a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Year: 2015 Page 1 of 3

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: A historical landmark or an empty box? (longread)

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has been heralded as ‘a monumental success for the planet and its people.’ [1] However, others have also already expressed strong criticism. It remains up to the future to decide on the success or failure of the agreement. This post contains some reflections about this future, and I hope that the topicality of the issue justifies its length and unscheduled publication.

Addressing “the social” in normative theorizing


Normative theorists are not a species known for an oversupply of consensus. But one of the most heated debate of recent years has led to a kind of consensus: the debate about “situationism”, which was raised as a challenge to virtue ethics. With virtue ethicists referring to the character of virtuous agents for guidance about moral behaviour, situationists drew attention to the problem that human behaviour is greatly influenced by the situations they find themselves in. For example, they are more altruistic when exposed to the good smells of a bakery. They are more likely to cooperate in a game call “Community Game” than in one called “Wall Street Game” even if they payoffs are the same. And if they are told to play the role of “prison guards”, while others play the role of “prisoners”, the situation can easily get out of hand. Reading such accounts, one might think that all talk about individual agency and responsibility had been based on an illusion: on an account of a “Cartesian” or “Kantian” self, or on an “Aristotelian” notion of stable character, that simply do not exist. All that there is, it seems, are situational forces.

Climate Change’s “Climate Problem”: Where are all the women?

“Climate problems” is a metaphor that has become common parlance within philosophy, where gender ratios often mirror that of math, engineering, and the physical sciences. It functions as a possible explanation for the under-representation of women and minorities, referring to what is considered to sometimes be an inhospitable professional environment for members of these demographic groups. In this post I discuss the existence of “climate issues” as they relate to one of the greatest social justice concerns of our time: anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the subject of the COP21 international negotiations in Paris this week. In particular, I look at the under-representation of women in influential, high-powered roles across various dimensions of ACC. I present the results of a preliminary survey that suggests that there is a striking lack of women in these high-profile spaces (14%), and argue that we ought to be concerned for three key reasons: the likely presence of implicit bias and stereotype threat; the epistemic benefits of women’s situated knowledge; and the disproportionate wrongs and harms women face as consequences of ACC.

How do people vote against their own interests?

I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time following the ins and outs of American politics. And one of the most interesting/baffling things about the nominations for the 2016 presidential election is the sheer capacity of the average Republican voter to stomach policy proposals that seem tailor-made to benefit the tiny minority of the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. For example, all of the Republican front-runners have come out with some form of tax plan that cuts taxes on the wealthiest 1% by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet this doesn’t scare away nearly as many voters as you’d expect — in fact, the race is wide open, and some pundits even suggest the GOP are favourites at this stage. Voting against your own interests is, arguably, a global phenomenon – I’m sure many in the UK will say it happened in the elections in May – but it does seem to be particularly prevalent in the US, perhaps because one of the parties has moved so far to the right on social and economic issues that there is not yet any equivalent in Europe.

On ‘negotiating the balance between personal freedom and really cool free stuff’

Imagine you are watching your favourite TV show and its protagonist walks to the fridge and gets out a drink (or: gets into a car, answers their phone, walks past a billboard, pours breakfast cereal into a bowl – you get the picture). Unbeknownst to you, the actual drink that you see them take out of the fridge is dependent on factors about you, such as your geographic location: you see the character pull out a Diet Coke, for instance, while another person on the other side of the world watching the same episode of the same programme at the same time sees them take out a particular brand of iced tea.

You have (both) just been subject to a new type of advertising practice known as ‘digital insertion’ – a much more technologically-sophisticated, targeted version of product placement. 

Leaders and their responsibility for knowledge

This article in the Guardian, which some members of our team have shared on Facebook, suggests that the British prime minister David Cameron may have (had) no clue about what his policies did to local services. If we assume that this is true, it raises a moral question of great importance for today’s societies: how can leaders make sure that they know enough about the consequences of their decisions to make decisions at all?

Do I make a difference? (4): The agency of individuals and households

Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions
(2) A threshold phenomenon?
(3) Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?

My argument thus far can be summarized as follows: the greenhouse gases emitted by individuals have a small but fully real effect in that they increase the exposure of vulnerable people to the risk of serious suffering from climate change harms, now and in the future. These individual emissions are sufficient to do so and also necessarily have this effect. From this follows that individuals have a unilateral duty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that they can reasonably avoid. Promotional duties are very much necessary as well, but cannot substitute this unilateral duty to reduce emissions.

© UCS 2012

© UCS 2012

In this post, I will give an indication of how individuals can reduce emissions that are clearly avoidable on the individual level. We cannot expect people to reduce emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level, since these are necessary to meet their basic rights, but I will argue that households and individuals emit much more greenhouse gases than is often believed, especially in the developed world. A significant share of these emissions can be avoided, including a share of those resulting from residential energy use, personal transportation and the consumption of meat and dairy products (1)

Do I make a difference? (3): Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?

Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gases
(2) A threshold phenomenon?

In the previous posts in this series, I have argued that individual greenhouse gas emissions have an exceedingly small but fully real effect: they are sufficient to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms and necessarily do so. What follows from this, normatively speaking? In this post, I will argue that it provides a strong reason for a unilateral individual duty to reduce one’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To be more precise about the responsibility and the duties of individuals, I will first differentiate between emissions that are avoidable on the individual level, and those that are not. Subsequently, I will defend the claim that individuals have a duty to reduce their avoidable emissions in order not to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms. Moreover, I will refute the assertion that unilateral actions to reduce emissions are ineffective, while promotional actions supposedly are effective.

Valuing Aims vs. Valuing Implementation, on wedding day organisation and assessing ‘impact’

There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised Wedding picwas behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.

The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?

What’s bad about unemployment and what should we do about it?

When we analyse the justifiability of different education policies as well as various governmental interventions in the job market, we typically do so on the assumption that there is something bad about unemployment – indeed, there are many things bad about unemployment.  Whilst this assumption is no doubt correct, I suspect that it is often helpful to be more precise about what exactly is bad about unemployment. This is because each of these bads may admit of very different solutions.

It is common to begin by noting that unemployment can be stigmatising, such that individuals who are unemployed are subject to others’ negative attitudes. This can be experienced as disrespectful and damaging to one’s self-confidence. It is significant that proponents of these attitudes typically defend their views on moralistic grounds: “The unemployed should be stigmatised because they are sponging off of the state – off of others’ efforts!”

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