Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: General

Why are you more angry about Trump’s state visit to the UK than about visits from the leaders of China and Saudi Arabia?

The petition against Donald Trump’s ‘state visit’ to the United Kingdom has gathered over 1.8 million signatories. (I am one of them). Of particular concern to many of these signatories has been Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, and its perceived infringement of international human rights law. But there is a curiosity, one that has been seized upon by those more positively disposed to Trump. Trump’s actions to date are surely less objectionable, from a human rights perspective, than the historical actions of Saudi Arabia and China, and the leaders of both of those countries have enjoyed recent state visits to the United Kingdom with (relative to Trump) little outcry. Can these differing scales of public reaction be justified? I suspect not; only explained.

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John Rawls and contemporary political philosophy

Last week, I was invited to say some introductory words at a non-academic event dedicated to the work of John Rawls. As the main speaker would tell more about the content of Rawls’ theory, I decided to focus on the following question: why is Rawls seen as the most important contemporary political philosopher? Robert Nozick’s claim of 1974, that contemporary political theorists either have to work within Rawls’ framework or explicitly explain why they don’t, is still applicable today. For Jerry Cohen, Rawls’ masterpiece A Theory of Justice is the third most important book in the history of Western political thought. Only Plato’s Politeia and Hobbes’ Leviathan have a higher status, or so does Cohen claim. But what is it, precisely, that makes the work of John Rawls that significant?

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Call for Papers: Global Justice and Political Reality

A two-day workshop discussing direct normative responses to global realities

Durham University, 23rd-24th June 2016

Due to entrenched public opinion, vested interests among elites, global cooperation problems, and a host of other constraints existing systems impose on would-be reformers, there is currently a great distance between what should be done and what can be done. These limitations raise important questions about the role political philosophers can play in helping to guide decision-makers and the appropriate shape of short- and long-term moral and ethical thinking. To what extent should the constraints of political reality shape and/or constrain the way in which we theorise about moral problems? What kinds of normative recommendations can we offer on issues of pressing political import if we hope them to be realised in the foreseeable future? In short, what can demands of global justice require here and now?

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Good books for a ‘first read’ in political philosophy / ethics

Recently, I was asked a question I have been asked on a few occasions: ‘what books should I recommend to a friend who has never read any political philosophy or ethics, but is interested in taking a look at the subject?’ I reply to this question with assorted recommendations, but what I recommend almost certainly varies depending on my mood, what I am currently researching/teaching, and, most significantly, how my memory is functioning in that moment. My recommendations are also limited to the list of books that I have read. To rectify these deficiencies, I write this post with two aims in mind: first, to identify some of the books I often recommend and garner suggestions from others about suitable books; and, second, thereby, to provide a list of texts to refer people when they ask the question above.

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The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: A historical landmark or an empty box? (longread)

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has been heralded as ‘a monumental success for the planet and its people.’ [1] However, others have also already expressed strong criticism. It remains up to the future to decide on the success or failure of the agreement. This post contains some reflections about this future, and I hope that the topicality of the issue justifies its length and unscheduled publication.

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Addressing “the social” in normative theorizing


Normative theorists are not a species known for an oversupply of consensus. But one of the most heated debate of recent years has led to a kind of consensus: the debate about “situationism”, which was raised as a challenge to virtue ethics. With virtue ethicists referring to the character of virtuous agents for guidance about moral behaviour, situationists drew attention to the problem that human behaviour is greatly influenced by the situations they find themselves in. For example, they are more altruistic when exposed to the good smells of a bakery. They are more likely to cooperate in a game call “Community Game” than in one called “Wall Street Game” even if they payoffs are the same. And if they are told to play the role of “prison guards”, while others play the role of “prisoners”, the situation can easily get out of hand. Reading such accounts, one might think that all talk about individual agency and responsibility had been based on an illusion: on an account of a “Cartesian” or “Kantian” self, or on an “Aristotelian” notion of stable character, that simply do not exist. All that there is, it seems, are situational forces.

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Leaders and their responsibility for knowledge

This article in the Guardian, which some members of our team have shared on Facebook, suggests that the British prime minister David Cameron may have (had) no clue about what his policies did to local services. If we assume that this is true, it raises a moral question of great importance for today’s societies: how can leaders make sure that they know enough about the consequences of their decisions to make decisions at all?

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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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How to criticise a gender norm

This post is about how to go about criticising gender norms (in a wide sense of the term, including explicit expectations but also things like gender schemas – implicit bias and stereotype threat.) Like many other feminists, I find gender norms bothering because of the undue pressure they put on people to behave in ways that limit their social freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of this inequalities; I will not rehearse here all the counts on which women are worse off than men even in liberal egalitarian democracies that are formally committed to gender justice. (They include political representation, the holding of well-paid, prestigious and interesting jobs, income gaps and various daily, micro-inequalities.) Also – and maybe unlike some feminists – I think that men, too, can be the victims of gender norms – for instance they get conscripted into armies and killed in wars more than women, and probably suffer more injustice than women at the hands of police and the criminal system – especially when gender combines with race, as in the case of black men.

So there’s a clear prima facie case against gender norms: most of us would benefit if they were to disappear, and we’d also have a fairer world for that. Yet it’s not clear which of these norms we really want to change. Presumably not all, or at least not all gender norms are equally bothering and in need of urgent rethinking; also, some may be very difficult if at all possible to change. Also, it is not clear what we want to put instead of the existing gender norms. Take an example: one stereotype has it that women are nurturing and men are competitive. In combination with a competition-based economy and the fact that we as a society don’t reward care generously, this stereotype results in women ending up with less pay and social status and men ending up with less family time and, possibly, fewer caring relationships overall. Now, there are many ways in which we could aim to change this situation into one that is more gender-symmetrical: We could try to change the gender norm of women = care and men = market success into a norm that requires women and men to be equally focussed on market success (and let the care be done by whoever happens to want it, or can’t avoid it). Or we could try to change it into a norm that requires men and women to take equal responsibility for both care and market success. Or we could try to change it into a norm that universally values care in both personal relationships and relationships amongst citizens, and is therefore critical of the very ideal of market success.
Now, some of this discussion has been taking place, but, to my mind, not enough of it. I assume one explanation is that the (academic and popular) debate about gender norms often gets stuck at the question of their origins, as if their origins was overwhelmingly important. Much debate is about the social construction of gender: Some people stress that gender norms are not given but created by social practices and institutions. Others – often seen as unsympathetic to feminism – argue that they are a result of evolution. I’m increasingly of the opinion that whether gender roles are a result of evolution (as evolutionary psychologists often claim) or of social construction (as many others think) has in itself little normative relevance. More important than the origin of a gender norm are, to my mind, the following questions:
(a) Is it desirable to get rid of a particular gender norm?
(b) Does the gender norm in question promote a behaviour that is morally valuable, morally neutral or morally indifferent?
(c) Is it possible to change the norm in question, and at what (moral) cost?
Defenders of evolutionary psychology and of the social construction model can in principle meet on the same answer to (a). If a gender norm puts some people at arbitrary disadvantage then we have a plausible reason for opposing it, whatever it’s origin. If boys come into the world with less ability to express themselves and women with less talent for maths, then maybe we should invest more in boys’ linguistic competence and girl’s mathematical skills.
On (b): Some of the gender norms that regulate women’s and men’s behaviour seem to be, in themselves, morally neutral: for instance, those related to dress, appearance or courtship codes. (This is not to say that it cannot be harmful to aim for some ideals of feminine beauty, or that it is fair to expect women to invest more in their appearance than men in order to be socially acceptable.) There’s no harm in just abolishing them. But other gender norms have moral content. Women are expected to be more nurturing and caring than men. It’s very contested that women do in fact tend to respond to individual needs and relationships better than men. But the norm itself promotes a morally valuable behaviour, which suggests we should universalise, rather than abolish, it.
Yet, moving on to (c), it may be feasible to get to a less gendered society only by universalising the norms associated with male behaviours. Take professional success: Some people claim that, in order to ‘get ahead’ as a woman you need to emulate male behaviour (and over-do it a bit.) And the existence of implicit bias and tendency to discount women as knowers may mean that as a woman it is particularly important to be self-assertive in order to be taken seriously (an interesting discussion here.) If so, as a parent or mentor you may have only one effectiveway to undermine gender norms: to nudge your female child or mentoree to be more self-assertive and, more generally, emphasise that women can and should be just as self-assertive as men. This, I assume, it a genuinely difficult moral choice.
In any case, it seems to me that it’s not worth spending so much energy on discussing the origin of gender norms, but focus instead on whether we want them around and what we should replace them with. I’m curious to find out what you think.

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