There 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.
Year: 2015 (Page 2 of 3)
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In 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. “
This post discusses 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 freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of these 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.
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.
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?