, that makes the work of John Rawls that significant?

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Should MPs be subject to mandatory deselection?

This post will be fairly UK-centric. Apologies to non-Brits, or anyone who’s simply had enough of British politics for now.

Since Jeremy Corbyn re-established his control over the Labour Party on Saturday, it seems inevitable that he’ll try to assert more control over the party. This may involve a number of measures, such as lowering the threshold for getting on the leadership ballot (ensuring his successor will be an ideological ally), and allowing members more direct control over policy-making . But increasingly there is talk of mandatory deselection of MPs who refuse to get behind Corbyn’s leadership. Although Corbyn himself claimed on TV that “most MPs” had no reason to fear it (a reassurance or a threat, depending on where you stand), others have been much more vocal in their demands. The firebrand Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, recently repeated his demand that “despicable” and “disgraceful” MPs lose the right to represent Labour at the next general election. It also seems the policy is popular with the grassroots. At a recent leadership hustings I went to in Durham the prospect of deselecting rebellious MPs came up repeatedly, each time to thunderous applause from the audience.

This is a conflict between competing visions of politics and leadership within Labour, but it’s also about something more fundamental: what is the role and purpose of a political party? It pits those for whom its primary purpose is to achieve its political aims within a democratic system, against those for whom it is, first and foremost, a democratic organisation in and of itself.

In this post I’ll go through some arguments in favour of deselection of MPs, and against. Ultimately I’ll argue that deselection is problematic in all but extreme cases, as MPs are first and foremost accountable to their constituents rather than their members.

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Announcement – New Issue of Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric

The editors of Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric are pleased to announce the publication of the second re-launch issue of the journal: volume 9, issue 1.

The issue is devoted to the topic of “Global Justice and Non-Domination” and features the following original articles:

The whole issue, with all articles and reviews, can be freely accessed at Volume 9, Issue 1.

For more information about the journal, please see the journal homepage.

A randomly selected chamber? Exploring some challenges

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "chamber of representatives"

In reaction to the contemporary crisis of electoral democracy (marked by decreasing turnouts to elections, marginal party affiliation and general distrust towards politicians), there is a growing interest (from scholars, activists and politicians) in the idea of using random selection for selecting representatives, as was the case in ancient Greece and several Italian Republics in the Middle Ages.

Random selection cannot replace elections altogether. Despite all their shortcomings, elections are a very important democratic tool, in particular because they offer a space for wide participation to self-government, whereas active participation through random selection is limited to a very small section of the population. What is more, randomly selected representatives are not accountable to a constituency. This can have interesting effects in shifting decisions from the preferences of the median voter and reducing the short-termism inherent to elections. Yet it also dangerously impairs legitimacy if a government is not accountable.

For these reasons, the most plausible idea is to have only one chamber of representatives selected by lot (the other and the government remaining elected). What I want to do in this post is to identify the main challenges that such proposal faces. And I count on you to tell me whether you think that there are decisive or not, and if there are other important challenges that I’ve failed to consider.

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What should voters look for in their politicians?

hillary-clinton-bernie-sandersAmidst the political chaos of the past few months, some have taken the opportunity to reflect on what it all means for democracy. In particular, the question of whether individual Members of Parliament are bound to permit Britain’s exit from the European Union because their voters supported it has led to a number of reflections on an elected representative’s duties to their constituents, often drawing on Edmund Burke.

However, I think the reverse relationship – how individual voters should relate to their representatives –  is just as interesting. Among the dominant sentiments around the EU referendum was confusion. In a campaign without the standard reflexive party political loyalties, many people appreciated for the first time the responsibility they carried with  their vote, but were at a loss as to how to use it. I think this is the best explanation for the repeated demands for ‘more facts’, patently absurd in a period where the internet means the vast majority have access to a volume of information inconceivable a generational earlier. People weren’t lacking for information, they were lacking for guidance as to how to use it.

The strange political alignments of recent months on both sides of the Atlantic have left many similarly rudderless, whether it is Republicans deliberating whether to support a person with as many personality flaws as Trump, or those on the left torn between the apparent idealism of Corbyn/Sanders and the supposed pragmatism of Clinton/mainstream Labour candidates.

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