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Chris Bertram

The poverty of psychology

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2017

Political philosophers have been arguing about equality for a very long time. We’ve argued about whether equality is a fundamental value or whether what matters is better captured by a focus on priority or sufficiency. We’ve argued about whether egalitarians should focus on securing equal amounts of something or on assuring people that they stand in relationships of equality of status toward one another. We’ve argued about the currency of egalitarian justice, and whether we should assess equality in terms of welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare or “advantage”. Luck egalitarians have argued that people should be rendered equal with respect to their unchosen circumstances but that inequalities that result from choices people freely are ok. All of these are arguments within the egalitarian camp.

So it is frustrating to read a paper in Nature, written by some psychologists from the Pinker/Haidt school of public pontificating that claims that people don’t care about equality but about “fairness”, where the inequalities that people tolerate turn out to be (a) inequalities in money and (b) inequalities that result from choices people make. Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally, and lots of people think that the value of equality, properly understood, not only allows but requires differences in outcome that result from choice. There’s one reference to Rawls in the paper (simply to mention the veil of ignorance) and one of Frankfurt’s sufficiency view, but Dworkin, Cohen, Sen, Anderson, Arneson et al are entirely absent. Perhaps Nature needs to pick its peer reviewers from a wider pool.

Sunday photoblogging: Staircase in a mirror

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2017


Sunday photoblogging: Southville to Clifton

by Chris Bertram on April 2, 2017

Southville to Clifton

Sunday photoblogging: March for Europe

by Chris Bertram on March 26, 2017

From Yesterday’s march to protest against the prospect of Brexit and to celebrate the birthday of the European Union.

March for Europe

Sunday photoblogging: Kingston Road, BS3

by Chris Bertram on March 19, 2017

Kingston Road, BS3

Sunday photoblogging: building and wires, Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on March 12, 2017

Pézenas: wires

The UK’s spousal visa regime, some reflections

by Chris Bertram on March 8, 2017

I have a blog piece with Helena Wray and Devyani Prabhat at the University of Bristol Law School Blog. The final para:

Family and spousal migration is only one part of migration policy, and there is the broader issue of what values migration policy should serve generally. In recent political argument in the UK, three sets of voices have been prominent, virtually to the exclusion of all others. First, the proverbial “taxpayer”, the net contributor to government spending. Second, the needs of “business” for skilled and not-so-skilled workers. Third, the “legitimate concerns” of so-called “ordinary people”, constructed as the “white working-class” worried about cultural and demographic change. Largely absent from the discussion have been the autonomy interests that all citizens have in being able to have a valuable set of life-choices available to them, about being able to live, work and settle where they wish, and in being able to make their life with a partner of their choice and maybe start a family. Rather, those interests – that ought to be of central political concern for a liberal society – have been crowded out of the migration debate. This has meant that many of our fellow citizens and their partners have been thwarted in their pursuit of central life goals or forced to pursue those aims through compliance with arcane rules and at the mercy of an unfathomable bureaucracy. If we aspire to the values of a liberal society – as is the official consensus position of all major political parties – our policies ought to reflect them.

Frosty morning, St Michael's Hill

Pézenas, street

by Chris Bertram on February 26, 2017

Pézenas: street

Sunday photoblogging: crane

by Chris Bertram on February 19, 2017


Sunday photoblogging: steps

by Chris Bertram on February 12, 2017


Sunday photoblogging: off to to the match

by Chris Bertram on February 5, 2017

Off to the football

Snitching on those in breach of immigration law

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2017

Kwame Anthony Appiah, of whom I have only had positive feelings up to now, has produced an opinion for the Ethicist column for the New York Times that it is “a good thing” when citizens report violations of immigration law to the US authorities. He produces this opinion in the context of a question about “green-card marriage” entered into merely in order to gain an immigration advantage, so it is unclear how far he relies on the specific features of the case he describes to generate a more general moral conclusion, but I, for one, find his reasons highly problematic.

First, he operates on the assumption that US migration policy is reasonable and reasonably fair and that states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally. Whether or not legitimate states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally (I’m a sceptic), I think it hard to argue that US policies are currently fair given who they exclude (and a fortiori who they are now excluding). Appiah argues that people who enter by unlawful means are queue jumpers who thereby act unfairly towards others. But the very idea that there is an immigration queue that people can join and wait their turn is preposterous. There is no such queue and many many people will never be in a position where they can realistically have a chance of a visa. The claim of unfairness to other would-be migrants is therefore unfounded. [click to continue…]

Trump’s migration ban

by Chris Bertram on January 29, 2017

Donald Trump’s order that the US be closed to the nationals of several Muslim-majority countries is a particularly egregious intensification of the racist immigration policies that many “liberal democracies” have pursued in recent years. It isn’t clear at the moment how this story will develop, with various US courts taking action against the order but with Homeland Security apparently indicating that they will continue to enforce it. As everybody now knows, it is being enforced even against US permanent residents who were on trips abroad, against people transiting US airports on their way back to other countries, against students in the middle of their courses. It is separating loved ones, including parents from children (a very prominent case being the British-Somali athlete Mo Farah). It also seems to be the case that the US is failing to allow people to claim asylum and have their cases properly assessed, as the 1951 Refugee Convention requires as well as US law, and that the US has engaged in some breaches of the non-refoulement obligation towards those seeking asylum.

Naturally, there are calls for European politicians to protest. Theresa May, just back from Washington and then from selling fighter-planes to Turkey’s Erdogan seemed reluctant to do so at first, but someone from 10 Downing Street has now issued a weakish condemnation. Well, ok, but what’s new here? Both European states and the US have long given people a harder time based on their country of origin and poor people from a long list of states have no chance of entering the territory by non-clandestine means. We all know of the appalling death toll in the Sahara, the Mediterranean, up through Mexico and in the Arizona desert. Wealthy states, such as Australia and the US under Clinton, have already breached the non-refoulement provisions of the Convention on many occasions, and now often pay poorer states on their periphery to send people back on their behalf (or just keep them locked in). Migrants present on the territory without authorization face “hostile environment” policies aimed at depriving them of work or accommodation, which also expose them to crime and exploitation, policies put in place by politicians who also make speeches about “human trafficking” and “modern slavery”. And Theresa May herself is no stranger to policies that abruptly refuse students entry at the border or that separate partners or parents from children. In the UK, aliens, even those present from birth, can be deported to homelands they have never seen, without due process, if law enforcement deem them “foreign criminals”. And then we have France, among others, criminalizing people who offer assistance to irregular migrants and refugees, and countries like Hungary constructing physical barriers to keep them out. So nothing much new.

Or maybe something, which matters somewhat: Trump and his henchmen feel able to do openly and proudly what those other politicians have usually done hypocritically and shamefacedly. Not for him speeches such as the ones Theresa May (and Cameron before her) make about a “proud record” of helping those fleeing persecution, speeches made whilst they condemn the persecuted to risking death and then incarcerate them in detention centres. To be honest, I prefer the hypocrisy, because at least then there is some chance of holding them to account for the betrayal of the values they publicly profess. That Trump doesn’t care is terrifying.

(Protest and campaign, of course. But one thing you can also do is to volunteer to support refugees or to donate to a refugee charity. Bristol Refugee Rights is one such in the town where I live, but there are many others in Europe and North America.)

Sunday photoblogging: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

by Chris Bertram on January 15, 2017

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao