Some thoughts on reparations

Consider the following case. Imagine you inherit a fortune from your parents. With that money, you buy a luxurious house and you pay to get a good education, which later allows you to find a job where you earn a decent salary. Many years later, you find out that your parents made their fortune through a very bad act—say, defrauding someone. You also find out that the scammed person and his family lived an underprivileged life from that moment on.

What do you think you would need to do to fulfill your moral obligations?

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Behavioral Science, Public Policy, Ethics

The President of the United States has issued an executive order (see here) – government agencies are to use ‘insights’ from behavioral sciences to better serve the American people.

In my view this is a good thing. Science is our friend. Obama’s heart is in the right place. Nonetheless, the order raises a number of ethical and practical issues. Continue reading

Judging a person by their friends.

Jim A.C. Everett


In case any readers have been living under a rock for the last few days, the ‘hard-left’ candidate Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Leader of the British Labour Party (see here for the BBC profile on him). Just by his fellow Labour ‘comrades’ (let alone his Conservative opponents), he has been proclaimed as the death of Labour, the savior of Labour, and everything in between. By all accounts Corbyn is a man who lives by his principles (whatever we think about these principles), and yet has sustained extensive criticism from across the political spectrum – particularly based on his close relationships with some very morally dubious individuals and organisations. Corbyn has been criticized with vigour, for example, for his support of Irish Republicanism and IRA terrorists, alongside the anti-Semitic and homophobic Hamas and Hezbolla (which he calls movements of “social justice”). Corbyn seeks closer ties with Russia and Putin (who has a sketchy human rights record to say the least), and has just appointed a Shadow Chancellor (John McDonnell), who credits the terrorism of the IRA with peace in Northern Ireland, who wanted to “assassinate Margaret Thatcher” and who apparently called for the “bitch” Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched”. Corbynistas (as the media has dubbed his supporters) have, as would be expected, come to his defense and argued that we cannot judge the man by his friends and that, anyway, some of these comments might have been taken out of context. Continue reading

Why ethicists should read Middlemarch and despise Simon Cowell

There are a few ethicists who are interested in encouraging right behaviour, rather than simply discussing it.

Here is something for them from A.L. Kennedy:

As Vonnegut mentioned, Nazi Germany trained a population to be blind to the dignity and humanity of some others. A diet of soft porn, cheap sentimentality and hate proved effective. Radio Mille Collines pedaled fear, poisonous pop music and a sense of unhinged communal power – it helped to push Rwanda into the abyss.’ 1 Continue reading


Christopher Chew
Monash University

In the strange, upside-down world of the Southern Hemisphere, cold and gloomy Winter is quietly slinking away, and raucous Spring in all his glory begins to stir. Ah, Spring! The season of buds and blooms and frolicking wildlife. One rare species of wildlife, however, finds itself subject to an open hunting season this Spring – the anti-vaxxer.

In April this year, the Australian Federal Government announced a so-called “no jab, no pay” policy. Families whose children are not fully vaccinated will now lose subsidies and rebates for childcare worth up to almost AUD$20,000 per child, except if there are valid medical reasons (e.g. allergies). Previously, exemptions had been made for conscientious and religious objectors, but these no longer apply forthwith.

Taking things a step further, the Victorian State Government earlier this week announced an additional “no jab, no play” policy. Children who are not fully vaccinated, except once again for valid medical reasons, will additionally now be barred from preschool facilities such as childcare and kindergartens.

I should, at this point, declare my allegiances – as a finishing medical student, I am utterly convinced by the body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of childhood vaccination. I am confident that these vaccines, while posing a very, very small risk of severe side-effects like any other medicine, reliably prevent or markedly reduce the risk of contracting equally severe diseases. And finally, I believe that the goal of universal childhood vaccination is one worth pursuing, and is immensely beneficial to public health.

Despite my convictions, however, I still find myself wondering if the increasingly strict vaccination regime in Australia, and every-increasing punishments for anti-vaxxers, is necessarily the best means to go about achieving a worthy goal. It’s not clear, to me, that the recent escalation will have significant positive effects beyond a mere simple political stunt.

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Left, Right, and Belief Formation.

A recent article by Jeff Sparrow on the Australian writer Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko has left me pondering the way that we form beliefs. Under the penname ‘Helen Demidenko’, Dale published a novel that told the story of a Ukrainian family, members of whom were perpetrators of crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. The novel was instantly successful, winning major awards, and equally controversial. It was described as anti-Semitic in its sympathetic depiction of ordinary Ukranians and its (alleged) caricatures of Jews. The book gained an aura of authenticity from the author’s claims that she based much of it on interviews with members of her own family, who had lived through the events depicted. Demidenko’s bubble burst when it was revealed she was born Helen Darville, and had no Ukrainian relatives to recount these tales. Continue reading

Is the NHS surcharge just?

Not long ago the UK implemented an NHS surcharge – an extra fee that non-EEA nationals (Australia and New Zealand are also exempt) applying for leave to remain in the UK must pay. It costs £200 per year, and must be paid up front. So, for example, if you are applying for a work visa for 3 years, and you have a family of three, you must pay £1800 to cover the surcharge for you and your family (on top of other visa costs).

It is difficult to find much public discussion in the UK regarding this surcharge, outside of a few articles that recently noted that the surcharge is unlikely to do what we were told it would do – namely, benefit the NHS. (See here)

Is the surcharge a just policy? Continue reading

Guest Post: Why it might be good to pamper terrorists

Written By Anders Herlitz

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

 One of the most heated debates in “Western” countries these days concerns how to deal with individuals who either have traveled or consider traveling to Syria or Iraq in order to join Daesh and return to a “Western” country in which they are citizens. Australia recently announced that they plan to strip Australian-born individuals who fight with Daesh of their Australian citizenship. The United Kingdom already has laws that allow them to strip citizens of their British nationality if it is “conductive to the public good.” Sweden, my home country, gained international attention in somewhat suspicious circles for what to many seemed to be the complete opposite approach to the problem: the city of Stockholm has outlined a plan for how to deal with members of extremist movements, which involves what they call inclusive measures such as assistance with finding housing as well as an occupation, but also health efforts needed to deal with trauma and PTSD that are expected to be common among participants in warfare. Needless to say perhaps, the idea that Swedish tax money could go to treat the trauma of a person who himself decided to travel to a foreign country to participate in barbarism has generated quite an emotional reaction. I’d like to take this opportunity to scratch the surface of the ethical problems of this general problem, show why Stockholm did the right thing, and underline that we are having really, really bad moral luck. Continue reading

Guest Post: An Open Response to Roache’s Anti-Conservatism

Authors: Calum Miller, Final year medical student, University of Oxford; C’Zar Bernstein, BPhil graduate philosophy student, University of Oxford; Joao Fabiano, DPhil philosophy student, University of Oxford; Mahmood Naji, Final year medical student, University of Oxford

One of the first things we did after seeing the election news on the morning after the election was to post a Facebook status including the following: “austerity, despite its necessity, creates difficulty. I hope my fellow Conservatives won’t be blind to the difficulties people go through as a consequence of this result and will step up to do their part combating those hardships”. Other statuses around the same time lauded the Liberal Democrats and expressed regret at Vince Cable and Simon Hughes’ departure from Parliament.

According to Rebecca Roache, these are the words of people who are immune to reason, brainwashed by Murdoch, and whose views are as objectionable as racist and sexist views. We maintain the contrary – not only that this is manifestly false, but that Roache’s own position is far more consonant with the bigoted attitudes against which she protests. It would be easy to respond in kind, simply preaching to our own choir about how awful liberals are and how we should make their views socially unacceptable. This would only serve to deepen political division, however, and is unlikely to move us forward as citizens, rational agents or friends.

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The Conservatives’ Legacies: What should we do with Inheritance Tax?

A majority in the House of Commons has provided David Cameron with the freedom to do over the next five years some of the things that he’s found difficult over the last five.  One of the things that is set for reform is the law on inheritance tax, with the Tory manifesto having pledged to

take the family home out of tax by increasing the effective Inheritance Tax threshold for married couples and civil partners to £1 million – so you can keep more of your income and pass it on to future generations. (p 3)

(UKIP upped the ante on this, promising to get rid of inheritance tax altogether.)

How big an impact the Conservative policy would make is hard to tell: most people don’t pay inheritance tax anyway, and so raising the threshold would affect only a portion of the residuum that would pay it.  But, still: we might ask whether such a policy is just.  For sure, there will be some people for whom it’s attractive – archetypally, the sort of person who bought a property in a then down-at-heel part of London or Manchester a generation ago who finds that it is now something of a golden egg.  But attractiveness in a policy will only take us so far.  To answer the justice question, we need to look at the principles behind it.  And once we do that, I’m not so sure that the policy is just.  Indeed, it’s not clear that there’d be anything unjust about having a much higher rate of inheritance tax.

The reason for the claim that reducing the inheritance tax burden is unjust is straightforward: it means that those who were fortunate with their parents get a helping hand not available to everyone.  The children of dentists will, at some point, receive a capital benefit that would not be matched by the children of dustmen.  Since this difference is arbitrary – noone deserves rich or poor, thrifty or feckless parents – there is a case to be made that the just society would seek to smooth it out to as great a degree as possible.  At least on paper, we might be tempted to think that a 100% inheritance tax would be a way to do this: it would ensure that noone benefitted at all from ancestral good fortune.  In practice, there’d doubtless be all kinds of workaround that’d make such a high rate unenforceable – but the case might stand in principle.

Is the moral case, then, that easily made? Continue reading