Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Moral values (Page 1 of 6)

Throwing tomato soup at van Gogh

In October, the environmental group Just Stop Oil staged a number of nonviolent direct actions across London. The most visible of these actions was the throwing of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. This action has been highly controversial and has attracted a number of criticisms, both from those who are usually critical of this kind of environmental activism as well as from people who tend to be sympathetic with the cause, and in some cases the methods chosen by these groups, including some who are themselves part of the environmental movement. There were two main kinds of criticism made. First, some felt that the painting was the wrong target for such a protest, often reacting angrily out of fear that that painting had been damaged, which was soon revealed not to be the case. Second, many argued that this kind of action is to be criticised for strategic reasons as it does attract attention, but it mainly alienates people from the cause.

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‘Whataboutism’ about justice

There is a growing tendency to label some argumentative moves commonly performed in public discourse as “whataboutism”. A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term has begun to gain more serious traction in 2017, reaching its peak popularity in June 2020 and March 2022 – likely in the context of debates on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, as Ben Zimmer points out, its roots can be identified much earlier on, first as a charge against defenders of the Provisional IRA’s actions during the Troubles and later as a charge against a particular brand of Soviet-style rhetorical strategy. When whataboutism is pointed at in public speech, it is usually done so as to discredit an objection to an argument not by showing that it fails on its own terms, but rather because it constitutes an illegitimate move aimed at deflecting attention from the topic on which the argument is focused. But is whataboutism, especially when it concerns questions of justice, problematic, or – to the contrary – is the charge of whataboutism largely vacuous?

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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 adpot 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).

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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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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Why it’s Wrong to Spy on Animals

Humans like watching nonhuman animals. We watch them in parks, in zoos, on farms, in sanctuaries, in pet shops, in our gardens, on the streets, in our homes, on tv, and so on. Lately, we have developed increasingly innovative and ingenious ways of watching animals: ways of accessing their intimate lives without them knowing. Take, as an example, the BBC documentary “Spy in the Wild” in which “animatronic spy creatures infiltrate the animal world to explore their complex emotions”. (If you haven’t seen it, here’s a clip.) Or consider the proliferation of wildlife cams, zoo cams, and pet cams that are placed discretely in animals’ homes and give us unlimited access to their daily lives. Last year, a wildlife fan installed a camera within a birdbox to watch a family of blue tits and the footage was viewed 41 million times within a month of being uploaded. In 2017, 1.2 million people tuned in to watch April the giraffe give birth at Animal Adventure Park.

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Virtue Signaling and Moral Discourse

*This is a co-written piece by A.K. Flowerree and Mark Satta.

Photo Credit to Volodymyr Hryshchenk

Recently, there has been philosophical debate about the moral significance of virtue signaling (i.e. using moral language to make oneself look good).

Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke—who prefer the term ‘moral grandstanding’—argue that virtue signaling corrodes moral discourse and impairs moral progress. Others, like Neil Levy and Evan Westra, argue that virtue signaling is not only morally benign but also sometimes morally beneficial.

Still, as Levy notes, accusations of virtue signaling are “typically understood as a serious charge.” Implicit in Levy’s comment is the observation that virtue signaling is something that people accuse others of doing. This is the fact that interests us here. We suspect that judging others as virtue signalers causes more harm than virtue signaling itself. And we think this is epistemically and ethically significant.

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How to better care for each other

The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically reminded us of our shared vulnerability and our need of care, and as a result, calls for care have been widespread since the pandemic began. Some of these calls to care, as well as celebrations of essential care workers, have appeared disingenuous when coming from governments and parties with a long history of carelessness. It is precisely this carelessness, which ranges from cuts to public health services to a general lack of concern for the fate of the most vulnerable in society, that has been deemed responsible for many of the difficulties and the failures in facing Covid-19. Many calls to care have been motivated precisely by this critique as well as the idea that care should be central in our societies. How, then, should we conceive of a caring society? In what follows, I address this issue by reflecting on the ambivalence of care and the idea of communities of care.

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