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My colleagues put together a free MOOC that gives an introduction to the relationships between economic inequality and democracy (in particular political equality). I saw them working very hard over the months – it’s a hell of a lot of work to make a MOOC, even more so if you do this as a voluntary add-on to your regular work. Hence I’d like to salute them for their efforts, and share this with you since I’m a big fan of all things open access. I do not doubt that this will be interesting for people who are new to this question – which does not include most of the readers of this blog since we’ve been discussing these issues here repeatedly. But if you know people who might be interested, do let them now. There is no required background, and the MOOC is offered for free. More information below the fold.
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The Imprints’ Archive

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 12, 2019

Almost ten years ago, Chris wrote a blogpost announcing that the last issue of Imprints had been sent to the subscribers. Political philosophers beyond a certain age had greatly enjoyed the articles, bookreviews and interviews published by Imprints, but it was not possible to continue. But we should not forget – and this post is merely a reminder for us not to forget – that the entire Imprints’ Archive is online.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went to a lecture by Elizabeth Anderson in Amsterdam, who – to my surprise – during her talk endorsed limitarianism. Chris remarked on FB that this was a departure from her earlier views in which she merely supported sufficientarianism. The 2005 interview with Anderson in Imprints seems to support Chris’ observation, since she said (p. 15) the following:

‘Some people care about getting lost of this stuff [that doesn’t matter from a political point of view]. Once citizens’ satiable interest in securing social equality are satisfied, and he system secures for all a decent chance to get more, the state has no further interests of justice in micromanaging how the gains from cooperation are divided.”
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The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse?

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 21, 2019

I have no idea how he found it, but George Monbiot read an (open access) academic article that I wrote, with the title “What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth?’ In this paper I outline some arguments for the view that there should be an upper limit to how much income and wealth a person can hold, which I called (economic) limitarianism. Monbiot endorses limitarianism, saying that it is inevitable if we want to safeguard life on Earth.

As Monbiot’s piece rightly points out, there are many reasons to believe that there should be a cap on how much money we can have. Having too much money is statistically highly likely to lead to taking much more than one’s fair share from the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses absorbing capacity and other ecological commons; it is a threat to genuine democracy; it is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the children of the rich, and to the capacity of the rich to act autonomously when it concerns moral questions (which includes the reduced capacity for empathy of the rich); and, as I’ve argued in a short Dutch book on the topic that I published earlier this year, extreme wealth is hardly ever (if ever at all) deserved. And if those reasons weren’t enough, one can still add the line of Peter Singer and the effective altruists that excess money would have much greater moral and prudential value if it were spent on genuine needs, rather than on frivolous wants.

Monbiot wrote: “This call for a levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.”
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David and Eric Schwitzgebel have made a list of the 295 most cited philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. On Facebook, Harry commented:

Nussbaum is #10 on this list—not especially surprising. The next woman on the list is Anscombe, at #48. Then Korsgaard at #57, Anderson at #63. Foot comes in at #139 (after Millikan, Cartwright, Thomson, Young and Annas). 10 women in the top 139 is a bit shocking, but the low ranking of Anscombe and Foot is more than a bit shocking. Some of it can be explained away—the list favors the present over the past (and especially, I would guess, the teachers of the people who write for SEP), it favors people who’ve written many somewhat influential pieces over people who have written a few very influential pieces, and it favors people who write about many things over those who write about few things. But add all of those factors together and you don’t come close to explaining why there are so few women in the top #139, and you come even less close to explaining the rankings of Anscombe and Foot in particular.

It is quite depressing indeed, but not at all surprising. There are enough research papers showing that, trying to keep all other factors constant (e.g. by conducting audit studies), women receive less recognition in academia than men. No need to review that literature here again. Not only the women who would be candidates for “top 295” lists, but across the full spectrum of degrees of seniority. But there is more to be said. [click to continue…]

How to debate universal basic income

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 9, 2019

Daron Acemoglu has a piece at Project Syndicate arguing that basic income is a bad policy. His argument, in a nutshell, is that a truly universal basic income (UBI) would be prohibitively expensive, and that raising additional taxes to pay it “would impose massive distortionary costs on the economy”. The alternative, to cut all existing social programs for the sake of UBI, would be “a terrible idea”, since these programs are targeting those that are particularly vulnerable or needy. He argues that the political effects of a UBI would be bad – a UBI would “keep people at home, distracted, and otherwise pacified”, whereas “we need to rejuvenate democratic politics, boost civic involvement, and seek collective solutions”. For Acemoglu, the top priorities in the USA should be “universal health care, more generous unemployment benefits, better-designed retraining programs, and an expanded earned income tax credit (EITC)”, as well as higher minimum wages.

I share Acemoglu’s view that “One should always be wary of simple solutions to complex problems, and universal basic income is no exception.” In a paper I wrote last year (alas, in Dutch, and I haven’t had the time to translate it, but perhaps google translate can help us a little), I’ve argued that the debate on universal basic income is confused and confusing, and will not be getting us far, because too many papers/interventions are not clear about their assumptions, are not spelling out the goals (e.g. is the primary aim poverty reduction or creating freedom from the need to submit to the labour market for survival or something else), and are not giving the details of the package deal. [click to continue…]

Five stitches and Røbic’s music

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 12, 2019

I was for the second time in my life as a parent on the emergency room yesterday. Our youngest (11yo) son and I went shopping in the afternoon, and bought a new bread knife. Well, it was sharp, and because he has been using our (very old) bread knife for a long time without ever causing any problems, we had not worried enough about what would happen if we let him use a razor-sharp new bread knife. He made a mistake when cutting a bun, and suddenly was standing in front of me with a yawning gap in his hand. [click to continue…]

A moral puzzle on individual climate action

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 23, 2019

The Dutch philosopher Marc Davidson posted the following on the closed FB-group Climate ethics research (reproduced here with Marc’s permission):

Who can help with this moral riddle? Somewhere in the near future I have to be in Venice [leaving from Amsterdam]. I can take the train for about 200 Euro, which emits 0.04 ton CO2. Or I can take the plane for about 40 Euro, which emits 0.15 ton CO2 AND spend 160 Euro on buying emissions rights from the EU ETS which will remove 8 ton CO2 emissions. What is better for the climate and what is the moral right thing to do? I really intend to spend the entire difference on compensation.
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Next week: the EthicsLab launch in Yaoundé

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 16, 2019

Next week, the EthicsLab is launched in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. This is a new research center on ethics and public policy at the Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale, which aims to foster research on these issues in Central Africa. The launching is a big event, with one week of workshops as well as a conference where ethicists and political philosophers from around the world come together to help the EthicsLab build its research agenda.

The driving force behind the EthicsLab is Dr. Thierry Ngosso, currently a Berggruen Fellow at the J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, who has been working towards this launch for many years. I am in absolute admiration of how he has managed to get this together – given that he did this as a PhD-student and subsequently during a series of temporary postdocs positions. But Thierry has been very smart and very patient, building this step by step, first organising a series of Summerschools with help of his (local and international) friends, and then taking the next step to launch the EthicsLab.

For me, as a European participant to this event, I also feel very excited about getting to know so many political philosophers and ethicists who are based in Africa. The list of participants consists of a mixture of philosophers from different African countries, or African philosophers working outside Africa, as well as international (mainly American and European) colleagues. It’s not surprising that we know colleagues from nearby places better than from further away places. But still, I know more international colleagues from the US, Canada and Australia than from Africa or Latin-America: resources, and possibly also language, matter too.

So, three cheers for the EthicsLab, and wishing them lots of success in strengthening ethics and political philosophy in Central Africa!

Lessons from Dutch academic activism (part 1)

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 15, 2019

I have been a very poor blogger here at CT recently. That’s because I took up a second job – namely becoming an activist for the reform of the funding of Dutch academia. I have been wanting to try to write on this here repeatedly, but one thing that stopped me was that I didn’t know where to start. So rather than overstreching myself (what I have already been doing in real life…), I thought I can write a series of posts (irregularly, and I may not write more than two or three) on what general lessons one can learn from being an academic who engages in activism to reform academia.

So off we go, with lesson 1.
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On our way to zero net emissions

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 3, 2019

In many avenues of my life, people are now discussing whether we should reduce our emissions and if so, how much they should reduce their emissions and what we will still permit ourselves to do (meat? flying? driving our gasoline car? buying some new stuff we would like but can also live without?). Academically, the question of the fair division of the remaining emissions, as well as the question whether we should frame this as a moral duty for inviduals or rather merely to those in power to change institutions, are part of the Fair Limits project that I’m directing. Politically, we’ve seen these questions discussed in newspapers, on blogs and on twitter, including penetrating comments such as this one by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (who, according to Wikipedia, turns 16 today – happy birthday, Greta!):
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A philosophical experiment about inequality

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 3, 2018

Crossposted by co-writer Tim Meijers at Justice Everywhere

Political philosophers often engage in thought experiments, which involve putting hypothetical persons in hypothetical scenarios. However, it is often challenging to find ways to involve real, non-hypothetical, people with the questions we are dealing with, aside from the more traditional ways to engage in outreach such as debates and opinion pieces. Recently, the Fair Limits team* – which studies the plausibility of upper limits in the distribution of economic and ecological resources – attempted a new way to engage the public by making use of a participatory “veil-of-ignorance” thought experiment. [click to continue…]

Lang leve de jarigen!

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 3, 2018

It’s Chris’s 60th birthday today – Happy Birthday, Chris!

Since this blog owes a lot to Chris (that is an understatement…), I want to let you know that on FB, Chris has launched a fundraiser for Bristol Refugee Rights, an organisator supporting refugees in Bristol of which Chris is the Chair of the trustees. If you’re on FB I am sure you can find your way there to the place to donate; otherwise, you can use this link.

Chris shares his birthday with my sister (Gelukkige verjaardag, zusje!) and with my former PhD-supervisor Amartya Sen, who celebrates his 85th birthday today (Happy birthday, Amartya!).

Since I was writing to them today, it occurred to me that the Dutch language has a word that, according to my knowledge of English and the online dictionary that I consulted, doesn’t have an equivalent in English: de jarige – the person who has their birthday. Either I am wrong, and then you sharp people will surely teach me a new word, or else I may have found one of the very few words in Dutch that doesn’t have an English equivalent (most of the time, it’s the other way around).

Lang leve de jarigen!

Three cheers for Urgenda!

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 9, 2018

I’ve been absent here since over the last weeks all my time except for teaching and other non-postponable duties has gone into nation-wide activism to end the underfunding of universities in the Netherlands – about which another time, hopefully soon, more in another blogpost. But I wanted to briefly interrupt my absence to share with you the good news that Urgenda, has won the Appeal that the Dutch State made against the famous 2015 Climate Case that Urgenda won, on which I wrote here at the time. For some brief reports about today’s ruling, see the NYT, the Guardian, or in Dutch, NRC. [click to continue…]

Touched by the hands in Pech Merle

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 4, 2018

We visited the Cave of Pech Merle yesterday, which is famous for its prehistorical paintings of bisons, mammoths, horses, and other animals. Those paintings have been made by people who, according to our guide, were almost identical to us, except, she said, that they were taller than us – on average 1 meter 85 centimeter. Pech Merle has a website that is a bit slow (at least, given my present internet-conditions), but it has a very interesting part where you can enter the cave virtually.
I’ve visited many caves in my life, but never one with prehistorical paintings, and was very impressed. If you ever get a chance to see them, do go see them! Although the crown piece of the cave are two dotted horses, which are large and in excellent condition and include something of an optical illusion (avant la lettre?)—I was especially touched by the painting of the hands of the people. There are a number of hands, painted in black, close to the dotted horses, presumably by a man (or several men); and then there is this single hand in red, which is presumably from a woman. At first, I was surprised to note that the hands touched me more than the animals (which may be seen as artistically more sophisticated). I guess that seeing a hand brings the presence of the human being closer than seeing a non-human animal. People, almost identical to us, who made paintings in a cave, some 20.000 years ago, that we can still watch today…


by Ingrid Robeyns on July 28, 2018

I hope those of you based in the right places enjoyed the red moon last night. The day before yesterday, we enjoyed a fabulous bright and almost full moon, while sipping some French wine on top of a hill in the Midi-Pyrénées. But alas, yesterday we had only clouds around the time we had hoped to enjoy the red moon. Still, they were pretty spectacular too – at least, a bit earlier in the evening.