Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Journal of Applied Philosophy (Page 1 of 5)

Dementia, Truthfulness, and Respecting Agency

In this post, Jeanette Kennett and Steve Matthews discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on respecting agency in dementia care.


Years before entering the nursing home Mr Q had been a janitor at a boarding school. With the progression of dementia, he came to perceive the nursing home – with its distinctly institutional décor – as his old place of work. And so, throughout the day he would act out his janitorial role, with its many tasks of checking windows and doors, and making sure that all was running smoothly. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, writing about the case, noted that ‘the Sisters [who ran the home]…though perceiving his confusion and delusion, respected and even reinforced [his] identity. They assisted him [by] giving him keys to certain closets and encouraging him to lock up at night before he retired.’ Did the sisters do the right thing? Perhaps they should have been more truthful by reminding Mr Q that in fact he was a declining patient with dementia. Sacks thought otherwise. Occupying his role helped Mr Q to make sense of his surroundings. In fulfilling this role, says Sacks, ‘[Mr Q] seemed to be organized and held together in a remarkable way…’

The case of Mr. Q raises a thorny problem for caregivers: should truthfulness give way when people with dementia form false beliefs about their circumstances? This moral dilemma is usually presented as a choice between acting on a principle of respect for persons – which requires truthfulness – versus acting out of a concern for their welfare – which might require going along with a false belief. In our recent article, however, we argue that the debate should be framed in a different way. It seems to us, that in going along with Mr Q, the Sisters were scaffolding and protecting his sense of identity, something that thereby respected his agency. This of course had the added effect of attending to Mr Q’s welfare. We argue that when we support a person’s agency in these ways their welfare needs are simultaneously addressed.

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A Puzzle about Disability and Old Age

In this post, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the connections between disability-related disadvantages and old-age-related disadvantages.


Many think that being disabled and being old are worse for a person than being able-bodied and being young respectively. However, many think differently about these two disadvantages. Specifically, they think that while the disadvantages of disabled people are (largely) due to ableism, the disadvantages of old age are not due to ageism, but simply reflects a regrettable, unavoidable fact of life. In a recent article, I argue that this view is untenable. More generally, I suggest in the light of how our thinking of one of these forms of disadvantages constrains our thinking about the other that much of the previous debate about the badness of disability and old is misdirected.

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We have a duty to pay for kidneys

In this post, Aksel Sterri discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethics of a government-monopsony market in kidneys.


Two million people suffer from kidney failure worldwide. They either die or live difficult lives on dialysis while waiting for kidneys to become available for transplant, from dead or living donors. Our failure to meet the need for kidney transplants is a moral failure that calls for a change in how we procure kidneys. In a recent paper, I argue members of nation states have a collective duty to pay kidney donors to ensure that people in need receive a new kidney.

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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 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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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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Can Someone Be Too Rich?

In this post, Dick Timmer discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on why we should limit people’s wealth.


How we think about wealth has a profound impact on the world in which we live. Some years ago, philosopher Ingrid Robeyns proposed a new perspective on wealth, which she dubbed limitarianism. Robeyns argues that once people can live a fully flourishing life, additional wealth lacks moral value for the holder because it does not contribute their flourishing. And because such wealth threatens political equality, leaves many people’s urgent needs unmet, and could be used to address the current climate crisis, such wealth should be redistributed.

In my paper, I defend a version of this view. I argue that there are good political and ethical reasons to prevent people from having more than a certain amount of wealth. Above some point, wealth has little if any value for the holder, yet it could have huge value if redistributed.

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The precarious role of social norms in journalism

In this post, Lisa Herzog discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of shared norms in journalism.


Imagine that you’re competing fiercely with someone – but there are no legal rules to keep the competition fair! All that you and the other competitors can hope for is that all of you will stick to certain norms of fairness. This hardly sounds like a comfortable situation. Yet, it is, arguably, the situation news outlets currently find themselves in. Such concerns motivate my recent paper, where I argue that we need to consider the role of competition for journalism ethics, not least because this helps understand the precarious role of social norms in journalism.

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How Much Does Slaughter Harm Humanely Raised Animals?

In this post, Coleman Solis discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the harmfulness of death in humane farming.


The way that we think about death can have a profound impact on our answers to the moral questions we encounter in ordinary life. Take the case of humane meat farming. Those of us who feel repulsed by contemporary animal-rearing as practiced in grotesque “factory” farms have a few options. We can transition to vegan diets – which are becoming more popular and feasible by the day – or we can choose to source our meat and animal products from humane farms, from animals in decent-to-very-good living conditions. At first glance, humane animal products strike many of us as ethically sound – we picture an idyllic pasture with cows and chickens roaming free, a far cry from your typical factory farm. But, as vegans will point out, meat farming, humane or not, involves the slaughter of sentient creatures. Can humane meat, then, possibly constitute an ethically acceptable alternative?

Our answer to this question will turn on a great many factors – the environmental impact of humane meat, the ethicality of imposing human control on animals, the possibility of animal rights, and so on – most of which I will not discuss here. Rather, I intend to focus in on one particular aspect of this ethical debate. In recent years, some critics of humane animal farming have argued that death itself constitutes a harm to farm animals. Assuming that we are opposed to harming animals (otherwise, why oppose factory farms?), humane farming cannot then be ethical. This position has power, both emotionally and philosophically. In my recent article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, however, I argue that typical humanely raised animals are not, in fact, harmed much by their deaths. This finding may vindicate humane meat farming – or it may give us reason to change the way we think about death.

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