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Ingrid

The peculiar status of PhD-employees

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 31, 2014

One thing that has struck me for years is the peculiar status of people taking a PhD-degree in the Netherlands (and in a few other continental European countries – I don’t know how many exactly). They are hired by the university, as employees, to write a dissertation, and help teach about one course a year, during four years (in Belgium they may have to teach more, but in those cases they have 6 years, of which one third has to be spent on teaching, and two thirds on working towards the PhD-degree). I call this category of people pursuing a PhD-degree PhD-employees: they have a wage, the legal status and corresponding right of civil servants, rights to paid holidays and paid parental leave, and everything else that a civil servant has (except that the contract is temporary). They pay no fees for their PhD studies, and most of the additional courses they take will be paid for by their employer – the university. All universities in the Netherlands are publically funded, and hence while the employers are the universities, the funds are overwhelmingly government funds – although in principle a private party could also sponsor a PhD-employee at a university. This sometimes happens in the natural sciences – when Philips or Shell fund a PhD-position on a project that benefits them too. The cost of such a PhD-employee for 4 years is about 200.000, if we don’t count material costs and overhead at the university (some claim it’s closer to 280.000 if we include the latter).

The contrast with the status of PhD-students in England and the US is quite big, where those who are pursuing a PhD-degree are students, pay (often significant) fees in order to get training and supervision, and if they do teaching or research assistance, they get either an additional contract or they are paid by the hour. In addition to the National research councils and the universities, there are also a number of public and private organizations that provide (modest) bursaries for those PhD students.

I have, for many years, thought that there is nothing wrong to treat those pursuing a PhD-degree as students rather than as employees. In my view, they are not primarily having a job but rather pursuing a degree. And given the general scarcity of funds in the public sector, and universities in particular, it would be better if we didn’t have PhD-employees but rather PhD-students, and reallocate those funds to create additional lectureships. [click to continue…]

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Rescuing the miners and the babies

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2014

On Monday I was having dinner with Robin Celikates and a bunch of PhD students who were this week attending a Summerschool on Dirty Hands and Moral Dilemmas. Someone came up with the following case (none of us was quite sure about the author, but Derek Parfit seems like a likely candidate):

Case A: Rescuing the miners:
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose?

The people around the table had conflicting views, and the reasons we believed to have for a certain view did not convince the others at all. My choice was for strategy 2, since that gives everyone an equal chance to be rescued, and thus treats the miners morally equally in a certain sense. But Robin said that miners themselves would choose strategy 1, since they have a strong collective ethos/identity which includes that you save whom you can save. He claimed that we can deduce this empirical claim from some accidents that happened with miners who were actually locked up in a mine. (this is my recollection of the discussion, but Robin is very welcome to correct me !)

In the case of miners, we are dealing with adults and respecting their agency could plausibly be taken to overrule other reasons to choose for a certain strategy. But what if agency didn’t play a role? We could change the example, by turning the people-to-be-rescued into babies, who are too small to have anything resembling group-identity and agency:

Case B: Rescuing the babies:
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2).

Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?

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Sunday* Photoblogging: slave cabins

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 31, 2014

SlaveCabins

In contrast to Chris and Esther, I don’t have any fancy photo equipment and no skills; I take pictures with my mobile device and the vast majority of them are crap. But here’s one I got attached to. I took it when I visited Laura Plantation in Lousiana (which was also the scene of this rather hilarious story). It’s very good that they preserved these slave cabins; if you enter them and you are told that two families lived in each of those huts, it makes it in a very accessible way possible to image/understand what their living conditions have been.

The plantation guide told us that when slavery was abolished, the owner started to pay the slaves, but at low wages, while making them pay a lot (in relative terms) for ‘board and lodging’. My understanding of this is that since the slaves had no savings or other means, they couldn’t go anywhere, and were in a certain sense forced to keep working in socio-economic circumstances that still had much in common with slavery.

Highly recommended to visit.
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  • Sunday? OK, where I’m sitting right now it’s Saturday evening, but hey, it’s already Sunday in Australia, China, Indian, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan etc etc.

Apologies for vanishing and temporarily interrupting the capability project! I’m resuming my series of posts on the capability approach, which I expect to continue till mid-July (and afterwards we’ll see where we are). I am now turning to the capability approach as a theory of justice (social or distributive justice). This may require more than one post, and in this first one I want to discuss two meta-theoretical problems with the capability approach to justice. [click to continue…]

Time-recognition for having a baby by the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 5, 2014

In many European Countries (fn1), scholars applying for research grants with the National Research Councils can indicate that they had a child, and get additional ‘time recognition’. Many grants, especially the most prestigious and best-funded grants, work with a time-limit, e.g. you can only apply until Y years after getting your PhD degree, or between X and Y years after getting your PhD degree. If you had a baby, you can add a certain number of months to Y – which makes the timeframe more flexible for the applicant.

Now, as our friend of the blog Z rightly remarks in the comment following my previous post, the ERC has a quite remarkable policy on time-recognition for having a baby:

if you want to be shocked by something in the [ERC] report, you can have a look at their policy towards the deduction of parental leave from the qualifying period for a starting grant: 18 months per children for women, the actual amount of parental leave taken for men. Say what? What is the presupposition here that justifies such a differential treatment? What was wrong with “the actual amount of leave taken” (perhaps times a multiplier to be more family friendly) for both gender? I felt insulted both as a father of two children born in quite rapid succession at a critical period of my career and on behalf of my wife, who apparently is considered by the ERC to be not being devoted to her work for 18 months, even if she worked full-time the day her mandatory maternity leave ended.

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Humanities and social sciences within the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 4, 2014

The European Research Council issued a press release today on the number of applications for its Starting Grants – a prestigious grant of up to € 1,5 Million for scholars who have recently received their PhD degree. Here’s a paragraph that struck me:

In this call, the distribution by the three ERC domains was as follows: 1494 proposals were submitted in ‘Physical Sciences and Engineering’, 1030 in ‘Life Sciences’ and 748 in ‘Social Sciences and Humanities’.

So if we calculate the shares of the applications, we get this:
Physical sciences and engineering: 45,6%
Life Sciences: 31,5%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 22,9%.

Compare this with the budget shares that the ERC has allocated to those three areas (see ERC documentation p.13):
Physical sciences and engineering: 44%
Life Sciences: 39%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 17%.

Can someone please explain this to me? Or should we perhaps simply interpret this as another sign of the worsening conditions for research in the social sciences and humanities in the European Union?

April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, a day when we are called upon to raise awareness of autism. I have been working in the last months on a paper on how to [philosophically] conceptualize the well-being of people with autism/autistic people*, but alas, that project is not finished yet. But if you’re interested in new philosophical work on autism, check out this book that Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing edited, which contains some interesting chapters. And check out this interesting blog post by Richard Ashcroft, on a workshop that Raffaele Rodogno organized last year, which was absolutely fascinating for the reasons that Richard spells out.

I want to raise two issues: one about the diversity of people with autism, and the possible epistemological consequences. [click to continue…]

One of the areas in which not much work is done within the CA is in a further unpacking and development of the key notions of functionings and capabilities. Let us take a first look at ways to make the notions ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ more sophisticated (We will have more posts on the question of the precise nature of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ over the next months).
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Assuming we now have a basic understanding of the notions of ‘functioning’ and ‘capability’, we can ask what the capability approach is. The best way to answer this question is by first taking a helicopter view, and having a not-too-detailed look at the entire terrain we will be covering. Perhaps an outsider would expect that this is an easy question, but alas it is not. In my view, it is poorly analyzed in the literature, sometimes misleadingly discussed, and also the source of many confusions and possible flawed arguments [arguments for this view will be provided in future posts, not now!].

Here’s how Amartya Sen described the CA in a paper devoted to clarifying the approach:

“[The capability approach] is an intellectual discipline that gives a central role to the evaluation of a person’s achievements and freedoms in terms of his or her actual ability to do the different things a person has reason to value doing or being.” (Sen 2009: 16)

Sen clearly opts for a general description the CA, that doesn’t tie it to one particular scholarly discipline or debate. I agree with the general trust of Sen’s description. Yet let’s try to get this a bit more specific.
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[CA 01]: Functionings and capabilities

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 6, 2014

There are two notions in the CA that are key – the notions of ‘functioning’ and ‘capability’. Since most of the discussions on the CA are about human beings, I will restrict the discussion now to human functionings and capabilities, and devote a separate post later to nonhuman capabilities. So unless specified otherwise, all references in what follows [in this and future posts] will be to human capabilities. [click to continue…]

So, finally the previously announced capability project will start. Recall that the plan is to have a series of post, from now for at least a few weeks but possibly a few months, discussing the capability approach at a slow pace, and starting from scratch, hence assuming no background knowledge. Before I upload the first post, it may be good to be clear about why I am doing this, and what you can expect.
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Announcing the Capability Project

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 15, 2014

Within a week or so, I will start writing a series of posts on the capability approach, a theory/paradigm/framework that is used in philosophy and the social sciences for a variety of purposes (wiki, IEP, SEP). This Capability Project is in part a self-binding mechanism to make sure that by the end of the Summer I will not have to write to my editor at Open Book to tell them that, for the third year in a row, I need another year to finish my book on the capability approach; and the post series is also in part a chance to publicly respond to some issues that students and others have been emailing me about privately, or issues that have popped up in seminars or teaching.

If you have topics that you want to see discussed, or if you have questions about the capability approach, you can send them to me at ingrid.robeyns [at] gmail.com; I will most likely not respond to those emails [apart from possibly acknowledging safe receipt] but hope to address all or most of them in due course here on our blog. Other Timberites have also done some work on the capability approach, so perhaps they may also join the party at some point.

Socialism in America

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 12, 2014

Paul Krugman has an interesting piece in which he argues that huge disparities in incomes undermine the dignity of the worst-paid workers. This sentence struck me most:

we live in the age of the angry billionaire, furious if anyone should suggest that his wealth doesn’t entitle him to acclamation as well as luxury.

On that topic, I’m inviting all American billionaires to attend a talk at the Stanford Center for Ethics in Society on Thursday where I will be arguing that the billionaire has a duty not to be rich. [If you’re not a billionaire, you’re equally welcome.] I think there are a couple of good arguments to give for this view, including arguments along the line that Chris wrote here recently. I’ve presented these arguments before to British, Dutch and mixed European audiences, and am curious whether the reactions of Americans will be different.

I’m prepared to be surprised. Even more so given a scene that happened on Sunday at a plantation in Louisiana that I visited, after a great tour in which I learnt a lot about the horrible conditions under which slaves had been working so that the plantation owners could build their wealth:

Me [asking a sales person in the plantation shop]: “How much should I tip the tour guide? What is the custom?”
Sales person: “Whatever you feel like.”
Me: “But I have no idea. I live in a country where we don’t tip anyone.”
Sales person: “Really? That’s not a good idea!”
Me: “We don’t tip because we pay decent wages.”
Sales person (with voice raised) “But that is socialism!”

Now if even an ordinary American, working on a former slavery plantation where he is every day reminded of a past of exploitation and gross violations of human dignity, believes that ‘decent wages’ implies ‘socialism’, then I start to understand that Krugman faces an uphill battle generating a reasonable debate about income inequality and human dignity. Let’s just hope that my encounter at the plantation wasn’t representative for the range of categories in which people are thinking.

Epistemic humility

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 7, 2013

A colleague who lost his teenage son due to a traffic accident 3 years ago, told us about the ‘black halo’ which remains above his head, and which only others who have lost a child are able to see. I do not doubt for a second that this is the case – that people who have not lost a child are, perhaps a very few exceptions aside, not able to truly understand what it means to lose a child, and how it changes the person you are. It reminds me of a friend who lost her father about a year after I lost mine. She had been very supportive when my father was terminally ill and died, but told me after her father died that she had no idea how hard it was until she experienced it herself. Good intentions are simply not enough to understand certain experiences.

I think it’s not just with experiences, but also with varieties of ‘differences’ and with social practices, being ill, and other features of human life. It is not just the death of someone near and dear that we have a hard time to understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves; or what it means to have autism, or to live with and/or care for someone who has autism (in my experience, most people don’t understand, despite what they believe themselves about their understanding); or what it is to be constantly subjected to racism. I am confident that I have no clue what it means to grow up in abject poverty, or to live through a civil war, or to be the victim of domestic abuse.

My worry is that this category of experiences, differences, practices, and other features of human life that we cannot understand without first-person experience, is much larger than we generally tend to assume. And that as a consequence, we believe that we know much more than we actually do know. And, as a further consequence, that we too often are wrong in our judgements of aspects of the lives of people significantly different than ourselves.

Somehow it strikes me as wise, and possibly even as a precondition for social justice, if we would rehabilitate epistemic humility at the core of our educational and social practices.

Economics as a moral science

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

For a while I have been working on a paper on democracy, expert knowledge, and economics as a moral science. [The financial crisis plays a role in the motivation of the paper, but the arguments I’m advancing turn out to be only contingently related to the crisis]. One thing I argue is that, given its direct and indirect influence on policy making and for reasons of democratic accountability, economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the theory-building.

The textbook example in the philosophy of economics literature to illustrate the insufficiently acknowledged value-ladenness of economics is the notion of Pareto efficiency, also known as ‘the Pareto criterion’. Yet time and time again (for me most recently two days ago at a seminar in Oxford) I encounter economists (scholars or students) who fail to see why endorsing Pareto efficiency is not value-neutral, or why there are good reasons why one would not endorse the Pareto-criterion. Here’s an example in print of a very influential economist: Gregory Mankiw.
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