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The Philosophical Society Away Day

On Justice

18th November 2023, 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.

In person at Taunton Castle Somerset or via Zoom

Organisers: Fauzia Ragman-Greasley and Kathy Postelle Rixon

(Photo courtesy Britain Magazine)

The 2023 Away Day took place at The Museum of Somerset, located in the 12th-century great hall of Taunton Castle - Castle Lodge, Castle Green, Taunton TA1 4AA. The Castle, home of the Bloody Assizes, provided an ideal location to explore the year’s theme of ‘Justice’.

Justice is a central concept in philosophy, law, religion, politics, and ethics. How the term ‘justice’ is understood and applied affects everyone because we are all subjects of government laws. Yet defining justice or explaining why particular principles are worthy of the nametag, ‘principle of justice’ turns out to be notoriously tricky.

In Plato’s The Republic, justice is indistinguishable from rightness or virtue. In our contemporary era, justice has different meanings in different practical contexts. Legal justice is often defined as the upholding of legal laws and the punishment of those who break the laws. In religion, justice is usually associated with the idea of an afterlife in which the virtuous are rewarded. In politics, justice is often connected to the concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’; as in the idea of a just society being one in which everyone is treated fairly. In the context of philosophy, justice may be defined as the upholding of universal ethical principles which any individual can work out by using reason.


11.00-11.10 Fauzia Rahman-Greasley: Welcome and Introduction
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

11.10-11.50 Talk 1: Jonathan Harlow: A Presumption of Equality
     Talk slides (PDF format)
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

A common principle of Justice is that equal cases should be treated equally. Mine is a strong version of this:

All subjects of a treatment should be presumed entitled to equal treatment unless reasonably different treatment is justified by relevant differences in the subjects.

For example, one might argue that while the differences between humans and pigs are many, they are not relevant to the question of killing them, but not us, for food. Or one might argue that while there are relevant differences in the treatment of antisocial adults and antisocial children, they do not reasonably justify corporal punishment for children.

‘One might argue’. The principle advanced here does not end argument, but it provides a framework for argument which is itself relevant and reasonable.

Jonathan Harlow, MBA Ph.D, lives with his wife in South Gloucestershire. Retired from civil service, business management, and school and university teaching, he is an active local historian, with interests in poetry and philosophy.

11.55-12.35 Talk 2: Simon Drew: Global Justice – A response to John Rawls
     Talk slides (PDF format)
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

In The Law of Peoples, John Rawls famously argued that the extent of obligation that a liberal society has to another society ought to be limited to helping it manage its own affairs reasonably and rationally so that it becomes well-ordered. Once this has been achieved, the obligation to assist has been fulfilled and no further action is required. The possibility that the now well-ordered recipient society may remain relatively poor is of no consequence. I intend to demonstrate that Rawls’s conclusion unnecessarily restricts the extent of the obligations required by global justice. By defining the unit of obligation as societal rather than individual, his account overlooks the way in which individuals in recipient societies may be adversely affected by the domestic distributive decisions made by those in previous generations and/or by currently existing elites. In addition, Rawls’s assumption that a society’s prosperity is largely related to its political culture fails to take into account the full extent to which the relative economic position of a society can be determined by (potentially unjust) international structures outside of domestic control. By subjecting Rawls’s account to critical scrutiny, I hope to clear the way for a more wide-ranging approach to matters of global justice.

Simon Drew is both a teacher and student of Philosophy. He teaches the subject to A Level at a secondary school in Oxford and is currently studying with the Open University for a Master's in Philosophy.

12.40-13.20 Talk 3: Dessislava Fessenko: Health and Justice
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

The relationship between health and justice is subject to frequent public debates in the context of increasing health and social inequality. These debates often refract the topic through the prism of social determinants of health as causes for health injustice. John Rawls’s theory of justice and Norman Daniels’s account of health justice, however, provide a broader framework for approaching health and justice as mutually reinforcing elements of a fair system of social cooperation. Rawls conceptualizes the core requirements for social justice, namely equal basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity and arrangement of social and economic inequalities to the benefit of the least advantaged. Daniels expands this conception of justice by incorporating health and healthcare as key enablers of fair equality of opportunity and effective exercise of fundamental rights. He also exposes the impact of social factors on health equality. This two-way correlation between health and justice suggests that social justice is unfeasible without health justice and vice versa. It also suggests that our bioethical work should be concerned with social determinants of health, healthcare governance and policy-making as conduits to both health and social justice.

Dessislava Fessenko is a practicing antitrust and technology lawyer, an AI policy researcher and a Master of Bioethics candidate at Harvard Medical School. Dessislava’s private practice focuses on the implementation of and the interplay among the European Union antitrust, data protection and technology regulations, and on public policy in these areas. Dessislava’s research work deals with various aspects of the governance and ethics of artificial intelligence. Her ethics interests include social justice, as well as fairness and overall ethical alignment of artificial intelligence.

13.20-14.30 Lunch

14.30-15.10 Talk 4: Bob Stone: Justice as Equilibrium
     Talk slides (PDF format)
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

‘Justice’ is often treated as a formal system of ethics or law, and its enforcement, but I want to examine its less formal aspect as the natural equilibrium that exists – almost unconsciously – between human beings in everyday life and underlies the more formal application.

The starting-point for all this is Aristotle’s chapter on ‘justice’ in the Nicomachean Ethics, but I shall concentrate on modern contributions to the idea. These will include observations of the behaviour of chimpanzees, experiments with the moral sensitivities of very young babies, and myriad unheralded examples of natural equilibrium such as the way we pass each other on the pavement or let other vehicles into queues of traffic (a kind of moral sensitivity needed by the Artificial Intelligence of driverless cars). When equilibrium is disturbed, the natural restoration of balance is (usually) not punishment but apology or forgiveness.

Problems with this informal equilibrium are (a) psychological: it seems to depend on a level of empathy not shared by all people, and there are those whose personal history makes them generally resentful of other people; (b) social: can equilibrium exist meaningfully between those who do not regard themselves as ‘social equals’?

Bob Stone is a retired classics teacher who read Classics at Cambridge, specialising in Greek philosophy, and there developed an abiding interest in philosophy in general. In the 14 years since he retired he has had time to take several courses with OUDCE (300 CATS points at present!), been a keen member of Philsoc, and likes nothing more – apart from watching cricket – than reading, learning, talking and writing about philosophy.

15.15-15.55 Talk 5: Robert Beadnell: Injustice – Kafka’s View
     Talk slides (PDF format)
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

“Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.” So begins the dystopian novel The Trial by Franz Kafka, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and a significant thinker on the human condition. Kafka had been deeply influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. In this talk I will explore the themes of The Trial, which include the universal problems of guilt, responsibility, and freedom in an ambiguous world where certainty is beyond reach and different interpretations can easily be put on events. The main character, Josef K., finds himself subject to the powerful but mysterious and impenetrable ‘court’ which claims to stand before the law but is deeply corrupt and seems to really serve relentless power. The ground of its authority appears to be force. Yet tantalisingly, the prison chaplain, who also serves the court, recounts to Josef K. the legend of the law, which suggests the law is grounded in inaccessible transcendent metaphysics. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s theory of aesthetics, I will argue that The Trial is a brilliant tragicomedy that confronts us with despair about injustice and yet speaks prophetically to modernity.

Robert Beadnell recently retired after a 30-year career in the Royal Navy. As a young man he gained master’s degrees in physics and engineering before lecturing nuclear reactor physics at postgraduate level. More recently he studied theology with the University of London and then philosophy with OUDCE and Cambridge ICE. He is currently studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His main philosophical influences have been Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

16.00-16.40 Talk 6: Edward Hadas: Why did Capital Punishment stop seeming just?
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

Capital punishment has been an accepted practice from time immemorial. As recently as a century ago, its morality was only rarely questioned. Since then, the balance of global ethical opinion has been entirely reversed. Executions have all but disappeared in almost every jurisdiction and there are active secular and religious campaigns for full abolition. I am puzzled by the new certainty about the injustice of the death penalty, because the philosophical arguments against it are far from overwhelming. I will offer some suggestions for what lies behind the change.

Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and the author of two philosophical books on economics, one on Catholic Social Teaching, and one, not yet finished, on narratives of modernity. He spent many decades in finance and financial journalism. A selection of his papers and talks can be found by clicking on the following link: Edward Hadas (google.com)

16.40-17.05 Break

17.05-17.55 Panel discussion
     Video Recording (MP4 format, member access only)

17.55 Concluding remarks

18.00 Meeting end