Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Author: Andrew Walton (Page 2 of 2)

In defence of a constitution for the UK

Magna Carta Memorial, by Karnaphuli / CC BY-NC 2.0
In honour of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the United Kingdom is presently considering whether to adopt a written constitution.  Of course, the UK has various legal documents that set rules and precedents for government and legislation.  There is a Ministerial Code that outlines the duties of ministers and a Human Rights Act that stipulates various rights and freedoms to be upheld.  But it does not have a single, formal, codified document encapsulating the essence and dimensions of all these segments.  In this post, I outline two reasons in favour of the UK adopting such a constitution.
1) A Constitutional Code, which would outline essential elements and principles of government, but not be legally binding.
2) A Constitutional Consolidation Act, which would bring together the various segments of existing common law and parliamentary practice.
3) A Written Constitution, which would be a legally binding statement of basic UK law, democratic procedure, and the relationship between state and citizen.
 
What I have in mind to defend is a version of 3 not dissimilar to the draft of this option in the Select Committee Report.  I think there would be value to the UK adopting a document which details certain core existent and aspirational principles of governance – “liberty, equality, tolerance, and the rule of law” are the draft’s specification (on p.285) – and delineates their manifestation in various rules – such as the rights to life, security, and a fair trial of citizens.  This change would replace the existing patchwork of acts of parliament, legal texts, and conventions through which the UK now operates with a clearer focal point containing the essential rules of state and the principles on which they are based.
One benefit of doing so is that it would make these structures easier for citizens to find and comprehend.  Andrew Williams persuasively argues that justice can make only demands that fall within the epistemic capabilities of citizens.  Individuals must be able to know what the rules require and whether they are being observed, because it respects them as citizens to put this information within their reach and allows them assurance that others are complying.  Arguably the current UK structures fall outside this requirement.  They can be difficult even for legal practitioners to master.  But, at any rate, it seems reasonable to think that a tighter, collated outline of the rules would help meet this goal better.
Another benefit would be that it would provide a clearer mandate for a system of judicial review.  Some worry that adopting a constitution would allow (unelected) judges a political role in setting the rules of society.  Given that UK judges already have power to overrule legislation under the Human Rights Act, it is not clear that adopting a constitution is any more liable to this objection than the status quo.  But, regardless, as Ronald Dworkin argues, there is value in judges having this mandate if it protects certain principles and rights we deem important, such as those mentioned above.  And while some suggest that the British unwritten constitutional model has been good at protecting freedom over time, the evidence is that independent courts operating with safeguarded statutes have the stronger record in protecting human rights, especially those of minorities.  Moreover, offering judges a tighter, collated outline of the relevant principles and rights seems, if anything, likely to improve the viability of this task.  It would help distinguish these cases from instances of legislation more concerned with improving general welfare, thereby establishing a clearer domain and set of parameters within which their rulings must operate.
One important question asked about the project of adopting a constitution is whether there is a clear objective in doing so.  I have some (perhaps overly optimistic) hope that the process could help the UK clarify what truly follows from some of its foundational values – that equality requires far more in terms of social and economic rights than our existing structures offer, for example.  But, whatever else, I do think that bringing principles and current rules into sharper focus and alignment would set the tone and motion for a better political climate in the senses described above.  That, I believe, would be a worthy objective.

Should Teaching be Open Access?

Many universities have begun making teaching material freely available online. In 2012 the UK’s Open University launched a platform, FutureLearn, where one can take a ‘Massive Open Online Course’, from a substantial range offered by 26 university partners and three non-university partners. There are also providers in America, Asia, and Australia.  Meanwhile, some universities – Yale is a prominent example – simply place recordings of their modules on a website, many collated at iTunesU, and, indeed, one can watch some directly via YouTube, including Michael Sandel’s course on justice:
These developments raise various ethical questions.  Here is a central one: why, if at all, should teaching be open access?  I suspect that the answer to this question depends on the kind of teaching and what precisely is meant by ‘open access’. Thus, (leaving open whether the arguments are generalizable) here I will consider a narrower suggestion: all university lecture series (where feasible) should be freely available online. Here are two reasons that speak in favour of this idea.
First, people (worldwide) should have the opportunity to know what is known. Knowledge is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable and university lecture series are one (important) place where knowledge is housed. These points alone suggest there is some reason to give people access where possible. (Similar thoughts can be advanced in favour of internet available commons, such as Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as discussed previously on this blog). Perhaps there are cases in which access to certain knowledge must be restricted – certain intelligence information during a just war, for example. But the vast majority of information delivered through university courses is harmless (in that sense) and granting access to it would simply mean granting access to cutting edge research in a form engineered for easy consumption.
Second, the move could have a (Pareto-efficient) egalitarianising effect on university education. To wit, by giving students access to lectures from courses similar to those on their own degree, we might reduce various differences in educational and developmental opportunities that exist between attendees of different universities. Benefits would include better access to teaching more suited to one’s learning style and better accessibility for a more diverse range of users, points often emphasised about digitalising learning materials.
Here, meanwhile, are responses to some worries and objections:
Who would pay for it? The exercise would be fairly costless: many universities are already equipped with the necessary facilities and posting lectures online is fairly straightforward. In that sense, it would be funded largely by existing revenue streams from governments, research councils, and students.

Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.

Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.

Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
Do online educational resources actually help people learn?  Much here might depend on ideas about learning theory.  Those who think we learn through stimulus and repetition (‘behaviouralists’ and, to some extent, ‘cognitivists’) are likely to place greater value on the idea than those who think we learn through communication and collaboration (‘collectivists’ or ‘constructivists’). But formats might be tinkered to respond to what would be most beneficial here, and, in any case, does not the potential of the benefits outlined above suggest that it is worth a try?

Privatising Royal Mail: An Objection to Sub-Contracting a Commitment

Much has been written against the privatisation of Royal Mail. Often objections focus on one of two issues. First, majorities of both workers of Royal Mail and the British public were against it. Second, there are worries it will undermine the service it provides, with increased prices and decreased access in remote areas only two of the problems already cited. I sympathise with both worries, but my sense is that there is also a further difficulty, something that bothers me beyond concerns for popular sanction and proper provision.

There is clearly something problematic about sub-contracting certain actions. I should not, I think, appoint someone else, even someone who might do a better job, to write the message in my partner’s anniversary card. Such qualms can also arise in group actions. For example, if I am a member of a neighbourhood watch group, it does not seem appropriate for me to have a third party fulfil my duties. Some worry here regards proper provision; perhaps a third party would not have the same interests in doing the job aptly. But even aside from this worry, even if the third party was more reliable and more vigilant, I think the group could object to me outsourcing the task. “We did not agree merely that the job is done”, they might say, “we agreed that you would do it”. Unless I had good reasons for delegating the duty – that I was incapacitated by illness, for example – I think I owe them an apology. I seem to have violated some constraint assumed in our commitment.

Similar cases can arise in the citizen-government relation. It can be thought that government is justified, in part, by its contribution to realising collective goods. There are goals individuals cannot achieve alone, so they collectively empower an agent to coordinate these activities. Obvious examples include national defence and law and order. When a government assumes these roles, it provides a commitment to undertake these tasks on behalf of a population, and, again, there seem cases where sub-contracting this commitment is inappropriate. I suspect that it is something like this concern which explains the high numbers uncomfortable with privatising prisons. This function seems like a collective end handed to a collective agent that, through privatisation, it is not performing. Even if it is done effectively by the sub-contracted, I think we can say: “but we asked you to do it”.

Does this argument apply to the postal service? I guess it is most plausible to suggest that the relevant collective good asked of the government here would be ‘to provide a coordinated means of communication between dispersed individuals’. Mediums other than postage could meet this requirement. However, my sense is that when the government does not provide an alternative medium – whilst it does not, itself, provide, say, phone or internet connection to all – a case can be made that it should provide one means of communication for its population, a default option of sorts. We collectively empowered an agent to facilitate nationwide contact and when they sub-contract or privatise that role completely, I think we can say: “but you committedto providing at least some form of communications network for us”.

There are cases where a government would be excused this responsibility: 1) if the population agreed to sub-contracting; 2) if the government were unable or found it too costly to provide the service. 1 does not apply here since the population did not have a say, and, as noted above, were against privatisation. 2 does not apply to a business making profit. In the case at hand, I contend that privatising Royal Mail involves objectionably sub-contracting a commitment, and that there is some (additional) reason for the government to reverse that decision or provide an alternative default option for societal communication.

 

Should the UK be granted a referendum on membership in the European Union?

My answer to the question posed in the thread title is a ncaa tentative ‘no’.  My answer is tentative partly because I usually bestow considerable value on democratic choice and partly because I remain worried that my natural negative reaction to all Tory policy might cloud my judgement.  But, to the best I can exempt myself from this partiality, I do think that the ‘no’ answer is correct.  Here is my reasoning.

In the literature on secession, there wholesale mlb jerseys are two broad positions.  On the one hand, some think there is a direct or primary right to secede.  That is, groups always have a right to choose to leave an existing state provided that they, as a group, meet some criteria.  The usual criteria are (a) being a ‘people’ with a shared set of cultural traditions or heritage distinct from those cheap jerseys of the wider nation of which they are presently a part or (b) democratic election (e.g., by majority vote).  On the other hand, some think that there is ‘only’ a default or secondary right to secede.  Groups have this right of only if their present government mistreats them in certain ways.  Here, the right to secede is like the right to revolution.  It is ‘activated’ if governments abuse citizens’ most basic rights, by, for example, torturing them or imprisoning them for their political beliefs.
My view is that secession cannot be a primary right.  It seems to me too permissive to allow groups such broad discretion on leaving an existing state.  In certain cases, this would permit patently unjust possibilities, such as the white South Africans responding to the end of Apartheid by voting to form an independent nation.  More generally, we surely think that there are limits on what a people can choose.  People do not have a right to disenfranchise part of the existing population of a nation on matters that concern them all, so why should they have a right to vote for border changes that would have the same effect?
Thus, my sense is that any right to secede from a political association must exist only on the condition that been the political association surpasses a certain threshold of injustice.  If this line of reasoning is applied to the case of the EU, the UK clearly does not have a right to vote on its membership.
I guess that there are two possible objections to this view.  First, it might be argued that the EU is nfl beyond a threshold of injustice.  I find it difficult to see wholesale mlb jerseys how such a position could be substantiated.  Indeed, given some of its decisions, such as voting rights for prisoners, I am inclined to think it propagates less injustice than the UK.  But, at any rate, it clearly does not fall foul of grave human rights abuse or anything that would permit rebellion.  Second, it might be argued that there is a difference between seceding from a state and seceding from a supranational organisation.  I cannot say that I disagree with this thought, but I do not think that the difference will be sufficient to challenge my central claim.  Whatever the differences, the EU wholesale jerseys is a political association with binding rules of membership subject to demands of justice.  The parallels are not so far from much decentralised federal structures like Switzerland.  So, just as I believe the people of Zug do not have a right to choose independence from the Confœderatio, I do not think the UK should be granted a referendum on European Union membership.

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