Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Moral values (Page 1 of 3)

The Case for Ethical Guidelines on Universities’ Corporate Partnerships

In this guest post, members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T) – a student-led, UK-based organisation working to sever the links between higher education, violent technology, and hostile immigration environments – discuss one important arm of their work. 

Photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, licenced by CC BY-SA 2.0

Migrant communities are endangered by universities’ relationships with businesses like Palantir Technologies, whose software  is “mission critical” to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) mass raids, detentions, and deportations. The harm inflicted by ICE is an integral component of a white nationalist deportation machine, which routinely destroys lives and condemns migrants to deadly concentration camps. Migrant rights organisations describe Palantir as the “most prominent supporter of the deportation machine in Silicon Valley.” The anti-migrant violence Palantir enables would not be possible without the talent it recruits from top UK universities. In exchange for material benefits, universities invite Palantir representatives to deliver talks,  present at career fairs, and sponsor student prizes. Several groups have cut ties with Palantir, citing the company’s facilitation of anti-migrant violence; yet, despite claiming to be committed to social responsibility, many universities remain open to Palantir.

As members of No Tech For Tyrants (NT4T), a student-led migrant justice organisation, we met with university administrators to request that they implement ethical guidelines in regards to their corporate partnerships. Administrators responded with two kinds of objections: ethical guidelines would (1) threaten free expression, and (2) be too political. We’ll explicate and reject both kinds of objection. Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is necessary for dismantling the relationship between universities and technology businesses that facilitate egregious harm.

We understand “corporate partnerships” broadly, to cover mutually beneficial engagements like career fairs, sponsored research, etc. We’re not proposing that universities align themselves with any one particular ethical framework; solutions can be university-specific. “Ethical guidelines” are policies designed to limit partnerships with businesses working against universities’ stated values. There is no perfect litmus test, but for example, if ethical guidelines—however they’re specified—allow for partnerships with businesses that terrorize migrant communities, they are inadequate.  Universities should locate corporate partnerships within the purview of issues to which their value-based commitments apply.

Responding to Objection (1): Free Expression

First, university administrators claim that concerns over free expression prevent them from implementing ethical guidelines. Banning businesses from campus prevents representatives from expressing their points of view. Administrators also claim that ethical guidelines would go against their university’s principled commitment to being an open forum for discourse.

In response, we admit that guidelines will limit some businesses’ ability to express their positions on campus. However, those limits are defensible. Within the context of universities, free expression is valued because it provides students, staff, and faculty with protections against the powerful and interested actors who may wish to silence them. Universities do not have positive obligations to promote or even protect businesses’ capacity to recruit students.

 A related worry concerns the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. This worry wrongly conceptualizes corporate engagements as opportunities for open discourse. Career fairs, for example, are explicitly recruitment-driven; they are not forums for meaningful discussion. And students who express opinions that threaten businesses’ interests at sponsored events are routinely asked to leave.

If universities are genuinely interested in promoting free expression, they should stop partnering with businesses involved in silencing migrants through persecution. Administrators contribute to the erosion of free expression when they invoke it to defend actors implicated in its dismantling.

Responding to Objection (2): Political Neutrality

University administrators’ second response is that limiting corporate partnerships may be too political. Many are sympathetic to migrant justice issues but believe that guidelines would threaten institutional neutrality. It would be a misuse of power to let personal politics limit students’ choices. Furthermore, guidelines would set a slippery precedent.

In response, we believe that the status quo is already non-neutral: a university’s choice to partner with a particular business has political implications. Corporate partnerships express implicit endorsements. For example, collaborating with Palantir effectively says, “Palantir’s record of facilitating violence against migrant communities does not disqualify them from partnership with us.” Universities are clearly aware of the political implications of their partnerships: after all, major UK universities have already divested from corporations (e.g., fossil fuel companies) that they’ve identified as in conflict with their stated values.

And claiming that universities are politically neutral ignores their role in promoting values. By their own lights, universities are not merely profit-maximising entities whose products are employable graduates. Most universities present themselves as socially responsible members of their communities and claim to be bastions of knowledge, diversity, and freedom.

Moreover, it’s not our goal to dictate student choices: students can apply anywhere they want. And we recognize that many students don’t have the privilege of turning down employment opportunities from implicated businesses. Guidelines are not about nudging students toward making what we consider to be “good” choices by removing the “bad” ones; they are about facilitating university accountability.

Finally, administrators protest, “Where do we draw the line?” We don’t have an easy answer, but we do know that concerns over corporate partnerships aren’t going away. We believe that ethical guidelines will help universities limit the ad hoc nature of those inevitable decisions. Guidelines promote transparency and accountability.  In fact, the most significant precedent that implementing ethical guidelines will set is one of reflexivity towards the serious impacts of corporate partnerships.

Moving Forward

Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is not a panacea. We envision it as a component of a larger project: dismantling the ties between higher education institutions and the violence infrastructure threatening migrant lives. As members of NT4T and philosophers-in-training, we think this project calls upon us all to foster a culture of moral and political accountability within higher education. Ethical guidelines are an appropriate first step.

 

Mallika Balakrishnan, Negin Mortazavi, and Jacob Zionts are members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T). NT4T organises, researches, and campaigns to dismantle the violence infrastructure at the intersection of ethics, technology, migration governance, and surveillance. You can follow NT4T on Twitter here.

Mallika and Jacob are studying for the MLitt in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy through the St Andrews and Stirling Graduate Programme in Philosophy. Negin is studying for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

Explaining Injustice: A Symposium on Bias in Context

In this post, Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of biases in oppression and injustice.


For over a century, activists and theorists have decried the role of prejudice and stereotyping in creating—and sustaining—group oppression. In an 1892 editorial, Ida B. Wells argued that white lynch mobs and their defenders seemed to believe that all black folks were “criminal, ignorant, and bestial.” In liberation movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, feminists and anti-colonial theorists likewise critiqued stereotyping and prejudice as part of their push for social equality and political self-determination. “My true wish,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.” “Shaking off the dust” requires, in part, freeing one’s heart and mind from biases.

But how easy is it to do this, and how significant are these personal, psychological transformations to ending injustices? In the 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists increasingly began to argue that social biases had gone “underground” in our psychologies, and were therefore both widespread and particularly difficult to root out. They referred to these biases as “implicit.” Implicit bias was posited as an important cause of discrimination and exclusion, capable of explaining why social inequality could persist in the absence of ill will and explicit prejudice. Yet many objections exist to explaining injustice via prejudicial attitudes and implicit bias in particular. Some worry that attention to the role of psychological factors obscures the real causes of injustice, which are structural in nature. Others argue that implicit bias theorists downplay the existence of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 21st century. Yet others contend that the scientific quality of the research is questionable and not sufficiently predictive of real-world behaviour.

In 2016 and 2017, we—along with Alex Madva—hosted a series of four workshops to scrutinize these critiques, and explore how one might understand the role of psychology in group oppression. This post provides a brief snapshot into the conference series, as well as the symposium that emerged out of it. We outline some of the symposium’s main themes and connect these with the three articles featured in it, as we do in our introduction to the symposium.

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Left Unity: An Interview with Marius Ostrowski

Fay Niker recently talked with Marius Ostrowski about his new book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance

I want to make the case for why the left urgently needs to snap out of its current mindset, stay abreast of the deep changes taking place in society, and find new ways to counteract its fragmentation.

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Which Option is Best for Me? A Values-Based Proposal for Behavioral Economists

In this post, C. Tyler DesRoches discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the normative foundations of behavioral economics.


Emmett is hungry. He only has enough money to purchase either a slice of cake or a piece of fruit. What’s the best option for Emmett? You might think that fruit is his best option. After all, that’s the healthiest option. In a recent article, I defend one way to make sense of this view, by proposing a values-based account of ‘true preferences.’ Let me explain.

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Making Sense of “Erasing History”

In this post, Daniel Abrahams discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of history in erasing-history.


The last five years have seen a re-evaluation of public history. Beginning with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Cape Town, popular movements have argued and fought for the removal of commemorative statues of toxic historical figures. Movements have targeted memorials of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, statues honouring Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, and honourifics for Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A Macdonald.

In each case, defenders of the statues have argued that removing the statues would constitute “erasing history.” This might seem like a curious complaint at first: Canadians are not about to forget about Canada’s first Prime Minister any time soon. The internet provides plenty of resources, and history will still be taught in schools. Taking down a statue is obviously a long way from the Orwellian project of deleting something from the historical record. However, the complaint must have some intuitive pull as people keep making it. In a recent article, I take up the case of Macdonald and use it to spell out both the best way to understand the erasing history defence, and suggest ways to engage it on its core concern.

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Some Musings On When We Should (Not) Accommodate Injustice

In this post, Sarah Buss discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on courage and convictions in times of injustice.


I experienced the 2016 Presidential election as a loss of innocence.   For the first time in my life, the prospect of losing my most basic rights and freedoms did not feel so remote.  In confronting this possibility, I found myself struggling to understand what distinguishes reasonable accommodations to injustice from morally unacceptable accommodations.  Under what conditions, I wondered, is the fact that I can do something to resist injustice a decisive reason to resist?  More particularly, when would I have decisive reason to resist, even though in so doing I would be putting myself at great risk?

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Recognition in times of COVID-19

In this post, guest contributor Gottfried Schweiger reflects on recognition of “everyday heroes” in the current COVID-19 crisis and what it says about our recognition regime.

Times of crisis are times when heroes are made and tales of heroism are written. The COVID-19 pandemic knows some heroes: all the medical staff in the front line, but also the many other people who keep society going and fight the pandemic. There are also more and more voices publicly acknowledging these “everyday heroes” (for example, Owen Jones in this recent opinion piece for The Guardian).

While some professions, such as doctors, are used to being at the top of the recognition hierarchy, people who are normally excluded from such public recognition are now also benefiting from it. These include the poorly paid employees in supermarkets and warehouses, but also the many who provide care and assistance in hospitals, nursing homes or private arrangements for the needy and chronically ill.

Two questions arise: how do recognition regimes shift in times of crisis and what about all those who are not everyday heroes, what does the crisis do to them?

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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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An Interview with Jonathan Wolff (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the third interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (previous interviewees: Onora O’Neill and Marc Stears). Back in December, Diana Popescu spoke to Jonathan Wolff about his experience working on public policy committees and what philosophers have to learn from engaging with real-life problems and social movements. 

Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Before coming to Oxford, he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL. He is currently developing a new research programme on revitalising democracy and civil society. His work largely concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling, and the regulation of recreational drugsHe has been a member of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, the Academy of Medical Science working party on Drug Futures, the Gambling Review Body, the Homicide Review Group, an external member of the Board of Science of the British Medical Association, and a Trustee of GambleAware. He writes a regular column on higher education for The Guardian

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Can we solve the dilemma between pursuing personal projects and the demands of morality by limiting the scope of morality?

Morality is hard work. It’s not easy to make sure our actions do not negatively affect other beings in this universe or to do good to them. How can we carve out some space for the pursuit of personal projects without violating the demands of morality? In this post, I discuss strategies that exclude certain areas of life and activities from moral assessment, and find them wanting.*

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