In this post, Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the obligation to combat structural injustice through conceptual change.

Suppose you’re at home watching the latest documentary on factory farming. You witness the horrific treatment of chickens being debeaked, the tails of pigs cut clean without pain relief, and the horns of cows seared off with a hot iron. Feeling this moral atrocity with intense anger and sadness, you wonder: What obligations do we have to combat this injustice?

Of course, there are many answers to this. Perhaps our obligations to combat the oppression of non-human animals requires directing our attention to bringing about substantive changes to material conditions – a shift in concrete social phenomena, such as the introduction of more plant-based foods or synthetic meats, that will expand our choice-sets and, hopefully, motivate us to eat better.

Yet, it is plausible that this material reconditioning will be pointless without a shift in consciousness. We don’t just need to stop eating meat. We need to change our understanding of the sorts of things that count as ‘food’. In a recent article, I argue that an important obligation that we bear in combating structural injustice concerns revising the concepts that are the basis for oppressive behavior. To see this, let’s explore the role of concepts in the construction of social reality.

 Concepts, understood in one sense, are psychological information structures that mediate between experience and reality. Part of their role is to enable agents to make sense of the world around them, which serves as the basis for behavioral dispositions. For example, we use the concept food to interpret aspects of the world, such as broccoli and cows, as a resource for eating. When members of a community repeat behavioral dispositions over time, this forms a social practice – such as practices within a community of eating broccoli or cows. Finally, social practices weave together to form a complex social structure. Thus, what we can see is that concepts are constitutive of social structure. They lay the groundwork for social interaction, shaping the way we organize and coordinate our behavior in response to the world, and those we share the world with.

Notice that we could have interpreted other things as ‘food’ – dogs are our friends, but in a not-so-distant world, they wouldn’t be so lucky. This contingency opens the door to reconsidering how we might approach the question of which obligations we have to combat structural injustice: If concepts play such a substantive role in the creation of oppressive social practices, shouldn’t we change them? Broadly speaking, this question falls under the purview of a field of philosophy called conceptual engineering.

Conceptual engineers, tasked with thinking about injustice, assess the concepts that affect the character and direction of our lives, and make a determination as to whether such concepts must be removed, revised, or replaced. A famous example is Sally Haslanger’s (2000) ameliorative definition of woman, which embeds unjust hierarchy in its definition so that we will be well aware of gendered oppression in our thinking and speaking practices. Another example is Kate Manne’s (2018) proposed definition of misogyny, the aim of which is to understand misogyny as a structural phenomenon about gendered policing mechanisms, rather than the attitude of bad eggs.

One issue with conceptual engineering as a solution to structural injustice is that it is no easy task. Gaining understanding of the world is possible only through the use of concepts that we share with others in a social and representational milieu. Herein lies the problem: Engineering concepts is not something that is available to any individual alone. One might decide to stop using certain concepts, such as refraining from calling the flesh of dead pigs ‘pork’, but nevertheless this won’t have much of an ameliorative impact oppressive social facts. Thus, if there is an obligation to engineer the concepts that undergird oppressive social practices, it will fall on groups.

Which groups? Those who are privileged in direct relation to a subordinated group. In the fight against non-human animal oppression, this will be humanity. However, a problem with this is that humanity is not a structured entity with decision-making procedures that would, at least in part, render it a collective agent. Because of this, it seems that humanity isn’t able to perform intentional action. And, an entity bears an obligation only over those actions that they can perform – ought implies can, after all.

Following Bill Wringe (2010), we can say that non-structured groups do have the ability to meet the demands of an obligation, even if they fall short of agency. This is because when a non-structured group bears an obligation, the individuals who make up that group acquire certain obligations, the fulfilment of which entails that the group-level obligation has been met.

Let’s consider this in the context of those who are concerned with non-human animal oppression. Humanity has the obligation to engineer the concepts responsible for undergirding oppressive social practices – such as eating meat. Which concepts? At the very least, the concept food. What individual-level obligations would contribute to achieving this group-level obligation? This deserves more research. As an abstract answer, we each need to take steps toward shifting our own understanding of the things that counts as ‘food’ – this might include reading the work of animal ethicists, watching confronting documentaries, refusing to eat meat, educating others, etc. And, since changes to material conditions can drive conceptual change in the right direction, we might also be required to encourage restaurants to serve plant-based meals, or solely buy food from vegan companies, etc.

This discussion extends beyond the obligations we have to combat the oppression of non-human animals. Concepts affect every aspect of our lives. Thus, the obligation to engineer concepts in order to resolve unjust social relations applies to other forms of structural injustice, such as the oppression of women, trans* people, racial minorities, people with disabilities, etc. The goal moving forward is to discern which concepts we need to engineer in order to achieve social justice, and what individuals, as part of a group, can do to help bring about such change.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.