Sunday, 29 June 2014

21st Century Smoking

 
At the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual representatives meeting this week, doctors voted overwhelmingly to push for a permanent ban on the sale of cigarettes to those born after 2000. (Although this signifies only the beginning of the lobbying efforts and public debate concerning this proposed paternalistic intervention, it is worth noting that the BMA has been successful in its efforts to ban both smoking in public places and smoking in cars carrying children, following similar votes in 2002 and 2011 respectively.)
 
What are the different reasons that might motivate, and potentially justify, the state intervening in citizens’ smoking behaviour? Broadly speaking, the main distinctions are those drawn between: (1) welfare- (both individual and collective) and autonomy-based reasons; (2) ‘harm to self’ and ‘harm to others’, that is, for the sake of smokers versus for the sake of non-smokers generally; and, relatedly, (3) an aim to increase tobacco use cessation (i.e., stop smokers smoking) versus an aim to reduce tobacco use initiation (stop people from starting to smoke in the first place). Accordingly, an initial taxonomy of reasons might have the following six cells:
 
 
Welfare-based reasons
Autonomy-based reasons
Smokers
Welfare of smokers
Autonomy of smokers
Non-smokers
Welfare of non-smokers
Autonomy of non-smokers
Potential smokers
Welfare of potential smokers
Autonomy of potential smokers
  
The main focus of the proposed ban is the ‘potential smokers’ category, those who are currently aged 14 and under, with the ultimate aim being to essentially phase out smoking over the course of several generations (e.g., by 2070 it would only be those born before the turn of the millennium that would be able to buy cigarettes, that is, those who are over 70 years-old). So what are the main arguments in favour of this?     
 
Welfare: Smoking is the primary cause of a whole host of preventable illnesses and of premature death, with half of all life-long smokers dying prematurely (losing ten years of life on average). The welfare-based argument in favour of the ban is fairly strong, then: it seeks to protect the objective welfare of potential smokers (i.e., health, financial opportunity costs) without having to weigh this against the subjective welfare that smokers derive from the practice (though this type of welfare is on shaky ground too, since various studies show that the majority report getting relatively little subjective pleasure from smoking and would rather not smoke). [NB: The kind of potential welfare costs not often taken into consideration, though, are relational ones, such as those expressed in this article (para. 4).]         
 
Autonomy: Liberal anti-paternalist orthodoxy states that, as long as she is not impaired by ignorance or involuntariness, an individual’s choices should not be interfered with in the name of her own good. But although Millian liberals query whether one’s own good is sufficient warrant for interference in her behaviour, they would be the first to concede that it might be, if the behaviour in question is not (fully) voluntary: “If it is autonomy that we are trying to protect in opposing paternalistic legislation in general, then the same values that lead us to oppose such legislation in general will lead us to welcome it in those particular cases where what we are being protected from is something that would deprive us of the capacity for autonomous choice” (Goodin, 1989). Given that a very significant proportion of current smokers – estimates range between 66-80% – began smoking in their teenage years (a time when the state does not recognize them as autonomous), two main factors challenge the voluntariness of potential smokers’ decisions: peer/ social pressure and the addictive nature of nicotine. The autonomy of potential smokers, therefore, might actually be protected and promoted by such a prohibition.          
 
Nevertheless, there are a number of ethical and practical problems with the proposed ban on the sale of cigarettes to those born after 2000, some of which are highlighted below:
 
(i) Much of the force of the argument is based on the idea of protecting those who are 14 and younger from taking up smoking; however, in four years’ time, the children born in 2000 will be 18 and there will then be an asymmetry in the legal rights that adults have concerning the purchase of cigarettes: tobacco will still be a legal product, but it will be either legal or illegal for adults to purchase it depending on an arbitrarily-set age threshold. Can this be justified?
 
(ii) In practical terms, the proposal appears to have forgotten one of the key facts on which the moral argument is based: if the vast majority begin smoking in their teenage years now, when it is illegal for those under 18 to purchase cigarettes, then it seems that there will be nothing (extra) stopping this from happening in a world where cigarettes are banned for those born after 2000. The result, then, would be a group of adults who are addicted to smoking, but who are prohibited from buying legal cigarettes; and it seems fairly inevitable that, within these circumstances, the illicit trading of tobacco products will rise to meet the demand, which would bring negative consequences for the whole of society. This point also highlights a contradiction in the pro-ban argument: the reason for selected the 2000-threshold is that there are humanitarian-cum-utilitarian reasons for continuing those who are addicted to smoking to service their addiction legally; but, with many teenagers still likely to start smoking even if this prohibition is passed, potential problems regarding the fairness of the above asymmetry become even weightier.

What are your thoughts on this?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Mid-Season Break

Justice Everywhere will have a one-week break at its mid-season.  We shall return on 29th June 2014.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Does systemic injustice justify Robin Hood strategies?

Many injustices arise because of patterns of behaviour, single instances of which seem harmless or at least pardonable. For example, if professors help the kids of their friend get access to university programs – and given the fact that professors and their friends tend to come from the same socio-economic background – this can lead to structural discrimination against applicants from other backgrounds (as discussed by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel here, p. 38-40). Other examples concern implicit biases against women and ethnic minorities. Much work has been done recently that helps us to understand how these mechanisms work (see e.g. here). Given how pervasive these mechanisms are, it is understandable that they cause moral outrage. The question is, however, what individuals should do in reaction to them.

Imagine that you are in a situation in which you have some amount of power, for example as a reviewer or as a member of a search committee. You might be tempted to use a “Robin Hood strategy”, i.e. a strategy that breaks the existing rules, for the sake of supporting those who are treated unjustly by these rules. Given how structural injustices work, many such “rules” are not formal rules, but rather informal patterns of behaviour. But it is still possible to work against them. For example, could it be justified to reject male applicants not because of the quality of their applications, but because they are white and male and come from a rich Western country?

One has to distinguish two levels of what such a strategy could imply. The first concerns correcting own biases that one might have, despite all good intentions (to check them, the various tests offered by Harvard University on this website can be helpful). The best way to do this, if possible, seems to be anonymity. When this is not feasible, the alternative is to scrutinize one’s patterns of thought and behaviour as best one can. The more power one has, the more it seems a requirement of justice to do this.

This is different from a second level of Robin Hood strategies, for which the name seems more appropriate: these concern not only own biases, but biases of the system. The idea is to work against them on one’s own, in one’s little corner, maybe hoping that if enough of us do this, the problems can be solved or at least attenuated. Could this be a defensible strategy?

The problem is, of course, that one risks introducing new injustices. One consciously deviates from what are supposed to be the criteria of selection, for example a candidate’s performance in previous jobs or the likelihood of being a good team member. In some cases, however, it is reasonable to assume that if a candidate comes from a group that suffers from discrimination, achieving the same level of merit as a candidate from another group takes much more effort. So according to this argument, and as long as these problems are not recognized by the official selection criteria, it seems defensible to privately factor in these previous structural inequalities.

But one’s epistemic position in judging such cases is often a weak one. For example, standard application material for many jobs includes a CV and some letters of reference. These materials are often insufficient for understanding the details of a specific case and the degree to which discrimination or stigmatization might have had an impact on the candidate’s previous career. One risks making mistakes and importing one’s own subjective biases and prejudices; taken together, this can make things worse, all things considered.

Robin Hood strategies do not provide what seems most needed: good procedures and public accountability. They do not get at the root of the problem, which is to create collective awareness of the issues, and to find collective mechanisms for addressing them (the gendered conference campaign is an example). Collective mechanisms are not only likely to be more effective, they also bring things out into the open, and create a public discourse on them. Although public discourses also have their weaknesses, there is at least a chance that the better argument will win, and there are opportunities for correcting what end up misguided strategies. Robin Hood strategies, in contrast, fight fire with fire: they remain within a logic of power, trying to find ways in which one can use counter-power to subvert the dominant power elites. But this does not change the fundamental logic of the game.


Thus, our preferred strategies should be different ones: strategies that really change the logic of the game, openly addressing problematic patterns of behaviour and looking for collective – and maybe formally institutionalized – solutions. Nonetheless, and despite all the reasons mentioned above, I cannot bring myself to thinking that Robin Hood strategies can never be justified in today’s world. Of course one has to be very careful with them, not only with particular cases, but also with regard to the slippery slope one might get onto. But are they ruled out completely? What do you think?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Need for Content Notes and Trigger Warnings in Seminars

Photo by Goska Smierzchalska / CC BY-NC 2.0
Content note: this post contains a discussion of sexual violence and rape.

A few weeks ago I was at a seminar where the speaker unexpectedly diverted from the main topic of their paper and used a rape example to support their argument. As discussions of rape in philosophy seminars go it was not particularly insensitive. But what disturbed me was that from the pre-circulated paper’s title and abstract there was no indication that it would include a discussion of rape. A victim of rape or sexual violence would have had no warning that they were about to be confronted with an extended discussion of it. Given the appalling statistics on rape and sexual violence that would almost certainly have included several people in the room. For them the discussion of rape might not have been just another abstract thought experiment, but an intensely triggering experience that brought back memories they did not want to deal with at that point. It made me think that the speaker could have respected this possibility by sending a short ‘content note’ (like the one above) with the abstract warning people that the seminar would contain a discussion of rape.

Over the last few months there has in fact been a lot of online discussion over the use of content notes and trigger warnings1 in academia. The recent debate was sparked by students at several US universities calling for content notes/trigger warnings to be included in course syllabuses. The idea behind these is to warn students that certain readings in the course contain discussions of topics that might be stressful or triggering. Much of the ensuing criticism has taken the line that they represent a 'serious threat to intellectual freedom' and even 'one giant leap for censorship'. This criticism is unfortunate because it falsely suggests that content notes/trigger warnings are there to stop or censor discussions of sensitive topics. Instead the point of the them is to facilitate these discussions by creating a safe and supportive environment where people are given the choice over how and when they engage with topics that they know can be immensely painful for them. As Laurie Penny argues "Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship."

Perhaps some of the hostility to content notes/trigger warnings comes from a lack of knowledge about how they could work. People seem to imagine them as these big intrusive and ugly warnings. I think an actual example of a content note shows us how far from the truth this is:
Course Content Note: At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.) 
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
Though much of the online discussion has focused on syllabuses and student seminars, I think it is important to recognise that the same arguments also apply to seminars among professional academics. I think we academics sometimes falsely assume that the standards and principles we apply to student and non-academic discussions do not apply to our own professional practices. An academic giving a paper or a lecture which includes discussions that are potentially triggering should give attendees advance notice of this. This allows people to prepare themselves and not have it sprung upon them, and even the opportunity to avoid coming at all if they feel they are not able to cope with the discussion that day. Of course this does not address what is said during the ensuing question period. It does not stop another academic from insensitively using an example of rape or sexual violence when they respond to the speaker. Content notes and trigger warnings cannot (and are not supposed) to cover every possibility. To address that we could start by educating academics about what its like to be a victim of rape and hear examples of rape used casually in philosophy seminars.

Some have argued that "life doesn't come with a trigger warning" and tried to suggest that using them in any situation is therefore pointless. While we may not be able to change everything, seminars are a small sphere of life that we have the power to make less hostile and more welcoming.



1 Content notes and trigger warnings are frequently confused. The difference is that “Trigger warnings are about attempting to identify common triggers for panic attacks and related experiences and tagging media for the benefit of people who find it helpful to be warned when media contains this material. Content notes are simply flags with information about content, to be used at the discretion of the person who encounters them.”

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Should we have a compulsory national civilian service?

The best blog posts are fashionable. They deal with questions, events, or ideas that are current or topical. This blog post does not do this. It deals with an idea that is very much out of fashion. Indeed, so much out of fashion that I believe it is not given a fair hearing. It is the idea of a compulsory national civilian service.

By a compulsory national civilian service, I have in mind the following idea: At the age of eighteen, all citizens are required by law to perform a one-year-long civilian service in return for a subsistence wage. The work that each citizen undertakes will differ, but generally speaking citizens will perform work that, although socially useful, is not well provided by job markets. As an example, let’s consider work in nursing and social care.

There are several sets of considerations that count in favour of the proposal. Let me briefly mention three. First, the proposal would benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. The work provided by these citizens is not well provided by the market and so, in the absence of the introduction of this proposal, many more citizens are left vulnerable and in need of vital nursing and social care.

Second, the proposal would benefit the citizens who perform the civilian service. The point is not that they are likely to enjoy the work. Perhaps they will not; after all, there is often a reason for why these jobs are not provided by the market. The point is that the experience is likely to broaden their horizons, teach them various important life skills, and is likely later to be regarded as a positive, meaningful experience. In short, the experience may end up being liberating and autonomy-enhancing.

Third, the rest of society is likely to benefit from proposal also. The hope is that a compulsory national civilian service will produce better, more civically-engaged citizens who will live in a way that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and needs of others. Part of the problem with current society is that too many people, and often those with power, have no experience of what it means to be vulnerable. The proposal under consideration would have the effect of attending to this fact. (Similar arguments are made about military service.)

There are several types of objection that could be levelled in response. Let me briefly mention two. The first concedes that the proposal would be beneficial in all the ways described, but it claims that we should resist it on the grounds that it involves the violation of citizens' rights. In particular, perhaps the proposal amounts to a violation of citizens' right to free occupational choice?

This does not strike me as a very promising line of reasoning given that it involves only a one-year restriction on citizens' occupational choice. The restriction on occupational choice sanctioned by this proposal is surely no greater than the restriction on the many citizens facing frequent unemployment or only dull, meaningless work.

The second objection argues that the proposal will fail to meet the ends that it sets itself. There are three versions of this objection, corresponding to the three benefits that the proposal hopes to bring about. The strongest version of this objection claims that the proposal will not benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. This is because those performing the work may be unfit to carry out the work.

This point is valid but it simply forces us to take care when implementing the proposal. In particular, it draws our attention to the need to provide proper training, and to select work that can appropriately be carried out by those on civilian service. There are many other complications that must be taken into account, but none of these challenge the attractiveness of the idea of a compulsory national civilian service as such. They are problems that we must attend to when it comes to implementation.