Dr Tom Rowe

Where were you before coming to King’s?

Before coming to King’s, I was a postdoctoral fellow in PPE program at Virginia Tech. The campus is located in beautiful Blacksburg, which sits right next to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Before this, I completed my PhD just next door to King’s at the London School of Economics.

What will you be teaching this term?

In Semester 1 I taught History of Political Philosophy. The module considered authors chronologically but was split in two themes. The first half examined the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques-Rousseau. Core themes that we considered included natural law, political obligation and legitimacy. The second half focused on accounts of freedom and unfreedom, including Mary Wollstonecraft, J. S. Mill, Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx. Core themes included the possibility for freedom in society along with how to how to diagnose and oppose forms of unfreedom.

In Semester 2 I am teaching Morality and Convention, a module that examines the role that social convention plays in morality. The module addresses the following general questions. First, what is a social convention and what is it for a convention to be in force in a given population, how are such conventions learnt or transmitted and how do they change? Second how ought we to react to the existence of a certain convention in our community?  Third, how much of the social fabric of a developed society is conventional. There are norms defining family structures, games, and personal relationships (friendship, neighbourliness), systems of property rights and private law, rules of etiquette and communication etc. Are these rules, systems and norms purely conventional, partly conventional or not conventional at all?

How did you get into philosophy?

The initial spark came from music, as I recall! I remember listening to bands like The Clash midway through high school and being fascinated by the political themes in their lyrics. This led me to read around and eventually take up philosophy at A Level, where we studied Sartre’s Existential is a Humanism, along with modules such as political philosophy and epistemology. After this, I was hooked!   

Your doctorate focused on the ethics of risk and uncertainty. Can you give us the 2 minute elevator pitch summarizing your contribution?

My doctorate examined a set of questions in the area of the ethics of risk and uncertainty. One of the core questions was how should the presence of risk and uncertainty affect how we distribute a benefit to which individuals have competing claims? In response, I developed and defended an egalitarian theory of distributive ethics that is sensitive to the presence of risk and severe uncertainty (where it is not possible to assign probabilities to potential outcomes). I argued that some types of risk can themselves ground complaints from those who are subject to them, whereas others cannot. I also argued that severe uncertainty (where we cannot assign a precise probability to a potential outcome) can itself constitute a burden that ought to be distributed equally where possible.

A further question of the doctorate was how one should approach doing good (such as saving some people from harm) when there is a risk that in doing so one will enable an evildoer to commit harm. I had in mind real-world cases such as the provision of United Nations humanitarian aid to civilians in Syria in 2016, where there were fears the aid would further enable the Syrian government and lead to a manipulation of the aid for nefarious purposes. I defended a “clean hands” view and argued that in the type of “villain-enabling” cases that I described, those who provide aid can do so permissibly.   

How do you balance the intellectual with the practicalities of daily life?

I think I struggle to separate them! I find it easier to separate the intellectual from the mundane practicalities of daily life, but I find it difficult to separate the intellectual from my hobbies. A couple of these are Chess and the official Fantasy Premier League game (where I try to put my interest in decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty to use).

You write on lotteries and fairness. Recently, you suggested fairness requires weighting lottery cases to reflect weighted claims to the good.  What might be counted as a weighted claim to the good for you?

A lottery is weighted when one potential recipient receives a greater chance than another. A claim is a reason why someone ought to receive a good. For example, a person will have a claim on a medicine if they need it in order to cure a disease. The weight of a claim is determined by its comparative strength. For example, if, when everything else is equal, I need the medicine twice as much than you do, then my claim can be said to be twice as weighty as yours. A weighted lottery is a way of allocating goods in proportion to this comparative strength (e.g. if I need the medicine twice as much, then I get twice as much chance than you in a lottery).

Weighted lotteries have been used for such things as school admissions in the U.S., and for the allocation of scarce COVID-19 treatments (where those who need the treatment more get a higher chance than those who need it less, but everyone still gets a chance of receiving the treatment). In a recent paper, I argue that fairness requires the use of a weighted lottery when some individuals have stronger claims to an indivisible good than others. I argue against rival positions which say either that we ought to just give the good directly to the person with the stronger claim, or that we ought to use a weighted lottery only sometimes, such as when the strength of claims to a good are only slightly unequally strong.

What is the puzzle that keeps you awake at night?

One puzzle that has been occupying me recently is how it is that a risk of harm could itself be harmful, even when the “victim” is completely unaware of the risk, and the risky action doesn’t result in the harm that it threatens. A few authors have recently argued that such risks can be harmful. I have some work in progress which tries to address this problem, where I argue that risks themselves aren’t harmful because they do not interfere with the “victim’s” interests in the right way. But this still feels a little unsatisfactory to me!

If not philosophy, then what?

Hmm, that’s a good question!