Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Governance (Page 1 of 9)

Towards a feminist city

Historically, men and women have experienced the city in a drastically different way. Cities were built not for women, but for and by men. This male dominance in urban planning brought about hetero-patriarchal norms, which are based either on women remaining quiet in the private spaces or – if they access urban spaces – relying on the urban structure created by men. The persistence of those urban spaces creates barriers for women accessing transport, land and constrains their social activity and agency needed to exercise their political voice. This is the characterisation of an oppressive and non-egalitarian city in terms of the division of power and resources.

Empirically, numbers show that women, especially non-white women, experience the city via physical, socioeconomic, racial, colonial, and symbolic barriers. This is evident, for instance, in the lack of proper lighting in the streets and parks or in the absence of public spaces with safe recreational areas and children’s facilities, as reported by the Urban 20 White Paper. As a result, women spend more time at home, and sometimes risk their well-being when they go out. According to the inequality map of São Paulo, from 2012 to 2019, the violence against women in the city increased 63%, and the feminicide 33%. In Mexico City, 65% of women who used public transport in 2019 have suffered sexual harassment during their travelling journey. Other than that, male urban planning tends to overlook the challenge of women’s mobility in the city. In London, having a child in the house increased by  23% the number of trips women make; and in Buenos Aires it increased by 13%.

It is plausible to say that this is, per se, unjust; as it creates a scenario in which women are oppressed and are not treated equally. At first glance, these hetero-patriarchal norms shape women’s life: they cannot access urban spaces freely without feeling unsafe; they spend more time on public transport than do men; their political agency is excluded or denied in the urban planning.

Some feminists, such as Leslie Kern, argue that such an unjust scenario in cities creates a big problem which must be addressed, as cities were not built to accommodate women’s bodies. Kern points out that if male urban planning disadvantages women, a feminist city should be the solution. According to her, a feminist city is one without oppression “where barriers—physical and social—are dismantled, where all bodies are welcome and accommodated”. For her, this is an aspirational project and must focus on caring-centres, safe streets, and creative spaces for children, as well as on having an inclusive urban planning. Kern acknowledges that those changes will rebuild the city in an intersectional feminist approach, regarding gender oppression as interconnected with class, race and ethnicity.

Other feminists have supported an egalitarian resourcist-based approach as a practical way to guide the city to equality, by enhancing women’s economic ability and independence. This can be done by cash transfer programmes, or even reforms in the architecture of houses. Anna Puigjaner claims that it is crucial to be critical about the structure of buildings in cities, where walls and bricks are historically designed to support the hetero-patriarchal norms. Drawing on Silvia Federici’s work, when she acknowledges that the expropriation of women with no remuneration for domestic work represents the manipulation and the violence of capitalism against the working class, Puigjaner advocates that together with the remuneration of domestic and sexual work, as Federici suggests, houses should not have private kitchens, but a collective one. Crucially, she believes that, for many years, the kitchen was associated with domestic and sexual work and lost its economic value, becoming, in Federici’s terms, a “labour of love”, which makes women economically dependent on others for their well-being and political voice. Puigjaner proposes, therefore, to abolish kitchens at home and replace them by public and collective kitchens in the city for the economic and political liberation of women. In practical terms, there are already urban collective kitchens in few cities around the world, such as in Lima, Mexico City, Tokyo and Montreal. They are a collaborative project, and act to complement private kitchens. According to Puigjaner, these urban kitchens are used not only for cooking and eating but also for developing the local communities’ political voice.

Of course these proposals are insufficient, and it would be impracticable to demolish all the old structures of the city. However, they are alternatives that could help to transform some of hereto-patriarchal barriers. First of all, both proposals try to target the disadvantaged/advantaged groups, by creating more space in public areas for interaction and for the construction of social bonds between city-dwellers, which may increase the political voice and impact of women and other disadvantaged groups on decisions that affect their lives, thereby challenging the advantaged groups’ perceptions of otherness. Kerns suggests that safer and care-giving public spaces are needed, and Puigjaner considers that kitchens should go beyond private walls and become communal spaces for collective political agencies. Second, they are also sensitive to intersectional injustices, which affect women. This means that without criticising patriarchal, racial, colonial and socioeconomic systems, we cannot increase women’s political voice. Finally, both proposals explore the extent to which governments should not only focus on the consequences of gender oppression and socioeconomic inequalities, but also on how such oppression and inequality are formed and reproduced.

As I see it, Kerns and Puigijaner bring crucial contributions to the reflections of what a feminist city is, which, between the lines, should involve its habitants and local voices interacting with each other in public spaces. This is the first step for creating social bonds and exchanges capable of ensuring a sense of belonging and inclusion of those who were historically not welcomed in urban spaces.

Why should we protect the vulnerable?

In this post, Emma Curran & Stephen John discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on duties to prioritise vaccinating the vulnerable.

In the December of 2020, the UK seemed to breathe an, albeit small, sigh of relief as the first COVID-19 vaccinations were administered. After almost nine months of lockdowns, the vaccine roll-out was the first concrete sign that life might return to – at least something like – normality. Indeed, throughout 2020, the promise of a vaccine seemed to be the end to which lockdown pointed. Lockdown was tough but necessary to protect the lives of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, until they could be helped by a vaccine. Unsurprisingly, then, the vaccine roll-out started with the most vulnerable, with a primary focus on age. In this post, however, we explore a  seemingly small alteration to the Government’s vaccine strategy which concerned and confused many. Using this policy, we explore the reasons we have to protect the vulnerable, the complexity of ethical discourse around the distribution of vaccines, and the need for transparent, open debate.

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Allowing fossil-fuel advertising is harmful and irresponsible

John Kenneth Galbraith, in his classic The Affluent Society (1952) formulated a powerful argument he called the “dependence effect.” In a nutshell, the idea is that capitalist societies create wants in individuals in order to then satisfy them. Perhaps the central tool in this process is advertising. Galbraith suggested that the additional wants generated through advertising might not even lead to additional welfare. People’s level of preference satisfaction before being exposed to advertising can be just as high as after the exposure. Viewed from his angle, advertising is wasteful from a societal perspective, because the costs involved do not generate any tangible benefits. The reason firms engage in it is solely to secure more market share than their competitors.

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Are Persons with Intellectual Disabilities Unjustly Disenfranchised?

In July 2020 the Romanian Constitutional Court declared that the institution of judicial interdiction, which deprived people deemed to have severe intellectual disabilities[1] of numerous civil rights, is unconstitutional. Thus, while the Constitution itself still requires that people with intellectual disabilities placed under judicial interdiction are to be disenfranchised, the provision is de facto inapplicable, making the next round of elections the first in Romania’s history where people with severe intellectual disabilities will be included in the demos. Other countries have more explicitly embraced this type of enfranchisement, with both France and Spain making legislative changes that grant voting rights to people with intellectual disabilities in 2018. Consequently, about half of EU Member States now endorse the electoral exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, in some form, while the other half fully include them. At a global level, the situation is starkly different, however, with a 2016 study on all 193 UN countries showing that only 11% had provided full enfranchisement up to that point. Thus, it can be said that as of 2022, only a small minority of states abide by Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to which states should “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote […]”.

Of course, the normative force of arguments for or against any form of disenfranchisement cannot be primarily derived from the provisions of international law. And, in fact, even from this perspective any judgement would not be so clear-cut, considering the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the practice of disenfranchisement for reasons of intellectual capacity as legitimate in the case of Strøbye and Rosenlind v. Denmark. So what can be said in justification of this policy?

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The EU needs to be able to Expel Autocratic Members

This is a guest post by Tom Theuns, Assistant Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at Leiden University (tweeting @TomTheuns). It discusses his recent work on how the EU should handle member states that violate democratic values

The democracy and rule of law crisis in the EU has now lasted over a decade. One of the problems has been that the main instrument for responding to democratic backsliding in a member state, the infamous Article 7 (A7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), is ineffective. Given that the two states most active in dismantling democracy in Europe—Poland and Hungary—have pledged to support one another, A7 is crippled by a unanimity requirement.

A7 is supposed to sanction violations of the fundamental values of the EU listed in Article 2 TEU. These include democracy, the rule of law and equality. The sanction in A7 is the disenfranchisement of a backslidden state in the Council of the EU. In a recent article, I argue that A7 is not only ineffective but also normatively incoherent. Instead of disenfranchisement, I think the final sanction for democratic backsliding should be expulsion from the EU.

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On how the Dunning-Kruger effect complicates normative considerations

Individuals are notoriously self-serving in assessing their competences either in absolute terms or when comparing themselves to others. We are likely to think we are more sociable than others, better than most at judging character and sincerity, or that we perform above average in our workplaces. We often overestimate our levels of knowledge when we objectively know very little. In fact, this bias seems most potent when we are oblivious about some matter. At such times, we may act quite unrestrained in peddling the most absurd notions as facts to others. Our virtual lives of late, cluttered with half-baked claims and notions about the pandemic, offer plentiful evidence for this. What is even more disheartening is that, as the famous Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us, the more incompetent we are, the less likely we are to become aware of our own incompetence. Individuals often fall victim to this effect regardless of their intelligence, social grouping, or their successes at anticipating and counteracting a self-serving bias in some other area.

Despite being familiar in some form for several decades, the Dunning-Kruger effect has not seriously grabbed the attention of normative philosophers. Only epistemologists have seriously considered how it may affect epistemic obligations, for instance, how we should act in circumstances of assumed peer disagreement (Wiland, 2016). We have hardly considered the kinds of moral obligations we might have as individuals, or how we ought to shape public policies and institutions in the face of widespread Dunning-Kruger effects.

Consider, for instance, the decision of a highly educated person whether she should go into politics and compete for public seats. Imagine that this person is educated broadly enough to offer meaningful contributions over a range of public concerns. “But alas”, she reflects, “I don’t know enough about all the relevant laws, or how to draw up or revise a budget. I wasn’t trained for public administration. So I’m hardly competent to take up such a job.” But the educated person fails to consider that if she decides not to pursue the job, a far less competent person, one with far fewer scruples of the aforementioned kind, may attempt to take it up instead. Apart from considering merely whether she is qualified, she must assess whether the Dunning-Kruger effect will generate unwavering confidence in candidates who are far less qualified. So in the face of a lurking threat of social harms arising from incompetence, is the educated person obliged to overcome her reservations?

A further complication arises from the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: in some cases, the truly competent exemplify tendencies to second-guess their competences, even if the area of competence is much more specific than in the previous example. Bertrand Russell noticed both sides of these self-assessment difficulties, when he famously stated that “in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1933). Simply, the awareness of the competent that there is still much they don’t know saps their confidence, whereas the incompetent are unperturbed in their lack of awareness of just how incompetent they are. But in that case, the obligation to overcome their reservations may include a psychological hurdle for the competent that makes it particularly demanding.

Assigning the competent with this obligation faces two other crucial difficulties. First, the main lesson of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that those who believe they are competent may very easily turn out to be incompetent. Thus, it’s quite possible that those taking up the obligation to save us from the incompetent, with the best of intentions, are themselves incompetent. When there is no one who could vouch for their competence, self-assessors will often overestimate themselves. Therefore, committing ourselves to beat the incompetent runs at least some risk that we are thereby enabling our own incompetence.

Second, even if we could safely and reliably establish, with the help of others, that we are truly competent, a moral question remains: how much should we be asked to do? How far-reaching is our obligation to clean up after the incompetent, or preventing them from ever making a mess? Surely, if we are competent, we are allowed to appeal to an “agent-centered prerogative […] a modest right of self-interest” (Cohen, 1996), not to invest most of our time, like in the case of taking up a public seat.

Whether moral complications arising from the Dunning-Kruger effect should affect the decisions of individuals, and how, remains an open question that requires serious thought. However, we might think that Dunning-Kruger effects are best neutralized at various levels of institutional structure. Education, for instance, might be attuned to help the most competent in overcoming their imposter syndromes, in steering and reassuring them towards positions of great social importance, and encouraging them to branch out of their epistemic comfort zones. This can, in turn, help the competent in overcoming their psychological barriers when taking up individual moral obligations.

If, however, education fails, the Dunning-Kruger effect stands out as an important consideration in setting up our electoral and governmental institutions. There is no doubt that the effect influences both the incompetent and the competent in their voting behavior, as well as in their decisions to pursue positions of leadership. An institutional arrangement that prevents the incompetent in some way from hijacking important public decisions may very well be the last frontier at which self-serving biases are to be repelled.

What Do We Owe to Pandemic Puppies?

For many, having an animal companion during the pandemic has been a blessing. Someone to keep you company, someone to play with, someone who brings you joy and gives you a reason to get out of bed. Indeed, in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) reported that 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired an animal companion since the start of the pandemic. This brings the total number of animal companions in the UK up to 34 million, including 12 million cats and 12 million dogs, and equates to 17 million households being responsible for an animal’s welfare.

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Is the OECD/G20 international corporate tax reform fair?

On October 8th, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced that 136 countries have adopted its two-pillar proposal to reform the taxation of multinational enterprises (MNEs).

Pillar One applies to MNEs with sales in excess of $20bn and profits over 10%. It shifts the taxing rights of the next 25% of profits above the 10% threshold to market jurisdictions, that is, to the country where the goods and services of the MNE in question are sold. The measure is thought to apply only to about 100 MNEs, many of them in the highly profitable digital services sector. Pillar Two introduces a minimum tax of 15% for all MNEs with revenues of more than $750m.

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Accounting for global and local justice in behavioural climate policy

Anthropogenic climate change is a global concern. However, that climate change concerns all of us does not mean that it would concern all of us equally. Income is the primary correlate of carbon footprint whether analysed on a national or individual level. The richest half of the world’s countries (in GDP) emit 86% of global CO2 emissions. The difference is even starker when analysed on an individual level: income level is also the strongest correlate with citizen CO2 footprint (2016 data from the Global Carbon Project). The effect of attempts to decrease carbon footprint in wealthy countries by producing climate-friendly consumer goods, energy, and transport options have had limited effect – in part because these only transform a small part of citizens’ total consumption behaviour, and in part because reductions are needed, primarily, in the amount of consumption by high-income citizens rather than in the specific goods being consumed.

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What the pandemic can teach us about political philosophy

This post originally appeared on LSE School of Public Policy’s COVID-19 blog on 3rd September. You can access this version here. Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future, the collection of essays discussed in this post, is out this coming Thursday (23rd September)!

Aveek Bhattacharya (Social Market Foundation) and Fay Niker (University of Stirling), co-editors of a new book on the ethics and politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it, introduce some of its ideas.


Back in April 2020, in the period we now look back on as “the first lockdown”, we gathered together some early reflections from philosophers and political theorists on the ethical dimensions of the developing COVID-19 pandemic. We published these on Justice Everywhere, the blog we help to run. Experts from almost every academic field – epidemiology, statistical modelling, social psychology, economics – were turning the tools of their trades to the growing crisis. What, if anything, did we and our peers have to offer?

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