Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Work (Page 1 of 3)

Should Uber Become a Worker Cooperative?

In this post, Thomas Ferretti discusses his recent article in the Journal of Social Philosophy on A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective on the Platform Economy.

Uber Eats worker – Pixabay License

The rapid growth of the ‘sharing’ or ‘platform’ economy, with the rise of well-known brands such as Zipcar, Uber, Airbnb, or CouchSurfing, has raised enthusiasm but has also generated concerns about precarious work. In my new article in the Journal of Social Philosophy, I investigate, from a broadly liberal egalitarian perspective, how public administrations should regulate these new kinds of economic organizations in a way that respects principles of justice and that maximizes the prospects of the least advantaged. In particular, I argue that preventing unfair inequalities could require changing the kind of organizations running these platforms.

A driving motivation is to contribute to the renewed and much-needed attention that political philosophy is giving to the different forms and ownership structures of economic organizations and their respective impact on the distribution of resources in society. Recent examples include the work of Elizabeth Anderson, Abraham Singer, or Martin O’Neill.

One contribution of the article is to make organizational transformations central to our understanding of the platform economy. I use theories of organizations to distinguish and to shed light on two processes facilitated by information technologies. First, I investigate the replacement of private goods with club goods: a car-renting organization like Zipcar, for example, proposes to replace your ownership of a ‘car’, an excludable and rival private good, with a ‘membership’ to the Zipcar club giving you access to the use of a car. While clubs have always existed, information technologies improve the capacity of organizations running clubs to manage the shared use of goods by facilitating user coordination in real-time, thus reducing coordination costs and congestion. This means that for a given pool of goods, clubs can now include more members, thus reducing the per capita cost of the pool and the membership cost. I note that this also allows sharing a wider variety of goods in new ways such as kick scooters.

Second, I investigate the creation of new markets through online platforms. Such platforms allow market agents to gather, pool, and analyze market information about suppliers and consumers in much more effective ways which reduce the costs of contracting directly on the market. This allows firms to externalize more transactions previously performed within their organization to market contractors. The distributive effects of such ‘creative destruction’ are more complex but I explain how it can negatively affect the worst off in at least three ways: a. because good jobs are replaced by more precarious ones and the risk of fluctuating demand is shifted from firms to contractors, b. because workers having to change occupation face transition costs, and c. because existing regulations and social protections are disrupted.

A second contribution of the article consists in clearly distinguishing two distributive strategies to mitigate inequalities resulting from these organizational transformations. Following a mitigating strategy, public administrations could simply implement policies such as redistributive taxation and adapted social protections to compensate people on the losing side of these market disruptions. But they could also go further and follow an organizational strategy: in addition to the previous mitigating policies, public administrations could aim at changing the kind of organizations running clubs and platforms.

In the article, I briefly give reasons to believe that clubs have mostly positive distributive effects because they cut the cost of accessing various goods such as books, tools or cars. Therefore, in my view, public administrations may not need to change the kind of organizations running these clubs and may simply need to intervene to help the least well-off access club goods through targeted subsidies to further cut membership costs, to help launch service points in poorer neighborhoods, and to improve digital literacy.

By contrast, I argue that the mitigating strategy may be insufficient to limit unfair inequalities created by online platforms and we may need to change the organizations running them. This strategy includes subsidies supporting more egalitarian cooperative platforms (of contractors and users) to help them outcompete current investor-owned platforms as well as more intrusive policies aiming at breaking the monopolistic tendencies of many platforms by forcing them to share their data and by making contractors’ and users’ reputational data portable to alternative platforms to improve competition.

The article ends by discussing the merits of the organizational strategy as well as an important challenge. Indeed, I underline that a presumption of formal freedom could lead us to believe that the more intrusive policies of the organizational strategy are justified only if they are necessary to realize justice and maximize the prospects of the least well-off; so, if changing the organizations running platforms is not absolutely necessary to maximize the situation of the least-well-off (if mitigating policies are sufficient and/or if promoting coops is inefficient) then, more interventionist policies may not be justified. In the paper, I outline the kind of arguments needed to respond to this challenge but more research is needed to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the necessity of the organizational strategy.

Replying to the reverse discrimination objection: a context-depended argument rather than an abstract one

Last month, Magazine Luiza, a Brazilian department store that specialises in selling electronics and home items, published a trainee call intended only for young and black candidates. According to Luiza Trajano, president of the administration council, this initiative could prove a better anti-discriminatory policy than other programmes adopted by the company in the past (they currently have 53% of blacks in its staff. But only 16% of them hold leadership positions). Luiza Trajano’s company seeks to ensure more diversity in top positions whilst, at the same time taking action against structural racism in Brazil. The company’s new trainee programme, however, has been the subject of judicial action and criticism from a part of the general population, who claim that it embodies an unfair policy that discriminates against white candidates.

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Intellectual Property and the Problem of Disruptive Innovations

In this post, Sam Duncan discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the rights and duties of intellectual property.


Intellectual property is perhaps the most valuable form of property in the modern economy, and many recently minted multimillionaires and billionaires owe their fortunes to some sort of intellectual property claim. But why think that the creators of intellectual property deserve such outsized rewards? The most obvious answer seems to be to invoke some kind of Lockean or labor-based theory of intellectual property, which are usually taken to grant strong property rights to intellectual property with few obligations. However, as I argue in my recent article, these theories actually entail that those who claim many forms of intellectual property have very strong obligations to those made worse off by them. In fact, they would rule popular solutions to the job losses that many forms of intellectual property bring about, such as the universal basic income, to be entirely inadequate.

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How should the NHS respond to professional errors?

In this post, Ben Davies & Joshua Parker discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the appropriate culture to develop around mistakes in professional medicine.


Consider the following case, hypothetical but not uncommon. Hamza, a junior doctor working in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is working a night shift when he mis-prescribes a large dose of morphine to a patient who doesn’t need it. Fortunately, this error is caught by another member of his team, but at worst it could have killed the patient. Hamza was tired, stressed, and relatively inexperienced, but at his stage of training should have known to double check the dose. How should Hamza’s colleagues, and NHS institutions, respond to his serious mistake?

There has been a shift in the NHS in recent years to the idea that in responding to medical errors, institutions should adopt a ‘no blame’ culture. In our recent paper, we take a critical look at this idea, arguing that the no blame approach may throw the baby of responsibility out with the bathwater of blame.

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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 (if anything) is wrong with child labour?

Looking at Lewis Hine’s photographic chronicles of working children in the United States (see video above) gives me a particularly conflicting feeling. While his pictures provide a surprisingly sensitive, personal, and even sweet approximation to the life and plights of the children he snapped, I cannot help but feel discomforted by the reality he is portraying. Personally, I think that my discomfort when looking at these pictures lies in the tension between, on the one hand, the moral reflexes that inevitably pop-up, telling me how wrong the condition of these children is; and, on the other hand, the sensation that many of these children seem absolutely comfortable and at ease (maybe even happy?) with their working life.

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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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Feminism for Working-Class Women Is the Best Feminism

This extended post is a response to a recent Boston Review article by Gina Schouten, called “‘Flexible’ Family Leave is Lousy Feminism”.

This must be one of the most animated debates amongst feminists: how to find the best remedial policies for women who are disadvantaged because they serve as main care-givers for their children, elderly parents, sick relatives or friends. They are disadvantaged in many ways. Some are economic: lower lifetime earnings and fewer work-related benefits compared to people without care commitments – hence more dependency on spouses. Others are social: part-time workers take a hit in status, stay-at-home mums even more so. Finally, there are the relational and psychological disadvantages: women who are economically dependent on their partners have less negotiating power than their partners, and many face tremendous difficulties when they want to leave abusive relationships.

The gendered division of labour – women’s assignment to the hands-on care that we all need at different periods of our lives – explains, to a large extent, not only the gender pay gap but also the feminisation of poverty and the private domination to which many women are subjected. No surprise, then, that feminists have two distinct aims: to protect women from the risks of being a care-giver, and also to do away with the gendered division of labour, which is a main source of the problem. I am one of these feminists; I would like to see women and men equally engaged in the labour market, and looking after anybody who needs care.

But I’m also adamant that we should pursue these two aims in the right order: we should give priority to protecting women from the worst consequences of the gendered division of labour over the abolition of the gendered division of labour itself. Moreover, we should be aware of the unavoidable tension between the two aims, and keep this in mind when advocating for particular gender policies.

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An Interview with Baroness Onora O’Neill (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker recently interviewed Baroness Onora O’Neill, asking her about her wide-ranging experiences combining being a professor of philosophy and a member of the House of Lords (among many other things). 

Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve is Emeritus Honorary Professor at the University of Cambridge and has been a cross-bench (i.e. not aligned with any political party) member of the British House of Lords since 2000. She has written widely in ethics and political philosophy, and is particularly known for her work on bioethics, trust and the philosophy of Kant. She was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1992-2006, President of the British Academy from 2005-9, chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998-2010 and chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2012-2016.

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My pension fund, my conscience

In some situations, society permits individual citizens to not fulfil otherwise binding requirements when the latter conflict with the individual’s deeply held ethical convictions. The classic example are pacifists who obtain an exemption from military service. I submit that an argument along these lines also applies to collective pension plans. Such plans need to offer their participants a minimal level of influence over their portfolios to be legitimate.

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