No. 6 : October-December 2012

Sheldon Wein

Canadian Research on Justice

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present state of work in Canadian research on justice?

In answering this question I will speak mainly of Canadian philosophers, since that is the group with which I am most familiar. I am very happy to say that the Canadian academic community is extremely fortunate to have a lot of very talented people working on justice-related issues. There are three aspects of the present situation (with regard to research) which I find particularly encouraging. First, many of the people working on justice-related issues are very bright and are early or mid-career academics, and they all seem to be extremely well educated and willing to learn whatever new things they need to learn in order to carry out their work. Their most productive years are ahead of them. Second, they are, by in large, less restricted by a particular discipline or to a single paradigm within their discipline. At one time, not that long ago, most Canadian thinkers working on justice-related problems adopted a particular theory of justice and, for the most part, went about their work by applying that general abstract theory to whatever more particular issue they were confronting. But now most young academics have found profitable ways to utilize insights from several different approaches when they work out what the requirements of justice are for this or that issue. It is not just within philosophy that they seem to find profitable insights to work with. Young Canadian academics are quite willing to draw on the sciences, economics, political theory, medicine, cognitive science, history, literary theory, and a host of other disciplines to help them gain traction in developing their own work. Of course, philosophers have always done this, but it seems to me that they are much more willing to break down disciplinary boundaries than they used to be. That is part of the reason for my optimism about the next few decades. Third, the range of issues being worked on is quite broad. Thus we have people working not just on the requirements of justice in core areas—entitlements, distribution of wealth, human rights, and discrimination—but also in areas that traditionally have received less attention. These include:

  1. -children’s rights

  2. -intellectual content law issues as applied to everything from public             performance art to drugs for developing nations

  3. -end of life issues

  4. -medical privacy and access and participation

  5. -environmental issues (everything from agriculture and architecture to zoology and zoos)

  6. -First Nations issues

  7. -transgender and homosexual values

  8. -the nature of forgiveness and public apologies

  9. -fallacies used in public policy debates

  10. -ethics in sports and games

  11. -the use of chemical and other technologies to modify people’s moral attitudes

  12. -business and professional ethics

  13. -critical-thinking skills

  14. -language and culture protections

  15. -ethical issues concerning food production and consumption

  16. -justice and academic research

  17. -the perception of law and other social institutions as shared cooperative plans with divergent roles for various offices

  18. -disability studies

And the list goes on.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

I expect an explosion of top-quality work to be produced during the next few years. With the recent demise of deconstructionism and the plunge in popularity of postmodernist prejudices, the academy in general has enjoyed a great boost. But the reduction of such impediments to clear and rigorous thought about how to apply considerations of justice to hitherto underdeveloped topics is especially important. This, combined with the flock of highly talented people working in these areas, the benefits of the new more liberal attitude to different approaches, and the increase in international cross-pollination, likely signals that we are going to have a period of is helping broaden and deepen the insights and materials researchers have to work with and to see that more nuanced approaches risk becoming confused by their own subtlety. .

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

As in much of the world, there are serious economic constraints on academic hiring as governments use issues related to public indebtedness as an excuse to attack academic freedom and funding. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that private charitable funding will move in to replace reductions in government funding. (Canadians at all levels of income are relatively ungenerous in the area of charitable giving.) This will likely enhance the trend toward more part-time or limited-term faculty and fewer people with secure tenured positions who have time to do productive research. Higher education also seems to be on the cusp of major changes as the result of technological advances which likely will significantly alter the way higher education operates. My suspicion is that Canadian institutions will have the luxury of being able to lag a bit behind on this and enjoy the benefits of learning from others mistakes in these matters. Of course, the changes that technological innovation will make in higher education raise a host of interesting ethical issues. My impression is that the current crop of Canadian academics is particularly well equipped to tackle these. But I worry that without a strong new crop of young energetic secure academics to stimulate the existing crowd, productivity may suffer.

On the other hand, the world is starting to realize that Canadian institutions of higher education provide wonderful opportunities for students at (relatively) bargain prices.  So a substantial influx in foreign students may both help with funding issues and make Canadian university education much more cosmopolitan and less provincial than it sometimes has been. How much of those international influences will “trickle up” is, of course, a big unknown.

Of course, we know that higher education is on the cusp of huge changes. Those just entering academia, or about to enter it in the next few years, are going to face quite different circumstances from those of previous generations of academics. Just to start with something (relatively) small, it is clear that academic publishing is going to change in the next few years. How it will change is unknown, but that it will change is pretty certain. As a result, one of the standard measures for matters such as tenure and promotion will have to be modified, and none of us know how that will affect junior academics.

More significantly, the delivery of courses is quite likely to be substantially altered in the next few years. The advent of high-quality on-line courses (from MIT and Stanford, for example), the existence of TED, various interactive learning programs, and a host of other technologically based changes is sure to influence how undergraduate and graduate students are schooled in the coming decades. No one knows yet how this will unfold. No doubt as-yet-unthought-of of ways of educating people will become standard in the next few decades. Yet I see very little evidence that those now in graduate school or just starting in positions at Canadian universities have grasped how different their lives are likely to be from those of the professors who taught them. It is as though they imagine that the ivory tower will insulate them in some sort of time capsule, preserving the past way of doing things. But even a few minutes of reflection reveal that this is just not going to happen. Of course, the changes coming within the academy are bound to raise all sorts of interesting and puzzling ethical issues, and I am sure that junior Canadian academics (and some senior ones) will bring their talents to bear on such matters.

Consequently, on balance, I think that we are about to see a period of great flourishing by Canadian academics working on justice-related issues. This comes at a propitious time.

Sheldon Wein teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, where he is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of International Development Studies.

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