Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Year: 2021 (Page 1 of 3)

A Criminal Law for Semi-Citizens

In this post, Cristián Irarrázaval Zaldívar and Ivó Coca-Vila discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how to legitimate punishment in the context of varying forms of citizenship.


Ask yourself why an English court can legitimately punish an Indonesian who committed an offence in Japan but now lives in the UK, or a Spanish judge can punish a young Senegalese criminal offender who, after months crossing through Africa, enters Spain illegally and subsists in absolute hardship hidden from state authorities. Probably your answer would be something along the lines that punishment is necessary to prevent harm. Indeed, that is how most criminal law scholars respond. However, among contemporary authors, it is increasingly common to assert that the criminal law of a given state should be applicable only to those who, at the time of the commission of the offence, had some kind of political bond with it, namely, to those who belonged to the polity as “citizens”. In our recent article, we explain why the advantages of this approach outweigh the downsides, at least as long as we take seriously the fact that citizenship is not all-or-nothing, but comes in degrees.

The “citizen criminal law” dilemma

The major strength of this “citizen criminal law” approach is that it rightly places the individual who must endure punishment at the centre of the discussion about its legitimacy. “If you are going to send me to prison, explain to me why I have to bear your punishment!” This not only seems to be the correct starting point for any attempt at theoretical justification, but also provides a limiting force to the scope of the criminal law that is lacking in those theories that justify punishment mainly on the rationale of prevention. When it comes to prevention, punishment is never harsh enough! Thus, citizen criminal law highlights the huge problems of legitimacy when punishing people living in social exclusion, foreigners who commit crimes against nationals abroad, minors who are not allowed to vote, or disenfranchised criminal offenders.

However, the idea of a citizen criminal law comes up against a difficult problem to solve. Advocates of this conception usually operate with a binary understanding of citizenship, which apparently allows a clear line to be drawn between full citizens (who can be punished legitimately) and outsiders (against whom the state could not impose a punishment, at most perhaps a coercive preventive measure). The problem with this is that binary classification between insiders and outsiders is implausible. If citizenship as a right-based status is composed of multiple elements (i.e., different types of rights, including civil, political, social, and nationality rights) that a state guarantees to an individual, then most persons in contemporary societies will be neither full insiders, nor complete outsiders, but rather semi-citizens. By semi-citizen we mean someone who enjoys some – but not all – of the rights associated with citizenship. This term obviously applies in the absence of legal citizenship status, as in the case of the permanent resident or the unauthorized immigrant. Yet it also refers to someone whose legal status does not translate into the effective guarantee of important rights (think of the case of a Brazilian national living in a dangerous favela).

Therefore, the binary understanding of citizenship confronts the proponents of citizen criminal law with a dilemma. They can resort to a strict notion of citizenship and accept that a large number of semi-citizens who commit crimes cannot be punished, meaning that a significant proportion of what we understand as criminal law would be illegitimate. Or, more commonly, they can undertake ad hoc adaptations of the notion of citizenship that lead to more acceptable consequences, in that they treat different types of semi-citizens (including unauthorized immigrants or the socially marginalized) as if they were full citizens. Thus, for example, some authors who identify citizenship with the right to vote end up also accepting the legitimacy of punishment with respect to those who cannot vote by affirming that they at least have the right to express themselves politically. But, by reducing the standard of citizenship in this way, the advantages promised by the citizen criminal law vanish, because citizenship status is not truly taken into account when punishing.

Our proposal: proportionality between punishment and the bond of citizenship

In a recent co-authored article, we argue that there is a path to overcome this dilemma. The binary approach to citizenship is unfitting. In fact, the political link between a community and a person is scalar, meaning that there is a continuum of possible political relationships with varying intensities. For the sake of our proposal, as reference points at the extremes of this spectrum, we outline the ideal types of “full-citizen” (strong rights in all elements, i.e. civil, social, etc…) and “minimal semi-citizen” (those who at least enjoy very weak rights of some kind in a community). Now, if we take seriously the idea that the foundation of punishment lies primarily in the political bond between the punishing polity and the punished, then the strength of this bond (necessarily gradient) must be considered in the severity of the punishment. In other words: fewer (lower quality) rights guaranteed = weaker citizenship bond = less punishment when all other relevant variables (e.g., culpability or harm) are held equal. Thus, the full citizen and the minimal semi-citizen should be punished differently for the same offence.

This approach has two important virtues in comparison with the proposals of citizen criminal law referred to above. Firstly, our approach leads to a fairer and more individualised punishment of crimes committed by semi-citizens, insofar as it enables the infliction of a punishment that fits the (semi-)citizenship status, making it possible to distinguish between markedly different statuses, such as national and tourist. Secondly, by legitimising the imposition of punishment against individuals who lack the idealised status of full-citizens, we adopt a variant of citizen criminal law that suits the real world, where semi-citizens are the rule. In short, the semi-citizen criminal law approach can legitimate punishment on those only partially part of the state while circumscribing the severity of the punishment to the degree of their citizenship status.

On our special relationship with future generations

In this post, Charlotte Unruh discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the basis of our duties to future generations.


Do you sometimes picture future generations as strangers in a faraway galaxy? Strangers who we know little about, aside from the fact that our actions can affect their lives?  In a recent paper, I argue that there is a crucial difference between (very) remotely living strangers and future generations. There is a special relationship that obtains between present and future people. We bring future generations into existence. I suggest that this gives rise to special responsibilities to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society.

Future generations are not like faraway strangers

One important reason not to think about future generations as strangers from other galaxies concerns our responsibilities towards them. Unlike faraway space travellers, we bring future generations into existence. Bringing future generations into existence puts us in a special relationship with them.

To illustrate, we can look at the paradigm case of a special relationship, the relationship towards our children. Children are vulnerable and helpless without protection. Causal accounts of parenthood say that the primary responsibility for providing this protection lies with those who have caused the child to exist.

Future people are vulnerable too. If we destroy the environment, then future people will not be able to enjoy it. I think that the primary responsibility for future generations plausibly lies with those who bring them into existence. We will put future people into this world. This requires us to ensure that future people have a decent standard of living. This requirement arises from our special relationship with future people, and does not arise for space travellers from faraway galaxies.

It is our responsibility to set the right path for the future

Thinking about our relationship to future generations in this way has interesting implications. It means that our ancestors had special duties towards us, and all generations have special duties towards those who come next. Ideally, then, generations share the responsibility for far future people, such that the burden on each individual generation to ensure a decent future is small.

Problems arise when there is urgent need to act. For example, I worry that digital technologies such as surveillance technologies have the potential to undermine elements of our democracy. We need to steer the development and regulation of digital technologies in the right direction, to ensure that these technologies increase the well-being of citizens and strengthen, rather than compromise, democracy and human rights. Failure to set us on the right path might risk a lock-in into an undesirable future, such as a dystopia fuelled by technology-enabled surveillance. Here, we cannot wait for future generations to do their part. The burden is largely on us.

We need to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society

My argument supports reforms that aim to incorporate long-term thinking in politics, business, and society. Some recent proposals in this direction have been to create political institutions for the future and (re-)examine the purpose of business. I think it is important that such reforms are inclusive, comprehensive, and balanced.

An inclusive dialogue is important, since we share the responsibility for the future of our society. We should debate different visions of the future and potential reforms. Moreover, our outlook on the future must be comprehensive. It cannot focus only on environmental issues, for example. Our financial debts, our political institutions, and our cultural and social norms will influence the generations yet to come. If we look at only one policy area, there is a risk that side effects and trade-offs become invisible. For example, tracking technology was introduced to help contain COVID-19, but it also poses a threat to privacy. Finally, we also need to respect the interests of present people and the next generations. We need to be especially aware of the effects of future-directed reforms on the poor and disadvantaged, as well as consider carefully how to distribute the burden of reforms.

In sum, future generations are not like strangers. We cannot escape the responsibility that comes with bringing future generations into existence and shaping the lives of future people. Acknowledging the special relationship to our descendants requires us to debate different views on the long-term future, and to ensure that our current practices and policies do not run counter to these views.

What Epistemic Profiles Should We (Not) Foster?

It is often said that the main task of teachers is to foster learning. But what kind of learning? What knowledge can we hope to attain through such learning? And what kinds of people should children aspire to become in the process? We imagine that fostering learning in the right way would ensure not only that adults lead flourishing lives, but that they can help others in acquiring knowledge. As epistemologists show, some intellectual virtues are other-regarding, meaning that individuals can and should affect others in their knowledge acquisition and intellectual flourishing; such is, for instance, the drive to discover socially relevant findings, or honesty and integrity in communicating information (Turri and Alfano, 2017).

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More equal compared to what? How central banks are fudging the issue on inequality

Since the financial crisis of 2007, central banks have become the central tool of macroeconomic management, being described as the “only game in town.” To avert financial meltdown and, subsequently, to stimulate the economy, they have launched unconventional monetary policies such as quantitative easing (QE). The latter injects huge amounts of liquidity into the economy through large-scale purchases of financial assets by central banks. Central banks have doubled down on QE in reaction to the Covid-crisis.

QE has unintended side-effects. By pushing up the prices of the financial assets purchased, it favours already well-to-do asset holders. Given these consequences, central banks found themselves in the spotlight and pressured to justify their policies.

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Is the criminal law the best tool to fight discrimination and hate-based violence?

In the past few months, a central topic of discussion in Italian public debate has been the Ddl Zan, a proposed bill to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The bill does not create any new crimes but extends to these categories existing criminal legislation that currently covers discrimination and violence on the grounds of racial, ethnic and religious reasons as well as incitement to commit such acts. Such acts of discrimination and violence and their incitement can either be punished with a fine or a prison sentence to up to 4 years or, in case these actions already constitute a more serious crime, the penalty can be increased to up to double. The Ddl Zan also includes measures to support victims as well as broader initiatives to fight discrimination and inequalities, including the creation of a National Day against homophobia. Unsurprisingly, the bill has been the object of a heated debate. The LGBTQ+ movement and the majority of the feminist movement as well as other progressive forces are fighting for its approval, while conservatives argue that the bill endangers freedom of speech and imposes a supposedly divisive worldview. Setting this aside, I want to address another issue in connection to this bill, namely that of whether the criminal law should be regarded as the right instrument to fight discrimination and this kind of violence.

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Should we revive the ancient practice of ostracism?

A well-known aphorism by George Santayana says that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Less well-known, though, is the sentence used to preface this aphorism, namely that “when experience is not retained […] infancy is perpetual”. While the former is often used to highlight the importance of learning from past mistakes, the latter underlines the importance of learning from the beneficial (albeit defunct) practices of the past. But can historical practices inform contemporary political philosophy? Anthoula Malkopoulou’s insightful analysis of the Athenian institution of ostracism suggests a positive response. On her view, we should understand ostracism as a mechanism of democratic self-defence, which could plausibly be revived in a modern version. In the following lines I will further explore this suggestion.

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What do co-parents owe each other?

In this post, Daniela Cutas and Sabine Hohl discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on duties of co-parenting.


One of the authors of this post remembers her mother telling her, many years ago, that people spend too much time fretting about who to marry and not enough about who they want to co-parent with, since it is that relationship which lasts for life. And we could not agree with her more. (Spoiler alert: this author’s parents have since divorced. But they are still her parents.) In a new paper, we discuss co-parenting as a moral relationship in its own right, and we explore the duties that it generates between co-parents.

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What’s the problem with killer robots? Some reflections on the NSCAI final report

At the start of March, the US National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI), chaired by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Robert Work, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, issued its 756-page final report. It argues that the US is in danger of losing its technological competitive advantage to China, if it does not massively increase its investment in AI. It claims that

For the first time since World War II, America’s technological predominance—the backbone of its economic and military power—is under threat. China possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change.

At the same time, it highlights the immediate danger posed to US national security by both China’s and Russia’s more enthusiastic use of (and investment in) AI, noting for instance the use of AI and AI-enabled systems in cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

In this post, I want to focus on one particular part of the report – its discussion of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – which already received some alarmed headlines before the report was even published. Whilst one of the biggest  challenges posed by AI from a national security perspective is its “dual use” nature, meaning that many applications have both civilian and military uses, the development of LAWS has over the past decade or so been at the forefront of many people’s worries about the development of AI thanks to the work of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and similar groups.

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It’s so crazy that you called me a psycho: Why are we still using mental illness slurs?

In this post Zsuzsanna Chappell discusses some problematic aspects of mental illness slurs.


“Sweet but Psycho”, an upbeat pop song by Ava Max, topped the charts in 22 countries in 2019. Both the lyrics and the music video reinforce popular stereotypes of the madwoman as manipulative, sexually attractive, dangerous and ultimately violent. At the same time, “crazy golf” (a colloquial UK term for minigolf) is working hard to re-brand itself as “adventure golf”.

copyright Atlantic Records.

Both “psycho” and “crazy” can be used to describe people with mental illness, but the two words have very different connotations in everyday speech. “Psycho” is a negative term used to describe someone dangerous, – it could be applied as an insult to someone driving recklessly, for example, – whereas “crazy” is used much more broadly and often benignly. “Crazy golf” is meant to be fun, not violent.

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Encouraging religious schools to teach good citizens

In this post, Baldwin Wong discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how religious schools could participate in civic education.


Religious schools, such as the parochial schools affiliated with Christian churches, the cheder of Judaism, and the madrasas of Islam, are common in many democratic societies. These schools are usually established by private religious groups. Their environments are filled with religious symbols and celebrations that impact students’ learning experience. The content of education involves religious classics, theology, and the teaching of the virtues  valued in each faith.

Political liberals have long been worried about the partiality of religious schools. They argue that these schools should be carefully regulated. Otherwise, their partial education may create “ethically servile children” who have an ignorant antipathy toward alternative viewpoints. I agree that religious schools should be regulated, but, in my recent article, I further suggest that some of these schools should be encouraged and subsidized because they are crucial in addressing a problem that a government cannot single-handedly resolve—the reconciliation between faith and justice.

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