Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

The EU needs to be able to Expel Autocratic Members

This is a guest post by Tom Theuns, Assistant Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at Leiden University (tweeting @TomTheuns). It discusses his recent work on how the EU should handle member states that violate democratic values

The democracy and rule of law crisis in the EU has now lasted over a decade. One of the problems has been that the main instrument for responding to democratic backsliding in a member state, the infamous Article 7 (A7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), is ineffective. Given that the two states most active in dismantling democracy in Europe—Poland and Hungary—have pledged to support one another, A7 is crippled by a unanimity requirement.

A7 is supposed to sanction violations of the fundamental values of the EU listed in Article 2 TEU. These include democracy, the rule of law and equality. The sanction in A7 is the disenfranchisement of a backslidden state in the Council of the EU. In a recent article, I argue that A7 is not only ineffective but also normatively incoherent. Instead of disenfranchisement, I think the final sanction for democratic backsliding should be expulsion from the EU.

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On how the Dunning-Kruger effect complicates normative considerations

Individuals are notoriously self-serving in assessing their competences either in absolute terms or when comparing themselves to others. We are likely to think we are more sociable than others, better than most at judging character and sincerity, or that we perform above average in our workplaces. We often overestimate our levels of knowledge when we objectively know very little. In fact, this bias seems most potent when we are oblivious about some matter. At such times, we may act quite unrestrained in peddling the most absurd notions as facts to others. Our virtual lives of late, cluttered with half-baked claims and notions about the pandemic, offer plentiful evidence for this. What is even more disheartening is that, as the famous Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us, the more incompetent we are, the less likely we are to become aware of our own incompetence. Individuals often fall victim to this effect regardless of their intelligence, social grouping, or their successes at anticipating and counteracting a self-serving bias in some other area.

Despite being familiar in some form for several decades, the Dunning-Kruger effect has not seriously grabbed the attention of normative philosophers. Only epistemologists have seriously considered how it may affect epistemic obligations, for instance, how we should act in circumstances of assumed peer disagreement (Wiland, 2016). We have hardly considered the kinds of moral obligations we might have as individuals, or how we ought to shape public policies and institutions in the face of widespread Dunning-Kruger effects.

Consider, for instance, the decision of a highly educated person whether she should go into politics and compete for public seats. Imagine that this person is educated broadly enough to offer meaningful contributions over a range of public concerns. “But alas”, she reflects, “I don’t know enough about all the relevant laws, or how to draw up or revise a budget. I wasn’t trained for public administration. So I’m hardly competent to take up such a job.” But the educated person fails to consider that if she decides not to pursue the job, a far less competent person, one with far fewer scruples of the aforementioned kind, may attempt to take it up instead. Apart from considering merely whether she is qualified, she must assess whether the Dunning-Kruger effect will generate unwavering confidence in candidates who are far less qualified. So in the face of a lurking threat of social harms arising from incompetence, is the educated person obliged to overcome her reservations?

A further complication arises from the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: in some cases, the truly competent exemplify tendencies to second-guess their competences, even if the area of competence is much more specific than in the previous example. Bertrand Russell noticed both sides of these self-assessment difficulties, when he famously stated that “in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1933). Simply, the awareness of the competent that there is still much they don’t know saps their confidence, whereas the incompetent are unperturbed in their lack of awareness of just how incompetent they are. But in that case, the obligation to overcome their reservations may include a psychological hurdle for the competent that makes it particularly demanding.

Assigning the competent with this obligation faces two other crucial difficulties. First, the main lesson of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that those who believe they are competent may very easily turn out to be incompetent. Thus, it’s quite possible that those taking up the obligation to save us from the incompetent, with the best of intentions, are themselves incompetent. When there is no one who could vouch for their competence, self-assessors will often overestimate themselves. Therefore, committing ourselves to beat the incompetent runs at least some risk that we are thereby enabling our own incompetence.

Second, even if we could safely and reliably establish, with the help of others, that we are truly competent, a moral question remains: how much should we be asked to do? How far-reaching is our obligation to clean up after the incompetent, or preventing them from ever making a mess? Surely, if we are competent, we are allowed to appeal to an “agent-centered prerogative […] a modest right of self-interest” (Cohen, 1996), not to invest most of our time, like in the case of taking up a public seat.

Whether moral complications arising from the Dunning-Kruger effect should affect the decisions of individuals, and how, remains an open question that requires serious thought. However, we might think that Dunning-Kruger effects are best neutralized at various levels of institutional structure. Education, for instance, might be attuned to help the most competent in overcoming their imposter syndromes, in steering and reassuring them towards positions of great social importance, and encouraging them to branch out of their epistemic comfort zones. This can, in turn, help the competent in overcoming their psychological barriers when taking up individual moral obligations.

If, however, education fails, the Dunning-Kruger effect stands out as an important consideration in setting up our electoral and governmental institutions. There is no doubt that the effect influences both the incompetent and the competent in their voting behavior, as well as in their decisions to pursue positions of leadership. An institutional arrangement that prevents the incompetent in some way from hijacking important public decisions may very well be the last frontier at which self-serving biases are to be repelled.

Mental Illness and Microaggression

Not only do people with mental illness frequently encounter negative stereotypes in news, films, books and in everyday speech, others often give misguided advice or are dismissive towards their mental distress. Yet claims by people with mental illness to have experienced discrimination in the form of microaggression might also be too easily dismissed: could not mental distress lead to increased emotional sensitivity, leading them to overreact?

Microaggressions, the small slights regularly experienced by marginalised people, are near daily reminders that someone is an outsider or a second-class citizen. On their own they may be slight, but their cumulative impact is anything but.  As part of a wider social pattern of oppression, they are deeply harmful. Microaggression can be behavioural such as when a store security guard is more likely to accuse a black customer of shoplifting; verbal, such as when a racialised person is regularly asked where they are “really” from; or environmental, such as when all buildings are named after white people and whiteness is assumed as the norm. (Examples of microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality can be found here.)

People with mental illness regularly encounter negative stereotypes about themselves. Consistently depicting a group negatively, with limited access to positive role models, is an example of environmental microaggression. In both news and fiction, people living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often depicted as violent or as bad parents. In crime novels, the culprit is often mentally disturbed. In her autoethnographic essay documenting how repeated exposure to this material affects her, Jennifer Eisenhauer writes: “The ways in which mothers who have bipolar disorder are portrayed in popular media becomes part of my daily lived experience. This is not because I see these portrayals everyday, but because these images and narratives become part of how I see myself and how others view me.”

Beyond these common negative stereotypes, people experiencing mental illness often encounter comments and behaviour which are insensitive or unhelpful. The many lists and articles about “what not to say to someone with mental illness” can be seen as guides to avoiding microagression. The Australian mental health charity SANE recommends avoiding the following:

– “Get over it / snap out of it”
– “It’s all in your head”
– “Stop whinging”
– “You have the same illness as my…”
– “You don’t seem unwell”
– “They’re so OCD!”
– “Have you thought of trying this, that or the other?”
– “You don’t need medication”
– “You need to be honest”
– “Get a good night’s sleep, exercise and look for the positives”
– “Oh yeah, that’s quite common isn’t it?”
– “Time heals. It will get better”

While stating that a mental illness is quite common seems to indicate acceptance, it can be experienced as minimising one’s distress. “You have the same illness as my…” is not that different from telling a black person that you are ok with black people and are not a racist because you have black friends. Other apparently well-meaning comments are problematic because they place the responsibility for recovery on the sufferer. Telling people to “think positive”, “what do you have to be upset about when your life is so good” or assuming that taking up yoga and eating large quantities of blueberries will solve someone’s problems, make it sound as if people could simply “snap out of it” if only they could be bothered to try. Such examples of insensitivity and rudeness accumulate into a pattern of social assumptions that mental illness can be overcome with application and self-management. This, in turn, moralises mental illness – you would not be depressed if only you tried harder, you are not trying that hard, therefore you are doing something wrong. Such moralisation further undermines the confidence of those with mental illness.

Appeals to microaggression are often dismissed with the claim that people are simply oversensitive. The complainers are snowflakes, self-deluded by victim culture. This criticism appears even more forceful here, as people with mental illness are often prone to interpreting events in a negative light or ruminating on the comments of others. We need not go as far as assuming completely delusional thinking. Depressed people often feel disproportionate guilt, feel as if they have failed or feel unloved. Anxiety can lead us to blow the importance of things out of proportion, or to worry about events that are unlikely to occur. Even psychologists sometimes assume that those with mental illness primarily experience self-stigma and expect discrimination that outweighs the actual stigma and discrimination from others. They claim that the negative attitudes are mostly in people’s imagination. Given this background how can we be sure that experiences of microaggression are not simple misinterpretations of well-meaning acts?

This is where the work of philosopher Regina Rini comes in extremely useful (even though mental illness is not a case she discusses). In her book-length analysis of the concept of microaggression, she gives an “ambiguous experience account of microaggression: what makes an act or event count as microaggression is that it is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly but not certainly instantiating oppression.” Her definition takes into account that microaggressions are both subtle and ambiguous. Part of the damage they do is to make already marginalised people suspicious of their own interpretation of events. While their own interpretations are not always correct, Rini argues that as long as on balance members of a marginalised social group are likely to correctly notice subtle discrimination, we should accept that microaggression does happen, even if we sometimes disagree about whether any individual case is an instance of it.

Are people with mental illness reliable in this way? They are usually knowledgeable about their symptoms, medications and medication side effects. Moreover, most people, even with chronic mental illnesses, are not always unwell and out of touch with reality. Even when unwell, mental illness does not affect all domains of thinking. Experiencing irrational guilt does not imply an inability to recognise condescending remarks. The extensive overlap among “what not to say” lists (not all of which are blatant copies of each other) also indicates a consensus over what constitutes microaggression for people with mental illness.

So, rather than worrying whether an individual instance counts as a microaggression, we should be concerned with identifying the most common forms of microaggression that affect people with mental illness. If people with mental illness identify a set of unhelpful and discriminatory remarks, behaviours or environmental factors, we can safely say that microaggression does affect people with mental illness, regardless of any tendency of some people with mental illness to find social slights particularly painful. Even in these cases, the painfulness of these experiences must not be discounted. Another strength of Rini’s account is that it puts the focus on the experiences of marginalised people. Even though they may at times be mistaken about their interpretation of events, we should still accept the word of those experiencing mental illness about how those events made them feel.

Research shows that microaggression does affect people with mental illness in systematic ways. For example, Yanos et al found that there were “three main categories of experiences in this regard: assumptions of inferiority (for example, statements indicating that it was assumed that the person is not capable of doing what most people can do), patronizing microaggressions (for example, dismissive statements suggesting assumptions that people with mental illness are child-like), and subtle behaviors indicating fear of mental illness (for example, moving away from a person who is known to have a mental illness).”

Thus, we have every reason to accept general claims of microaggression in the case of mental illness. What can we do about this? Rini recommends avoiding, or at least questioning, material with harmful stereotypes in order to avoid internalising these ourselves. For their own part, writers, whether of fiction, non-fiction or journalism, can reduce lazy stereotyping in their work. (There is plenty of advice available. As an example, philosopher Sofia Jeppsson has written a blog post on the common problems with the way mental illness is depicted in science-fiction.) We can follow the advice of “what not to say to people with mental illness” lists. We can assume that someone who lives with an illness has already tried all the obvious remedies. Most importantly, we should listen and if someone says something is unhelpful, accept this instead of trying to convince them that they are mistaken about their own experiences.

Is disruptive climate activism morally controversial?

We are in the midst of an emergency. Drastic action by states, businesses, and individuals is required if we are to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. Activism is a necessary part of and precursor to this action. And increasingly it is disruptive climate activism that is being advocated and engaged in. To many people, this kind of activism will seem morally controversial and perhaps even unjustified. But is it? And, if so, why exactly? Let’s examine three worries one might have.

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What Do We Owe to Pandemic Puppies?

For many, having an animal companion during the pandemic has been a blessing. Someone to keep you company, someone to play with, someone who brings you joy and gives you a reason to get out of bed. Indeed, in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) reported that 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired an animal companion since the start of the pandemic. This brings the total number of animal companions in the UK up to 34 million, including 12 million cats and 12 million dogs, and equates to 17 million households being responsible for an animal’s welfare.

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Teaching Philosophy “Outside the Walls”

A photograph depicting an audience listening to a lecture in a traditional lecture hall

An audience in a lecture hall

How do you get undergraduate students excited about philosophy? How do you show students that studying philosophy isn’t just about reading complex discussions about the nature of reality? Philosophy teachers the world over are increasingly facing external pressures – from Rate my Professor to government funding bodies and everything in between – to make their courses popular, engaging, or “useful”. Many are also aware of other factors that may encourage re-thinking the way in which we teach philosophy and to move away from traditional  styles of teaching, for instance concerns about accessibility or Western-centrism. One of the things this series, Teaching Philosophy, sets out to do is to canvas different ways of teaching philosophy. We hope that these discussions serve to inspire and provide ideas for those considering adopting different ways of teaching and assessing students.

For this post, we spoke to Dr Sjoerd Griffioen and Dr Merel Semeijn from the University of Groningen (Netherlands). They run a module called Buiten de Muren (Outside the Walls), which is a required module for second year BA Philosophy students. In the module, students identify a societal issue they want to tackle, a relevant ethical theory or concept (broadly construed), and create a creative final product. ‘We really ask them not to write a standard academic paper about it, or do a standard presentation, but to really come up with something else – because it will probably be the only time in their academic career that they can do that’, Griffioen says. ‘Of course we supervise them very intensively. Because it does happen that students start with a brilliant idea but then they run into problems and we have to turn them towards something that might be a bit more pragmatic. But the principle is that we give them a lot of freedom to come up with something other than a standard academic paper. “Outside the Walls” means to think outside the walls of academia – outside the box, if you will.’

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How to better care for each other

The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically reminded us of our shared vulnerability and our need of care, and as a result, calls for care have been widespread since the pandemic began. Some of these calls to care, as well as celebrations of essential care workers, have appeared disingenuous when coming from governments and parties with a long history of carelessness. It is precisely this carelessness, which ranges from cuts to public health services to a general lack of concern for the fate of the most vulnerable in society, that has been deemed responsible for many of the difficulties and the failures in facing Covid-19. Many calls to care have been motivated precisely by this critique as well as the idea that care should be central in our societies. How, then, should we conceive of a caring society? In what follows, I address this issue by reflecting on the ambivalence of care and the idea of communities of care.

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Theory, Politics and Socialism: An interview with Paul Magnette (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

Before becoming the president of the Belgian Francophone Socialist Party, Paul Magnette was a renowned scholar in the fields of EU studies and political theory. In addition to analysing the political regime of the European Union, the growing power of the European Parliament, and the issue of citizen participation in EU politics, he wrote a book on the thought of Judith Shklar and another on the history of the idea of citizenship. We met in September 2021 at the headquarters of the Socialist Party to discuss the influence of his academic training on his political activity, the challenges of shifting from theory to political practice, and the practical relevance of political theory. A new interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series.


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A justice-inspired reading of the COP26 discursive arena

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which has been taking place in Glasgow since October 31st and will end on November 12, has already offered many possibilities for reflecting about the ongoing transnational, multidisciplinary debate on climate change which unfolds through mass media and social platforms. The COP26 is the occasion for delegates of the 197 countries which signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to negotiate ways to contrast climate change in line with the objectives set in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in the subsequent COPs.

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Should land be reclassified as a global commons?

In this post, Megan Blomfield discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on treating land as a common good.

In a world confronting climate change, new questions arise about how land ought to be used and shared globally. Land has already become scarce relative to the demands of the global economy. Climate impacts and policies threaten to significantly exacerbate this problem. Some are suggesting that it is therefore time to classify land as a global commons, akin to other vital and endangered global commons such as the atmosphere. In a recent article, I identify reasons to fear that this move would not in fact promote land justice.

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