Maggie O’Brien – ‘Easy for You to Say,’

Because it is ‘easy for you to say,’ are you any more or less justified to speak on specific topics? In her thoughtful and well-written paper, ‘Easy for You to Say,’ Edinburgh’s Maggie O’Brien explores this curious issue. She does so first by looking at the case of Zadie Smith, an apparently beautiful and accomplished author, who has recently been criticized for her comments regarding the disparate time spent between her son and daughter preparing their appearance. Her daughter, much to Smiths’ chagrin, had been taking more and more time preparing her appearance. Her son had not. This was for Smith concerning and indicative both of the broader pressure placed on young women to fit a specific beauty standard and the effect this had on her daughter. Smith then purportedly criticized the beauty industry and the effect of make-up on women more broadly.

For her comments, Smith was criticized: ‘Easy for you to say’ or ‘You don’t get to say that’ were the themes of her criticisms. Smith was, after all, beautiful and had no need for makeup to meet conventional beauty standards. Nor could she be aware of the various effects make-up and its industry have on women that do not fir conventional beauty standard. Smith simply couldn’t understand what it’s like to need make up, her criticizer levied; it was ‘easy for her to say,’ so she shouldn’t say it.

Maggie interprets accusations of ‘easy for you to say’ as being possibly concerns of 1) epistemology or 2) standing. On the epistemic account, Maggie explores that levies of ‘easy for you to say’ are directed at the speaker’s capacity to make accurate calculations about what is going on: ‘you’re beautiful, Smith, so you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to rely on make-up.’ Maggie dismisses this account, though, because it is clear that accusations of ‘easy’ are directed not at the content of what is being said, but to the speaker; it is, after all ‘easy for you to say,’ not ‘what you say is wrong.’ This leads Maggie to embrace an interpretation of the ‘easy’ accusation as being directed at standing. Maggie asks: ‘if something is easy for you to say, do you thereby lose the standing to say it?’ and if so, ‘why?’ She then frames the discussion around two accounts of standing: 1) the right or entitlement account wherein a speaker is not entitled to blame for specific reasons and 2) the speech act account wherein a speaker fails to blame in a similar way an officiate fails to marry when declaring ‘I now pronounce you married.’

Maggie then explores four possible ways in which an individual can lose standing: 1) one’s blame would be hypocritical, 2) one is involved in the person’s wrongdoing, 3) one is not warranted in believing that the persons is in fact blameworthy for the wrongdoing, and 4) the person’s wrongdoing is none of one’s business. Maggie tries the Smith case against all of these and concludes that Smith, and indeed anyone of relative privilege, should speak out despite (or perhaps because) they are in the position to do so.


The Discussion

The discussion that ensued coalesced around three topics: 1) the two accounts of ‘standing’ that frame the discussion (entitlement vs. speech act). 2) The relationship between epistemic status and standing as denoted in Maggie’s paper. On this point, some questions were raised: Does epistemic status have any bearing on standing? What account of epistemology is employed? The ‘standpoint’ epistemology? Are there degrees of standing that might be informed by epistemic positionally? Or is it all or nothing? Finally, 3) the relationship between epistemic positionally and the content of speech. Does one’s social position effect the truth-content of her speech?


Kieran Oberman – Border Rescue

Copyright Anika Salsera, iStock by Getty Images

Kieran’s paper raised the pressing concern with the states’ moral responsibility for the deaths of migrants trying to cross borders. In particular, it asked whether the receiving states have a special duty to rescue migrants at borders, a duty that goes beyond the more general reasons to assist people in need. In answering this question, the paper contextualized the issue of border crossing and rescue in terms of the overall migration regime and immigration policies – emphasizing the fact that crossing borders is dangerous because “states deny certain people entry and then use guards and razor wire to keep them out.” It also drew attention to the fact that dangerous migration is mostly forced migration, highlighting the broader structures and processes of political, economic and social injustice and exploitation. Thereby, it blocked arguments by which receiving states might seek to “deflect responsibility for dangerous migration” by blaming migrants themselves. Instead, the paper pursued two lines of argument to explain why states bear moral, and not merely causal responsibility, for dangerous migration. First, states are morally responsible for rescuing migrants if they violate a duty to admit migrants in need. Second, the states’ restrictions on migration should not be understood as “passively allowing the migrants to suffer the consequences,” but more like actively harming.

The subsequent discussion addressed the moral implications of the paper’s argument, among others the question of the continued legitimacy of the state and of legal arrangements that are persistently used to subvert the states’ moral duties. Comments also raised the question of the prioritization of duties, placing the moral duty to assist migrants in relation to states’ duties with regards to climate change and other global challenges. Is the process of attributing moral responsibility a zero-sum game or can different duties be seen as coextensive to each other? In addition, the paper stirred an engaging conversation on the relations between the duty to rescue and the duty to admit, showing it might be difficult to distinguish where the first one ends and the other begins. Finally, what is the significance of viewing the harms of dangerous migration as conditioned by the systemic wrong of the migration regime? In this respect, the discussion about the moral duty of border rescue also raised the need for broader systemic transformation that would address the structures and policies that systematically produce dangerous migration.

By Maša Mrovlje

Mihaela Mihai – The ‘Banal’ Resister’s Silence: Impurity, Complicity, Ambivalence

Copyright Benedikt Buechel

What is the dominant public image of the political hero and why should we challenge this public image? Mihaela Mihai’s paper “The ‘Banal’ Resister’s Silence: Impurity, Complicity, Ambivalence” addresses these questions. In several literatures including history, cultural studies, social psychology and literary studies a political hero is commonly characterized as a solitary figure who voluntarily decides, despite the personal risks involved, to devote his life to helping those in need (p. 4). But this characterization is far from reality. Heroes are not constantly in ‘hero mode’, they are as everyone else embedded in a web of social relations and predisposed by their position within society (p. 5; 8). Revealing their much more complex and ambivalent identity does, however, not serve the purpose of denying that there are political heroes nor of devaluing the work of the Gandhis, Kings, and Mandelas who are commonly remembered as such. Mihai instead wants to re-signify the political hero in the hope that this will not only increase solidarity but also encourage more people to join resistance movements (p. 3). To do so, she draws on Judith Butler’s ‘new bodily ontology’. One essential concept of this ontology is the relationality of bodies: Butler reminds us that what a body is and can do is not only intersubjectively constituted but also that there is no fully autonomous, self-sufficient body that does not depend on the assistance of others (p. 8f.). In the final part of the paper, Mihai engages with Herta Müller’s essays and auto-fiction, focusing on her remarks about complicit silence, to illustrate such an alternative ontology of the political hero. Mihai’s paper stimulated many ideas among the participants of the research group. Some were wondering if it was worth developing the thoughts into two separate papers: one on the re-signification of the political hero and another on a typology of complicit silence. Other participants were concerned on whether a re-signification of the political hero that moves away from the idealized public image might be counterproductive because it seems to quash inspiration.

By Benedikt Buechel

Humanitarian intervention and intellectual due diligence

War is one of the most harmful activities that humans can undertake. It is widely recognised that the bar for the normative justification of war is correspondingly high. It is less often argued that we have a special epistemological burden to do our due diligence before undertaking war, to do our best to ascertain reliable information about the relevant facts. This was the crux of the paper that Tim Hayward presented to Edinburgh’s political theory group last week, ‘Humanitarian intervention and intellectual due diligence’. Tim was especially interested in the kind of epistemological work necessary to the justification of humanitarian interventions, and to the case of the Syrian Civil War in particular, which he claims has been widely misinterpreted in the West.

Continue reading

Harming to Help? Pattison on the Ethical Dilemma of Economic Sanctions

Protest against Iraq war and sanctions, Washing DC, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Sophie Baumert

How should we respond to injustice abroad? On the international level, it is difficult to hold actors accountable who are responsible for harmful actions. If a state persecutes minorities within its borders, or is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons, how can others motivate it to change its behaviour?

Much is at stake, because our responses can have dramatic effects on innocent human beings. One option is intervention, going to war to force change. But costs to innocent persons are high, on all sides. Another option is to sit back and do nothing. However, this allows the state to continue harming people within its borders, or develop weapons that could potentially harm many others in the future. Are there any other routes that states can pursue to effectively deal with those violating international norms, while causing as little harm to innocent persons as possible?

In his forthcoming book The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence, Professor James Pattison explores the options located between the extremes of declaring war and doing nothing. He assesses the ethical dilemmas these alternatives generate: Are they morally permissible? Are they effective? Do they comply with values important to us? One alternative under evaluation are economic sanctions, by which states impose economic restrictions on another state in order to coerce it to comply with their demands. Such sanctions can be comprehensive, cutting off an entire economy, or they can be targeted towards single economic sectors, or individuals. The desired result of these measures is that imposing economic pressure will force a state to change its policies or behaviour.

The ethical dilemma is that ‘economic pressure’ essentially means causing harm to ordinary civilians who have to suffer the consequences of disruptions to the economy, facing job losses, increased costs of living, and shortages of resources. For instance, broad financial and trade sanctions – as imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Iraq in the 1990s – may subject the local population to severe shortages of essential goods such as food or medicines, leading to malnutrition, the spread of diseases, and, ultimately, people dying. Meanwhile, the desired outcome is by no means guaranteed, as the government under sanction might not change its behaviour. For these reasons, economic sanctions are widely regarded as morally impermissible. They cause too much harm without ensuring the intended result.


Defending economic sanctions

Although Pattison acknowledges the problematic nature of economic sanctions, he argues that sanctions are not necessarily morally impermissible. We should take a pragmatic approach, differentiating and weighing the harms and benefits of economic sanctions against other options. To establish his point, Pattison argues that the main arguments against economic sanctions do not apply to all forms such sanctions can take. First, he concedes that economic sanctions generally fail to effectively differentiate between harms to innocent civilians and those responsible for morally reprehensible actions. However, if economic sanctions cause less harm to innocent civilians than other options, they could still be preferable.

Second, since it is widely known that economic sanctions are likely to cause harm to innocents, critics argue that states who nonetheless impose sanctions act wrongly, because they intend this harm. In reply, Pattison draws a distinction between motives and intentions. Motives are the ultimate goals of our actions, while intentions are their immediate goals. Although it might be true that the suffering of innocents in the target state is intended, this is not necessarily impermissible if the ultimate goal of those imposing sanctions is to reduce harms overall.

Third, economic sanctions are criticised for reducing people to a mere means to an end, denying their inherent moral worth. Pattison rejects this characterisation, arguing that states can value the dignity of humans whilst reluctantly accepting some harm to them, for the greater good. Nonetheless, he indicates a limit to how much harm is justified in the pursuit of ultimate goals.


Focus on humanitarian consequences

To put a limit on how much harm is permissible, Pattison urges us to reassess how we evaluate the effectiveness of economic sanctions. Instead of assessing their success with regards to the goals of international community, we should focus on the overall effects on human rights and well-being. For instance, when international community imposes broad economic sanctions on a state to coerce a change in its political leadership, we should not just assess the sanctions’ effectiveness based on the achievement of this goal. If broad sanctions cause severe harms to large parts of the population, they cannot be regarded effective, regardless of their political result. On the other hand, if targeted sanctions only affect liable individuals without harming innocent civilians, they are permissible. We can also contrast this with other options: do human rights suffer more when we declare war, or impose economic sanctions?

When a state violates human rights, it is likely that all possible responses will involve harms. Therefore, so Pattison argues, we need to evaluate which action will result in the fairest distribution of harms among persons. In war, soldiers have to bear the brunt of the costs, while inaction could put concentrated costs on a persecuted minority. Economic sanctions, despite affecting more people, can potentially distribute the costs more evenly among the population. Overall, Pattison endeavours to establish that economic sanctions are not morally wrong per se. He calls for a pragmatic and nuanced approach to evaluating the methods and outcomes of sanctions in comparison to the potential harms and benefits of other approaches.


Harming others for a good cause?

When discussing this chapter with Pattison in our Contemporary Political Theory class, the debate circled mainly around his distinction between intentions and motives. Concerns were raised that a focus on good motives might justify terrible behaviour. How much harm are states allowed to cause in the name of a good motive? Pattison replied that constraints of proportionality would apply, but the boundaries were left unclear. He maintained that the reasons for actions matter in our assessment of their morality. If a state imposes sanctions because it dislikes the inhabitants of another state, its motive is bad. If it imposes sanctions to ultimately secure human rights, its motive is good. Further questions on the importance of consequences followed. If a person saves another person’s life to earn a reward, their motive is wrong, but we couldn’t convincingly defend the notion that the action was wrong. Also, how can we know the true motives of a person, let alone a state?

In the end, the discussion was left unresolved. Despite general agreement that the consequences of actions do matter, there was less agreement on how we can tie motives into our moral assessment for actions, without allowing for too much harm. Yet the debate highlighted the inherently problematic nature of economic sanctions that invariably cause harm to some individuals. Is some harm justified if it serves a greater goal? How much harm is justified? Pattison suggests that, when we are caught between a rock and a hard place, having to decide between different options involving harms, we should weigh them against each other, to see which is the lesser evil.


Kieran Oberman – Killing and Rescuing: The Case for Revising Necessity

PTRG: 16 May 2018


Killing is justifiable if it is necessary.  If killing is unnecessary, it is unjustifiable and therefore wrong.  Then, a question is: When is killing necessary or unnecessary?  Oberman addresses this question in relation to the act of other-defence: When is killing someone necessary or unnecessary to defend others against death?  Continue reading

Elizabeth Cripps – If having children is bad for the environment, what should parents do about it?

PTRG: 4 April 2018

Maternity Mark in Japan

Summary of the paper:

One’s decision to have children, or to become a parent, has negative environmental impact.  The birthing of children results in an increase in the global population, and ultimately in additional ecological burdens.  Admitting this, Liz asks: Do individuals, at least in the affluent class, have a moral duty to attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of having children/ becoming a parent?  Her answer is that they do.  But Liz also argues that this does not mean individuals have a duty to have no (biological) child or not to become a (biological) parent. Continue reading

Dr Clare Chambers – The Neutralist Dilemma

PTRG – 28th March 2018

This week the Political Theory Research Group welcomed Dr Clare Chambers of the University of Cambridge to discuss her paper, ‘Reasonable disagreement and the neutralist dilemma: Abortion and circumcision in Matthew Kramer’s Liberalism with Excellence.’

By tracing the logical implications of the liberal state’s commitment to neutrality, the paper subtly reveals the limits of the neutralist project in liberalism. Through the cases of abortion and circumcision, it shows that sometimes, the state cannot avoid violating its commitment to neutrality. It has to implement a policy with which a party would reasonably disagree on the basis that it violates freedom and equality. In the case of abortion, there is reasonable disagreement about whether the foetus is a person. If the state takes the position that the foetus is not a person, it should permit abortion because to do otherwise would be to deny the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who want to terminate their pregnancy. If the state takes the position that the foetus is a person, the state should prohibit abortion because allowing it would be murder, violating the freedom and equality of the foetus. But taking a position on whether the foetus is a person violates neutrality because it is a point about which people reasonably disagree due to the burdens of judgement.

Dr Chambers’ paper provoked vigorous debate for the duration of the session. The choice of cases lent themselves to extensive discussion, as did the setup of the neutralist dilemma itself. Participants were particularly keen to explore the ramifications of state neutrality for parenting. Questions arose regarding parental intervention and the range of possible future lives that parents inevitably prevent their children from living, and the extent to which parents should be allowed to (irreversibly) modify the bodies of their children for cultural, or even cosmetic, reasons. In addition to this, the function of state neutrality and its capacity to bolster or diffuse racist or otherwise prejudicial attitudes was considered. There were also lively exchanges regarding the questions of adults’ regret for their parents’ actions, the value of bodily integrity, and the importance of one’s sense of cultural belonging, both as a child and adult.