Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Academia (Page 1 of 7)

With Friends Like These, Free Speech Doesn’t Need Enemies

Conservatives are the only people who believe in free speech nowadays. At any rate, that’s what many conservatives seem to think. Witness the wearying succession of anti-leftist think-pieces about how progressives have turned into authoritarian censors. Or notice the meteoric rise (and fall) of Parler, a social media site touting itself as a free-speech-friendly rival to censorious Silicon Valley tech giants. Or see the many comedians who, while mostly sharing the progressive sensibilities of coastal elites, bemoan the chilling of free speech at universities. Today, if you care about free speech and you’re looking for staunch allies, they’re more likely to be found in conservative circles.

In the UK this notion is becoming a prominent part of the Conservative Party’s self-image. The 2019 Tory manifesto promised to scrap section 40 of the Crime and Courts act, in the name of press freedom. It also called for strengthening free speech in universities. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has since pushed ahead with the latter, with a recent memo pledging to force university leaders to commit to free speech on campus. In this piece Williamson says “higher education gives the chance to hear a variety of beliefs and philosophies”; that this is “one of the best ways to encourage a respect for diversity and cultivate an open and inquiring mind”, and that the principle of free speech means “that everyone should be free to have their say”. Williamson sees free speech as an ideal that’s been betrayed by regressive leftists, and whose only hope for survival lies with its conservative champions. And a similar mindset is found in the editorial tone of conservative media outlets. For example, at Conservative Home, a major conservative blogging site, dozens of articles can be found banging the “thank goodness we’re here to protect free speech” drum.

The problem with this narrative is that precious few UK conservatives evince any commitment to free speech, outside of cases in which it aligns with their political goals. And to support free speech only in such cases is not to support it at all. The true test of a commitment to free speech is in how you apply it to speech that offends against your own values, or which contests your political programme, or which your corporate sponsors disapprove of. And the Tories’ self-appointed free-speech-champions have been failing this test with flying colours. To take just a few examples

  • Charities and NGOs have been threatened with defunding if they fail to pull their punches in criticising Tory ministers or policy
  • The Tories have demonstrated their commitment to freedom of political protest – a cornerstone of a free speech culture – by pressuring the courts to prosecute Extinction Rebellion protestors over minor public order offenses at an unprecedented scale
  • They’ve also displayed their commitment to a free press by boycotting media outlets that dare to hold their feet to the fire over mismanagement of the pandemic crisis
  • Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for the 2021 London Mayoral election, has signalled his support for freedom of artistic expression by lobbying for the suppression of drill music, based on (patently dubious) claims that it exacerbates violent crime among urban young people
  • Perhaps most inspiring of all, for those with liberal convictions, Williamson has made good on his bid to strengthen free speech in universities by threatening universities with sanctions unless they adopt a definition of anti-Semitic speech that deliberately blurs the boundaries between hate speech and legitimate criticism of Israel’s military policy

With friends like these, free speech in the UK hardly needs enemies. Indeed, if it weren’t such a demoralising omen for the UK’s political culture, the level of doublethink and double-standards on display would be farcically amusing. (Surely someone in Whitehall noticed the irony of issuing a de facto gag order to school leaders, banning schools from using “extremist” materials in their teaching (“Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”), while in the same document identifying “opposition to the right of freedom of speech” as an example of the kind of extreme stance that places an organisation beyond the educational pale. This memo effectively forbids sharing ideas put forward by any opponents of free speech, thereby embodying the kind of anti-free speech ethos that would presumptively disqualify the very same memo from being used as resource by schools. As a philosopher I’m grateful for this example of a self-abnegating prescription, which sits in a peculiar spot in the pantheon of paradoxes, somewhere between a performative contradiction and a variant of the Liar Paradox. Paradoxes aside, though, I worry about what kind of miseries await this country if this Kafkaesque hybrid of authoritarianism and libertarianism is allowed to fester.)

Saying you’re in favour of free speech, while at the same time jumping at opportunities to censor and repress the speech that you disapprove of, isn’t a new trick. Two of the most influential books in the American free speech culture wars of the 1990s – by Stanley Fish and Nat Hentoff, coming from very different intellectual and political starting points – were premised on the claim that both sides of (American) politics are similarly guilty of this.

Of course free speech hypocrisy needs to be criticised wherever it appears, however much it feels like Groundhog Day doing so. The more distinctive and more pressing question for our political moment, though, is how progressive minded people should think about free speech in a political culture where conservative culture warriors have forcefully – but disingenuously – positioned themselves as the defenders and custodians of this ideal.

The jaded response would be to see free speech as an ideal that’s beyond redemption. That many progressives – young progressives in particular – are deeply jaded about free speech is impossible to ignore. One recent manifestation of this, which is admittedly flippant, but at the same time telling in its flippancy, is the use of “freeze peach” on social media as an ironic near-homophone intended to mock conservatives constantly crying free speech. The forceful backlash to broad church concerns about cancel culture betrayed a similar sort of jadedness. And for some time now, progressives have been noticing and calling out the weaponisation of free speech. As I have argued elsewhere, this is a rhetorical tactic which in principle implies some kind of allegiance to the bona fide (non-weaponized) ideal of free speech, but which in practice fosters mistrust and disenchantment in that ideal.

The jadedness is understandable. Twitter and YouTube currently doing their best to avoid facilitating Trump’s incitement of antidemocratic terrorist acts in America. Classical liberal views of free speech have always permitted restrictions on free speech in cases where speech functions as an incitement to criminal violence (see J. S. Mill’s famous corn dealer example). And yet an alarming number of people seem to believe that this constitutes an unjustifiable infringement of free speech. It’s hard to fault anyone for being jaded about free speech while watching these sorts of episodes play out.

But it bears remembering that there is another interpretative response available, for progressives seeking to understand and contest the conservative push to assume ideological ownership of free speech. Progressives can, if they choose, set out to reclaim free speech as a properly progressive ideal. The cost of this is that it will require a rethink on – or at any rate, a more nuanced thinking through of – some of the repressive and censorious tendencies that have been normalised on the activist left in recent years. These tendencies are, after all, part of what instigated the ideological recalibration that allowed conservatives to style themselves as free speech’s champions.

The benefit of reclaiming free speech, though, is that it gives a progressive politics something that it genuinely needs in order to work towards its political goals. Progressives want to transform existing power structures, and challenge the status quo in a way that moves us towards a better and more just society. There is no effective way to do this that doesn’t involve things like disruptive protest, hard-bitten critique of the government, and horizon-expanding work in entertainment, the arts, and academia. In short, progressive politics needs a protected capacity to speak truth to power in the face of hostile resistance. Conservatives have seized a moment in styling themselves as free speech’s champions, only to disqualify themselves from the office in their irrepressible urge to silence their opponents. In the wake of this progressives shouldn’t abandon free speech as an ideal. We should take it back.

The Left, the Right and Political Realism

Realism Vs Idealism Quotes. QuotesGram

Stating that it is difficult nowadays for a state to pursue ambitious redistributive policies through a highly progressive tax system: is it right-wing or simply realistic? Claiming that it will not be possible to fund a universal basic income sufficient to cover the basic needs of all citizens, or to open borders and offer quality social protection to everyone at the same time: are these instances of taking economic constraints seriously or defending the status quo?

Is realism right-wing?

On closer inspection, many political issues that tend to be placed on the left-right spectrum could be interpreted as opposing an idealistic and a realistic perspective. However, these two oppositions are not identical.

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From Armchair to Engaged Philosophy

by Leslie Herman.

Philosophy as a method of study is perceived as detached from reality. When we think of a philosopher, we tend to imagine him (unfortunately, we usually imagine a man) with his books, locked in a room, roaming in a field alone with his thoughts. Traditionally, philosophy is considered as a detached exercise: it is a research process between me, my books and my thoughts; at best, it is considered as an exercise of Socratic dialogue with peers and colleagues. Even in more “engaged” philosophical subdisciplines (political, social, moral philosophy, or ethics), philosophers have tended to work in a vacuum; unencumbered by the contingencies and general messiness of everyday reality, they attempt to find absolute truths about justice, inequality, the good, or society, without looking out the window to see what justice, inequality, the good or society are in real life.

While there are, indeed, benefits to armchair philosophising, I want here to briefly explore its limitations, and to encourage the use of an alternative philosophical method, especially when working on topics or issues that are relevant to our society, our political system, and our understanding of justice. Namely, I want to encourage direct engagement with our subjects of research, not only as sources of information, but as structural contributors to the development of our research projects and its priorities.

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An Ethical Code for Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

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Should Academics Also Be Activists?

The debate on the role of academics in a democracy has intensified in recent years with the rise of worrying trends in global politics. The election of Donald Trump in the US, for instance, has escalated racial tensions, worsened treatment of refugees, etc. The President himself has repeatedly expressed support for Neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. The ruling parties in Poland, Hungary and Turkey have consolidated their power and continued imposing rules and espousing rhetoric that are inherently inimical to an inclusive democracy. The question is this: what should academics do when witnessing these events? Should we take an ‘activist’ role, effectively becoming academic-activists? Or should we remain neutral out of respect for objectivity? This post makes a case for the former proposition, advancing the case for academic-activists. But first, let me engage with the latter proposition – the neutral option – and show why the criticism from the ‘neutralists’ misses its target.

Thomas Wells advances what I take to be a standard argument for the ‘neutralist position’. Wells’s concern with academic activism is that it erodes the public trust in the objectivity of academic research. The sphere of activism, according to Wells, is separated from the sphere of academic research. In his words, ‘the virtues of academics are the intellectual ones of curiosity, humility, and honesty’. These are to be contrasted with the activist who lacks these commitments. If the academic’s primary task is to follow the facts wherever they lead, the activist ‘has finished with the journey [of truth finding] and arrived at the final destination’. Wells even cites Marx as a paradigm example of ‘academics make bad activists’, stating that Marx’s interpretation of the capitalist mode of production as neither scientific nor true (although I am sceptical if Marxism can be refuted in the length of one paragraph) and blames Marx for the sufferings of millions of people (which is neither true nor fair).

The first thing to say in response to Wells’s criticism of the academic-activist position is that it is not clear if academic activists lack the commitment to fact-finding and establishing the truth. In fact, many academics become activists because of what their research reveals. The nature of academic research is such that we are often in the position to come across many disturbing facts before the general public is aware of them. The training we receive also enables us to ask difficult questions, the answers to which might not be welcomed by everyone. When academics are in possession of these disturbing facts, it is their duty to promote these facts to the general public.

The second point, related to the first, is that Wells’s definition of activism is unduly narrow. Not every activist lacks the virtues that Wells defines as imperative to be a good academic: curiosity, humility and honesty. Admittedly some academic-activists do lack these qualities. They think that their title as academics means that they are beyond criticisms. They demand people to take their words as the final unflinching truth on the matter and no further debates are needed. In this sense, they have departed from the virtues which Wells correctly lays out as crucial for academics – curiosity, humility and honesty. These academics have become preachers (Jordan Peterson is an example of this type of academics).

But Jordan Peterson does not represent the only type of academic activists. Many, in fact, engage in debates in good faith and back up their claims with clear and concise arguments as opposed to pseudo, selective facts. Angela Davis and Martin Luther King (who did not hold an academic position but whose philosophy deeply influences and defines the race debate in America, To Shape a New World is a great book which documents the political philosophy of King) are examples of academic activists who apply curiosity, humility and honesty to their activism. These values make Davis and King better activists. In Letter From Birmingham Jail which King wrote in response to criticism from a group of white moderates who criticised King for his method, King used analytical skills to succinctly explain the distinction between the obligation to follow just laws and the obligation to disobey unjust laws. King’s position, in his own words, is influenced by the writings of St. Augustine which has defined Western analytic philosophy. A more recent example is found in the writings of feminist philosopher Kate Manne, whose two books Down Girl and Entitled, explain the logic and societal manifestations of misogyny. Manne’s work is philosophically rich, each argument clearly laid out and defended and yet the two books also serve as calls to resist and fight back against the culture of misogyny. In this sense, Manne joins Davis and King in the rank of academic activists.

What should we make of Wells’s worry that academic activists would erode the public trust in the academy? I think this worry is overstated. We live in an unjust world where inequality remains high, especially among Western democracies, the treatment of those less fortunate – refugees, homeless people, benefits claimants – often fails to meet the demand of justice (Professor Philip Alston, the UN special repertoire, for instance, criticises the UK’s treatment of those living in poverty, stating that it has inflicted great misery on the poor). Rawls puts that every citizen has a duty to correct unjust institutions and activism has historically proven as the best method to achieve that goal (the Vote for Women campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.). It is, therefore, true to put that academics, owing to their special training, have a role to play in establishing the facts. But once the evidence has been gathered and the facts established in accordance with the best available evidence and information one can have (the question of epistemic justification is a different one and deserves a post of its own), it is indeed everyone’s duty to change the unjust social, political and economic arrangements through activism.

“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.

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From the Vault: Beyond the Ivory Tower Series

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the most memorable posts from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the successful launch of our Beyond the Ivory Tower interview series.


The Beyond the Ivory Tower series seeks to explore the relationship between academic political theory and ‘real politics’, by talking with figures who have – in the course of their careers – managed to bridge that divide. As stated in our introductory post, “their stories are interesting in their own right [but additionally they] help us to understand the position of political theory today, and how other political theorists might achieve wider impact.”

The series is comprised of four interviews so far:

Stay tuned for more interviews in this ongoing series in our 2020/21 season!


Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

The Case for Ethical Guidelines on Universities’ Corporate Partnerships

In this guest post, members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T) – a student-led, UK-based organisation working to sever the links between higher education, violent technology, and hostile immigration environments – discuss one important arm of their work. 

Photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, licenced by CC BY-SA 2.0

Migrant communities are endangered by universities’ relationships with businesses like Palantir Technologies, whose software  is “mission critical” to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) mass raids, detentions, and deportations. The harm inflicted by ICE is an integral component of a white nationalist deportation machine, which routinely destroys lives and condemns migrants to deadly concentration camps. Migrant rights organisations describe Palantir as the “most prominent supporter of the deportation machine in Silicon Valley.” The anti-migrant violence Palantir enables would not be possible without the talent it recruits from top UK universities. In exchange for material benefits, universities invite Palantir representatives to deliver talks,  present at career fairs, and sponsor student prizes. Several groups have cut ties with Palantir, citing the company’s facilitation of anti-migrant violence; yet, despite claiming to be committed to social responsibility, many universities remain open to Palantir.

As members of No Tech For Tyrants (NT4T), a student-led migrant justice organisation, we met with university administrators to request that they implement ethical guidelines in regards to their corporate partnerships. Administrators responded with two kinds of objections: ethical guidelines would (1) threaten free expression, and (2) be too political. We’ll explicate and reject both kinds of objection. Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is necessary for dismantling the relationship between universities and technology businesses that facilitate egregious harm.

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Should Economics be Pluralist?

Following the 2008 financial crisis, many economists, as well as many commentators and journalists, have blamed economics for its failure to explain the causes and foresee the consequences of the financial breakdown. Their core target was the dogmatic acceptance by most economists of a single theoretical framework: neo-classical economics. In (very) short, neo-classical economics is a set of theories according to which all social phenomena can be explained by appealing to the optimizing behavior of rational individuals. It also involves a heavy dose of mathematical formalization and statistical methods. In reaction to the crisis, an increasing number of students and academics started to argue for pluralism in economics, or the view that there are several possible legitimate ways of doing economics, beyond neo-classical economics. In response, some economists contended that neo-classical economics was already sufficiently pluralist. They argued that what we usually call neo-classical economics is actually made of a myriad of different (and sometimes conflicting) theories, such as game theory, public choice theory, industrial organization, social choice theory, labor economics, behavioral economics, etc.

This debate raises numerous questions. What (if anything) justifies pluralism in economics? And do we have enough of it, or do we need more? Where does pluralism stop? What does pluralism entail for individual economists? Should every economist be a pluralist? I cannot answer all these questions here. I shall only propose an answer to the first one.

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What are the values of the left?

This a guest post by Marius Ostrowski (Examination Fellow in Politics at All Souls College, University of Oxford). He is the author of the recently published book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance.

‘Being on the left’ can mean a variety of different things. Most commonly, it refers in a partisan sense to support for ‘progressive’ policies designed to bring about political, economic, or social equality. More generally, it is seen as synonymous with radicalism of opinion, and a greater willingness to reform rather than preserve the status quo. In a religious context especially, ‘the left’ is used to describe anti-dogmatic or anti-orthodox tendencies in favour of departing from inherited customs or scriptural interpretations. Sometimes it is identified with activism or protest in defence of specific groups in society: the working class, women, people of colour, national/religious minorities, LGBTQ*, or the disabled. Not all of these meanings of ‘leftness’ are compatible with one another. But despite the differences between them, one thing emerges very clearly: ideas such as ‘leftness’ and ‘being on the left’ play a central role in many areas of social life.

Where the concept of ‘leftness’ is not typically so much at home is in social philosophy. This is not to suggest that social philosophers themselves are hostile to the left or uninterested in left causes. Many are card-carrying activists and partisans of the left movement. Rather, the concept itself—like its relatives ‘centre’ and ‘right’—is somewhat alien to social-philosophical analysis. In general, it is rare to hear social philosophy make any explicit mention of ‘ideologies’. We are far more likely to encounter ‘theories’, ‘accounts’, or ‘comprehensive doctrines’, even when applied to what are clearly ideological constructions, such as ‘political liberalism’. Key social-philosophical concepts such as democracy, authority, or rights are dealt with as if in a vacuum, removed from any ideological connotations or parsing they might have. It is as though social philosophy is embarrassed by ideology—with ‘leftness’ only one of several victims of this embarrassment.

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