Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Moral values

More Solidarity among EU Citizens

From June 14th to June 16th, the Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary European Studies (ACCESS EUROPE) organised an international conference on “Solidarity and European integration”. In his contribution to the panel “European solidarity and justice: normative issues”, Andrea Sangiovanni presented his dispositional analysis of the concept “solidarity”. He defines solidarity as a (complex) disposition to sacrifice one’s own self-interest (narrowly understood) for the good of others. In order to distinguish solidarity from utilitarian altruism, love, enlightened self-interest, and fairness, he further specifies it as being a disposition to sacrifice that is impersonal, narrow, and person-directed. It is a disposition to sacrifice one’s own self-interest for the sake of overcoming an adversity faced by other member states or EU citizens. Such a dispositional analysis is, I believe, much more promising than, for instance, an analysis of solidarity as a mental state. It enables us to reach a better understanding of the conditions that are most conducive to the development of solidarity and the factors that hinder it. In this post, I develop some thoughts on how to address this issue in the European context.

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If everything is measured, can we still see one another as equals?

Relational egalitarians hold what matters for justice is that all members of a society “stand in relations of equality to others.” The idea that all human beings are moral equals is widely shared: it underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many national constitutions. How will this norm be affected by the arrival of “big data,” the collecting and analysing of huge amounts of data about individuals? Internet companies and government services collect data about individuals’ activities, including geographic locations, shopping behaviour and friendships. Many individuals voluntarily share such information on social media, some also track their physical activities in meticulous details. Experts expect that “people analytics” – big data applied to the measurement of work performance – will have a revolutionary impact on labour markets.

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Unsettling Times – Between Tormenting Questions and Business as Usual

This summer my 2-year-old daughter and I were looking at a world map together. I would have liked to tell her something about the different continents and countries (about all the different languages, the food, music, local customs), but wasn’t able to because the sight of the map prompted only thoughts such as “There is war here, there are people starving there, refugees drowning here…” So I remained silent. We are currently overwhelmed by negative news. Almost everywhere things seem to go awfully wrong: more than 65 million refugees worldwide, 470000 deaths in Syria, the terror of ISIS, right-wing populists gaining more votes everywhere, Donald Trump for president, the Brexit, growing child poverty in Europe’s strongest economy (Germany), burning asylum seeker centres… (I could go on and on). Of course, the news we get through the media has always been mainly negative, but now it seems to have reached a new dimension. Whether this impression is accurate or not, it is certainly unsettling, raising perturbing questions: How long will we still be able to live in peace and with our basic human rights protected? Will the fear of terrorist attacks soon be part of our daily lives? Have all attempts after 1945 to create a more peaceful world been in vain? What kind of world will my children find themselves in? To what extent do our governments and we carry responsibility for what is going on? What does justice require from us as individuals? Is there a moral justification for focusing on one’s own comparatively small problems and not trying to help solving the big, global ones? How many resources are we allowed to spend on our own children? These kinds of questions are far from new, but they currently pose themselves with particular urgency.

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Experiencing and responding to hate

This post has been published anonymously to protect the identity of its author, who is still receiving messages of hate.

Recently I did a radio interview in which I argued for equal access to certain social services, such as health care, for migrants and refugees. I did not focus on the instrumental value migrants have for countries – I did not focus on the economic and health benefits everyone has if people on the same territory are able to work, and are healthy and sane. I focused on the broader ethical arguments for equal access, even though I mentioned the instrumental arguments too. Perhaps I should have expected that not everyone would agree with my views. But nothing could possibly have prepared me for the hate mail that I received after the interview. In this post, I try to describe the experience and make a plea for greater solidarity in standing against such hate.

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Addressing “the social” in normative theorizing

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Normative theorists are not a species known for an oversupply of consensus. But one of the most heated debate of recent years has led to a kind of consensus: the debate about “situationism”, which was raised as a challenge to virtue ethics. With virtue ethicists referring to the character of virtuous agents for guidance about moral behaviour, situationists drew attention to the problem that human behaviour is greatly influenced by the situations they find themselves in. For example, they are more altruistic when exposed to the good smells of a bakery. They are more likely to cooperate in a game call “Community Game” than in one called “Wall Street Game” even if they payoffs are the same. And if they are told to play the role of “prison guards”, while others play the role of “prisoners”, the situation can easily get out of hand. Reading such accounts, one might think that all talk about individual agency and responsibility had been based on an illusion: on an account of a “Cartesian” or “Kantian” self, or on an “Aristotelian” notion of stable character, that simply do not exist. All that there is, it seems, are situational forces.

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How do people vote against their own interests?

I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time following the ins and outs of American politics. And one of the most interesting/baffling things about the nominations for the 2016 presidential election is the sheer capacity of the average Republican voter to stomach policy proposals that seem tailor-made to benefit the tiny minority of the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. For example, all of the Republican front-runners have come out with some form of tax plan that cuts taxes on the wealthiest 1% by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet this doesn’t scare away nearly as many voters as you’d expect — in fact, the race is wide open, and some pundits even suggest the GOP are favourites at this stage. Voting against your own interests is, arguably, a global phenomenon – I’m sure many in the UK will say it happened in the elections in May – but it does seem to be particularly prevalent in the US, perhaps because one of the parties has moved so far to the right on social and economic issues that there is not yet any equivalent in Europe.

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Leaders and their responsibility for knowledge

This article in the Guardian, which some members of our team have shared on Facebook, suggests that the British prime minister David Cameron may have (had) no clue about what his policies did to local services. If we assume that this is true, it raises a moral question of great importance for today’s societies: how can leaders make sure that they know enough about the consequences of their decisions to make decisions at all?

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Valuing Aims vs. Valuing Implementation, on wedding day organisation and assessing ‘impact’

There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised Wedding picwas behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.

The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?

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