Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Liberty (Page 2 of 3)

What are the values of the left?

This a guest post by Marius Ostrowski (Examination Fellow in Politics at All Souls College, University of Oxford). He is the author of the recently published book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance.

‘Being on the left’ can mean a variety of different things. Most commonly, it refers in a partisan sense to support for ‘progressive’ policies designed to bring about political, economic, or social equality. More generally, it is seen as synonymous with radicalism of opinion, and a greater willingness to reform rather than preserve the status quo. In a religious context especially, ‘the left’ is used to describe anti-dogmatic or anti-orthodox tendencies in favour of departing from inherited customs or scriptural interpretations. Sometimes it is identified with activism or protest in defence of specific groups in society: the working class, women, people of colour, national/religious minorities, LGBTQ*, or the disabled. Not all of these meanings of ‘leftness’ are compatible with one another. But despite the differences between them, one thing emerges very clearly: ideas such as ‘leftness’ and ‘being on the left’ play a central role in many areas of social life.

Where the concept of ‘leftness’ is not typically so much at home is in social philosophy. This is not to suggest that social philosophers themselves are hostile to the left or uninterested in left causes. Many are card-carrying activists and partisans of the left movement. Rather, the concept itself—like its relatives ‘centre’ and ‘right’—is somewhat alien to social-philosophical analysis. In general, it is rare to hear social philosophy make any explicit mention of ‘ideologies’. We are far more likely to encounter ‘theories’, ‘accounts’, or ‘comprehensive doctrines’, even when applied to what are clearly ideological constructions, such as ‘political liberalism’. Key social-philosophical concepts such as democracy, authority, or rights are dealt with as if in a vacuum, removed from any ideological connotations or parsing they might have. It is as though social philosophy is embarrassed by ideology—with ‘leftness’ only one of several victims of this embarrassment.

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The Capitalist Cage: Rethinking Structural Domination in the Market

In this post, Nicholas Vrousalis discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on structural domination and collective agency.


In his 1938 film The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir depicts the relationship between French prisoners of war and their German gaolers during World War I. Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece invites the question how fundamentally decent humans, on both sides of the conflict, can end up enslaving each other. Renoir’s answer is that war is a class phenomenon, such that all participants, including the ruling classes, get caught up in its vile machinery. It follows that Renoir does not want to lay the blame for the machinations of war on any particular individual or class. War is the upshot of a structural relationship, in which no individual or collective ascription of blame or wrongdoing suffices to account for the sum total of wrongdoing.

How are we to make sense of this idea? In a recent article, I provide an account of what it means to be ‘caught up’ in a pattern of domination, such that the wrongs involved do not disaggregate without remainder into the wrongdoing of agents, the groups they belong to, and the relations between them. And I show that the very concerns that motivate Renoir’s depiction of domination may apply to many other unjust structural relations, including those of sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism.

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Against Pharmaceutical Libertarians

In this post, David Teira discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy defending pharmaceutical paternalism.


On January 11, 2020 The New York Times (NYT) published an opinion piece by their Editorial Board: “The F.D.A. Is in Trouble. Here’s How to Fix It”. The F.D.A. is the US Food and Drug Administration, a regulatory body with gatekeeping powers over pharmaceutical markets. Since 1962, patients can access new medical treatments only after the F.D.A. has declared them safe and effective, on the basis of evidence gathered in clinical trials. This is a form of pharmaceutical paternalism: patients’ right to try whatever treatment they see fit is partially restricted – they will find in chemists only those drugs that the F.D.A. judge good for them. Yet, argues the NYT Editorial Board, “libertarian groups bent on deregulation at any cost” are exploiting the frustration of patients who don’t find any treatment option in the market to put pressure on the F.D.A., curtailing its “already diminished powers.” I think that the NYT is right to be concerned with this trend, and in a recent article, I provide an account of why exactly we should value pharmaceutical paternalism.

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Universities and Democratic Legitimacy (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined an account of the mainstream liberal view about academic freedom, free speech, and their overlapping democratic purposes. According to this account the university should have an academic zone, protected by academic freedom, and aimed at furthering democratic competence, and it should also have a free speech zone, aimed at supporting democratic legitimation.

I think there’s a problem with this picture. Roughly, what goes on in the academic zone is compromised by what goes on in the free speech zone. The intellectual aims that the university is meant to serve, with a view to furthering our democratic competence, can be undermined by the kind of free speech culture that takes root in universities.

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Universities and Democratic Legitimacy (Part 1)

Free speech is vital to democracy. Alexander Meiklejohn offered a powerful defense of this idea in the mid-20th century, and since then it has gravitated towards centre stage in free speech discourse. The modern academic defenders of this view — people like Robert Post, Eric Heinze, and Ronald Dworkin — typically say that free speech isn’t just important for the health of a democracy, but that it’s also a necessary condition for democratic legitimacy. In a free society people are unafraid to broadcast their ethical convictions in public. There is a free press, an arts sector untouched by state censorship, and a cherished liberty for all to mock and criticise our leaders. The democratic government’s authority is legitimised partly through its upholding these freedoms.

But where does academic freedom fit into this picture? And what is the university’s role in ensuring the vitality and legitimacy of democratic society?

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More Gender Justice Through the Artificial Womb?

In 2017, US-scientists succeeded in transferring lamb foetuses to what comes very close to an artificial womb: a “biobag”. All of the lambs emerged from the biobag healthy. The scientists believe that about two years from now it will be possible to transfer preterm human babies to an artificial womb, in which they have greater chances to survive and develop without a handicap than in current neonatal intensive care. At this point in time, developers of the technology, such as Guid Oei, gynaecologist and professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, see the technology as a possible solution to the problem of neonatal mortality and disability due to preterm birth. They do not envisage uses of it that go far beyond that. Philosophers and ethicists, however, have started thinking about the use of artificial womb technology for very different purposes, such as being able to terminate a risky pregnancy without having to kill the foetus, or strengthening the freedom of women. If we consider such further going uses, new ethical issues arise, including whether artificial womb technology could promote gender justice. Should we embrace this technology as a means towards greater equality between men and women?

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“Hackable” Humans and the Need for Philosophy

We are now facing not just a technological crisis but a philosophical crisis. (Harari)

I recently watched Nicholas Thompson’s interview with Yuval Noah Harari and Tristan Harris for WIRED. It’s wide-ranging and informative, particularly as regards the current ways in which our thought-leaders are discussing the so-called “technological challenge”: the revolutions in biotech and infotech, and their attendant personal, social, political, and even existential risks.

There’s much I’d like to comment on; but in this post I’ll pick up on one framing issue and follow a line of thought that speaks to the claim that we’re facing a philosophical crisis as much as a technological one. I’m all for the philosophical call-to-arms, so to speak; but I think that linking the “technological crisis” to the idea that this follows from a deeper, “philosophical crisis” is somewhat misplaced.

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From the Vault: Good Reads in Economic Ethics

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall from our archives some of our memorable posts from 2016-2017.

Here are four good reads in economic ethics that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

Anca Gheaus’ ‘There is too much division of labour

Lisa Herzog’s ‘If everything is measured, can we still see one another as equals?

James Hickson’s ‘Freedom for Uber Drivers

Mirjam Muller’s ‘Are Sweatshops Drivers for Gender Equality?

 

Evidence for a non-ideal theory of freedom of expression (Remembering Anna Politkovskaya)

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.

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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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