On supported decision-making and disability

So, I wrote a post a while ago about the right to vote for cognitively disabled persons. In this post, I made reference to the support-based paradigm that is becoming predominant in disability rights literature and human rights practice. However, I’m conscious I didn’t go into much detail about support-based theories or what they entail. This blogpost will set out what the support-based paradigm is and what I personally believe are its merits and drawbacks.

What is the support-based paradigm anyway? It’s probably easiest to define what constitutes ‘support’ with reference to what it is not. Throughout history, cognitively disabled persons have been subjected to substitute decision-making regimes, wherein a third party is given the ability to act in the perceived ‘best interest’ of the disabled person as opposed to what the disabled person actually wants, or their expressed preferences.

Support-based theories of rights turn substitute decision-making on its head, arguing that substitute decision-making procedures discriminate against disabled persons based on their capacity, justifying a level of paternalism that we wouldn’t allow for anyone else. The basic principle driving support-based paradigms is that the expressed preferences of the disabled person should always be respected.

 However, cognitively disabled persons may not always be able to determine and enact their expressed preferences without the help of other people. This is where support comes in. Support often means taking concrete measures to help disabled persons come to their own conclusions about how to live their lives and to put those ideas into practice. Supportive mechanisms are reasonable accommodations put into place to ensure that disabled persons can do this. For example, it may be necessary to put information in more accessible language.

Another example, drawn from my arguments about voting, is having someone helping a disabled person in the voting booth. This support-giver can help a cognitively disabled person understand the options available to them and therefore make it so that the disabled person can vote and express their political preferences.

The driving premise behind support-based rights theories is using mental capacity as a reason that people can’t exercise legal capacity (that is, the ability to make legal decisions for oneself) is discriminatory. The determination of mental capacity is not itself value-neutral, and there is evidence to suggest that capacity is malleable. Acting as though capacity is fixed may serve to create self-fulfilling prophesies about a person’s capacity. This can be seen through the practice of institutionalization, which has been proven to delay disabled persons’ language acquisition and critical thinking abilities.

Support-based rights theories embrace a universal model of legal personhood, which basically just suggests that everyone has the right to make decisions for themselves, irrespective of their actual or perceived capacity.

Prima facie, the support-based paradigm makes a lot of sense. We want disabled persons to be able to make their own decisions, and subjecting them to paternalism that we would not subject others to on the basis of their disability seems quite dubious from a human rights perspective. Human rights instruments generally regard discrimination as any arbitrary distinction based on a protected category, such as disability.

However, the support-based paradigm is not without its detractors, and I myself am not sure to what extent I’m willing to adopt a support-based paradigm. I do agree that capacity judgments are arbitrary, but I also think that legitimate fears of self-harm may validate paternalism in certain cases. So, I’ll discuss some of the contentious bits of this paradigm here.

  1. Support-based paradigms may subject disabled persons to manipulation. Supported decision-making procedures may mirror ‘facilitated communication’ strategies that led researcher Anna Stubblefield to sexually exploit a cognitively disabled person she was working with. While I do think there are fears of exploitation, I think these fears are way worse in an environment in which we don’t respect the expressed preferences of disabled people. For example, in an effort to act in disabled persons’ ‘best interests,’ people often subject cognitively disabled persons to abhorrent practices such as forcible medical procedures and sterilization. It would seem that the problem of manipulation is not unique to a supportive environment, nor is it exacerbated by it. Bad guardians can be just as harmful as bad supporters. This is why the fear of manipulation doesn’t seem particularly acute to me.
  2. Support-based paradigms might expose people to risks of self-harm. This counter-argument seems a lot more compelling. For example, we don’t want to let a person experiencing psychosis enact their expressed preference to jump from a seven-story building. In my work, which deals with political capacity, this fear doesn’t seem to be that bad. However, when we extend the support-based paradigm to all legal decisions, it becomes a bit dubious.

    One way that I do think the support-based paradigm is problematic is that it seems to homogenize cognitive disability—that is to say, it treats mental health conditions in the exact same way as intellectual or affective impairments. Because it does homogenize the two, it’s hard for us to differentiate appropriate levels of intervention. For example, because we view acute episodes of mental illness to be a lapse in decision-making capacity rather than, for example, a loss of one’s sense of self, it becomes impossible to justify creating limitations on mental health patients’ choice or allowing them to implement self-binding directives to guide their future treatment.

    I’m not sure about how I feel about cases of self-harm. Luckily, my work concerns mostly political decision-making; however, I would like to explore the implications of support more generally. While it is true that we want to stop patients experiencing psychosis or another acute mental health crisis from engaging in seriously risky or damaging behavior, we also don’t want to subject patients to inhumane practices such as forcible restraint, which kills countless mental health patients yearly, or forcible medication that might have serious side effects to which a patient would not want to consent. It’s difficult to draw a brightline at which I think intervention is justified. I’ll have to think about that a lot more in any case.

I think that appropriating certain features of the support-based paradigm can help us build a more inclusive democracy and to give cognitively disabled persons a degree of autonomy that they have historically been denied. However, there are serious risks with universally adopting a support-based paradigm, such as cases of self-harm. Because of this, it might be that we need a paradigm that allows us to make capacity judgments in certain cases and not in others. Or it might be that we need a different, more fair metric for determining when paternalism is justified altogether.

The jury’s out on this one for now. But I do think that the support-based paradigm brings to light some vital insights and has important consequences for the treatment of disabled persons.

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Cognitive disability and voting

The rights to vote and participate in political life more generally have been routinely denied from intellectually disabled and mentally ill persons. According to the most recent data I’ve found, in the United States, disabilities (both physical and cognitive) prevent or deter 33.7 million Americans of voting age from casting a ballot— in fact, despite the Americans With Disability Act (ADA), only 10% of polling stations comply fully with accessibility standards. Every state still has laws on the book prohibiting adult citizens under guardianship for a cognitive disability or mental health condition from voting, and five of these states still use the terms ‘idiots’ and ‘the insane’ in their legislation or state constitutions. Worldwide, the picture is similarly bleak for intellectually disabled and mentally ill persons. Most countries, even those who have ratified the United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), maintain prohibitions on voting for cognitively disabled and mentally ill persons.

This is alarming, given that the right to vote is typically regarded as a mark of full legal personhood and citizenship.  Universal suffrage is increasingly becoming the norm, and as disability rights activists astutely note, it seems problematic that cognitively disabled persons are denied the ballot as a means of expressing their opinions.  Authors such as Nussbaum (2010) note that denial of the right to vote violates the one-person-one-vote system and leaves some of the most vulnerable people in society voiceless.  Disabled persons are some of the persons who are most likely to be affected by policy changes, such as welfare reforms and reforms to guardianship or capacity laws, and as such, leaving them without a means of political expression should at the very least be treated as a cause for concern.

However, according to many scholars and indeed, traditional capacity-based social understandings of the right to vote, extending the right to vote to disabled persons, irrespective of capacity creates a philosophical and social minefield. This blogpost seeks to make sense of some of the issues surrounding the right to vote for cognitively disabled persons by discussing in context of human rights caselaw on the subject. I suggest that capacity-based conceptions of political involvement are ultimately unjustified. To this end, I will be breaking my argument into numbered sections to make it easier to follow.

1. Not all cognitively disabled persons under guardianship lack the capacity to participate in political life. This should be pretty self-evident. People may be put under guardianship for a variety of different reasons, such as a mental health condition, that affect certain decision-making capabilities but not others. This was the concern raised in Kiss v Hungary, which was brought to the European Court of Human Rights. Kiss v Hungary established that blanket prohibitions on voting for people under guardianship are unjust and discriminatory for these reasons— the case suggests that when courts make a decision to put people under guardianship, they should also make a decision about whether or not that person has the capacity to vote.

2. Even if a person is deemed to be ‘incapacitous,’ it’s unjust to prevent a person from voting under any circumstances. This principle was upheld in Zsolt Bujdosó and five others v. Hungary (2011), which was heard by the UNCRPD Committee in 2011. There are a few reasons for this. First, capacity assessments can themselves be discriminatory. There is no value-neutral way of determining whether someone has the capacity to vote or participate in public life; therefore, capable individuals will inevitably face exclusion as the result of these rules. There is a far greater probability that someone who genuinely possesses the capacity to vote (either by themselves or with support) will be excluded from voting than for someone who genuinely lacks the capacity to vote to bias the political process in any way.

3. Capacity shouldn’t be a metric for determining political participation anyway. Using capacity as a metric for judging whether someone deserves to participate in politics excludes cognitively disabled persons from the political process altogether, which seems problematic both because it denies participatory parity and because they are the most likely to be adversely affected by political decisions, such as welfare cuts. It also creates a self-fulfilling prophesy, as Pavey (2003) notes. When we assume that someone can’t participate politically, we guarantee that they will not be civically engaged. This is why disability activists put forward the idea of supported rather than substitute decision-making— instead of deciding what’s in a disabled person’s ‘best interests,’ we should be enabling disabled persons to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Politically, this translates into providing support for peoples’ political participation— this can be through concrete steps such as allowing someone to help a disabled person in a voting booth or simply providing information in a more accessible way. I also argue in my own work that we construct theoretical barriers to participation that a support-based framework can overcome. This and a more thorough defense of the idea of support in politics will be the topic of a further blogpost. But for now, the important takeaway is that we should probably be finding ways to allow people to participate politically instead of excluding them from the beginning.

4. But what about the children? This is a question that disability scholars get all of the time. And it makes sense— people fundamentally don’t want to give children the right to vote, because we don’t think of them as having the capacity to do so. While I think the premise of this question is pretty infantilizing and reinforces the problematic notion that disabled people are perpetual children, I’ll lay that aside for now and discuss how disability scholars can respond to this problem. There are a few potential responses that disability rights advocates may give to this argument. Some might  bite the bullet and say that we should give the right to vote to children, or at the very least give substitute votes to parents (or even partial votes— lots of options here). However, some critical disability theorists may want to maintain that we should give all disabled persons the right to participate in politics while denying those rights to persons under the (admittedly arbitrary) age of legal majority. This seems valid for a few reasons:

  • It is often understood that children’s rights are ‘rights held in trust,’ or in other words, that these rights will be granted when the child reaches the age of majority, whatever that age may be. With disabled persons, there is no understanding that these rights will ever be granted— the disenfranchisement is permanent.
  • When children DO reach the age of majority, there is no competency test imposed on the right to vote, except the one for cognitively disabled persons. This creates a fundamental, permanent inequality between neurotypical and disabled people. It also creates a double standard between disabled persons and the rest of society, which is discriminatory.

I personally am a bit torn about the child question; however, for the reasons outlined in this post, I am vehemently in favor of extending the right to vote to cognitively disabled persons regardless of their actual or perceived capacity. We should be finding ways to enable people to participate in politics rather than finding ways to keep them from doing so.

I’ll be writing a lot more about disability and politics and a support-based paradigm in future posts, as this is my current research area. Stay tuned!

On Feminism and Postcolonialism

I am a feminist. I have been a feminist all my life, starting from a young age, when I told my mother that I was going to make my husband change his name (my views on this subject have been refined since then, but you get the picture). Specifically, I identify as an intersectional feminist. This means that I think different types of oppression often intersect or relate to one another and often compound upon one another to create multiple layers of disadvantage.

As an intersectional feminist, I am interested in questions of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and imperialism. I find, however, that, in particular, people often assume that there is a tension between eliminating patriarchy and respect for the self-determination of previously colonized persons and cultures. It is argued that minority ‘cultures’ often hold views that feminists would traditionally see as oppressive to women. Therefore, it would seem that, in certain instances, we need to choose between being good feminists and being postcolonial scholars.

I have come to think that this tension is, at the very least, overstated. First, many feminists arrive at their conclusions through faulty assumptions. ‘Women’ aren’t a homogenous group with the same experiences of patriarchy. Power structures, and therefore women’s experiences, are context-specific, and therefore prescribing the same set of solutions to the oppression of all women is both problematic and ultimately ineffective.

Moreover, there is a strong tendency in Western political theory to paint women in the Third World as helpless and in need of saving. Some theorists advance substantive theories of ‘adaptive preferences’ and autonomy, which suggest that according to our intuitions of what qualifies as autonomous behavior, Third World women must be ‘dupes of patriarchy.’ This is quite frankly insulting, and as one of my favorite professors, Sperry, notes, our ‘feminist intuition’ is itself culturally contingent. It doesn’t acknowledge the thought processes and deliberate planning that women make when ‘bargaining with patriarchy.’

Both of these tendencies are highly problematic. They don’t respect the diversity of women’s experiences or their ability to make decisions. They also don’t seem to sit well with our intuition that cultural diversity is valuable and adds meaning to peoples’ lives and decisions.

As a result, it might be tempting to take the opposite approach and argue that we need to prioritize ‘culture’ over women’s rights, as if the two are in tension with one another. Many cultural norms are incompatible with some feminists’ intuitions about what constitutes patriarchal behavior, and women often find practices empowering that ‘Western’ women might not understand or find abhorrent. It is tempting to say that the differences between cultures is irreconcilable, and it’s imperialistic to hold universalistic ideas of social justice and feminism.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, it raises questions such as the one I asked in my last post: who speaks for a given culture? When we view cultures as homogenous, we often accept the opinions and views of cultural elites. This drowns out dissenting voices and fails to acknowledge that cultures are sites of contestation. Second, it reinforces a racialized epistemology that creates, in the words of Grovogui, an ‘ontology of difference.’ Sabaratnam argues that this culturalist thinking is an instantiation, or ‘avatar,’ of Eurocentrism. It suggests that the Global North has a monopoly on concepts such as democracy and freedom and reinforces the idea that subversive norms are in some sense ‘alien.’

Sabaratnam argues that this is not the appropriate way to view colonialism. Colonialism, she says, is problematic in that it is alienating rather than alien. Colonialism operates through “displacements, violence, silencing, humiliations and dispossessions.” Concepts such as democracy, feminism, and freedom, while certainly contested concepts, are not fundamentally alien to postcolonial societies, but rather, I would suggest that it is the imposition of these concepts by means of force or patronizing ‘civilizing’ missions that causes imperialistic alienation.

That being said, many times, concepts like democracy, autonomy, or gender equality look radically different in different cultural contexts. This can be seen through the case study of the Igbo in Nigeria. There is significant evidence that suggests Igbo social relations were radically different pre-colonization. First, the Igbo language is not overtly gendered. While there are words for male and female, the third-person pronoun (O) is the same for both men and women. This flexibility in language reflects a broader culture of flexibility in the sexual division of labor and gender roles pre-colonization, as well as a culture of increased sexual freedom for women. Women also had a significant political voice, as they had their own political organizations which held comparable power to men’s organizations. (If you want to read more about the Igbo, I can send you my first MSc thesis which used them as a case study).

This suggests that a) the West does not have a monopoly on gender equality—in fact, it was the alienating nature of colonization that caused radical shifts in Igbo gender relations, b) Igbo ‘culture’ arguably contains the tools necessary to subvert gender norms, as Nzegwu argues, and c) the goal of eliminating gender-based oppression has to be considered within a specific context—there may be more than one way of dismantling the patriarchy.

We have a tendency, as Phillips argues, to portray Western cultures with reference to their most progressive tendencies while portraying the Global South according to its least progressive elements. However, it should go without saying that not all people within a given culture feel the same way, and making blanket statements about how a culture feels about women drowns out the voices of feminists within that culture.

When we stop accepting essentialist ideas of culture and instead acknowledge the internal diversity within cultures, the tension between eliminating postcolonial oppression and gender injustice seems to dissipate. Both are alienating in their own right, and we need to acknowledge the ways in which they intersect and compound one another. We can’t accept a feminism that homogenizes women and ignores colonial histories. We can’t accept a feminism that views women in the Global South as mere ‘dupes of patriarchy.’ Our feminism must be intersectional and sensitive to concerns about imperialism.

 

Is multiculturalism bad for animals?

I would like to caveat this post by admitting that I’m not the first person to use this title. Casal (2003) uses it for a rather grotesque article that I do not believe contributes much to the conceptual debate about animal rights and multiculturalism. Casal’s title is a play on Susan Moller Okin’s famous volume Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Being an ethical vegetarian as well as a person who dabbles in postcolonial/multicultural scholarship is highly difficult at times. I believe that some vegetarians/vegans are entirely obtuse to other forms of oppression, including the persistent marginalization of indigenous groups. However, I also think that a lot of the arguments commonly used to justify cultural rights fall short when we consider animals.

This is a topic about which I am deeply torn, and therefore, I don’t seek to offer any conclusive answers. Rather, my intention is to set out my thoughts on the debate as clearly as possible and hopefully provoke thoughtful discussion amongst my readers (or at the very least to encourage further reflection about our immediate reactions to this topic).

Cultural rights are a hot topic in contemporary political theory. Political theorists are deeply divided about whether or not culture can be used as either (a) a trump card over individual liberties in certain circumstances, or (b) a justification for differential legal treatment, such as exemptions on motorcycle helmet rules for Sikhs. Theorists disagree about whether culture is an appropriate justification for either of the above, and indeed, some disagree as to whether culture actually exists.

Anne Phillips, for example, writes in Multiculturalism Without Culture that multiculturalism may “[appear] not as as cultural liberator but as a cultural straitjacket, forcing those described as members of a minority cultural group into a regime of authenticity, denying them the chance to cross cultural borders, borrow cultural influences, define and redefine themselves.”

One of the main charges brought against multiculturalism is that when we assume that cultures are internally homogenous, we risk creating minorities within minorities. When we want to say culture X believes Y, we have to listen to a certain subset of said cultural group. When we pick cultural representatives, we risk paying attention to only the elite elements of that culture, taking their biases and traditions to be representative of the group as a whole. This is, for obvious reasons, rather problematic. It risks reinforcing oppressive social norms and assuming that everyone within a culture thinks the same things. This is obviously a preposterous suggestion. Cultures are sites of contestation, meaning that traditions are constantly being questioned, altered, and reconstituted.

I tend to think this type of argument is quite compelling (although, I do think that culture has strategic value, something I’ll probably discuss in a different post). I think this argument is even more compelling in the case of animals. Those who do think that we should allow cultures to act in ways that are antithetical to peoples’ rights think that we should only do so in cases in which people nominally have the right to exit said culture (see for ex., Kukathas).  Animals have no ability to consent to oppressive social behaviors. Nor do they have the ability to exit societies that are oppressing them. It would seem as though they are one of the most vulnerable groups in any society.

It makes sense, therefore, to say that culture does not provide a blanket justification for the maltreatment of animals, and arguably, cultural claims in no way justify our mistreatment of animals.

While I find this somewhat compelling, I am hesitant to say that culture is entirely irrelevant to debates about animal rights. I think that all advocacy occurs in a specific historical context, and to ignore that historical context makes one prone to reproducing structural injustices. A lot of animal rights activists are highly condescending toward indigenous peoples, whose ‘traditional’ modes of existence are often in one way or another inextricably tied to the consumption of animal products. Many of these groups hunt in order to survive, which is arguably the most humane and natural way that one can consume animal products. (That being said, I do not believe, as some authors have written, that all indigenous people value animals as ‘relatives.’ Indigenous people are prone to animal cruelty as well.)

While I do not think culture is always a trump card, it seems naïve, and frankly imperialistic, to say that culture is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. What I am not sure about, however, is how much culture should influence this debate.

This question, for obvious reasons, causes me a significant amount of cognitive dissonance.. I think the debate on both sides is often reduced to overly simplistic tropes—invocations of ‘culture’ must be more nuanced, and universalist arguments for animal rights could do with being a little more sensitive to the imperial context from which those claims arise. It is crucial that we are sensitive to overlapping and intersecting modes of oppression when talking about these issues. It’s not as simple as screaming “culture” or “but what about the animals?” Our discussions about this topic can and should be more thorough.

Testimonial Injustice and Thomas Pogge’s Defenders

I was going to start a series of posts on disability and philosophy this week; however, I felt it more pertinent to comment on the recent Buzzfeed article about Thomas Pogge’s sexual harassment of female graduate students and early career academics.

I should not read comment sections on the internet. This is a cardinal rule that I broke this morning while reading an article about Thomas Pogge, the famous ethicist who is currently embroiled in a legal battle regarding his behavior toward female grad students and early career academics.  Many women have come forward throughout the years, accusing Pogge of harassing and exploiting young women, particularly women of color and international students.

The allegations against Pogge are numerous. In 2010, he was accused of sexually harassing Fernanda Lopez Aguilar. When she rejected his advances, he retaliated against her by rescinding a fellowship offer. She is now pursuing a legal case against him. A woman at a European university also accused Pogge of using career opportunities to exploit young women and pursue sexual relationships with them. Likewise, Pogge had complaints filed against him for sexually harassing a student at Columbia, where he previously taught.

Needless to say, there are several allegations against Pogge. This is particularly worrying, given his status as a scholar of global justice, and one who argues for gender-sensitive conceptions of global justice at that. If the accounts of multiple women giving similar accounts are to be believed, then he has by all measures exploited this status.

The key word in the previous sentence is if. As I read the comment section (I really shouldn’t have), I found numerous examples of people defending Pogge, belittling the (consistent) stories of several women, and accusing Buzzfeed of twisting the evidence. Here’s one example:

The article is one-sided, and it’s not really an article about Pogge. Yes it is a smear campaign attacking Pogge’s personal life… But let’s not delude ourselves. It’s not an objective unbiased news article about allegations of misconduct. Rather, it’s a political article pushing feminist propaganda. Of course people are going to side with the women and against the man – regardless of the evidence (or lack of evidence). When given nothing but hearsay, ten out of ten women will side with the woman, and nine out of ten men will side with the woman.

This comment is an example of everything I think is wrong with the surprising number of people rushing to Pogge’s defense. It presumes that several women making the exact same types of allegations are less credible than one man. It presumes that believing women who make allegations of sexual harassment is tantamount to pushing a (supposedly misguided) feminist agenda.

At this time, I wish to put aside the concrete evidence that corroborates many of these women’s stories (of which there is quite a bit). I will even put aside the fact that the FBI estimates that ‘unfounded’ allegations of rape make up less than 8% of sexual assault cases, suggesting that when a woman argues that a man has harassed or assaulted her, there is an overwhelming probability that she is telling the truth. What I am concerned with is the textbook case of testimonial injustice (a form of epistemic injustice) that these types of comments exemplify.

Political and social injustices are not the only types of injustices that oppressed groups are subjected to. According to Miranda Fricker, these groups are also subjected to epistemic injustice. For those of you who might not know, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, what we know and how. Epistemic injustices, according to Fricker, occur when a person’s status as a knower is questioned.

One particular kind of epistemic injustice, according to Fricker, is testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustices are situations in which a person’s testimony is subjected to more doubt and criticism just because a person is a member of an oppressed group. For example, there are countless studies suggesting that women’s contributions to the workplace (and society more generally) are valued less than the same types of contributions made by men.

I think that testimonial injustice is something that most women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ persons, and disabled persons can identify with. In one graduate seminar, I remember being infuriated when I would make an argument, which was immediately ignored or dismissed by my male peers, only to have a male peer make the same argument 10 minutes later and receive praise for it. Empirical evidence suggests that this is commonplace. Men (and women) often view their female colleagues as less credible, and therefore, they may gloss over what they say altogether.

Now that we have established what testimonial injustice is and how it works, it seems clear that the immediate dismissal of not only one, but several women’s claims, is a textbook case of testimonial injustice. One man’s testimony is viewed to be more credible than multiple women. Not only that, but Lopez’ history of anxiety is also used as a way to undermine her credibility, suggesting that people with mental health conditions cannot bring forward credible allegations of sexual harassment.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. When Bill Cosby was accused of rape by 58 women, a surprising number of people leapt to his defense, delegitimizing the women’s claims altogether as hearsay. We are consistently taught to view women as liars, starting with the stereotype that women are gossips who believe whatever they are told. This stereotype pervades depictions of women who claim to have been assaulted or harassed. In fact, one police unit even called their sexual assault division the ‘Lying Bitches Unit.’ There is a tendency to believe that women are lying about sexual harassment and assault, and to find alternative explanations that exonerate the perpetrators.

I would venture to say that if multiple men brought to light similar stories relating to a repeated pattern of abuse and exploitation, it would not be dismissed as easily as these women’s claims. This is a clear case of epistemic injustice.

I know that most of my friends thankfully believe these women’s testimony. However, testimonial injustice is pervasive and often subconscious. It is important to be aware of our biases when it comes to distrusting or dismissing others’ opinions. It takes a lot of self-reflection to realize if and when we are committing epistemic injustices.

It is also important to put a name to the devaluing of these women’s testimony: it is a clear-cut case of epistemic injustice. Injustice comes in many forms, and many in the philosophical community, as well as the general public, are committing epistemic injustices against these women by not believing their testimony, despite both physical and testimonial evidence.

It might be objected that there is a chance that these women are lying; however, given our persistent tendencies to explain sexual harassment away, I am far more comfortable trusting the testimonies of multiple women over one man, who I might add, is protected by an Ivy League institution and tenure.

It is important, as a final point, to recognize that this is not an isolated incident. For more stories about the culture of sexual harassment that plagues the philosophical community more generally, see the blog What it is like to be a woman in philosophy. Women are frequently harassed and exploited by tenured professors, who often have much less to lose from harassing these women than the women have when reporting it. It is clear that this is an epidemic in the philosophical community, one that the community must openly confront. This starts with taking claims of sexual harassment seriously and holding people, even famous tenured professors, to account for their behavior.

 

 

In Defense of ‘Pop Philosophy’

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Philosophy, as it is practiced, is often divorced from the practicalities of everyday life. In fact, this is often regarded as a virtue in ethics and political theory. John Rawls, arguably the most prominent political philosopher of the 21st Century, constructs his theory of justice within ideal conditions. He assumes full compliance with the principles of justice, as well as favorable social conditions, and brackets off certain concerns, such as disability and lack of material resources. Such factors are considered to be irrelevant to the foundational principles of justice.

Along with this tendency to pretend real-world conditions don’t matter comes a tendency to ignore how theory can and should influence society. This seems puzzling, as political theorists and ethicists spend their time theorizing pondering questions such as ‘what principles should guide the pursuit of a good society, and ultimately a good life?’

These concerns are separate but interrelated and have similar consequences. When theorists allow their theories to become irrelevant to everyday life, there is less of a chance of those theories affecting how society is structured. This exacerbates fears of theory becoming a purely intellectual enterprise, with theorists engaging with one another instead of society as a whole.

There are some who argue that this is a virtue, rather than a vice. In an article entitled “In Defense of the Ivory Tower,” Bas van der Vossen argues that philosophers ought not engage in political activism. He makes this argument using five premises, which I have summarized below:

(1) When someone takes a certain role or profession, they have an ethical duty to take reasonable precautions in order to avoid doing things that they can reasonably predict will make them worse at their jobs.

(2) The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues.

(3) Therefore, political philosophers have a duty to take reasonable precautions in order to avoid doing things that can be reasonably predicted to make them worse at seeking the truth about political issues.

(4) Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues.

(5) Therefore, political philosophers would seem to have a moral duty to avoid being politically active.

Given that this argument flows logically, it is important to argue against one of these premises in order to defeat the argument. Many of these arguments seem plausible. It seems as though people should not do things that will most likely make them worse at their jobs; however, the argument seems, to me, to fall apart at number 4. Moreover, I would argue that even if premise number (2) is true on first glance, this is a case in which obligations conflict. The ethical obligations created by engaging in moral philosophy simply outweigh the risk of bias or ‘contamination’ in this circumstance.

Van der Vossen’s main argument for premise number (4) is that philosophers may create bad or biased arguments as the result of engaging in political activism. He cites several studies showing that affiliation with a political party creates an ‘in-group’ mindset that sways people to favor certain policies. Also, we tend to interpret facts in ways that are consistent with whatever we are invested in. The task of a philosopher, according to van der Vossen, is to seek the truth about politics. When we’re biased, we’re less likely to come to that truth. Therefore, engaging in politics makes us bad political theorists.

This argument, however, ignores the fact that bias is always part of political and ethical theorizing.  We always see the world through a certain lens and therefore do not have neutral access to the truth. We will always be swayed by our previously existing commitments, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be a good thing. When we think about ethics or politics, it’s inevitable that we will take a starting point—for ex., feminist theorists start with the premise that sexism should be ended. Theory is always by someone who has certain values and will be for someone as well. There is, as Iris Marion Young puts it, no view from nowhere. Pretending that we’re neutral observers in a situation simply serves to make privileged views seem like universal views.

Moreover, this argument ignores the fact that philosophers inevitably engage in group-think, even within the discipline. Libertarians are more likely to accept an argument that coheres with what libertarians think. Communitarians are prone to do the same; as are Rawlsian liberals. If we are engaging in activism based on what we firmly believe to be true, then, at the very least, we are making our discussions and group-think accessible to people who aren’t ourselves.

This ties into my thoughts about premise number (2). While it is undoubtedly an obligation of an academic to seek the truth about their subject areas, people seem to forget that academics have a variety of other obligations, such as the obligation to teach, thus making information accessible to future generations (even if some academics would prefer not to teach). I would also argue that there is a unique obligation created by participating in moral philosophy that makes it irresponsible to avoid engaging in public debates and activist activity. If we do think that we are right about a certain moral truth, that seems to suggest that we should do something about it instead of sitting around idly hoping that someone else does. Academics are in a unique position to contribute to public conversations. This will never be a value-neutral exercise; nor is it necessarily good if it is.

You might wonder how this ties into my title—a defense of ‘pop’ philosophy. The answer is simple. If philosophers accept that they have an obligation to make their ideas accessible, then there is a corresponding obligation to produce works that not only talk to other academics but also speak to the general public. They have a responsibility to create books, podcasts, blogs, etc. that the public can understand and learn from. There is a tendency to see ‘pop philosophy’ as less important or rigorous. While it may not be as ‘rigorous’ in the sense that we’ll probably have to forego a few fancy logical twists, and while it is certainly important for philosophers to talk to eachother before talking to the general public, this doesn’t absolve us from our other social obligations.

This has broader social implications as well. If we take seriously our responsibility to educate, then we need to be conscious of the fact that not everyone will have the chance to learn in a college classroom. Making philosophy a privilege rather than something that is accessible to everyone is a surefire way of reinforcing privilege.

All of this is to say that I’m starting a blog. Hopefully for real this time. And I’m going to fill it with, hopefully interesting, and accessible philosophy. Philosophy is for everyone, and we have an obligation to provide it in a way that can be consumed by everyone.