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Ingrid

A typology of research questions about society

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 22, 2022

One of the things I really like about my job, is that I have been appointed on a chair with the explicit expectation to advance interdisciplinary collaborations between ethics and political philosophy on the one hand, and the social sciences (broadly defined) on the other. I’ve been co-teaching with historians, taught some courses that were open to students from the entire university, have been giving guest lectures to students in many other programs including economics, pharmacology, education, and geosciences; and I co-supervised a PhD-student in social work. I’ve written an interdisciplinary book on the capability approach, and have co-authored papers with scholars from various disciplines. So interdisciplinarity is deeply engrained in much of what I do professionally.

But while I love it enormously, interdisciplinary teaching and research is also often quite hard. One of the challanges I’ve encountered in practice, is that students as well as professors/researchers are not always able to recognise the many different kind of questions that we can ask about society, its rules, policies, social norms and structures, and other forms of institutions (broadly defined). This then leads to misunderstandings, frustrations, and much time that is lost trying to solve these. I think it would help us if we would better understand the many different types of research that scholars working on all those aspects of society are engaged in. [click to continue…]

When we ask the question what we should do about climate change, the answer to that question depends a lot on who the “we” in that sentence is. There have been many answers to the questions what governments should do, or more in general “what should be done” without specifying who the agent of change is, as in, for example, the list of action points provided by Project Drawdown. We might have responsibilities related to climate change that we have specifically in our roles as elected politicians and office holders, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as investors, and so forth.

But what can citizens, in their capacity of citizens rather than any professional role, do? What can human beings, simply by the fact that they are human beings and thus sharing this planet with other living creatures, do about climate change and ecological degradation?

When searching for an answer to that question, I’ve been wondering whether we could help ourselves by making a compact version of what our action plan to deal with climate change could be. Something that is easy to remember; something that is put in langauge that is not just for insiders or specialists; something that could contribute to a wide range of efforts to get things in motion; something that could serve as a structure, starting point or aide in conversations; and something that can help us very concretely in deciding where to start or what to do next.

Because no matter what the already inevitable consequences of climate change are (such as more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floodings, wildfires etc.), we can always aim to limit the even more harmful consequences that will come with additional increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, we have to prepare for what will come (even under the best-case scenarios). And in unfolding those strategies, it would help to be united as people in our capacity as citizens and inhabitants of this world, and also to feel united and empowered.

Here’s my proposal for a citizens’ climate action plan in 10 bullet points (so easy to remember!). I will only say a few words about each of these bullet points, not aiming at being comprehensive. [click to continue…]

Paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 1, 2022

Over the last years, I’ve observed in a number of cases of policy making something that looked like “paying lipservice”, but upon closer analysis turns out to be something else. In order to effectively understand, evaluate and criticise the actions of those responsible for policies and leadership actions, it might be helpful to make a distinction between three modes in which policy-makers and leaders in groups might operate: paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes.

The policies/leadership actions I will describe could be in an organisation, in a local or national government, or any other instance in which someone is engaged in making decisions that affect a group. It might even be something that we can observe in some smaller or less formalised groups in which some people have authority/leadership responsibilities, such as parents in families.

How do “paying lipservice”, “ticking boxes”, and “doing what it takes” differ, and why could distinguishing between them matter? [click to continue…]

What to do about climate change (1): Not too late

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 17, 2022

“The fact of the matter is: we are in the decade of decision. What we do in the Twenties will determine the fate of the Earth for centuries and millenia to come. And there’s a lot we can do – we can speed the transition away from fossil fuels, losen the death grip of the fossil fuel industry on our government and the world’s energy supplies, build the renewables, protect the soil and the forests, and support all the incredible movements that have already done so much so far, and have ambitions to do exactly what we need to do.” (Rebecca Solnit, Start Making Sense Clips, July 14th)

Yesterday, I discussed with some international colleagues chapter 4 of my book-in-progress on the problems with extreme wealth. That chapter looks at the links between wealth concentration and the ecological and environmental crisis, and ends up offering multiple ecological arguments for economic limitarianism. I open the chapter with a few pages that make it clear that climate change is not a future worry but that it has arrived, and that time is of the essence. Given that global emissions are not coming down yet and that the remaining carbon budget (to stay below 1,5 degrees or even 2 degrees) is very limited, we need to act fast and in a drastic manner. There is no time to go slow, and no time to merely fiddle in the margins.

It doesn’t make for joyful reading, yet most of what I describe that made my colleagues gloomy was merely factual. The facts simply show that matters are very bad and the situation urgent. But that is no reason to despair, since there are various feasible plans for curbing the emissions and speeding up the green transition, and various groups and movements that one can join in order to contribute. The main problems are political, and problems of power. Perhaps we should simply talk much more about what can be done, and what we can concretely do, rather than either deny that climate change is happening (thought that group seems to be shrinking), ignore that it is happening, or believe it is beyond our powers to do anything.

Two years ago I was invited to write a short piece for WWF’s Living Planet Report and argued precisely this – when it comes to the climate crisis, we need to see ourselves first of all as citizens and unite and act as such.

In that spirit, I was delighted to come across a new initiative from Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, called Not Too Late. They want to encourage everyone to join the climate movement, to act as citizens to force politics to establish structural solutions, and to share stories about what climate movements are achieving. [click to continue…]

How to write a good public philosophy book

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 4, 2022

As I might have mentioned here before, I am currently working on a book (provisionally) entitled Limitarianism. The Case Against Extreme Wealth. It will be what publishers call a trade book – that is, written for any reader of nonfiction. I’ve been doing this kind of writing (and talks) in Dutch for much longer; this book I write in English. It will be published by Astra House for North-America, and by Allen Lane/Penguin for the UK and the rest of the world (with translations also in Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian).

As I am also engaged in academic-philosophical debates on limitarianism, it is striking to see what is considered relevant and important in each of those strands of writing. Some pre-occupations by academic philosophers are of little or no importance to the public, such as whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B, or whether limitarianism can be reduced to (a combination of) other distributive principles. For the public the most important question is whether this is an idea that makes sense, and some philosophical preoccupations are about other (more technical) issues. On the other hand, in my experience the public cares a lot about some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context. Academic discussions can be at a level of abstractness that will make you lose most of your readers of nonfiction, even of serious nonfiction.

What else would make a public [political] philosophy book good? Here are my thoughts on this. [click to continue…]

Alternative social media open thread

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 1, 2022

Following Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, some progressive/left-leaning people have left, or are considering to leave. I haven’t left. So far Twitter has been very useful for me for (1) political activism, especially regarding Higher Education policies in my own country; (2) as a source of information – it’s partly a supplement to newspapers and other traditional media; (3) exchanging information with others, worldwide; (4) some debate and exchange of arguments, which sadly is probably part of the reason the blogosphere has been in decline over the last decade. Hence, there are still reasons not to leave, but obviously I am waiting to see how Twitter under Musk-rule will change.

Nevertheless, it’s high time to start looking seriously into the alternatives; this might make it easier/less costly to leave if we ever judge we have to. I’m at square zero concerning Twitter-alternatives, and surely I’m not the only one. Hence my question: what are your experiences on other social media platforms, and do you have any advice to offer to those considering to move to another place?

EV charging challenges

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 30, 2022

About a year ago, the old second-hand car that my husband and I bought in 2007 was nearing its end. It had served us very well, but our car mechanic had been warning us for some years that it wouldn’t last for much longer. So we were contemplating what to do; we thought seriously about car-sharing combined with public transport, but for various reasons (the pandemic being one, having a child with special needs another), we decided to buy another car. We gathered information and decided to buy an electric car. The new car has been wonderful – I’ve never really liked driving a car but driving an EV is much more pleasant. And in Utrecht, the city where we live, the local authorities put new electric chargers in the streets at the same pace that new EVs are registered. So, at home we’ve never encountered any noteworthy difficulties with charging.

Until last week, I think we only had positive things to say about our experiences with driving an EV. But then we decided to go to France for a week. [click to continue…]

On Tuesday, I discovered that the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy has 23 chapters (the introduction included), of which 20 have been written by political philosophers based in the USA, 2 by political philosophers then based in the UK who have in the meantime moved to the USA, and 1 chapter by a duo of political philosophers based in Oxford. And while this is a pretty striking case, in many if not most handbooks authors from the USA and the UK are numerically dominating.

I’m not going to argue why this is undesirable. If you think this is not a problem, then you don’t have to read on. I have very little time right now, so I’m going to focus on solutions, rather than trying to convince those who haven’t been part of this conversation before on why this is a problem.

But for those of us who think this is a problem, the question then is what to do. [click to continue…]

War – what can we do?

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 21, 2022

I recall that a few years ago, when Israel bombed the Gaza strip in the middle of the (Northern Hemisphere-) Summer, I felt angry and powerless. People, locked up in what was essentially an open air prison, had nowhere to escape or hide. The war in Syria similarly has led to horrible suffering. There have been many other wars or armed conflicts, but most of them hardly receive sustained reporting. And now there is the Russian war in Ukraine.

I am sure many of you ask, in such circumstances: “What we can do?” And I’ve heard some say “There is nothing we can do”. But that is not true. I’ve come up with the following answer to that question for myself, and am interested in learning how you answer that question for yourself. [note: trolls don’t even need to try; in case of doubt, I’ll delete]. [click to continue…]

Russian University leaders support Putin’s war

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 7, 2022

My university’s online newspaper reported earlier today that the Rectors of Russian Universities (their presidents/chancellors) have posted a statement of support for Putin’s war. Below the fold you find the translation that Deep-L made for us from Russian to English. (I don’t read Russian but my other experiences with Deep-L are pretty good).

So, the Rectors support the war, and adop the rethorics of the need for the “denazification” of Ukraine. The give their support to president Putin, and say they “support our President, who has made perhaps the most difficult decision of his life, a hard-won but necessary one.” Sadly, they also see it as their “fundamental duty, … to teach our students to be patriotic and to strive to help their motherland.”

I only hope that the Rectors had to do this because they could not do otherwise – a scenario so bad that, say, they would be put in prison and tortured, or their students endangered and universities put on fire. If no threats and coercion as serious as that made them write such utter horror, they should ashamed of calling themselves ‘academics’. Not just because they support Putin whose regime is massively violating human rights, not just because they support a brutal and unnecessary war, but also because they have not understood what the University is for.

Translation below the fold.
[click to continue…]

Limitarianism: a philosophical dispute

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 21, 2022

In my last post, on the public debate on limitarianism, I responded to Matt’s philosophical doubts about limitarianism by saying that there was a debate on this matter forthcoming in The Journal of Political Philosophy, and that I would post it once published in Early View. So, here it is.

Robert Huseby wrote a critique on limitarianism arguing that we don’t need that idea, given that we have egalitarianism and sufficientarianism. I responded in two ways. First, by saying that there are other ways to judge a philosophical idea than looking at philosophical distinctiveness (in other words, Huseby and I have different views on what we want political philosophy to do, and I argue that this has implications for judging the value of limitarianism). Second, within the meta-theoretical choices made by Huseby, I object to his arguments.

Those interested in this intra-academic-philosophical debate, feel free to chime in. If anyone wants to read the paper by Robert Huseby (since unlike mine, it’s not open access), I’m happy to send it to anyone dropping me an email.

NB: Luigi Caranti and Nunzio Alì published in the Italian Journal Politica e Società a paper with the same title as Huseby’s paper, voicing overlapping criticisms. Email them or me if you want to get hold of a copy.

CBS on the superrich and limitarianism

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 23, 2022

We were having birthday cake with my youngest son who turned 14 today, when CBS aired an item on the Sunday Morning Show for which I was interviewed. The item was on the question whether one can be too rich. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve written a couple of papers (this one being open access) and more journalistic pieces (e.g. this) that we should answer this affirmatively. So now CBS decided the idea deserved an item, and I think they did a great job in putting several different relevant concerns together in a mere 8 minutes. It can be watched online here. (I believe they could have found more vocal opponents of limitarianism, but I guess these voices get plenty of airtime elsewhere?)

Abigail Disney has a line of critique from which I’ve so far tried to steer away – namely that becoming superwealthy changes a person and their character for the worse. That resonates with some of the findings in the intriguing book by Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth. Although I wrote very briefly (in Dutch, alas) on the scientific studies that we have that suggests that extreme wealth concentration might lead to unhappier people than being moderately well-off, I am hesitant to write more about this, for two reasons. One is that arguing that they are less happy and that therefore they should not be so rich is quit paternalistic (and most approaches in political philosophy and social ethics reject paternalistic arguments). Still, it also affects their children, so the paternalism objection might be less strong than at first sight. Arguing that they become less virtuous (read: bad people) is something that I cannot say since I haven’t tried to find the relevant studies (if they exist); moreover, it also seems a non-starter if we want to engage in a political debate that should include those that are superrich, or that defend the superrich. The other reason why I haven’t gone down this road so far is that I think the other arguments for limitarianism are strong enough in themselves to carry the claim – why then introduce a more contentious one, except if the evidence were to be overwhelming?

I don’t think I’ve announced on this blog the other news I have on limitarianism, which is that I’m writing a trade book on the topic, which is under contract with Allen Lane/Penguin (for the UK), Astra (for North America), and translations secured in Dutch, German, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish (the magic that working with an agent does!). The manuscript is due after the (Northern Hemisphere) Summer, so I’ll be having more posts on this matter over the next months.

How to make conferences more climate-friendly

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 14, 2021

In the Board of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), where I’m currently serving as past-president, there has been an intensifying of the debate on the climate consequences of the annual conference. The HDCA is an international association of mainly academics, though it also attracts policy makers, activists, and others, who are interested in the human development approach (best-known from the UNDP’s Human Development Reports) and one of the main theoretical frameworks underpinning it, the capability approach.

The essence of the tension is clear: there is a significant cost in terms of greenhousegas-emissions of flying to another corner of the world to attend a three-day conference; greenhousegas-emissions need to be reduced as drastically and fast as possible in order to protect the climate, and a stable climate is an important precondition for human flourishing/human development. So what should an organisation such as the HDCA, or its individual members, do with this tension? Clearly, all academics still flying to conferences should ask themselves this question. Hence, let’s open up the discussion here, and see what insights (or good ideas) you might have. [click to continue…]

Let’s write a poem

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 6, 2021

Trees

Tall trees standing strong
in the distance a soft sun
wrapped in sweet silence

I turn my head up
searching to see a movement
a woodpecker taps

My walks never end
the trees keep calling me back
like a second home.

Fairness in five minutes

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 6, 2021

The European Union’s political institutions are organising a many-months-long Conference on the Future of Europe. Part of this are a series of meetings of randomly invited European citizens, who are deliberating on what they think is important for the future of Europe. They are divided in several panels, and the panel that focusses, among other things, on social justice, is meeting this weekend for an online deliberation. As part of this, I have been invited to explain, in five minutes, the concept of ‘fairness’, and to do so in a balanced and accessible way. Not easy if one is used to give hourly lectures to university students, but here’s what I came up with – trying to get the most out of 5 minutes while also being as accessible as possible to a very diverse audience.

When thinking about fairness, we need to ask 4 questions:

First: what is fairness in general terms?
Second, where does fairness apply?
Third, what are the relevant principles of fairness?
Fourth, what are possible policies that affect fairness?

I will explain these four questions one after the other. [click to continue…]