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Mourn not just for Paris, but for the World

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 15, 2015

After the horrible attacks in Paris, a day of mourning is only appropriate. But we’d better mourn for all victims of extreme and systematic violence – not just in Paris, but also in Beirut, Baghdad, and other places.

The day before the Paris attacks, 41 people where killed in an attack by IS/ISIS in Southern Beirut.

In Baghdad, an IS/ISIS attack on a mosque killed 18 people, and 2 earlier this week when a Shiite place of worship was hit by two road bombs.

In the meantime, thousands of refugees that are fleeing for the violence of IS/ISIS are trying to get into Europe in horrific circumstances, many losing their lives along the way.

Let us not compare these tragedies. Yet let us also not just mourn for the tragedy that happens in places that we know best, or people we most identify with. Instead, let us mourn for all those lost lives, for all the suffering that could be avoided, if only we, as the human species, hadn’t gotten ourself into this horrific mess.

Impressions from the first IPSP authors meeting

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2015

Over the last three days, the first meeting of authors of the International Panel of Social Progress (IPSP) was held in Istanbul. The IPSP is to some extent modeled after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but one important difference is that it is not commissioned by governments, but rather fully peer-led and hence ‘autonomous’ (in at least one important sense of that word). There are some partners/funders, but they have no influence on the content of the report. The entire event is quite experimental: a highly interdisciplinary group of scholars, drawn from around the world, will try to write a report capturing the state of the art on social change, and look at paths for a better future.

A bunch of visionary social scientists and humanities scholars (under the leadership of Marc Fleurbaey) felt that scholars from the social sciences and humanities (SSH) should team up to tackle the question of social change and social progress – summarize what the SSH have to say on this, and how we can in a systematic way think about which institutions and practices have brought us social progress and which ones have not, and which options are open for the future. Apart from it being not commissioned by a government, there is another major difference with the IPCC. The nature of the substance is quite different; we are not dealing with the ecosystems of the Earth, but rather with social change – a topic where empirical research is quite strongly influenced by theoretical frameworks and conceptual choices, and which is also inevitably normatively laden when it comes to evaluations and suggestions for paths for the future. As a consequence, it will be impossible, given the nature of the beast, to aim to report on consensus. In the SSH, there is only often to a limited extent a consensus on ‘facts’, and most of the time no consensus at all about normative issues. How, then, can there be a report that aims to summarize what scholars in the SSH know about social change and social progress? [click to continue…]

In 2014, the Dutch NGO Urgenda, together with 886 citizens, filed a law suit against the Dutch state for not taking sufficient action to limit climate change. Today, the court gave its verdict, which could live be followed on internet (in Dutch, without subtitles). The court has also immediately put an English translation of the ruling online. And the court has ruled:

The Hague District Court has ruled today that the State must take more action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. The State also has to ensure that the Dutch emissions in the year 2020 will be at least 25% lower than those in 1990.

Many parties have called this a historical ruling, and no doubt this may inspire citizens and activist NGOs in other countries to take their States to court. Few commentators expected that the court would come to this ruling. Many believed that the court would not want to burn its fingers on what is essentially a political process; indeed, some have even gone so far to question whether the division of powers of the Trias Politica would be violated. Yet the court provided an answer to that worry:

With this order, the court has not entered the domain of politics. The court must provide legal protection, also in cases against the government, while respecting the government’s scope for policymaking. For these reasons, the court should exercise restraint and has limited therefore the reduction order to 25%, the lower limit of the 25%-40% norm.

The fact that the ruling only concerns 25% of CO2 reductions highlights that this is not the end of our struggles. A 25% reduction may be fanastic since it’s a court ruling (and that gives it a special kind of political status), but it is not enough. We should also not forgot the sadness of the situation – that we had to go to court to force the government to take action, in a country where legal action is generally not considered a way to do politics or bring activist concerns into the political arena.

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Sharing information on student protests

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 21, 2015


Students and staff who are occupying and protesting: share information!
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There has been a lot of discussion about the deteriorating prospects of Humanities PhDs. Many insiders have argued that it is increasingly hard for those gaining a PhD in the humanities to find a decent job in academia – and that seems to be the place most humanities PhDs would like to end up.

In the Netherlands, we have also had discussions recently on whether there are not too many Philosophy PhD students (and more broadly humanities PhDstudents), and whether those pursuing a Philosophy PhD have realistic expectations of their chances of getting a job in academia. In those debates, one often hears the rough number that about 9 out of 10 PhD students aspires to have an academic job, yet only between 1 and 2 end up in academia. If that is true, there is a serious mismatch between expectations and objective outcomes. Moreover, there is also the impression that the situation has become worse due to the budget cuts for higher education.

I am setting up a small project in order to gain a better understanding of the expectations of Philosophy PhD students in the Netherlands. To the best of my knowledge, we totally lack any information on the career expectations of Philosophy PhD students in the Netherlands, and the career outcomes of those who acquired a Philosophy PhD in the past. At present, there is no systematic information about what Philosophy PhD students expect or hope for after graduating. Neither do we know the extent to which this fits with the opportunities they will encounter.
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Thanking the folks who are reaching out #WAAD

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 2, 2015

It’s World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). The Independent has a very accessible piece debunking 5 myths regarding autistic people; it takes only two minutes to read. The piece also reports that in the UK 87% of people living with autism think the public has a bad understanding of the condition.

While my family has also come across a lot of ignorance over the years – some of which hurt badly – there are also wonderful strangers who have restored faith in what is possible. So, I want to dedicate a post to those people who are reaching out to people with autism, and tell them how important it is what they do.
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Maagdenhuis Occupation

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 25, 2015

At this very moment, you can watch a live stream of the occupation of the Central Building of the University of Amsterdam. This is in fact the second building that students have been occupying: in the last ten days, they occupied another historical university building, the Bungehuis, which will be turned into a posh hotel. That building was occupied for 10 days, but was forcefully evacuated yesterday; 46 people have been arrested.

The demands of the students can be found (if and when their website is not down) at this website. Basically they want to have a more democratically run university – with a university board that is elected by both staff and students (right now, Dutch Faculty and students have only very weak and indirect democratic power.) In addition, they are protesting what you could call the increasingly utilitarian or economistic approach to higher education and science policy. I can’t give you all the details in this post, but the story is familiar, and sounds quite similar to what has been happening in the UK (my hunch is that the Netherlands is following the UK’s path, with a few years time lag).

The members of the University of Amsterdam’s Board spoke to the occupiers about an hour ago – and it was quite surreal to be able to watch this form of direct action/civil disobedience at the same time from that close yet from far away (I am simply at home in another town). Yet the board of the university has filed a legal complaint, and the latest news would be that the Maagdenhuis-building could be evacuated in the next hour. In which case, you may be able to see it on the live stream. Who knows.

Amsterdam being Amsterdam, most of the discussions are held in English, so you can simply follow this real-life political drama right now. For your information, it’s 11.30 pm when I’m posting this and the occupation started at about 8 pm.

Breaking news: world leaders gathering in Baga, Nigeria

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 13, 2015

In Paris, France, about 20 people were killed in hyper-violent attacks, by gunmen claiming to fight for what they see as the values embedded in Islam.

In Baga, Nigeria, about 2.000 people were killed in hyper-violent attacks, by gunmen claiming to fight for what they see as the values embedded in Islam.

In Paris, world political leaders gathered to demonstrate in defense of freedom and against terrorism. They mourned the loss of 20 white Europeans. The events led to intense media exposure and public debates worldwide.

In Baga, world political leaders will soon gather to demonstrate in defense of freedom and against terrorism. They will mourn the loss of 20,000 Black Africans. It is expected that these events will lead to intense media exposure and public debates worldwide.

Occupy Central: Civil disobedience in Hong Kong

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 27, 2014

Important developments in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting to get more democratic reforms. According to various internet reports (various posts at the BBC-website, Hufftington, Bloomberg), college and university students went on strike last Monday to protest Beijing’s decision to not allow open nominations for candidates for the 2017 elections in which the leader of Hong Kong would get elected. Protesters are worried that the closed nominations will mainly draw candidates who follow the Beijing line. From the perspective of an outsider, this seems like a textbook case of elections which will not be democratic if nominations themselves are not democratic.

The civil disobedience movement demanding more democracy is known as Occupy Central: the BBC has a short piece on the movement that helpfully explains their demands and gives some background information. Occupy Central is planning a multiple-day sit-in at Hong-Kong’s financial district starting October 1st.

According to the BBC, “most of China’s state-run media outlets have not commented directly on the student-led protests.” Which makes it all the more urgent and important that people-controled media, such as independent blogs like ours, share the news and talk about it. Consider this an open thread, for sharing views, information, insights and updates.

On Monday, 13 October 2014, at 11.45 am, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics will be announced (yes, we know it is officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel but that’s not the focus of this post). Some have said that the prize should go to Thomas Piketty, for his best-selling, important and highly influential book Capital in the twenty-first century. I, too, think this is a great book, for a variety of reasons.

But there is another inequality economist who is at least equally, and arguably much more deserving of the Nobel prize, and that is Anthony B. (Tony) Atkinson. For close readers of Piketty’s work, this claim shouldn’t be surprising, since Piketty credits Atkinson with “being a model for me during my graduate school days, [and Atkinson] was the first reader of my historical work on inequality in France and immediately took up the British case as well as a number of other countries” (Capital, vii). In a recent interview with Nick Pearce and Martin O’Neill which was published in Juncture, Thomas Piketty calls Tony Atkinson “the Godfather of historical studies on income and wealth” (p. 8). So my hunch is that Piketty would endorse the claim that if the Nobel Prize were awarded to welfare economics/inequality measurement, that Atkinson should get the Nobel Prize.
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Thomas Piketty has power that heterodox economists never had

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 22, 2014

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am an apostate of the economics discipline. When I was 17, I wanted to study something that would be useful to help make the world a better place. I thought that economics would meet that requirement, and it also seemed natural since I always had a strong interest in politics, in particular the question how to organize society. For reasons explained here, I eventually gave up the hope that economics (as I studied it in the 1990s) could give me that knowledge, and diverted to political theory/philosophy and later also ethics, where I’ve been happy ever since.

But for the first time since many years, I felt a shiver of regret for having left economics – and that was when in April this year I started reading Capital in the Twenty-first Century, the best-selling book by Thomas Piketty. Reading Capital was a great intellectual adventure, while at the same time enjoyable to read (many have said the translator, Arthur Goldhammer, deserves part of the latter credits). It is hard for academic economics to evoke positive feelings in its readers, but Capital did so with me for at least two reasons.
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The Freedom of the University

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 17, 2014

In January 1951, Robert Maynard Hutchins, President and later Chancellor at the University of Chicago, published a short paper in Ethics, called “The Freedom of the University”. Any academic who hasn’t read it, should read it. And if you are currently engaged in the protests against the hirefire of Steven Salaita (see Corey’s posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here), or if you worry about what Corey rightly called a contemporary instance of McCarthyism, or if you are worried about the influence of money on the universities as Henry discussed here recently, this paper, of a mere ten pages, may be even more interesting for you.

Here’s what Hutchins said in 1951.
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Perhaps difficult to read, but do enjoy the cover!

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 16, 2014

Once, several years ago, I asked Henry or Kieran how many readers this blog has (I wanted to use this information to please some academic bean counters), and the number I got was about 8,000 unique readers a day. I referred to this figure yesterday in a FB-discussion, and Chris told me that currently CT has about 12,000 daily viewers. Hi, all of you! Now, how many of you read Dutch? Perhaps 250? How many of those are interested in an introduction to Ethics book? Three? (the other Dutch philosophers reading this already had their ethics undergrad training, I am sure). So I have no illusions that many of our readers will be interested in the book that I coedited and that just got published, and which features 21 chapters providing a comprehensive intro to ethics, written by 21 philosophers based in the Netherlands. But, as some of you know (Harry in particular), I care a lot, perhaps excessively much so, about the aesthetics of book covers. And I can say I am quite pleased with this one. So perhaps this book is of no interest to 11,997 of you, but I hope you will enjoy the cover.

basisboek_ethiekI promise my next post will be about a really interesting book that all 12,000 of you can read, but with a very different kind of cover… Animal rights activists may take offense of that cover, but there’s luckily no relation with its content. Stay tuned.

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…]

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?