About ten years ago Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian journalist, writer and human rights’ activist, died in her apartment building in Moscow, shot four times in a lift. After a long and highly charged trial-and-retrial, we still do not know who the instigators of Politkovskaya’s assassination are, though six people have been convicted of the murder. In her books and articles (she was one of the best reporters of Novaya Gazeta), Politkovskaya reported on the situation in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War and on the deterioration of the quality of Russian democracy, especially as far as human rights protection, transparency and good governance were concerned. She defined contemporary Russia ‘a failing democracy’ and she admonished her fellow citizens about the concrete risks of ‘hurtling back into a Soviet abyss’, thanks to the ‘information vacuum’ that the Russian power system was able to produce. Her investigative works as well as her popularity in the West – she won several important awards from human rights and international journalism and her books were translated in several languages – were certainly worrisome for the Russian government as well as for several crucial state agencies. In Russia, however, her influence was quite limited beyond human rights activists’ circles, as Vladimir Putin noticed after her brutal assassination.
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?
One argument made against the proposal to legalise assisted dying in the UK is that making this change might result in older citizens feeling pressured to choose death, increased pressure on people to think about and defend their existence, and the inevitable acceptance of voluntary and, then, involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia. This kind of argument can be called a slippery slope argument. A
slippery slope argument claims that if we make a proposed policy change, other changes or outcomes will occur, and because these other outcomes are objectionable, we should not make the policy change. I am generally sceptical of slippery slope arguments and in this post I wish to register some issues with their use.
Remember what good things you hoped awaited you within a future job when you were very young and still preparing for one. And have you ever been unemployed long-term, worried that you’d not find work in the near future? Remember why this was distressing (if it was). Here I’ll talk about the things we can, and should, get out of work – and argue that these goods are so important that we ought to reorganise employment.
When you tell people that you work on republicanism, you are often met by a concerned look. You then have to rush to explain that by ‘republicanism’ you, of course, do not mean the party of Trump and Palin. Nor – you then have to add – do you only mean that you take a particular dislike to Elizabeth Windsor. This public understanding of republicanism looks set to only get worse, with the French centre-right UMP party, last year, successfully renaming itself Les Républicains.
The prospects for recovering republicanism for leftist politics might therefore not seem particularly promising. The label ‘republican’ might simply be too poisoned by its associations with right-wing parties or too easily reduced to narrow anti-monarchism, to be of much use to radicals and progressives. Yet, despite these concerns, I do think that republicanism has something to offer to the left.¹ I believe that its values of popular sovereignty, civic virtue and freedom, and the political proposals we can draw from them, make a recovery of republicanism attractive.
Imagine you are watching your favourite TV show and its protagonist walks to the fridge and gets out a drink (or: gets into a car, answers their phone, walks past a billboard, pours breakfast cereal into a bowl – you get the picture). Unbeknownst to you, the actual drink that you see them take out of the fridge is dependent on factors about you, such as your geographic location: you see the character pull out a Diet Coke, for instance, while another person on the other side of the world watching the same episode of the same programme at the same time sees them take out a particular brand of iced tea.
You have (both) just been subject to a new type of advertising practice known as ‘digital insertion’ – a much more technologically-sophisticated, targeted version of product placement.
One thing that I learned as a PhD student at Oxford was that philosophically interesting questions and questions about existing injustice do not always overlap – some existing practices are so obviously wrong from a normative perspective, I was told, that there is no point in writing normative theories about them. This seems right for certain cases, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about whether it is always true.
I remember this Oxford seminar while reading this utterly depressing piece about incarceration and its effect on black communities in the U.S. in this month’s issue of the Atlantic.
- Constitutional rights can be applied to non-governmental organisations, as the laws of some countries show. For instance, German and Austrian law describes the model of a so-called “thirdparty effect of constitutional rights”. The effect comes into play when the people involved have possess “very unequal economic and social power”, e.g. in the relationship between employers and employees. Analogously one could argue that the power gap between companies such as google or facebook and their users is large enough to warrant the consideration that users can evoke their constitutional rights
- Since facebook has an enormous bearing on the public debate of political and social issues, it should be subject to media laws and political scrutiny. In analogy to the google case, rights to privacy, to inform themselves freely or not to be harassed need to be respected. Some of them are already part of facebook’s “community standards”, but facebook is the only that monitors their enforcement.
- Facebooks own standards formulate obligations to their users. Facebook promises to leave the rights to content in the user’s hand, whenever standards are not violated. If not, they promise to notify the user (s. point 4 below). It should be made sure that facebook adheres to its own standards.
- Transparency presents a prominent principle in procedural justice. People have a right to be informed about the matters that concern them, especially in public interaction and deliberation. If facebook is editing content silently, it clearly violates this right.
P.S. I admit to being a frequent facebook user to gather information and keep in contact with people I do not see on a regular basis. Interestingly, my post linking to an article about Gideon Levy and his reports from Gaza is still up, while it disappeared from other walls. Not sure what that means.
*Update: Marxist economist, Chris Dillow, has an excellent post describing how problems like long working hours can naturally arise without actually benefiting anyone.