Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Year: 2015 (Page 2 of 3)

(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory

Blick aus dem Bürofenster kleinThere has been much talk about effective altruism recently (see e.g. here or here) – the idea that you should try to do as much good as you can, using the most effective means. It reads a bit like an update of good old Jeremy Bentham and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” by a McKinsey consultant. It is easy to ridicule, and ridicule is indeed a frequent reaction because humour eases the tension that one can feel when confronted with these ideas. For there seems to be more than a grain of truth in effective altruists’ claim that we could do so much more to help those who were less fortunate in the “natural lottery” of where and when they were born. One thing that speaks in their favor, after all, is that effective altruists ask serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent in today’s world. What I here want to pick out from the debate is their picture the social world and of human institutions, which I take to be flawed. It is an illustration of why moral philosophy should not neglect the world we live in and the institutions that structure it.

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Do I make a difference? (2): A threshold phenomenon?

Previous post in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions

Many assume that individuals are not responsible for climate change and do not have any agency in tackling it. In this series of posts, I argue that this view is mistaken. The previous post concluded that individual emissions have an exceedingly small but fully real effect in that they increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms.

Extending this conclusion, in this post, I will address (and reject) the assumptions that individual emissions are neither necessary nor sufficient to cause climate change.

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Do I make a difference? (1): The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions

In the run-up to the international climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, there is much debate about what our governments and political institutions should do in order to tackle climate change. Important as this may be, I believe this focus should not obscure the role of individuals. Nonetheless, according to the general perception as well as some accounts in climate ethics, individuals do not appear to be responsible for climate change, or have any agency in tackling it.

I believe this view is mistaken. In this series of posts, I will therefore try to address some pervasive, but (in my view) misleading assumptions regarding individual responsibility for climate change and offer some fresh arguments. (1) The first two posts deal with backward-looking concerns about the identification of individuals as being responsible for climate change, the latter two with forward-looking issues in actually combatting climate change. First, I will debunk the belief that the effects of individual greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. On this basis, in the second post, I will address the assumption that individual emissions are neither sufficient nor necessary to cause climate change. In the third post, I will advocate direct, unilateral duties to reduce my emissions. Finally, I will give some suggestions regarding what each of us could or should do to tackle climate change.

In this post: Are the effects of individual greenhouse gas emissions truly insignificant?

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Mass incarceration

One thing that I learned as a PhD student at Oxford was that philosophically interesting questions and questions about existing injustice do not always overlap – some existing practices are so obviously wrong from a normative perspective, I was told, that there is no point in writing normative theories about them. This seems right for certain cases, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about whether it is always true.

I remember this Oxford seminar while reading this utterly depressing piece about incarceration and its effect on black communities in the U.S. in this month’s issue of the Atlantic.

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Sacrificed for hope?

Sacrificed for hope?

Economic transition and intergenerational justice

« Poverty and oppression are here, and they will not

be alleviated by the possibility of a better future.”

Adam Przeworski

Suppose you believe that the nationalization of the means of production is necessary for the achievement of justice. Suppose, besides, that your political party enjoys enough popular support (an absolute majority) for this radical reform. Yet you know from experiences in other countries that such radical reforms engender an economic crisis, with higher unemployment and lower incomes. What you do not know is how the economy is going to fare in the future and how long the crisis can last.

These are a lot of assumptions, certainly, but please accept them for the sake of the argument. What I am asking you is to put yourselves into the shoes of western European socialist leaders from the first half of the 20th century. They faced both a strategic and an ethical dilemma.

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The Quasi-Gated Community

Mount Oswald, DurhamMount Oswald, seen from South Road, Durham.

Just down the road from my home in Durham the new constellation of houses known as Mount Oswald is taking shape, filling up the space that used to belong to a golf club of the same name. One of the 60 newly built four-or-five bedroom houses could be yours for just £520,000 to £730,000, according to the developer. This in a region where the average salary is just £24,000.

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Political Philosophy and Political Change

ivorytowerIn a memorable sequence in his book, Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy depicts the young dog, “George’s son” who works for the farmer, Oak, as a sheepdog. The main job of George’s son is to run after the sheep to make sure that they stay together and do not run away. Tragically, however, the sheepdog being under the impression that the more he runs after the sheep, the better, one day drives all the sheep off a cliff. George’s son, thinking that he has done an exceptional job, returns happily to Oak, who is now left with nothing. Hardy writes that George’s son met the “untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise. “

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How to criticise a gender norm

This post is about how to go about criticising gender norms (in a wide sense of the term, including explicit expectations but also things like gender schemas – implicit bias and stereotype threat.) Like many other feminists, I find gender norms bothering because of the undue pressure they put on people to behave in ways that limit their social freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of this inequalities; I will not rehearse here all the counts on which women are worse off than men even in liberal egalitarian democracies that are formally committed to gender justice. (They include political representation, the holding of well-paid, prestigious and interesting jobs, income gaps and various daily, micro-inequalities.) Also – and maybe unlike some feminists – I think that men, too, can be the victims of gender norms – for instance they get conscripted into armies and killed in wars more than women, and probably suffer more injustice than women at the hands of police and the criminal system – especially when gender combines with race, as in the case of black men.

So there’s a clear prima facie case against gender norms: most of us would benefit if they were to disappear, and we’d also have a fairer world for that. Yet it’s not clear which of these norms we really want to change. Presumably not all, or at least not all gender norms are equally bothering and in need of urgent rethinking; also, some may be very difficult if at all possible to change. Also, it is not clear what we want to put instead of the existing gender norms. Take an example: one stereotype has it that women are nurturing and men are competitive. In combination with a competition-based economy and the fact that we as a society don’t reward care generously, this stereotype results in women ending up with less pay and social status and men ending up with less family time and, possibly, fewer caring relationships overall. Now, there are many ways in which we could aim to change this situation into one that is more gender-symmetrical: We could try to change the gender norm of women = care and men = market success into a norm that requires women and men to be equally focussed on market success (and let the care be done by whoever happens to want it, or can’t avoid it). Or we could try to change it into a norm that requires men and women to take equal responsibility for both care and market success. Or we could try to change it into a norm that universally values care in both personal relationships and relationships amongst citizens, and is therefore critical of the very ideal of market success.
Now, some of this discussion has been taking place, but, to my mind, not enough of it. I assume one explanation is that the (academic and popular) debate about gender norms often gets stuck at the question of their origins, as if their origins was overwhelmingly important. Much debate is about the social construction of gender: Some people stress that gender norms are not given but created by social practices and institutions. Others – often seen as unsympathetic to feminism – argue that they are a result of evolution. I’m increasingly of the opinion that whether gender roles are a result of evolution (as evolutionary psychologists often claim) or of social construction (as many others think) has in itself little normative relevance. More important than the origin of a gender norm are, to my mind, the following questions:
(a) Is it desirable to get rid of a particular gender norm?
(b) Does the gender norm in question promote a behaviour that is morally valuable, morally neutral or morally indifferent?
(c) Is it possible to change the norm in question, and at what (moral) cost?
Defenders of evolutionary psychology and of the social construction model can in principle meet on the same answer to (a). If a gender norm puts some people at arbitrary disadvantage then we have a plausible reason for opposing it, whatever it’s origin. If boys come into the world with less ability to express themselves and women with less talent for maths, then maybe we should invest more in boys’ linguistic competence and girl’s mathematical skills.
On (b): Some of the gender norms that regulate women’s and men’s behaviour seem to be, in themselves, morally neutral: for instance, those related to dress, appearance or courtship codes. (This is not to say that it cannot be harmful to aim for some ideals of feminine beauty, or that it is fair to expect women to invest more in their appearance than men in order to be socially acceptable.) There’s no harm in just abolishing them. But other gender norms have moral content. Women are expected to be more nurturing and caring than men. It’s very contested that women do in fact tend to respond to individual needs and relationships better than men. But the norm itself promotes a morally valuable behaviour, which suggests we should universalise, rather than abolish, it.
Yet, moving on to (c), it may be feasible to get to a less gendered society only by universalising the norms associated with male behaviours. Take professional success: Some people claim that, in order to ‘get ahead’ as a woman you need to emulate male behaviour (and over-do it a bit.) And the existence of implicit bias and tendency to discount women as knowers may mean that as a woman it is particularly important to be self-assertive in order to be taken seriously (an interesting discussion here.) If so, as a parent or mentor you may have only one effectiveway to undermine gender norms: to nudge your female child or mentoree to be more self-assertive and, more generally, emphasise that women can and should be just as self-assertive as men. This, I assume, it a genuinely difficult moral choice.
In any case, it seems to me that it’s not worth spending so much energy on discussing the origin of gender norms, but focus instead on whether we want them around and what we should replace them with. I’m curious to find out what you think.

Equal Suffering: for a just distribution of airplane flight routes

There is a long-standing debate in Belgium over the choice of flight routes around the national airport located northeast of the capital, Brussels. A plan last year that reorganized departure routes, routing the majority over densely populate areas of the capital, was met with strong protest from Brussels residents who now had to endure noise nuisance they didn’t have under the previous routes. Noise nuisance from airplanes is, according to recent studies, linked to an important increased risk (10-20% higher likelihood) of stroke, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and death. Assuming 1) that there is an unavoidable amount of flights above populated areas and 2) that it is impossible to fully deaden the noises thereby engendered, what would constitute a just distribution of flight routes? In other words, what is a just distribution of suffering and risks caused by plane nuisance? In this post we present three possible answers and defend one of them.
 
 
 
 
1.      Fair distribution of costs and benefits through the market
 
One answer to the question is to say that the market already fairly allocates the benefits and burdens associated with living under established flight routes. Rents and property prices reflect the distribution of preferences that people have when it comes to the trade-off between noise pollution and money. This approach would favour policies that maintain the status quo and reject introducing any changes in flight routes given that choices were made and expectations were built around a stability of flight routes. We see two problems with this approach. Firstly, we do not think that the choices made by some individuals to live under the flight routes are genuine choices that reflect their preferences. On the one hand, information about the health costs of airplane nuisance was not available till recently (2013). On the other hand, there is the worry that many individuals have no option but to take up residence under flight routes thereby sacrificing or risking their health not because of a preference for money but because properties in those areas are the only ones they can afford. Secondly, even if we were to be certain that choices of all individuals were genuine or to disregardvoluntariness, a problem remains with regards to the consequences those choices have on third parties, in this case the children of those who opt for health risks in exchange for cheaper rent.
 
2.      Minimization of total suffering
 
A second answer says a just distribution is one that minimizes total suffering. The argument that flight routes should be organized such that airplane nuisance affects the least number of people is popular and intuitive. It favours policies that concentrate flights over the least populated areas. This approach relies on utilitarian reasoning, and although electorally attractive, it suffers from the classical objection to utilitarianism: it sacrifices the welfare of part of the population for the aggregate welfare.
 
One could argue, however, that offering compensation to the victims (those who live under the flight routes) can address this objection. By compensating the victims we show concern for their suffering and balance out the loss in wellbeing incurred by the noise pollution. The compensation can take the form of an offer for relocation or monetary compensation. Yet, we think this response suffers from the same problems as the first answer which relies on compensation through the market. The worry is that some might opt for monetary compensation and hence nuisance and health risks because they are economically disadvantaged and that their choice at any rate unfairly impacts their children. We recognize that forced relocations could be one way to counter this worry. Nevertheless, we think it is problematic as it imposes the burdens of relocation on only part of the population making it open once more to the initial objection of sacrificing the welfare of some for the aggregate welfare.
 
3.      Equalizing suffering and risk
 
The answer we favour to the question of just distribution of nuisance and health risks is one that advocates an equal sharing of the burden because it considers it unjust to ask some to endure suffering or risk their health for the aggregate welfare. The policy favoured by this approach would be maximal dispersion of flights. Of course, maximal dispersion is only a proxy for equal distribution of burdens for there will be inevitable inequalities. Equalizing risk is impossible; those living close to the airport will be more affected than those living farther. Maximal dispersion can be complemented by forced relocation (for those areas where the risk is highest) and compensation (although the same concerns about compensation above apply)The principle of equalizing suffering and risk might strike many as counterintuitive. Don’t we by maximal dispoersion simply subject a higher number of people to nuisance and risk than would have been the case under concentration policies? We stand by this principle, however, because we think it is the only one that treats everyone as equal and expresses equal concern/respect to each. Unlike the utilitarian argument, it can be justifiable to each individual. And, we think that justifiability to all trumps efficiency considerations. 

That said, we note that a utilitarian appraoch might also support a policy of dispersion if we take into consideration the following two reasons. First, the negative impact of noise pollution is non-linear (the nuisance of two planes is higher than twice the nuisance of one). This means that concentration does not necessarily minimize aggregate suffering. Second, a policy of maximal dispersion might be highly effective in making a substantial number of citizens aware of the nuisance and dangers of airplane noise which could ultimately lead to more effective lobbying to reduce air traddic and find radical alternative solutions.
 
 
Siba Harb and Pierre Etienne Vandamme

Beneficial competition or attack on legitimate interests: What to make of Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry?

Imagine you are standing on the street and waiting for a taxi to take you home. While you are having second thoughts as to whether the convenience of a taxi ride is really worth the cost, a private car stops in front of you and the person at the steering wheel offers to drive you home for a price significantly below the taxi rate. Once you have convinced yourself of the driver’s competence and reliability, what could possibly speak against accepting the offer? Not much, it may seem.

Granted, the scene just described may appear too unrealistic to merit serious ethical reflection. In cities around the world, however, smartphone technology has recently led to a surge of structurally similar situations. Ride-hailing platforms that act as brokers between private drivers and potential clients have been experiencing rapid growth and offer rates that are often below those of established taxi industries. Uber, the most prominent example, has extended its operation to 54 countries and has created headlines by attracting more than $2bn of investment during the last two years. In many places, however, this expansion has been accompanied by fervent political controversy, and in a number of jurisdictions regulatory opposition has brought Uber’s operation to a halt.

Some of the criticisms voiced in opposition to Uber reflect concerns that seem relatively uncontroversial. For example, the enforcement of adequate safety standards in cars (including mandatory liability insurance for drivers) and appropriate forms of taxation appear to represent valid objectives, both from the point of view of public interest and in terms of ensuring a level playing field in Uber’s competition with traditional taxi providers. At the same time, these objectives do not necessarily conflict with Uber’s business model. Assuming that drivers are subject to the same safety and tax requirements as traditional taxi providers, Uber may still be able to offer lower fares. In the following, I would like to consider two additional concerns that are more fundamentally connected to the way Uber operates and that also seem more difficult to evaluate.

The first concern relates to the interest of drivers that rely on their job as a primary source of income. One of the prominent complaints of taxi associations has been that Uber’s competition threatens the ability of professional drivers to make a living from their occupation. While Uber argues that its drivers are able to achieve incomes far above the average income of taxi drivers, protests by Uber drivers cast doubt on the generalisability of this claim. Moreover, recent data shows that the majority of drivers do not treat Uber as their main source of income, which in turn may contribute to the preparedness of Uber drivers to work for lower rates. If it is indeed the case that Uber’s business model poses a threat to the interest of drivers in being able to make a living from their occupation (be it in the traditional taxi sector or after a switch to Uber), does this interest provide a legitimate basis for banning Uber?

On the one hand, Uber would appear to exemplify the general potential of freelance working arrangements to erode income levels. Given that earnings in the established taxi industry are already at the low end of the income spectrum, we may think that, if anything, policy should aim at improving wages in the taxi industry, e.g. through appropriate minimum wage legislation, rather than allowing income levels to be threatened by Uber’s business model which, in virtue of treating drivers as individual contractors, is not bound by wage regulations. On the other hand, the interest to make a living from taxi driving would have to be defended against the interest of those who are willing to offer their service at a lower price, if only as a partial source of income, and would be prevented from doing so through an ban of platforms such as Uber. Such a defence, it seems to me, cannot necessarily be taken for granted. A judgment on the issue would have to take into account the level of material well-being and the occupational alternatives of both groups.

Setting aside the interest of drivers, the second concern may be cast in terms of public or general interest. While taxi rates are legally regulated, ride-hailing platforms are free to set their prices according to demand and supply. Uber, for example, relies on rate increases in times of high demand in order to incentivize additional drivers to offer their services. As a result, on holidays or in situations of emergency, fares can increase up to fourfold, to levels far above standard taxi rates. Regulated taxi fares, in contrast, may be thought to serve an important public interest in the availability, in general, of rides at rates that are affordable for a relatively wide section of the population. To the extent to which the success of Uber and other ride-hailing platforms leads to an erosion of the supply of fix-rate taxis, people with urgent transportation needs may find themselves in situations without affordable options.

Is the interest in affordable rides compelling enough to justify a ban on unregulated services such as Uber in order to protect the supply of fix-rate taxis? The answer to this question does not seem obvious either. Among the countervailing interests to consider are the interests of customers who would take advantage of Uber’s service during times at which fares are below the taxi rate. Among them are equally going to be people with urgent needs, some of whom may in fact not be able to afford the regulated taxi fare. And to the extent to which the taxi fare is affordable for them, can they be expected to effectively subsidise the rides of others? One consideration that seems clearly relevant here is the existence of alternative modes of transportation that may serve to protect the interest in generally available affordable transportation. An answer thus appears even more context-dependent than in the case of the first concern. What do you think?

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