Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Academia (Page 1 of 7)

An Ethical Code for Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

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Should Academics Also Be Activists?


The debate on the role of academics in a democracy has intensified in recent years with the rise of worrying trends in global politics. The election of Donald Trump in the US, for instance, has escalated racial tensions, worsened treatment of refugees, etc. The President himself has repeatedly expressed support for Neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. The ruling parties in Poland, Hungary and Turkey have consolidated their power and continued imposing rules and espousing rhetoric that are inherently inimical to an inclusive democracy. The question is this: what should academics do when witnessing these events? Should we take an ‘activist’ role, effectively becoming academic-activists? Or should we remain neutral out of respect for objectivity? This post makes a case for the former proposition, advancing the case for academic-activists. But first, let me engage with the latter proposition – the neutral option – and show why the criticism from the ‘neutralists’ misses its target.

Thomas Wells advances what I take to be a standard argument for the ‘neutralist position’. Wells’s concern with academic activism is that it erodes the public trust in the objectivity of academic research. The sphere of activism, according to Wells, is separated from the sphere of academic research. In his words, ‘the virtues of academics are the intellectual ones of curiosity, humility, and honesty’. These are to be contrasted with the activist who lacks these commitments. If the academic’s primary task is to follow the facts wherever they lead, the activist ‘has finished with the journey [of truth finding] and arrived at the final destination’. Wells even cites Marx as a paradigm example of ‘academics make bad activists’, stating that Marx’s interpretation of the capitalist mode of production as neither scientific nor true (although I am sceptical if Marxism can be refuted in the length of one paragraph) and blames Marx for the sufferings of millions of people (which is neither true nor fair).

The first thing to say in response to Wells’s criticism of the academic-activist position is that it is not clear if academic activists lack the commitment to fact-finding and establishing the truth. In fact, many academics become activists because of what their research reveals. The nature of academic research is such that we are often in the position to come across many disturbing facts before the general public is aware of them. The training we receive also enables us to ask difficult questions, the answers to which might not be welcomed by everyone. When academics are in possession of these disturbing facts, it is their duty to promote these facts to the general public.

The second point, related to the first, is that Wells’s definition of activism is unduly narrow. Not every activist lacks the virtues that Wells defines as imperative to be a good academic: curiosity, humility and honesty. Admittedly some academic-activists do lack these qualities. They think that their title as academics means that they are beyond criticisms. They demand people to take their words as the final unflinching truth on the matter and no further debates are needed. In this sense, they have departed from the virtues which Wells correctly lays out as crucial for academics – curiosity, humility and honesty. These academics have become preachers (Jordan Peterson is an example of this type of academics).

But Jordan Peterson does not represent the only type of academic activists. Many, in fact, engage in debates in good faith and back up their claims with clear and concise arguments as opposed to pseudo, selective facts. Angela Davis and Martin Luther King (who did not hold an academic position but whose philosophy deeply influences and defines the race debate in America, To Shape a New World is a great book which documents the political philosophy of King) are examples of academic activists who apply curiosity, humility and honesty to their activism. These values make Davis and King better activists. In Letter From Birmingham Jail which King wrote in response to criticism from a group of white moderates who criticised King for his method, King used analytical skills to succinctly explain the distinction between the obligation to follow just laws and the obligation to disobey unjust laws. King’s position, in his own words, is influenced by the writings of St. Augustine which has defined Western analytic philosophy. A more recent example is found in the writings of feminist philosopher Kate Manne, whose two books Down Girl and Entitled, explain the logic and societal manifestations of misogyny. Manne’s work is philosophically rich, each argument clearly laid out and defended and yet the two books also serve as calls to resist and fight back against the culture of misogyny. In this sense, Manne joins Davis and King in the rank of academic activists.

What should we make of Wells’s worry that academic activists would erode the public trust in the academy? I think this worry is overstated. We live in an unjust world where inequality remains high, especially among Western democracies, the treatment of those less fortunate – refugees, homeless people, benefits claimants – often fails to meet the demand of justice (Professor Philip Alston, the UN special repertoire, for instance, criticises the UK’s treatment of those living in poverty, stating that it has inflicted great misery on the poor). Rawls puts that every citizen has a duty to correct unjust institutions and activism has historically proven as the best method to achieve that goal (the Vote for Women campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.). It is, therefore, true to put that academics, owing to their special training, have a role to play in establishing the facts. But once the evidence has been gathered and the facts established in accordance with the best available evidence and information one can have (the question of epistemic justification is a different one and deserves a post of its own), it is indeed everyone’s duty to change the unjust social, political and economic arrangements through activism.

“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.

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From the Vault: Beyond the Ivory Tower Series

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the most memorable posts from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the successful launch of our Beyond the Ivory Tower interview series.

 

The Beyond the Ivory Tower series seeks to explore the relationship between academic political theory and ‘real politics’, by talking with figures who have – in the course of their careers – managed to bridge that divide. As stated in our introductory post, “their stories are interesting in their own right [but additionally they] help us to understand the position of political theory today, and how other political theorists might achieve wider impact.”

The series is comprised of four interviews so far:

Stay tuned for more interviews in this ongoing series in our 2020/21 season!

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

The Case for Ethical Guidelines on Universities’ Corporate Partnerships

In this guest post, members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T) – a student-led, UK-based organisation working to sever the links between higher education, violent technology, and hostile immigration environments – discuss one important arm of their work. 

Photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr, licenced by CC BY-SA 2.0

Migrant communities are endangered by universities’ relationships with businesses like Palantir Technologies, whose software  is “mission critical” to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) mass raids, detentions, and deportations. The harm inflicted by ICE is an integral component of a white nationalist deportation machine, which routinely destroys lives and condemns migrants to deadly concentration camps. Migrant rights organisations describe Palantir as the “most prominent supporter of the deportation machine in Silicon Valley.” The anti-migrant violence Palantir enables would not be possible without the talent it recruits from top UK universities. In exchange for material benefits, universities invite Palantir representatives to deliver talks,  present at career fairs, and sponsor student prizes. Several groups have cut ties with Palantir, citing the company’s facilitation of anti-migrant violence; yet, despite claiming to be committed to social responsibility, many universities remain open to Palantir.

As members of No Tech For Tyrants (NT4T), a student-led migrant justice organisation, we met with university administrators to request that they implement ethical guidelines in regards to their corporate partnerships. Administrators responded with two kinds of objections: ethical guidelines would (1) threaten free expression, and (2) be too political. We’ll explicate and reject both kinds of objection. Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is necessary for dismantling the relationship between universities and technology businesses that facilitate egregious harm.

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Should Economics be Pluralist?

Following the 2008 financial crisis, many economists, as well as many commentators and journalists, have blamed economics for its failure to explain the causes and foresee the consequences of the financial breakdown. Their core target was the dogmatic acceptance by most economists of a single theoretical framework: neo-classical economics. In (very) short, neo-classical economics is a set of theories according to which all social phenomena can be explained by appealing to the optimizing behavior of rational individuals. It also involves a heavy dose of mathematical formalization and statistical methods. In reaction to the crisis, an increasing number of students and academics started to argue for pluralism in economics, or the view that there are several possible legitimate ways of doing economics, beyond neo-classical economics. In response, some economists contended that neo-classical economics was already sufficiently pluralist. They argued that what we usually call neo-classical economics is actually made of a myriad of different (and sometimes conflicting) theories, such as game theory, public choice theory, industrial organization, social choice theory, labor economics, behavioral economics, etc.

This debate raises numerous questions. What (if anything) justifies pluralism in economics? And do we have enough of it, or do we need more? Where does pluralism stop? What does pluralism entail for individual economists? Should every economist be a pluralist? I cannot answer all these questions here. I shall only propose an answer to the first one.

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What are the values of the left?

This a guest post by Marius Ostrowski (Examination Fellow in Politics at All Souls College, University of Oxford). He is the author of the recently published book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance.

‘Being on the left’ can mean a variety of different things. Most commonly, it refers in a partisan sense to support for ‘progressive’ policies designed to bring about political, economic, or social equality. More generally, it is seen as synonymous with radicalism of opinion, and a greater willingness to reform rather than preserve the status quo. In a religious context especially, ‘the left’ is used to describe anti-dogmatic or anti-orthodox tendencies in favour of departing from inherited customs or scriptural interpretations. Sometimes it is identified with activism or protest in defence of specific groups in society: the working class, women, people of colour, national/religious minorities, LGBTQ*, or the disabled. Not all of these meanings of ‘leftness’ are compatible with one another. But despite the differences between them, one thing emerges very clearly: ideas such as ‘leftness’ and ‘being on the left’ play a central role in many areas of social life.

Where the concept of ‘leftness’ is not typically so much at home is in social philosophy. This is not to suggest that social philosophers themselves are hostile to the left or uninterested in left causes. Many are card-carrying activists and partisans of the left movement. Rather, the concept itself—like its relatives ‘centre’ and ‘right’—is somewhat alien to social-philosophical analysis. In general, it is rare to hear social philosophy make any explicit mention of ‘ideologies’. We are far more likely to encounter ‘theories’, ‘accounts’, or ‘comprehensive doctrines’, even when applied to what are clearly ideological constructions, such as ‘political liberalism’. Key social-philosophical concepts such as democracy, authority, or rights are dealt with as if in a vacuum, removed from any ideological connotations or parsing they might have. It is as though social philosophy is embarrassed by ideology—with ‘leftness’ only one of several victims of this embarrassment.

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An Interview with Jonathan Wolff (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the third interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (previous interviewees: Onora O’Neill and Marc Stears). Back in December, Diana Popescu spoke to Jonathan Wolff about his experience working on public policy committees and what philosophers have to learn from engaging with real-life problems and social movements. 

Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Before coming to Oxford, he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL. He is currently developing a new research programme on revitalising democracy and civil society. His work largely concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling, and the regulation of recreational drugsHe has been a member of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, the Academy of Medical Science working party on Drug Futures, the Gambling Review Body, the Homicide Review Group, an external member of the Board of Science of the British Medical Association, and a Trustee of GambleAware. He writes a regular column on higher education for The Guardian

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To Strike or Disrupt? (take 2)

In November and December 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) – the trade union that represents many academics and other university staff in the UK – went on strike. On that occasion, in his post To Strike or Disrupt, Liam Shields discussed whether people not doing any teaching during the strike should go on strike or not, seeing that their striking does not result in significant disruption.

At the end of this week, the UCU will embark on a new wave of 14 days of strike spread over four weeks because the dispute remains unsettled. It therefore seems a good occasion to recall Liam’s argument and to flesh out some implications a bit further.

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An Interview with Marc Stears (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

This is the second interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, following Onora O’Neill. Back in November, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Marc Stears about his experiences in politics, focusing on his time as a close adviser to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.

Prof Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. Stears was Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford in 2010 when his university friend Ed Miliband was elected leader of the opposition Labour party. After a secondment to the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears left academia in 2012 to become Chief Speechwriter for Miliband. He was a co-author of the 2015 Labour election manifesto and a member of the party’s general election steering committee. In 2013, the Telegraph ranked him the UK’s eighth most influential left-winger. After Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Stears joined another British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, as Chief Executive, before his move to Australia in 2018.

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