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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
This is a guest post written by Felix Bender (Northumbria University). Felix’s research explores who we should recognise as a refugee and here he considers whether we should consider Russian deserters as refugees through a moralised or politicised lens.
“Perhaps the most pressing task of ethics is to warn against morality”. This statement, issued by German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, rings nowhere as true as it does now. Moralism dominates the day. Political decisions are made based on the imperative of differentiating between the blameworthy and the blameless, between approval and disapproval of persons. You are either good or bad, and this should dictate the political decisions you face. But is moralizing the right reaction to a political problem, or does it create more problems than it solves? Does it help in reacting to political crises, such as posed by the exodus of Russian men of fighting age, or does it lead us astray from wise political decision making? I will argue for the latter. Wise decision making should not consider moralizing arguments. In the following, I will show, that there are politically prudent reasons for admitting Russian deserters as refugees.
Each year when fall comes, I teach finance ethics to bright new postgraduate students in finance. After introducing ethical investing – i.e. the practice of integrating ethical criteria such as environmental, social, and governance performance (ESG) in investment decisions – I ask them a question: “Who believes that ESG investing generates higher financial returns?”
This year, about half of them raised their hand. This is unsurprising, given how widespread this belief is in business. The Davos Manifesto (2020) now claims that business “performance must be measured not only on the returns to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives”. To convince investors and businesses, advocates often claim that integrating ESG criteria in investment or business decisions can reduce (long-term) risks and generate higher returns. Slightly caricaturing, a vegan restaurant chain in Canada faces lower regulatory, reputational, and environmental risks than a corrupt and polluting mining company in a politically unstable country (see examples here).
Case in point, Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock (a $6 trillion investment firm), sends an annual letter to the C.E.O.s of companies it invests in asking them to serve a social purpose because for him, “profits and purpose are inextricably linked” (2019). McKinsey Quarterly also published an article outlining “five ways that ESG creates value” (2019). Market actors seem to have noticed, because S&P500 companies increasingly mention ESG in quarterly earning calls and the worldwide ESG assets under management have grown to $2.72 trillion in 2021.
No empirical evidence
The first problem is that there is no solid empirical evidence demonstrating a systematic link between ethical behavior and higher profits, as long-time critics underline (Vogel 2006). Most recently, The Economist offered a damning account: “ESG has become a gravy train for the investment industry… In marketing, they claim that ESG funds outperform mainstream ones, even if this does not stand up… empirically.” Indeed, if ethical businesses were more profitable, ESG-focused investment funds would be expected to consistently outperform standard funds ignoring ESG, but this has not been the case empirically (Vogel 2006, The Economist 2022).
Take a recent study by McKinsey (2018) claiming to demonstrate that “gender and ethnic diversity are clearly correlated with profitability”. In fact, the study merely shows that companies in the top quartile for gender or ethnic diversity on their executive teams are 15-35% more likely to outperform the national industry median in profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. But there are a few problems with this result.
Assuming agreement on the method to measure diversity (vague, inconsistent, or self-serving measurement of ESG performance plagues the industry), the results do not demonstrate that diversity causes financial performance. Instead, businesses that are already financially healthy may simply have more spare money to monitor and invest in ESG objectives such as improving diversity. As the study itself admits: “correlation does not demonstrate causality”.
Moreover, McKinsey’s study does not show that diverse firms are more performant than non-diverse ones, it shows that they are more likely to outperform the national industry median. This result is compatible with a world in which some businesses in the bottom diversity quartile outperform the industry median while some diverse businesses underperform. More generally, despite anecdotal, company-specific examples where ethical strategies have delivered financial returns, ESG objectives can fail to pay off and bad practices can still deliver high profits (Vogel 2006).
Missing the ethical point
Even if one concedes that ethical behavior is not systematically linked to higher profitability, but merely claims that they do not always conflict, this is missing the ethical point. Business leaders and investors should care about environmental protection, diversity, or fraud prevention because it’s the right thing to do, not because it is good for business.
One issue if businesses only valued ESG objectives strategically is that market incentives are structured to encourage these objectives only up to the point necessary to reach strategic goals, not further. They would stop investing in environmental protection, social responsibility, and good governance as soon as it stops being profitable, which would lead to watered-down ambitions (The Economist 2022).
This means that there is always a point where ESG objectives and profitability are in conflict. Sweeping such conflicts under the rug by focusing on cases where they align omits the hard but important question that business leaders and investors must ask themselves: are there cases where they must sacrifice profitability to respect their ethical obligations?
A convenient belief
Conflicts between our own values are uncomfortable. They impose difficult trade-offs that we, or the people around us, may find controversial. When our personal gain conflicts with our social values, it can also reveal selfish tendencies in ourselves that we prefer to ignore. Observing discrepancies between the values we affirm and the actual choices we make can lead to cognitive dissonance. This is perhaps one reason why it is so tempting to believe that ethical behavior is also good for business: it would be so much easier if it was! We engage in motivated reasoning: we believe that ethics is good for business because we want to believe it.
Business ethicists may also be partly responsible for this belief’s popularity (Vogel 2006). In the urge to encourage best practices, it is tempting to take the path of least resistance: the easiest way to convince business leaders to pursue ESG objectives is to tell them it is profitable.
But the time has come to be honest. There are specific cases in which ESG objectives can be strategically useful but this is not always true and it provides a poor reason to adpot better business practices. While market competition can be beneficial (it lowers prices and drives innovation), it often limits businesses’ capacity to pursue ESG objectives. This is why business incentives are insufficient to motivate best practices and why David Vogel concludes that “governments remain essential to improving corporate behavior” (Vogel 2006).
In this post, Alex Davies (University of Tartu) discusses his recent paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy where he urges caution when the conclusions of political psychologists tempt us to blame the audience for failures in science communication.
A slew of newspaper articles were published in the 2010s with titles like: “The facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs” and “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds — New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason”. They promoted a common idea: if a person doesn’t conform to the scientific majority, it’s because she forms beliefs on scientific questions in order to achieve social goals (to fit in with people of her kind, to make her social life more comfortable) instead of engaging in an earnest hunt for the truth. Rational persuasion doesn’t work with her. To change her mind, science communicators must become more paternalist. They must adopt methods of persuasion that bypass her awareness—the arts of the marketeer, the ad man. Drawing upon ideas from my recent paper, I want to convince you not to take these articles so seriously.
by Nico Brando and Katarina Pitasse-Fragoso
I know what it’s like to be small in the city…The streets are always busy. It can make your brain feel like there’s too much stuff in it.
Sydney Smith – Small in the City
More than a billion children grow up in cities. This means growing up in densely populated areas with political, and cultural prosperity, but with radical inequalities. While some have access to parks, playgrounds, and child-friendly streets, others are forced to navigate crowded roads, deal with violence, and difficult (sexist, racist, ageist) environments. Children are among the various groups (think, as well, of individuals with disabilities, the elderly, or animals) who suffer from discrimination in their right to make use of public spaces safely. Especially in large urban areas, public spaces can be highly threatening to children of all ages. Smaller children suffer from lack of accessibility, and high risk of busy roads. Older children and youths, even if able of navigating urban areas alone, can have their free movement limited due to status offences, insecurity and violence.
In this short reflection, we wish to introduce some preliminary thoughts on the issues that affect children living in urban spaces. Why are children excluded from equal use of public spaces? Do children have a right to responsive and inclusive urban design?