Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Aveek Bhattacharya

An Interview with Marc Stears (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

This is the second interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, following Onora O’Neill. Back in November, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Marc Stears about his experiences in politics, focusing on his time as a close adviser to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.

Prof Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. Stears was Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford in 2010 when his university friend Ed Miliband was elected leader of the opposition Labour party. After a secondment to the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears left academia in 2012 to become Chief Speechwriter for Miliband. He was a co-author of the 2015 Labour election manifesto and a member of the party’s general election steering committee. In 2013, the Telegraph ranked him the UK’s eighth most influential left-winger. After Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Stears joined another British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, as Chief Executive, before his move to Australia in 2018.

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An Interview with Baroness Onora O’Neill (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker recently interviewed Baroness Onora O’Neill, asking her about her wide-ranging experiences combining being a professor of philosophy and a member of the House of Lords (among many other things). 

Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve is Emeritus Honorary Professor at the University of Cambridge and has been a cross-bench (i.e. not aligned with any political party) member of the British House of Lords since 2000. She has written widely in ethics and political philosophy, and is particularly known for her work on bioethics, trust and the philosophy of Kant. She was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1992-2006, President of the British Academy from 2005-9, chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998-2010 and chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2012-2016.

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Introducing: Beyond the ivory tower

Most of us believe that the questions of political theory are not merely academic, in either sense of the word. We may be partly motivated by philosophical curiosity, seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but that is not the only reason we want to understand what justice requires, what equality means or how to meet our obligations to one another. Most of us think the answers to these questions have practical implications as well. If we discover what a better society looks like, we don’t just want to keep that to ourselves – we want to help make that society come about.

That implies that the ideas of political theorists ought not be limited to universities and scholarly journals, but that they should seek to influence the outside world of ‘real politics’. Indeed, many of the most venerated thinkers in the history of political thought have sought, with varying degrees of success, to put their ideas into practice – from Marx trying to direct international revolutionary socialism, to Rousseau’s constitution writing, to Burke and JS Mill sitting in parliament. Yet as political theory has professionalised, there is a concern that it has withdrawn into abstraction and esoterica and become detached from practical political concerns.

The purpose of Beyond the Ivory Tower is to speak to prominent philosophers that have, in different ways, managed to bridge the divide between academic political theory and ‘real politics’. In part, this is because their stories are interesting in their own right. It is also to help us understand the position of political theory today, and how other political theorists might achieve wider impact.

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Should governments care about the fertility gap?

In most rich countries, and increasingly in low and middle income countries, there is a ‘fertility gap’: people say they want to have more children than they end up having. For example, two-thirds of Australian 44 year olds have fewer children than they intended to, working out at one and a half children per parent. While the size of the discrepancy varies from place to place, the pattern is the same in most of Europe and the US: 

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Votes for children: going back to first principles

I’ve been planning to write something here on the arguments around lowering the voting age, for a few months now. Then Nicolas Brando beat me to it, in a very clearly argued post setting out the main positions last month. I highly recommend Nicolas’ post, which provides an excellent overview of the debate. I’m going to try to avoid covering the same ground by approaching the question from a slightly different angle.

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Are multi-buy discount bans paternalistic?

In recent months, both the central UK Government at Westminster, and the Scottish Government have released strategic plans for addressing obesity. In both cases, among the measures being considered is a ban on multi-buy discounts for unhealthy foods and drinks, such as  confectionery, crisps, cakes and sugary sodas. This would outlaw price promotions that offer a discount for purchasing a larger quantity of the product – for example, ‘buy one, get one free’, or ‘2 for £3’. Promotions of this sort have been illegal for alcohol in Scotland (though not England) since 2011.

Critics of these plans see them as “draconian” government interference with private individuals’ freedom to make their own choices regarding what to eat and drink. Indeed, on the face of it, policies like the multi-buy discount ban look like a clear example of paternalism, infringing John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle

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Is it immoral to send your children to private school?

The contest for leadership of the Scottish Labour party has re-opened an old debate: is it acceptable for egalitarians to send their children to private school? One candidate, Anas Sarwar, has come under criticism for sending his son to the £8,000 a year Hutchesons’ Grammar school in Glasgow. The row echoes similar controversies around left-wing figures, perhaps most prominently the Labour MP Diane Abbott, who claimed “it is inconsistent for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school”, and nonetheless opted to educate her son privately.

Much of the philosophical discussion on this point on this point centres around the limits of legitimate parental partiality – that is, to what extent are parents morally permitted to advantage their children over others? However, I want to approach the question from a different angle, and explore the morality of private school from a consequentialist perspective. For a given individual, would rejecting private school in favour of the state sector have a positive impact on the world? 

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What should voters look for in their politicians?

hillary-clinton-bernie-sandersAmidst the political chaos of the past few months, some have taken the opportunity to reflect on what it all means for democracy. In particular, the question of whether individual Members of Parliament are bound to permit Britain’s exit from the European Union because their voters supported it has led to a number of reflections on an elected representative’s duties to their constituents, often drawing on Edmund Burke.

However, I think the reverse relationship – how individual voters should relate to their representatives –  is just as interesting. Among the dominant sentiments around the EU referendum was confusion. In a campaign without the standard reflexive party political loyalties, many people appreciated for the first time the responsibility they carried with  their vote, but were at a loss as to how to use it. I think this is the best explanation for the repeated demands for ‘more facts’, patently absurd in a period where the internet means the vast majority have access to a volume of information inconceivable a generational earlier. People weren’t lacking for information, they were lacking for guidance as to how to use it.

The strange political alignments of recent months on both sides of the Atlantic have left many similarly rudderless, whether it is Republicans deliberating whether to support a person with as many personality flaws as Trump, or those on the left torn between the apparent idealism of Corbyn/Sanders and the supposed pragmatism of Clinton/mainstream Labour candidates.

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Voters or residents: how should we draw our electoral map?

In recent months, the Right in both Britain and the US have been accused of trying to manipulate electoral rules to increase the influence of their supporters, and diminish the power of left-leaning voters. Both cases raise important questions about the objectives and principles underpinning electoral democracy, and specifically who elected representatives are supposed to represent.

At the heart of the dilemma is the question of how electoral districts should be drawn.

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