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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?

Sunday* Photoblogging: slave cabins

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 31, 2014


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.

  • 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…]