Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: January 2022

Are Persons with Intellectual Disabilities Unjustly Disenfranchised?

In July 2020 the Romanian Constitutional Court declared that the institution of judicial interdiction, which deprived people deemed to have severe intellectual disabilities[1] of numerous civil rights, is unconstitutional. Thus, while the Constitution itself still requires that people with intellectual disabilities placed under judicial interdiction are to be disenfranchised, the provision is de facto inapplicable, making the next round of elections the first in Romania’s history where people with severe intellectual disabilities will be included in the demos. Other countries have more explicitly embraced this type of enfranchisement, with both France and Spain making legislative changes that grant voting rights to people with intellectual disabilities in 2018. Consequently, about half of EU Member States now endorse the electoral exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, in some form, while the other half fully include them. At a global level, the situation is starkly different, however, with a 2016 study on all 193 UN countries showing that only 11% had provided full enfranchisement up to that point. Thus, it can be said that as of 2022, only a small minority of states abide by Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to which states should “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote […]”.

Of course, the normative force of arguments for or against any form of disenfranchisement cannot be primarily derived from the provisions of international law. And, in fact, even from this perspective any judgement would not be so clear-cut, considering the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the practice of disenfranchisement for reasons of intellectual capacity as legitimate in the case of Strøbye and Rosenlind v. Denmark. So what can be said in justification of this policy?

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The EU needs to be able to Expel Autocratic Members

This is a guest post by Tom Theuns, Assistant Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at Leiden University (tweeting @TomTheuns). It discusses his recent work on how the EU should handle member states that violate democratic values


The democracy and rule of law crisis in the EU has now lasted over a decade. One of the problems has been that the main instrument for responding to democratic backsliding in a member state, the infamous Article 7 (A7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), is ineffective. Given that the two states most active in dismantling democracy in Europe—Poland and Hungary—have pledged to support one another, A7 is crippled by a unanimity requirement.

A7 is supposed to sanction violations of the fundamental values of the EU listed in Article 2 TEU. These include democracy, the rule of law and equality. The sanction in A7 is the disenfranchisement of a backslidden state in the Council of the EU. In a recent article, I argue that A7 is not only ineffective but also normatively incoherent. Instead of disenfranchisement, I think the final sanction for democratic backsliding should be expulsion from the EU.

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On how the Dunning-Kruger effect complicates normative considerations

Individuals are notoriously self-serving in assessing their competences either in absolute terms or when comparing themselves to others. We are likely to think we are more sociable than others, better than most at judging character and sincerity, or that we perform above average in our workplaces. We often overestimate our levels of knowledge when we objectively know very little. In fact, this bias seems most potent when we are oblivious about some matter. At such times, we may act quite unrestrained in peddling the most absurd notions as facts to others. Our virtual lives of late, cluttered with half-baked claims and notions about the pandemic, offer plentiful evidence for this. What is even more disheartening is that, as the famous Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us, the more incompetent we are, the less likely we are to become aware of our own incompetence. Individuals often fall victim to this effect regardless of their intelligence, social grouping, or their successes at anticipating and counteracting a self-serving bias in some other area.

Despite being familiar in some form for several decades, the Dunning-Kruger effect has not seriously grabbed the attention of normative philosophers. Only epistemologists have seriously considered how it may affect epistemic obligations, for instance, how we should act in circumstances of assumed peer disagreement (Wiland, 2016). We have hardly considered the kinds of moral obligations we might have as individuals, or how we ought to shape public policies and institutions in the face of widespread Dunning-Kruger effects.

Consider, for instance, the decision of a highly educated person whether she should go into politics and compete for public seats. Imagine that this person is educated broadly enough to offer meaningful contributions over a range of public concerns. “But alas”, she reflects, “I don’t know enough about all the relevant laws, or how to draw up or revise a budget. I wasn’t trained for public administration. So I’m hardly competent to take up such a job.” But the educated person fails to consider that if she decides not to pursue the job, a far less competent person, one with far fewer scruples of the aforementioned kind, may attempt to take it up instead. Apart from considering merely whether she is qualified, she must assess whether the Dunning-Kruger effect will generate unwavering confidence in candidates who are far less qualified. So in the face of a lurking threat of social harms arising from incompetence, is the educated person obliged to overcome her reservations?

A further complication arises from the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: in some cases, the truly competent exemplify tendencies to second-guess their competences, even if the area of competence is much more specific than in the previous example. Bertrand Russell noticed both sides of these self-assessment difficulties, when he famously stated that “in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1933). Simply, the awareness of the competent that there is still much they don’t know saps their confidence, whereas the incompetent are unperturbed in their lack of awareness of just how incompetent they are. But in that case, the obligation to overcome their reservations may include a psychological hurdle for the competent that makes it particularly demanding.

Assigning the competent with this obligation faces two other crucial difficulties. First, the main lesson of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that those who believe they are competent may very easily turn out to be incompetent. Thus, it’s quite possible that those taking up the obligation to save us from the incompetent, with the best of intentions, are themselves incompetent. When there is no one who could vouch for their competence, self-assessors will often overestimate themselves. Therefore, committing ourselves to beat the incompetent runs at least some risk that we are thereby enabling our own incompetence.

Second, even if we could safely and reliably establish, with the help of others, that we are truly competent, a moral question remains: how much should we be asked to do? How far-reaching is our obligation to clean up after the incompetent, or preventing them from ever making a mess? Surely, if we are competent, we are allowed to appeal to an “agent-centered prerogative […] a modest right of self-interest” (Cohen, 1996), not to invest most of our time, like in the case of taking up a public seat.

Whether moral complications arising from the Dunning-Kruger effect should affect the decisions of individuals, and how, remains an open question that requires serious thought. However, we might think that Dunning-Kruger effects are best neutralized at various levels of institutional structure. Education, for instance, might be attuned to help the most competent in overcoming their imposter syndromes, in steering and reassuring them towards positions of great social importance, and encouraging them to branch out of their epistemic comfort zones. This can, in turn, help the competent in overcoming their psychological barriers when taking up individual moral obligations.

If, however, education fails, the Dunning-Kruger effect stands out as an important consideration in setting up our electoral and governmental institutions. There is no doubt that the effect influences both the incompetent and the competent in their voting behavior, as well as in their decisions to pursue positions of leadership. An institutional arrangement that prevents the incompetent in some way from hijacking important public decisions may very well be the last frontier at which self-serving biases are to be repelled.

Mental Illness and Microaggression

Not only do people with mental illness frequently encounter negative stereotypes in news, films, books and in everyday speech, others often give misguided advice or are dismissive towards their mental distress. Yet claims by people with mental illness to have experienced discrimination in the form of microaggression might also be too easily dismissed: could not mental distress lead to increased emotional sensitivity, leading them to overreact?

Microaggressions, the small slights regularly experienced by marginalised people, are near daily reminders that someone is an outsider or a second-class citizen. On their own they may be slight, but their cumulative impact is anything but.  As part of a wider social pattern of oppression, they are deeply harmful. Microaggression can be behavioural such as when a store security guard is more likely to accuse a black customer of shoplifting; verbal, such as when a racialised person is regularly asked where they are “really” from; or environmental, such as when all buildings are named after white people and whiteness is assumed as the norm. (Examples of microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality can be found here.)

People with mental illness regularly encounter negative stereotypes about themselves. Consistently depicting a group negatively, with limited access to positive role models, is an example of environmental microaggression. In both news and fiction, people living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often depicted as violent or as bad parents. In crime novels, the culprit is often mentally disturbed. In her autoethnographic essay documenting how repeated exposure to this material affects her, Jennifer Eisenhauer writes: “The ways in which mothers who have bipolar disorder are portrayed in popular media becomes part of my daily lived experience. This is not because I see these portrayals everyday, but because these images and narratives become part of how I see myself and how others view me.”

Beyond these common negative stereotypes, people experiencing mental illness often encounter comments and behaviour which are insensitive or unhelpful. The many lists and articles about “what not to say to someone with mental illness” can be seen as guides to avoiding microagression. The Australian mental health charity SANE recommends avoiding the following:

– “Get over it / snap out of it”
– “It’s all in your head”
– “Stop whinging”
– “You have the same illness as my…”
– “You don’t seem unwell”
– “They’re so OCD!”
– “Have you thought of trying this, that or the other?”
– “You don’t need medication”
– “You need to be honest”
– “Get a good night’s sleep, exercise and look for the positives”
– “Oh yeah, that’s quite common isn’t it?”
– “Time heals. It will get better”

While stating that a mental illness is quite common seems to indicate acceptance, it can be experienced as minimising one’s distress. “You have the same illness as my…” is not that different from telling a black person that you are ok with black people and are not a racist because you have black friends. Other apparently well-meaning comments are problematic because they place the responsibility for recovery on the sufferer. Telling people to “think positive”, “what do you have to be upset about when your life is so good” or assuming that taking up yoga and eating large quantities of blueberries will solve someone’s problems, make it sound as if people could simply “snap out of it” if only they could be bothered to try. Such examples of insensitivity and rudeness accumulate into a pattern of social assumptions that mental illness can be overcome with application and self-management. This, in turn, moralises mental illness – you would not be depressed if only you tried harder, you are not trying that hard, therefore you are doing something wrong. Such moralisation further undermines the confidence of those with mental illness.

Appeals to microaggression are often dismissed with the claim that people are simply oversensitive. The complainers are snowflakes, self-deluded by victim culture. This criticism appears even more forceful here, as people with mental illness are often prone to interpreting events in a negative light or ruminating on the comments of others. We need not go as far as assuming completely delusional thinking. Depressed people often feel disproportionate guilt, feel as if they have failed or feel unloved. Anxiety can lead us to blow the importance of things out of proportion, or to worry about events that are unlikely to occur. Even psychologists sometimes assume that those with mental illness primarily experience self-stigma and expect discrimination that outweighs the actual stigma and discrimination from others. They claim that the negative attitudes are mostly in people’s imagination. Given this background how can we be sure that experiences of microaggression are not simple misinterpretations of well-meaning acts?

This is where the work of philosopher Regina Rini comes in extremely useful (even though mental illness is not a case she discusses). In her book-length analysis of the concept of microaggression, she gives an “ambiguous experience account of microaggression: what makes an act or event count as microaggression is that it is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly but not certainly instantiating oppression.” Her definition takes into account that microaggressions are both subtle and ambiguous. Part of the damage they do is to make already marginalised people suspicious of their own interpretation of events. While their own interpretations are not always correct, Rini argues that as long as on balance members of a marginalised social group are likely to correctly notice subtle discrimination, we should accept that microaggression does happen, even if we sometimes disagree about whether any individual case is an instance of it.

Are people with mental illness reliable in this way? They are usually knowledgeable about their symptoms, medications and medication side effects. Moreover, most people, even with chronic mental illnesses, are not always unwell and out of touch with reality. Even when unwell, mental illness does not affect all domains of thinking. Experiencing irrational guilt does not imply an inability to recognise condescending remarks. The extensive overlap among “what not to say” lists (not all of which are blatant copies of each other) also indicates a consensus over what constitutes microaggression for people with mental illness.

So, rather than worrying whether an individual instance counts as a microaggression, we should be concerned with identifying the most common forms of microaggression that affect people with mental illness. If people with mental illness identify a set of unhelpful and discriminatory remarks, behaviours or environmental factors, we can safely say that microaggression does affect people with mental illness, regardless of any tendency of some people with mental illness to find social slights particularly painful. Even in these cases, the painfulness of these experiences must not be discounted. Another strength of Rini’s account is that it puts the focus on the experiences of marginalised people. Even though they may at times be mistaken about their interpretation of events, we should still accept the word of those experiencing mental illness about how those events made them feel.

Research shows that microaggression does affect people with mental illness in systematic ways. For example, Yanos et al found that there were “three main categories of experiences in this regard: assumptions of inferiority (for example, statements indicating that it was assumed that the person is not capable of doing what most people can do), patronizing microaggressions (for example, dismissive statements suggesting assumptions that people with mental illness are child-like), and subtle behaviors indicating fear of mental illness (for example, moving away from a person who is known to have a mental illness).”

Thus, we have every reason to accept general claims of microaggression in the case of mental illness. What can we do about this? Rini recommends avoiding, or at least questioning, material with harmful stereotypes in order to avoid internalising these ourselves. For their own part, writers, whether of fiction, non-fiction or journalism, can reduce lazy stereotyping in their work. (There is plenty of advice available. As an example, philosopher Sofia Jeppsson has written a blog post on the common problems with the way mental illness is depicted in science-fiction.) We can follow the advice of “what not to say to people with mental illness” lists. We can assume that someone who lives with an illness has already tried all the obvious remedies. Most importantly, we should listen and if someone says something is unhelpful, accept this instead of trying to convince them that they are mistaken about their own experiences.

Is disruptive climate activism morally controversial?

We are in the midst of an emergency. Drastic action by states, businesses, and individuals is required if we are to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. Activism is a necessary part of and precursor to this action. And increasingly it is disruptive climate activism that is being advocated and engaged in. To many people, this kind of activism will seem morally controversial and perhaps even unjustified. But is it? And, if so, why exactly? Let’s examine three worries one might have.

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