Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Percentages of Women on the Program of the Pacific APA

Tomorrow I head off to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Vancouver. (Thursday I'll be presenting my critique of Quassim Cassam's Self-Knowledge for Humans. Saturday, I'll be presenting on blameworthiness for implicit attitudes.) Given my interest in professional philosophy's skewed gender ratios (e.g. here and here), I thought I'd do a rough coding of the Pacific APA main program by gender. Alongside gender, I also coded role in the program and whether the session topic is ethics (including political philosophy).

I coded gender conservatively, declining to code names that I perceived as gender ambiguous (e.g., "Kris", "Jamie") or that I did not associate with a clear gender given my particular cultural background (most Asian names and some European names or unusual names), except when I had personal knowledge of the person's gender. As a result 13% of the names remained unclassified. In a more careful coding, I would try to get the exclusions down below 5%.

With that caveat, I found that 275/856 (32%) of Pacific APA main program participants were women. Although this may sound low, it is substantially higher than the proportion of women in the profession overall, which is typically estimated to be in the low 20%'s in North America (e.g., here). (275/856 > 21%, two-tailed exact p < .001; even classifying all ambiguous names as men yields 28% vs. 21%, exact p < .001).

These data can't fully be explained by recent changes in the proportion of women entering the profession: According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 27% of philosophy PhDs in 2013 were women (also 27% in 2012). So even if newly-minted PhDs are more likely to attend conferences, that wouldn't raise the percentage of women to 32%. Affirmative action might be playing a role -- probably other factors too. Plenty of room for speculation.

Since it's often thought that the gender distribution is closer to equal in ethics than in other areas of philosophy, I also coded sessions as "ethics" vs. "non-ethics" vs. "excluded" (excluded sessions being topically borderline or mixed or concerning general issues in the profession). I found the expected divergence: 38% of the ethics program participants were women, compared to 28% in non-ethics (Z = 3.0, p = .003).

Finally, I was interested to look at women's representation in different roles on the program. Some roles are much more prestigious than others: being the author of a book targeted for an author-meets-critics session is much more prestigious than chairing a session. I coded five levels of prestige:

  • 1: Author in an author-meets-critics, or award winner, or invited symposium speaker with at least one commentator focused exclusively on your work.
  • 2: Invited symposium speaker not meeting the criteria above, or "critic" at an author-meets-critics.
  • 3: Invited symposium commentator.
  • 4: Refereed colloquium speaker, or colloquium commentator.
  • 5: Session chair.
  • Excluded: APA organized sessions (e.g., on finding a community college position) and poster presentations (too few for meaningful analysis).
  • Of the people in the most prestigious roles in the program (Category 1), 13/52 (25%) are women. Although this appears to be a bit below the 32% representation of women in all other roles combined, this sample size is too small to permit any definite conclusions (one-proportion CI 14%-39%).

    In the larger group of people with fairly prestigious roles (Category 2), 59/162 (36%) are women, similar to women's overall representation in the program. The group of symposium commentators was small -- 15/44 (34%) -- but in line with the overall numbers. The proportion of women presenting (usually anonymously refereed) colloquium papers was 85/310 (27%, CI 23%-33%), and the proportion of women chairing sessions was 77/221 (35%, CI 29%-42%). Thus, I found no clear tendency for women to appear disproportionately at either a higher or lower level of prestige than men.

    Analysis of more years' data, which I hope to explore in the future, will give more power to detect smaller effect sizes, and will also allow temporal analysis, to see how representation of women in the profession has been changing over time. Ideas welcome!

    Wednesday, March 25, 2015

    "A" Is Red, "I" Is White, "X" Is Black -- Um, Why?

    This is just the kind of dorky thing I think is cool. Check out this graph of the color associations for different letters for people with grapheme-color synesthesia.

    [click on the picture for full size, if it's not showing properly]

    This is from a sample of 6588 synesthetes in the US, reported in Witthoft, Winawer, and Eagleman 2015. Presumably, they're not talking to each other. But there's a pretty good agreement that "A" is red, "X" is black, and "Y" is yellow. But you knew that already, right?

    Now some of these results seem partly explicable: "Y" is yellow, maybe, because of the word "yellow" starts with "Y". That might also work for "R" red, "B" blue, and "G" green. For "A" I think of the big red apple with the "A is for apple" posters that ubiquitously decorate kindergarten classrooms. But "O" is not particularly associated with orange in this chart, nor "W" with white. And why are "X" and "Z" black? Because we're tired because it's near the end of the alphabet and our eyelids are starting to droop doesn't seem like a good answer. (Does it?)

    You might wonder whether it's only synesthetes who have this consensus of associations, and how stable such associations are over time or between countries.

    You're in luck, then, because here's another cool chart, from Australia in 2005!

    [again, click for clearer view]

    The colored bars are synesthetic respondents and the hatched bars are non-synesthetic respondents. The patterns are similar between synesthetes and non-synesthetes, but maybe with the non-synesthetes tending toward stronger associations between the color and the initial letter of the color word. Furthermore, again "A" is red, "I" is white, and "X" and "Z" are black. US and Australian synesthetes seems to agree that "O" is white, but the Australian non-synesthetes like their "O" orange. For some reason, "D" is now brown (47%!).

    There are some older US data from the underappreciated early introspective psychologist Mary Whiton Calkins in her classic 1893 paper on synesthesia. [Pop quiz: Who are the only three people to have been president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association? Answer: William James, John Dewey, and Mary Whiton Calkins.] She reports that synesthetes tend to associate "I" with black and "O" with white. "O" being white matches the synesthete reports from the US and Australia in 2015 and 2005, but Calkins's black "I" is different. Calkins reports this possible explanation for the whiteness of "O", from one of her participants, seeming to find it plausible: O "= cipher = blank = sheet of white paper".

    Witthoft et al. 2015 found that almost a sixth of their participants born in the US in the late 1970s (but not those born before 1967) seem to have letter-color associations that match much better than chance with the colors of the letters of this then-popular magnet toy:

    [image source]

    Neat finding. Of course, the darned toy has "X" purple and "Z" orange, so it's all wrong!

    Brang, Rouw, Ramachandran and Coulson 2011 find a weak tendency for similarly-shaped letters to associate to similar colors in US sample. Irish-based Barnett et al. 2008 and British-based Simner et al. 2015 find broadly similar patterns to the other recent English-language populations.

    Spector and Maurer 2011 find that even pre-literate English-speaking Canadian toddlers associate "O" and "I" with white and "X" and "Z" with black, though they do not share older participants' associations of "A" with red, "B" with blue, "G" with green, and "Y" with yellow. They hypothesize that jagged shapes ("X" and "Z") might be more likely to have shaded portions in a natural environment than non-jagged shapes ("O" and "I"), and that other, later associations might be language based. However, color maps of Swiss research on German-language synesthetes (Beeli, Esslen, and Jaencke 2007) shows no such relationship (see the chart on p. 790) -- for example with more participants associating "X" with white or light gray than with black or dark gray (though Simner et al. have a German subset which do show black associations with "X" and "Z"). Beeli et al. find a weak tendency for higher frequency letters to be associated with higher saturation colors in a German-language sample. Rouw et al. 2014 found that Dutch and English-speaking non-synesthetic participants had similar associations for "A" (red), "B" (blue), "D" (brown), "E" (yellow), "I" (white), and "N" (brown). Hindi participants, with their different alphabet, had a rather different set of associations -- though the first letter of the Hindi alphabet was also associated with red. They speculate that the first letter in each alphabet gets a "signal" color.

    Okay, so now you know!

    Let me leave you then, with this highly unnatural thought:


    Thursday, March 19, 2015

    On Being Blameworthy for Unwelcome Thoughts, Reactions, and Biases

    As Aristotle notes (NE III.1, 1110a), if the wind picks you up and blows you somewhere you don't want to go, your going there is involuntary, and you shouldn't be praised or blamed for it. Generally, we don't hold people morally responsible for events outside their control. The generalization has exceptions, though. You're still blameworthy if you've irresponsibly put yourself in a position where you lack control, such as through recreational drugs or through knowingly driving a car with defective brakes.

    Spontaneous reactions and unwelcome thoughts are in some sense outside our control. Indeed, trying to vanquish them seems sometimes only to enhance them, as in the famous case of trying not to think of a pink elephant. A particularly interesting set of cases are unwelcome racist, sexist, and ableist thoughts and reactions: If you reflexively utter racist slurs silently to yourself, or if you imagine having sex with someone with whom you're supposed to be having a professional conversation, or if you feel flashes of disgust at someone's blameless disability, are you morally blameworthy for those unwelcome thoughts and reactions? Let's stipulate that you repudiate those thoughts and reactions as soon as they occur and even work to compensate for any bias.

    To help fix ideas, let's consider a hypothetical. Hemlata, let's say, lacks the kind of muscular control that most people have, so that she has a disvalued facial posture, uses a wheelchair to get around, and speaks in a way that people who don't know her find difficult to understand. Let’s also suppose that Hemlata is a sweet, competent person and a good philosopher. If the psychological literature on implicit bias is any guide, it's likely that it will be more difficult for Hemlata to get credit for intelligence and philosophical skill than it will be for otherwise similar people without her disabilities.

    Now suppose that Hemlata meets Kyle – at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, say. Kyle’s first, uncontrolled reaction to Hemlata is disgust. But he thinks to himself that disgust is not an appropriate reaction, so he tries to suppress it. He is only partly successful: He keeps having negative emotional reactions looking at Hemlata. He doesn’t feel comfortable around her. He dislikes the sound of her voice. He feels that he should be nice to her; he tries to be nice. But it feels forced, and it’s a relief when a good excuse arises for him to leave and chat with someone else. When Hemlata makes a remark about the talk that they’ve both just seen, Kyle is less immediately disposed to see the value of the remark than he would be if he were chatting with someone non-disabled. But then Kyle thinks he should try harder to appreciate the value of Hemlata's comments, given Hemlata's disability; so he makes an effort to do so. Kyle says to Hemlata that disabled philosophers are just as capable as non-disabled philosophers, and just as interesting to speak with – maybe more interesting! – and that they deserve fully equal treatment and respect. He says this quite sincerely. He even feels it passionately as he says it. But Kyle will not be seeking out Hemlata again. He thinks he will; he resolves to. But when the time comes to think about how he wants to spend the evening, he finds a good enough reason to justify hitting the pub with someone else instead.

    Question: How should we think about Kyle?

    I propose that we give Kyle full credit for his thoughtful egalitarian judgments and intentions but also full blame for his spontaneous, uncontrolled – to some extent uncontrollable – ableism. The fact that his ableist reactions are outside of his control does not mitigate his blameworthiness for them. When the wind blows you somewhere, the fact that you ended up there does not reflect your attitudes or personality. In contrast, in Kyle's case, his ableist reactions, repudiated though they are, are partly constitutive of his attitudes and personality. Hemlata would not be wrong to find Kyle morally blameworthy for his unwelcome ableist reactions.

    Compare with the case of personality traits: Some people are more naturally sweet, some more naturally jerkish than others. Excepting bizarre or pathological cases, we praise or blame people for those dispositions without much attention to whether they worked hard to attain them or came by them easily or can't help but have them. Likewise, if you've been a spontaneous egalitarian as far back as you can remember, great! And if you've worked hard to become a thoroughgoing spontaneous egalitarian despite a strong natural tendency toward bias, also great, in a different way. And someone whose immediate reactions are so deeply, ineradicably sexist, racist, and ableist that there is no hope of ever obliterating those reactions is not thereby excused.

    This is a harder line, I think, than most philosophers take who write about blameworthiness for implicit bias (e.g., Jennifer Saul and Neil Levy).

    Part of my thought here is that words and theories and ineffective intentions are cheap. It's easy to say egalitarian things, with a feeling of sincerity. For 21st century liberals you almost have to be a contrarian not to go along with endorsing egalitarian views at an intellectual level. It seems reasonable to give ourselves some credit for that, since egalitarianism (about the right things) is good. But we take it too easy on ourselves if we think that such conscious endorsements and intentions are the main thing to which credit and blame should attach: Our spontaneous responses to people, our implicit biases, and the actual pattern of decisions we make are often not as handsome as our words and resolutions, and such things also can matter quite a bit to the people against whom we have these unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases. It seems a bit like excuse-making to step away from accepting full blame for that aspect of ourselves.

    (This, by the way, is the topic of the talk I'll be giving at the Pacific APA meeting, in the Group Session from 6-9 pm Saturday evening, April 4.)

    [image source]


    One compromise approach is to say that people are blameworthy only because, and to the extent, that their reactions are under their indirect control: Although Kyle now can't effectively eliminate his unwelcome reactions to Hemlata, he could earlier have engaged in a course of self-cultivation which could have reduced or eliminated his tendency toward such reactions, for example by repeatingly exposing himself to positive exemplars of disabled people. He should have taken those measures, but he didn't.

    Although I'm broadly sympathetic with that line of response, I see at least two problems with insisting that at least indirect control is necessary: First, indirect control comes in degrees. Presumably, for some people, some biases or unwelcome patterns of reaction would be fairly easily controlled if they made the effort, while for other people those same patterns might be practically impossible to eliminate; but in the ordinary course of assigning praise and blame we rarely inquire into such interpersonal differences in difficulty. Second, the full suite of unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases, if we consider not only sexism and racism but also the manifold versions of ableism, ageism, classism, bias based on physical attractiveness, and cultural bias, as well as the full pattern of unjustifiable angry, dismissive, insulting, and unkind thoughts we can have about people even separate from bias – well, it's so huge that a self-improvement project focused on eliminating all of them would be hopeless and arguably so time-consuming that it would squeeze out many other things that also deserve attention. We are forced to choose our targets for self-improvement. But the practical impossibility of a program of self-cultivation that eliminates all unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases shouldn't excuse us from being blameworthy for those thoughts, reactions, and biases that remain. Given the difficulty, it's appropriately merciful to cut people some slack – but that slack should be something like understanding and forgiveness rather than excuse from praise and blame.

    Update April 3:

    I've been getting a lot of helpful critique, both in the comments section and orally. Let me add two important qualifications:

    (1.) Pathologically obsessive thoughts probably deserve a different approach.

    (2.) The case I am most interested in is self-blame and self-critique, especially among those of us with a tendency to want to let ourselves off the hook. Secondarily, I want to affirm Hemlata's mixed reaction to Kyle (and other parallel cases). What I'm least interested in is licensing a person in a position of power to have a low opinion of others because of whatever unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases those others might have that the person in power might or might not have.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2015

    Perils of the Sweetheart

    Tonight in Palm Desert, I'm presenting my "Theory of Jerks (and Sweethearts)" to a general audience. (Come!) In my past work on the topic, jerks have got most of the attention. (Don't they always!) A jerk, in my definition, is someone who gives insufficient weight to (or culpably fails to respect) the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers.

    The sweetheart is the opposite of the jerk -- someone who very highly values the perspectives of others around him.

    You might think that if being a jerk is bad, being a sweetheart is good. And I do think it's better, overall, to be a bit of a sweetheart if you can. But I'd also argue that it's possible to go too far toward the sweetheart side, overvaluing, or giving excessive weight to, the perspectives of others around you.

    I see three moral and epistemic perils in being too much of a sweetheart.

    First peril: The sweetheart risks being so attuned to others’ goals and interests that he is captured by them, losing track of his own priorities. Consider the person who never says “no” to others – who spends his whole day helping everyone else get their own things done, leaving insufficient time to relax or to satisfy his own long-term goals. The sweetheart might forget that he can also sometimes make his own demands. Sometimes you need to disappoint people. In the extreme, the sweetheart’s complicity in this arrangement becomes in fact a kind of moral failure – a failure of moral duty to a certain person who counts, who ought to be respected, who ought to be cut some slack and given a chance to flourish and discover independent ideals – I’m speaking here, of course, of the duties the sweetheart has to himself.

    Second peril: Because the sweetheart has so much respect for the opinions of other people who might disagree with him, he can have trouble achieving sufficient intellectual independence. This is part of the reason that visionary moralists are often not sweethearts. The perfect sweetheart hates disagreeing with others, hates taking controversial stands, prefers the compromise position in which everyone gets to be at least partly right. But everyone is not always partly right. Southerners oppressing black people were not partly right. Physically abusive alcoholic husbands are not partly right. Some people need to be fought against, and the purest sweethearts tend not to have much stomach for the fight. Also, some people, even if not morally wrong, are just factually wrong, and sometimes we need a clear, confident, disagreeable voice to see this.

    Third peril: To the extent being a jerk or sweetheart turns on how you react to the people around you, being too much of a sweetheart means risking being too captured by the perspectives of whoever happens to be around you – without, perhaps, enough counterbalancing weight on the interests and perspectives of more distant people. The homeless person right here in front of you might compel you so much that you set wrongly aside other obligations so that you can help her, or you give her money that would be more wisely and effectively given to (say) Oxfam. When you’re with your friends who are liberal you find yourself agreeing with all their liberal positions; when you’re with your friends who are conservative you find yourself agreeing with all their conservative positions. You are blown about by the winds.

    If you know the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, the humor and conflict in the show often derives from SpongeBob's excessive sweetness in these three ways.

    I’m not sure there’s a perfect Aristotelian golden mean here: an ideal spot on the spectrum from jerk to sweetheart. Maybe there’s one best way to be – partway toward the sweet side perhaps, but not all the way to doormat – but I’m more inclined to think that perfection is not even a conceivable thing, that one can’t be wholly true to oneself without sinning against others, that one can’t wholly satisfy the legitimate demands of others without sinning against oneself; that everyone is thus deficient in some ways.

    Furthermore, when we try to correct, often we don’t even know what direction to go in. It’s characteristic of the sweetheart to worry that he has been too harsh or insistent when in fact what he really needs is to be more comfortable standing up for himself; it’s characteristic of the jerk to regret moments of softness and compromise.

    (image source)

    Thursday, March 05, 2015

    Zhuangzi's Delightful Inconsistency about Death

    I've been working on a new paper on ancient Chinese philosophy, "Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" (come hear it Saturday at Pitzer College, if you like). In it, I argue that Zhuangzi has inconsistent views about death, but that that inconsistency is a good thing that fits nicely with his overall philosophical approach.

    Most commentators, understandably, try to give Zhuangzi -- the Zhuangzi of the authentic "Inner Chapters" at least -- a self-consistent view. Of course! This is only charitable, you might think. And this is what we almost always try to do with philosophers we respect.

    There are two reasons not to take this approach to Zhuangzi.

    First, Zhuangzi seems to think that philosophical theorizing is always defective, that language always fails us when we try to force rigid distinctions upon it, and that logical reasoning collapses into paradox when pushed to its natural end (see especially Ch. 2). Thus, you might think that Zhuangzi should want to resist committing to any final, self-consistent philosophical theory.

    Second, Zhuangzi employs a variety of devices that seem intended to frustrate the reader's natural desire to make consistent sense of his work, including: stating patent absurdities with a seeming straight face; putting his words in the mouths of various dubious-seeming sources; using humor, parable, and parody; and immediately challenging or contradicting his own assertions.

    Thus, I think we can't interpret Zhuangzi in the way we'd interpret most other philosophers: He is not, I think, offering us the One Correct Theory or the Philosophical Truth. His task is different, more subtle, more about jostling us out of our usual habits and complacent confidence, while pushing us in certain broad directions.

    Given the brevity of the text, his comments about longevity and death are strikingly frequent. In my view, they exemplify his self-inconsistency in a fun and striking way. I see three strands:

    (1.) Living out your full span of years is better than dying young. For example, Zhuangzi appears to advocate that you "live out all your natural years without being cut down halfway" (Ziporyn trans., p. 39). He celebrates trees that are big and useless and thus never chopped down (p. 8, 30-31). He seems to prefer the useless yak who can't catch rats to the weasel who can and who therefore hurries about, dying in a snare (p. 8). He seems to think it a bad outcome to be killed by a tyrant (p. 25, p. 29-30) or to die because well-meaning friends have drilled holes in your head (p. 54). A butcher so skillful in carving oxen that his blade is still as sharp as if straight from the whetstone is described as knowing "how to nourish life" (p. 23).

    (2.) Living out your full span of years is not better than dying young. In seemingly more radical moments, Zhuangzi says that although the sage likes growing old, the sage also likes dying young (p. 43), that the "Genuine Human Beings of old understood nothing about delighting in being alive or hating death. They emerged without delight, submerged again without resistance" (p. 40). He seems to admire groups of friends who are not at all distressed by each others' deaths, who "look upon life as a dangling wart or a swollen pimple, and on death as its dropping off, its bursting and draining" (p. 46-47). Of "early death, old age, the beginning, the end", the sage sees "each of them as good" (p. 43).

    (3.) We don't know whether living out your full span of years is better than dying young. This view fits with the general skepticism Zhuangzi expresses in Chapter 2. It doesn't have as broad a base of direct textual support, but there is one striking passage to this effect:

    How, then, do I know that delighting in life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like an orphan who left home in youth and no longer knows the way back? Lady Li was a daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first captured and brought to Qin, she wept until tears drenched her collar. But when she got to the palace, sharing the king's luxurious bed and feasting on the finest means, she regretted her tears. How do I know the dead don't regret the way they used to cling to life?" (p. 19).
    You could try to reconcile these various strands into a consistent view. For example you could say that they are targeted to readers of different levels of enlightenment (Allinson), or maybe they reflect different phases of Zhuangzi's intellectual development (possibly Graham), or you might think try to explain away one or the other strand: Maybe he really values death as much as he values life, as part of the infinite series of changes that is life-and-death (possibly Ames or Fraser), or you might think that Zhuangzi's view is that it's only remote "sages" who are lacking something important who are unmoved by death (Olberding). But each of these interpretations has substantial weaknesses, if intended as a means by which to reconcile the text into a self-consistent unity.

    [revision 6:40 pm: These statements are too compressed to be entirely accurate to these scholars' views and Olberding in particular suggests that in the course of personal mourning (outside the Inner Chapters) Zhuangzi seems to have a shifting attitude.]

    My own approach is to allow Zhuangzi to be inconsistent, since there's textual evidence that Zhuangzi is not trying to present a single, self-consistent philosophical theory. If Zhuangzi thinks that philosophical theorizing is always inadequate in our small human hands, then he might prefer to philosophize in a fragmented, shard-like way, expressing a variety of different, conflicting perspectives on the world. He might wish to frustrate, rather than encourage, our attempts to make neat sense of him, inviting us to mature as philosophers not by discovering the proper set of right and wrong views, but rather by offering his hand as he takes his smiling plunge into confusion and doubt.

    That delightfully inconsistent Zhuangzi is the one I love -- the Zhuangzi who openly shares his shifting ideas and confusions, rather than the Zhuangzi that most others seem to see, who has some stable, consistent theory underneath that for some reason he chooses not to display in plain language on the surface of the text.

    Related posts:
    Skill and Disability in Zhuangzi (Sep. 10, 2014)
    Zhuangzi, Big and Useless -- and Not So Good at Catching Rats (Dec. 19, 2008)
    The Humor of Zhuangzi; the Self-Seriousness of Laozi (Apr. 8, 2013)
    [image source]

    Update April 23:

    A full length draft is now up on my website.