Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: October 2021

The United States’ Perils of Presidentialism

Photo of the White House. Credit to René DeAnda.

In his seminal 1990 article “The Perils of Presidentialism,” political scientist Juan Linz pointed out that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes” and that, in contrast, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” Based in part on this observation, Linz concluded that parliamentary democracies are more conducive to stable democracies that presidential democracies.

Linz thought the United States was the exception. What, according to Linz, made the United States exceptional? His answer was that it lacked political polarization and instead had a large moderate consensus that avoided catering to extremists. But this is no longer true.

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Why we can’t quit Facebook – and what to do about it

This is a guest post by Nikhil Venkatesha PhD candidate in Philosophy at University College London, and a fellow of the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research. It draws on his paper ‘Surveillance Capitalism: a Marx-inspired account’.

On Monday 4th October, mistakes in a routine maintenance task led to Facebook’s servers disconnecting from the Internet. For six hours people across the world were unable to use Facebook and other platforms the company owns such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

The outage had serious consequences. Billions of people use these platforms, not just to gossip and share memes but to do their jobs and to reach their families. Orders and sales were missed, and so were births and deaths. At the same time, many found those six hours liberating: a chance to get things done undistracted. But what if the outage had gone on for weeks, months, or forever? Would you have been able to cope?

The previous day, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed herself as the source for a Wall Street Journal series examining how the company’s products ‘harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy’. This is the latest in a continuous stream of Facebook-related scandals: Cambridge Analytica and Brexit, Russian interference and Trump, genocide in Myanmar, the ongoing presence of scams and hate speech, and the spread of conspiracy theories about the pandemic and the vaccine which led the President of the United States, no less, to accuse Facebook of ‘killing people’. Each time a scandal appears, many of us consider quitting Facebook’s platforms. How could you participate in a social network that does these awful things?

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A Conversation with Philip Kitcher about Moral Methodology and Moral Progress

On Monday evening, I talked to Philip Kitcher about his novel account of moral progress, which he developed in his Munich Lectures in Ethics. Those lectures have just been published by Oxford University Press, together with comments from Amia Srinivasan, Susan Neiman and Rahel Jaeggi. In the Munich Lectures, Kitcher takes up the “Deweyan project of making moral progress more systematic and sure-footed”. He seeks to gain a better understanding of what moral progress is by looking at cases from history. He then proposes a methodology for identifying morally problematic situations and coming up with justified solutions to those problems. It is a methodology for moral and ethical practice (not theory!), and it manifests the hope that human beings are able to attain moral progress – even with respect to the highly complex moral problems of our times. In our conversation, we talked about the open-endedness of the moral project, the collective nature of moral insight, the kinds of conversations that Kitcher believes are needed to deal with the moral problems that humanity is facing today, and the role of technology in the moral project.

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Accounting for global and local justice in behavioural climate policy

Anthropogenic climate change is a global concern. However, that climate change concerns all of us does not mean that it would concern all of us equally. Income is the primary correlate of carbon footprint whether analysed on a national or individual level. The richest half of the world’s countries (in GDP) emit 86% of global CO2 emissions. The difference is even starker when analysed on an individual level: income level is also the strongest correlate with citizen CO2 footprint (2016 data from the Global Carbon Project). The effect of attempts to decrease carbon footprint in wealthy countries by producing climate-friendly consumer goods, energy, and transport options have had limited effect – in part because these only transform a small part of citizens’ total consumption behaviour, and in part because reductions are needed, primarily, in the amount of consumption by high-income citizens rather than in the specific goods being consumed.

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“What I would like is for people to come at the world with lots of different ways of seeing things”; Dr Liam Kofi Bright on the philosophical canon

Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens

Detail of Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, depicting among others Plato and Aristotle

In 2020, Dr Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw [in Dutch]. In that interview, he outlined his case for getting rid of philosophical canons. “The Dutch far right got very angry with me on Twitter,” Bright says. “A quite prominent far-right politician said what a terrible person I am, and a bunch of her followers agreed.” But much of this anger was based on a misunderstanding of Bright’s argument. “They assumed without really reading what I was saying that my objection was to the particular people on the canon, so say Descartes, because he was a white guy from Europe. And they, being the far right, didn’t like that. But actually my objection isn’t really to any particular items on the canon at all.”

To start off our new series of posts about teaching philosophy – titled, unimaginatively, “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century” – we caught up with Dr Bright in August 2021 to discuss his argument, and to learn more about what teaching philosophy without teaching to the philosophy canon might look like.

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