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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?


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.

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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

Prof Henry Shue – Climate Mitigation and Subsistence Protection

PTRG 13 Oct 2017

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Professor Henry Shue from Oxford University as the presenter for PTRG yesterday.  In the presented paper, Professor Shue critically reflects upon his earlier argument: that it is important to make a distinction between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’, and that this distinction should be incorporated into climate policy intended to achieve mitigation.  ‘Subsistence emissions’ are emissions necessary for securing the basic right to subsistence, whereas ‘luxury emissions’ are those that exceed a minimally adequate level of emission.  According to Professor Shue, it is morally unacceptable to ask the poor to sacrifice subsistence emissions so that the affluent can maintain their luxury emissions.  Continue reading

Call for Papers Summer School GREYZONE Edinburgh June 2018

Call for Applications – Summer School

Navigating the Grey Zone:

Complicity, Resistance and Solidarity

University of Edinburgh, 25-27 June 2018

In June 2018 the University of Edinburgh is hosting an interdisciplinary Summer School entitled “Illuminating the Grey Zone: Complicity, Resistance and Solidarity.” This event targets PhD students and early career researchers (within 4 years of obtaining their doctorate). We will explore the complexities of complicity in and resistance to systemic human rights violations. Moreover, we will consider the ethical and political value of art for shedding light on the ambiguous reality of political responsibility and fostering relations of political solidarity. The Summer School is part of the interdisciplinary ERC research Project GREYZONE, and we aim to bring together perspectives from political theory, political science, law, history, sociology, cultural studies, aesthetics and art. The main goal is to give participants the opportunity to interact across disciplinary boundaries with several international experts and to receive critical feedback on their own projects. The Summer School will Continue reading

Mathias Thaler – Peace as a Minor, Grounded Utopia

Opening this academic year’s Political Theory Research Group on 20 September, we had the pleasure to discuss Mathias Thaler’s paper Peace as a Minor, Grounded Utopia: On Prefigurative and Testimonial Pacifism. Here, Thaler utilises the distinction between two types of utopias, minor and major, to advance a (minor) utopian argument for pacifism. According to how Just War Theory, the most influential strand of the ethics of violence, understands pacifism, it is variably immoral, inconsistent, and impractical. Thaler draws on two examples, radical US postwar pacifism and Amnesty International, to show how minor, grounded utopias can be politically powerful. Both of these show that pacifism is not simply a means-oriented strategy. Therefore, we should not judge the success of pacifism along the lines of its short-term, practical political impact, but in how it can envisage and embody alternative worlds. These worlds are not fully detached and wholly imaginary: utopias are always formed from existing social structures and situations.

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Immigration and Freedom: Chandran Kukathas on Immigration Control


Protesters in San Francisco International Airport. Photograph: Josh Edelson.

By Alvaro Candia Callejas and Andrew Mousseau

Recently, we had the opportunity to welcome Professor Chandran Kukathas to discuss a chapter from his new book project, Immigration and Freedom with our class Contemporary Political Theory: Engaging with Current Research. In his book, Kukathas gives a new perspective on familiar moral and political problems. He argues that immigration control undermines—and perhaps even threatens—the ‘rule of law’. This causes significant social problems that must be addressed regardless of one’s personal views on immigration. Continue reading