Philosophy conference sheds light on social equality

1 Oct 2014 - 13:45

Pictured left: one of the keynote speakers, Professor Charles W Mills, is an American Philosopher well known for his work on social and political philosophy

The University of Cape Town’s Philosophy Department recently hosted Professor Jonathan Wolff from University College London as a Mellon Visiting Fellow. During his stay he was keynote speaker at the Philosophy Department’s Social Equality Conference alongside Deputy Minister for Public Works Jeremy Cronin. He also took part in a special panel discussion, organised by the Philosophy Department with help from the university’s Poverty & Inequality Initiative, on ‘Dealing with Disadvantage’, alongside Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, former VC of UCT, and former Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

Professor Wolff, who was visiting South Africa for the first time, is well known for his work on distributive justice, disadvantage, risk and the measurement of health. He has served on several committees advising the UK government on drugs, homicide, gambling and animal testing. He was invited by the Department of Philosophy to engage with a number of public-policy issues relevant to South Africa. Both the conference on Social Equality and the panel discussion on ‘Dealing with Disadvantage’ were particularly topical and relevant to Wolff, who has co-authored the book Disadvantage (OUP) with Avner de-Shalit. He  is well known as one of the exponents (together with such thinkers as Elizabeth Anderson, David Miller and Samuel Scheffler) of an exciting new strand of thought about justice called social equality.

In his contribution to the discussion on ‘Dealing with Disadvantage’, Professor Wolff highlighted two priorities that governments should adopt in order to address disadvantage. The first is to identify and tackle ‘corrosive disadvantages’ where one disadvantage leads to other forms of disadvantages: for example, ill-health often leads to unemployment. He argues that tackling corrosive disadvantages will prevent other types of disadvantages from arising. The second priority is the identification of ‘fertile advantages’. These are types of advantages which tend to lead to other types of advantages, and thus should be promoted by governments. For example, higher education is a type of advantage which can lead to employment, affiliation and a good social network.

Pictured left: Professor Kathy Luckett during the discussions at the Social Equality Conference

At the event on ‘Dealing with Disadvantage’, Dr. Ramphele and Madlala-Routledge drew on their extensive political experience to provide insight on various development issues in South African society. Dr. Ramphele stressed the importance of an activist civil society which held politicians and the business sector to account. She described large businesses in South Africa as being ‘extractive’ in their general approach and suggested that this ‘extractive’ mentality had bled into the politics of South Africa.
The topic of land reform involved some robust exchanges between Professor Wolff and audience-members. He argued that just because land seizure was the historic cause of much disadvantage, does not mean that restoring the land to the descendants of the original owners was the best way to tackle disadvantage. “We no longer live in the age of subsistence farming, but rather that of agro-industry.” 

According to the organiser of the Social Equality Conference, Dr George Hull (Department of Philosophy), a key objective of the conference was that it not be limited to an excessively abstract theoretical exchange on the topic of justice. Rather, the aim was to facilitate an exchange of ideas between researchers coming to the issue of social equality from different areas.  “Other keynote speakers included Charles W. Mills, who is one of the founders of the philosophical discipline now called critical philosophy of race and Professor Miranda Fricker (University of Sheffield) who has done some very original work drawing on second wave feminism and the injustice of being marginalised as a producer and transmitter of knowledge” said Dr Hull.

Additional speakers included Professor Amanda Gouws (Stellenbosch University) who discussed the issues surrounding the Traditional Courts Bill and Professor Cathi Albertyn (University of the Witwatersrand), who discussed gender equality and the law in South Africa. Jeremy Cronin, who is currently the Deputy Minister of Public Works in South Africa, utilised his talk to call into question the doctrine that the best way of tackling inequality is to create economic growth which will then translate into jobs and more wealth all round. His talk situated the topic of equality in the history of recent South African politics and the themes of the current debate about the NDP.

“The talks by Wolff, Fricker and Mills were definitely highlights of the conference. All of them take the view that we learn most about what a just society would be like by trying to take note of and make sense of the worst forms of injustice. This is the opposite approach to most political philosophy, which first comes up with a vision of an ideal society and then asks how our society falls short of it” said Dr Hull.