Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: General (Page 1 of 5)

Propagandists, Degrees of Reliability, and Epistemic Nihilism

Reliability is a quality that comes in degrees. For example, a bus that always arrives exactly on time is highly reliable. A bus that often but not always arrives on time is somewhat reliable. A bus that rarely arrives on time is unreliable. People living in areas with public transit commonly discuss which among the less-than-perfectly-reliable modes of transport available are more or less reliable. In doing so, these people show they understand that reliability comes in degrees. They readily acknowledge that some imperfect modes of transport are more reliable than others.

Propagandists prefer their audiences ignore this level of nuance when assessing sources of information. A propagandist prefers that you perceive the propagandist as totally reliable while perceiving all other sources of information as totally unreliable. If this cannot be achieved, the propagandist would prefer that you view all sources as completely unreliable. At least then your decisions about whose claims to trust will rest on grounds other than the reliability of the source. 

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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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Welcome back: Launching our 2021-21 season!

With the 2020-21 year upon us, Justice Everywhere returns this week for a new season!

This last year has been the most successful on the blog to date. As our “From the Vault” posts over recent weeks have highlighted, we launched some excellent new ventures last year – our Beyond the Ivory Tower Series, our special focus on Philosophy during Coronavirus, and our ongoing collaboration with Journal of Applied Philosophy. We also have a superb team of house authors, and have been lucky to receive lots of great guest posts – altogether contributing analysis of a vast array of issues in moral and political philosophy, as well social policy and political economy.

We welcome back all of these features – and more! – for the 2020-21 season. Justice Everywhere will continue in its aim to provide a public forum for the exchange of ideas regarding what morality asks of us, and to emphasise that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

So please follow us, read and share the posts on social media, and feel free to comment on posts (using the comment box at the bottom of each post). 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.

We very much look forward to this new season and to discussions about the array ethical issues that face the world in 2020, and we hope you do too!

From the Vault: Coronavirus

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on contributions relating to the COVID-19 crisis and its social and political fallout.

 

The coronavirus crisis has raised countless ethical and political questions, and in many cases further exposed injustices in society. The cooperative of authors at Justice Everywhere have been engaged in assessing many of these questions in recent months.

  • Our “Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis” collects succinct responses on 9 pressing questions concerning: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.

Other independent posts addressed a wide range of issues, including:

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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.

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!

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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 ‘new normal’: a Rawlsian approach

In this guest post, Helen Taylor discusses the advantages of applying a Rawlsian lens to assessing and responding to the impact of COVID-19 on society. 

COVID-19 and inequality

COVID-19 has had a remarkable impact on society, communities, and individuals’ lives. Few elements of everyday life have been unaffected by the pandemic. Two key elements of political theory – freedom and equality – have been a fundamental part of the lockdown experience.

The relationship between equality and the pandemic is complex. Two accounts have emerged. The first is an ‘equalising’ account: the pandemic has created a more even sense of equality in terms of what individuals are able to do. All individuals have experienced restrictions on their movement, who they can see, and what activities they can undertake.

The second is an ‘exacerbating’ account: the pandemic has categorically highlighted and exacerbated the existing inequalities in society. For example, regarding access to food, individuals and families who were reliant on foodbanks or free school meals to meet their basic needs faced substantially more precarity when access to these services was suspended.

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Democracy’s Unpluckable Feathers and Presidential Term Limits

In this guest post, Mark Satta discusses the importance of presidential term limits for democracy, and that popular resistance is crucial in enforcing them.

In her book Fascism: A Warning, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recounts that “Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.” We often think of dictatorships as arising from wars or coups, but Mussolini’s analogy vividly expresses how nations can slip from liberal democracies to illiberal autocracies through a series of small, incremental changes.

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Big Data and the Self: Exploitation Beyond Biopolitics

In this guest post, Arianna Marchetti discusses Big Data from the perspective of Foucault’s biopolitics.

Foucault claims that biopolitics (a form of macro-politics that aims at disciplining the population through the use of demographics, medicine, and the normative regulation of sexuality), is the disciplinary form of capitalism and is essential to its functioning as it disciplines the body in its form of production. But as new technological developments have emerged does this concept still help us to unmask current forms of domination?

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Feminism and the top end of the payscale

Class is a deep dividing line in feminism for two, mutually compatible, reasons: One is about the strategic use of limited time and energy in the feminist movement. The interests of poor and working-class women often diverge from the interests of the more privileged, hence the need to set priorities. This is what my previous post was about.

But the more important reason – captured these days by the agenda of the Feminism for the 99% movement – is that the problems of women who make it to the top are parasitic on a structure of the labour market and schedule of rewards that should not exist in the first place. This second complaint against lean-in feminism (sometimes and, I think, mistakenly, identified as “liberal feminism”) is not merely about misplaced priorities, but about identifying feminism with the gender cosmetisation of deeply unjust existing arrangements. The worry with the upper class feminism is, as Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser put it, that “[i]ts real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women to rise to the top.”

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