Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Being Accused of Ableism

Like many (most?) 21st-century North Americans, I hate to be told I’ve done something ableist (or racist, or sexist). Why does it sting so much, and how should I think about such a charge, when it is leveled against me?

Short answer: It stings so much because it’s usually partly, if only partly, true—and partly true criticisms are the ones that sting worst. And the best reaction to the charge is, usually, to recognize its partial, if only partial, truth.

First, let’s remind ourselves of a quote from the great Confucius:

How fortunate I am! If I happen to make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.
(Analects 7.31, Slingerland trans.)

(As it happens, bloggers are fortunate in just the same way.)

Confucius might have been speaking partly ironically in that particular passage. A couple of centuries later, another Confucian, Xunzi, speaks not at all ironically:

He who rightly criticizes me acts as a teacher to me, and he who rightly supports me acts as friend to me, while he who flatters and toadies to me acts as a villain toward me. Accordingly, the gentleman exalts those who act as teachers toward him....
(ch 2, Hutton trans., p. 9)

This is difficult advice to heed.

Note, though: If I make a mistake. He (she, they) who rightly criticizes me. Someone who criticizes me wrongly is no teacher, only an annoying pest! And if you’re anything like me, then your gut reaction to charges of ableism will usually be to want to swat back at the pest, to assume, defensively, that the criticism must be off-target, because of course you’re a good egalitarian, committed to fighting unjustified prejudice!

No. Here’s the thing. We all have ableist reactions and engage in ableist practices sometimes, to some degree. Disability is so various, and the ableist structures of our culture so deep and pervasive, that it would be superhuman to be immune. Maybe you are immune to ableism toward people who use wheelchairs. Maybe your partner of many years uses a wheelchair and you see wheelchair-use as just one of the many diverse human ways of comporting oneself, with its challenges and (sometimes) benefits, just like every other way of getting around. But how do you react to someone who stutters? How do you react to someone who is hard of hearing? How do you react to someone with depression or PTSD? Someone with facial burns or another skin condition you find unappealing? Or a very short man? What sorts of social structures do you manifest and reinforce in your behavior? In your choice of words? In your implicit assumptions? In what you expect (and don’t expect) people to be able to do?

Here’s my guess: You don’t always act in ways that are free of unjustified prejudice. If someone calls you out on ableism, they might well be right.

You might sincerely and passionately affirm that "all people are equal"—whatever that amounts to, which is really hard to figure out!—and you might even pay some substantial personal costs for the sake of a more just and equal society. In this respect, you are not ableist. You are even anti-ableist. But you are not a unified thing. Unless you are an angel walking upon the Earth, our society’s ableism acts through you.

An absurd charge does not sting. If someone tells me I spend too much time watching soccer, the charge is merely ridiculous. I don’t watch soccer. But if someone charges me with ableism, the partial truth of it does sting, or at least the plausibility of it stings. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the particular word that I used. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that particular assumption or dismissed that particular person. Maybe, deep down, I’m not the egalitarian I thought I was. Ouch.

Your ableist actions and reactions can be hard to recognize and admit if you implicitly assume that people have unified attitudes. If people have unified attitudes, they are either prejudiced against disabled people or they are not. If people have unified attitudes, then evidence of ableist behavior is evidence that you are one of the prejudiced, one of the bad guys. No one wants to think that about themselves. If people have unified attitudes, then it’s easy to assume that because you explicitly reject ableism you cannot be simultaneously enacting the very ableism that you are fighting against.

[Image description: psychedelic art "shifting realities", explosion of mixing colors, white on right through blue on the left]

The best empirical evidence suggests that people are highly disunified—inconstant across situations, capable of both great sacrifice and appalling misbehavior, variable in word and deed, spontaneously enacting our cultural practices for both good and bad. If this is true, then you ought to expect that charges of ableism against you will sometimes stick. You should be unsurprised if they do. But you should also celebrate that these charges are only very partial: The whole you is not like that! The whole you is a tangled chaos with many beautiful, admirable parts!

If you accept your disunity, you ought also to be forgiving. You ought to be forgiving especially if you cast your eye more broadly to the many forms of prejudice and injustice in which we participate. Suppose, impossibly, that you were utterly free of any ableist tendencies, practices, or background assumptions. It would be a huge life project to achieve that. Are you equally free of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, bias against those who are not conventionally beautiful? Are you saving the environment, fighting international poverty, phoning your senators about prisons and wage justice, volunteering in your community?

We must pick our projects. A more vivid appreciation of our own disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions ought to make us both more ready to see the truth in charges of prejudice against us and also more forgiving of the disunity, flaws, and abandoned good intentions in others.

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[Cross-posted at Discrimination and Disadvantage; HT Shelley Tremain for the invitation and editorial feedback]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What Kinds of Universities Lack Philosophy Departments? Some Data

University administrators sometimes think it's a good idea to eliminate their philosophy departments. Some of these efforts have been stopped, others not. This has led me to wonder how prevalent philosophy departments are in U.S. colleges and universities, and how their presence or absence relates to institution type.

Here's what I did. I pulled every ranked college and university from the famous US News college ranking site, sorting them into four categories: national universites, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities (combining the four US News categories for regional universities: north, south, midwest, and west), and regional colleges (again combining north, south, midwest, and west). I randomly selected twenty schools from each of these four lists. Then I attempted to determine from the school's website whether it had a philosophy department and a philosophy major. [See note 1 on "departments".]

Since some schools combine philosophy with another department (e.g. "Philosophy and Religion") I distinguished standalone philosophy departments from combined departments that explicitly mention "philosophy" in the department name along with something else.

I welcome corrections! The websites are sometimes a little confusing, so it's likely that I've made an error or two.



National Universities:

Eighteen of the twenty sampled "national universities" have standalone philosophy departments (or equivalent: note 1) and majors. The only two that do not are institutes of technology: Georgia Tech (ranked #34) and Florida Tech (#171).

Virginia Tech (#74), however, does have a Department of Philosophy and a philosophy major -- as do Stanford, Duke, Rice, Rochester, Penn State, UT Austin, Rutgers-New Brunswick, Baylor, U Mass Amherst, Florida State, Auburn, Kansas, Biola, Wyoming (for now), North Carolina-Charlotte, Missouri-St Louis, and U Mass Boston.

National Liberal Arts Colleges:

Similarly, seventeen of the twenty sampled "national liberal arts colleges" have standalone philosophy departments, and eighteen offer the philosophy major. Offering neither department nor major are Virginia Military Institute (#72) and the very small science/engineering college Harvey Mudd (#21) (circa 735 students, part of the Claremont consortium). Beloit College (#62, circa 1358 students) offers the philosophy major within a "Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies".

The seventeen sampled schools with both major and standalone department are: Swarthmore, Carleton, Hamilton, Wesleyan, Richmond, DePauw, Puget Sound, Westmont, Hollins, Lake Forest, Stonehill, Hanover, Guilford, Carthage, Oglethorpe, Franklin (not to be confused with Franklin & Marshall), and Georgetown College (not to be confused with Georgetown University).

Some of these colleges are very small. According to Wikipedia estimates, two have fewer than a thousand students: Hollins (639) and Georgetown (984). Another four are below 1300: Franklin (1087), Hanover (1133), Oglethorpe (1155), and Westmont (1298).

Regional Universities:

Nine of the twenty sampled regional universities have standalone philosophy departments, and another three have a combined department with philosophy in its name. Twelve offer the philosophy major (not exactly the same twelve). Seven offer neither major nor department: Ramapo College of New Jersey, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Delaware Valley University, Stephens College, Mount St Joseph, Elizabeth City State, and Robert Morris. Two of these are specialty schools: Wentworth is a technical institute, and Stephens specializes in arts and fashion.

Offering major and/or standalone or combined department: Simmons, Whitworth, Mansfield of Pennsylvania, Rosemont, U of Northwestern-St Paul, Central Washington, Towson, Ganon, North Park, Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Northern Michigan, Mount Mary, and Appalachian State.

Regional Colleges:

Seven of the twenty sampled regional colleges have a standalone philosophy department, and another four have a combined department with philosophy in its name. Seven offer a philosophy major, and one (Brevard) has a "Philosophy and Religion" major. Offering neither major nor department: California Maritime Academy, Marymount California U (not to be confused with Loyola Marymount), Paul Smith's College (not to be confused with Smith College), Alderson Broaddus, Dickinson State, North Carolina Wesleyan, Crown College, and Iowa Wesleyan. Four of these are specialty schools: California Maritime Academy and Marymount California each offer only six majors total, Paul Smith's focuses on tourism and service industries, and Iowa Wesleyan offers only three Humanities majors: Christian Studies, Digital Media Design, and Music.

Offering major and/or standalone or combined department: Carroll, Mount Union, Belmont Abbey, La Roche, St Joseph's, Blackburn, Messiah, Tabor, Ottawa University (not to be confused with University of Ottawa), Northwestern College (not to be confused with Northwestern University), and Cazenovia College.


In my sample of forty nationally ranked universities and liberal arts colleges, each one has a standalone philosophy department and offers a philosophy major, with the following exceptions: three science/engineering specialty schools, one military institute, and one school offering a philosophy major within a department of "Philosophy and Religious Studies".

Even among the smallest nationally ranked liberal arts colleges, with 1300 or fewer students, all have philosophy majors and standalone philosophy departments (or similar administrative units), with the exception of one science/engineering speciality college.

The schools that US News describes as "regional" are mixed. In this sample of forty, about half offer philosophy majors and about half have standalone philosophy departments. Among the fifteen with neither department nor major in philosophy, six are specialty schools.

I'll refrain from drawing causal or normative conclusions here.


Update 8:53 a.m.: Expanding the Sample:

I'm tempted to conclude that, with the exception of specialty schools, almost every nationally ranked university and liberal arts college, no matter how small, has a philosophy major and a large majority have a standalone philosophy department. But maybe that's too strong a claim to draw from a sample of forty? So I've doubled the sample.

Doubling the sample supports this claim. Among the additional twenty universities sampled, nineteen offer the philosophy major, and the one that does not, UC Merced, is a new campus that plans to add the philosophy major soon. Sixteen have standalone Philosophy Departments, and three have combined departments: Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern and Tulsa, Politics and Philosophy at University of Idaho. The sampled universities with both standalone philosophy departments and the philosophy major are Tennessee, Nevada-Reno, Colorado State, South Dakota, New Mexico, Dartmouth, UC San Diego, U of Oregon, Columbia, Indiana-Bloomington, Kentucky, Alabama-Huntsville, Brandeis, George Washington, Azusa Pacific, and UC Riverside.

Adding twenty more nationally ranked liberal arts colleges also confirms my initial results. Nineteen offer the major, with the only exception being Thomas Aquinas College, which appears to offer only one major to all students (Liberal Arts). Three colleges have combined departments, all with religion: Washington College, Wartburg, and College of Idaho. Sixteen have both major and standalone department: Wooster, Wheaton, Hampton-Sydney, Muhlenberg, Houghton, Colgate, Middlebury, Washington & Lee, New College of Florida, Transylvania, Sweet Briar, Knox College, Colorado College, Oberlin, Luther, and Pomona.


Note 1: Some schools don't appear to have "departments" or have very broad "departments" that encompass many majors. If a school had fewer than fifteen "departments" I attempted to assess whether it had a department-like administrative unit for philosophy, or if that assessment wasn't possible, whether it hosted a philosophy major apparently on administrative par with popular majors like psychology and biology.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Empathy, Anger, and the Richness of Life

I've been reading books that advise us to try to eliminate whole classes of moral emotions.

In Against Empathy, Paul Bloom describes empathy as the unhealthy "sugary soda" of morality, best purged from our diets. He argues that as a moral motivator, empathy is much more biased than rational compassion, and it can also motivate excessive aggression in revenge against the harming party. (See also Prinz 2011.)

In The Geography of Morals, Owen Flanagan recommends that we try to entirely extirpate anger from our lives, as suggested by some of the great Buddhist and Stoic sages. (See also Nussbaum 2016.)

Flanagan's and Bloom's cases against empathy and anger are mainly practical or instrumental (and not quite as absolute as their summary statements might sound). The costs of these emotions, they suggest, outweigh the benefits. As responses to suffering and injustice, it's simply that other emotional reactions are preferable, both personally and socially. Rational compassion, serenity, hope, thoughtful intervention, reconciliation, cool-headed justice, a helping hand.

I want to push back against the idea that we should narrow the emotional range of our lives by rejecting empathy and anger. My thought is this: Having a rich emotional range is intrinsically valuable.

One way of thinking about intrinsic value is to consider what you would wish for, if you knew that there was a planet on the far side of the galaxy, beyond any hope of contact with us. (I discuss this thought experiment here and here.) Would you hope that it's a sterile rock? A planet with microbial life but not multi-cellular organisms? A planet with the equivalent of deer and cows but no creatures of human-like intelligence? Human-like intelligences, but all lying comatose, plugged into simple happiness stimulators?

Here's what I'd hope for: a rich, complex, multi-layered society of loves and hates, victories and losses, art and philosophy, history, athletics, science, music, literature, feats of engineering, great achievements and great failures. When I think about a flourishing world, I want all of that. And negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it. If I imagine a society with rational compassion, but no empathy, no anger -- a serene world populated exclusively by Buddhist and Stoic sages -- I have imagined a lesser world. I have imagined a step away from all the wonderful complexity and richness of life.

I don't know how to argue for this idea. I can only invite you to consider whether you share it. There would be something flat about a world without empathy or anger.

Whether individual lives without empathy or anger would be similarly flat is a different question. Maybe they wouldn't be -- especially in a world where extirpating such emotions is a rare achievement, adding to, rather than subtracting from, the diversity and complexity of our human forms of life. But interpreted as general advice, applicable to everyone, the advice to eliminate whole species of emotion is advice to uncolor the world.

Flanagan comes close to addressing my point when he considers what he calls the "attachment" objection to the extirpation of anger (esp. p. 202-203). The objector says that part of loving someone is being disposed to respond with anger if they are unjustly harmed. Flanagan acknowledges that a readiness to feel some emotions -- sorrow, for example -- might be necessary for loving attachment. But he denies that anger is among those necessary emotions. A person who lacks any disposition to anger can still love. Bloom says something analogous about empathy.

I'm not sure whether I'd say that one's love is flatter if one would never feel anger or empathy on behalf of one's beloved, but in any case my objection is simpler. It is that part of the glorious richness of life on Earth is our range of intense and varied emotions. To be against a whole class of emotions is to be against part of what makes the world the great and amazing whirlwind it is.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Why Wide Reflective Equilibrium in Ethics Might Fail

"Reflective equilibrium" is sometimes treated as the method of ethics (Rawls 1971 is the classic source). In reflective equilibrium, one considers one's judgments, beliefs, or intuitions about particular individual cases (e.g., in such-and-such an emergency would it be bad to push someone in front of an oncoming trolley?). One then compares these judgments about cases with one's judgments about general principles (e.g., act to maximize total human happiness) and one's judgments about other related cases (e.g., in such-and-such a slightly different emergency, should one push the person?). Balance them all together, revising the general principles when that seems best in light of what you regard as secure judgments about the cases, and revising one's judgments about specific cases when that seems best in light of one's judgments about general principles and related cases. Repeat the process, tweaking your judgments about cases and principles until you reach an "equilibrium" in which your judgments about principles and a broad range of cases all fit together neatly. In "wide" equilibrium, you get to toss all other sources of knowledge into the process too -- scientific knowledge, reports of other people's judgments, knowledge about history, etc.

How could anything be more sensible than that?

I am inclined to agree that no approach is more sensible. It's the best way to do ethics. But, still, our best way of doing ethics might be irredeemably flawed.

The crucial problem is this: The process won't bust you out of a bad enough starting point if you're deeply enough committed to that starting point. And we might have bad starting points to which we are deeply committed.

Consider the Knobheads. This is a species of linguistic, rational, intelligent beings much like us, who live on a planet around a distant star. Babies are born without knobs on their foreheads, but knobs slowly grow starting at age five, and adults are very proud of their knobs. The knobs are simply bony structures, with no function other than what the Knobheads give them in virtue of their prizing of them. Sadly, 5% of children fail to start growing the knobs on their foreheads, despite being otherwise normal. Knobheads are so committed to the importance of the knobs, and the knobs are so central to their social structures, that they euthanize those children. Some Knobhead philosophers ask: Is it right to kill these knobless five-year-olds? They are aware of various ethical principles that suggest that they should not kill those children. And let's suppose that those ethical principles are in fact correct. The Knobheads should, really, ethically, let the knobless children live. But Knobheads are deeply enough committed to the judgment that killing those children is morally required that they are willing to tweak their judgments about general principles and other related cases. "It's just the essence of life as a Knobhead that one has a knob," some say. "It's too disruptive of our social practices to let them live. And if they live, they will consume resources and parental energy that could instead be given to proper Knobhead children." Etc.

Also consider the Hedons. The Hedons also are much like us and live on a far-away planet. When they think about "experience machine" cases or "hedonium" cases -- cases in which one sacrifices "higher goods" such as knowledge, social interaction, accomplishment, and art for the sake of maximizing pleasure -- they initially react somewhat like most Earthly humans do. That is, their first reaction is that it's better for people to live real, rich lives with risk and suffering than to zap their brains into a constant state of dumb orgasmic pleasure. But unlike most of us, the Hedons give up that judgment after engaging in reflective equilibrium. After considerable reflection, they are captured by the theoretical elegance of simple hedonistic act utilitarianism. As a society, they arrive at the consensus that the best ethical goal would be to destroy themselves as a species in order to transform their planet into a paradise of happy cows. Let's assume that, like the Knobheads, they are in fact ethically wrong to reach this conclusion. (Yes, I am assuming moral realism.)

It seems possible that wide reflective equilibrium, even ideally practiced, could fail the Knobheads and Hedons. All that needs to be the case is that they are too implacably committed to some judgments that really ought to change (the Knobheads) or that they are insufficiently committed to judgments that ought not to change (the Hedons). To succeed as a method, reflective equilibrium requires that our reflective starting points be approximately well-ordered in the sense that our stronger commitments are normally our better commitments. Otherwise, reflective tweaking might tend to move practitioners away fromrather than toward the moral truth.

Biological and cultural evolution, it seems, could easily give rise to groups of intelligent beings whose starting points are not well-ordered in that way and for whom, therefore, reflective equilibrium fails.

Of course, the crucial question is whether we are such beings. I worry that we might be.



How Robots and Monsters Might Break Human Moral Systems (Feb 3, 2015)

How Weird Minds Might Destabilize Human Ethics (Aug 15, 2015)

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