The impartial Chief Justice, on the other hand

There’s a persistent claim in the media and by pundits that the law is a set of statements from which we can impartially, if we are well-schooled and self-controlled, draw conclusions that do not in any way involve our personal beliefs and values.  Sotomayor, of course, being a woman, may not be the right sort of logic machine. 

In fact, applying the law involves both logic and something like imagination.  Interestingly, the record of the present Chief Justice reveals the role of the two in judicial decision making.

From Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker:

In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.

What were some of the decisions of his court that involve decisions not logically following from the law?  Well, there was the Seattle case; Roberts ruled against precedent that any consideration of race counts against equal protection.  That is, the Seattle school board’s attempt at integration was as illegal as attempts at segregation. 

In the most famous passage so far of his tenure as Chief Justice, Roberts wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Of course, history’s against him on that one, but in any case his ‘principle’ – that stopping integration will stop segregation – is a political and psychological conjecture, at best.  And in the same term:

the Justices overturned a ninety-six-year-old precedent in antitrust law and thus made it harder to prove collusion by corporations. Also that year they upheld the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, in Kennedy’s opinion, even though the Court had rejected a nearly identical law just seven years earlier. [In] the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear, brought by a sympathetic grandmother who had been paid far less than men doing the same work at the tire company … the conservative majority, in an opinion by Alito, imposed seemingly insurmountable new burdens on plaintiffs in employment-discrimination lawsuits.

And also:

Roberts has been a consistent supporter of death sentences, and he wrote the Court’s opinion holding that lethal injection does not amount to the sort of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Does this all just show that the court is packed with people who can’t follow logic?  Not exactly; what it tells us instead is that we cannot have a set of principles for right action from which we can logically deduce all the answers we need.    Human concepts do not work that way. 

Philosophers, who as a field have failed after centuries and centuries of trying to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for just about anything, should know this.  The best discussion of it that I know of can be found in Mark Johnson’s book, Moral Imagination.   Because of our concepts and the ways we think, justices need to apply the law in ways that go beyond simple deductions.  What forms their moral imaginations is  extremely important.  As Obama has seen.  And in fact as Bush may have realized also.

Sotomayor and Standpoint Theory

Here’s a quote from Sonia Sotomayor:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

The right-wing is of course up in arms, accusing her of racism. Me, I was busy thinking “WTF? She’s a standpoint theorist? Really? That’s fascinating!”

Further research into the context of her remarks shoots down the “she’s a racist” theory, but leaves intact the possibility that she’s a standpoint theorist, at least of the sort who holds that members of certain groups may have special insights into particular issues. (Though you don’t have to be a standpoint theorist to think that.)

Those words came as part of a discussion about the importance of judicial diversity in determining race and sex discrimination cases, but they have been widely reproduced out of context.

Sonia Sotomayor

I’ve been so swamped with marking, I haven’t even had time to mention the big news: Sonia Sotomayor has been nominated to the US Supreme Court! Of course, it didn’t take long for veiled and not-so-veiled racist commentaries to start. (I think I’m especially impressed by the claim that she is a Latina single mother, despite having no children at all.) Today, however, something more interesting came out: some uncertainty about her views on reproductive rights. She hasn’t explicitly ruled on the Roe V Wade reasoning, and the worries stem from these cases:

1. In a 2002 case, she wrote an opinion upholding the Bush administration policy of withholding aid from international groups that provide or promote abortion services overseas.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position,” she wrote, “and can do so with public funds.”

2. In a 2004 case, she largely sided with some anti-abortion protesters who wanted to sue some police officers for allegedly violating their constitutional rights by using excessive force to break up demonstrations at an abortion clinic. Judge Sotomayor said the protesters deserved a day in court.

3.In a 2007 case, she strongly criticized colleagues on the court who said that only women, and not their husbands, could seek asylum based on China’s abortion policy. “The termination of a wanted pregnancy under a coercive population control program can only be devastating to any couple, akin, no doubt, to the killing of a child,” she wrote, also taking note of “the unique biological nature of pregnancy and special reverence every civilization has accorded to child-rearing and parenthood in marriage.”

And in a 2008 case, she wrote an opinion vacating a deportation order for a woman who had worked in an abortion clinic in China. Although Judge Sotomayor’s decision turned on a technicality, her opinion described in detail the woman’s account of how she would be persecuted in China because she had once permitted the escape of a woman who was seven months pregnant and scheduled for a forced abortion. In China, to allow such an escape was a crime, the woman said.

(2) seems like the right ruling if you care about police using excessive force, which you should. (3) are clearly the right rulings if you care about reproductive rights (even the forced childbearing advocates interviewed for the article realise that this is what pro-choice person would say). Which leaves only (1) to worry about– and it may well be that the higher court ruling made this the only judgment possible. Do any of you know more about (1) which would make this more worrying?

Survey on why people move between, or leave, academic jobs

This call for survey participants came to my attention – it seems to be asking interesting and important questions:

We are looking for participants for a study that we are conducting at Rice University. Essentially, we are trying to identify ANY faculty who have voluntarily left one academic job for another job (either academic or nonacademic).

Who fits in this criteria?
• Any faculty member who was in an academic position but left academics altogether.
• Any faculty member who left a research institution for a teaching institution.
• Any faculty member who left a teaching institution for a research university.
• Any faculty member who left a teaching or research university to go to a different and/or comparable university.

Why are we trying to identify these participants?
We are currently conducting a study at Rice University that examines patterns and trends in faculty turnover. This research is part of the ADVANCE grant and we are trying to examine, in particular, if there may be differences in the reasons that men and women leave academic institutions. Because we are trying to understand the full spectrum of faculty turnover we are interested in those who left for completely personal (non-university related) reasons as well as those who left for organizational reasons.

What can you do to help?
If you fit the criteria listed above, please consider participating in this survey. The survey takes 15-20 minutes to complete and is located at:  The survey has been approved by Rice University’s Institutional Review Board and if you have any questions about it, you are welcome to email the study director (Mikki Hebl) at hebl at rice dot edu

Credit Where It’s Due

Recently, we’ve mentioned plenty of instances of conferences where, at first glance, you’d get the impression that only male philosophers work in that area. Which is what makes it all the more satisfying to draw attention to this up-coming workshop where half of the contributers are women, and the topic is in the kind of area that we might ordinarily think is male-heavy. I don’t know if this is intentional, but it seems to good to be accidental. I recall that its organiser, Dan Lopez de Sa, has commented here in the past and suspect he’ s paid some attention to this issue. So, credit where it’s due. Bravo!


Workshop on Vagueness and Metaphysics, Barcelona, 25-26 June 2009

Provisional Program

Thursday 25 June

10.00-11.30 Iris Einheuser (Duke): ‘Vague Objects: A Conceptualist Account’

12.00-13.30 Dan Korman (Illinois): ‘Restricted Composition without Sharp Cut-Offs’

15.00-16.30 Elizabeth Barnes (Leeds): TBA

17.00-18.30 Benjamin Schnieder (Phlox): ‘Reasoning with ‘Because”

Friday 26 June

10.00-11.30 David Barnett (Colorado): ‘Vague Entailment’

12.00-13.30 Delia Graff Fara (Princeton): ‘Would Interests have Agents?’

15.00-16.30 Ofra Magidor (Oxford): ‘Strict Finitism and the Sorites Paradox’

17.00-18.30 Ross Cameron (Leeds): ‘Truth-Making and Determinacy-Making’


Good, bad and disgusting news, w/ update

The good news is that Oxford elected Ruth Padel the Oxford Professor of Poetry, thus making her the first woman ever to hold the post.

The bad news is that she  dished her rival for the post by alerting some journalists to his reputation for sexual harassment.

And the disgusting news (in a possibly UK use of  ‘disgusting’) is what people are saying about the import of the allegations; e.g., Clive James’ remark:

“She would be wise to recuse herself and ask for the whole thing to begin again. Derek Walcott is unlikely to be a menace to young women at the age of 75, but he would have delivered an extremely good series of lectures.”

Among the allegations against Walcott:

The dossier [circulated in Oxford before the voting] included pages from a 1984 book, The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, which details the sexual harassment claim made by a Harvard student against Walcott. The student claimed Walcott took her for an after-class coffee, saying to her: “I don’t want to talk about poetry,” and going on to proposition her.

The dossier also included a 1996 allegation by Nicole Niemi, a member of Wal­cott’s creative writing class at Boston University. Niemi sued Walcott for alleged sexual harassment and “offensive sexual physical contact”, demanding $500,000. They reportedly settled out of court.

What really is going on when we say that if one is getting too old to harass students, then past incidents are irrelevant to one’s holding such a prestigious appointment?  And has James not heard of dirty old men?

It would, of course, be quite different if the charges of harassment were  denied, but allowing them to be possibly right but no longer relevant  is, well, something like disgusting.  Or at  least it invites the question of how one  is thinking of sexual harassment.  Allegations of child abuse don’t fade away when one is no longer  in contact with children; stealing from friends remains a blot even if one is no longer nimble enough to cover one’s traces.    Harassment, however, leaves one’s character in tact  – at least if  one forswears viagra? 

Clearly, it’s late and I should quit with that last thought!

UPDATE:  R. Padel has resigned the professorship.  See comments 13 and 14 below for lnks.

Isn’t that disgusting!

Disgust and its Disorders, by Olatunji and McKay, arrived yesterday and nearly immediately I received answers to two puzzles I had, even though the puzzles didn’t motivate my getting the book.

The  answers came with a list of national variations in disgust elicitors; that is, in a list of things people in various countries find strongly disgusting.  I’d love to know what our readers would say about these.

Somethings are  found disgusting in all countries; e.g., feces.  But the distinctive ones that drew my attention were these:

Netherlands:  cats, dogs, drug users (!)

United Kingdom:  drunks, rude people

So first of all, I had noticed that the few men I know from Holland can speak of cats the way many people speak of rats.  I could not understand why these actually quite nice people did that, and now I guess I can say that it’s a cultural thing.

Another thing I could not understand was the use in England by liberal educated people of the term “disgusting” to describe reasonably clean individuals.  Perhaps it’s understandable that one might find someone covered in bodily excretions disgusting, but a rude student?  I thought perhaps it was one of those odd terms that start to be used in a different context to mean something else, like ‘pitiful’ to mean ‘inadequate’ (which might be  more an extended use than a metaphor?).  But it seems that taking the words literally might be quite right:  In the UK, rude people may be found  literally disgusting.

So what do you think? 

And now an anecdote from a  scene in Whole Foods.  Personae: me with  Tarry in a cat carrier in my cart; curious woman peering at him.  Me:  please do look closer if you want.  He’s a snow-shoe.  She: O!  A snow-shoe rat?


Tarry and I thought she was rude and disgusting.

Bad Gender Science in the News

In today’s guardian, Ben Goldacre, author of the column ‘Bad Science’ reminds us, as usual, to think critically about medical stories in the news. In particular today, he explains the bad science behind two recent sex-specific news stories: “Man Flu is not a Myth: female hormones give women stronger immune systems” (Daily Mail and BBC) and “Smarter Girls have Far Better Sex Lives” (Sun, Mirror, Mail). Both of these stories are apparently covered this week on the NHS’s Choices website, and are, to put it briefly, complete rubbish. Goldacre reminds us

People are interested in finding out about this stuff, for their own health and interest, yet they are routinely fed nonsense by the media. When you mention the web, journalists pretend it’s full of bloggers making stuff up. In reality, there are medical research charities, academics, universities’ press releases, NHS Choices, etc. These organisations might want to think more confidently: with figures like 6 million visitors a month, they are now credible publishers, on a subject where information matters.

*Update: I’ve just realised that the “Behind the Headlines” section of the NHS Choices web site is the bit that Goldacre is talking about. It looks excellent. Here’s a link directly to it.

Pole Fitness Classes?

Reader Seagull has sent us this very interesting query:

A group of academics sent a letter to their university’s vice chancellor objecting to the presence of “pole fitness” classes being offered to staff and students in the campus sports centre. Our argument was that a university campus is not an appropriate place for a “fitness” activity which is an offshoot of the sex industry and a manifestation of the mainstreaming of raunch culture which objectifies women. We argued that we had a right to a working environment which enshrined respect for women, and we felt the university’s reputation could be damaged if the press got wind of the fact that we offer courses in pole dancing.

We received a reply from the university’s management which argued that there is nothing remotely sexual about “pole fitness” which is an entirely legitimate and beneficial exercise activity. This was accompanied by considerable documentation from various national fitness and exercise organisations which sang the praises of this wholesome health-benefitting activity which was so far removed from its sleazy pole-dancing roots that our suggestion that it might not be appropriate caused much hurt and incredulity among its practitioners. The most disturbing aspect of the response was the utter inability of the university management and the fitness organisations to understand our concerns about the promotion of raunch culture on campus.

We would therefore be really interested in this blog’s readership’s views on this, specifically,

1. How widespread is “pole-fitness” and other manifestations of raunch culture on university campuses, and how widely does it receive such strong endorsement from management, sporting bodies and fitness organisations?

2. Has anyone else tried to raise concerns about this, and if so, what was the outcome?

3. Does anyone have any strategies for how we could effectively challenge the mainstreaming of raunch culture?

4. Can anyone point us to academic studies or data that could help us show our university why raunch culture of this kind is harmful to women?

5. Finally, is there any point in fighting this fight? Perhaps “pole fitness” has become so mainstream that challenging it is futile and harms the feminist movement/s my making us look like strident old-fashioned harridans out of touch with the modern world?