Conference: Equality, Diversity and the Ethics of Philosophy

Oxford, 23 May

The conference will feature talks by a number of leading philosophers who have contributed to recents discussions of issues of gender diversity in professional philosophy. In addition to the speakers, a number of other philosophers will be in attendance as invited participants. The aims of the conference are to listen and learn about equality and diversity issues in academic philosophy (with a focus on gender equality and diversity), take stock of the current situation and engage in dialogue about the future.

Helen Beebee (Manchester):
“Introduction to the BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme”

Fiona Jenkins (ANU):
“Judging Excellence in Philosophy.”

Sally Haslanger (MIT):
“Increasing Diversity by Thinking Differently?  Reflections on Philosophical Method.”

Jenny Saul (Sheffield):
“Equality and Diversity in Hiring and Graduate Student Recruitment.”

Daniela Dover (UCLA):
“Philosophical Conversation.”

Helen Beebee (Manchester):
“Staff-student Relationships: Inside and Outside the classroom”

Space is limited, so register soon.  More here.

Clarifying Indiana’s RFRA: No, It’s Not the Same as Others

There have been some articles floating around about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act that are highly misleading (as well as misleading comments on the matter from Governor Pence)—e.g., there’s an article in the Washington Post which points out that several other states have their own RFRA statutes, and there’s a federal RFRA as well. This is true, but it does not follow from the fact that two laws have the same name, or even that they share some language in common, that they are in fact similar. Indiana’s law is staggeringly different.

First, some background; In 1990, SCOTUS issued a landmark decision in Employment Division v. Smith, determining that the free-exercise provision of the first amendment does not provide religious exemption from laws of general applicability. Smith and Black were members of the Native American Church and had been fired from their jobs for having ingested peyote during a religious ceremony—they argued that they should be entitled to unemployment benefits as their having ingested peyote during a religious ceremony should be protected under the First Amendment, but the court determined it was not (effectively, nearly eliminating the Sherbert Test in the process). In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in order to reinstitute protections from religious discrimination which result from such (apparently) religiously-neutral laws (that is, prohibitions on drug-use may be religiously neutral, and yet have discriminatory differential effects nonetheless, as was apparent in Smith).

In 1997, SCOTUS decided City of Boerne v. Flores determining that Congress had exceeded its power in extending RFRA beyond the federal government to states, and so, many states began passing their own RFRA legislation in response to bridge that gap once more. Indiana’s law is the latest, but, again, that does not mean it’s the same as others by the same name. There are extremely important—and disconcerting— differences.

One significant difference is how the Indiana RFRA defines religious exercise. Section five reads, “As used in this chapter, ‘exercise of religion’ includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” This is in stark contrast to how religious exercise is understood under federal law, where the exercise in question must be the result of a belief which is religious in nature (general understood as part of comprehensive doctrine dealing with issues of ‘ultimate concern’ or something similar) and sincerely held. Though sincerity is (sometimes, but) rarely questioned in religious freedom claims (by the court or by other litigating parties), the more narrow understanding of religious exercise prevents abuse of the law and pre-textual claims to religious belief.

Another significant difference is that in Indiana, unlike e.g., Illinois, there are no protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity under state law. Some individual cities in Indiana do have such protections by way of city ordinances, but state law pre-empts local law when the two conflict. Since the law has not gone into effect yet, and consequently has not yet been tested, it is unclear whether the state courts would determine that protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes a “compelling interest” of the government (or, depending on the case, what the ‘least restrictive means’ of achieving it would be), but, the lack of protection in state law means at the very least that it will be unclear to those who would claim such discrimination is religious exercise whether or not the law allows it (and some folks have already interpreted it to mean that it does). Potentially, the lack of such protections — and Pence’s refusal to institute them — could mean that it will be more difficult to demonstrate that preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a compelling state interest.

Further, Indiana’s RFRA explicitly extends the notion of personhood for the purposes of religious exercise very broadly—perhaps unsurprising in the wake of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but, still troubling, especially when we consider the context of its definition of ‘religious exercise’: “As used in this chapter, ‘person’ includes the following: (1) An individual. (2) An organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized and operated primarily for religious purposes. (3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that: (A) may sue and be sued; and (B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.”

There are other differences between Indiana’s recently passed RFRA and those that are in place elsewhere, but you get the point. This is not your ordinary RFRA, and the difference is dreadful.

UPDATE: I didn’t see this until after I hit post, but one Indiana lawmaker certainly appears to think that preventing discrimination on the basis on sexual orientation is not a compelling interest (but he also seems confused about the law in other ways).

To do or not to do?

Yesterday I sat in a determinologist’s waiting room before very minor surgery to remove a cyst.  And there before my eyes were descriptions of procedures that changed one’s appearance without any cutting.  I’ve been in general dead set against any purely cosmetic surgery, or at least in my own case.  Still, I thought it would be interesting to discuss these fairly non-invasive procedures with feminist philosophers.

Some examples:  One device, called something like a skin pen, has fine needles that puncture one’s skin and so kick off a self-repair repair process that activates the deposit of new collagen.  Loss of collegen is a major factor in looking older, but injections of fillers are another way to go.  Another poster promised to reduce fat cells without any invasive procedure.  I’m not sure, but it may have involved killing fat cells by freezing them.  Surrounded by adverts for this stuff it can become hard to distinguish between fact and fancy.

i expect these procedures are expensive.  I have no idea which are safe and which, if any,  aren’t.  But they seem closer to coloring one’s hair than to having a facelift.  What do you think?

my version of wordpress has decided not to do links right now.  Here’s a site for Skin Pen:



CFP: Essays on Technology

Contrivers’ Review Call for Essays on Technology

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” an essay that blurred the boundaries between the organic human being and the human being as a machine, a set of social practices, and cultural modes of communication and representation. Since then the postmodern turn represented in texts like Haraway’s “Manifesto” has been itself superceded. We see a resurgence of Enlightenment thought–and all the baggage it brings–in initiatives like the re:enlightenment project and The History Manifesto. However, we undoubtedly live in a world inundated with technology so that Haraway’s claim that “We are all chimera” remains accurate even if the ground of technology, politics, and gender have dramatically shifted since 1985.

As part of our long term investigation of technology and the humanities, politics, and arts, Contrivers’ Review invites submissions on any subject relating to gendered and LGBT cultures and their intersection with technology broadly defined. Some issues that might be covered include:

Social media, violence, and harassment
Gender, Feminism, and gaming culture
Discrimination in the Tech Industry/Silicon Valley/Gamer Culture
Feminist and Queer history/historiography of new media
Creating/Creative Communities
Technologies of bodies
Gender, professionalism, and online identities
Feminist Digital Humanities

Contrivers’ Review is an intellectual journal not a scholarly, refereed publication. As such, we publish essays and reviews that bridge academic audiences and the wider public. Submissions and pitch letters should be addressed to a broad audience, not fellow specialists in the academy. Essays should be between 1,500 and 3,000 words. Please send us a query letter at For more information, please refer to our masthead.

Christia Mercer on teaching in prison

in the Washington Post.

Things have not always been this bad. In the 1980’s, when the prison population sat below 400,000, our  incarcerated citizens were educated through state and federal funding. But the 1990’s brought an abrupt end to government support. When President Clinton signed into law the Crime Bill in 1994, he eliminated incarcerated people’s eligibility for federal Pell grants and sentenced a generation of incarcerated Americans to educational deprivation. Nationwide, over 350 college programs in prisons were shut down that year. Many states jumped on the tough-on-crime bandwagon and slashed state funded prison educational programs. In New York State, for example, no state funds can be used to support secondary-education in prison. Before 1994, there were 70 publicly funded post-secondary prison programs in the state. Now there are none. In many states across the country, college instruction has fallen primarily to volunteers.