Posts by author:


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.
[click to continue…]

Surprising support for the Post-Crash Economics Society

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

Economics students from the University of Manchester have set up the Post-Crash Economics Society. The subtitle of their website summarizes their mission:

The world has changed, the syllabus hasn’t – is it time to do something about it?

I am probably getting old but in any case can’t suppress a déjà-vu feeling.

Paris June 2000.
Cambridge University June 2001.
The Kansas City Proposal August 2001.
Harvard University November 2011.

and there surely were more that I don’t recall.

Yet what’s interesting is that the Post-Crash group get strong support from a surprising corner. Is there someone out here/there who can tell us what an ‘early day motion’ in British Parliament precisely means, politically?

The Reason I Jump

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 27, 2013

Recently I read the book The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. This is a very unusual book, for both its content and its format. The writer, Naoki Higashida, wrote this book when he was 13. It consists of 58 questions and answers that give a picture of autism from the inside – and this time not from one of the few people with autism who are also verbally strong (often people with Asperger’s), but written by a boy who has sever communication problems. He wrote the book using an alphabet grid; a helper can then transcribe what he wants to tell us.

Naoki gives answers to questions such as “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” or “Why do you take ages to answer questions?” or “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” – and the question that gave the book it’s title “What’s the reason you jump?”. The answers are highly interesting and revelatory of the autistic mind – at least, of one autistic mind. It takes ages to answer a question because “by the time it’s our turn to speak, the reply we wanted to make has often upped and vanished from our heads … and all the while, we’re being bombarded by yet more questions. I end up thinking, this is just hopeless. It’s as if I’m drowning in a flood of words.” [his italics]. And the reason he jumps? “When something happens that affects me emotionally, my body seizes up as if struck by lightening. … it means I am not free to move the way I want.” [click to continue…]

And the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics…

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 14, 2013

Wait, why do we have actually have The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel ? If you have ten minutes to spare, Philip Mirowski will give us part of the answer, and tell us about his research project investigating this issue.

One woman, two votes

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 13, 2013

I became a Dutch citizen earlier this year. That is, I became a Dutch citizen given the definition of ‘citizen’ that most political scientists would use – someone with full political rights, including the right to vote and the right to stand for election. The process was partly Kafkaesque – perhaps I’ll tell you some more about that another time.

The reason I wanted Dutch citizenship is that I want to be able to vote in the country in which I live, in which I plan to stay, in which my children grow up, in which I work, in which I pay taxes, and – perhaps the most important – where I care a lot about how institutions are being redesigned and policies implemented. The reason I didn’t apply for Dutch citizenship earlier on, is that it has only recently become possible for me to acquire Dutch citizenship without losing my Belgian citizenship. And I didn’t want to give up Belgian citizenship, since at the ‘personal identity’ level it feels like a denial of part of oneself if one has to give up the nationality that has shaped the person one has become. I think people should be able to hold two passports since one’s nationality does not only reflect which political community one regards oneself most engaged with, but also one’s identity at a deeper level – whatever one prefers to call this – the psychological level or related to one’s personal self-narrative, or something similar.

But now I am in this remarkable position to be a person with two votes. I can vote for the national and regional elections in Belgium, and for local, national and European elections in the Netherlands. Isn’t this a violation of the deep democratic principle we all know by the slogan ‘one man, one vote’? Some friends have suggested that there is nothing wrong with having two votes, since after all one has ties with both countries. But that doesn’t seem quite right to me, since it would still mean that one person overall has greater political power than their co-citizens.

So I guess my position is this: Two passports: fine. Two votes: not OK. We should have a set of rules such that those of us who hold two passports should prioritise them: the first one gives one all the rights of all other citizens, and the second one gives one all the rights of the citizens except the right to vote.

De Correspondent

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 30, 2013

Today I finished grading more than 250.000 words of MA-theses (that’s what you get when students who don’t graduate by September need to pay fees for an additional year). It feels wonderful, to have an evening in which I can bring the kids to bed without stressing about all that still needs to be done, to make a cup of tea, sit down, and ask myself: ‘So, what shall I do tonight?’.

So lucky me, since today is also the day that De Correspondent got launched, a new completely on-line advertisement-free ‘newspaper’ (not really, no). 100% funded by crowdsourcing – by people who want journalists who serve the readers rather than the stockholders, who don’t want sensation on their frontpage, nor censorship of and selfcensorship by the journalists.

You have to be ‘a member’ to be able to read all the pieces, and it’s all in Dutch. I read a few pieces – on income and wealth inequality in the Netherlands, on the increasing numbers of walls on Earth that separate countries or areas, and a column by Arnon Grunberg—and my first thoughts were: this looks really good. The lay-out is great, it’s user-friendly. I like it. Yet content-wise, it’s much more like our place here then like a newspaper. But with much more power: they have money (more than 20.000 ‘members’ who donated money), and with those monies they could hire journalists – I mean, ‘correspondents’. Some of these correspondents will be writing full-time for De Correspondent, but some will hold other positions, like Ewald Engelen, who holds a chair in financial geography at the University of Amsterdam.

Since the platform is online-only, since pieces will be released at several moments during the day, and since readers can leave comments, I would think that the correspondent is a blog, really – though very likely and hopefully a high-powered blog. It’s interesting that they don’t present themselves as such. Why that would be – I have no idea. In the meantime I’m really glad they are there, proud to be a supporter of this adventure (oops, I should say ‘member’), and looking forward to watching their impact on the quality of the public debate.

New kings in the Low Countries

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 21, 2013

As I am writing this, a new King is being inaugurated in Belgium, King Filip/Philippe. That is only a few months after the Netherlands also saw a change of Royal power, where Queen Beatrix made room for King Willem-Alexander. The new Kings share one thing in common – they both have wives that are more popular than themselves, and both Queens are said to be very smart, warm and sympathetic. But that’s where the comparison ends.
[click to continue…]

What makes a popular philosophy book a good book?

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 15, 2013

I’ve lately been contemplating the question of what makes a popular philosophy book a good book. I am focussing on the case of philosophy professors who are writing a book that is explicitly aimed at a broader audience, and who may or may not also have written scholarly articles on the topic of their popular-philosophy book. Which quality-criteria should that book meet? Here are some thoughts.
[click to continue…]

One huge step forward

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 26, 2013

This one is for our American friends.


The City of Utrecht, where I live, recently decided to make this Rainbow Crossing in order to make explicit that it wants to be a city where gays are equally welcome as straight people. I took this picture a week ago and wanted to post it next Saturday when Utrecht celebrates Pink Saturday. But I think today is more appropriate. Congratulations to all American Gay activists for this huge step forward in their struggle for genuine equal rights, respect and recognition.

Journal of Practical Ethics: a new open-access journal

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 20, 2013

So this looks interesting – the Oxford Uehiro Center for Ethics has launched a new open access journal called Journal of Practical Ethics, with as subtitle: A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World. Roger Crisp and Julian Savulescu have written a brief introduction in which they explain how they will run their journal and why they believe there is a need for such a journal. They argue, rightly in my view:

We believe that the ideas and arguments of many moral and political philosophers are of significant relevance to problems in contemporary life. Not only are these arguments of interest to the general public, but they are of relevance to political and social leaders, legislators and civil servants. However, there is less than optimal penetration of this philosophical work beyond the confines of academe.

I think this is great news – we need more of these ‘bridges’ between academic philosophy and the wider public that are initiated by academics, since academics have the best access to/information about the latest philosophical research that deserves to be ‘translated’ to a wider audience, and academics can also make sure that no unacceptable simplifications are made (I can’t speak for the UK, but some of what is being published under the heading ‘popular philosophy’ in my country makes me want to cry. Translation for a wider audience shouldn’t mean having no standards at all, apart from the standards of the market for popular philosophy. This, incidentally, is the topic of a blogpost I have been wanting to write for a while and which I promise you for sometime in the next two weeks).

Follow the Turkish protests on Twitter

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 15, 2013

I know philosophers who are skeptical about the value of Twitter—they think it’s merely a time sink, or they make even more ridiculous claims, such as that it is undermining genuine social relations and friendships. Oh Boy. Right now it is an amazing source of information on what is really going on in Turkey – and that doesn’t really look good when I am typing these words. The police is very violently cleaning Gezi park where citizens of all ages have been peacefully protesting. According to various Twitter sources the police is also attacking the hotels in the area which have taken in wounded people. TV coverage (at least in my country) is short and rather superficial—but luckily there is the internet with blogs, online newspapers, citizens’ radios, and twitter. The quickest source of information on what’s going on are live stream coverages like Gezi Radyo and Twitter, where also many pictures can be found. If you want an easy entry point into the tweeps to follow, start with Dani Rodrik and follow those whose tweets he forwards, like Zeynep Tufekci.

Consider this an invitation to post links to more direct sources of information, and also as an ‘open thread’ to discuss what’s happening right now in Turkey.

Good (and bad) news from the Open Access front

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

I recently wrote a short ‘comment’ for the American Journal of Bioethics. The piece is 1788 words long, the names and affiliations of my co-author and myself included. So that will make for 3, perhaps 4 printed pages, right? Now, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of the AJoBE offered the possibility to make this piece Open Access. Price: $2,950. I say: ridiculous. One of my colleagues said: Obscene. Sure, you might say, but they need to pay the editorial office who guards the refereeing proces of the target article to which we respond. But who did the refereeing? Indeed: two (or three) scholars, for free. And where does the net profit of all this goes? Right, not to the author, not to the referees, not to the universities, not to the taxpayers in the case of publically funded research. I know it’s practically very difficult to boycot this commercial Open Access model, but my little revenge will be in making some free advertisement below for two wonderful Open Access initiatives.

The best news from the open access front that reached my desk is that Open Book Publishers, the Cambridge(UK)-based open access publisher (where – full disclosure- I also have a book under contract), has published its first philosophy book. And not just any philosophy book, but a book by the very eminent philosopher David Velleman, called Foundations for Moral Relativism. As with the other books published by Open Book Publishers, it can be read online for free, or bought as a PDF for a few pounds or bought at a low price as a bounded copy via print-on-demand. I love this model, and perhaps should go off the internet completely until I’ve finished my own book that will also be open access. In fact, if I can raise 3500 UK Pounds, I can make the PDF available for free too. I think that’s a much better way to spend (public) funds than $ 2950 for a 3 or 4 page piece.

But equally good news comes from Axel Gosseries and Yannick Vanderborght, who published a year ago a Festschrift for Philippe Van Parijs, called Arguing about Justice. The book was published in paperback by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain, and now, one year later, is available online, here or here. At a conference a few weeks ago, Axel said that this is what he negotiated with the publisher when they published the book with them a while ago. So that’s an Open Access model too—individual negotiation – that some of us can consider to pursue. In any case, the Van Parijs Festschrift has lots of interesting and provocative pieces, well worth browsing and subsequent reading. Enjoy!

Marianne Ferber died

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

Marianne Ferber died a few days ago, at age 90. Ferber was one of the founding feminist economists. There is a nice Obit by Frances Woolley here.

I remember Marianne from the IAFFE conferences that I visited as a grad student. One of the most striking memories I have about her is how she would, despite her seniority and fame/status in the field, talk to anyone – indeed, perhaps she even looked out for those who were young or new to the feminist economic community – a virtue one does not always see among the most senior/famous people in a field, and which was definitely not my experience at other economic events. I also remember some of our conversations – how courageously she was in thinking independently and fearlessly and taking the analysis where the argument goes, rather than where the model forces you to stop. As for other women of her age, you can only dream of how she could have been even much more influential if she had been given the same opportunities as men of her generation.

Marianne Ferber will be much missed, not only by her family and friends, but by everyone in the feminist economics community.

Du kan gå nu.

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 15, 2013

The celebrated Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri has written a powerful open letter to the Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask (original in Swedish, English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles). Following an interview in which Ask allegedly said that what people claimed to be racial profiling was merely a matter of “personal experience”, Hassen Khemiri gave his account of how it is to grow up in Sweden in a skin that’s darker than pale white, and with black hair. And what the new law that is leading to this racial profiling does to (some) people, including some Swedish citizens.

This is powerful stuff. Do read it.

“Du kan gå nu.” Without apologies.