Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: May 2020

Structural change, individual change, and four-story walkups

In this post, Alex Madva discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the importance of an empirically-grounded approach to analysis and remediation of social injustice.

Should we “focus on structuring the social context, rather than changing the beliefs or values of individuals?”

No: Debates about the priority of social-structural versus individual change are confused, or so I never tire of arguing (see, e.g., these papers, and other contributions to this issue). The important questions are which kinds of individual and structural changes to pursue, and how best to think about individuals and structures in tandem. Which changes in individuals are most conducive to bringing about large and durable structural reforms? And vice versa? In “Integration, Community, and the Medical Model of Social Injustice,” I call for epistemic humility in these conversations. Before confidently asserting what’s required, we need to spend more time heeding, and producing, rigorous evidence.

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Attaching strings now is key to shaping post-Covid-19 future

Let’s make the post-pandemic world socially and environmentally more sustainable – a better place.

This sentiment is common these days among both politicians and academics. At the same time, many crisis management decisions by governments, central banks, and other public institutions make an appeal to the idea that “there is no alternative” (TINA) when it comes to the policies we use in the immediate term to prop up the economic and financial system.

The disconnect between the laudable long-term intentions for change and what are perceived as short-term constraints is not just disconcerting, it is also potentially harmful. It ignores important lessons from recent crises, notably the 2008 financial crisis: short-term crisis management decisions can have significant, sometimes unintended, side-effects that undermine fundamental social policy goals.

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Norms and Bias: Minding A Different Kind of Gap

In this post, Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on bias and social norms.

In our recent article, we argue that contemporary empirical work on norms and norm psychology provides a way to move beyond debates between proponents of individualist and structuralist approaches to understanding human social behavior, and to addressing oppression and injustice. We show how this empirical work fits into recent debates about implicit biases, and conclude how integrating norms and norm psychology into this conversation shows that theorists need not, indeed should not, choose between either the individualist or structuralist camp. We’ll briefly spell out the main elements of our argument below.

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Explaining Injustice: A Symposium on Bias in Context

In this post, Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of biases in oppression and injustice.

For over a century, activists and theorists have decried the role of prejudice and stereotyping in creating—and sustaining—group oppression. In an 1892 editorial, Ida B. Wells argued that white lynch mobs and their defenders seemed to believe that all black folks were “criminal, ignorant, and bestial.” In liberation movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, feminists and anti-colonial theorists likewise critiqued stereotyping and prejudice as part of their push for social equality and political self-determination. “My true wish,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.” “Shaking off the dust” requires, in part, freeing one’s heart and mind from biases.

But how easy is it to do this, and how significant are these personal, psychological transformations to ending injustices? In the 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists increasingly began to argue that social biases had gone “underground” in our psychologies, and were therefore both widespread and particularly difficult to root out. They referred to these biases as “implicit.” Implicit bias was posited as an important cause of discrimination and exclusion, capable of explaining why social inequality could persist in the absence of ill will and explicit prejudice. Yet many objections exist to explaining injustice via prejudicial attitudes and implicit bias in particular. Some worry that attention to the role of psychological factors obscures the real causes of injustice, which are structural in nature. Others argue that implicit bias theorists downplay the existence of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 21st century. Yet others contend that the scientific quality of the research is questionable and not sufficiently predictive of real-world behaviour.

In 2016 and 2017, we—along with Alex Madva—hosted a series of four workshops to scrutinize these critiques, and explore how one might understand the role of psychology in group oppression. This post provides a brief snapshot into the conference series, as well as the symposium that emerged out of it. We outline some of the symposium’s main themes and connect these with the three articles featured in it, as we do in our introduction to the symposium.

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Distributing the Deliberative Forum

There is an argument, appearing in both the higher and lower tiers of public debate, that goes something like this:

You can raise as many arguments as you want about solving Problem A (say, adoption rights for gay couples), but what you’re missing is that we should be dealing instead with the more prominent Problem B (say, how the budget is being balanced). It is there that we need to place our focus.

A first-semester philosophy student will easily recognize the red herring fallacy here. The proponent of the argument is not addressing the points presumably raised about how Problem A should be solved, but sidesteps into a different subject altogether. Some further claims might be made by the proponent that Problem A is being used as a smoke screen for Problem B, and that to deal with Problem A itself indicates a certain susceptibility of those involved to being distracted by ‘the powers that be’.

In an important sense, the philosopher’s annoyance is well warranted. The particularities of Problem B hardly bear any relevance to Problem A. But in at least some cases, I want to suggest that the ‘red herring’ could stand for a legitimate concern about how we are distributing our deliberative forum. The claim raised might not be an attempt to solve Problem A, but that another problem, Problem B, requires attention and is being overlooked without justification.

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How should the NHS respond to professional errors?

In this post, Ben Davies & Joshua Parker discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the appropriate culture to develop around mistakes in professional medicine.

Consider the following case, hypothetical but not uncommon. Hamza, a junior doctor working in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is working a night shift when he mis-prescribes a large dose of morphine to a patient who doesn’t need it. Fortunately, this error is caught by another member of his team, but at worst it could have killed the patient. Hamza was tired, stressed, and relatively inexperienced, but at his stage of training should have known to double check the dose. How should Hamza’s colleagues, and NHS institutions, respond to his serious mistake?

There has been a shift in the NHS in recent years to the idea that in responding to medical errors, institutions should adopt a ‘no blame’ culture. In our recent paper, we take a critical look at this idea, arguing that the no blame approach may throw the baby of responsibility out with the bathwater of blame.

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Should Economics be Pluralist?

Following the 2008 financial crisis, many economists, as well as many commentators and journalists, have blamed economics for its failure to explain the causes and foresee the consequences of the financial breakdown. Their core target was the dogmatic acceptance by most economists of a single theoretical framework: neo-classical economics. In (very) short, neo-classical economics is a set of theories according to which all social phenomena can be explained by appealing to the optimizing behavior of rational individuals. It also involves a heavy dose of mathematical formalization and statistical methods. In reaction to the crisis, an increasing number of students and academics started to argue for pluralism in economics, or the view that there are several possible legitimate ways of doing economics, beyond neo-classical economics. In response, some economists contended that neo-classical economics was already sufficiently pluralist. They argued that what we usually call neo-classical economics is actually made of a myriad of different (and sometimes conflicting) theories, such as game theory, public choice theory, industrial organization, social choice theory, labor economics, behavioral economics, etc.

This debate raises numerous questions. What (if anything) justifies pluralism in economics? And do we have enough of it, or do we need more? Where does pluralism stop? What does pluralism entail for individual economists? Should every economist be a pluralist? I cannot answer all these questions here. I shall only propose an answer to the first one.

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Electoral Justice in Pandemic Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped numerous aspects of our lives during the past few months. Even though it is less immediately felt in our daily routine, one of the most consequential by-products of the pandemic is its impact on the political life of our communities. Elections, in particular, have been heavily affected throughout the world, with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reporting postponments of elections in 51 countries, as of the 27th of April 2020. In other cases, elections have been held in the traditional fashion, sometimes under heavy criticism and resulting in a severely depressed turnout. All of this prompts the question of what is the appropriate governmental response in respect to holding elections during pandemic times? Should we continue to go about our electoral business as usual? Or should we postpone elections until the outbreak is over? Or should we still hold elections, but under alternative mechanisms, such as postal voting or e-voting?

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A new virus, an old problem: Why lessons from poverty and gender inequality in Brazil matter

In this guest contribution, Katarina Pitasse Fragoso and Nathália Sanglard reflect on the current COVID-19 crisis, poverty and gender inequality in Brazil.

We have aggregated Brazilian socio-economic datasets in order to offer a diagnostic on why poor women should be identified as being in high-risk groups. We will also suggest ways of providing institutional opportunities for them to survive the crisis.

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