Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Public Philosophy (Page 1 of 2)

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.

Welcome back: Launching our 2021-21 season!

With the 2020-21 year upon us, Justice Everywhere returns this week for a new season!

This last year has been the most successful on the blog to date. As our “From the Vault” posts over recent weeks have highlighted, we launched some excellent new ventures last year – our Beyond the Ivory Tower Series, our special focus on Philosophy during Coronavirus, and our ongoing collaboration with Journal of Applied Philosophy. We also have a superb team of house authors, and have been lucky to receive lots of great guest posts – altogether contributing analysis of a vast array of issues in moral and political philosophy, as well social policy and political economy.

We welcome back all of these features – and more! – for the 2020-21 season. Justice Everywhere will continue in its aim to provide a public forum for the exchange of ideas regarding what morality asks of us, and to emphasise that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

So please follow us, read and share the posts on social media, and feel free to comment on posts (using the comment box at the bottom of each post). 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.

We very much look forward to this new season and to discussions about the array ethical issues that face the world in 2020, and we hope you do too!

From the Vault: Coronavirus

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on contributions relating to the COVID-19 crisis and its social and political fallout.

 

The coronavirus crisis has raised countless ethical and political questions, and in many cases further exposed injustices in society. The cooperative of authors at Justice Everywhere have been engaged in assessing many of these questions in recent months.

  • Our “Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis” collects succinct responses on 9 pressing questions concerning: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.

Other independent posts addressed a wide range of issues, including:

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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.

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.

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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Attaching strings now is key to shaping post-Covid-19 future

Let’s make the post-pandemic world socially and environmentally more sustainable – a better place.

This sentiment is common these days among both politicians and academics. At the same time, many crisis management decisions by governments, central banks, and other public institutions make an appeal to the idea that “there is no alternative” (TINA) when it comes to the policies we use in the immediate term to prop up the economic and financial system.

The disconnect between the laudable long-term intentions for change and what are perceived as short-term constraints is not just disconcerting, it is also potentially harmful. It ignores important lessons from recent crises, notably the 2008 financial crisis: short-term crisis management decisions can have significant, sometimes unintended, side-effects that undermine fundamental social policy goals.

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Electoral Justice in Pandemic Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped numerous aspects of our lives during the past few months. Even though it is less immediately felt in our daily routine, one of the most consequential by-products of the pandemic is its impact on the political life of our communities. Elections, in particular, have been heavily affected throughout the world, with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reporting postponments of elections in 51 countries, as of the 27th of April 2020. In other cases, elections have been held in the traditional fashion, sometimes under heavy criticism and resulting in a severely depressed turnout. All of this prompts the question of what is the appropriate governmental response in respect to holding elections during pandemic times? Should we continue to go about our electoral business as usual? Or should we postpone elections until the outbreak is over? Or should we still hold elections, but under alternative mechanisms, such as postal voting or e-voting?

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An interview with Rebecca Lowe (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the fourth interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (following Onora O’Neill, Marc Stears and Jonathan Wolff). In February, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Rebecca Lowe about her efforts to increase the level of philosophical discussion on the political right.

Rebecca Lowe was founding director of FREER, a think tank dedicated to promoting social and economic liberalism. She was the Conservative party candidate for the City of Durham in the 2015 general election, and for several years wrote a regular column for the ConservativeHome website, where she was an assistant editor. She is currently working as research director at an investment company, while studying for a PhD at King’s College London, researching Lockean justifications of private property.

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Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis

The outbreak of COVID-19 has raised several ethical and political questions. In this special edition, Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker have collected brief thoughts from Justice Everywhere authors on 9 pressing questions.

Topics include: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.   

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Emergency Ethics for a World Broken by Coronavirus

The title might seem melodramatic even though we are all on the edge right now. Humanity has survived many epidemics, two world wars, natural and technical disasters such as tsunamis or reactors exploding. The costs have been high though, and ethics has often shied away from providing answers for these tough times. In this post, I will argue that philosophers must be prepared to undertake a form of non-ideal emergency ethics to be able to help with the pressing moral questions, for instance in the medical sector.

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