Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Sara Van Goozen

“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 but succinctly, “Teaching Philosophy” – 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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What’s the problem with killer robots? Some reflections on the NSCAI final report

At the start of March, the US National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI), chaired by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Robert Work, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, issued its 756-page final report. It argues that the US is in danger of losing its technological competitive advantage to China, if it does not massively increase its investment in AI. It claims that

For the first time since World War II, America’s technological predominance—the backbone of its economic and military power—is under threat. China possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change.

At the same time, it highlights the immediate danger posed to US national security by both China’s and Russia’s more enthusiastic use of (and investment in) AI, noting for instance the use of AI and AI-enabled systems in cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

In this post, I want to focus on one particular part of the report – its discussion of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – which already received some alarmed headlines before the report was even published. Whilst one of the biggest  challenges posed by AI from a national security perspective is its “dual use” nature, meaning that many applications have both civilian and military uses, the development of LAWS has over the past decade or so been at the forefront of many people’s worries about the development of AI thanks to the work of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and similar groups.

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Is it fair to select immigrants based on skill?

On the first of January, 2021, the UK’s new “points-based” immigration system came into force. The creation of a “fairer” immigration system, which doesn’t treat EU citizens differently from anyone else, was one of the promises of the current UK government and at least on that count they have delivered: the new rules apply equally to all new would-be migrants (except for those from Ireland, and asylum seekers).

The new rules could, in certain respects, be considered an improvement: there are no longer differential standards for EEA and non-EEA migrants. The general salary threshold is lowered (from £30,000 to £25,600), and the six-year rule which required migrants to either switch into another immigration category (e.g. apply for residency) or leave after six years is removed. These changes are clearly positive from an equalities perspective (even if we can easily imagine an alternative immigration system which would be even better). In this post, I will ask: how fair are the new rules really?

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Was the Killing of General Soleimani Justified? An Ethical Analysis

This post is co-written with Anh Le (University of Manchester)

The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force, has, once again, ignited the debate surrounding the practice of targeted killing. Much has been said about the legality and prudence of this strike. In this post, we assess the morality of this strike. From an ethical perspective, there are two paradigms that can justify the state’s killing of individuals: just war and law enforcement (there is, in addition, the emerging framework of jus ad vim but we’ll stick with the two familiar paradigms in this post). Any justified state-sanctioned killings have to fall within the purview of these two paradigms. If a particular act of killing fails to meet the rigorous demands of both paradigms, then such killing is unjust. In this post, we will analyse both possible justifications.

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A Moral Case for Strikes against Syria? Part I: Humanitarian Intervention

Early on Saturday, 14 April, it was announced that the US, UK and France had conducted targeted strikes on three targets in Syria – a chemical weapons and storage facility, a research centre and a military bunker – in response to Assad’s (alleged) use of chemical weapons in Douma.  The reaction to this news was mixed. One key problem that was highlighted was the question of the legality of the strikes, under both domestic and international law. However, although these are of course very important issues, a different one has remained relatively unexplored: could these strikes be permissible from a moral perspective? Given that international law is largely customary, and given that law doesn’t exhaust the limits on our behaviour, this is a crucial question.

There are a number of ways in which the resort to strikes on regime targets in Syria could be justified. The common moral framework for thinking about the morality of war, just war theory, recognises a number of reasons for legitimate use of force: self-defence against aggression, defence of another state against aggression and, increasingly, intervention to alleviate humanitarian suffering. In this post and the next, Anh Le and I will consider whether the strikes could be justified according to the standards set by just war theory. Here, I will consider possibly the most controversial just cause: intervention in order to stop severe suffering. In the next post, Anh will investigate whether the strikes can be considered morally legitimate as forms of punishment.

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Against Indiscriminate Killing Even in Supreme Emergencies

For the past few weeks, people on- and offline have spoken up to question Winston Churchill’s legacy. They generally highlight his racism, his support for the use of concentration camps, his treatment of Ireland, his complicity in the Bengal famine, and more. Some protested in a Churchill-themed café. In response, others argue that he nevertheless deserves to be remembered for his role in fighting off the Nazis and inspiring the British public in dark times. There are, however, important questions to ask even about Churchill’s role in fighting the Nazis. Churchill authorised the indiscriminate killing of civilians by bombing German cities. In justifying this tactic, Churchill appealed to the extraordinarily dangerous nature of the situation. But does this justify indiscriminate killing? This question still has relevance today. US drone strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan in many respects resemble a campaign of indiscriminate violence, and so it is necessary to ask if this campaign can be justified. I will here argue that the logic of Churchill’s defence does not, and indeed cannot, justify the use of indiscriminate violence.

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