Professor Alvarez is Head of the Philosophy Department at King’s College London. She works on agency, choice and moral responsibility. This weekend her opinion piece in regard to Covid passports was published in The Guardian newspaper. Read it in full here.
“More than 160 years ago John Stuart Mill argued that in a “civilised community”, the only justification for government coercion is the prevention of harm to others. In the UK, and many other countries, long before Covid, coercive state measures, from taxes to car seatbelts, were pervasive and accepted on grounds that go beyond Mill’s justification, or at least involve a very broad interpretation of his harm principle…Some have questioned whether the restrictions have been proportionate.”
What do you think? Read the article to find out whether you agree with Professor Alvarez.
Hearing these words when you’re trying to report an injustice you’ve experienced is to experience an additional, often overlooked and underestimated kind of injustice – testimonial injustice, which Fricker defines as a kind of injustice that occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word. In recent times, we’ve heard about these sorts of responses and this kind of injustice being perpetrated against women who report sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as against members of minority ethnic groups (think about responses to Meghan Markle’s recent interview on racism and attitudes toward mental health issues).
The performance of Asylum Monologues by Ice&Fire, in which actors performed three asylum seekers’ first-hand accounts of their experiences of the UK asylum system highlighted the prevalence and the negative consequences of testimonial injustices perpetrated against asylum seekers. For example, in the first-hand account of Denise, a woman from Nigeria who sought asylum in the U.K. on the basis of her LGBTQIA+ identity, her claim for asylum was met with similar incredulous responses by various officials who accused her of lying about her sexual orientation. In addition to the hardships that led her to seek asylum then, Denise suffered the further injustices of being disbelieved and of being accused of being disingenuous. One consequence of these further injustices, which compounded other experienced injustices, was the deterioration of Denise’s mental state to the point of an attempted suicide.
Perhaps, just as the #BelieveWomen movement went viral in the wake of the Prof. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about being sexually assaulted by now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, we need support for a similar movement for asylum seekers whose experience of testimonial injustices compounds the injustices and hardships they already face – #BelieveAsylumSeekers ? – and really for members of all marginalized groups who are often forced to suffer being silenced in silence.
According to Lopes, justice is goodness in a relatively large-scale social arrangement. Injustice is thereby badness in such a social arrangement. Aesthetic injustice becomes an issue when cultures encounter one another. The motivating example of the talk was the Canadian government’s use of Haida aesthetic culture (the Spirit of Haida Gwaii sculpture) on the $20 bill. There seemed to be something not quite right about the use of this First Nation art on the national currency. Lopes’s explanation for this is that the use of aesthetic culture subverted the process through which the Haida people fix their own aesthetic profile, contrary to the interest in social autonomy.
The account of aesthetic injustice maps on quite nicely to the familiar notion of political injustice. This is because there is an appeal to the large-scale structural features of society that frame how individuals come into contact with one another. This mirrors the typical approach in political philosophy of seeing justice as a matter of the fundamental political and economic institutions of society.
I will note two points. First, Lopes’s view assumes a perfectionist orientated approach to justice. Perfectionists appeal to an account of a good human life in their accounts of justice. (But what exactly is a good human life?) It is a great contribution, however, to conceive of aesthetic interests as being relevant to justice. The perfectionist approach can be contrasted with approaches of justice such as “realism” which aim to secure conditions for the non-violent coexistence of cultural communities.
Second, Lopes argues that aesthetic injustice can undermine individuals’ capacities to realise the interests of the value of diverse schemes of aesthetic value as well as communities’ interest in social autonomy. These interests can be viewed as part of an account of a good human life, where the former states that it is good, for instance, that there are different ways of doing rock music, and the latter refers to the good of being able to shape one’s life and have an impact on surrounding social practices. Lopes suggested that justice with respect to these interests can be seen as an aspiration to the maximum, and injustice can be seen as the falling below some threshold, where individuals’ capacities to realise these interests are set back to a sufficient degree. But where, we may ask, is this threshold? And what are the particularly aesthetic interests (if any) that are set back by aesthetic injustice? I look forward to hearing more about Lopes’s excellent work on this fascinating area.
Dom Lopes presented at the annual Mark Sainsbury Lecture a novel and promising framework from which to better understand cases of aesthetic injustice: the cosmopolitan theory. The goal of this theory is to capture what is special and sometimes problematic about our engagement with other aesthetic cultures. Lopes started the talk by characterizing justice as goodness in the arrangement of social life. From there, social arrangements of social life are aesthetically unjust when they harm people or communities in their capacity as aesthetic agents, which capacities serve two interests: value diversity and social autonomy. A well-known scenario of aesthetic injustice is cultural appropriation. Lopes’ strategy was to apply his theory to this form of injustice in order to show how there is more to cultural appropriation than “violation of the source culture’s property rights, misrepresentation, disrespect or assimilation”. Using the example of a Haida artwork, ‘Black Canoe’ Lopes convincingly showed that aesthetic cultures also ask for “recognition of the right kind”. By focusing on how the members of an aesthetic culture coordinate and collaborate around their aesthetic profiles, Lopes concluded that this expertise and interaction can be undercut and harmed. And, that is precisely why cultural appropriation is problematic, because it prevents such capacities. The talk was followed by a lively discussion. Some of the issues that came up in the Q&A: how to draw the line between insider/outsider of an aesthetic culture? Who is aesthetically responsible for acts of aesthetic injustice? Are some artistic developments (those that made other artistic forms disappear) to be characterized as cases of aesthetic injustice? How are we to understand ‘aesthetic value’ within the cosmopolitan theory? The conference was attended by an international audience of over one hundred people, including KCL staff and students.
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This year’s Mark Sainsbury lecture was given by Professor Dominic McIver Lopes. The topic of which was what he described as a cosmopolitan theory of aesthetic injustice. I have not personally studied philosophy of art, and I am therefore not going to attempt to give a precise account of the theory. I think Professor Lopes did a great job at that himself.
I will however write about my initial thoughts on the conversation. I found Lopes’ conception of aesthetic injustice as a phenomenon separate from cultural appropriation very interesting. The idea that too much attention can limit one’s capacity as an aesthetic agent was something I’d never considered before. Despite being a newcomer to this subject of philosophy, Lopes’ lecture was clear and easy to follow, and like most pieces of great philosophy, it left me with questions I didn’t even know I could ask.
Dominic Lopes, philosopher of aesthetics at the University of British Columbia, spoke at the Mark Sainsbury lecture about a new kind of injustice, aesthetic injustice, which will be the subject of his forthcoming book, Aesthetic Injustice: A Cosmopolitan Theory. This notion may be reminiscent to many of us of epistemic injustice, which has recently been an extremely salient and widely discussed topic in epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy.* According to Lopes, an aesthetic injustice is a large-scale social arrangement that harms people in their capacities as aesthetic agents, which capacities serve interests in value diversity and social autonomy. Lopes applied this notion to the cases of contact between different aesthetic cultures (such as contact between indigenous Haida and mainstream Canadian culture), and spoke about cases of cultural appropriation, the weaponization of the aesthetic, and what Haida artist Yahgulanaas dubbed the “Medusa Syndrome”, whereby outsiders to an aesthetic culture can petrify the aesthetic capacities of cultural insiders, presumably via many of the same kinds of mechanisms that work in stereotype threat (which can also lead to epistemic injustices). We eagerly await Lopes’ forthcoming work on aesthetic injustice, which promises, like the notion of epistemic injustice, to be extremely fruitful and salient in discussions about cultural equality and intercultural respect, and in our everyday lives.
* Miranda Fricker originated the term “epistemic injustice”. But, importantly, Rachel McKinnon notes that minority ethnic feminist philosophers had been working on issues of epistemic injustice for quite some time before its more recent widespread uptake.
This is our first review of Dom Lopes’ presentation for the Mark Sainsbury Lecture, Tuesday 16th March 2021. Did you attend? Would you like to submit a review? If so, please contact email@example.com.
by Mari Maldal (2nd Year Philosophy & War Studies).
In Albert Camus’ book, The Plague, Camus describes the unfolding of an event that has become very familiar to us during the last year; an epidemic. I want to start with highlighting this section of the book, which describes the lockdown ending:
“[O]f all those days and weeks and months of life lost to their love made them vaguely feel they were entitled to some compensation; this present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting.”
Like most of us, I had many plans for 2020. My friends and I were going to travel around the UK, go to concerts, work our way through the entire menu at Spoons, and eat crappy meal deals at the Maughan while complaining about how much work we have to do, while doing absolutely nothing. I had finally discovered the free coffee machine in the Philosophy building and I was planning to make that international tuition fee worth it. This all came to a sudden halt when the world got put in a time out.
What I believe I lost the most, beside all of these exciting events, was time. Just time. Time with my friends. Time to finally being independent. Time to grow, and to create, and to be. Your student years are supposed to be some of the best years of your life, and they were finally here. It seems like a cosmic joke to get five months of it, only for it to be ripped from your hands, and end up back in your childhood room. It certainly feels like something was taken from me. Was it?
If we buy into the idea that the future exists in a similar sense as the present, it seems reasonable to me to claim that the only future that is real, is the one that is actualized. Therefore, saying “we were robbed” is a sentiment that acknowledges the feeling of being wronged, but can we really be robbed of a future that was never going to happen?
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest this. Naturally something was taken from us. If a robber steals my computer, the court would not tell me that the future in which I kept my computer was never going to happen, so I might as well accept my new computer-less existence. Of course the virus could have been avoided. Had we prepared more, had we listened to the scientists, had things unfolded differently…
But this didn’t happen. What I am questioning here is whether the future, an unfolding of a state of affairs, can really be thought of as a material possession. Was the covid-free future taken from me, if that possible future was never going to be actualized in the first place? If a person buys a computer from the store, do I get to claim it was stolen from me, because I had the intention of buying it?
I guess what I am trying to do here is to rationalize the notion that a covid-free future was never really mine in the first place. I only ever had the idea of it. Perhaps this is just an attempt to make myself feel better, to accept the current situation as solidified in reality. What has been one of the hardest things for me about this last year, besides the sickness itself, is the memory of how things used to be. Camus describes the feeling perfectly here:
“A loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.“
Perhaps all this talk about being robbed doesn’t matter. Perhaps, while it may be irrational to say we were robbed of a covid-free 2020, we can simply say we were robbed, period. A big part, if not most, of the human experience is not rational at all. This last year has been incredibly hard, we have all gone through something very painful, and we have experienced our hopes and plans for the future taken away. This is a wrong indeed.
And yet, someday, not too far from now, we will meet again. We will step out of our bubbles and into the world, feel the sun on our faces, and smile. It will be alright. For while that hope of the future may have been taken from us, the crime committed is perhaps more closely described as an involuntary loan, rather than a permanent theft.
We are approaching the finish line, and we can see, in the distance, if we look hard enough, a little, bright thing with feathers.
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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!
In a new article for Aeon magazine, Sarah Fine contemplates the different dimensions of art as meaning maker in times of crisis. The article discusses art’s role in fomenting the hope of survival, expressing challenging emotions, empowering articulation of thought or conveying personal protest. Read the full article just published in Aeon magazine here
Before coming to King’s I worked at various universities across Europe. I was in the Philosophy Section at the University of Copenhagen for six years. I then joined the Jean Nicod Institute at the Department of Cognitive Studies at École Normale Supérieure, Paris, for a year. Most recently, before coming to King’s, I was a member of the LOGOS group at the University of Barcelona.
What will you be teaching this term?
This term I am teaching Neuroscience and the Mind, which is an introduction to philosophy of mind tailored specifically to students following the BSc in Neuroscience or other undergraduate courses in the Health Schools.
How did you get into philosophy?
At secondary school! My school generally encouraged reflection: lessons in “Scripture” were built into our curriculum and would involve the teacher leading a kind of seminar discussing concepts like justice, love, time, etc. as they are raised in various ancient texts, such as the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. I had a fantastic English teacher, Katharine Watson, who took it upon herself to teach philosophy at AS and A-level. It was her first time teaching the material, which must have been a challenge, but I only realised this later on, as she did such a fantastic job introducing us to the distinctive framing and treatment of philosophical problems in academic philosophy.
In a recent article you argue that we can combine multiple first person perspectives under one unified perspective. What do you think is minimally required for a perspective to pertain?
Well, most of my work on the notion of perspective is in the context of thinking about perceptual experience. In that context, whenever there’s a perspectivally structured experience, there’s a perspective – for a perspectival structure is, I take it, an organisation of content determined by a perspective. That’s a slightly uninteresting answer though. Perhaps more interesting is to think about perspective more broadly. After all, being perspectivally structured is a property not only possessed by perceptual experiences. Here I am interested in the kinds of perspective structuring images and various other ways of representing time and space. Indeed, in a broader sense of the notion of a perspective, it characterises any representation which is structured in relation to some privileged something, such as a theory, a group-identity, or a set of political or social ideas.
How central is the notion of a perspective to your research?
Well my interest in perspective is really a part of my interest in problems to do with self-consciousness. Take, for instance, the problem elusiveness: self-consciousness is supposed to involve a special relation to oneself as a subject of thought and experience; but how is it that we are able to think about or experience that which is thinking the thought or having the experience? I am interested in the viability of an embodied approach here, according which each subject of experience is a special kind of object, a conscious, thinking body. If we assume this and we grant the obvious fact that we do experience our bodies, it would seem, then, that we have an obvious response to the problem. So my interest in perspective is really an interest in what is right (or wrong) with an account along these lines, one which appeals to the perspectival structure of perceptual experience as a means by which we can be aware of ourselves as embodied.
Your research goes beyond conceptual investigations and include a wide of pool of collaborations. Can you tell us about teh work you have done with the artist Mariam Zakarian?
Mariam was involved in a workshop that I organised at the University of Copenhagen on virtual reality (VR) technology. VR presents the promise of otherwise impossible forms of experience, unconstrained by the bounds of physical reality, stretching our current understanding of the limits of experience. I wanted to ground the theoretical discussion properly in the subject matter, so I worked with Kasper Hornbæk and Aske Mottelson at the Computer Science department to set up a demonstration area where participants could experience various virtual worlds for themselves. (Mariam’s demonstration was part of her Amaryllis series: http://www.amaryllisvr.com/ ). I think that the experience of VR, especially the experience of its contents as plausible, are a great example of how some of our experiences are partly self-constructed, in virtue of our mental activity transforming incoming sensory experience to form a state of imaginative perception. I think that this will allow us to reconsider a wide range of illusions as really cases of imagining sensorially present objects to be things that they are not.