Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: September 2020

Propagandists, Degrees of Reliability, and Epistemic Nihilism

Reliability is a quality that comes in degrees. For example, a bus that always arrives exactly on time is highly reliable. A bus that often but not always arrives on time is somewhat reliable. A bus that rarely arrives on time is unreliable. People living in areas with public transit commonly discuss which among the less-than-perfectly-reliable modes of transport available are more or less reliable. In doing so, these people show they understand that reliability comes in degrees. They readily acknowledge that some imperfect modes of transport are more reliable than others.

Propagandists prefer their audiences ignore this level of nuance when assessing sources of information. A propagandist prefers that you perceive the propagandist as totally reliable while perceiving all other sources of information as totally unreliable. If this cannot be achieved, the propagandist would prefer that you view all sources as completely unreliable. At least then your decisions about whose claims to trust will rest on grounds other than the reliability of the source. 

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Massively shared obligations: making a difference – together!

In this post, Anne Schwenkenbecher discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the collective duties of citizens to address large-scale structural injustice.

Throughout the history of humankind, people have been getting together to join forces in the fight for just causes. Though collective action is a fundamental feature of human sociality, it is not always easy to establish, especially on a large scale. What if those willing to contribute are scattered across the globe? Or what if our individual contributions make no discernible difference to the outcome? In these cases, it is easy to think that the idea that we have shared moral obligations to undertake collective action is misplaced.

In a recent article, I argue against this conclusion, contending that it remains possible and important to make cumulative individual contributions towards a shared goal even if we are not able to ultimately solve any of these problems. In this way, we can collectively make a difference to global challenges such as poverty, climate change and public health threats such as antimicrobial resistance. It might seem strange to think that we all share moral obligations with people across the globe, but in an important sense we do.

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Conceptual Engineering and Structural Injustice

In this post, Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the obligation to combat structural injustice through conceptual change.

Suppose you’re at home watching the latest documentary on factory farming. You witness the horrific treatment of chickens being debeaked, the tails of pigs cut clean without pain relief, and the horns of cows seared off with a hot iron. Feeling this moral atrocity with intense anger and sadness, you wonder: What obligations do we have to combat this injustice?

Of course, there are many answers to this. Perhaps our obligations to combat the oppression of non-human animals requires directing our attention to bringing about substantive changes to material conditions – a shift in concrete social phenomena, such as the introduction of more plant-based foods or synthetic meats, that will expand our choice-sets and, hopefully, motivate us to eat better.

Yet, it is plausible that this material reconditioning will be pointless without a shift in consciousness. We don’t just need to stop eating meat. We need to change our understanding of the sorts of things that count as ‘food’. In a recent article, I argue that an important obligation that we bear in combating structural injustice concerns revising the concepts that are the basis for oppressive behavior. To see this, let’s explore the role of concepts in the construction of social reality.

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Should Academics Also Be Activists?

The debate on the role of academics in a democracy has intensified in recent years with the rise of worrying trends in global politics. The election of Donald Trump in the US, for instance, has escalated racial tensions, worsened treatment of refugees, etc. The President himself has repeatedly expressed support for Neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. The ruling parties in Poland, Hungary and Turkey have consolidated their power and continued imposing rules and espousing rhetoric that are inherently inimical to an inclusive democracy. The question is this: what should academics do when witnessing these events? Should we take an ‘activist’ role, effectively becoming academic-activists? Or should we remain neutral out of respect for objectivity? This post makes a case for the former proposition, advancing the case for academic-activists. But first, let me engage with the latter proposition – the neutral option – and show why the criticism from the ‘neutralists’ misses its target.

Thomas Wells advances what I take to be a standard argument for the ‘neutralist position’. Wells’s concern with academic activism is that it erodes the public trust in the objectivity of academic research. The sphere of activism, according to Wells, is separated from the sphere of academic research. In his words, ‘the virtues of academics are the intellectual ones of curiosity, humility, and honesty’. These are to be contrasted with the activist who lacks these commitments. If the academic’s primary task is to follow the facts wherever they lead, the activist ‘has finished with the journey [of truth finding] and arrived at the final destination’. Wells even cites Marx as a paradigm example of ‘academics make bad activists’, stating that Marx’s interpretation of the capitalist mode of production as neither scientific nor true (although I am sceptical if Marxism can be refuted in the length of one paragraph) and blames Marx for the sufferings of millions of people (which is neither true nor fair).

The first thing to say in response to Wells’s criticism of the academic-activist position is that it is not clear if academic activists lack the commitment to fact-finding and establishing the truth. In fact, many academics become activists because of what their research reveals. The nature of academic research is such that we are often in the position to come across many disturbing facts before the general public is aware of them. The training we receive also enables us to ask difficult questions, the answers to which might not be welcomed by everyone. When academics are in possession of these disturbing facts, it is their duty to promote these facts to the general public.

The second point, related to the first, is that Wells’s definition of activism is unduly narrow. Not every activist lacks the virtues that Wells defines as imperative to be a good academic: curiosity, humility and honesty. Admittedly some academic-activists do lack these qualities. They think that their title as academics means that they are beyond criticisms. They demand people to take their words as the final unflinching truth on the matter and no further debates are needed. In this sense, they have departed from the virtues which Wells correctly lays out as crucial for academics – curiosity, humility and honesty. These academics have become preachers (Jordan Peterson is an example of this type of academics).

But Jordan Peterson does not represent the only type of academic activists. Many, in fact, engage in debates in good faith and back up their claims with clear and concise arguments as opposed to pseudo, selective facts. Angela Davis and Martin Luther King (who did not hold an academic position but whose philosophy deeply influences and defines the race debate in America, To Shape a New World is a great book which documents the political philosophy of King) are examples of academic activists who apply curiosity, humility and honesty to their activism. These values make Davis and King better activists. In Letter From Birmingham Jail which King wrote in response to criticism from a group of white moderates who criticised King for his method, King used analytical skills to succinctly explain the distinction between the obligation to follow just laws and the obligation to disobey unjust laws. King’s position, in his own words, is influenced by the writings of St. Augustine which has defined Western analytic philosophy. A more recent example is found in the writings of feminist philosopher Kate Manne, whose two books Down Girl and Entitled, explain the logic and societal manifestations of misogyny. Manne’s work is philosophically rich, each argument clearly laid out and defended and yet the two books also serve as calls to resist and fight back against the culture of misogyny. In this sense, Manne joins Davis and King in the rank of academic activists.

What should we make of Wells’s worry that academic activists would erode the public trust in the academy? I think this worry is overstated. We live in an unjust world where inequality remains high, especially among Western democracies, the treatment of those less fortunate – refugees, homeless people, benefits claimants – often fails to meet the demand of justice (Professor Philip Alston, the UN special repertoire, for instance, criticises the UK’s treatment of those living in poverty, stating that it has inflicted great misery on the poor). Rawls puts that every citizen has a duty to correct unjust institutions and activism has historically proven as the best method to achieve that goal (the Vote for Women campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.). It is, therefore, true to put that academics, owing to their special training, have a role to play in establishing the facts. But once the evidence has been gathered and the facts established in accordance with the best available evidence and information one can have (the question of epistemic justification is a different one and deserves a post of its own), it is indeed everyone’s duty to change the unjust social, political and economic arrangements through activism.

Intentional (nation-)States: A Group-Agency Problem for the State’s Right to Exclude

In this post, Matthew R. Joseph discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the relationship between collective agency and immigration policy.

It seems intuitively correct – perhaps even obvious – that if we think of the nation-state as the institution of a democratic people, then states have the ‘right to exclude’. That is, states have a moral right to stop would-be immigrants from entering because a self-determining people have the right to decide on their own membership practices. Yet states often act without securing the will of the people, and we do not normally think that this compromises the independence of the citizens. Think, for instance, of decisions like diplomatic appointments, strategic military deployments, or complex fiscal policies. These are all routine decisions that shape the future of the country, but citizens are excluded from the decision-making process.

This is puzzling, because if states can act without being directed by citizens and without compromising self-determination, then self-determination cannot be a claim about states being directed by the will of citizens. If this is correct, then the self-determination justification for the right to exclude is doubtful because self-determination does not require that citizens determine state policies. As I argue in a recent article, this includes immigration policies.

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“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.

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Should We Punish Non-Citizens?

In this post, Bill Wringe discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on difficulties justifying punishing non-citizens.

Philosophers spend a surprising amount of time thinking about punishment: about what counts as punishment, about what people should and should not be punished for, and about whether and why people should be punished at all. When they do so, they tend to make a lot of assumptions about the kinds of cases of punishment they are interested in: for example, that when the state punishes someone, it is typically because they have been convicted of a genuine crime at the end of a fair trial. One assumption that often gets made in these discussions is that the person being punished is a citizen of the state that is punishing them. But it’s important to realize that states often punish individuals who are not citizens. As I argue in a recent article, this matters, because some of the ways in which we might try to justify punishing citizens don’t seem to make very much sense when we apply them to non-citizens.

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