Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Why We (Usually) Shouldn’t Fund Rebellions

In this post, Helen Frowe discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how funding rebel fighters can cause unjust harm.


Consider the following scenario, Rebellion.

Rebellion: A rebel group in Eastland is waging an armed revolt against its unjust, murderous government. If they are successful, they will avert significant harm to their people. A foreign state, Westland, is providing the Eastlandic rebels with financial support, hoping that this will enable the rebels to replace their oppressive government and thereby save lives.

This kind of indirect support for foreign uprisings has been rather fêted in recent years. It enables governments to assist those in need without risking the lives of their own armed forces. But is it the right thing to do?

Philosophical discussions of the ethics of assisting rebellions have, thus far, focused on features of the rebellions. For example, they worry about the moral character and aims of the groups that are being funded, whether foreign support will prolong war, or render a new regime less stable, and how foreign interference bears on issues of self-determination. But in a recent article, I argue that there can be decisive moral objections to funding rebellions that are independent of these features of rebellions. These objections are grounded in the contours of our duties to rescue.

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The case for an independent environmental agency

In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.

Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.

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Selling Weapons to Oppressive Regimes: Does it Make a Difference?

In this post, James Christensen discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how selling weapons to oppressive regimes harms their victims.


Liberal states often promote arms sales to oppressive regimes. Though these sales are controversial, politicians and other public figures often seek to defend them. According to one line of defence, the sales are inconsequential; they make no morally relevant difference to the harms that oppressive regimes can inflict. This is said to be because these regimes would inevitably acquire weapons from somewhere. In defence of an appearance he once made at a Dubai arms fair, it has been alleged that Prince Charles once argued: “if the UK doesn’t sell [arms] someone else will.” A similar argument was made more recently by former British foreign secretary Philip Hammond. We can refer to this line of defence as the inconsequence argument. In a new article, I offer a reply to this argument.

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The COVID-19 crisis: a vulnerability perspective

The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?

The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.

Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis. 

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A Symposium on The Ethics of Indirect Intervention

In this post, Helen Frowe and Ben Matheson introduce a symposium they recently edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethical issues that arise in indirect interventions.


Recent years have seen a marked shift in political responses to humanitarian crises abroad. In the aftermath of disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments are increasingly reluctant to engage in direct foreign intervention – that is, to put ‘boots on the ground’ in overseas conflicts to try to protect foreign citizens from harm. Several countries are, instead, increasingly advocating and employing indirect forms of intervention, such as overtly funding, arming, or training foreign rebel groups. France, Turkey, the UK and the US have armed and trained rebels in Syria, for example.

We might think that indirect intervention avoids the moral perils that arise in cases of direct intervention. But, to the contrary, indirectly contributing to war raises a host of moral concerns, as a growing body of literature in the ethics of war attests. And, of course, not all indirect contributions to foreign conflicts fall under the description of aiding foreign citizens. On the contrary: governments sell, or facilitate the selling of, weapons and equipment to authoritarian states that use those weapons to harm their citizens. Just as we ought to be concerned about vaunted attempts to influence foreign conflicts by supporting rebels, we ought to be concerned about third parties’ rather less publicised roles in suppressing resistance abroad. In this post, we summarise a symposium exploring some of these issues, presented at a workshop organised by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

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Who should pay the costs of pandemic lockdowns?  

the costs of pandemic lockdowns should be disproportionately covered by a narrower group, consisting of those individuals and businesses who have already acquired vast amounts of economic resources and have substantially prospered as a consequence of the pandemic lockdowns

 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to play a central role in the lives of many people around the world. While initial governmental responses to the pandemic were often forceful, with lockdowns that lasted for several weeks or even months being widely introduced in March and early April, there seems to be little political appetite for renewed lockdowns of the same scale. Even so, several European countries have once again imposed lockdowns in the past few weeks, following a swift rise in cases starting in late-September.

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How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

On the face of it, pre-election polls have a positive case going for them:

  • First, as long as their integrity is not in question, publishing pre-election polls in liberal democracies could be seen simply as what freedoms of the press and expression require.
  • Second, pre-election polls provide voters with factual information that is seemingly relevant for reaching a decision on how to cast the vote.
  • Third, the publishing of pre-election polls, assuming that they significantly deviate from electoral results, can help indicate whether an election has been tampered with.

Democratic theorists have their work cut out for them to discuss the strength of these three points. But assume, for the moment, that we grant their initial appeal. If these points spoke decisively in favor of pre-election polls, then deciding whether polls are democratic or not would hinge on how accurately they predict outcomes. It is only the publishing of accurate information that would be non-controversially protected under press freedom, contribute to informed voting, or reliably signal election tampering. And matters of polling accuracy are exactly the direction in which much of political science and journalistic takes on pre-election polls have steered the discussion. Insofar, our greatest fears about polls would be whether they are conducted poorly, or rigged.

On second thoughts, however, it doesn’t seem that polling accuracy should be the whole story of how democratic pre-election polls are. Here are two reasons why.

The first concerns the effects of publishing pre-election polls on voting behavior. How exactly voters will be affected remains inconclusive, despite nearly 50 years of research in the social sciences. For instance, it is uncertain whether a pre-election poll will bring about the bandwagon effect – causing voters to flock to the winning side – or the underdog effect – causing the exact opposite. Some authors believe these effects may in fact cancel each other out.

But not everything is uncertain about polling effects. Exposure to pre-election polls is sure to make voters more likely to “maximize the utility of their vote in producing a favorable election outcome”, according to Moy and Rinke. This means that if the poll informs the voter that her preferred option is unlikely to succeed, she will opt for a “second-best” or “third-best” option. Not everyone will succumb to this “strategic voting” effect, but those who do will often solidify two-party systems, since strategic voting is more likely to favor strong parties and candidates at the expense of the weak. If true, obstacles to entry become more significant for democratic newcomers, and voters, who have changed their voting preferences but not their political attitudes, may find themselves unrepresented. These effects, as well as voter indifference, which may be caused if polls project a significant margin between candidates, are all arguably undesirable occurrences in a democracy.

The second democratic worry about pre-election polls concerns the kind of information that these polls provide and how it affects voters. Many authors have linked the media coverage of polls with the culture of so-called “horse race journalism.” This kind of media content primarily emphasizes the standing of candidates in the race and their popularity compared to the competition. And since a democratic arena saturated with polls will direct most of the voter’s attention on the horse race, little attention remains to consider important political views and policy proposals. Along similar lines, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit once argued that polling effects, among other factors, represent “capricious influences” on voting behavior, and that we should come up with institutional pressures to downplay caprice and stimulate the democratic exchange of reasons that precedes voting.

Of course, pre-election polls are not the only driver of strategic voting, or the sole source of horse race journalism. But if they exacerbate these effects, then we should do more to determine whether and how they fit into a desirable vision of democracy. The institutional pressures against their “capricious influences” need not be strict bans, but may be inspired by numerous policy solutions not yet observed in the West.

An Ethical Code for Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

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How should we think about the Irrevocability of Capital Punishment and Euthanasia?

In this post, Saranga Sudarshan discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the issue of irrevocability in arguing about capital punishment and euthanasia.


Working out our moral and political views on things is a messy business. Sometimes, when we think our arguments for why certain things are right or wrong, just or unjust are really persuasive we find they have no effect on others. Other times we realise that these arguments lead to moral and political judgements that make us question whether they were good arguments to begin with. Although it is often uncomfortable, when we live in a shared social world and we exert our authority to make coercive laws to govern ourselves and others it is helpful to take a step back and think about how some of our arguments work at their core. This sort of reflection is precisely what I do in a recently published article in relation to a particular argument against Capital Punishment.

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Replying to the reverse discrimination objection: a context-depended argument rather than an abstract one

Last month, Magazine Luiza, a Brazilian department store that specialises in selling electronics and home items, published a trainee call intended only for young and black candidates. According to Luiza Trajano, president of the administration council, this initiative could prove a better anti-discriminatory policy than other programmes adopted by the company in the past (they currently have 53% of blacks in its staff. But only 16% of them hold leadership positions). Luiza Trajano’s company seeks to ensure more diversity in top positions whilst, at the same time taking action against structural racism in Brazil. The company’s new trainee programme, however, has been the subject of judicial action and criticism from a part of the general population, who claim that it embodies an unfair policy that discriminates against white candidates.

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