Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Journal of Applied Philosophy (Page 1 of 6)

How Should We Talk About the Pandemic?

In this post, Mark Bowker (Lund University) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on our responsibility to be careful with scientific generalisations.


In a pandemic it is extremely important for the public to know how they can keep themselves and others safe. This requires effective communication to circulate information about scientific developments. In a recent article, I argue that even the most basic statements can be misleading, so we must think very carefully about the words they use. You may have heard, for example, that children do not transmit coronavirus, but this statement is not as simple as it may seem.

Why Language Matters

‘Children do not transmit coronavirus’ is what we call a generic generalisation, or simply a generic. It is a generalisation that doesn’t include a word like ‘always’ or ‘never’ to make the generalisation precise. ‘Children never transmit coronavirus’ is very precise. It tells you that it is impossible for children to transmit the virus under any circumstances. But the meaning of a generic is not entirely precise. What was does it mean to say simply that children do not transmit the virus? Does it mean that it is impossible for any child to transmit the virus, or does it mean that children don’t generally transmit the virus, though there might be some exceptions? Compare ‘Squares don’t have three sides’, which means that it is impossible for a square to have three sides, and ‘Dogs don’t have two legs’, which means that dogs don’t generally have two legs but allows exceptions like dogs that have been in accidents.

Neither of these interpretations is obviously the best, so different people might interpret the generic in different ways. Some might take it to be very strong, like ‘Squares don’t have three sides’, and others might take it to be weaker, like ‘Dogs don’t have two legs’. This isn’t a problem in itself. For many purposes, it doesn’t matter whether people take the generic to be stronger or weaker. Swiss coronavirus spokesperson Daniel Koch, for example, used the generic when explaining why Switzerland decided to allow grandparents to hug their grandchildren. In this context, perhaps, it doesn’t matter exactly what the generic means. Whether it is impossible for children to transmit coronavirus or it’s only rare, the risk to the population might be acceptable.

Problems arise, however, when generics are taken to answer other questions. Koch’s statement was used to support the global reopening of schools, for example. Afterall, if children don’t transmit the virus, then what is the risk? This reasoning is very natural, but it relies on a strong interpretation of the generic. If it is impossible for children to transmit the virus, then perhaps schools should be reopened. But if it is only rare for children to transmit the virus, then millions of children around the world mingling in schools with friends and teachers might still lead to dangerous spread. As a generic spreads throughout the community, it might be used to answer all kinds of questions, and there is a risk that these answers could be misleading.

What Can We Do?

So what should we do about this problem? One option is for scientists to avoid using generics altogether, but that risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Generics are extremely useful because they are a simple way of expressing complex findings that most of us wouldn’t have any chance of understanding. Rather than eliminating generics entirely, I suggest scientists think more carefully about the generics they use and the questions that people might take them to answer. If Koch wanted to avoid appearing to support the reopening of schools, for example, then he could have said ‘Children with COVID-19 pose a low risk to their grandparents’. This is still generalisation, but it doesn’t have any obvious connection with reopening schools.

Journalists have a role to play as well.  Various outlets reported Koch as having said that ‘Children cannot pass on coronavirus’. This is a very strong interpretation that is far more likely to lead people to strong conclusions. When reporting scientific generalisations, journalists should think about the questions that the scientist intended to answer and exactly how strong the generalisation needs to be to answer them. Like scientists, they should also think carefully about the questions that a generic might be used to answer and to avoid repeating generalisations that might be misleading.

We, the public, can also help. Just like the journalist, we should be careful not to exaggerate scientific generalisations or to repeat generalisations that might be misleading. We are all part of the network through which information spreads, and it is good for everyone if that information spreads efficiently and accurately. If you find yourself using a generic generalisation, you might want to clarify exactly what you mean.

Is it possible to trust Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

In this post, Pepijn Al (University of Western Ontario) discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on trust and responsibility in human relationships with AI and its developers.


Chances are high that you are using AI systems on a daily basis. Maybe you have watched a series that Netflix recommended to you. Or used Google Maps to navigate. Even the Editor I used for this blogpost is AI-powered. If you are like me, you might do this without knowing exactly how these systems work. So, could it be that we have started to trust the AI systems we use? As I argue in a recent article, I think this would be the wrong conclusion to, because trust has a specific function which is absent in human-AI interactions.

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Does hate speech express hate?

In this post, Teresa Marques discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on whether hate is an essential component of hate speech.


Does hate speech express hate? Why would we call it hate speech if not? In my recent paper, I argue that hate speech is speech that is constitutively prejudicial because it is expressive of hatred (and not just because it may have harmful consequences).

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What, if any, harm can a self-driving car do?

In this post, Fiona Woollard discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the kinds of constraints against harm relevant to self-driving cars.


We are preparing for a future when most cars do not need a human driver. You will be able to get into your ‘self-driving car’, tell it where you want to go, and relax as it takes you there without further human input. This will be great! But there are difficult questions about how self-driving cars should behave. One answer is that self-driving cars should do whatever minimises harm. But perhaps harm is not the only thing that matters morally: perhaps it matters whether an agent does harm or merely allows harm, whether harm is strictly intended or a mere side effect, or who is responsible for the situation where someone must be harmed.

I argue in a recent article that these distinctions do matter morally but that care is needed when applying them to self-driving cars. Self-driving cars are very different from human agents. These differences may affect how the distinctions apply.

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Withdrawing and withholding treatment are not always morally equivalent

In this post, Andrew McGee (Queensland University of Technology) and Drew Carter (University of Adelaide) discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the moral difference between withdrawing and withholding medical interventions.


Some health ethics writers and clinical guidelines claim that withdrawing and withholding medical treatment are morally equivalent: if one is permissible or impermissible, so too the other.

Call this view Equivalence. It is heir of a related view that has held sway in ethical and legal debate for decades, in support of the withdrawal of treatment that is no longer beneficial.  The thinking was that if treatment no longer benefits a patient, then whether it is withheld or withdrawn does not matter – so there is no morally relevant difference between the two.

Equivalence goes beyond this. It applies to beneficial treatment, where two patients compete for one resource. The reasoning is: To save as many lives as possible, we would have no qualms about withholding a beneficial treatment from one person to give it to another who can benefit more. We should therefore have no qualms about withdrawing it either. In a recent article, we argue that Equivalence is false.

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Why should we protect the vulnerable?

In this post, Emma Curran & Stephen John discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on duties to prioritise vaccinating the vulnerable.


In the December of 2020, the UK seemed to breathe an, albeit small, sigh of relief as the first COVID-19 vaccinations were administered. After almost nine months of lockdowns, the vaccine roll-out was the first concrete sign that life might return to – at least something like – normality. Indeed, throughout 2020, the promise of a vaccine seemed to be the end to which lockdown pointed. Lockdown was tough but necessary to protect the lives of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, until they could be helped by a vaccine. Unsurprisingly, then, the vaccine roll-out started with the most vulnerable, with a primary focus on age. In this post, however, we explore a  seemingly small alteration to the Government’s vaccine strategy which concerned and confused many. Using this policy, we explore the reasons we have to protect the vulnerable, the complexity of ethical discourse around the distribution of vaccines, and the need for transparent, open debate.

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Why Property-Owning Democracy is Unfree

In this post, Paul Raekstad (University of Amsterdam) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied philosophy on whether Property-Owning Democracy can resolve the unfreedom of capitalism.


Socialists rightly argue that capitalism cannot be free. This is because it’s built on the personal domination of workers by bosses, the structural domination of workers in labour markets, and the impersonal domination of everyone by market forces. The solution to domination is democratisation. But do we really need to replace capitalism with socialism to secure emancipation? Advocates of Property-Owning Democracy argue that we don’t. In a recent article I argue that they are wrong.

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Why we should think twice about persons who struggle to empathize

In this post, Daphne Brandenburg discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on empathy, communication, and responsibility.


In the TV detective series Bron/Broen, one of the main characters, Saga Norén, delivers the bad news to family members after a murder has been discovered. She does so by abruptly announcing the victim’s death, and starting a thorough interrogation without giving the family member any time to gather themselves. She gets impatient when they do not immediately answer, and does not hide her impatience.

Maybe you feel shocked or even angered by this lack of responsiveness. We tend to expect more concern in these types of situations. However, her behavior may (at least partly) be explained by a difficulty to pick up on, and respond to the emotions of others.

These difficulties are commonly described as empathy deficits which should excuse a person from the general expectation to attend to the feelings of others. But, in a recent article I argue we should reconsider our assumptions about why and how these persons are excused.

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Should land be reclassified as a global commons?

In this post, Megan Blomfield discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on treating land as a common good.


In a world confronting climate change, new questions arise about how land ought to be used and shared globally. Land has already become scarce relative to the demands of the global economy. Climate impacts and policies threaten to significantly exacerbate this problem. Some are suggesting that it is therefore time to classify land as a global commons, akin to other vital and endangered global commons such as the atmosphere. In a recent article, I identify reasons to fear that this move would not in fact promote land justice.

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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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