Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Author: Tom Parr

What’s bad about unemployment and what should we do about it?

When we analyse the justifiability of different education policies as well as various governmental interventions in the job market, we typically do so on the assumption that there is something bad about unemployment – indeed, there are many things bad about unemployment.  Whilst this assumption is no doubt correct, I suspect that it is often helpful to be more precise about what exactly is bad about unemployment. This is because each of these bads may admit of very different solutions.

It is common to begin by noting that unemployment can be stigmatising, such that individuals who are unemployed are subject to others’ negative attitudes. This can be experienced as disrespectful and damaging to one’s self-confidence. It is significant that proponents of these attitudes typically defend their views on moralistic grounds: “The unemployed should be stigmatised because they are sponging off of the state – off of others’ efforts!”

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Defending Quotas

 
 
We live in a society that contains severe gender injustice. One way in which to combat this injustice is via the use of quota policies. A quota policy is a policy that requires that members of certain specified groups to make up some stipulated minimum complement of an organisation or group of organisations. For example, we may require women to constitute at least 40% of non-executive board directorships. The use of quotas can be a highly effective tool for changing or maintaining the make-up of an organisation or group of organisations, especially when accompanied by harsh penalties for non-compliance with the quota policy.
Despite these credentials, the use of quota policies remains hotly contested and highly controversial. Indeed, the use of quota policies has been much more politically and constitutionally controversial than the use of other affirmative action policies, such as those that involve giving greater weight to applications from members of certain specified groups. I take it that part of the reason for this is that quota policies run the risk that worse candidates will be hired at the expense of better candidates. In other words, quota policies risk being genuinely discriminatory. The same risk does not arise with respect to policies that give greater weight to applications from members of certain specified groups. This is because the purpose of this greater weight can plausibly be seen simply as counterbalancing the effects of certain discriminatory norms, such as gendered social norms.
Even though quota policies risk being genuinely discriminatory, I believe that we should be prepared to defend their use. To this end, I shall make two points. First, as I have suggested, quotas can be highly effective, much more so than other affirmative action policies. As an illustrative example, let’s consider ‘reaction qualifications’ – that is, qualifications that a candidate possesses by virtue of others’ reactions to them. One stubborn way in which sexist discrimination occurs is when an employer rejects a female candidate’s application on the basis of how it is expected other people (other staff, customers, etc.) would interact with her. A quota policy provides a way in which effectively to challenge the effect of reaction qualification. Here, I agree with L. W. Sumner, who writes:
An employer who needs to hire women in order to meet a stipulated quota will be less likely to worry whether this particular woman is too pushy, or will not be a good team player, or is likely to get pregnant, or whatever. Although numerical quotas will come as an acute shock to many employers, I know of no other way to concentrate their minds as wonderfully on the genuine qualifications of female job candidates (214).
Second, the defence of the use of quota policies is strengthened if we can offer a reply to those who resist their use on the grounds that they run the risk that worse candidates will be hired at the expense of better candidates. This objection is typically put in terms of an appeal to rights and, in particular, the rights of the best qualified candidates. One fundamental problem with this objection is that it is insufficiently sensitive to costs that are imposed by the absence of a quota policy. At least in the short run, the alternative to the introduction of a quota policy is the survival of unjust discrimination, which leads to widespread rights violations. In short, if my first point in defence of the use of quota policies is correct, then we should conclude that there is no way to avoid imposing morally objectionable costs, at least in the short run. This is important as I think we should prefer imposing costs, as quota policies do, with the aim of minimising these costs in the long run, by moving towards a more just society.
To be sure, I do not claim that the use of quota policies is sufficient to end gender injustice. No doubt that, in addition to quota policies, we must pursue other goals to combat the causes and effects of gender injustice, such as challenging certain gender stereotypes and restructuring socio-economic institutions to protect greater and more equal opportunities. Nor do I claim that the use of quota policies is always necessary. In some cases, a quota policy may be futile and, if this is the case, it may risk being harmful. I support the more modest claim that we should in principle be prepared to use quota policies to combat gender injustice; that is, I believe that the quota policy is a legitimate weapon in our arsenal.  

 

Should we have a compulsory national civilian service?

The best blog posts are fashionable. They deal with questions, events, or ideas that are current or topical. This blog post does not do this. It deals with an idea that is very much out of fashion. Indeed, so much out of fashion that I believe it is not given a fair hearing. It is the idea of a compulsory national civilian service.By a compulsory national civilian service, I have in mind the following idea: At the age of eighteen, all citizens are required by law to perform a one-year-long civilian service in return for a subsistence wage. The work that each citizen undertakes will differ, but generally speaking citizens will perform work that, although socially useful, is not well provided by job markets. As an example, let’s consider work in nursing and social care.

There are several sets of considerations that count in favour of the proposal. Let me briefly mention three. First, the proposal would benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. The work provided by these citizens is not well provided by the market and so, in the absence of the introduction of this proposal, many more citizens are left vulnerable and in need of vital nursing and social care.

Second, the proposal would benefit the citizens who perform the civilian service. The point is not that they are likely to enjoy the work. Perhaps they will not; after all, there is often a reason for why these jobs are not provided by the market. The point is that the experience is likely to broaden their horizons, teach them various important life skills, and is likely later to be regarded as a positive, meaningful experience. In short, the experience may end up being liberating and autonomy-enhancing.

Third, the rest of society is likely to benefit from proposal also. The hope is that a compulsory national civilian service will produce better, more civically-engaged citizens who will live in a way that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and needs of others. Part of the problem with current society is that too many people, and often those with power, have no experience of what it means to be vulnerable. The proposal under consideration would have the effect of attending to this fact. (Similar arguments are made about military service.)

There are several types of objection that could be levelled in response. Let me briefly mention two. The first concedes that the proposal would be beneficial in all the ways described, but it claims that we should resist it on the grounds that it involves the violation of citizens’ rights. In particular, perhaps the proposal amounts to a violation of citizens’ right to free occupational choice?

This does not strike me as a very promising line of reasoning given that it involves only a one-year restriction on citizens’ occupational choice. The restriction on occupational choice sanctioned by this proposal is surely no greater than the restriction on the many citizens facing frequent unemployment or only dull, meaningless work.

The second objection argues that the proposal will fail to meet the ends that it sets itself. There are three versions of this objection, corresponding to the three benefits that the proposal hopes to bring about. The strongest version of this objection claims that the proposal will not benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. This is because those performing the work may be unfit to carry out the work.

This point is valid but it simply forces us to take care when implementing the proposal. In particular, it draws our attention to the need to provide proper training, and to select work that can appropriately be carried out by those on civilian service. There are many other complications that must be taken into account, but none of these challenge the attractiveness of the idea of a compulsory national civilian service as such. They are problems that we must attend to when it comes to implementation.

Higher Education Pay Disputes and Industrial Action

It has recently been announced that University pay for academic and senior professional staff in UK universities has fallen by 13% in real terms since 2009, despite students’ tuition fees having trebled over the same period. The University and College Union (UCU) assert that a consequence of this is that pay for academic and senior professional staff ‘will fall still further behind the cost of living’. In response to this, members have pursued industrial action in order to attempt to secure fairer pay offers. Should we support this industrial action?
 
 
I think that there are four types of reasons that can be offered in defence of supporting the strikes, though I am unsure of how decisive any of these are, even in combination. The first reason is the one most explicit in the UCU’s literature. It relates to the fact that academic and senior professional staff ‘are being asked to work harder and take home less money to their families year after year’. This is thought to be particularly objectionable given the vast pay increases witnessed by Vice-Chancellors and Principals. This reason is a poor one. The vast majority of academic and senior professional staff in universities live very comfortable lives, getting paid generous salaries for work that they in general enjoy doing. In essence, I simply struggle to understand how an academic who earns an annual salary of £30,000+, which is comfortably above the average in the UK, can have that much of a complaint against being asked to work harder and take home less. 
 
A second reason relates more specifically to the pay of junior academic staff and graduate students. These people, who typically take on the brunt of teaching, are notoriously under-paid. Perhaps this provides an argument in defence of supporting the strikes. I am not convinced by this argument either. My sense is that junior academics and graduate students are in general very talented people who have many more opportunities open to them than most. I appreciate that getting by can be tough, but when they complain about the state of their pay my gut reaction is to say ‘Well, if you don’t like it, do something else!’. To those with some familiarity with contemporary political theory, I am tempted to say that academia is in an important sense just like an expensive taste.
 
A third defence relates to the pay of non-academic members of staff including, for example, the pay of cleaners, porters, administrators, etc. There is a much stronger cases in defence of protecting further their interests. The problem with this, though, is that, as far as I can tell, this is not one of the aims of recent industrial action. Notably, for example, the UCU represent only academic and senior professional staff in UK universities and much of their literature discussing these issues makes no reference to the pay of non-academic members of staff. It is not clear, therefore, the extent to which the strikes will further this goal.
 
The fourth reason is suggested by this statement made by the UCU: ‘If the pay cuts don’t stop and the universities do not start to invest some of the amassed money into tackling the issue of falling pay, the quality and reputation of our higher education system will suffer’. On this reading, the justification for industrial action is not (principally) self-interest; rather it is partly out of a general concern to protect quality in higher education. (The fact that those on strike stand to gain financially from doing so is simply a convenient coincidence!) In order for this justification to prove decisive, it must be both that quality in education is (strongly) correlated with the pay of academic and senior professional staff, and that this would be the best (feasible) use of the money. Both of these claims can be doubted. 

As someone who considers themself on the political left, I am generally sympathetic to the use of industrial action. However, in this case, I am yet to be persuaded. What do you think?

‘Social’ Deprivation

To say that a citizen suffers social deprivation is typically thought to imply that the citizen suffers poverty, has poor education, and has a low socioeconomic status. In this blog post, I am not concerned with social deprivation conceived in this way. Rather, what I understand by ‘social’ deprivation is ‘a persisting lack of minimally adequate opportunities for decent human contact’*. According to this definition, citizens suffer social deprivation when they are denied minimally adequate opportunities for interpersonal interaction, associative inclusion, and interdependent care, for example.
 
Social deprivation is closely related to loneliness – defined as the perceivedlack of opportunities for valuable human contact. A 2010 survey by the Mental Health Foundation reported that, in the UK, only 22% of citizens never feel lonely, 11% feel lonely often, and 42% have felt depressed as a result of loneliness. More tellingly, the survey also found that 48% of citizens strongly agree or agree that people are getting lonelier in general. Strictly speaking, loneliness need not be caused by social deprivation; however, it seems reasonable to think that social deprivation will often play an important causal role.
 
Worryingly, the adverse affects of social deprivation and loneliness are manifold. For example, various empirical studies have revealed that both social deprivation and loneliness are associated with numerous adverse health outcomes and morbidity and mortality, in particular. Notably, loneliness is reported to be as much as a predictor of bad health as smoking! In addition to their adverse physiological effects, social deprivation and loneliness also have adverse psychological effects: in fact, in extreme cases, such as those involving long-term solitary confinement, social deprivation and loneliness are often reported to be as agonising an experience as torture.  
 
What is the significance of all of this? Clearly, this evidence suggests that, in addition to a concern for citizens’ material interests, we should also have a concern for citizens’ social interests. In other words, we have weighty reasons to care about, and to protect against, social deprivation and loneliness. In the remainder of this post, I outline and briefly defend two more specific proposals that aim at serving this end.
 
First, our concern for citizens’ social interests seems to suggest that we should prohibit use of institutionalised forms of social deprivation, such as long-term solitary confinement and medical isolation and quarantine. Instead, and even if it is more expensive, we should look to use alternative practices that serve the same function as the original institution, but in a way that protects citizens’ interest in decent human contact. The argument here is simple: evidence suggests that these practices cause considerable psychological and physiological harm, and this harm far outweighs the level of harm citizens – and even serious criminal offenders – are liable to bear.
Second, our concern for citizens’ social interests also suggests that we have weighty reasons to invest in infrastructure that is conducive to the protection of opportunities for decent human contact. This could take the form of mobility assistance for those, such as the elderly, who are most likely to suffer social deprivation, or subsidies for organisations, such as community pubs, that play an important role in meeting many citizens’ social needs. Failing to invest here amounts to risking neglect for citizens’ social interests and, for this reason, must be avoided. 

*I take this definition of ‘social deprivation’ from Kimberley Brownlee, ‘A Human Right Against Social Deprivation’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 63 (2013), 199-222. 

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