Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Duties (Page 2 of 3)

Why good intentions need informed intentions

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In discussions about climate change and climate justice, there has been quite some debate about individual duties – should we try to change our lifestyle to reduce emissions, or should we try to influence political processes that bring about institutional change? It always seemed to me that the correct answer is: do both, or whatever you are able to do. Given how drastic the consequences of climate change are likely to be, and given how climate-unfriendly our Western lifestyle typically is, this seemed the right answer. Wouter Peeters has made this case in previous posts, so there is no need to repeat the arguments here. But I’ll add a third point: in our attempts to do good, we also have a duty to be as well-informed as possible.

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It’s raining men, hallelujah! On migration and sex ratios

In a recent article in Politico Magazine, professor in political sciences Valerie Hudson (Texas A&M University) addresses an often neglected consequence of the current migration crisis. As most of the one million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa that arrived in Europe in 2015 are young men, recent mass migration potentially disrupts the gender balance in European countries with liberal migration policies. Although The Economist notices that for big countries, like Germany, the effect of recent immigration on the already existing gender imbalance is negligible, changes in sex ratio might indeed be considerable in countries with less than 10 million citizens, like Sweden, Hungary, Austria and Norway.

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“Refugees” and “economic migrants” – a morally problematic distinction

More than a million migrants and refugees have crossed European borders in the last year, posing yet another challenge to European unity. There is one thing that really strikes me in the public debate about how to deal with this huge influx: people tend to take it for granted that the legal distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants” and the differential treatment that goes with it are morally justified. There is a broad consensus that, of course, we have to grant asylum to people fleeing from the horrors of the Syrian civil war, but that we are justified in refusing asylum to people escaping from poverty. But is there a morally relevant difference between taking refuge from poverty and escaping from war? I do not think that there is, and hence believe that the differential treatment of the two groups is unjust.

The legal point of reference for the distinction is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.

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Do I make a difference? (4): The agency of individuals and households

Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions
(2) A threshold phenomenon?
(3) Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?

My argument thus far can be summarized as follows: the greenhouse gases emitted by individuals have a small but fully real effect in that they increase the exposure of vulnerable people to the risk of serious suffering from climate change harms, now and in the future. These individual emissions are sufficient to do so and also necessarily have this effect. From this follows that individuals have a unilateral duty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that they can reasonably avoid. Promotional duties are very much necessary as well, but cannot substitute this unilateral duty to reduce emissions.

© UCS 2012

© UCS 2012

In this post, I will give an indication of how individuals can reduce emissions that are clearly avoidable on the individual level. We cannot expect people to reduce emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level, since these are necessary to meet their basic rights, but I will argue that households and individuals emit much more greenhouse gases than is often believed, especially in the developed world. A significant share of these emissions can be avoided, including a share of those resulting from residential energy use, personal transportation and the consumption of meat and dairy products (1)

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Do I make a difference? (3): Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?

Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gases
(2) A threshold phenomenon?

In the previous posts in this series, I have argued that individual greenhouse gas emissions have an exceedingly small but fully real effect: they are sufficient to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms and necessarily do so. What follows from this, normatively speaking? In this post, I will argue that it provides a strong reason for a unilateral individual duty to reduce one’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To be more precise about the responsibility and the duties of individuals, I will first differentiate between emissions that are avoidable on the individual level, and those that are not. Subsequently, I will defend the claim that individuals have a duty to reduce their avoidable emissions in order not to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms. Moreover, I will refute the assertion that unilateral actions to reduce emissions are ineffective, while promotional actions supposedly are effective.

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(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory

Blick aus dem Bürofenster kleinThere has been much talk about effective altruism recently (see e.g. here or here) – the idea that you should try to do as much good as you can, using the most effective means. It reads a bit like an update of good old Jeremy Bentham and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” by a McKinsey consultant. It is easy to ridicule, and ridicule is indeed a frequent reaction because humour eases the tension that one can feel when confronted with these ideas. For there seems to be more than a grain of truth in effective altruists’ claim that we could do so much more to help those who were less fortunate in the “natural lottery” of where and when they were born. One thing that speaks in their favor, after all, is that effective altruists ask serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent in today’s world. What I here want to pick out from the debate is their picture the social world and of human institutions, which I take to be flawed. It is an illustration of why moral philosophy should not neglect the world we live in and the institutions that structure it.

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Do I make a difference? (2): A threshold phenomenon?

Previous post in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions

Many assume that individuals are not responsible for climate change and do not have any agency in tackling it. In this series of posts, I argue that this view is mistaken. The previous post concluded that individual emissions have an exceedingly small but fully real effect in that they increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms.

Extending this conclusion, in this post, I will address (and reject) the assumptions that individual emissions are neither necessary nor sufficient to cause climate change.

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Do I make a difference? (1): The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gas emissions

In the run-up to the international climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, there is much debate about what our governments and political institutions should do in order to tackle climate change. Important as this may be, I believe this focus should not obscure the role of individuals. Nonetheless, according to the general perception as well as some accounts in climate ethics, individuals do not appear to be responsible for climate change, or have any agency in tackling it.

I believe this view is mistaken. In this series of posts, I will therefore try to address some pervasive, but (in my view) misleading assumptions regarding individual responsibility for climate change and offer some fresh arguments. (1) The first two posts deal with backward-looking concerns about the identification of individuals as being responsible for climate change, the latter two with forward-looking issues in actually combatting climate change. First, I will debunk the belief that the effects of individual greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. On this basis, in the second post, I will address the assumption that individual emissions are neither sufficient nor necessary to cause climate change. In the third post, I will advocate direct, unilateral duties to reduce my emissions. Finally, I will give some suggestions regarding what each of us could or should do to tackle climate change.

In this post: Are the effects of individual greenhouse gas emissions truly insignificant?

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Political Philosophy and Political Change

ivorytowerIn a memorable sequence in his book, Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy depicts the young dog, “George’s son” who works for the farmer, Oak, as a sheepdog. The main job of George’s son is to run after the sheep to make sure that they stay together and do not run away. Tragically, however, the sheepdog being under the impression that the more he runs after the sheep, the better, one day drives all the sheep off a cliff. George’s son, thinking that he has done an exceptional job, returns happily to Oak, who is now left with nothing. Hardy writes that George’s son met the “untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise. “

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Are we socially (and not just legally) obligated to presume innocence?

Content note: this post contains and links to discussions of rape and sexual harassment.


Social attitudes towards rape and sexual violence and harassment have over the last few years been undergoing what Laurie Penny has aptly called ‘rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment’. From Steubenville, to Jimmy Saville, and academic philosophers, we have been confronted with both how widespread rape, sexual violence and harassment is, and how awfully this is dealt with by the police, courts and institutions. Closer to home for me, a few months ago the Oxford Union president was arrested for rape and attempted rape (the charges were later dropped). This resulted in a campaign to have him resign his position as president and for invited speakers to cancel their appearances until he did. The ‘public intellectual’ A.C. Grayling however refused to cancel his appearance, saying that the president was innocent until proven guilty and should not be tried in the ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’. This has become a common response to accusations of rape (with ‘kangaroo court‘ the favourite and somewhat tired description). The alleged rapist, it is argued, should not be subject to social sanctions and society should reserve judgement because of the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.

I vehemently disagree with this. But when challenged I have in the past been somewhat unsure of my reasons for disagreeing. One argument is that though innocent until proven guilty is an extraordinarily important principle, it is primarily a legal principle. That means it applies to the courts and the legal process of convicting someone of a crime. If someone is to be subjected to state punishment (from fines, to jail, to being executed), then they have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty so that the obligation rests with the prosecution and not the accused to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. It is however not clear that public condemnation of an alleged rapist should be subject to the same principle. As has been pointed out the so-called ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’ is not actually a kangaroo court. A kangaroo court (such as white lynch mobs) disregards the standards of a fair trial to punish the accused. Public discussion and condemnation does not (usually) seek to actually replace the legal process and determine guilt and then exact the kind of punishment normally reserved for the state.

But I am unsure of this argument. First, it relies on a kind of reasoning where the legal and social is entirely divorced that I would normally reject. I do not for example accept the absurd argument that women, queer people and people of colour have achieved equal status on the basis that many (but certainly not all) legal discriminations have been removed, because this is undermined by the continued existence of social oppression upheld through patriarchal, white supremacist and heteronormative norms. Second, public condemnation and discussion is not the whole story. Social sanctions, which include being personally or professionally shunned and being removed or temporarily stepping down from public positions, are graver than public condemnation and can approach state punishment in the consequences for the accused. Trying to argue that carrying out these kind of social sanctions does not punish the accused in the way a court does, seems unconvincing. Justifying it requires more than saying that innocent until proven guilty is just a legal principle.

I think the more convincing defence of public condemnation and social sanctions, and thereby overruling innocent until proven guilty, is based on the flawed legal processes and social attitudes that surround rape and sexual harassment and violence. Rape culture and its associated myths infect every step of the legal process from the police to judges. Combined with the social shaming and condemnation of victims, this mean that rape remains (as the graphic above shows) a dramatically under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-sentenced crime. In the absence of a correctly functioning legal system and societal attitudes that support victims I think it is therefore justifiable to publicly condemn and socially sanction alleged rapists and harassers. Of course this will vary from case to case, based on which crime they are accused of and the actions taken by the institutions that are supposed to deal with it, and there is no easy formula for this. I think that these actions are however necessary to challenge the ideas embedded in rape culture and replace them with the kind of norms and institutions that would seriously reduce the prevalence of rape and harassment.

In closing it is worth reflecting why people place so much emphasis on innocent until proven guilty when it comes to rape and harassment. I suspect that this is in fact one more feature of rape culture. At its heart rests the profoundly mistaken view that false accusations of rape and harassment are rife. I think we should remember that insisting that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, is so often based on the assumption that the victim is ‘lying until proven truthful’. To counteract that, I think it is central to believe and support victims. As Stavvers has convincingly argued:

‘Silence is the biggest weapon patriarchy has in keeping rape culture alive, and “I believe her” starts to tear down this wall and encourage and empower survivors to speak out. Because of this, it is crucial that we resist the attacks on this notion, the slurring it as “mobs” and “kangaroo courts”, because it isn’t. It’s solidarity in the face of patriarchy, and we should be proud that it is starting to terrify those who would rather we shut up.’

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