Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Governance (Page 1 of 7)

The precarious role of social norms in journalism

In this post, Lisa Herzog discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of shared norms in journalism.

Imagine that you’re competing fiercely with someone – but there are no legal rules to keep the competition fair! All that you and the other competitors can hope for is that all of you will stick to certain norms of fairness. This hardly sounds like a comfortable situation. Yet, it is, arguably, the situation news outlets currently find themselves in. Such concerns motivate my recent paper, where I argue that we need to consider the role of competition for journalism ethics, not least because this helps understand the precarious role of social norms in journalism.

“Chasing the clicks”

In the online world, media outlets face stiff competition, not only with one another, but also with cat videos, social networks and other online content. While they experiment with different business models (with or without paywalls, with or without subscriptions or donations, etc.), they ultimately all need to attract sufficient numbers of viewers. But think about the ways in which human attention in an online environment functions: the briefer, the crasser, the flashier an item, the more likely it is to get attention. Hence, it is tempting for news outlets to prioritize sensationalist headlines over serious reporting. And because one’s competitors will do the same, there is a risk that more and more news outlets move in this direction. The consequences for the kind of sober, truth-oriented journalism that democracies so urgently need look dire.

To illustrate this point, consider the downward spiral of the harms that can be done when news outlets “frame” their pieces in more and more sensationalist ways. Such frames often draw on harmful (e.g., racist or sexist) stereotypes, and they often reinforce the competitive nature of politics over the search for compromise. Moreover, they dull the attention of audiences: they make everything a scandal, so that truly outrageous news, such as the abuse of political office, are more difficult to recognize as such. And lastly, sensationalist framing can overshadow the framing of political issues by political parties, replacing a logic of democratic competition with a logic of market competition.

An “ethics of competition” in journalism?

Journalism ethics has long discussed the responsibilities of journalists and the imperative not to abuse their power over public discourse. There are many norms that are meant to prevent specific harms, e.g., about how to report about suicides. But when it comes to collective harms – such as the lowering of journalistic standards – traditional journalism ethics has relatively little to say. Here it is useful to draw on concepts and arguments from business ethics. After all, a core question of business ethics is how to maintain ethical standards when agents stand in competition with one another.

When competitive pressures in markets lead to harmful collective outcomes in markets, often the best option is regulation, which creates a level playing field for all competitors. This is why we need minimum wage legislation, health and safety standards, and environmental rules. But here’s the catch: when it comes to the media, many forms of regulation would be rather problematic. They would run up against the freedom of the press, and therefore rightly raise worries about censorship. After all, a key function of the media in democracies is to fulfil a watchdog function vis-à-vis political actors. So to regulate news outlets for civility is a potentially dangerous idea.

Joseph Heath has argued that in market situations in which legal regulation cannot secure efficient outcomes, market participants themselves should ensure that no ethical abuses happen. Similarly, one might argue that individual journalists and media companies should stick to a voluntary “ethics of sportsmanship”: compete hard but compete fairly! Whether or not such a strategy can be successful, however, depends quite massively on the audience. To put it metaphorically: if the audience cheers for fouls instead of booing them, then news outlets that try to play fair will have a hard time staying in business.

Social norms and their risks

So, are there other ways to support journalistic standards in the face of the stiff competition of the online world? One factor that can help to stabilize standards in the face of competition are social norms, as we do in fact find them in many sports: norms that individuals accept as part of their professional identity and that are supported by peer recognition. Doesn’t that seem like a good candidate for journalism as well? Yes and no. On the one hand, social norms can be a powerful counterweight to competitive pressures. On the other hand, whenever one speaks of “social norms,” those familiar with debates about free speech will remember John Stuart Mill’s powerful warnings against vigilantism and self-censorship. Journalism needs mavericks, and social norms can easily stifle the kind of vivid debate in the media that democracies need.

This precarious role of social norms within journalism can explain some of the vicious debates about “political correctness” in the media. Being politically incorrect can be a cheap way of attracting attention, getting a head start over competitors, without taking into account the harm one thereby does – or so the defenders of political correctness hold. If the social norms around political correctness become too strict, this can stifle valuable forms of debate – or so its critics say.

If my arguments are correct, then this is exactly the line of contestation we can expect, given the situation of journalists (and players in the attention economy more broadly speaking) in the fierce online competition they currently face. And we cannot expect a once-and-for-all solution. Instead, democracies need an ongoing, reflective debate about journalistic standards and social norms in the media and in public discourse. This is burdensome, but it’s a price worth paying for the absence of legal regulation and the presence of competitive dynamics. Remaining aware of its necessity can maybe help to lead these debates in less vitriolic ways.

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.

How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

On the face of it, pre-election polls have a positive case going for them:

  • First, as long as their integrity is not in question, publishing pre-election polls in liberal democracies could be seen simply as what freedoms of the press and expression require.
  • Second, pre-election polls provide voters with factual information that is seemingly relevant for reaching a decision on how to cast the vote.
  • Third, the publishing of pre-election polls, assuming that they significantly deviate from electoral results, can help indicate whether an election has been tampered with.

Democratic theorists have their work cut out for them to discuss the strength of these three points. But assume, for the moment, that we grant their initial appeal. If these points spoke decisively in favor of pre-election polls, then deciding whether polls are democratic or not would hinge on how accurately they predict outcomes. It is only the publishing of accurate information that would be non-controversially protected under press freedom, contribute to informed voting, or reliably signal election tampering. And matters of polling accuracy are exactly the direction in which much of political science and journalistic takes on pre-election polls have steered the discussion. Insofar, our greatest fears about polls would be whether they are conducted poorly, or rigged.

On second thoughts, however, it doesn’t seem that polling accuracy should be the whole story of how democratic pre-election polls are. Here are two reasons why.

The first concerns the effects of publishing pre-election polls on voting behavior. How exactly voters will be affected remains inconclusive, despite nearly 50 years of research in the social sciences. For instance, it is uncertain whether a pre-election poll will bring about the bandwagon effect – causing voters to flock to the winning side – or the underdog effect – causing the exact opposite. Some authors believe these effects may in fact cancel each other out.

But not everything is uncertain about polling effects. Exposure to pre-election polls is sure to make voters more likely to “maximize the utility of their vote in producing a favorable election outcome”, according to Moy and Rinke. This means that if the poll informs the voter that her preferred option is unlikely to succeed, she will opt for a “second-best” or “third-best” option. Not everyone will succumb to this “strategic voting” effect, but those who do will often solidify two-party systems, since strategic voting is more likely to favor strong parties and candidates at the expense of the weak. If true, obstacles to entry become more significant for democratic newcomers, and voters, who have changed their voting preferences but not their political attitudes, may find themselves unrepresented. These effects, as well as voter indifference, which may be caused if polls project a significant margin between candidates, are all arguably undesirable occurrences in a democracy.

The second democratic worry about pre-election polls concerns the kind of information that these polls provide and how it affects voters. Many authors have linked the media coverage of polls with the culture of so-called “horse race journalism.” This kind of media content primarily emphasizes the standing of candidates in the race and their popularity compared to the competition. And since a democratic arena saturated with polls will direct most of the voter’s attention on the horse race, little attention remains to consider important political views and policy proposals. Along similar lines, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit once argued that polling effects, among other factors, represent “capricious influences” on voting behavior, and that we should come up with institutional pressures to downplay caprice and stimulate the democratic exchange of reasons that precedes voting.

Of course, pre-election polls are not the only driver of strategic voting, or the sole source of horse race journalism. But if they exacerbate these effects, then we should do more to determine whether and how they fit into a desirable vision of democracy. The institutional pressures against their “capricious influences” need not be strict bans, but may be inspired by numerous policy solutions not yet observed in the West.

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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Trump vs Twitter: who has the right to do what?

“Twitter is completely stifling free speech, and I, as President, won’t allow it to happen!” Donald Trump, 27 May 2020 – published on Twitter (of course).



Who has the right, to do what, on Twitter? Donald Trump’s falling out with Twitter, after Twitter’s censuring of certain tweets, has inspired accusations of bias and misbehaviour on all sides, none of which is likely to convince anyone not already convinced. But if we step outside the specific debate around Twitter’s current and future legal immunity, perhaps we can find at least one principle that might gain broad agreement: that no person has the right to do that which would prevent another person from being a person at all. And this suggests that Twitter has every right to censure Trump – and that Trump may have little right to act to censure Twitter in return.

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The harm in fake news

During the last months, an enthralling debate on fake news has been unfolding on the pages of the academic journal Inquiry. Behind opposed barricades, we find the advocates of two arguments, which for the sake of conciseness and simplicity we can sketch as follows:

  1. We should abandon the term ‘fake news’;
  2. We should keep using the term ‘fake news’.

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Why There Are Some Things You Can Only Know If You’ve Been Pregnant – And Why This Matters

In this post, Fiona Woollard discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the significance of experiencing pregnancy.

There are some experiences that make you a member of special kind of club. Some are trivial: drinking Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite soft drink. Some are life changing: going into space, fighting in a war or having cancer. The club members (people who have had the experience) know what the experience is really like. This is very hard to explain to people outside the club.  They often think they understand, but they do not really get it. It is easy to talk about the experience with other people who have had that experience. They understand what you are trying to express.  They get it. L.A. Paul called experiences like this, experiences that provide knowledge that you cannot acquire without having the experience, epistemically transformative experiences.

I argue in a recent article that pregnancy is an epistemically transformative experience: being pregnant provides you with access to knowledge about what pregnancy is like that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire without being pregnant. This matters because in order to think properly about the ethics of abortion we need to know what being pregnant is like.

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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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Should We Punish Non-Citizens?

In this post, Bill Wringe discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on difficulties justifying punishing non-citizens.

Philosophers spend a surprising amount of time thinking about punishment: about what counts as punishment, about what people should and should not be punished for, and about whether and why people should be punished at all. When they do so, they tend to make a lot of assumptions about the kinds of cases of punishment they are interested in: for example, that when the state punishes someone, it is typically because they have been convicted of a genuine crime at the end of a fair trial. One assumption that often gets made in these discussions is that the person being punished is a citizen of the state that is punishing them. But it’s important to realize that states often punish individuals who are not citizens. As I argue in a recent article, this matters, because some of the ways in which we might try to justify punishing citizens don’t seem to make very much sense when we apply them to non-citizens.

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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:


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.

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