On Ageing: Nussbaum now online

(See comment 3 for URL.)

Martha Nussbaum will give a Kyoto Prize lecture tomorrow (May 10) in Oxford on ageing.  Here’s the impotant abstract:

The category of age is the only category of discrimination that includes all human beings – if they live long enough. With other categories – racial, caste-based, ethno-religious, gender-based, sexual, and disability-based, the dominant group can view itself as immune from the traits it imputes to the group targeted for discrimination. Because age and its signs are associated with death, this condition is regarded with particular fear and with a disgust closely linked to fear. It is thus no surprise that one of the most tenacious types of prejudice in all societies is prejudice against people who are aging. They are stigmatized in popular culture and discourse, and very often law gives sanction to those forms of stigma.

The bodies of aging people remind younger people of their own frailty and mortality, and popular discourse portrays those bodies as incompetent, unattractive, even revolting. Moreover, even aging people themselves often come to feel disgust with their own bodies, as new research proposes. This stigma is itself a social problem, producing much unhappiness, and it leads to various forms of injustice, such as discrimination against aging people in employment and in informal social interactions, not to mention the huge social evil of compulsory retirement. Age may well be the new issue for our time, since discrimination on the basis of age deprives all societies of valuable human capital. After situating this case in the context of her theory of disgust and stigma, Dr Nussbaum will focus on the special aspects of this case.

I wonder about her idea that the bodies of ageing people remind the young of their own fragility.  I am a bit embarrassed to recall my much earlier conviction that the ageing bodies showed these people could not have lived good lives.


Musings from a Prospective Miscreant (Updated)

Brian Leiter has posted my name on a list of people he claims tried to “destroy” Hypatia. I write here under a pseudonym but I am Amy Olberding. I’ve outed myself before, also under provocation from Leiter, and I now do so again for two reasons.

First, I protest Leiter’s characterization of me and want to provide people an opportunity to judge for themselves. Because I do blog under a pseudonym, I have no idea if Leiter’s accusations about my role in Hypatia using my name will associate for many with who I am on this blog – i.e., “Prof Manners.” So, for the record, all of my public comments on the Hypatia situation are here, here, and here. In them, my consistent plea was for greater calm and kindness to all involved. Moreover, for clarity, I made no social media posts or otherwise communicated about the issue other than what you see in these public statements – i.e., my private conduct is reflected in the public statements.

Second and far more importantly, I do not wish to talk here about Hypatia. I want to talk about Brian Leiter. Upon my posting the “Have Mercy” entry (second link above), he sent me an email with the subject heading “your latest dishonesty.” Since I was unaware of having any earlier “dishonesty” to which he could refer, this came as some shock, as did his remarks about my “general rudeness.” I did not reply. However, now I find that he has included me by name on a list of bad actors he says tried to “destroy” Hypatia and I am not content to forego reply.

Read More »

There is no liberal right to sex with students

There is a long and distinguished history of conceptualising liberal democracy in terms of basic rights to which, all other things being equal, everyone is entitled. Sexual freedom is rightly counted among these. But should this right apply where one person is in a position of power and authority over the other? Doctors are sanctioned if they have sex with their patients, as are lawyers who sleep with their clients. Should sexual relationships between professors and students in the same department also be off limits?

Read on.


The crisis at Hypatia is just the latest occasion to have people in philosophy attesting to being fearful. Fear has become a driver in philosophical discourse, particularly online. The proliferation of pseudonymous participation, anonymous participation, and the entire logic of the various metablog phenomena speak to this. People want to talk but are uneasy and fearful of doing so with their names attached. People also shy away altogether, participating only as readers and, presumably, fleeing philosophy’s online spaces altogether. With the crisis at Hypatia, fear is re-fueled and amplified. People now attest to fear not just of participating in online spaces but of having their work itself exposed to others. Many worry that one effect of the Hypatia situation is that less diverse work will appear in journals because authors won’t be confident writing it and journal editors won’t be confident publishing it. Fear will contract the field yet more.

Read More »

Feminist Philosophy syllabus resources

A reader writes:

In our department, we want to develop a new undergraduate, general education course on feminist philosophy. We also want to hire a feminist philosopher to teach it, since nobody in the department is an expert in the field. But we have a chicken-and-egg problem: we need to get the course approved before the hire (long story). Could you please post this to solicit help from your readers on constructing the course description and syllabus?

There are some constraints:

1) It would need to be analytic-friendly, though not necessarily exclusively analytic.

2) To satisfy general education requirements (another long story), it would need to substantially feature a wide range of perspectives beyond the standard voices in western philosophy. That is, it needs to include perspectives from different cultures, understood broadly. Though again the orientation and plenty of readings again can come from standard analytic philosophy, this emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons can’t be tagged on at the end as an afterthought; the course won’t be approved if it doesn’t include real study of diverse cultures throughout (while staying on the topic of feminist philosophy).

3) Because it will be a general education class, it needs to be appropriate for sophomore-level students with no relevant background.

Any suggestions for readings, course descriptions, unconventional assignments, etc., would be welcome. Also, please share any links to existing syllabi that you think are useful. Thanks for your help on this!

I’d suggest looking at the APA page of resources for diversifying philosophy.

And I’d welcome suggestions from others, in comments.


Have Mercy

Brian Leiter has now posted a list of the names of the signatories to the petition to Hypatia regarding Rebecca Tuvel’s article. He characterizes the petition as outrageous and invites them to either explain themselves or retract.

I would like to enjoin the profession as a whole to cease with these degrading displays. Shot through far too much of these debates is an eagerness to treat other people as shiny objects we can publicly display for the comment and opinion of others. And each new presentation of a shiny object detracts from long overdue attention to systemic issues in the profession, indulging instead in treating individuals as culpable for collective action problems and challenges associated with our unhappy professional culture. Aside from the offensive futility in managing our problems in this way, there is something deeply disingenuous in characterizing one group of people as a mob and then holding them up to mob reaction. If you don’t like “mobbing,” then don’t contribute to this and don’t invite it.

More generally, surely there can be more than the comically simplistic presentation of two sides here. The tendency to present these complex systemic (systemic!!!) issues as bifurcating into nameable good guys and bad guys insults us all, and some far more than others. We do not need to create demons when they haunt us all via the long legacies of awful in our profession. It is possible to feel great concern and humanity for all who have been affected by this. It is possible to see all of the issues raised here as incredibly vexed and radically difficult to address. It is possible not to want anyone involved to suffer more or to be held up to further opprobium. None of these possibilities will be realized if we don’t stop looking for shiny objects to sully and start talking about the systemic issues involved.



Symbolic Conscription

I’ve watched the last few days as philosophy social media and now blogs lit up with the crisis at Hypatia over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on transracialism. (Summary of some of the commentary here.) Throughout, I have been dismayed by the way that people I respect or whose work I admire have taken out after each other, engaging in pugilistic, hostile, sneering interactions that now apparently pass for debate. Along the way I acquired a more current insult vocabulary by osmosis. I learned that calling someone “Becky” is an insult, among other things.

There are a host of thorny and complex issues attached to the debates raging on social media and blogs elsewhere. I do not want to engage those here. But here is something I do want to say, a plea, if you will… And, given the heat that surrounds all of this, I feel obliged to render explicit that I here speak only for myself, not for any other bloggers on this site.

The profession of philosophy has a host of problems that are amply in evidence in all of these debates. This list would, in my opinion, include: a long history of exclusionary practices coupled with free theorizing about lives utterly unlike those led by people allowed into the professional guild; self-serving myths about quality control and the quality of arguments, a set of standards we regularly fail to fulfill even as we suspiciously trot them out whenever something new (to “us”) comes down the pike; demographic narrowness that should provoke serious worry that our efforts to address philosophical issues is compromised by homogenous experiences, epistemic patterns, and social situation; journal practices that are sub-optimal in more ways than can readily be summarized; quasi-professional spaces – social media and blogs – that operate like the wild west and leave many misanthropic and alienated, and too often target the vulnerable; failures to address or acknowledge how philosophy and activism can intersect or, at the very least, how philosophical commitments and activism legitimately operate in a recursive loop for at least some philosophers; how dubious gate-keeping practices are a perennial phenomenon within the profession and one we too often refrain from analyzing carefully, much less address coherently; a climate in which philosophers across the spectrum of values and identities attest to be fearful of the ire and contempt of peers, of being subject to conversational and professional practices that savage; and… there is more.

Here, then, is my plea: Please stop symbolically conscripting Rebecca Tuvel into the role of personifying all of these systemic issues that attach to the profession at large. I here do not wish to weigh in on the quality of Tuvel’s scholarship; what I want is to urge that we cease treating her article and her as the personification of issues that are all over the discipline. I here issue no judgment of Tuvel’s work but ask that we all recognize this: Even if you judge Tuvel to have done all of the things that have been laid at her door, she would not be unique in any of them. The problems that have been attached to her, that she has come to singularly personify in all these debates, are ones that her own critics would, I think, freely acknowledge exist all over the discipline. Yet she has been uniquely singled out for public opprobrium.

Behaving as if solving the “Tuvel problem” will alter the deep problems we have conscripted her into personifying is, I believe, to wrong her. But even if you disagree with me about that and imagine that what she has likely endured the last few days is wholly warranted by what she wrote, consider the litany of problems above, consider the litany of systemic problems we have conscripted her into personifying and ask whether addressing her solves any of those problems. I don’t think it does. Worse, it risks certifying as acceptable laying the mountain of our profession’s problems on one untenured scholar. To be clear, we heap burdens on scholars in inequitable ways with a disturbing frequency – our professional gate-keeping is one iteration of how we do this. Treating one scholar, one untenured woman scholar, as the symbolic personification of the profession’s ills – raising petitions against her work, engaging in public insult of her (see: Becky), and so forth – will not fix what ails us. It is a symptom of what ails us. And what ails us is legion.

Bibliography on race and gender

Meena Krishnamurthy has done the profession a great service by setting up a google doc with a wonderful, growing bibliography.  She writes:

One of the central criticisms of the recent piece in Hypatia by Rebecca Tuvel on the infamous Dolezal case is that it failed to discuss much of the relevant literature by POC and transgender people on related topics. In the hopes of moving future work in the right direction, this is a collection of relevant resources that emphasizes work by POCs, transgender people, and members of other underrepresented groups. Thank you for contributing. 

To check out the bibliography, go here.

Child Tax Credit and May’s ‘Rape Clause’

Readers in the UK will no doubt be aware that as part of measures to try and save money prior to the possible disappearance of the UK economy down a large black-hole post-Brexit, Theresa May and her Tory Government have reformed the child tax credit system.

Child tax credits (or at least the child element of the new universal credit system) will now only be available for two children, except for certain exemptions. These include cases of:

  • Adoption
  • Kinship care
  • Multiple births
  • Rape

It is the latter that has drawn criticism from a number of sources, as women to whom the fourth applies will have to fill in an eight-page document, disclosing their situation to government officials in order to receive the benefit.

In so doing, women will be forced to relive what are likely to be traumatic and difficult experiences. It is a violation of their privacy to have to do this.

Whilst it will not be Department for Work and Pensions employees who assess the claims, but a Third Party (such as social workers, etc.), no training has yet been provided to DWP employees. Neither are Third Party organisations falling over themselves to take on this work.

Theresa May has defended the policy on the grounds that it is about fairness – people on benefits should be faced with the same choices about the size of their families as people supporting themselves solely through work.

But, of course, in a society with vast wage discrepancies, this is a complete load of nonsense. Is it fair that some people are born into wealthy families? That they will be able to go to better schools because their parents can afford to move near to them, or better yet, pay to school them privately? Is it fair that those same people can more easily afford university education? Or that they will then be able to take up the unpaid internships that are now pretty much a necessity for obtaining one of the better jobs this society has to offer? Is it fair that some people are randomly struck down by cancer? Or dementia? Or serious injury? Or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Or depression? Or anxiety? Or any of the other things that might impact one’s ability to hold down a job?

Info about the reform.

Commentary from the Huffpo.