Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

The four-legged therapist: Why getting a pet to improve our mental health may be unethical

Every once in a while, I read news articles about the mental health benefits of owning pets. These articles always leave me feelings uncomfortable. They seem to ignore what appears to be obvious: these benefits are the side-effects of a positive, caring relationship with a member of another species, and getting a pet will not necessarily improve our mental health. One would hardly suggest that someone should make a friend, get married or have a child primarily, or even merely in order to improve their mental health.

Dog looking upset. Text reads After listening to her owner drone on for hours, Ginger Ginger suddenly realised she was NOT cut out to be an emotional support dog after all.

Source: social media meme

Do you think you can do politics innocently?

There are many illuminating ways to understand politics, but one is as the practice of attempting to shape and direct the collective life of one’s community. Those who do politics typically seek to influence the collective life of the community with what they regard as morally good objectives in mind. Hence, at least according to this understanding of politics, outcomes matter enormously.

This goes part of the way to explaining why consequentialism is an approach to morality that has such purchase in politics. Simplifying a bit, consequentialism is the view that the moral rightness of an act depends only on its consequences.

Perhaps the most well-known objection to consequentialism is that it seems to permit acts which most people believe are obviously morally wrong. Familiar examples of such acts include lying, breaking promises, failing to show gratitude or loyalty, and imposing harm on others. This implication is typically illustrated via highly unrealistic thought experiments, but let me use three quite different recent examples from British politics instead.

Should you be grateful to nature?

In this post, Max Lewis (University of Helsinki) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy about the kinds of gratitude appropriate for our relationship with nature.

If someone provides you with a gift or does you a favor, you should be grateful to them for what they did. This seems undeniable. In fact, failing to be grateful to them would make you morally criticizable. But here’s a puzzle. Nature provides you with an abundance of benefits you did not earn and are not owed. This too seems undeniable. But, if you are like most people, you are not grateful to nature. You are like the boy in the classic children’s book The Giving Tree: always taking from nature, but never giving back. After all, if you were grateful, you would try to pay nature back.

Image by shameersrk from Pixabay

So, are you morally criticizable for your lack of gratitude? Fortunately, I think not. In On Gratitude to Nature, I argue that we do not owe nature any gratitude. Nonetheless, it can be appropriate to be grateful for nature in numerous ways.

How could paternalism ever be a good thing?


Recently, as I was discussing with a friend of mine, the conversation brought us to the issue of paternalism. Taking the bad habit of playing the philosopher’s role, I said something like “You know, paternalism is actually not always wrong.” My friend reacted very surprised – as if I had said “You know, patriarchy is actually not always wrong.” And as it happens, for her, “paternalism” and “patriarchy” were closely linked – which I had never considered before.

Throwing tomato soup at van Gogh

In October, the environmental group Just Stop Oil staged a number of nonviolent direct actions across London. The most visible of these actions was the throwing of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. This action has been highly controversial and has attracted a number of criticisms, both from those who are usually critical of this kind of environmental activism as well as from people who tend to be sympathetic with the cause, and in some cases the methods chosen by these groups, including some who are themselves part of the environmental movement. There were two main kinds of criticism made. First, some felt that the painting was the wrong target for such a protest, often reacting angrily out of fear that that painting had been damaged, which was soon revealed not to be the case. Second, many argued that this kind of action is to be criticised for strategic reasons as it does attract attention, but it mainly alienates people from the cause.

Can a ‘war on poaching’ be just?

A photograph of 5 men in combat uniform with automatic rifles crouching in tall grass. A sixth man is dressed more informally and explaining something to one of the men.

Rangers in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park on a training exercise.

The illegal wildlife trade is worth billions, and is one of the most lucrative crime networks globally. Illegal hunting can have a devastating effect on the environment and biodiversity, with animals being hunted to (near-)extinction in some areas. In response, several countries have adopted policies which allow the shooting of suspected poachers ‘on sight’.

Unsurprisingly, this is a controversial development. Because of the complex nature of the problem, it’s unclear whether these kind of policies are actually effective, and the scope for mistakes (or even abuse) is wide. On the other hand, defenders argue that so-called ‘militarized conservation’ is necessary to protect severely endangered species, or no different from policing in a dangerous environment [cw: linked article contains a graphic photograph of a murdered rhino].

The more fundamental issue at stake here is whether it can be justified to use lethal force against humans, for the sake of protecting (wild) animals. This is a famously thorny issue. One notable critic explicitly takes aim at the idea that it can be acceptable to trade human lives for animal lives. And many in animal rights circles reject the use of violence – for example, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics will not ‘appoint Fellows who advocate violence’. The idea that killing humans to protect animals can be permissible may also seem quite ludicrous to many in our anthropocentric society. Of course, you might say, aren’t the lives of humans just more important than the lives of animals?

Fiduciary duties of pension fund managers in the anthropocene

The latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that hundreds of billions of dollars will be required for climate mitigation and adaptation investments per year to avoid catastrophic global warming. Yet, some of our financial practices are not only slow to adapt to this requirement, but actually represent an obstacle in achieving the goal.

Why justice requires mandatory parenting lessons and therapy

In this post, Areti Theofilopoulou (Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences) discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the range of wrongs that can occur in problematic parent-child relationships.

We know that our upbringing massively affects the way that our lives go. This is partly because, in our unequal societies, the socioeconomic status of our family determines the education and connections we have access to. But our upbringing would still affect the rest of our lives even in fairer societies, because the ways our parents treat us determine our future mental health and the kinds of people we become. Often, the upbringing people receive leads to the development of mental illness or personality traits that disadvantage them in all spheres of life (such as their career and relationships), and that is undeniably unfair. In my recent paper, I argue that states should intervene heavily in the family via mandatory parenting lessons and therapy to prevent these harms and disadvantages.

‘Whataboutism’ about justice

There is a growing tendency to label some argumentative moves commonly performed in public discourse as “whataboutism”. A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term has begun to gain more serious traction in 2017, reaching its peak popularity in June 2020 and March 2022 – likely in the context of debates on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, as Ben Zimmer points out, its roots can be identified much earlier on, first as a charge against defenders of the Provisional IRA’s actions during the Troubles and later as a charge against a particular brand of Soviet-style rhetorical strategy. When whataboutism is pointed at in public speech, it is usually done so as to discredit an objection to an argument not by showing that it fails on its own terms, but rather because it constitutes an illegitimate move aimed at deflecting attention from the topic on which the argument is focused. But is whataboutism, especially when it concerns questions of justice, problematic, or – to the contrary – is the charge of whataboutism largely vacuous?

Inequality, Segregation, and Gentrification: It’s Complicated!

by Hwa Young Kim and Andrew Walton

Image by Ilona S from Pixabay

Something as arbitrary as which neighbourhood we live in should not determine our future. However, residential segregation between people who are rich or poor and people who are black or white is highly pervasive and highly correlated with socio-economic inequality. Neighbourhoods that are disadvantaged face notably worse prospects in terms of economic opportunities, public services, and local amenities. To make this image starker, many people who are disadvantaged live in areas of concentrated poverty, with high rates of violence, street crime, and unemployment. Surely, this situation is unjust and requires action.

But what action? Some argue for providing those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods subsidies to move to wealthier locations. Others have called for greater redistribution of wealth from rich neighbourhoods to those communities who have less than they should. In a recent article, we argue that there is potential to another, less conventional, route: reducing residential segregation through those who are advantaged relocating to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Our reasoning is that integration has a beneficial role in reducing the prejudice that sustains inequality. What’s more, we think this can occur without crossing a line into a problematic form of gentrification.

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