Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Duties (Page 1 of 6)

The COVID-19 crisis: a vulnerability perspective

The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?

The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.

Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis. 

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Who should pay the costs of pandemic lockdowns?  

the costs of pandemic lockdowns should be disproportionately covered by a narrower group, consisting of those individuals and businesses who have already acquired vast amounts of economic resources and have substantially prospered as a consequence of the pandemic lockdowns

 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to play a central role in the lives of many people around the world. While initial governmental responses to the pandemic were often forceful, with lockdowns that lasted for several weeks or even months being widely introduced in March and early April, there seems to be little political appetite for renewed lockdowns of the same scale. Even so, several European countries have once again imposed lockdowns in the past few weeks, following a swift rise in cases starting in late-September.

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The news media are a watchdog, but so are you

In this post, Emanuela Ceva & Dorota Mokrosinska discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on what grounds the duty of the news media (and citizens) to act as a watchdog.


The news media often claim a quasi-political role as a watchdog entrusted by the people to keep the government in check. This claim has a particular purchase when it comes to the dissemination of whistleblowers’ unauthorized disclosures. The publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of Edward Snowden’s revelations of classified information about British and US governments’ surveillance programs provide a textbook illustration of this claim.

Widespread as it is, this view of the unique quasi-political role of the news media is hard to justify. In a recent article, we argue that the watchdog role of the news media does not derive from their special status in society. It is rather an instance of a general duty that accrues to any member of a well-ordered society in the face of institutional failures.

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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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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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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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Unlocking care in prisons

In this post, Helen Brown Coverdale discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on care in prisons.


Lawyers, criminologists and campaign groups increasingly call out the injustices of prison conditions. They are right to do so – we cannot and should not ignore brutalisation permitted and perpetrated by the state. But there’s more to prison life than violence. Although it may surprise you, care is present in prisons. In my article ‘Caring and the Prison in Philosophy, Policy and Practice: Under Lock and Key’, I argue that the ethics of care can enhance how we think about punishment. Care ethics can recognise and value caring in prisons, recognise and condemn both violence and inadequate caring, and help us improve criminal punishment by its own lights.

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