Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Journal of Applied Philosophy (Page 1 of 3)

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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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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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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Causation and Liability to Defensive Harm

In this post, Lars Christie discusses his recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on why causal responsibility is not a requirement for individual liability to defensive harm.


The traditional view in just war theory has been to distinguish sharply between combatants and non-combatants, holding that the latter group is immune from intentional targeting in war, whereas the former can be targeted without further discrimination.  A new revisionist position in contemporary just war theory rejects this view and the underlying concept of collective liability on which it rests.  According to the revisionist view, whether a person is liable to attack depends solely on their individual moral responsibility for causally contributing to an unjust threat.

A familiar criticism of the revisionist view is that it is too permissive. Since many non-combatants are responsible for individual contributions to the war the revisionist view counterintuitively rules many non-combatants liable to attack. In my article, I present a new and different worry. If causal responsibility is a requirement on individual liability, then many combatants will escape liability to defensive harm, because their actions do not in fact causally contribute to the war. This implication makes the revisionist view too restrictive, or so I argue.

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Intellectual Property and the Problem of Disruptive Innovations

In this post, Sam Duncan discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the rights and duties of intellectual property.


Intellectual property is perhaps the most valuable form of property in the modern economy, and many recently minted multimillionaires and billionaires owe their fortunes to some sort of intellectual property claim. But why think that the creators of intellectual property deserve such outsized rewards? The most obvious answer seems to be to invoke some kind of Lockean or labor-based theory of intellectual property, which are usually taken to grant strong property rights to intellectual property with few obligations. However, as I argue in my recent article, these theories actually entail that those who claim many forms of intellectual property have very strong obligations to those made worse off by them. In fact, they would rule popular solutions to the job losses that many forms of intellectual property bring about, such as the universal basic income, to be entirely inadequate.

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Causal Contribution in War

In this post, Helen Beebee & Alex Kaiserman discuss their recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how a probabilistic account of causation speaks to civilian immunity in war.


According to orthodox just war theory, combatants in armed conflicts don’t have rights against being intentionally killed. But this position has come under sustained attack from moral theorists in recent years. What grounds permissible killing in war, many argue, is just what grounds permissible killing in ordinary life.

It’s not OK to kill someone out of revenge, or even because they just stole your expensive laptop and that’s the only way to retrieve it; but it is OK to kill them if they pose an immediate and unjustified threat to the life of you or your neighbour or a stranger, and killing them is the only way of averting that threat. Similarly for combatants: the right to life is universal, so if a combatant lacks such a right, it’s not in virtue of being a combatant, but rather in virtue of having forfeited her right by wrongfully contributing to an unjustified lethal threat to another person, thereby rendering her liable to be killed in self- or other-defence.

One consequence of this approach is that not all combatants are equal. If the armed forces of Aggressorland unjustifiably threaten the citizens of Victimland, they may forfeit their rights not to be killed by the armed forces of Victimland. But in threatening to respond in this way, the armed forces of Victimland do not forfeit their rights against being intentionally killed, because the threat they pose is justified. In some ways, then, this revisionist approach to the ethics of war offers more moral protections to agents in armed conflicts than traditional just war theory.

The focus of our paper, however, is on the consequences of such a view for non-combatants. On the face of it, if combatants shouldn’t be stripped of their rights to life simply in virtue of being combatants, then neither should noncombatants be allowed to keep their rights to life simply in virtue of being non-combatants. The civilians of Aggressorland may have wrongfully contributed in all kinds of ways to the unjustified threat to Victimland: by voting for the war, manufacturing arms, providing food and medical assistance, or writing pro-war articles, for example. The revisionist seems forced to concede that these civilians, as well as the combatants they support, are legitimate targets of defensive attack.

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Causation Doesn’t Come in Degrees

In this post, Carolina Sartorio discusses her recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how degrees of causation can (and cannot) bear on liability to harm.


The recent literature on the ethics of war draws heavily on the concept of causation. Your liability to be attacked during a war, some suggest, depends on the extent of your causal contribution to an unjust threat. Prominent theorists like Jeff McMahan and Cecile Fabre embrace a principle of civilian immunity on this basis: they claim that civilians (unlike soldiers) aren’t liable to attack because their causal contributions to an unjust war are typically very minimal. These ideas rest on an important assumption: that causation comes in degrees. But, is this assumption true? In my article, I argue against it. I claim that the appearance that causation comes in degrees is an illusion that can be explained away.

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Introduction: Symposium on War and Causation

In this post, Helen Frowe and Massimo Renzo introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how accounts of causation bear on ethics in war.


Causation, and differences in types of causal contribution, underpin various issues in the ethics of war and defensive harming. For example, one of the key ideas about defensive harming is that of moral liability to defensive harm. A standard view of liability is that a person forfeits her right not to suffer harm if she is morally responsible for a threat of unjust harm to others. Her specific connection to the threat might matter in several ways – the degree, type, and proximity to causation might all make a difference to her liability. Some writers argue that although civilians causally contribute to threats of unjust harm in war, they do not contribute enough to render themselves liable to (lethal) attack. Others argue that making distinctively military causal contributions, such as providing weapons, makes one a candidate for liability, but contributing food or medical supplies does not. Still others argue that one’s position in the causal chain bears on one’s liability: only those who directly pose threats of unjust harm, or who are sufficiently causally proximate to them, are liable to defensive harm.

However, despite their centrality to some of the most important issues in the ethics of war and self-defence, there has been very little exploration of whether these claims withstand scrutiny from the perspective of our best accounts of causation. To cast some light on this, the Conversations on War project, which is run by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace and the YTL Centre at King’s College, London, set out to explore how philosophers working on the ethics of war can draw on research in other areas of philosophy to improve our accounts of harming in war, and how research on the ethics of war might challenge or illuminate work in those other areas. In this post, we summarise our introduction to a symposium that arose from these conversations that offers a substantial critical analysis of the role of causation in contemporary work on the ethics of war and self-defence, and is an important move towards making work on just war theory and defensive harm less insular.

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Consultation that silences

In this post, Dina Lupin Townsend discusses her recent article co-authored with Leo Townsend in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the silencing of indigenous communities in consultation processes.


Ten years ago, I was working as an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, an NGO and environmental law clinic in South Africa. My work involved representing impoverished rural communities whose land and livelihoods were threatened by mining activities. With almost no resources, these communities were battling some of the most powerful multinational companies in the world.

Despite this inequality of resources, these communities should have been able to hold mining companies to account under South Africa’s rights-based legal system. The law requires that any development includes those affected within decision-making processes. Communities have a collective right to participation in these processes, and mining companies are obligated to consult with them before undertaking any activities.

On the face of it, the right to consultation should ensure that communities are kept informed and given a say in the decision-making process. In practice, however, consultation with affected communities is often little more than a box-ticking exercise. The clients I represented frequently complained of being unheard and marginalised by the very processes that were meant to empower their voices.

The experience of South African communities is far from unique in this regard. Faced with similar circumstances, Indigenous and rural peoples across the world have demanded that they be consulted and given opportunities to have their say about industrial activities on their land. But while states and companies are increasingly recognizing that they must consult affected communities, the consultation processes that they undertake often fail to give these communities a real say. Indeed, as Leo Townsend and I argue in a recent paper, there are consultation practices that routinely prevent communities from having their say and thereby silence their voices.

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