Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Journal of Applied Philosophy (Page 2 of 3)

Causal Contribution in War

In this post, Helen Beebee & Alex Kaiserman discuss their recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how a probabilistic account of causation speaks to civilian immunity in war.


According to orthodox just war theory, combatants in armed conflicts don’t have rights against being intentionally killed. But this position has come under sustained attack from moral theorists in recent years. What grounds permissible killing in war, many argue, is just what grounds permissible killing in ordinary life.

It’s not OK to kill someone out of revenge, or even because they just stole your expensive laptop and that’s the only way to retrieve it; but it is OK to kill them if they pose an immediate and unjustified threat to the life of you or your neighbour or a stranger, and killing them is the only way of averting that threat. Similarly for combatants: the right to life is universal, so if a combatant lacks such a right, it’s not in virtue of being a combatant, but rather in virtue of having forfeited her right by wrongfully contributing to an unjustified lethal threat to another person, thereby rendering her liable to be killed in self- or other-defence.

One consequence of this approach is that not all combatants are equal. If the armed forces of Aggressorland unjustifiably threaten the citizens of Victimland, they may forfeit their rights not to be killed by the armed forces of Victimland. But in threatening to respond in this way, the armed forces of Victimland do not forfeit their rights against being intentionally killed, because the threat they pose is justified. In some ways, then, this revisionist approach to the ethics of war offers more moral protections to agents in armed conflicts than traditional just war theory.

The focus of our paper, however, is on the consequences of such a view for non-combatants. On the face of it, if combatants shouldn’t be stripped of their rights to life simply in virtue of being combatants, then neither should noncombatants be allowed to keep their rights to life simply in virtue of being non-combatants. The civilians of Aggressorland may have wrongfully contributed in all kinds of ways to the unjustified threat to Victimland: by voting for the war, manufacturing arms, providing food and medical assistance, or writing pro-war articles, for example. The revisionist seems forced to concede that these civilians, as well as the combatants they support, are legitimate targets of defensive attack.

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Causation Doesn’t Come in Degrees

In this post, Carolina Sartorio discusses her recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how degrees of causation can (and cannot) bear on liability to harm.


The recent literature on the ethics of war draws heavily on the concept of causation. Your liability to be attacked during a war, some suggest, depends on the extent of your causal contribution to an unjust threat. Prominent theorists like Jeff McMahan and Cecile Fabre embrace a principle of civilian immunity on this basis: they claim that civilians (unlike soldiers) aren’t liable to attack because their causal contributions to an unjust war are typically very minimal. These ideas rest on an important assumption: that causation comes in degrees. But, is this assumption true? In my article, I argue against it. I claim that the appearance that causation comes in degrees is an illusion that can be explained away.

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Introduction: Symposium on War and Causation

In this post, Helen Frowe and Massimo Renzo introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how accounts of causation bear on ethics in war.


Causation, and differences in types of causal contribution, underpin various issues in the ethics of war and defensive harming. For example, one of the key ideas about defensive harming is that of moral liability to defensive harm. A standard view of liability is that a person forfeits her right not to suffer harm if she is morally responsible for a threat of unjust harm to others. Her specific connection to the threat might matter in several ways – the degree, type, and proximity to causation might all make a difference to her liability. Some writers argue that although civilians causally contribute to threats of unjust harm in war, they do not contribute enough to render themselves liable to (lethal) attack. Others argue that making distinctively military causal contributions, such as providing weapons, makes one a candidate for liability, but contributing food or medical supplies does not. Still others argue that one’s position in the causal chain bears on one’s liability: only those who directly pose threats of unjust harm, or who are sufficiently causally proximate to them, are liable to defensive harm.

However, despite their centrality to some of the most important issues in the ethics of war and self-defence, there has been very little exploration of whether these claims withstand scrutiny from the perspective of our best accounts of causation. To cast some light on this, the Conversations on War project, which is run by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace and the YTL Centre at King’s College, London, set out to explore how philosophers working on the ethics of war can draw on research in other areas of philosophy to improve our accounts of harming in war, and how research on the ethics of war might challenge or illuminate work in those other areas. In this post, we summarise our introduction to a symposium that arose from these conversations that offers a substantial critical analysis of the role of causation in contemporary work on the ethics of war and self-defence, and is an important move towards making work on just war theory and defensive harm less insular.

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Consultation that silences

In this post, Dina Lupin Townsend discusses her recent article co-authored with Leo Townsend in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the silencing of indigenous communities in consultation processes.


Ten years ago, I was working as an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, an NGO and environmental law clinic in South Africa. My work involved representing impoverished rural communities whose land and livelihoods were threatened by mining activities. With almost no resources, these communities were battling some of the most powerful multinational companies in the world.

Despite this inequality of resources, these communities should have been able to hold mining companies to account under South Africa’s rights-based legal system. The law requires that any development includes those affected within decision-making processes. Communities have a collective right to participation in these processes, and mining companies are obligated to consult with them before undertaking any activities.

On the face of it, the right to consultation should ensure that communities are kept informed and given a say in the decision-making process. In practice, however, consultation with affected communities is often little more than a box-ticking exercise. The clients I represented frequently complained of being unheard and marginalised by the very processes that were meant to empower their voices.

The experience of South African communities is far from unique in this regard. Faced with similar circumstances, Indigenous and rural peoples across the world have demanded that they be consulted and given opportunities to have their say about industrial activities on their land. But while states and companies are increasingly recognizing that they must consult affected communities, the consultation processes that they undertake often fail to give these communities a real say. Indeed, as Leo Townsend and I argue in a recent paper, there are consultation practices that routinely prevent communities from having their say and thereby silence their voices.

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Unlocking care in prisons

In this post, Helen Brown Coverdale discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on care in prisons.


Lawyers, criminologists and campaign groups increasingly call out the injustices of prison conditions. They are right to do so – we cannot and should not ignore brutalisation permitted and perpetrated by the state. But there’s more to prison life than violence. Although it may surprise you, care is present in prisons. In my article ‘Caring and the Prison in Philosophy, Policy and Practice: Under Lock and Key’, I argue that the ethics of care can enhance how we think about punishment. Care ethics can recognise and value caring in prisons, recognise and condemn both violence and inadequate caring, and help us improve criminal punishment by its own lights.

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Structural change, individual change, and four-story walkups

In this post, Alex Madva discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the importance of an empirically-grounded approach to analysis and remediation of social injustice.


Should we “focus on structuring the social context, rather than changing the beliefs or values of individuals?”

No: Debates about the priority of social-structural versus individual change are confused, or so I never tire of arguing (see, e.g., these papers, and other contributions to this issue). The important questions are which kinds of individual and structural changes to pursue, and how best to think about individuals and structures in tandem. Which changes in individuals are most conducive to bringing about large and durable structural reforms? And vice versa? In “Integration, Community, and the Medical Model of Social Injustice,” I call for epistemic humility in these conversations. Before confidently asserting what’s required, we need to spend more time heeding, and producing, rigorous evidence.

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Norms and Bias: Minding A Different Kind of Gap

In this post, Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on bias and social norms.


In our recent article, we argue that contemporary empirical work on norms and norm psychology provides a way to move beyond debates between proponents of individualist and structuralist approaches to understanding human social behavior, and to addressing oppression and injustice. We show how this empirical work fits into recent debates about implicit biases, and conclude how integrating norms and norm psychology into this conversation shows that theorists need not, indeed should not, choose between either the individualist or structuralist camp. We’ll briefly spell out the main elements of our argument below.

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Explaining Injustice: A Symposium on Bias in Context

In this post, Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of biases in oppression and injustice.


For over a century, activists and theorists have decried the role of prejudice and stereotyping in creating—and sustaining—group oppression. In an 1892 editorial, Ida B. Wells argued that white lynch mobs and their defenders seemed to believe that all black folks were “criminal, ignorant, and bestial.” In liberation movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, feminists and anti-colonial theorists likewise critiqued stereotyping and prejudice as part of their push for social equality and political self-determination. “My true wish,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.” “Shaking off the dust” requires, in part, freeing one’s heart and mind from biases.

But how easy is it to do this, and how significant are these personal, psychological transformations to ending injustices? In the 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists increasingly began to argue that social biases had gone “underground” in our psychologies, and were therefore both widespread and particularly difficult to root out. They referred to these biases as “implicit.” Implicit bias was posited as an important cause of discrimination and exclusion, capable of explaining why social inequality could persist in the absence of ill will and explicit prejudice. Yet many objections exist to explaining injustice via prejudicial attitudes and implicit bias in particular. Some worry that attention to the role of psychological factors obscures the real causes of injustice, which are structural in nature. Others argue that implicit bias theorists downplay the existence of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 21st century. Yet others contend that the scientific quality of the research is questionable and not sufficiently predictive of real-world behaviour.

In 2016 and 2017, we—along with Alex Madva—hosted a series of four workshops to scrutinize these critiques, and explore how one might understand the role of psychology in group oppression. This post provides a brief snapshot into the conference series, as well as the symposium that emerged out of it. We outline some of the symposium’s main themes and connect these with the three articles featured in it, as we do in our introduction to the symposium.

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How should the NHS respond to professional errors?

In this post, Ben Davies & Joshua Parker discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the appropriate culture to develop around mistakes in professional medicine.


Consider the following case, hypothetical but not uncommon. Hamza, a junior doctor working in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is working a night shift when he mis-prescribes a large dose of morphine to a patient who doesn’t need it. Fortunately, this error is caught by another member of his team, but at worst it could have killed the patient. Hamza was tired, stressed, and relatively inexperienced, but at his stage of training should have known to double check the dose. How should Hamza’s colleagues, and NHS institutions, respond to his serious mistake?

There has been a shift in the NHS in recent years to the idea that in responding to medical errors, institutions should adopt a ‘no blame’ culture. In our recent paper, we take a critical look at this idea, arguing that the no blame approach may throw the baby of responsibility out with the bathwater of blame.

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Non-human Primates in the Laboratory are Poor Models for Human Behavior

In this post, Parker Crutchfield discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the injustice of laboratory research on non-human primates.


A human’s experiences and environmental exposure influence how they behave. If we want to know how humans are generally disposed to behave, we must account for this influence. As I argue in a recent article, this influence undermines the justification of using non-human primates as models of human behavior. We gain no useful knowledge from studying the behavior of non-human primates in laboratory settings. Since we gain no useful knowledge, their use as research subjects is unjust.

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