Sunday, 24 November 2013

How poverty antagonises the interests of children and those of women

This is a post about the difficulty of addressing a particular issue of justice that exists against a background of unjust economic and politic arrangements. It illustrates how attempts to rectify one kind of injustice risk to aggravate others.

All around the world there are lots of kids who spend many of their childhood years, and sometimes their entire childhood, without much face to face contact with the people who used to be their primary caregivers, and whom they still see as their parents. This happens as a result of temporary migration for work, of the kind that, for legal, economic and other pragmatic reasons, doesn't allow migrant parents to take their children with them. Temporary migration has always existed, but it has been on the raise recently, thanks to the opening of labour markets and to the increased accessibility of long-distance travel. Moreover temporary migration has become increasingly feminised due to the world-wide abundance of jobs in traditionally feminised sectors such as care for children, the ill, the elderly and menial work, .

And this is the point where some of the trouble starts: parenting, too, is a traditionally feminised activity, especially the bits that have most to do with hands-on care, daily involvement and emotional support. It's true that a new model of involved fatherhood is becoming popular in some of the richer countries in the world; but most temporary migrants come, for obvious reasons, from the poorer countries that also tend to be more gender conservative. Because mothers are usually the more involved parent, their migration (without the children) is bound to be harmful at least in one way: it deprives children of continuity of care. And children are generally believed to need continuity of care: severing a firmly established bond between children and parents represents significant harm to the child. No doubt, many of the migrants' children also benefit from their parents' migration, because parents usually send remittances that pay for better housing, education and creature comforts. It is hard to aggregate the benefits and harms that parental migration entails for children. Some studies suggest that these children are worse off with respect to educational achievements and social relationships with their peers, others deny it. Most studies I've seen tend to agree that, compared to their peers, migrants' children suffer from more feelings of sadness, insecurity and isolation and from lack of adult guidance. So, even if migrants' children are better off materially, this doesn't take away from the fact that growing up with very little and sporadic face to face contact with one's parents is an important kind of deprivation. These children suffer an injustice.

But who is responsible for the injustice - who has the duty to prevent or mitigate it? It is their individual parents, to whom they are already attached, that children need and so it seems that it is these individuals who should make things right. This is a difficult claim to make, for two reasons. First, on closer inspection, it often turns out that the mothers', rather than the parents', absence is most harmful. But isn't it obviously unjust to blame women for 'abandoning their children', as the media often puts it? Why aren't fathers equally involved in parenting in the first place such that they become able to provide practically and emotionally for their children when mothers-only migrate? And second, leaving this unjustified gender asymmetry to the side, in many cases it seems unjust to ask migrants to take the full responsibility for their children's predicament. Temporary migrants usually cannot find proper - or any - work in their country or region of origin, and migrate in order to provide for basic necessities for themselves and their families. They do not abandon their children merely in order to keep up with the Joneses and, morally speaking, they don't abandon their children at all; part of their reason to migrate is children's wellbeing. Migrant parents merely find themselves in the impossibility to provide for all the important interests of their children: in continuity of care as well as in proper housing and reasonable economic security, for instance. It is not their fault that they cannot ensure all these things. And it would be too easy to say 'they should not have had children under these conditions.' Maybe it was not entirely their choice to become parents. Maybe they did not, and could not, foresee their current poverty or economic insecurity. And, in any case, it is unjust for people to find themselves in a situation in which they ought not to parent due to (collectively avoidable) economic circumstances.

What do you think?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Should Snowden go back to America?

Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Snowden-2.jpg  

Mr Snowden violated US law. He should return to the US and face justice,” argued a senior White House advisor. That attitude reflects the reaction of many in the American and British security establishment to Snowden’s leaking of classified documents detailing the mass surveillance programs of the US and British governments. Currently Snowden has temporary asylum in Russia, which is due to expire at the end of July 2014 (though I’m still hoping Germany might do the right thing and offer him asylum). There are however I think broadly three reasons that could be given for why Snowden should instead go back to America and face trial, only one of which has I think has some plausibility, though I think its overridden by other considerations.

First, some might argue that Snowden should go back and face trial because he harmed national security. This is the kind of argument made by the security services themselves and their political allies. The head of Britain’s MI6 for example said that the UK’s enemies were “rubbing their hands with glee” at Snowden’s revelations about spying practices. I think this kind of argument is entirely wrong. Not only should we be sceptical that national security, as it conceived by the US and UK authorities, is something to be protected. But as Glenn Greenwald shows in his excellent replies to this BBC interview the supposed harm done to national security is unproven, and most likely untrue. ‘Terrorist’ groups for example already know that everything they do is subject to intense monitoring by the security services. It is also an attempt to distract from how these surveillance programs have invaded the privacy of innocent people. Furthermore, we should always question official claims of harm done to national security if those same officials deny the public access to the information required to evaluate those claims.

Glenn Greenwald on BBC Newsnight

A second kind of argument doesn’t claim that Snowden did anything wrong but argues that if you carry out an act of civil disobedience you should be prepared to bear the legal consequences of it. It is often thought that even if breaking an individual law (such as leaking classified documents) can be justified for conscientious reasons, you are still have an obligation to the overall legal and political system. This means that you should stand trial as a way to show both your disagreement with the specific law and your commitment to that system. But as Kimberley Brownlee points out it is not clear that willingness to accept punishment is really an essential part of civil disobedience. In many cases of civil disobedience there does not seem to be any obligation to the overall legal and political system because that system is so unjust. This is definitely true of the US during the period of the civil rights movement (often thought a defining case of civil disobedience) and it is, I would argue, still true of the US today. The enormous levels of economic inequality, the extensive and institutionalised racial and gender injustices, and the military and economic actions of the US across the world, mean that citizens (such as Snowden) do not I think have an obligation to the US legal and political system.

A more plausible version of the previous argument is that Snowden should go back because this makes it more likely that people will take his views more seriously and challenge the surveillance programs of the state. This is essentially a strategic argument about what is most likely to convince people. A frequent reaction in the American press has for example to point to Snowden’s supposed ‘hypocrisy’ in asking for asylum from an authoritarian regime like Russia (it is frequently forgotten that Snowden was forced to stay in Russia because the US withdrew his passport). Returning to America, it could be argued, would make it easier to counteract this kind of argument and make the case against state surveillance.

While I think this is the most plausible argument (because we desperately need a campaign against the surveillance of the state) I don’t think its decisive. Its not clear to me that if Snowden would go back that it would make that much difference to the debate. There is an enmeshed security and media establishment in the US (and the UK) that is dedicated to the destruction of his credibility. Furthermore we have to consider how terribly the US has treated other similar whistle-blowers, such as Chelsea Manning. She was subjected to 11 months of solitary confinement, which the UN special rapporteur on torture described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that "could constitute torture", and she has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison. Given that Snowden could expect similar treatment I think he is justified in staying as far away as he can.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Moral Motivation and Sustainable Behaviour Change

'Climate change’ and ‘behaviour change’ are both central themes in the policy landscape, academic research, and media discourse of the twenty-first century. The former has been described by the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, as “the greatest humanitarian challenge facing mankind today”, a statement that carries added weight in light of the complete devastation inflicted upon the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. The latter, ‘behaviour change’, has become a ubiquitous phrase in policymaking circles, representing a radical shift towards a non-regulatory policymaking paradigm, often referred to as nudging
 
The 2008 Climate Change Act established the world’s first legally binding climate change target. This has committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 - a target that requires a major change in the way we live, representative of an unprecedented reversal of a universal trend among industrialised nations concerning the relationship between economic growth and carbon emission. The key question going forward, therefore, is: How is such a radical behavioural/cultural transformation going to be brought about? The current government's answer appears to rest heavily upon behaviour change techniques that seek to nudge (implicitly encourage, incentivise, etc.) citizens' toward more sustainable behaviour patterns. 
 
The problem with this approach - or at least with the way in which it is currently being framed by the Coalition government in major initiatives such as the Green Deal - is that it threatens to actually undermine sustained sustainable behaviour change: for instance, by presenting energy-saving simply as a means of saving money. Providing this self-interested motivation for environmentally responsible action does not translate into meaningful engagement with climate change. And it also runs the risk of trivialising the issue at hand. The debate about sustainable behaviour change must remain connected to the fact that climate change is already a daily reality for some of the world's poorest communities, where unpredictable rainfall and drought patterns are threatening food security and livelihoods. As Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and climate justice advocate, states: "These communities are not responsible for the emissions causing climate change, and yet they are disproportionately affected because of their already vulnerable geographic locations and their lack of climate resilience".
 
In terms of private morality, we each have a duty of justice not to harm others; and our current levels of emissions can be expected to cause significant harm. Hence, we - citizens of industrialised nations - each have a duty of justice to reduce our net personal emissions to zero, whether by transforming our lifestyles or by offsetting our emissions. And this not only makes sense as an abstract philosophical argument; recent research by Dr Rachel Howell (University of Aberystwyth) has shown that the single most significant motivation among people who had already made major changes towards environmentally responsible, low- or zero-carbon lifestyles was a sincerely held conviction that climate change is a matter of social justice.
 
Hence, it seems as though the government's enthusiasm for 'nudge' and its potential for generating measureable behavioural outcomes may have caused it to lose sight of the fact that committed, long-lasting behavioural transformations are not brought about by government officials tinkering with 'choice architecture', but rather by citizens' internalising the ethical reasons that are motivating such a change - reasons based on justice, fairness and responsibility. For the sake of both efficiency and justice, therefore, the government's 'behavioural' strategy on climate change should be driven and defined by the moral motivation that taking action on climate change is simply the right thing to do.
 
This would not necessarily involve canning the existing pro-environmental nudge policies; but it would require a significant alteration of the government’s rhetorical strategy, to make it focused on communicating to, and educating, citizens about climate change as an issue of social justice by highlighting the impacts on people, especially poorer and disadvantaged people. This strategy should also include the instigation of public debate concerning the socially just adaptation to climate change within the UK. Furthermore, alongside (and as part of) this norm-changing strategy, it will be necessary to provide both practical guidance about carbon-reduction and a variety of low- or zero-carbon infrastructure options, so that the opportunity for sustainable behaviour change is a real and equitable one for all citizens.      

Ultimately, it is values and morals that (i) inspire public support for national-level policies and (ii) motivate transformational individual- and household-level behaviour changes; so the quicker the government engages with the issue of sustainable behaviour change in these terms, the more chance that we have of reaching our own decarbonisation targets.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

‘Social’ Deprivation

To say that a citizen suffers social deprivation is typically thought to imply that the citizen suffers poverty, has poor education, and has a low socioeconomic status. In this blog post, I am not concerned with social deprivation conceived in this way. Rather, what I understand by ‘social’ deprivation is 'a persisting lack of minimally adequate opportunities for decent human contact'*. According to this definition, citizens suffer social deprivation when they are denied minimally adequate opportunities for interpersonal interaction, associative inclusion, and interdependent care, for example.

Social deprivation is closely related to loneliness – defined as the perceived lack of opportunities for valuable human contact. A 2010 survey by the Mental Health Foundation reported that, in the UK, only 22% of citizens never feel lonely, 11% feel lonely often, and 42% have felt depressed as a result of loneliness. More tellingly, the survey also found that 48% of citizens strongly agree or agree that people are getting lonelier in general. Strictly speaking, loneliness need not be caused by social deprivation; however, it seems reasonable to think that social deprivation will often play an important causal role.

Worryingly, the adverse affects of social deprivation and loneliness are manifold. For example, various empirical studies have revealed that both social deprivation and loneliness are associated with numerous adverse health outcomes and morbidity and mortality, in particular. Notably, loneliness is reported to be as much as a predictor of bad health as smoking! In addition to their adverse physiological effects, social deprivation and loneliness also have adverse psychological effects: in fact, in extreme cases, such as those involving long-term solitary confinement, social deprivation and loneliness are often reported to be as agonising an experience as torture.  

What is the significance of all of this? Clearly, this evidence suggests that, in addition to a concern for citizens’ material interests, we should also have a concern for citizens’ social interests. In other words, we have weighty reasons to care about, and to protect against, social deprivation and loneliness. In the remainder of this post, I outline and briefly defend two more specific proposals that aim at serving this end.

First, our concern for citizens’ social interests seems to suggest that we should prohibit use of institutionalised forms of social deprivation, such as long-term solitary confinement and medical isolation and quarantine. Instead, and even if it is more expensive, we should look to use alternative practices that serve the same function as the original institution, but in a way that protects citizens’ interest in decent human contact. The argument here is simple: evidence suggests that these practices cause considerable psychological and physiological harm, and this harm far outweighs the level of harm citizens – and even serious criminal offenders – are liable to bear.

Second, our concern for citizens’ social interests also suggests that we have weighty reasons to invest in infrastructure that is conducive to the protection of opportunities for decent human contact. This could take the form of mobility assistance for those, such as the elderly, who are most likely to suffer social deprivation, or subsidies for organisations, such as community pubs, that play an important role in meeting many citizens’ social needs. Failing to invest here amounts to risking neglect for citizens’ social interests and, for this reason, must be avoided. 

*I take this definition of 'social deprivation' from Kimberley Brownlee, 'A Human Right Against Social Deprivation', The Philosophical Quarterly, 63 (2013), 199-222.