Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Taking political education out of families

Political education can be defined as the process by which people come to form political judgments – how they evaluate different political parties and issues of public policy, basically. The primary context of political education is the family. It is in this environment that people are first exposed to political judgments and inculcated with political values. It should come as no surprise that, as a result, many (if not most) people remain faithful to their parents’ political orientations, as research in political sociology often reports. Fortunately, though, political education is not reducible to family transmission. As they grow up, kids become more and more exposed to different political views, be it in school or within their social network, and they can be influenced by all sorts of people and events in this process. It remains true, however, that in the absence of a strong countervailing educational process, families are the main driver of political education in most if not all countries. Should we be happy with this situation?

Family political education is deficient in many respects. The most fundamental flaw is that the main driver of political education, within families, is irrational: it is a form of mimetism. Children inherit irrationally from their parents’ prejudices and dismissive attitudes towards political opponents. Arguably, some parents make efforts to justify their political judgments by providing reasons supporting them and sometimes even try to present opposing views in a way that allows their children to understand where they come from, why other people see things differently. Nevertheless, this kind of heroic political education is unlikely to be widespread. Most of the time, political attitudes are transmitted involuntarily, typically by short comments that parents make on politicians, parties and policy debates. Hence, the larger slice of political education will not be based on reasons.

Besides being largely based on unreflective mimetism, family political education is likely to be highly one-sided. Unless parents have differing political views and do not mind exposing and explaining their disagreements, most children will lack exposition to counter-arguments and countervailing reasons. This might be somewhat mitigated by the presence, in family political discussions, of older siblings who have been exposed to different views outside the family circle. Yet we would still be very far from the ideal of deliberative democracy. And the problem is reinforced by the lack of sociological diversity within families. Some relevant social perspectives will inevitably remain excluded from family discussions.

This brings us to a third problem: families are not an appropriate environment for political deliberation. A survey conducted in 2018 by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research of the University of Chicago found 64% of people saying they discussed politics in their family at least once a month. This may sound promising, but among them, 53% agree on most issues (lack of diversity), 9% change the subject quickly to avoid disagreements and 5% fight. This leaves us with only 32% of the 64% having political discussions who “debate things diplomatically”. You might think it’s not that bad, but it means that a large majority of people are deprived of the important benefits of genuine political deliberation.

Schools are ideally placed to address this problem. They are usually more ideologically diverse than families (although much more could be done to promote social mix in schools). They have the mission to develop children’s competencies (among which could be included the capacity to form considered political judgments). Teachers are ideally placed to play a role of moderators of peaceful and respectful political debates. They can also play a role of informants when pupils miss factual information, and of devil’s advocate when ideological diversity is lacking and the risk of group polarization is high. Hence, there are many reasons to see it as a fundamental mission of schools to develop children’s capacity for considered political judgment and to thereby create the conditions for a healthier democracy.

The main reason why public authorities (and families!) are usually reluctant to entrust schools with such a mission is the fear of political indoctrination. I don’t have the space to give due consideration to this important problem here, but a few points seem worth mentioning. Teachers’ training programs usually already include a dimension of educational ethics inviting them to avoid taking firm positions on controversial issues and to respect their pupils’ autonomy. This form of teacher neutrality or restraint is fully compatible with a political education whose aims would be to help future citizens understand the intellectual roots of political conflicts and build their own judgments on policy issues. Obviously, teachers’ ideological views are likely to influence the way they present the different positions to their pupils. However, they are much more likely than parents to do this in a balanced way, because they are trained for it, have professional incentives to do it properly, and are monitored to some extent. Hence, to the extent that parents care about their children’s political autonomy, they should be strongly in favor of such public political education.

The problem is of course that many parents, in spite of what they would publicly affirm, care more about transmitting their own values than about promoting their children’s autonomy. What it means, however, is that a publicly defendable argument can be made to justify taking political education partly out of families and to develop it more than is usually the case within schools.

The care perspective and the police: reform, defund or abolition?

In recent months, the police have been the object of extensive discussion and harsh criticism in the UK. The Louise Casey report published in March found the Metropolitan Police (the police service for the Greater London area) to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Since then, various incidents in different parts of the country – most recently in Cardiff last week, resulting in the tragic deaths of teenagers Kyrees Sullivan and Harvey Evans – have seen the police behaving in deeply problematic ways. The police have also come under attack for its behaviour towards protesters, or people believed to be such, especially during the weekend of the Coronation following the passing of the Public Order Bill. This is in the context of a crisis of legitimacy that the institution has been facing for a few years now, in part as a result of a number of other high-profile cases and investigations. The police are increasingly seen not as an institution that function to protect all citizens, but as a potential threat to members of different social groups. Scepticism about whether the police can be trusted to act lawfully and to provide truthful accounts of its activities is mounting. Mistrust towards the police is of course not in itself a new phenomenon, especially among certain sectors of society, but it has been gaining more traction in broader segments of the population.

The debate on the reform and abolition of the police has a long history. Most recently, following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, many activists and organisations have coalesced around the proposal to defund the police. Some advocates of this idea understand it as part of a broader abolitionism agenda, as a pathway to police and other forms of abolition. This is, however, not necessarily the case. The defunding the police movement is about reducing the amount of funding the police receive, and to re-invest it in other services and programmes, especially in deprived communities. One of its motivating thoughts is that much of what the police do should be done by other governmental workers, such as social and case workers, which would be better equipped in responding to these situations. An example that is often mentioned is that of mental health crises which are often dealt with by the police with an unnecessary and harmful degree of violence. This proposal is particularly compelling in the US context, in which, first, the police receive a greater and over the past decade often growing proportion of public funding, second, police funding as well as that of other public services is controlled by local authorities and, third, the police is even more present in communities and places such as schools. However, many of its elements can apply to other contexts, especially for communities that are systematically over-policed.

The question that I want to raise here is what addressing these issues from the point of view of care can tell us about the ways in which we should rethink the police. While the literature on care was initially developed in the context of moral theory, as an ethics of care, more recently many have argued that we should think of care also as a political value. Looking at our societies from a care perspective involves not only assessing whether the practices that we generally consider forms of care are indeed caring and, if not, propose ways in which they can be made so, but also, more broadly, bringing the normative considerations distinctive of care to bear on our social and political arrangements. Such considerations include an attention to others’ well-being and a commitment to address their needs in a way that is sensitive to their own understanding of them, and in the context of relationships characterised by mutual trust and concern. Adopting the care perspective to our social and political arrangements means addressing questions such as whether institutions and practices that are not usually regarded as the site of care should instead be refashioned to embody considerations of care, and whether existing institutions and practices need to be rethought because, in their present configuration, they undermine care. What can the care perspective tell us about the police?

There are two main ways to reply to this question. The first is to suggest that it is precisely because we adopt a care perspective rather than a punitive one that we should aim to defund, if not abolish, the police. One of central ideas is that it is possible to construe a system which holds people accountable without being punitive. In order for it to not to be punitive, the role of the police should be minimised, especially when it comes to contact with communities, such as black communities in the US and the UK, that have been historically mistreated by the police. Another possibility that has been proposed is instead to reform the police by incorporating consideration of care in its practice. This can be seen as part of a broader proposal to incorporate considerations of care in realms that are not usually regarded as sites of care, such as the economy, policing and punishment. This approach understands those policing and those who are policed as part of the same communities, and puts concern for communities and its members, nonviolence and mutual trust at the centre of the practice of policing.

The question of whether adopting a care perspective should lead us to support the abolition of the police is of course a very complicated one. However, more can be said about the two alternatives just outlined.  The idea of a caring police relies on a re-orientation of the practices of policing and the skills that are considered central to that practice. Rather than physical strength and ability to assert authority, skills in communication and negotiation should be the ones that are valued and promoted. This would allow police to better conduct interactions with the public and minimise the use of violence. This proposal is the mirror image of the idea of defunding the police: rather than promoting the use of public services other than the police to address situations like mental health crisis, the attempt is to make the police behave in ways that are closer to the ways in which a social worker, or a psychologist, might act. The first point to make here is that there are good reasons to believe that it is more likely that governmental workers other than the police would do a better job at caring for citizens in these situations. Even if not necessarily in principle, in practice the attitudes of care are often in tension with how policing is understood at the structural as well as individual level by members of the force as well as ordinary citizens. Relatedly, as pointed out earlier, the police do not enjoy the level of public trust which would make such caring exchanges possible. These other public services, while not at all untainted or universally trusted, still enjoy more public support and are overall better equipped at responding to situations in caring ways, as care is arguably at least part of their core function. Secondly, there are also good reasons to believe that defunding the police would serve better the aims of care as a whole. Going beyond the question of which kinds of services should be involved in particular incidents, the proposal of defunding the police also requires the transfer of resources from police budgets to other public services, especially in deprived areas. The most likely effect of this would be that public services would be better equipped, among other things, to respond to the needs of citizens in ways that are caring. Further, public services such as healthcare, schools and social care which are directly engaged in care provision would also be more resourced and hence likely to be effective. This would in turn lead to crime reduction, hence resulting in less crime and incidents of the kinds that often see the police involved. There is much more to be said about the idea of defunding the police, especially when it comes to the relationship between defund and abolition and the question of whether and how specific strategies and proposals originally developed mainly in the US can apply to the UK and elsewhere. However, what we can conclude for now is that a care perspective provides us with reasons to support the family of ideas under the umbrella of “defund the police.”

The Need for Technomoral Resilience

Changes in moral norms, practices and attitudes are partly driven by technological developments, a phenomenon called “technology-induced moral change”. Such change can be profoundly disruptive, meaning that it disrupts human practices at a fundamental level, including moral concepts. In a recent paper, Katharina Bauer and I argue that such changes and disruptions require the development of what we call “technomoral resilience”, and that moral education should aim at fostering this complex capacity. We illustrate our concept of technomoral resilience by means of the example of human caregivers confronted with the introduction of care robots in elderly care. Our argument does not entail that the cultivation of moral resilience is sufficient for dealing with current challenges in elderly care and healthcare more generally. Structural changes such as better payment for care workers are urgently called for, and it is not our intention to place the burden of ensuring the continuous provision of good care entirely on individuals. We see the development of technomoral resilience as contributing to a differentiated and balanced reaction to the change that happens, thus complementing the necessary changes at the political and institutional level.

We propose an understanding of resilience as procedural: it involves a movement from a state of stability through destabilisation and restabilisation to a new and modified stability. The concept applies to the individual as well as to the systemic (or practice) level. At the systemic level, technomoral resilience is the capacity to regain stability after destabilisation, which asks for a certain degree of flexibility. At the individual level, it is the capacity to cope with moral disturbances prompted by technological developments without losing one’s identity as a moral agent.

Care robots are seen as a crucial part of the solution to the problem of a shortage of care workers in an aging society. Robots that are already in use in care settings include robots for lifting patients (“RIBA”), robots that facilitate communication with family members (“Double”) and multifunctional robots like “Zora”, a small humanoid social robot that can give instructions for daily routines, foster patients’ mobility, or pick up trash in care facilities. The first (potential) technology-induced moral change that we address is a change in what it means for care to be good care. The conviction that good care must be care provided by human beings, not by machines, which are associated with coldness is widespread. How can care that is partly provided by care-robots be good care? Answering this question requires “techno-moral imagination”, which is part of technomoral resilience.

The second change concerns a new distribution of roles and responsibilities. The care-robot will, upon entering a sociotechnical network, “alter the distribution of responsibilities and roles within the network as well as the manner in which the practice takes place”. These changes are likely to give rise to confusion and uncertainty. The third change is a new self-understanding of human caregivers. For instance, a caregiver might come to understand themselves as being, together with the robots, jointly responsible for the well-being of the elderly, while in the past they had understood themselves as bearing this responsibility all by themselves. This transition can be expected to be accompanied by uncertainty and feelings of distress.

How would we describe a nurse who has developed technomoral resilience? Imagine a caregiver who reflects critically upon the introduction of an autonomous robot for lifting, such as the RIBA robot. The nurse doesn’t simply refuse to make use of the robot or quit their job, nor do they uncritically embrace the new technological support. Rather, in interaction with the robot and together with other nurses as well as the elderly, they try to explore: how the robot can be used in a way that contributes to the realisation of values such as trust and privacy, how to best redistribute responsibilities, what features of the technology should be improved, and so on. Far from being purely theoretical, this process takes primarily the form of trying something out by giving the robot a particular task and modifying that task in the light of how well the robot fulfilled it, including how the fulfilment of the task by the robot affected the elderly person, the nurse and the relationship between the two.

Technomoral resilience enables people to both cope with change and co-shape the change. We conclude our paper by suggesting that moral education foster technomoral resilience by focusing on a triangle of capacities: 1) moral imagination, 2) a capacity for critical reflection, and 3) a capacity for maintaining one’s moral agency in the face of disturbances. A way of facilitating the development of moral imagination is cultivating curiosity and teaching techniques of imagining and playing. This can be done by using concrete scenarios of the application of emerging technologies and their potential impact on morality. It can, e.g., take the form of narratives or building models, for instance of technologised nursing homes tailored to the needs of the elderly. We can prepare and equip ourselves for future developments by learning within a simulated, imagined future scenario, for instance in serious video games.

An interview with Joseph Chan (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (you can read previous interviews here).

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Joseph Chan worked for three decades as Professor in the Department of Politics of Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. After Beijing’s crackdown on the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong in July 2020, he left Hong Kong for Taiwan. He now lives and works in Taipei as a distinguished research fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica. Throughout his career, Joseph was a public intellectual well-known to politicians, activists and ordinary citizens in Hong Kong, and played some roles in Hong Kong politics, including as a mediator between the government and student protestors in 2014. We talked about how he got into political theory, his work in integrating Confucian political philosophy with Western liberalism, the tensions and limits of being a public intellectual, and his recent interest in the ethics of violence and protest.

Language, justice, and linguistic prejudice in academia

Guest Post by Sergi Morales-Gálvez and Josep Soler

This post provides a tentative view about the justice issues that arise from linguistic prejudice in academia. It introduces the plights that affect non-native English speakers, and how these may count as forms of epistemic injustice.

Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay (Free to use under Content License)

Have you ever had something to say at the tip of your tongue, but you momentarily forget the correct word to express it? We are sure that’s an experience many of us are familiar with. For people who speak two, three or even more languages on a regular basis, this can be a frequent occurrence. This is, at least, our experience as speakers of Catalan, Spanish, English, and other languages. Although a momentary lapse like this does not mean that someone is not a capable speaker of a particular language, it might be interpreted negatively.

Artificial Intelligence and the Role of Political Philosophers

In a recent blog post, Paul Christiano estimates there is a 20% probability that most humans will die within 10 years of building powerful AI. This assessment is so bewildering that many of us will quickly dismiss it as a crazy prediction rooted in science fiction rather than reality. Unfortunately, it is not the fringe view of some apocalyptic dilettante. Paul Christiano previously ran the alignment team at OpenAI, most famously known as the creators of ChatGPT. And in a 2022 survey of researchers in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computational neuroscience, about half of respondents estimated there is an at least 10% probability of an “extremely bad outcome (e.g. human extinction)” from advanced AI. The timeframe for advanced AI? Of course, it is impossible to make definitive claims, but Geoffrey Hinton, often called the “Godfather of AI” now puts it at 20 years or less, suggesting that even a timeframe of 5 years should not be excluded. This post does not offer any elaborate philosophical argument. Instead, it aims to highlight the pressing need of recognising the most salient issue humanity will face in the near future, which is the rapid development of ever-more powerful AI, and to tentatively explore what – if any – part political philosophers should play in all of this.

Selling Silence: The Morality of Sexual Harassment NDAs

In this post, Scott Altman (USC Gould) discusses his recent JOAP 2022 Annual Essay Prize winning article about the morality of sexual harassment nondisclosure agreements.

Harvey Weinstein, Chairman, The Weinstein Company
Harvey Weinstein by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) pay sexual harassment and abuse victims not to tell their stories or name their abusers. Harvey Weinstein’s many NDAs, and the #MeToo movement, spurred some states to make such NDAs legally unenforceable. 

My Selling Silence article argued in favor of these laws. Sexual wrongdoer NDAs protect abusers, endanger future victims, and undermine deterrence. The article rejected three justifications for wrongdoer NDAs, two of which I will mention briefly before explaining the third.

Attribution fallacy, incentives, and income inequality

It is difficult to read anything on the justification of high salaries these days without running into catch phrases such as “the hunt for talent”, “attracting the best people to this job”, or “retaining human capital.” The core idea underlying this kind of discourse is one that has got a lot of traction in political philosophy in recent decades, too: It is justified to pay certain individuals – be they neurosurgeons, lawyers, or CEOs – financial incentives, because the productive contribution they will make in response benefits us all.

On the Reception of the Mahsa Charter in Online Deliberative Spaces

This post is the fourth in a series entitled: “The Mahsa Revolution: A Political Philosophy and Futures Studies Perspective”

The goal of this series is to offer readers reflections on the on-going grassroots, women-led revolutionary movement in Iran, to be continued until its completion or the mutual exhaustion of readers and author. I will analyze, for non-Persian speakers, debates and initiatives regarding the future of Iran from a philosophical and futures studies perspective. Every revolutionary moment unlocks the space of the politically and socially conceivable and enables the hopeless to exercise their rusted capacity for imagining better futures. It also reveals normative disagreements on desirable futures, inclusion and exclusion from those futures, and strategies suitable for realizing them. Although I am not an Iranologist, my hope is to give readers a candid glimpse of the burgeoning forward-looking democratic life of Iranians in Iran and the diaspora. 

Logo of the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran that has produced the Mahsa Charter

In my last post, I analyzed the “Mahsa Charter” which aims at unifying the broadest range of the opposition to the Islamic Republic around a common minimal platform for a transition to secular democracy. My reading of the charter was positive—I appreciated the balance it strikes between the demands of different constituencies (republican and monarchists, unitarists and federalists). In short, I saw it as a good starting point for constructive discussion. But in the days and weeks that followed the release of the charter (March 10), I was surprised to discover that few Iranians active on social media shared my view; most received it rather coldly and often attacked it vehemently. Today, I’d like to analyze how the charter was received in the Iranian community, and more specifically, in one of its main online deliberative spaces, Clubhouse, a “social audio” app very popular among Iranians.

The Ethics of Keeping Pets: Why Love is (Still) Not Enough

Concerned about climate change? Worried about environmental degradation? Want to protect local wildlife? Then you should think twice before purchasing a pet.

Image by wayhomestudio on Freepik

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