Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Governance (Page 1 of 3)

Private Wrongs and Public Resignations

Public officials are often called to resign their posts if they commit grave moral or legal wrongs as private persons. Consider a few cases. It is discovered that a Minister of Education had plagiarized multiple parts of his academic work before taking up his position in the government. Another high official is caught expressing bigoted ideas against ethnic and religious minorities in personal Facebook comments and posts. A county prefect is charged for beating his wife. Should such acts call for resignations? Can they ground the decisions of political bosses to sack these individuals, or justify the general public in exerting pressures on the government to drive them out of office?

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My pension fund, my conscience

In some situations, society permits individual citizens to not fulfil otherwise binding requirements when the latter conflict with the individual’s deeply held ethical convictions. The classic example are pacifists who obtain an exemption from military service. I submit that an argument along these lines also applies to collective pension plans. Such plans need to offer their participants a minimal level of influence over their portfolios to be legitimate.

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People versus Parliament: an interpretation

Motto: Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

 And elect another? 

(from ‘The Solution’ by Bertolt Brecht)

The UK Parliament has been prorogued from the 9th of September to the 14th of October 2019 – days before the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union. On its final day before suspension, the Parliament acknowledged Royal Assent on the Benn Bill (which effectively turned an act blocking No Deal into law), made a formal request to the Government to acknowledge obeying the rule of law regarding Brexit, and passed a binding motion for the Government to disclose private communications concerning its decision to prorogue Parliament and its No Deal plans.

Whether the final day of parliamentary proceedings has been a moderate triumph or an unmitigated tragedy depends on whom you ask. For opponents of the Government, what really happened is that MPs defeated an abusive PM six times out of six within six days. For PM Boris Johnson, what really happened is that the Parliament took away a crucial card the UK might have played in its negotiations with the EU, making the threat of No Deal no longer credible.

The existence of different views, of winners and losers, and of mixed blessings is a fact of democratic life that does not merit special reflection. The more worrying trend regarding differences in interpretation has been that in the past week such disagreements have ranged over an alarming number of factual issues. Trick questions include: Is Parliament suspended for 2 weeks or 5 weeks? Does proroguing parliament facilitate or impede pursuing the Government’s new agenda? Is the prorogation constitutional? Would No Deal be ‘a clean break’, or merely the beginning of a long process of negotiation? And – though ultimately it did not come to this – when does Wednesday end in the House of Lords when under threat of filibusters?

The answers to such questions map onto increasingly polarised lines. Conservatives loyal to Johnson point out that the prorogation is in reality for only two weeks as party members usually take a three week conference recess in September anyway, and that such a break is needed for a clean start of the Government’s new agenda. They also regard the prorogation as a ‘perfectly normal’ and constitutional procedure, and instead, as MP Steve Baker did on SkyNews yesterday, that in reality the Benn Bill is the unconstitutional one.

Opposition MPs, however, claim the prorogation will in reality hamper their activities for the full 5 weeks, given that Parliament was planning to cancel the recess period. MPs also, understandably, express doubts that the best way of speeding up Parliamentary discussion on the new Government agenda is by suspending Parliament, and claim that in reality the motivation behind the prorogation is a desire to remove Parliamentary scrutiny at a critical time. If confirmed by evidence retrieved through the motion passed yesterday, such a motivation would be a decisive argument that the prorogation was in reality unconstitutional and, as John Bercow called it upon leaving Parliament at 1.30 AM on the 10th of September, ‘not a standard or normal prorogation.

This contestation of what happens ‘in reality’ shows a worrying rift within the interpretative community of UK representatives. Instead of a common reality providing a framework for mitigating differences and adjudicating disagreements between contesting parties, the debates of the past six days seem to have gone the other way around: not from a common reality to reducing disagreements, but from different commitments to weaponised differences in the ‘reality’ that each faction perceives. Each side has carved out pieces of reality to fit its own interpretation and has even – in the case of the Conservative party – carved out members who refused to comply with it.

This rift of the interpretative community is problematic in itself, both for the polarisation it ushers in and for vindicating concerns of an undemocratic loosening from a commitment to tell the truth. But what is more, such a rift is particularly problematic given the way the show-down between the Government and opposition MPs has been framed – as one of People vs Parliament.

The reason for this is that the meaning of the will of ‘the people’ is highly volatile. Indeed, this volatility has allowed Johnson to insist on contradictory interpretations: on the one hand, that the will of the people is clearly for a No Deal Brexit, requiring no further consultation; on the other, that we must urgently ascertain the current will of the people on Brexit through a general election. Conversely, opposition MPs regard it as urgent to ascertain the will of the people through a referendum on the final Brexit deal, but less urgent to organise general elections as required by Johnson. Yet another possibility, hinted at by John Bercow in his passionate defense of the Parliament as an institution during the speech announcing his imminent resignation, is to give less weight to the ‘will of the people’ as expressed through a referendum. This is implied by his assertion that MPs are ‘not delegates but representatives’, i.e. act not merely as mouthpieces for constituents, but as potentially a corrective force on ill-informed preferences of the kind that might be expressed in such a referendum.

This volatility of meaning of a central concept in the debate interacts dangerously with the quick dissolution of shared norms of the interpretative community. In a situation of partisan interpretations, each side can claim to act on behalf of a bedrock democratic principle while further carving out the ‘real’ will of the people to suit their agenda. Combined with the tendency to present ‘the people’ as a force under attack, such differences in interpretation diminish the possibility of dialogue and consensus, by linking the grounds of disagreement to a principle that is not negotiable. This can lead to a political landscape in which each faction paints itself as the purveyor of truth and legitimacy in a way that is by definition opposed to the others. For this reason, when following the fate of ‘the people’ as decried by the UK Parliament or Government it is important to ask which version of ‘the people’ is being erected – and which is being dissolved.


From the Vault: Good Reads on the Ethics and Politics of Technology

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall from our archives some memorable posts from our 2018-2019 season.

Here are some good reads on issues relating to the ethics and politics of technology that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 2nd September with fresh weekly posts by our 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.

Nudging and Market Influence: Why the focus on government nudges?

Most moral objections to nudging–the practice of altering choice environments in order to subconsciously steer behavior–have been grounded in the value of personal autonomy. The autonomy of the nudged are claimed to be undermined because the control individuals have over their evaluations, deliberations and decision-making is effectively reduced, if not fully bypassed. More so, nudging seems autonomy-threatening because the architects look to supplant the wills of their targets with their own.

When nudging was first discussed by its main proponents Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008, it was proposed as an innovative supplement to government policy-making. In response, most of the autonomy-related objections focused on the paternalism of governments carrying out the nudging. Surprisingly, few have paid much attention to similar forms of influences in the market setting–behavioral techniques used in advertising, pricing, and other market interactions. I claim the standard autonomy-based objections against nudging raise more worries about current market practices than emerging and prospective policy practices.

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What would it take to turn Facebook into a democracy?

by Severin Engelmann and Lisa Herzog*

When the relation between “Facebook” and “democracy” is discussed, the question usually is: what impact does Facebook – as it exists today – have on democratic processes? While this is an urgent and important question, one can also raise a different one: what would it mean to turn Facebook into a democracy, i.e. to govern it democratically? What challenges of institutional design would have to be met for developing meaningful democratic governance structures for Facebook?

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Public Ethics for Everyone: The Routledge Handbook of Ethics and Public Policy

In this post, Andrei Poama discusses the rationale for and contribution of a new book that he’s edited, together with Annabelle Lever on ethics and public policy. Andrei is Assistant Professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

The Routledge Handbook of Ethics and Public Policy: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

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On the Ethics of Self-Driving Cars: An Interview with Johannes Himmelreich

My colleague at Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, Johannes Himmelreich, is a philosopher who investigates agency and responsibility in contexts of collective collaboration and technological augmentation. Here, I ask Johannes about the ethical issues raised by the development of self-driving cars – one strand of his current research.

FN: Can you tell those of us who know less about the technology behind self-driving cars a little bit about where it’s currently at and how fast the development is going?

JH: In my view, the automotive sci-fi future will not come to your city within the next eight years. I would be very surprised if the majority of driving will be much different from what it is now. I expect we will see gradual improvements of systems that assist human driving. But, honestly, that’s more of a guess than a prediction. I actually can say very little about where the technology is at, since there is not much to go by that is publicly available and that is not just boisterous over-promising. This will change in the next 12-18 months. Google offshoot Waymo is starting a taxi service with self-driving cars in Phoenix, Arizona this year and General Motors’ brand Cruise say that they will start a similar so-called “robo-taxi” service in San Francisco next year. That’s when the rubber hits the road.

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From the Vault: Good Reads in Left-Wing Politics

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall from our archives some of our memorable posts from 2017-2018.

Here are three good reads on issues commonly associated with left-wing politics that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

Lisa Herzog’s interview with Isabelle Ferreras on ‘Workplace Democracy

Lasse Nielsen’s ‘Sufficiency on Political Inequality

Miriam Ronzoni’s ‘On Striking as a Privilege

What’s wrong with an epistocratic council?

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "experts cartoon"

Why do we trust experts to take care of our health and not to take care of our interests in the political realm? This is a very old question of democratic theory. Epistocracy is a neologism frequently used in recent works to refer to a form of government by those who know more or are wiser than the mass.

Two different aspects might differentiate an epistocracy from a democracy: the absence of political equality in the selection of the rulers, or the absence of egalitarian accountability. In addition to these undemocratic aspects, an epistocracy would differ from other non-democratic regimes by some mechanism allowing people who distinguish themselves from the mass by their wisdom or expertise to rule or at least enjoy an important degree of political power. The best example and – to my knowledge – the most interesting challenge to our democratic convictions is Jason Brennan’s idea of an “epistocratic council”. Members of this council would be selected on a meritocratic basis, passing a competency exam. And all citizens would have an equal voice in the choice of the expertise criteria.

Leaving aside the practical challenges such as the choice of the people in charge of preparing the exam, what would be wrong with such an epistocratic council?

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