Some woes of orientalism and the lack of female representation in fine dining

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

Today we are going to chat a bit more casually about a somewhat political as well as social topic. Unlike our usual format of structured arguments and basis on literary content, we will be venturing into social commentary – which honestly, never hurt anyone. Besides, inspiration hit the fan today for me, which has not been the case throughout the month of August – as you’ve probably noticed with our lack of uploads throughout that month. It is unfortunate, but sometimes writing just has to flow from you for people to be interested, no use forcing something that doesn’t come out from deep inside you.

The other day, I was watching a show called The Final Table. Any people out there that have watched it? Comment below on your thoughts! For those that have not, it is a cooking competition show on Netflix that involves teams of two that cook dishes together for what is a place in the final table of famous world renowned chefs. In the last episode, the teams disperse into individuals and cook against the last remaining. For those wondering, yes I am quite obsessed with cooking shows on Netflix, and I’ve probably watched them all. I have never been that keen on baking shows, perhaps because of my Asian background, however when it comes to cooking I find it strangely fascinating to watch people plate things in the most absurd ways and call it a form of art. I would say I am somewhere between admiration and disbelief that this is something that exists in our contemporary world.

Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

Moving on with my personal anecdote, as I was watching the show, I could not help but notice one of the individuals among the many competing, Canadian Chef Darren MacLean. He was definitely a talented chef like many others on the show, however there was just something about him that made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Now, this is not a type of discomfort that I feel only from this particular chef, it is something that I feel quite often watching other forms of entertainment or interacting with people on a daily. It is that itching feeling where you just feel like you need to squint your eyes in discomfort. An easy way to explain that feeling of discomfort is through the idea of orientalism. For those unfamiliar with the term orientalism, it comes from, on a base level the idea of the occident and the orient, essentially the idea of the West and the rest. The West has for the longest time seen itself as the centre of the world in virtue of the rest existing – hence the existence of these two words in opposition. Another way of interpreting orientalism is also the idea of fetishising yet also barbarising whatever exists outside of the Western sphere. A typical example of this type of mentality (stereotypical duality) is the idea of the ‘noble’ vs. the ‘ignoble savage’. Let me clarify this concept through my personal anecdote about watching The Final Table.

What made me uncomfortable about Chef MacLean had nothing to do with his level of skill. He was clearly a professional that was good at what he was doing, something that was quite apparent, as he made it quite far into the competition. The question however that kept coming to my mind, was ‘why is he so obsessed with Japanese food?’ And, ‘why does he keep speaking about his experience in terms of the struggles he has gone through as a white man?’ For those that have not watched the show, yes, he constantly chats about how he found his way of cooking and way of life through Japanese cuisine (as the caucasian Canadian man that he is) and how he always struggles with the Japanese looking down on him or underestimating his cooking skills because he is a hakujin (and yes, he keeps using that word) – i.e. a white man.

I get it, it must be tough to be spoken to in a way that makes you doubt your skills, your ability to do what you’ve spent your entire life doing. However, why do you feel so strangely entitled to this feeling of recognition? Especially from people that have an actual cultural background in what they’ve been doing? Do you not ask yourself the question of whether you’re taking the place of another POC that could be making it big, that has that background and upbringing without the privilege of throwing themselves into their dream job? How about seeing your own culture and country as a playing field for your innovation and success, as opposed to others’?

The Final Table features many judge chefs that are world-famous, some have even been documented in the well-loved Netflix show, Chef’s Table (e.g. Grant Achatz, Enrique Olvera). Those chefs are well-known for what they do because they work with something they have naturally grown up with. They see cooking as a cultural force, a vision of their identity, and some even further attempt to improve their country’s livelihood by putting their country’s cuisines on the map. You hear even of chefs that are French trained and have experienced the joys of European cuisine, and yet somehow realise with time the importance of the roots they come from – the importance of seeing the beauty in their local cuisines and ingredients, not just that of the luxurious European cuisines people are taught to idolise. Authenticity here, seems to be key. One can borrow skills, knowledge and love of another country’s cuisines and see the beautiful links it may have with their own. However, ultimately the importance of authenticity rings true. Cooking comes from the heart and soul not only from the mind and experience – as we all probably have experienced with family cooking, especially if you come from a POC family.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Going back to Chef MacLean, I found his obsession with Japanese cuisine bizarre and unrelatable. The number of white men I have met in my life that tell me about their bizarre fascination with Japan and other times Korea, has always given me a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. Fetishisation is the immediate idea that comes to my mind, as well as sometimes an awkward mix of cultural appropriation and mansplaining tendencies these types of individuals tend to exhibit. I get it, you’ve probably been to Japan more often that I have and you probably know more about Japanese cuisine than I ever will. The picture however painted of the caucasian white man explaining an Asian culture (a culture that isn’t his own) to me but also even worse, to other Japanese people just makes me feel really strange. This isn’t singular to cooking: I have had this experience in academia, in travel, in language… The patterns always seem to be there. Knowledge comes also from privilege, especially if you are able to gain knowledge about something beyond your own upbringing and background.

This of course, brings up the question that many caucasians ask: how can I be a specialist in something (that does not stem from my background and upbringing) without being overbearing to POC that may more directly be involved in what I speak of? I personally find the answer simple. Ask yourself the right questions. Give the respect that needs to be given. Don’t overstep your boundaries. The answers always ring the same with these issues and yet nothing ever seems to change – which is really a pity.

Changing the topic slightly, the show also truly emphasised the lack of female presence in fine dining, which in itself is an important topic of conversation. Women have always been primary caregivers at home throughout the entire history of humanity, and have always been at the centre of providing food and nutrition at home. The idea of ‘mom’s cooking’ or ‘grandma’s kitchen’ is a common nostalgic feeling that anyone can feel because of this long history of women being forced to become one with the kitchen. Why is it then, that in fine dining, the arena for really making it big and making cooking a big-name job, the arena where one can become creative and think beyond traditional boundaries – that there are an overwhelming majority of men?

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

Gender theorists and academics have long researched career patterns between women and men, how certain careers become less valued and immediately correlate with a lower pay when the sector becomes ‘feminised’. Certain examples include teaching, jobs that were considered valuable and important a century ago when it was exclusively men in the field. The question remains whether all these numbers are a simple reflection of the reactions to the increase in the numbers of people in these careers, hence salaries decreasing in effect (a fact of numbers) – however lots of other researchers and the evidence they provide suggests that that version of the story is skewed. Unconscious discrimination still remains a strong contender in the attempt to explain the numbers. We cannot consider the gender pay gap solely vertically (e.g. in terms of positions within a company), we must visualise it horizontally as well (across jobs, sectors that are considered ‘feminised’ and ‘masculinsed’) to truly get the real picture painted. Not to mention actually start considering domestic work as work should be paid even though it isn’t, and see it as an equally important position in our society, as domestic labour is just as laborious as jobs in the public sphere. It is the invisible labour that we do not consider as important in spite of it being the reason for the success of the next generations as well as the partner that goes out to earn money.

There is a desperate need for us to change the way we view and interact with the world – considering the questions of when and why have somewhat been answered, the how is the next main question that comes to mind at this very moment.

Food for thought,


Intersectional book club #2: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

“I had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

For our second intersectional book club we move towards the wonderful country that is Iran!

For those that do not know much about the country, it goes far and beyond what you see through the lens of Western media, far more than the question of nuclear arms, the Islamic State and state oppression. It is a country of resistance, of strength and of beautiful cultural heritage. This is the inspiring story that Marjane tells in her autobiographical comic, Persepolis. We not only learn about the more recent history of her country, Iran, through her comical, heartwarming tale, but also hear a story of immigration to Europe, the experience of a woman of colour in the West.

After reading Persepolis, I was very much inspired to experience a bit of Iranian culture myself, which I managed to do by accompanying a dear friend of mine from Iran to her local Iranian supermarket visits as well as trying out Iranian food with her. Between large happy bites of Kobideh, sips of Iranian tea and licks of delicious Iranian ice-cream, my friend would tell me all about her wonderful country, and I could really understand better and visualise Iranian culture and society – the way I would read the stories of Marjane. Food can often be the best way to accessing a culture and meeting people with stories to tell – and I recommend you to try Iranian food in any case as Iranian food is absolutely a delight!

Going back however to our book club (I diverge), Persepolis tells a courageous tale of struggles and joys, of loss and understanding, of feeling comfortable in one’s skin and visualising the future.

Marjane grows up in Iran throughout the 70s and 80s, watching her parents fight against the monarchy in Iran with Marxian dreams and hopes for a better future. She experiences the rise and fall of the Shah, as well as the beginnings of what we know today as the Islamic Republic of Iran. She survives a long war between Iran and Iraq, resulting in her parents sending her away to Europe to make sure she is safe from the disasters of war. From heart-wrenching stories of loss (family and friends that do not survive the unfortunate consequences of their revolutionary spirit) to other humourous ones of her own rebellions in Iran (smuggling Western music, wearing her veil very loosely, wild secret parties), we get to see Iran both in the light of the difficulties it goes through, as well as the constant small joys of life the locals experience. We all often fall into the hole of thinking that people from countries of war and strife must constantly be miserable. By doing so we force them to forever be victims, to fit into the narrative of sorrow and loss – which is not all there is to them. By forcing them to lose their agency, their sense of identity, we commit the worst crime of ignorance. Yes, individuals from war-ridden countries do go through difficulty, are very often victims in many of the situations they face. However, that isn’t all there is to them. There are moments of happiness, of deep joy. Celebrations of culture and tradition. Love, food, family and of course, according to Marjane, punk music and cigarettes. They have dimension, depth, in the same way we all love to think we do. This is something that I felt quite strongly reading Persepolis, reading about Marjane’s story.

As mentioned above, Marjane also tells her amazing tale of her experiences in the West. She juggles her guilt towards those suffering and dying everyday in Iran while experiencing the difficulties underlying being an immigrant in the West, including financial struggles, difficulties reconciling her identities, as well as increasing issues with mental health – which, similar to Americanah (our last month’s intersectional book club book), is often seen as a white man’s issue in many non-Western nations. This of course, is very much a false assumption (driven in some ways through long centuries of shame related to mental health issues), however says more on the one hand, about how difficult these countries may realistically have it (mental health becoming just one of the many mountains of basic issues they face such as poverty and hunger) as well as on the other, about the skewed vision that individuals of colour do not feel or experience mental health issues. This vision of course not only originates from white Western individuals but also is often internalised by people of colour, making it somewhat of a vicious cycle (more on mental health in the POC community another time…)

Marjane experiences an initial strong culture shock, seeing sexually liberated Europeans, individualistic values, and the lack of family-centred relationships. Then quickly realises the hypocrisy and the irony behind the scripted sympathies and ‘edginess’ of Europeans (the example of her anarchist friends looking up to her for having lived through a war), understanding very quickly that most individuals either see her as a strange Middle-Eastern pretending to be French, or a martyr that exaggerates her experiences of war and revolution back in Iran. She can never simply just be Marjane, always having to play the role that people expect her to play. Realistically, she has very little money due to her solo young immigrant status, and eventually, after going through depression, finds herself on the streets and becomes very sick with pneumonia. It is only after this she decides to return to Iran. The continuous string that goes through Persepolis and is talked about more frequently during her time in Europe and her return to Iran, is Marjane’s vision of identity. Her father and grandmother’s last words to her before she leaves Iran, to not forget who she truly is and where she comes from, becomes at times her guiding star and in other times a source of stress and heavy responsibility – the main reason for which she refuses to contact her parents and tell them the truth about her life in Europe.

After her experiences in Europe, returning to Iran has its difficulties too of course, as Iran remains an Islamic Republic, and her depression only gets deeper, leading to her attempting suicide. She becomes a lost soul between worlds: feeling a strong attachement to her country, while desiring freedom and liberation (from the Islamic Republic and the veil) which she also finds to be concepts shaped into a hypocritical framework in the West. Her return to Iran ends well however (after university, a failed marriage, confronting the realities of her country), where she does truly remember and find herself again, like her father and the grandmother told her to when she first left Iran. She reminds herself that wherever she goes and wherever she is, there will be positives and negatives, and the story she chooses to tell about these places are within her own power, and within her own strength. It is ultimately, a tale of a woman realising that her agency gives her strength and that no matter where she is as long as she reconciles her identities and feels comfortable in her skin, her heart remains in the right place.

Marjane’s book does end however with a touch of bittersweetness, as she mentions that her loving grandmother passed away after she left Iran for the second time, ending with the line, “la liberté avait un prix…” (Freedom came at a price). A strong reminder of the things we leave behind in exchange for what we may feel is the brighter choice for our lives.

Hope I have not spoiled so much that you do not want to read the book anymore. It’s an amazing read, and I really do hope you will want to check it out for this month’s book club! There is also a movie version of the book, that is quite wonderful too for those wanting to go the extra mile.

See you next month for our next intersectional book club!

Eat your Kobideh,


Poetry spotlight #1: Do not live as I did by Park No Hae

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

Today we have an amazing poetry spotlight, our first one, and a Korean one at that! This poem is by Park No Hae (박노해), born in 1957. Park No Hae is actually his pen name, and he found inspiration for it through the sentence, ‘the emancipation of workers that are persecuted’ (해 받는 동자의 방). Having been involved himself in many years of manually labour, and having come from a working-class background, he started writing during his years of work, describing the more complex experiences and feelings behind the worker. It was a shock to Korean society that someone with such a background could be a talented and eloquent poet – especially considering the times.

For a bit of background information, Korea had gone through a war in the 1950s, and by the 1980s, the economy was faring a lot better and poverty had lessened; however society had not quite reached stability, and the experience of poverty and war still rang strongly, like a societal trauma. Korea had gone through, at this point (following years of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War), authoritarianism with the Park Chung Hee (박정희) administration, followed by the Chun Doo Hwan (전두환) administration that was involved in the controversial Gwangju Uprising where many students and young workers had been massacred by military forces, under order of the government. There echoed a sense of uncertainty as well as an unshakeable feeling of alienation that had imprinted strongly in Korean society, creating rifts as well as large questions with regards to the nation’s social and political future.

Knowing all of this, I hope you can enjoy the poem below, named Do not live as I did, by Park No Hae. Korean is an extremely concise language, where one can express emotion and feeling through short sentences and words; the English translation unfortunately might not be able to express all of this as well, however I hope you can appreciate the meaning behind the poem nonetheless.

Feel free to share below what you think about the poem, the significance behind it and of course for those Koreans out there, give a shoutout if you are feeling comfortable! Now without further ado, here below the Korean poem, followed by the English translation:

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

넌 나 처럼 살지 마라

술 한잔 걸치신 날이면
넌 나처럼 살지 마라

파스 냄새 물씬한 귀갓길에
넌 나처럼 살지 마라

이 악물고 공부해라
좋은 사무실 취직해라
악착같이 돈 벌어라

악하지도 못한 당신께서
악도 남지 않은 휘청이는 몸으로
넌 나처럼 살지 마라 울먹이는 밤

내 가슴에 슬픔의 칼이 돋아날 때
나도 이렇게는 살고 싶지 않아요
스무살이 되어서도
내가 뭘 하고 싶은지도 모르겠고
꿈을 찾는게 꿈이어서 억울하고

어머니, 당신의 소망은 이미 죽었어요
아버지, 이젠 대학 나와도 내 손으로
당신이 꿈꾸는 밥을 벌 수도 없어요

넌 나처럼 살지 마라, 그래요,
난 절대로 당신처럼 살지는 않을 거에요
자식이 부모조차 존경할 수 없는 세상을
제 새끼에게 나처럼 살지 말라고 말하는 세상을
난 결코 살아남지 않을 거에요

아버지, 당신은 나의 하늘이었어요
당신이 하루 아침에 벼랑 끝에서 떠밀려
어린 내 가슴 바닥에 떨어지던 날
어머니, 내가 딛고 선 발밑도 무너져 버렸어요
그날, 내 가슴엔 영원히 사라지지 않는 공포가
영원히 지워지지 않을 상처가 새겨지고 말았어요

세상은 그 누구도 믿을 수 없고
그 어디에도 기댈 곳도 없고
돈 없으면 죽는구나
그날 이후 삶이 두려워졌어요

넌 나처럼 살지 마라
알아요, 난 죽어도 당신처럼 살지는 않을 거에요
제 자식 앞에 스스로 자신을 죽이고
정직하게 땀 흘려온 삶을 내팽개쳐야 하는
이런 세상을 살지 않을 거에요
나는 차라리 죽어 버리거나 죽여 버리겠어요
돈에 미친 세상을, 돈이면 다인 세상을

아버지, 어머니,
돈이 없어도 당신은 여전히 나의 하늘입니다
당신이 잘못 산게 아니잖아요
못 배웠어도, 힘이 없어도,
당신은 영원히 나의 하늘입니다

어머니, 아버지,
다시 한번 예전처럼 말해주세요
나는 없이 살아도 그렇게 살지 않았다고
나는 대학 안나와도 그런 짓 하지 않았다고
어떤 경우에도 아닌 건 아니다
가슴 펴고 살아가라고

다시 한번 예전처럼 말해주세요
누가 뭐라 해도 너답게 살아가라고
너를 망치는 것들과 당당하게 싸워가라고
너는 엄마처럼 아빠처럼 부끄럽지 않게 살으라고
다시 한번 하늘처럼 말해주세요

Do not live as I did

After a day of drinking
Do not live as I did

After coming home smelling like Pas*
Do not live as I did

Grit your teeth and study
Get employed by a good office
Earn money as if your life depended on it

To you who could never have bad will
With a stumbling body that does not even contain bad will
A night sobbing do not live as I did

When my heart sprouts the knife of sadness
I also do not want to live like this
Even when I turned twenty
I do not know what I would like to do
Feel unfairness as my dream is to find a dream

Mother, your hope has already died
Father, these days even if I do go to university with my hands
I cannot even earn enough for the food you dream of

Do not live as I did, yes,
I will never live as you did
A world where children cannot even respect their parents
A world where one tells their children not to live as I did
I would not survive in that world

Father, you were my sky
The day you were pushed to the edge of a cliff from one day to the next
And fell onto the bottom of my young heart
Mother, what I was treading on has crumbled under my feet
That day, in my heart the fear that never disappears
The hurt that will never be erased was etched

In the world no one can be trusted
Not a single place to lean on anywhere
Without money there is death
After that day life has become terrifying

Do not live as I did
I know, even if I die I will not live as you did
Where one kills their self in front of their children
Where one must throw away the honest life attained through dripping sweat
I will not live this sort of world
I would rather die or be dead
A world crazy with money, where money is everything

Father, Mother,
Even if you do not have money you remain my sky
You did not live wrongly
Even if uneducated, or without strength,
You are still my sky

Mother, Father,
Tell me once again as before
Even if I lived with nothing I did not live like that
Even if I did not go to university I did not do those things
Whatever the case what is not is not
Live with your chest wide open

Tell me once again as before
Whatever others say live the way that you do
Fight steadfastly against those that ruin you
Live unashamedly like your mother like your father
Tell me once again as the sky

*Pas: a cheap pain relieving patch that can be bought at the local pharmacy in Korea. It heats up when it gets in contact with skin and helps to sooth knotted muscles. It is often used by people that do physical labour.

Love, respect and hope,


Is Shia sectarianism singular to Bahrain?

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

For those interested in the history and politics of the Middle-East, we shift our focus today towards a small island state called Bahrain in the Gulf – and report on the nature of Shi’ism in the country.

Today throughout the Middle East, Shias represent the political minority; except for the few large exceptions such as Iran and Iraq. Another small exception lies close to Iran: that is the small island of Bahrain. Although in fact a political minority in terms of their position of influence in the country, in numbers they remain the majority: most academic sources agree that the proportions are at approximately 70% of Shia for 30% Sunni. In this context, knowing that Shias remain the minority despite their larger numbers, the question that could be asked is whether the story of the Shia minority identity is singular to the Bahraini context, or if this identity is closer to the one that is ‘universal’ throughout the Middle East.

The Sunni-Shia divide and the foundations of the Bahraini state

Photo by Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash

The foundations of the Bahraini state explain in part the current-day Sunni-Shia relationship in Bahrain. The current-day Al-Khalifa dynasty was founded in 1783 after the defeat of the Persians on the island. Persia at the time held Bahrain as a vassal state – and in the point of view of the dynasty, there was an idea of liberating the Arabs on the island from the Persians, an idea of “national liberation” (Louër, 2014). For the native Shia population however, that were being “liberated”, the vision was not shared: the Shias held the view that they were the “original natives” that inhabited the island since the Sunni-Shia divide post Mohamed’s death. The Al-Khalifa dynasty then, for them, remained conquerors and invaders that were alien to the island (Louër, 2014). As there are very few sources to verify which vision is the factual truth, it is difficult to ascertain which is correct, however academics generally agree that although the island was mainly inhabited by the Shia, there remained a certain level of cultural/religious diversity – which may imply Shias were not the only “true natives” to the country. This constitutes the foundations also of the Shia identity itself in Bahrain, where the bilateral vision of conqueror and the natives has become the first building block to visioning oneself as a Shia in the country. Following the conquest of Bahrain, a feudal system was established, where the arable lands were taken over by the dynasty and were divided and managed amongst their own clan as well as other allied Sunni tribes (Diwan, 2014). Most Shias were forced to rent this newly proclaimed owned land, creating a form of “debt bondage” (Louër, 2014) where they would have to work the land but also pay rent to inhabit and work on it. The pearl trade was mainly managed by Sunnis, that enjoyed relative freedom to the Shias working on land – those working in the pearling sector were given more freedoms as the sector was the economic stronghold of the country, and advantages had to be given to the workers to prevent them from leaving to other countries in the region that also had pearling industries. This series of events following the conquest however did not necessarily aim at direct discrimination or sectarianism but was rather a way to “reward the conquerors” and those allied to this group, as well as for the maximisation of economic priorities, which happened to be the pearling sector at the time in Bahrain. (Diwan, 2014). This can be shown by the fact that at the time, the dynasty tolerated most public Shia cultural/religious displays and activities, and in parallel also gave monetary donations to contribute to Shia festivals. The dynasty did not consider Shias as a threat at this point and were viewed as an accepted cultural/religious group (Louër, 2014). There existed still however, a sense of difference between the Sunnis and Shias due to the foundations and dynamics of the country – a divide, although not perhaps directly intended, present.

Shia sectarianism as a political strength and identity

Shia sectarianism started becoming more of a political force and identity starting with the colonial presence of the British in Bahrain from the 1920s: new policies were set up to facilitate commerce and arbitrate commercial conflicts – and the existence of an embryonic bureaucracy which aimed at judging according to clear and fair laws made sure more equitable laws applied for everyone, including the Shias (Louër, 2008). This led however to opposition groups forming, constituted by Sunni clans backed up mainly by another section of the ruling family clustered around the emir. In 1923 tensions led to a peak point where open riots started happening in Manama as well as small villages in Bahrain with Sunnis on one side and Shias on the other. These riots became the first public display of Shia grievance, and gave rise to tensions between the two groups. With the establishment of the oil industry in Bahrain in the 1930s, a second public display of Shia grievance became known: this was due to The Bahrain Petroleum Company’s (BAPCO) hiring choices (AlShehabi, 2017). Iranian employees were hired to work at the company at first, as they required little training and did not need to be paid as much as the locals. Such choice represented an undesirable outcome for the Bahraini rulers as well as the British, as they feared such hiring choices would lead to increasing Iran’s claim over Bahrain. The Iranian staff were therefore traded out for Indian ones, which gave rise to discontent among the minority Bahraini staff members of BAPCO, that were mostly Shia as they were either originally Iranian migrants or were born from Iranian parents (AlShehabi, 2017). As holders of what were often precarious contracts compared to their new migrant counterparts, strong trade unions and repetitive strikes were organised in response (Louër, 2008). These two instances in the 1920s and 1930s as we have seen, became the groundwork for the formation of a Shia sectarian identity, as a more active, visible force in the country, representing not only cultural/religious difference from the Sunnis but also as distinct group with the ability to form social and political opinions and participate actively in civil society.

This identity became further reinforced with the first parliamentary experiments of the 1970s. With the emergence of Marxist/nationalist Arab movements in the region, the state accepted the counter identity that was also strongly present as an opposition against the secular influence: the Shia movements that were forming at the time. Before the 1970s, the formation and activities of these groups were accepted by the state as they had thought of them as useful and necessary to counter the undesirable secular (equated in some ways with Western) influence. There were two main groups: Al Dawa with its founder Isa Qasem, related to the marja’iyya of Najaf and the Shirazi network, based on the figure of Mohammed al-Shirazi (Louër, 2014), both transnational politic-religious networks rivalling the ones in Iraq. Al Dawa was popular in Bahrain amongst the rural segments while the Shirazi Network was so in the cities (Louër, 2014). With the 1973 elections, two main blocs came forward: the progressive bloc (comprising of the Marxist/Arab nationalist movements) and the religious bloc (mainly formed by Al Dawa); however contrary to the regime’s intentions, the two blocs collaborated instead of facing each other off in vetoing a government bill that aimed at restricting civil liberties. In response, the regime disbanded parliament, announced a state of emergency and then began the repression of the progressive bloc, where many members were arrested and deported for their “radical” convictions. Again, completely contrary to the regime’s expectations, this led to turnaround attitudes in the religious bloc and in 1976 the Shirazi Network was reborn as the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB). The IFLB became increasingly radicalised and political over the years following, especially with the Islamic Revolution in Iran happening in parallel, increasing tensions in the region, between the regime and the movement furthermore (Louër, 2014). This escalated to a point in 1981 when the leader of IFLB, Hadi al-Modarresi, was exiled to Iran following a failed attempt at a coup in Bahrain; which led to the crackdown of both Shia networks in Bahrain. What the regime had originally intended as leniency due to the convenient opposability of the Shia identity to (Western) secular influence became the beginnings of a radical form of Shi’ism, and the building of a politically charged Shia identity – seeing sectarianism as not only cultural/religious but also as political with the interest in radically changing the status quo of the country, as a product of modernity, a driver of political identity.

Shi’ism as a political ideology and strategy: the 1990s uprising, the effects of the 2000s reforms and al Wifaq

Photo by mhrezaa on Unsplash

The 1990s was an era of reform for Bahrain, but also more specifically for the Shias in Bahrain: in 1992, a petition was signed by 280 society members – and a reinstatement of parliament was promised to the Shia. Contrary to the hopes of the Shia however, a Consultative Council was established instead where although notables were equally distributed between Sunnis and Shias, the Council had very little influence over actual policy decisions (Louër, 2013). Furthermore, during the 1990s, with the continuous socio-economic instability alongside spreading rates of unemployment amongst the youth, especially among the Shia, there was a growing dissatisfaction with regards to the preference of hiring Sunnis over Shias in the public sector. The Uprising of Dignity started in 1994 partly because of all these different tensions, where not only Shias but also leftists, joined to express their discontent (Louër, 2013). The uprising itself was viewed however by the regime as Bahraini as well as Shia in nature – especially as it was no longer at a time when the Islamic Revolution was active in Iran – demonstrating the changing nature of the regime’s view of the Shia majority (Louër, 2013). The vision of Shi’ism was viewed from the 1990s onwards more specifically by the regime as an opposing political ideology, a threat to the regime. For this reason, as a response to the uprisings, the Sunni identity was used as a counter, through policies that would marginalise Shias – such as the decision to dedicate naturalisation solely for Sunnis. This radical shift towards seeing the Shias as a threat to the state as well as to state identity explains many of the following policy decisions and the more active discrimination of the Shia. With the change of head of state in 1999, this sectarianism became more clearly defined as a decision of the state.

With the assumption of power of Emir Hamad following the sudden death of his father Isa bin Salman in 1999, a possibility to reform the country opened and was taken on by the new ruler (Diwan, 2014). The question of who would take over the throne post Hamad’s death also became important, the potential candidates being Sheikh Salman (crown prince) and the long-term prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman. Although Salman would be the first in line, he lacked the influence and wasta of Khalifa bin Salman – and to demonstrate his ruling strategy, taking inspiration from Dubai and with the support of a “new international patron in the United States” (Diwan, 2014, p. 155) – Salman launched economic reform initiatives to recall the support that was gathered around his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman. In parallel, some avenues for new Shia cooperation was promised with the aim of “incremental empowerment” and “local development” (Diwan, 2014, p. 155). With a goal of unifying the opposition and “co-opting [them] into the political and economic structure of the state, without threatening the prerogatives of the ruling Al Khalifa” (Diwan, 2014), Hamad, backed by Sheikh Salman, encouraged the formation of a unified alliance between the existing Shia opposition, by pardoning groups such as Al-Wifaq (society founded in 2001) of the political chaos of the 1990s; which facilitated the relationship between the regime and the Shias. However, soon after declaring Bahrain a kingdom, Hamad through constitutional changes gave a hand-picked upper house legal authority over the elected lower house (Diwan, 2014). Furthermore, within the lower house, various “gerrymandered districts” – clustering Shias and putting them in districts with higher numbers of voters, which ensured that it would be impossible for the Shias to ever gain a majority in the elected lower house (Diwan, 2014). This failure to materialise what had been promised as cooperative avenues led to further discontent amongst the Shia: after the boycotting of the 2002 elections, Al Wifaq, as an attempt to reform from the inside changed strategy and took most seats in the lower house with the 2006 elections. However, this did not change much ultimately for the Shia; as summed by Diwan,

“the reforms undertaken by the king and crown prince aimed to better integrate the Shi‘is into national politics and markets, but they did not eliminate the differential treatment of communities, nor did they address the exclusion inherent at the heights of the “tribal” system. Much as the political reforms brought the opposition societies into the parliament without relinquishing control over the levers of power, the economic reforms worked to better integrate Bahrainis into the economy without ceding control over key resources: land and oil. The result was a growing disillusionment with the accommodative approach of al-Wifaq, and growing disputes within the opposition over fundamental tactic […] Over the latter half of the 2000s, a new ideological coalition would cohere around the idea that the Shi‘i could not be trusted, and that integrating them into the state’s political and economic institutions was courting dangers” (Diwan, 2014, p. 161).

The Bandargate affair is an example that further emphasises this point: the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights received in 2006 a long document detailing the specific details of Shia marginalisation from Saleh al-Bandar, a worker at the Bahraini Royal Court Affairs Ministry. The document detailed that the Minister of Bahrain (Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa) at the time paid around $2.7 million for various initiatives encouraging marginalisation, amongst which included: election rigging, spreading internet hate speech against the Shia, creating fake government operated NGOs with the sole purpose of marginalising the Shia and hiring secret intelligence to spy on Shias involved in political activity (Louër, 2013). It showed ultimately that Sunnis were kept intentionally at the advantageous positions and Shias kept at the margins, preventing them from accessing the key sectors for political/social influence. Sectarianism can be seen within this context as a choice of the state, executed with intention.

Sectarianism as historical, identity building, strategic…and domestic

All these historical events culminated to, in 2011, the Pearl Uprising – following the wave of the Arab Spring in the region. Starting on the internet by the youth then to the streets, the uprising quickly gained traction, through the support vocal of veterans of previous uprisings such as Abdulwahab Hussain and Hassan Mushaima (Khalaf, 2015). It was a strong display of social organisation amongst the Shia, not only in numbers but also in anonymity and aptitude in making use of social media for demonstration. Their goals were to 1/ expose the brutality and ineffectiveness of security forces, 2/ end the ‘corrupted’ cooperation between the opposition and the royal family, 3/ gain the rights to collective protest, and 4/ minimise the influence of Al Wefaq as a representative of the Shia (Khalaf, 2015). The regime, on its side responded through, 1/ repression by the security forces followed by raids by the police, 2/ usage of social media to discredit the opposition, 3/ announcing political reform through a combination of material goods to opposition leaders perceived as ‘moderate’ (Khalaf, 2015). Rallies and smaller protests followed, all focalised around the Pearl Roundabout. As indicated by Khalaf, the results of the uprising demonstrated, most importantly, that the “crisis in Bahrain [was] another indication of the inherent weaknesses of rentier politics itself. The Bahraini regime lost its ability to mobilise its own infrastructural and repressive capacities to deal with domestic challenges” (Khalaf, 2015, p. xvii). Sectarianism in Bahrain with the 2011 Pearl Uprisings became explosively an issue of security – which was already visible from the example of the Bandargate affair. The actions of the regime following the 2011 Pearl Uprisings illustrates this image quite clearly: surveillance not only in real life but also on the internet, accompanied by other actions such as re-appropriation and reframing of existing Shia narratives (reframing pictures of peaceful protest into acts of terrorism), propaganda and disinformation, name and shame and trolling (Jones, 2015).

Many theories can be used to explain the previously outlined choices of the Bahraini state; Strand offers a few, including primordialism, instrumentalism by elite manipulation, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Strand, 2016). In the context of Bahrain, it is difficult to state that primordialism applies considering the historical context of the country and what we have discussed so far; however, instrumentalism by elite manipulation applies quite closely. Following the idea of instrumentalism as “the notion that identity and culture are created, not innate, and that individuals can create these identities for their own gains” (Strand, 2016) – the elite would be then, manipulating identities with the ultimate goal to divide and conquer – seeing sectarianism as the manipulation of government agencies. This follows closely in the Bahraini context not only in the 1970s with the formulation of Shia sectarianism as a more politicised and political identity, but also in the 1990s onwards with the elections and the following Bandargate affair. Sectarianism in this context can also be seen as a strategy to maintain authority on the side of the elites, following Matthiesen’s ideas (Matthiesen, 2013). Following these theories on domestic politics and policy decisions, the local context becomes relevant above all else. Strand’s third theory, on the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran however it worth mentioning despite its slight contradictory nature to the theory of instrumentalism, as it is still applicable and relevant in the Bahraini context. As discussed by Strand, although Iran may not be the main driving factor for the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain, it may be a considerable factor when speaking of the justifications for which domestically in Bahrain movements might have been pushed on – and created tensions in the country. Iranian religious figures as well as political figures have been vocal on their support of the uprisings in Bahrain throughout the years as a way of expressing competition with Saudi Arabia for regional influence. Saudi Arabia equally has been pushing for support of the Al-Khalifa as a way to protect their own domestic interest, an expression of the ruling powers’ stance towards the Shia present in the Eastern region of the country (Strand, 2016): “the direct involvement by Saudi Arabia and the co-religionist Shi’a protests between the two countries is part of the regional context that has further entrenched the saliency of sectarian identity” (Strand, 2016, p. 54).

Shia sectarianism in Bahrain is singular to the country, but also multi-faceted. It is singular in that a lot of how sectarianism works in the country and is expressed can be credited to domestic history and politics. From the origins of the Sunni-Shia divide in the 1700s to British colonial rule, the parliamentary experiment of the 1970s and the 1990s, the politicised security initiatives of the 2000s all the way to the Pearl Uprising of 2011 – the Shias in Bahrain can be viewed as forging their sectarian identity not only for religious/cultural reasons but also to ‘do politics’ as a civil group. Even within the Shia political opposition there is diversity, due to domestic influence: it is often divided based off ideology, class, age, and remains dynamic despite constant government constraints. On the other hand, the Bahraini state has also been shown to push sectarianism at times and at others, retract it, depending on the types of risks and questions that come up to counter the regime: whether it be questions of rule (countering secularism) or security (internal and external). It is however, as pointed out at the end of the paper, important none the less to recognise the potential external influence that has been the Saudi Arabian/Iranian one – as although it may not be the principle reason for sectarianism in Bahrain, may contribute to the building of tensions at certain periods more than others. Domestic context however, remains significant in the Bahraini case.

As summarised concretely by Wehrey,

“Like any social or political fissure, sectarianism is not an immutable feature of the Gulf landscape or a manufactured construct, as some have alleged. In times of uncertainty, political and media elites have manipulated/exploited it, and ordinary citizens have latched on to it as a safety net. Sectarianism’s ripples across national boundaries are most acute in conditions of political inequality and institutional weakness, among marginalized social groups/embattled elites. The Iranian Revolution, the Iraqi civil war, the Hezbollah–Israel war in Lebanon, and most recently, the Syrian civil war have echoed throughout the Gulf, exciting sectarian passions and stirring expressions of partisanship. But the ultimate roots of Sunni–Shia tensions lie in the domestic context rather than in regional events.” (Wehrey, 2014, p. 250)

What remains to be asked and investigated in the future is whether this sectarian identity in Bahrain could ever be reconciled with the state’s interests – and as the Pearl Uprising of 2011 has shown, this question may need answering sooner rather than later.

Keep learning,



AlShehabi, O. H., 2017. Contested modernity: divided rule and the birth of sectarianism, nationalism, and absolutism in Bahrain. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 44(3), pp. 333-355.

Diwan, K. S., 2014. Royal Factions, Ruling Strategies, and Sectarianism in Bahrain. In: L. G. Potter, ed. Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 143-177.

Jones, M. O., 2015. Social Media, Surveillance, and Cyberpolitics in the Bahrain Uprising. In: A. Shehabi & M. O. Jones, eds. Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf. London: Zed Books, pp. 239-262.

Khalaf, A., 2015. Foreword: On the Prelude to the 14 February Uprising. In: A. Shehabi & M. O. Jones, eds. Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf. London: Zed Books, pp. xiii-xvii.

Louër, L., 2008. Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. 1st Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Louër, L., 2013. Sectarianism and Coup-Proofing Strategies in Bahrain. Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(2), pp. 245-260.

Louër, L., 2014. The State and Sectarian Identities in the Persian Gulf Monarchies: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in Comparative Perspective. In: L. G. Potter, ed. Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 117-142.

Matthiesen, T., 2013. Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t. 1st Edition ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Strand, B. C., 2016. Explaining Sectarian Violence in the Middle East: a Comparative Study of Bahrain and Yemen, Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School.

Wehrey, F. M., 2014. Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. 1st Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

An analysis and evaluation on Scanlon’s ‘What We Owe to Each Other’ (1998)

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

Today we have a nerdier post for those philosophers and lovers of philosophy out there. A bit of a longer post than usual, but we all know how it is when you start writing critical observations in philosophy! Miles long, but hope you still appreciate this more academic endeavour. This is a great book that was mentioned in The Good Place on Netflix for those that watch this show.

Scanlon’s Contractualism in What We Owe to Each Other

Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other introduces the idea of Contractualism, as “an act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement” (Scanlon, 2000:153). Contractualism is thus, in its own right a theory of justice that, in one way, introduces a thought process to help individuals justify their reasons for thinking why an act is right or wrong – in particular, why an individual feels wronged, and why they think the act inflicted upon them is wrong. In another way, what is wrong is also the most important moral premise. Wrongness is not justifiable: the most important thing to remember about ‘wrong’ is not asking whether something is wrong or not, but rather, how or what it means for one person to be wronged (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Scanlon’s line of argumentation presupposes the Kantian ideal of treating individual humans beings as rational agents: as ends in and of themselves, as opposed to as a mere means to get to those ends. This is also known as the idea of “mutual recognition” (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). This idea of mutual recognition in turn, emphasizes the importance of what we owe to each other to be the relationship we, as individual human beings have towards other individual human beings. Also, all individuals share the opinion that reason is the most important moral priority, and that value is constructed around reason, not vice versa (Watson, 2002:221). It is useful, in this respect, to differentiate Contractualism from both Contractarianism and Utilitarianism.

Contractualism vs. Contractarianism and Utilitarianism

Hobbes’ and Gauthier’s Contractarianism and Utilitarianism both differ fundamentally from Contractualism in the sense that they both look at morality as well as justice in an instrumental fashion; they emphasize the idea that we behave morally because it is useful for us to do so. Rationality is explained mainly to be instrumental, as a way to finding the best means to one’s ends. Following that line of thinking, both Contractarianism and Utilitarianism also mostly use hypothetical reasoning, e.g. if I want to be successful, I must study hard. This entails the central idea that if we behave morally, then we are happy (in the Utilitarian case) or safe (in the case of Contractarianism). Contractualism on the other hand, is completely different from the previous two, because it appeals to fundamental principles that we cannot reject. Reasoning is not hypothetical, but rather, categorical – as in, following the previous example given, it is good to study hard (as opposed to the previous “if…then…” formulation). Reason is thought to be an end in itself, in the sense that rationality does not consist of being instrumentally rational, but rather, in acting according to principles of reason. Morality, therefore, is not just an instrumental good, but also a good in itself, which is an idea that comes very much from the Kantian stream of thought. An example to illustrate this idea of morality is that of Christian morality: according to the Christian line of thought, the will of God is good in itself, therefore it is right for us to do. Similarly, the idea of wrongness in Scanlon can be understood as categorical.  Finally, Contractualism presupposes individual human beings to be morally equal, unlike Contractarianism and Utilitarianism, theories that treat individual human beings as simple agents that take part in a social contract due to factors such as fear or simply, to be in a better situation, in aggregate.

The clash between Contractualism and Contractarianism/Utilitarianism also represents a clash between instrumental and absolute reason. Instrumental reason follows the “if…then…” argumentation method, and has as a goal finding the optimal means to one’s ends. At the opposite side of the spectrum, absolute reason aims at statements that are not contingent on an outcome. For example, the instrumental statement “if I want to be healthy, I should eat well” is only true if eating healthy is actually going to make me healthier as well. On the other hand something like “it is good to be healthy” is true no matter what the world is like. In this sense, Scanlon’s Contractualism differs fundamentally from the Utilitarian line of thought. What We Owe to Each Other is in and of itself not a contingent question, rather, there is an absolute principle that dictates what we owe to one another: that which one cannot reasonably reject.

Reasonable Rejection

In What We Owe to Each Other, Scanlon states that one can only reasonably reject a principle when one is being directly harmed or experience suffering because of the principle. This rejection starts from the objection of the individual when they feel like they are being wronged or treated unjustly. Although in cases of suffering or harm one can reasonably reject a principle, a case where one does not benefit from the situation, or feels the situation affects them in a bad way cannot be a reason for rejecting a principle. Therefore, for one to make sure whether they can reasonably reject a principle, they must also make sure to ask themselves how this rejection might affect other people. This is, yet again the Kantian influence on Scanlon’s writing – the emphasis on interpersonal relations, respect for other individuals and thus the treating of individuals as ends in and of themselves at all times rather than as mere means (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

When it comes to Scanlon’s idea of Reasonable Rejection, we can observe that Scanlon’s theory isn’t completely categorical: what one cannot reasonably reject is somewhat contingent on what the overall situation is like. The notion of human nature becomes interesting; there seems to be something about being human, that makes us want to justify our actions to one another. We are capable to reflect on how our actions affect others and we can abstract from that. Scanlon seems to appeal to Human Nature as a justification for his “Reasonably Reject” condition – which is different in this sense from utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes in the world, as well as from Kant, who focuses on reason distinct from Human Nature in the sense that any rational creature is subject to the moral law.

Scanlon makes a distinction between impact on self and impact on others, but ultimately says that both count. Ashford and Mulgan give a good example of this statement: if a certain principle affects me in a bad way but alternatives affect another person badly even more than it affects me, then my reason does not give me valid grounds for rejecting the principle. If I am a sensible individual, then I would no longer object to that principle, because I see that the other person would be in a worse situation than I currently am in, if I were to object. The reason for my objection, however, is not based on the overall level of utility, which would be the Utilitarian line of thought. Instead, it has to do with a categorical understanding of mutual respect. This argumentation for a Utilitarian would not make any sense: to compromise one’s own pain due to realizing that another person’s pain is greater only follows the Utilitarian way of thought if the overall utility is greater, not on the basis of respect alone (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

One of the things that we owe to each other is contributing to each other’s interests: in the Contractualist line of thought, it is not about trying to get rid of things that make individuals ‘unhappy’ (which is the Utilitarian way of thinking) or put them in an ‘unprofitable’ situation, but rather, thinking about which principles individuals would be unable to reasonably reject. Living morally is being able to live together whilst respecting each other (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Thus, morality becomes a question of what we owe to each other. In the words of Scanlon,

“Moral education seems to me plausibly understood as a process of cultivating this desire [to be able to justify one’s actions] and shaping it, largely by learning what justifications others are in fact willing to accept, by finding which ones you yourself find acceptable as you confront them from a variety of perspectives, and by appraising your own and others’ acceptance or rejection of these justifications in the light of greater experience (…) People are willing to go to considerable lengths, involving quite heavy sacrifices, in order to avoid admitting the unjustifiability of their actions and institutions” (Scanlon, 1982:117).

This concept of shaping is another indication of Scanlon, yet again borrowing and being inspired by Kantian ideas: the idea of being able to distance ourselves from desire and shape it in accordance with morality. At the same time, Scanlon takes a different approach, in that what is right or wrong is also contingent on how we interpret other people in the world. It is no longer founded upon some abstract principle (e.g. the moral law), but takes into consideration the experience of what it means to be human. Desires, it seems, play an important role here. The relationship between reason and desire under Scanlon deserves a more detailed examination.

Reason and desire

In Scanlon’s book, the question is about which of the two has primacy. If we accept something as a good reason, is it because it fulfills a desire of ours? Are all reasons we have at some point desires? Is it the reasons, or the desires, that motivate us? The question of “why be moral”/”what motivates us to be moral” becomes relevant: are we moral because it fulfills one of our desires as social animals (i.e. fitting into society, mutual respect fulfilling our desire for belongingness, etc.), or are we perhaps moral because we accept reasons on a more abstract level?

Adams attempts to reply to these questions through this following statement: “I think it is more plausible to say that the operation of desire virtually always depends on reasons, and the operation of reasons virtually always depends on desires or desire-like states, than to say, as Scanlon does, that reasons are ‘the only motivating factors’ (35)” (Adams, 2001:575). Perhaps, following Adams’ statement, reasons and desire are really two sides of the same coin. There is a very Kantian aspect to this statement, in that it implies that we are at once objects that are under the influence of the causal order of the world (i.e. things happen to us), as well as free subjects, moral agents outside the causal realm, that take responsibility for their actions. When we study man as an object, for instance, in a psychological experiment, we see him in the former sense; responsibility might not necessarily enter the picture here. When we look at man under the common law, as a part of a community, we interpret him under the scope of the latter sense.

Adams wants to focus more on this notion of ‘caring’ for things: according to Adams, we have reasons to act on what we care about, and conversely, what we care about is to some extent up to us. That is, we can choose to care about some things more than others. It could even be interesting for us to go as far as to say that the object of political philosophy and any theory of justice, is to ask what we should care about. For example, Nozick and Locke say we should care about liberty; Mill and Bentham say we should care about welfare; what does Scanlon say we should care about, does he think it should be up to us, and that we inevitably reach the conclusion that we should care about what we cannot reasonably reject? Or does he care for something further than that? What Scanlon is looking for in his theory is respect and mutual recognition: whether this aims more at individual liberty or at welfare, or is an entirely distinct approach, is up to the reader to decide. Scanlon seems to suggest that we should care about respect and mutual recognition before we should care about liberties and/or welfare.


1. The issue with strict non-aggregation

The Utilitarian argument against Contractualism’s strictly non-aggregation argument is fairly simple: it is that Contractualism simply cannot completely avoid aggregation. John Taurek’s article, ‘Should the Numbers Count?’ provides a good example for this case; he gives a hypothetical situation where we have six people, that are all dying. We are the ones that have the life-saving drug to prevent them from dying – the problem is, one of the six people needs the full dose of the drug to be saved, whilst the other five only require a fifth of the drug to survive (Taurek, 1977:294). The Utilitarian view would be straightforward: we would save the greater number of people, as opposed to the one person. The problem with this kind of situation and Contractualism is that because it rejects aggregation. The five would not be able to justify their reason for receiving the drug as due to them being more in terms of numbers. Each of the five will respectively reject the principle to let the one person have the drug by saying that principle would lead to each of their respective deaths. On the other hand, the one person that needs the full dosage would reject the principle that lets the five survive. Each respective person’s reason (all six of them) for rejecting the principle would be all for the same reason – it would cause themselves to die perhaps unfairly (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). In this situation, the most logical solution would be to toss a coin (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012), so that there are equal chances for both groups to be saved. None of the individuals would be able to reject this principle because any other situation would either give one group of the other a lesser possibility of survival. The ultimate question is, however: does this feel like a fair situation? It is true that Contractualism treats individual human beings as equals – and it is also true that each individual person’s rejection is taken equal consideration, but does saving one person over five, or having to resort to a coin toss sound like a just/fair case? Contractualism’s inability to fully answer to this situation is somewhat problematic.

2. Contractualism’s limited scope of morality

Watson presents an interesting point on Contractualism’s limited scope of morality – the question of whether other living beings such as nonhuman animals or even human beings with limited mental capacity (e.g. handicaps, individuals with mental illnesses) are given “moral standing” (Watson, 2002:228). Whilst Utilitarianism makes it clear that their line of thought applies to all living beings, Scanlon does not clarify in What We Owe to Each Other, whether his idea is applicable to all living creatures, or even a possibility at all for all living creatures. The only information given by Scanlon on the scope of his morality is “if the notion of justification to a being of that kind makes sense” (Scanlon, 1982:113), as well as “distinctive capacities as reason-assessing, self-governing creatures” (Scanlon, 2000:106). Scanlon also speaks of the importance of treating animals ethically but not necessarily as individuals to whom we owe something (Scanlon, 2000:184).

As we can see, Scanlon is very vague on this topic, which creates various problems; first, his consideration on the position of nonhuman animals compared to human animals is questionable. Are and should nonhuman animals truly be considered as lower capacity beings? Who says they are not equal to human animals? This presupposition can be quite problematic, and the fact that this is presented as a reason for which Scanlon’s scope of morality might not be extended to them is not fully justified and explained. Second, a Utilitarian criticism to Scanlon’s approach to nonhuman animals would be that what is important is not whether we have certain duties towards animals or not. Rather, it would be wrong to inflict pain on them because they simply would feel suffering and pain (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Utilitarianism, emphasizes that it is the nonhuman animals’ potential of suffering that is more important than whether they are rational beings or not – and that this realization is important in not only understanding why torturing nonhuman animals is wrong, but also why torturing human animals would be wrong too (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

Taking this idea a step further, another example would be the mentally disabled or those with mental illnesses – people with a reduced or limited capacity to reason. Those persons are definitely human animals, but can they really fit into Scanlon’s description of “distinctive capacities as reason-assessing, self-governing creatures” (Scanlon, 2000:106)? Scanlon’s realm of morality in this way is somewhat limited in that his explanation for his set limit is insufficient and perhaps inconsiderate of other important factors (e.g. suffering, as pointed out by Utilitarian thought). A possible reason for this limited scope can be found in the way Scanlon treats reasons and desires with respect to each other. Watson makes an interesting point on Scanlon’s approach to the idea of reason and desires: “Scanlon replaces the Platonic dualism of arational appetites [(i.e. desires as without reason)] and reason with the distinction between critical judgment [(us using reason consciously)] and precritical evaluative tendencies [(desires have a point, but this point needs to be fleshed out and perhaps critically evaluated)]” (Watson, 2002:225-226). In doing so, Scanlon creates a rift between the way we understand ourselves and the way we understand other beings, such as nonhuman animals. From what he says, we can gather that, our once young selves as well as nonhuman animals either have thoughts about what is right or they don’t possess the same kinds of desires that we do. This does not sound satisfactory. For example, a young boy might reach out to eat sweets without deliberating about the tastiness of the sweet; he directly desires the sweet. Thus, the reason for this problem of scope lies in the way Scanlon handles desires. Another way of looking at this problem is looking at the concept of responsibility.

3. Emphasis on moral responsibility

As previously mentioned, according to Scanlon everyone needs to be concerned with what is right and wrong, because it affects what we owe to each other and our relationships with one another. This idea highlights Scanlon’s failure to distinguish between an amoralist and an individual that is morally undeveloped or stunted. Watson summarizes Scanlon’s view on being morally culpable: “To be morally blameworthy is to be an apt target of moral criticism. Moral criticism is a claim that someone has been faulty in “self-governance,” either for slighting or failing to notice the moral reasons against what they do. Thus moral criticism and attributions of responsibility presuppose the capacities for rational self-governance” (Watson, 2002:238). The problem here is that it seems to suggest that if I, for example, drink a bottle of poison without realizing it, I am to be held responsible for my mistake. This seems very unsatisfying; in the sense that I had no way to know that there was poison in the bottle. Therefore, according to Watson, not all instances of failing to act according to reason (as would be the case with the amoralist) lead to unreasonableness: the conception of responsibility provided by Scanlon is almost “austere” and “detached” (Watson, 2002:240). It seems that there should be more to moral responsibility than simply the idea of being open to moral appraisal. Watson further suggests: “It might be thought that what is missing is the further judgment that those we hold responsible are deserving of certain kinds of treatment in view of those appraisals” (Watson, 2002:240). For example towards a sadist, unlike towards the mentally disabled we seem to have an underlying desire to treat the sadist differently because of his moral failures; but under Scanlon’s view, when a mentally disabled person that is incapacitated to reason adequately commits a seemingly cruel act, we are in no position to blame them, because morality simply doesn’t apply. This conclusion is deeply dissatisfying, as it is unclear how the sadist, whom we do blame, is in any significant way different from the disabled person.

4. The priority on morality and what we owe to each other

Watson speaks of Scanlon’s failure to explain why there should be ultimate priority given to morality rather than other things (i.e. full explanation to amoralists on why they should think morality is important). Interestingly, Watson points out that Scanlon looks for counter-arguments against amoralist views on morality, but does not himself give a full reason/explanation for why morality should count, and why it should be of utmost importance in all individual human beings’ lives (Watson, 2002:234). Scanlon’s seems to believe that we have a predisposition to care about respect and morality without justifying his reasons for believing so. He seems to accept it as a part of human nature.

Adams similarly mentions whether what we owe to each other necessarily has to be morality. Scanlon’s idea of what we owe to each other is smaller in scope, compared to morality – because he emphasizes the personal dimension for his theory of justice. As Adams words it, “The main obstacle to Scanlon’s recognizing such objections [objections to principles that would justify values and ideals] as establishing moral wrongness in his central sense is that he thinks reasons that enter into determining what we owe to each other must be what he calls personal reasons, having to do with the “interests” (202) or “the claims and status of individuals in certain positions” (219)” (Adams, 2001:579). The criticism Adams gives on Scanlon’s small scope in what he thinks we owe to each other, is on his concentration solely on the idea of ‘personal reasons’: “Valuing, for their own sake, great trees or great art, for example, will not necessarily give rise to personal reasons in this sense. In some cases it will. Loving great art, for example, gives rise to a personal reason to demand the right to express that value. But it does not generate a personal reason, in the relevant sense, for objecting to other people’s indifference to that value. How plausible is it, for example, for people who have never had any desire to visit Afghanistan to claim a personal reason for objecting to the Taliban’s destruction of historic artworks?” (Adams, 2001:579). According to Scanlon, what we owe to each other is largely based on some sentiment of mutual respect; this seems to exclude things we value for their own sake. Does what we owe to each other reach out to aesthetics, things we value? Can environmental justice be a thing, animal rights? Scanlon’s inability to take these considerations in as a possibility further emphasizes the lack of scope of “what we owe to each other”.

In conclusion, Scanlon’s “what we owe to each other” draws on both Utilitarian and Kantian lines of thought, and yet is different from both in many fundamental respects. Contractualism focuses on the idea of what we owe to each other, as individual moral beings unlike Utilitarianism, which suggests maximizing utility as a solution to making the aggregate ‘happy’. Although Contractualism takes the significance of the individual from Kantian thought, it then differs from Kantian thought on a different level: attitudes matter in Contractualism, and the idea of universality is not as emphasized as in Kantian thought. Although promising, many shortcomings remain for Scanlon’s theory; the inability of Contractualism to aggregate is questionable in situations where it might feel natural to choose helping the larger group over the individual. Also, the audience to which Contractualism opens its scope of morality to can be seen to be quite limited – living beings such as nonhuman animals, or even actual human animals that perhaps have disabilities or disorders might be completely overlooked. Finally, Scanlon makes some questionable assumptions about responsibility and morality in general. In spite of this, Scanlon’s theory offers a powerful alternative account of Justice.

Read your philosophy kids,



  • Adams, R.M. (2001), ‘Scanlon’s Contractualism: Critical Notice of T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other’, The Philosophical Review, 110(4): pp.563-585
  • Blackburn, S. (1999) “Am I Right?” The New York Times (Books), Available at:
  • Ashford, E., Mulgan, T. (Fall 2012 Edition) “Contractualism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available at:
  • Parfit, D. (2003), ‘Justifiability to Each Person’, Ratio (new series), 16(4): pp.368-390
  • Scanlon, T.M. (1982), ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, in Sen and Williams (ed.), Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 103-129.
  • Scanlon, T.M. (2000) ‘What We Owe to Each Other’, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp.432
  • Taurek, J.M. (1977), ‘Should the Numbers Count?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(4): pp.293-316
  • Watson, G. (2002), ‘Contractualism and the Boundaries of Morality: Remarks on Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other’, Social Theory and Practice, 28(2): pp.221-241