Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Old Blog (Page 2 of 5)

Can Grading Love & Care be an Injustice?

Can grading love and care (and other goods) be an injustice?
It is a widespread intuition that some things in life cannot and should not be measured. For example, quantifying our love for a partner seems problematic. We do not want to rate our affection on a scale of 0-100.*  It is an important question, though, whether we can have a complaint of justice about measuring certain goods.  Here I consider two lines of argument for thinking that measuring certain things in quantifiable terms can be objectionable.
The first is indirect. It concerns unjust effects of things being measured that were not measured previously. An example is the measurement of the willingness to pay for parking spaces, which Joshua Kopstein recently discussed. Some start-up companies have developed apps through which people bid for spare parking spaces. Kopstein suggests that this system turns a public good into a private good that is allocated according to willingness and ability to pay, thus privileging the rich. This example does suggest that certain kinds of measurement can lead to complaints of justice, if they introduce an allocation mechanism that is not appropriate for the good. But in such cases it is the possibility of wrongful use, not the measuring itself, that can be criticized.
The second way in which measuring could raise complaints of injustice is more direct. Consider a stylized example. Assume that elderly relatives have a legitimate claim to receive some acts of love and care from younger family members. Assume that a start-up company develops an app that evaluates family members, on a score from 0 to 100, on how well their acts deliver care to elderly relatives. And assume that using the app becomes a social trend, such that most people start using it. This might have some beneficial effects. For example, it might become easier to share knowledge about how to cheer up grandma “efficiently” when she is gloomy. But could it also mean that what the elderly relatives receive are not, any longer, acts of love and care, but something else: acts calculated to enhance the wellbeing of elderly relatives? If this is the case, it seems that they could raise a claim of justice. They are denied what they have a legitimate claim to receive. Schematically put, they have a legitimate claim to good X (love and care), but what they receive is good Y (acts that will efficiently enhance wellbeing), because by measuring and quantifying X, it is transformed into Y.
One problem here is whether we can specify a sufficiently clear and plausible account of what good X is and why good Y is different from it.** One possible issue might be that good X is a complex and multi-dimensional good, but by measuring it, we necessarily reduce it to fewer dimensions. Although modern technologies offer increasingly sophisticated ways of measuring things, they still cannot capture all the dimensions of what it means, for example, to have a trusting and loving relationship with someone. Another issue could be that offering good X requires openness to new challenges or a certain degree of spontaneity. Again, these cannot be easily captured in quantitative terms and are, thus, likely to be excluded if one tried to measure X. For example, an important aspect of a loving relationship is that one is sensitive to subtle changes in the other person’s situation, and maybe even that one understands such changes before the person herself fully understands them. It is therefore unclear how they could be included in quantitative measures.
Certain forms of measurement may be simply dysfunctional. In finance, there is Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” This might also hold for other areas and make it simply unwise to try to utilise measurements there. But in additional to dysfunctionality, we should not exclude the possibility that measuring certain things may be an injustice.  At least in the case of care and love, it seems there is reason to believe that that is the case.
*In Dave Egger’s The Circle there is an episode in which one of the protagonist’s lovers asks for an evaluation of his qualities, on a scale from 0 to 100, directly after the sexual act. The protagonist is somewhat startled, and then resorts to a white lie.
**Aspects of this question have been explored in the debate about limits of the market, where one concern is whether the socially defined “meaning” of goods can be a basis for not measuring goods in market terms. See for example Debra Satz’s discussion of Elizabeth Anderson’s approach in her Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale.

The right to freedom of expression on facebook: Do we have a valid claim against censorship in social media?


Image by Giorgi Balakhadze, Wikimedia Commons (I have no rights to this image)

So, it happened. One of my facebook friends got “edited”. Without any further notice, one of his posts about the Gaza conflict vanished from his wall. The post itself was not really radical, it linked to an official article. In his next post he mentioned this. Three of his friends commented that it had happened to them as well. All posts were about Gaza. None of the users were notified by facebook. I think that this case of “silent editing” presents a fitting topic for “justice everywhere”. A rather familiar theme of justice rears its head here, namely the fundamental right of free speech. Do we have a right to express ourselves freely in social media? Should we? 
Facebook’s editing policies have been widely discussed, for instance in the case of a cancer-survivor put her post-mastectomy-picturesup. They were considered pornographic by facebook and consequently removed. Public outrage followed, in the wake of which facebook changed its policy, explicitly allowing post-mastectomy photos. Other incidents included the removal of posts by gay activists or of pictures of artwork or photographs of new-born with a severe birth defect. Most of these cases were not silent, however. Users got notified by facebook.
Facebook explicitly reserves the right to remove content referring to their “community standards” that everyone who joins facebook must agree to. They also state that they do not usually scan posts themselves, but react to complaints by other users that find certain content offensive. The reports are collected by an admin who reviews whether the content does in fact violate facebook’s standards. Thus, not everything that is reported will be removed. Yet, it is ultimately up to facebook to decide what stay’s up and what doesn’t.  (Interestingly, facebook has recently outsourced this work to the firm “oDesk”)
The tone of most of the articles I have quoted above displays a strong sense of entitlement: posters are often furious that their content is taken down. It seems that they feel curtailed in their right to express themselves via facebook. Are these claims justifiable? A powerful (mainly legal) counter-argument comes to mind: facebook is not a governmental organisation; it is a private company only bound by the general laws of the countries it operates in. Arguing on the level of political liberalism, a similar argument could be formulated by pointing out that nobody has to join facebook. People join willingly and knowing that facebook is a platform run by a private company. They need to agree to the latter’s terms and conditions (if they bother to read them), they do not need to post anything and they can terminate their account anytime. The latter is often much easier said than done, but still. Thus, users do not seem to possess the right to post whatever they want. If users do not like it, facebook might retort, they can use other platforms.
Regardless, I want to make a case on the basis of considerations of public justice that facebook needs to honour a right to free expression. The main reason is, in simple words, that facebook is just too big and influential to be excluded from further legal and ethical constraints – for example constraints on classic media or the monitoring that companies underlie which have a monopoly. Private persons, companies, newspapers, tv-channels, non-profit organisations etc. use it to spread information, to present themselves or get in contact with each other. Facebook should therefore be treated as the big media player that it is –  like google. The latter is already familiar with legal claims
      Based on this general assumption, I like to raise four legal-ethical points to argue why and how facebook should honour the right for free expression.
  1. 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
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
What my colleague experienced can, in my view, called “censorship” (a term that is usually reserved for government action) in a strong form. My point is thus that governmental institutions should have a way to interfere in this case. At least they should monitor processes more closely. This includes that facebook discloses it policies and operations. What do you think?

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.

What does it mean to be a spectator to injustice everwhere?

Given that this blog is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, it seemed obvious to me that the topic for this week’s blog had to be the injustice perpetrated by the state of Israel. However as I sat down to write I realized that there is very little I could write that hasn’t already been written and shared a million times over (often thanks to social media). So instead I would like to raise a few questions about the relationship between ‘injustice anywhere’ and ‘spectatorship’*. With regard to this relationship I would like to briefly raise the following six questions.
1.     What does our commitment to justice mean if we allow our attention to be easily distracted – whether by sports, consumerism, etc?
2.     Is it easier to get involved in a struggle for justice when one does not feel responsible?
3.     How, and why, has our sense of direct political responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice?
4.     Setting aside questions of privacy etc., has Facebook (and other such social media sites) helped make people more or less politically informed and/or active?
5.     What does it do to the spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness?
6.     Does not knowing what a just solution would be for a particular situation make it harder to speak up against injustice?
1.    The past two weeks this blog focused on what was central to so many across the globe – world cup football. Looking at my Facebook feed – it is clear that for many people who identify (in some manner) as being committed to justice (e.g. as activists, academics etc.) our attention was divided between the horrors in Gaza and the desire to be distracted by the drama of football. But even with all the excitement of world cup football, politics and injustice were always in the shadows. Furthermore, thanks to some players issues such as sexism, racism, poverty and even Gaza were (momentarily) brought to the forefront of the viewers minds. While I can’t pretend that I didn’t appreciate the distraction of the world cup, I am disappointed in myself. Why was it so easy to get caught up the excitement of the Red Devils when it was surrounded by so much injustice – both that directly connected to world cup football (and discussed over the past two weeks on this blog) and in so many other parts of the world? The question I was forced to ask myself was: am I as committed to justice as I pretend to be? Can such a fickle commitment offer any serious challenge to injustice? Or, is it possible that these types of distractions, sports, consumerism, entertainment etc., are intentionally created as part of the structures of injustice (as was proposed by members of the Frankfurt Schule)?
2.  Another consideration is whether it is easier to be an active spectator in situations of injustice when one does not feel responsible? In other words, does participation – even for example something as simple as enjoying a football match – make it harder to speak out against the structural problems connected to FIFA, etc. This certainly seems to be the case with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there is no doubt that European history, European nation-states, and the EU have all played a significant role in this conflict most spectators do not feel personally responsible (except perhaps as consumerists of Israeli products). Could this be one of the reasons why there are many self proclaimed non-political people (e.g. on social media) who are now willing to make political statements?
3. A third question I wish to raise regarding the relationship between injustice and spectatorship is how, and why, has our sense of responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice? According to Margaret Canovan “Amid the turmoil of revolutionary activity in the nineteenth century, one of the less-noticed effects of the historical and sociological theories invented at that time was a weakening of man’s sense of direct responsibility for politics” (288). Canovan’s claim is that academic theories from the nineteenth century, which sought to introduce stability in chaotic times, actually contributed to the disempowerment of collective actions, such as those against injustice, and a lessening of our sense of responsibility for injustice. Or could it be the simple fact that we are now, more than ever, aware of how much injustice there is everywhere that we find it harder to decide which struggle to contribute to? Or are we in fact more aware of injustice and committed to justice today then ever before?
4.    Closely connected to the previous question, one of the interesting realities of this current Gaza conflict has been the struggle between classical media sources (tv, newspapers, radio) and social media. There are several national settings in which the attention paid to the tragedies in Gaza by way of social media forced the more pro-Israel classical media sources to report on events in Gaza, and to reframe stories in a more balanced manner.  The question this raises is whether Facebook (and other such social media sites) have helped to make more politically informed spectators? Has Facebook created a virtual public sphere and is this to more political participation?
5.     After less than a week since this most recent Israel-Palestine conflict began, many spectators have begun to express a sense of immense frustration and helplessness. What can they, across the world, behind their computer screen, possibly do to prevent this injustice? Setting aside the question of what can actually be done, I think it might be worth asking what does it do to a spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness? Does it make us more or less likely to act or does it further contribute to a weakening sense of direct responsibility for politics?
6.   Last but not least, a question that is perhaps true for most situations of injustice but glaringly so with regard to the Middle East conflict: does not knowing what a just solution would be make it harder to speak up against injustice? Having spent my afternoon at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, I was struck by how divided both the actors and spectators were. While most participants were willing to make statements (in front of a camera) regarding the need to stop the injustices against Palestinians, it was much harder to find volunteers to make specific political proposals. Speaking to the spectators – in this case the people who came to observe the demonstration and who expressed outrage at the injustice of the state of Israel – many chose not to participate because they didn’t know what a just resolution to this conflict should be. Is it the case that the gap between identifying injustice and outlining justice prevents many spectators from becoming actors?

*A spectator is someone sitting safely behind their computer or television screen observing, reading, blogging, passionately debating etc. situations of injustice.

Dribbling responsibility: What do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?

In last week’s post, Siba drew our attention to one of the most widely noted events of this summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014. While taking notice of a wide range of ethical issues arising in the context of the World Cup, the discussion focussed on the organizational status of FIFA and the question of whether the tax exemptions it enjoys (and its status as a charity) are justified from a moral point of view. This week, we would like to follow Siba’s steps by raising some ethical questions regarding the World Cup and similar mega sporting events (e.g. the Olympic Games) from a different, but complementary angle. Setting aside the issue of taxation, we are concerned with some of the other problems anticipated in last week’s post and the responsibilities related to them.
As noted last week, the realization of major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup can come into tension with concerns of distributive justice and human rights. With regard to distributive justice, the public expenditure required by an event of the size of the World Cup raises the question of social opportunity costs. According to estimates, the infrastructure expenses incurred by the Brazilian government in preparation for the World Cup amount to approximately $11bn. If put to alternative uses, these resources could arguably have contributed to significant advances in education, health, and other field of social investment. An ethical evaluation of the decision to invest in the World Cup will of course need to take into account the revenues flowing from the event, their distribution within society, as well as, for example, the future value of infrastructure projects. Whatever the result of such an evaluation would be in the case of Brazil, it is clear that, at least under certain circumstances, a government’s decision to host the World Cup can come at the price of unjust social opportunity costs.
In addition to the question of priorities of public investment, there are a number of ways in which the realization of mega sporting events can come into conflict with human rights concerns. Relevant issues include eviction and involuntary displacement of people in the wake of construction projects, police brutality in reaction to public protests and demonstrations, and the implementation of labour standards. The potential severity of the latter issue was recently brought to light by media reports highlighting the labour conditions of migrant workers in Qatar, the host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. According to the Guardian, at least 44 Nepalese workers died in Qatar during a period of only two months. On this basis, the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that up to 4,000 workers could lose their lives while working for World Cup-related projects.
The fact that there is a real risk that the realization of mega sporting events may come into conflict with concerns of distributive justice and human rights raises the question of who should bear responsibility for preventing such conflicts from occurring. One possible answer consists of placing the responsibility exclusively on the government in question. Concerns of distributive justice and human rights are commonly thought to fall into the primary sphere of responsibility of national governments and a government’s decision to apply as a host is entirely voluntary. Therefore, if a successful application would lead a government to neglect its obligations of justice and human rights, then it seems that it is the government in question who is under an obligation to refrain from submitting the application in the first place. Other actors involved in the selection process, such as FIFA as an awarding body, in contrast, may appear to bear no responsibility for the ensuing consequences. This view, at least, seems to be suggested by FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke who observes that “FIFA is not the United Nations. FIFA is about sport,” and thus “cannot be seen as responsible for what’s happening in different countries.”
This view, however, seems to ignore the ethical significance of FIFA’s role in determining World Cup hosts. In the case of some countries, conflicts with concerns of distributive justice and human rights will be foreseeable as early as at the stage of application. Even if justice and human rights are thought to be the primary responsibility of national governments, FIFA seems to be under a duty to prevent these foreseeable conflicts by not awarding the World Cup to such countries. The fact that current bidding rules lack any concern for such conflicts has to count as a clear violation of this duty. This calls for a reform of bidding rules, for example in a way that takes into account a country’s human rights record.
Ultimately, the realisation of mega sporting events such as the World Cup rests on the support of visitors and TV audiences around the world. Insofar as current bidding rules are insufficiently sensitive to ethical concerns, should fans be held responsible for the moral costs of mega sporting events? While this may seem far-fetched to some, it is clear that audiences make the World Cup possible in the first place and have significant power to influence the terms under which it is carried out. One way to exercise this power would be in the form of a viewers’ boycott. We think that in cases in which significant injustices and human rights violations are at stake, such a boycott is what responsibility requires from viewers.
It may be objected that a boycott is an ineffective way for viewers to discharge their responsibility. After all, once a tournament is in the process of being carried out, most moral costs will already have been incurred, such that a boycott will do nothing to prevent them. Nevertheless, a boycott may send a powerful signal to prevent problematic practices in future tournaments and influence the outcome of future bidding processes. In addition, even setting aside consequentialist considerations, one may wonder about the morality of watching the World Cup and other comparable events. In cases where such events have a clearly tainted moral footprint, this seems to raise a question of ethical integrity when it comes to deriving enjoyment from them. So, while you may be preparing for a night in front of the TV to find out who is going to win Brazil 2014, consider the moral costs of mega sporting events. In your view, what do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?
Sara Amighetti and Florian Ostmann



Taxing FIFA: Asides from having their board room modelled on the war room from doctor strangelove, are there any other reasons as to why FIFA should be taxed?

Some have called it the best football World Cup ever. And it has indeed been incredibly exciting.[1]Yet the circumstances which brought us the event (and will bring us future ones) are very troubling. For a year now, there has been widespread anti-World Cup protests and riots in Brazil crying against the high cost of the event for Brazilian citizens. Investigationshave revealed the slave conditions migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup infrastructure are subject to in Qatar. At the same time, there has been renewed criticism directed at FIFA, football’s international governing body. There are corruption scandals, FIFA’s dismissive attitude to the Brazil riots, their inaction on the Qatar front, and then there is the tax issue.
FIFA demands from any country who wishes to bid for hosting the world cup full tax exemptions for itself and its subsidiaries and tax breaks for its official sponsors. Estimates are that tax exemptions in Brazil, for instance, will cost up to half a billion dollars.  To many this sounds outrageous (see video).  And so it does to me.
John Oliver on Last Week Tonight tells us perfectly why we should hate FIFA
But why exactly is it outrageous?
Some, including FIFA and the Brazilian government, have argued that the country hosting the World Cup stands to greatly benefit economically from the infrastructure investments and tourism, a benefit that surpasses the amount of tax exemption in question.  Whether such forecasts about the benefits to the host country are correct is highly contestedas these rosy forecasts do not take into consideration many indirect social and economic costs (worker deaths, security costs, crowding out other tourists, etc…)An indication that hosting events such as the World Cup is unattractive even to the richer countries is the fact that only three European countries bid to host to the European Championship in 2020.

But is the issue only a question of mutual benefit? Surely we don’t expect countries to provide corporations or investors with full scale tax exemptions on the account that they generate net benefits to the economy. Countries are perhaps often forced to provide incentives for investors and corporations due to tax competition but this is reason to call for more global tax harmonization. And whereas companies and investors competing against one another may, in at least some way, be justified to seek conditions that render them competitive FIFA has no competitor. It is the sole body responsible for organizing the World Cup. And, it is a non-profit organisation.
Perhaps it being a non-profit organization can actually justify the tax exemption. After all , it is common, and we often think laudable, to exempt non-profit organization from taxes. The fact that FIFA actually makes a lot of profit (in 2012 it was $ 89 million)  often raises eyebrows, but I don’t think this is in itself the issue. What makes an organization non-profit is not that it doesn’t make profit but that it does not distribute its profits or dividends to shareholders and instead uses its profits to further achieve or promote its goals.

We definitely have some good reasons to exempt some non-profit organizations from taxes irrespective of the profit they make or the net economic benefit that accrues from their activities. We do, for example, want to have organizations that track human rights abuses. Evidence that they make huge profit or that their net financial benefit locally or internationally is negative is not reason against exempting them from taxes as long as we know that their profits are being invested to pursue their aims. To the contrary, the more profit they make the better!
Protecting and tracking human rights abuses is an aim we want to pursue even at a large financial cost. Yet, it is not clear that this applies to the variety of aims pursued by the variety of non-profit organisations. It is certainly not clear when it comes to FIFA whose aim is to promote sports and football. Yes, there are the commitments to anti-racism and anti-discrimination, but there is little done to prove them more than slogans. Perhaps if serious effort were being done to promote those aims; if FIFA for instance were to be a driver for labor law reforms in countries like Qatar; or if it were successful in promoting other humans rights (say the right of children in poor countries to play in safe environments) then this could be good reason to exempt them from taxes. That said, even if such were the case, the tax burden ought not to fall on the hosting country but be fairly distributed on the international community.
Absent such aims, the question of whether promoting football is a ‘worthy’ pursuit, perhaps like the question of promoting some forms of art, ought to be settled democratically. This would exclude non-democratic countries from bidding for the world cup, but that doesn’t strike me as an outrageous conclusion.

[1] Until the last of three teams I supported returned home, that is.

21st Century Smoking


At the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual representatives meeting this week, doctors voted overwhelmingly to push for a permanent ban on the sale of cigarettes to those born after 2000.* What are the different reasons that might motivate, and potentially justify, the state intervening in citizens’ smoking behaviour? Broadly speaking, the main distinctions are those drawn between: (1) welfare- (both individual and collective) and autonomy-based reasons; (2) ‘harm to self’ and ‘harm to others’, that is, for the sake of smokers versus for the sake of non-smokers generally; and, relatedly, (3) an aim to increase tobacco use cessation (i.e., stop smokers smoking) versus an aim to reduce tobacco use initiation (stop people from starting to smoke in the first place). Accordingly, an initial taxonomy of reasons might have the following six cells:

Welfare-based reasons
Autonomy-based reasons
Welfare of smokers
Autonomy of smokers
Welfare of non-smokers
Autonomy of non-smokers
Potential smokers
Welfare of potential smokers
Autonomy of potential smokers

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Does systemic injustice justify Robin Hood Strategies?

Does systemic injustice justify Robin Hood strategies?
Many injustices arise because of patterns of behaviour, single instances of which seem harmless or at least pardonable. For example, if professors help the kids of their friend get access to university programs – and given the fact that professors and their friends tend to come from the same socio-economic background – this can lead to structural discrimination against applicants from other backgrounds (as discussed by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel here, p. 38-40). Other examples concern implicit biases against women and ethnic minorities. Much work has been done recently that helps us to understand how these mechanisms work (see e.g. here). Given how pervasive these mechanisms are, it is understandable that they cause moral outrage. The question is, however, what individuals should do in reaction to them.
Imagine that you are in a situation in which you have some amount of power, for example as a reviewer or as a member of a search committee. You might be tempted to use a “Robin Hood strategy”, i.e. a strategy that breaks the existing rules, for the sake of supporting those who are treated unjustly by these rules. Given how structural injustices work, many such “rules” are not formal rules, but rather informal patterns of behaviour. But it is still possible to work against them. For example, could it be justified to reject male applicants not because of the quality of their applications, but because they are white and male and come from a rich Western country?
One has to distinguish two levels of what such a strategy could imply. The first concerns correcting own biases that one might have, despite all good intentions (to check them, the various tests offered by Harvard University on this website can be helpful). The best way to do this, if possible, seems to be anonymity. When this is not feasible, the alternative is to scrutinize one’s patterns of thought and behaviour as best one can. The more power one has, the more it seems a requirement of justice to do this.
This is different from a second level of Robin Hood strategies, for which the name seems more appropriate: these concern not only own biases, but biases of the system. The idea is to work against them on one’s own, in one’s little corner, maybe hoping that if enough of us do this, the problems can be solved or at least attenuated. Could this be a defensible strategy?
The problem is, of course, that one risks introducing new injustices. One consciously deviates from what are supposed to be the criteria of selection, for example a candidate’s performance in previous jobs or the likelihood of being a good team member. In some cases, however, it is reasonable to assume that if a candidate comes from a group that suffers from discrimination, achieving the same level of merit as a candidate from another group takes much more effort. So according to this argument, and as long as these problems are not recognized by the official selection criteria, it seems defensible to privately factor in these previous structural inequalities.
But one’s epistemic position in judging such cases is often a weak one. For example, standard application material for many jobs includes a CV and some letters of reference. These materials are often insufficient for understanding the details of a specific case and the degree to which discrimination or stigmatization might have had an impact on the candidate’s previous career. One risks making mistakes and importing one’s own subjective biases and prejudices; taken together, this can make things worse, all things considered.
Robin Hood strategies do not provide what seems most needed: good procedures and public accountability. They do not get at the root of the problem, which is to create collective awareness of the issues, and to find collective mechanisms for addressing them (the gendered conference campaign is an example). Collective mechanisms are not only likely to be more effective, they also bring things out into the open, and create a public discourse on them. Although public discourses also have their weaknesses, there is at least a chance that the better argument will win, and there are opportunities for correcting what end up misguided strategies. Robin Hood strategies, in contrast, fight fire with fire: they remain within a logic of power, trying to find ways in which one can use counter-power to subvert the dominant power elites. But this does not change the fundamental logic of the game.

Thus, our preferred strategies should be different ones: strategies that really change the logic of the game, openly addressing problematic patterns of behaviour and looking for collective – and maybe formally institutionalized – solutions. Nonetheless, and despite all the reasons mentioned above, I cannot bring myself to thinking that Robin Hood strategies can never be justified in today’s world. Of course one has to be very careful with them, not only with particular cases, but also with regard to the slippery slope one might get onto. But are they ruled out completely? What do you think?

The Need for Content Notes and Trigger Warnings in Seminars

Photo by Goska Smierzchalska / CC BY-NC 2.0

Content note: this post contains a discussion of sexual violence and rape.

A few weeks ago I was at a seminar where the speaker unexpectedly diverted from the main topic of their paper and used a rape example to support their argument. As discussions of rape in philosophy seminars go it was not particularly insensitive. But what disturbed me was that from the pre-circulated paper’s title and abstract there was no indication that it would include a discussion of rape. A victim of rape or sexual violence would have had no warning that they were about to be confronted with an extended discussion of it. Given the appalling statistics on rape and sexual violence that would almost certainly have included several people in the room. For them the discussion of rape might not have been just another abstract thought experiment, but an intensely triggering experience that brought back memories they did not want to deal with at that point. It made me think that the speaker could have respected this possibility by sending a short ‘content note’ (like the one above) with the abstract warning people that the seminar would contain a discussion of rape.

Over the last few months there has in fact been a lot of online discussion over the use of content notes and trigger warnings1 in academia. The recent debate was sparked by students at several US universities calling for content notes/trigger warnings to be included in course syllabuses. The idea behind these is to warn students that certain readings in the course contain discussions of topics that might be stressful or triggering. Much of the ensuing criticism has taken the line that they represent a ‘serious threat to intellectual freedom’ and even ‘one giant leap for censorship‘. This criticism is unfortunate because it falsely suggests that content notes/trigger warnings are there to stop or censor discussions of sensitive topics. Instead the point of the them is to facilitate these discussions by creating a safe and supportive environment where people are given the choice over how and when they engage with topics that they know can be immensely painful for them. As Laurie Penny argues “Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.”

Perhaps some of the hostility to content notes/trigger warnings comes from a lack of knowledge about how they could work. People seem to imagine them as these big intrusive and ugly warnings. I think an actual example of a content note shows us how far from the truth this is:

Course Content Note: At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.) 

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

Though much of the online discussion has focused on syllabuses and student seminars, I think it is important to recognise that the same arguments also apply to seminars among professional academics. I think we academics sometimes falsely assume that the standards and principles we apply to student and non-academic discussions do not apply to our own professional practices. An academic giving a paper or a lecture which includes discussions that are potentially triggering should give attendees advance notice of this. This allows people to prepare themselves and not have it sprung upon them, and even the opportunity to avoid coming at all if they feel they are not able to cope with the discussion that day. Of course this does not address what is said during the ensuing question period. It does not stop another academic from insensitively using an example of rape or sexual violence when they respond to the speaker. Content notes and trigger warnings cannot (and are not supposed) to cover every possibility. To address that we could start by educating academics about what its like to be a victim of rape and hear examples of rape used casually in philosophy seminars.

Some have argued that “life doesn’t come with a trigger warning” and tried to suggest that using them in any situation is therefore pointless. While we may not be able to change everything, seminars are a small sphere of life that we have the power to make less hostile and more welcoming.

1 Content notes and trigger warnings are frequently confused. The difference is that “Trigger warnings are about attempting to identify common triggers for panic attacks and related experiences and tagging media for the benefit of people who find it helpful to be warned when media contains this material. Content notes are simply flags with information about content, to be used at the discretion of the person who encounters them.”

Should we have a compulsory national civilian service?

The best blog posts are fashionable. They deal with questions, events, or ideas that are current or topical. This blog post does not do this. It deals with an idea that is very much out of fashion. Indeed, so much out of fashion that I believe it is not given a fair hearing. It is the idea of a compulsory national civilian service.By a compulsory national civilian service, I have in mind the following idea: At the age of eighteen, all citizens are required by law to perform a one-year-long civilian service in return for a subsistence wage. The work that each citizen undertakes will differ, but generally speaking citizens will perform work that, although socially useful, is not well provided by job markets. As an example, let’s consider work in nursing and social care.

There are several sets of considerations that count in favour of the proposal. Let me briefly mention three. First, the proposal would benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. The work provided by these citizens is not well provided by the market and so, in the absence of the introduction of this proposal, many more citizens are left vulnerable and in need of vital nursing and social care.

Second, the proposal would benefit the citizens who perform the civilian service. The point is not that they are likely to enjoy the work. Perhaps they will not; after all, there is often a reason for why these jobs are not provided by the market. The point is that the experience is likely to broaden their horizons, teach them various important life skills, and is likely later to be regarded as a positive, meaningful experience. In short, the experience may end up being liberating and autonomy-enhancing.

Third, the rest of society is likely to benefit from proposal also. The hope is that a compulsory national civilian service will produce better, more civically-engaged citizens who will live in a way that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and needs of others. Part of the problem with current society is that too many people, and often those with power, have no experience of what it means to be vulnerable. The proposal under consideration would have the effect of attending to this fact. (Similar arguments are made about military service.)

There are several types of objection that could be levelled in response. Let me briefly mention two. The first concedes that the proposal would be beneficial in all the ways described, but it claims that we should resist it on the grounds that it involves the violation of citizens’ rights. In particular, perhaps the proposal amounts to a violation of citizens’ right to free occupational choice?

This does not strike me as a very promising line of reasoning given that it involves only a one-year restriction on citizens’ occupational choice. The restriction on occupational choice sanctioned by this proposal is surely no greater than the restriction on the many citizens facing frequent unemployment or only dull, meaningless work.

The second objection argues that the proposal will fail to meet the ends that it sets itself. There are three versions of this objection, corresponding to the three benefits that the proposal hopes to bring about. The strongest version of this objection claims that the proposal will not benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. This is because those performing the work may be unfit to carry out the work.

This point is valid but it simply forces us to take care when implementing the proposal. In particular, it draws our attention to the need to provide proper training, and to select work that can appropriately be carried out by those on civilian service. There are many other complications that must be taken into account, but none of these challenge the attractiveness of the idea of a compulsory national civilian service as such. They are problems that we must attend to when it comes to implementation.

Should Teaching be Open Access?

Many universities have begun making teaching material freely available online. In 2012 the UK’s Open University launched a platform, FutureLearn, where one can take a ‘Massive Open Online Course’, from a substantial range offered by 26 university partners and three non-university partners. There are also providers in America, Asia, and Australia.  Meanwhile, some universities – Yale is a prominent example – simply place recordings of their modules on a website, many collated at iTunesU, and, indeed, one can watch some directly via YouTube, including Michael Sandel’s course on justice:
These developments raise various ethical questions.  Here is a central one: why, if at all, should teaching be open access?  I suspect that the answer to this question depends on the kind of teaching and what precisely is meant by ‘open access’. Thus, (leaving open whether the arguments are generalizable) here I will consider a narrower suggestion: all university lecture series (where feasible) should be freely available online. Here are two reasons that speak in favour of this idea.
First, people (worldwide) should have the opportunity to know what is known. Knowledge is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable and university lecture series are one (important) place where knowledge is housed. These points alone suggest there is some reason to give people access where possible. (Similar thoughts can be advanced in favour of internet available commons, such as Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as discussed previously on this blog). Perhaps there are cases in which access to certain knowledge must be restricted – certain intelligence information during a just war, for example. But the vast majority of information delivered through university courses is harmless (in that sense) and granting access to it would simply mean granting access to cutting edge research in a form engineered for easy consumption.
Second, the move could have a (Pareto-efficient) egalitarianising effect on university education. To wit, by giving students access to lectures from courses similar to those on their own degree, we might reduce various differences in educational and developmental opportunities that exist between attendees of different universities. Benefits would include better access to teaching more suited to one’s learning style and better accessibility for a more diverse range of users, points often emphasised about digitalising learning materials.
Here, meanwhile, are responses to some worries and objections:
Who would pay for it? The exercise would be fairly costless: many universities are already equipped with the necessary facilities and posting lectures online is fairly straightforward. In that sense, it would be funded largely by existing revenue streams from governments, research councils, and students.

Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.

Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.

Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
Do online educational resources actually help people learn?  Much here might depend on ideas about learning theory.  Those who think we learn through stimulus and repetition (‘behaviouralists’ and, to some extent, ‘cognitivists’) are likely to place greater value on the idea than those who think we learn through communication and collaboration (‘collectivists’ or ‘constructivists’). But formats might be tinkered to respond to what would be most beneficial here, and, in any case, does not the potential of the benefits outlined above suggest that it is worth a try?

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