Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Year: 2020 (Page 1 of 9)

Should Uber Become a Worker Cooperative?

In this post, Thomas Ferretti discusses his recent article in the Journal of Social Philosophy on A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective on the Platform Economy.

Uber Eats worker – Pixabay License

The rapid growth of the ‘sharing’ or ‘platform’ economy, with the rise of well-known brands such as Zipcar, Uber, Airbnb, or CouchSurfing, has raised enthusiasm but has also generated concerns about precarious work. In my new article in the Journal of Social Philosophy, I investigate, from a broadly liberal egalitarian perspective, how public administrations should regulate these new kinds of economic organizations in a way that respects principles of justice and that maximizes the prospects of the least advantaged. In particular, I argue that preventing unfair inequalities could require changing the kind of organizations running these platforms.

A driving motivation is to contribute to the renewed and much-needed attention that political philosophy is giving to the different forms and ownership structures of economic organizations and their respective impact on the distribution of resources in society. Recent examples include the work of Elizabeth Anderson, Abraham Singer, or Martin O’Neill.

One contribution of the article is to make organizational transformations central to our understanding of the platform economy. I use theories of organizations to distinguish and to shed light on two processes facilitated by information technologies. First, I investigate the replacement of private goods with club goods: a car-renting organization like Zipcar, for example, proposes to replace your ownership of a ‘car’, an excludable and rival private good, with a ‘membership’ to the Zipcar club giving you access to the use of a car. While clubs have always existed, information technologies improve the capacity of organizations running clubs to manage the shared use of goods by facilitating user coordination in real-time, thus reducing coordination costs and congestion. This means that for a given pool of goods, clubs can now include more members, thus reducing the per capita cost of the pool and the membership cost. I note that this also allows sharing a wider variety of goods in new ways such as kick scooters.

Second, I investigate the creation of new markets through online platforms. Such platforms allow market agents to gather, pool, and analyze market information about suppliers and consumers in much more effective ways which reduce the costs of contracting directly on the market. This allows firms to externalize more transactions previously performed within their organization to market contractors. The distributive effects of such ‘creative destruction’ are more complex but I explain how it can negatively affect the worst off in at least three ways: a. because good jobs are replaced by more precarious ones and the risk of fluctuating demand is shifted from firms to contractors, b. because workers having to change occupation face transition costs, and c. because existing regulations and social protections are disrupted.

A second contribution of the article consists in clearly distinguishing two distributive strategies to mitigate inequalities resulting from these organizational transformations. Following a mitigating strategy, public administrations could simply implement policies such as redistributive taxation and adapted social protections to compensate people on the losing side of these market disruptions. But they could also go further and follow an organizational strategy: in addition to the previous mitigating policies, public administrations could aim at changing the kind of organizations running clubs and platforms.

In the article, I briefly give reasons to believe that clubs have mostly positive distributive effects because they cut the cost of accessing various goods such as books, tools or cars. Therefore, in my view, public administrations may not need to change the kind of organizations running these clubs and may simply need to intervene to help the least well-off access club goods through targeted subsidies to further cut membership costs, to help launch service points in poorer neighborhoods, and to improve digital literacy.

By contrast, I argue that the mitigating strategy may be insufficient to limit unfair inequalities created by online platforms and we may need to change the organizations running them. This strategy includes subsidies supporting more egalitarian cooperative platforms (of contractors and users) to help them outcompete current investor-owned platforms as well as more intrusive policies aiming at breaking the monopolistic tendencies of many platforms by forcing them to share their data and by making contractors’ and users’ reputational data portable to alternative platforms to improve competition.

The article ends by discussing the merits of the organizational strategy as well as an important challenge. Indeed, I underline that a presumption of formal freedom could lead us to believe that the more intrusive policies of the organizational strategy are justified only if they are necessary to realize justice and maximize the prospects of the least well-off; so, if changing the organizations running platforms is not absolutely necessary to maximize the situation of the least-well-off (if mitigating policies are sufficient and/or if promoting coops is inefficient) then, more interventionist policies may not be justified. In the paper, I outline the kind of arguments needed to respond to this challenge but more research is needed to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the necessity of the organizational strategy.

What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?

In this post, Spencer Case discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the problem of moral extremism.


Some reformers have embraced the label “extremist” as a badge of courage. In 1964, Republican  presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater famously said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The grain of truth here is that some reasonable views are labeled “extreme” for being outside of mainstream opinion. Nevertheless, I think that genuine moral extremism really is a bad thing. In my new article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, I give an account of moral extremism as a vice. Roughly, a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should. Pace Goldwater, it’s plausible that intense devotion to justice – as fallible humans understand it – might cause us to miss nuances, or to demonize people who disagree with us.

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From Armchair to Engaged Philosophy

by Leslie Herman.

Philosophy as a method of study is perceived as detached from reality. When we think of a philosopher, we tend to imagine him (unfortunately, we usually imagine a man) with his books, locked in a room, roaming in a field alone with his thoughts. Traditionally, philosophy is considered as a detached exercise: it is a research process between me, my books and my thoughts; at best, it is considered as an exercise of Socratic dialogue with peers and colleagues. Even in more “engaged” philosophical subdisciplines (political, social, moral philosophy, or ethics), philosophers have tended to work in a vacuum; unencumbered by the contingencies and general messiness of everyday reality, they attempt to find absolute truths about justice, inequality, the good, or society, without looking out the window to see what justice, inequality, the good or society are in real life.

While there are, indeed, benefits to armchair philosophising, I want here to briefly explore its limitations, and to encourage the use of an alternative philosophical method, especially when working on topics or issues that are relevant to our society, our political system, and our understanding of justice. Namely, I want to encourage direct engagement with our subjects of research, not only as sources of information, but as structural contributors to the development of our research projects and its priorities.

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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.

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