Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Month: October 2022

Russian refugees? An argument for politicisation not moralization

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.

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Is Ethics Really Good for Business?

ESG investing – Adobe Stock

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 adopt 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).

Defending Science Deniers

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.

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Small in the City: The Exclusion of Children from Public Spaces

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

Don’t look by Cristian Blanxer & Victor Garcia Delgado

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?

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The diversity of values in virtual reality

In this post, Rami Ali (University of Arizona) discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the range of values possible in the virtual world.


AI-generated image generated by Rami Ali’s prompt using OpenAI

Early in The Matrix Cypher confronts Neo with a question: “Why, oh why, didn’t I take that blue pill?” The confrontation is meaningful and significant. The red pill gave them their nonvirtual life outside the matrix. But is that life really more valuable than their blue pill-life inside the matrix? We’re invited to take a side and it’s tempting to do so. But neither choice is right. In The Values of the Virtual I argue that virtual items are not less or more valuable, nor of equal or sui generis value when compared to their nonvirtual counterparts. Or more aptly, they are all of these, depending on the virtual instance we have in mind. Taking sides short-changes the diversity of the virtual world and everything populating it, leaving us with less nuance than we need to understand and govern our virtual lives.

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A Social Ethics of Belief: Two Lessons from W. K. Clifford

Photo Credit of Sinking Boat to Pok Rie

The nineteenth century British philosopher, W. K. Clifford, is one of a small handful of individuals who titled an essay so effectively that it became the name of an entire philosophical literature: the ethics of belief.

It has been (correctly) observed that “Clifford’s essay is chiefly remembered for two things: a story and a principle.”

The story is that of the negligent shipowner who, by wishful thinking, convinces himself that an unsafe ship is seaworthy, and who thereby sends his passengers to their death when the ship sinks.

The principle is that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As a result, Clifford is often viewed one-dimensionally as an (unreasonable) evidentialist, most interested in defending a stringent epistemic position. I think this is unfortunate.

It is unfortunate because such a view of Clifford overlooks what are probably the most relevant aspects of his essay for a “misinformation age” like ours.

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