Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: November 2020

The case for an independent environmental agency

In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.

Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.

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Selling Weapons to Oppressive Regimes: Does it Make a Difference?

In this post, James Christensen discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how selling weapons to oppressive regimes harms their victims.


Liberal states often promote arms sales to oppressive regimes. Though these sales are controversial, politicians and other public figures often seek to defend them. According to one line of defence, the sales are inconsequential; they make no morally relevant difference to the harms that oppressive regimes can inflict. This is said to be because these regimes would inevitably acquire weapons from somewhere. In defence of an appearance he once made at a Dubai arms fair, it has been alleged that Prince Charles once argued: “if the UK doesn’t sell [arms] someone else will.” A similar argument was made more recently by former British foreign secretary Philip Hammond. We can refer to this line of defence as the inconsequence argument. In a new article, I offer a reply to this argument.

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The COVID-19 crisis: a vulnerability perspective

The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?

The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.

Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis. 

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A Symposium on The Ethics of Indirect Intervention

In this post, Helen Frowe and Ben Matheson introduce a symposium they recently edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethical issues that arise in indirect interventions.


Recent years have seen a marked shift in political responses to humanitarian crises abroad. In the aftermath of disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments are increasingly reluctant to engage in direct foreign intervention – that is, to put ‘boots on the ground’ in overseas conflicts to try to protect foreign citizens from harm. Several countries are, instead, increasingly advocating and employing indirect forms of intervention, such as overtly funding, arming, or training foreign rebel groups. France, Turkey, the UK and the US have armed and trained rebels in Syria, for example.

We might think that indirect intervention avoids the moral perils that arise in cases of direct intervention. But, to the contrary, indirectly contributing to war raises a host of moral concerns, as a growing body of literature in the ethics of war attests. And, of course, not all indirect contributions to foreign conflicts fall under the description of aiding foreign citizens. On the contrary: governments sell, or facilitate the selling of, weapons and equipment to authoritarian states that use those weapons to harm their citizens. Just as we ought to be concerned about vaunted attempts to influence foreign conflicts by supporting rebels, we ought to be concerned about third parties’ rather less publicised roles in suppressing resistance abroad. In this post, we summarise a symposium exploring some of these issues, presented at a workshop organised by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

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Who should pay the costs of pandemic lockdowns?  

the costs of pandemic lockdowns should be disproportionately covered by a narrower group, consisting of those individuals and businesses who have already acquired vast amounts of economic resources and have substantially prospered as a consequence of the pandemic lockdowns

 

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to play a central role in the lives of many people around the world. While initial governmental responses to the pandemic were often forceful, with lockdowns that lasted for several weeks or even months being widely introduced in March and early April, there seems to be little political appetite for renewed lockdowns of the same scale. Even so, several European countries have once again imposed lockdowns in the past few weeks, following a swift rise in cases starting in late-September.

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How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

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An Ethical Code for Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

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