Featured Philosopher: Dan López de Sa

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Dan López de Sa is ICREA Research Professor at Univeristat de Barcelona, after visiting ANU, St Andrews, NYU, and Columbia. He works in metaphysics (truthmaking, grounding, response-dependence), the philosophy of language (vagueness, contextualism, slurs), and metaethics (values, disagreement, relativism).  He also has an increasing interest in topics around gender, race, sexuality, love, and the law.

Significant Verbal Disputes and So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations”

Dan López de Sa

[What follows is a brief version of a longer paper I am currently working on. Many thanks to Meena for the opportunity to post it here.]

Significant verbal disputes

To claim that a certain dispute is verbal is often regarded as implying some sort of deflationism about the issue in consideration—particularly when the dispute was not overtly and explicitly verbal, i.e. overtly and explicitly mentioning the word in dispute. It turns out that the dispute is “merely verbal”, “just about words.” And hence less serious, important, worth of disputing about.

As many have emphasized, this attitude is, in general, misguided. Some disputes are indeed verbal and significant. Here some illustrations by David Chalmers:

Sometimes words matter. For example, if we are arguing over whether a law has been violated, one often needs to settle the meaning of relevant words. Questions about what falls into the extension of ‘marriage’ and ‘murder’ may in some sense be verbal, but the answer to these questions may also make a serious difference to people’s lives. In cases where words have fixed connotations and associations, too, verbal issues often have serious practical import. This applies especially when those connotations are normative. What counts as ‘torture’ or as ‘terrorism’ might be, at one level, a verbal issue that a philosopher can resolve by distinguishing senses. But in a rhetorical or political context, words have power that transcends these distinctions. If the community counts an act as falling into the extension of ‘torture’ or ‘terrorism’, this may make a grave difference to our attitudes toward that act. As such, there may be a serious practical question about what we ought to count as falling into the extension of these terms. (Chalmers 2011, 516-17)

Some verbal disputes are thus verbal but not merely so. This is so because there are issues where, given how things are, how a given expression is to be used turns out to have significant consequences. In the form of a slogan: significant verbal disputes are verbal disputes where words do matter. As the examples illustrate, this is can be so both with respect to the descriptive question concerning how a word is in fact used but also, and importantly for our purposes, with respect to the normative question concerning how a word should be used. Such normative questions concerning which words should be paired with which concepts constitute what can be called terminological ethics. This goes beyond conceptual ethics—provided this is understood as the project concerning which concepts should be used for some particular purposes. To illustrate, it may well be that for purposes in connection with inclusion, one should use not one but two different concepts of gender, one concerning gender as class and the other concerning gender as identity (Jenkins 2016). This is a claim in conceptual ethics. A further question concerns which of these two, if any, should be the one paired with words like ‘woman’. This can give rise to further significant verbal disputes in terminological ethics.[1]

Recently, David Plunkett (2015) and Amie Thomasson (2017) have illustrated, in my view quite compellingly, how in philosophy there are verbal disputes to be had—which are, also, significant. Words like ‘art’, ‘free’, ‘race’, ‘person’, ‘knowledge’, ‘good’, among many others, are words that, arguably, do matter, in the envisaged sense. So contending that some debates in philosophy are, in fact (perhaps appearances notwithstanding) or should be seen as, verbal disputes need not deflate their significance—provided the relevant words do matter.

(Some verbal disputes are merely verbal, of course—in philosophy as well as elsewhere. As such, they may trigger some clarifications and distinctions. But once these are in place, any further dispute can be dismissed—precisely because, in these cases, words don’t really matter: nothing of significance hinges on how the word is to be used. This may provide an illuminating model for dismissivism with respect to some particular debates in metaphysics: according to some, with respect to debates on composition or the persistence of objects, verbal disputes are merely so, as the relevant words don’t really matter, in the appropriate sense.[2]) 

So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations

As I said, I see Plunkett (2015) and Thomasson (2017) as showing how there are significant verbal disputes to be had in philosophy—negotiations in terminological ethics as to how words that matter should be used. In the papers, however, they contend that some debates in metaphysics are to be seen as involving so-called metalinguistic negotiations.[3]

Not every negotiation about words qualifies as a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense, as these are specific forms of expressing the disagreement in language—in sharp contrast with disputes that are overtly and explicitly verbal.

Drawing on earlier work with Tim Sundell (Sundell 2011, Plunkett & Sundell 2013), Plunkett characterizes metalinguistic negotiation as a dispute about what a word should mean involving a metalinguistic usage of a term, that is

one where a speaker uses a term (rather than mentions it) to express a view about the meaning of that term, or, relatedly, how to correctly use that term. (Plunkett 2015, 834).

This is the key element: in their metalinguistic negotiations, the word is used rather than mentioned.

Plausibly, there are uncontroversial enough cases of a metalinguistic usage of a term. The clearest examples probably are those where the speaker communicates views on the existent aspects of the context that are relevant for the value of context-dependent expressions such as ‘tall’, as when one utters:

(1)      Feymann is tall.

pointing to Feymann in a conversation that wonders about what counts as tall around here.

Also, there are conversations where, by using a expression, the speaker aims to set a certain aspect of the context that is relevant for the value of that context-dependent expression that was previously undefined, or to alter it in certain ways—be this the relevant respect, the standard of precision, or others.

(2a)    This knife is sharp.

Cooperative conversational partners will tend to accommodate, collectively succeeding in setting or altering the relevant aspect of the context as to make (2a) true (see Lewis 1979). Unless, of course, the issue is controversial, in which case the disagreeing party may object:

(2b)    No, it’s not sharp enough.

If what is at stake in the conversation is which kind of food is to be prepared, after both cooks have jointly tried out one of the new knives. This is a case where a verbal dispute gets expressed by a metalinguistic dispute, in their sense.

But metalinguistic negotiations should cover the expression of disagreements about which of alternative concepts should a word be paired with.[4] Plunkett and Sundell illustrate with a case borrowed from Ludlow where, with respect to racehorse Secretariat making it to the list of the fifty greatest athletes of the twentieth century, people may express their disagreement with:

(3) a.  WTF. Secretariat is not an athlete. He’s a horse!

  1. So what? He is an athlete. And one of the best.

I am happy to grant that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, this (or some other similar case) will indeed constitute a negotiation in terminological ethics as to how the word should be used. The problem is that it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense. Because it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic dispute in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves a metalinguistic usage of the term in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves using as opposed to mentioning the relevant expression.

The reason is that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, sentences in (3) seem similar to

(4) a.  We don’t eat tom[a:]tos here, we eat tom[ei]tos.

  1. I haven’t deprived you of my talk; I’ve spared you it.

Which is the right account of the linguistic phenomenon exhibited in (4) is controversial—particularly concerning precisely the issue of whether (or how) it involves use, mention, or both, of the relevant expressions. In particular, on one proposal,

The material falling in the scope of the ‘not’ is mentioned (metarepresented, quited, echoic) rather than used (Carston 1996, 312).

I don’t have yet a view on the matter, myself. Maybe the right view has it that, on the contrary, expressions are used rather than mentioned in (4). Or maybe it turns out that cases like (3) are relevantly different than those in (4). So maybe it turns out that (3) constitutes a metalinguistic negotiation, after all.

Interesting as the issue is in itself, it depends on the best account of complex linguistic phenomena concerning the expression of disagreement. Vindicating the significance of some verbal disputes—in philosophy as well as elsewhere—depends only on the nature of the disagreement, not their linguistic expression.[5]


Belleri (2016): “Verbalism and metalinguistic negotiation in ontological disputes”, Philosophical Studies, DOI: 10.1007/s11098-016-0795-z

Burgess & Plunkett (2013): “Conceptual Ethics I”, Philosophy Compass 8(12): 1091–1101.

Carston (1996): “Metalinguistic negation and echoic use”. Journal of Pragmatics 25, 309–330

Chalmers (2011): “Verbal Disputes”, Philosophical Review 120: 515-566

Jenkins (2016); “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman”, Ethics 126: 394–421.

Lewis (1979): “Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Journal of Philosophical Logic, 8: 339–359.

López de Sa (2015): “Expressing Disagreement”, Erkenntnis 80, 153–165

Plunkett (2015): ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’, Inquiry 58, 828-874

Plunkett & Sundell (2013): ‘Disagreement and the Semantics of Normative and Evaluative Terms’, Philosophers’ Imprint 13/23, 1-37

Sundell (2011): ‘Disagreement about Taste’, Philosophical Studies 155, 267-288

Thomasson (2017): “Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation”, Analytic Philosophy, 57(3), 1–28

[1] I take my labeling to be itself a move in terminological ethics in order to vindicate the significance of significant verbal disputes. For an alternative usage, see Burgess & Plunkett (2013).

[2] As I understand it, (Belleri 2016) argues that it is conceivable that the dispute between endurantism and perdurantism could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. As I am suggesting to construct it, dismissivism can very well accept this. After all, arguably it is conceivable that every merely verbal dispute whatsoever could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. Just conceive of a context where it turns out that something of significance depends on how the expression is to be used—imagine the world is taken by some aliens are disposed to kill whoever drinks in a martini glass.

[3] And prominently so, notice both titles: ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’ (Plunkett 2015) and ‘Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation’ (Thomasson 2017) (my underline).

[4] “[A] metalinguistic dispute can target the most general aspects of the meaning of a term (whatever that amounts to on one’s specific theory of language). Using Kaplanian terminology, a key part of this basic point is this: a metalinguistic dispute (including a metalinguistic negotiation) might target the basic character of a term.” (Plunkett 2015, 840).

[5] For more on the importance of distinguishing disagreements from their linguistic expression, see López de Sa (2015).

Featured Philosopher: Manuel Vargas

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Manuel R. Vargas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and (through the Spring 2017) Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes, he writes about the moral, psychological, and legal issues concerning human agency and freedom. He also writes about issues within Latin American and Latinx philosophy. His book, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility won the APA Book Prize in 2015. He was also a winner of the inaugural APA Prize in Latin American Thought.

If Anglo-American philosophy is so great, where is its Las Casas?

Manuel R. Vargas

Many of my philosophical friends are puzzled by my interest in Anglo-American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend my time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Las Casases, no Sor Juanas, no Villoros? If Anglophone philosophers—especially those who have studied in the U.S.—have done anything important, anything that matters, they tell me, surely there would be evidence in the other humanities, in the architecture and ambitions of the great universities, or in the visible structure of the political world. Unlike philosophy’s obviously important achievements, there is no trace of specifically U.S. Anglophone philosophical work in the symbols of state, in (for example) the mottos of universities, or in the political discourse of the day. Instead, the tradition relies on its European heritage for anything of world-historical importance, and it seems to produce barrenly scholastic irrelevancies that are of no interest to anyone outside their cloistered world.

When my friends working in Latin American, Asian, Africanist, Indigenous, and comparativist philosophy press me in this way, I protest their parochialism. I tell them that there is a great deal of interest, potential, and even payoff in the work of my colleagues in Anglophone philosophy. But to see how and why there is something of value there requires some work. You can’t expect to be familiar with the value and virtues of Anglophone philosophy without actually studying it. At the very least, before we condemn it we should have some serious study of it.

This response is usually met with some skepticism, and mutterings that from what they’ve heard, it is all derivative dreck, not particularly good, and generally irrelevant to anything that matters for real philosophy. I then hasten to acknowledge that some Anglophone work is derivative dreck, uninspired, or of little real importance. I go on to insist that other Anglophone work is wonderful, inspiring, and about things that genuinely matter.

When my friends in Latin American philosophy and beyond learn that a good deal of Anglophone philosophy has not been translated into their locally preferred philosophical languages, their interest in reading it wanes. The idea that a scholar should have to study another language in order to read material not already in their own tongue(s) strikes them as vaguely repellent, given how much good philosophy is already available to them. I sometimes detect a whiff of dismissiveness about the philosophical potential of the English language.

I suppose I could attribute their attitudes to racism or ethnocentrisms of various sorts, but that seems unlikely. After all, like philosophy elsewhere, Anglophone philosophers are of a wide and diverse set of races and ethnicities, and the neglect of Anglophone philosophy seems unlikely to be explained by something so simple and crass.

Sometimes, friends will tell me that Anglophone philosophy is just “me-studies.” My response is sometimes ill advisedly strident. I would have hoped that others would readily grant that reflections on the nature, interests, and challenges of the groups with which I affiliate might be worth some reflection, at the very least by those of us who are members of those communities. Even though Anglophone moral psychologists and metaphysicians are mostly members of a particular and easily identified social identity group this does not mean that our work fails to aspire to universality, or that it does not speak to more-than-parochial interests.

That my Anglo-American philosophical colleagues self-identify as, for example, “analytic” philosophers, and tend to overwhelmingly restrict their attention to other self-described “analytic” philosophers and their colleagues, does not mean that they are doing “me-studies.” And just because those who occupy the social position of analytic philosophers overwhelmingly fit particular demographic categories does not mean that their interest in that work is merely narcissistic interest in themselves and the ideas produced by that ilk. They—we!—earnestly think the work is good, worth reading, and genuinely valuable. Moreover, the widespread symptom of not reading outside this literature is not necessarily a judgment about other work, I tell them. It is only a reflection of their communities of discourse, their personal interests, and how they have been habituated by their local metrics of value.

At this point in the conversation, I am sometimes met with a vaguely skeptical silence, as though my other-than-Anglophone friends are too polite to voice the thought that the only reason I’m interested in Anglophone philosophy is because I was raised in a context where English was widely spoken, and that I identify in various ways with the culture and circumstances that produced this work. I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting to study issues and topics that are familiar, valorized by one’s idiosyncratic and local culture, or that one finds personally interesting. Moreover, it isn’t as though Anglo-American philosophy is one thing. There is a considerable diversity of topics, orientations, and methods in philosophy in the Anglophone world.

When I say these things, my other-than-Anglophone philosophy friends tend to get a bemused look on their face. They tend to gently press me on the hard question: why it is so hard to find work in my tradition with actual evidence of importance? Why aren’t your philosophers culturally significant figures, architects of culture and policy, or involved in the major national issues of the day, they ask? Anglophone philosophers seem exclusively concerned with the narrow topics of interest only to members of their own tribes.

I gesture at the possibility of different metrics of interestingness. This does little to alter their dissatisfaction.

In older surveys of Anglophone philosophy, written for those outside of the Anglophone world, I sometimes come across a suggestive but now impolitic idea. The idea is this: maybe there is a cultural defect in the spirit or character of Anglophone people, especially in the former colonies, that undercuts the possibility of any real philosophical value to their thought. The idea is, roughly, that the particular legacy of colonialism in much of the English-speaking world has left Anglophone philosophers in those countries inclined to flee from reality and the central challenges of human existence. So, Anglophone philosophers fixate on and regard as prestigious work on metaphysics and theoretical epistemology because these subjects are the purest escape from what is unavoidably immediate and real—ethics, politics, culture. Many but not all of my non-analytic friends think this reflects a disorder of merit. Metaphysics and epistemology have their place, of course, but it is manifestly not at the center of what matters, they say. So, they read the Anglophone preoccupation with metaphysics and epistemology as a kind of pathological cultural neurosis (helped along, perhaps, by the evident irrationalism of the English language). As one author has put it, if philosophy can be done without personal risk, then it is not worth the name.

Fortunately, diagnoses of cultural pathologies are—like satires—less commonly proposed than they once were.

I’ll close by noting that sometimes my Anglophone philosophical friends express puzzlement about my interest in Latin American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Humes and so on. The ensuing conversation is oddly familiar.

Featured Philosopher: Serene Khader

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Serene Khader is Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. She works in ethics, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy, with an emphasis on the normative questions raised by transnational feminisms. She is the author of Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment (Oxford 2011) and is completing a book on transnational feminist solidarity, also for Oxford University Press. She is also co-editor, with Ann Garry and Alison Stone, of the Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy.

I’d like to begin by thanking Meena for her work on this important blog and for inviting me to contribute. I will be using this opportunity to discuss the role arguments linking feminism and freedom play in justifying policies that harm and marginalize Muslims and claim that feminism can do without the notion of freedom operative in these arguments. I have developed these ideas further in my 2016 article, “Do Muslim Women Need Freedom?”[1]

After Khizr Khan’s comments at the Democratic National Convention, President Trump wondered aloud whether the reason Ghazala Khan had not spoken was that she had not been “allowed” to say anything. His revised Muslim ban included a clause ostensibly designed to respond to violence against women, stating that “the secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney general, shall … collect and make publicly available … information regarding the number and types of acts of gender based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.” Trump’s comments typify a common contemporary phenomenon: the use of feminist ideas to mobilize anti-Muslim sentiment. In Trump’s case, as in many others, the use of feminist rhetoric is instrumental and straightforwardly opportunist; after all, Trump supports outlawing abortion and punishing women for having abortions, has loosened federal regulations on sex discrimination and employment, and is the object of numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations. But not all cases of the invocation of feminist concerns against Muslims involve such straightforward opportunism. Many supporters of policies ranging from the de facto ban on the hijab in public schools in France to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have a history of consistent support for feminist causes.

Feminists become co-opted into supporting such policies because of a perceived conceptual connection between traditions, religious and otherwise, and women’s subordination. This perception arises from recognition of a deep and genuine problem: supporters of patriarchal practices often believe those practices are traditionally dictated, and exhort women to participate in them on such grounds. Feminism thus cannot retain its status as a normative perspective, one that deems certain forms of treatment gender unjust, without being willing to criticize traditions.

Feminists who find themselves in league with supporters of policies that harm and stigmatize Muslims often appeal to the value of freedom to explain why traditions need to be criticized. Consider, for example, this defense of banning the hijab from French public schools, written by a collective of French feminists, including philosopher and public intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter:

            To tolerate the Islamic veil is not to accept a free being (in the form of a

young girl); it is to open the door to those who decided, once and for all,

to try to bend her to their wills. Instead of offering her a space of freedom,

you send her the message that there is no difference between the school

and her father’s house. . . . It is no longer the equality of the sexes, or free

decision making—that is the law of France . . . [You want] a school in

which each student is always reminded of her parents, riveted to her roots

—a school of social predestination. (Badinter et al. 1989[2] ; translation mine)

Though there is brief mention of gender equality, the ability to cover one’s head in public is conceived in the quotation primarily as an infringement of freedom. According to the quotation, a “space of freedom,” is, by definition, a space where the markers of tradition are absent. Even to be reminded that others engage in a behavior associated with traditional adherence is to deny a young woman the ability to come up with her own ideas, to “rivet [her] to her roots.” The thought seems to be that, in order to choose freely, a person must reject tradition or not be shaped by it at all. This idea is echoed by other feminists who portray Islam as causing women’s oppression. For example, Dutch public intellectual Ayan Hirsi Ali, in a memoir describing her life in Kenya, Somalia, and Saudia Arabia, describes her journey to the West as one wherein she discovered that “faith itself was the root of oppression.”[3]

It is worth saying explicitly that this notion of freedom gains much of its plausibility from an unstated non-normative view: namely, the view that Westerners do not have traditions. To consistently apply the notion that traditional adherence, or even unquestioned traditional adherence, undermined a person’s freedom would require seeing most dress practices as freedom-undermining; yet the hijab is specially singled out.

The notion of freedom to which Ali and Badinter refer is not the one that appears in contemporary liberal political philosophy. Many contemporary liberal views allow the possibility of autonomous adherence to at least some traditional dictates. But it would be a mistake to say that the version of freedom they defend is unrelated to liberal philosophy. The ideal of freedom from tradition has important resonances with the ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberal thinkers, such as those found in Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and the lines of argument in Mill that paint tradition as an impediment to individuality. But regardless of whether the notion of freedom in question aligns with a single philosophical view, it is worth paying theoretical attention to because of its effects in our contemporary political world.

In her highly influential book Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood describes another connection between freedom from tradition and politics that harm and marginalize Muslims.[4] In addition to noting that freedom from tradition plays the Islamophobic justificatory role I described above, she argues that many Muslim women simply do not value it, and hold views about the good life that make valuing it impossible. Mahmood is an ethnographer of a group of conservative Salafist women in Cairo who have a particular understanding of what it means to lead a pious life. According to them, self-actualization is achieved through practices that must be adopted before they are fully understood, and whose value adherents are not in a position to question. For example, one of the women in Mahmood’s book describes only coming to know what modesty was after she had begun covering her hair and body.

The class of women captured by Mahmood’s concern is narrower than Muslim women in a sense and broader in another. Many Muslim women reject the view that practices that are thought to be religiously dictated cannot be questioned, and many also reject the particular practices Mahmood’s Cairo women take to be religiously dictated. On the other hand, many women who are not Muslim take some practices to be traditionally dictated, and worth doing for that reason.

So value for freedom from tradition seems to justify harm and marginalization of Muslims in two ways: it suggests that traditional adherence is essentially harmful to women (while marking only Islam and other “other” traditions as traditions), and it suggests disrespect for ways of life that place a high value on traditional adherence. Neither of these problems will seem like problems to the feminist who sees a conceptual, or just a very tight, relationship between sexism and tradition. Instead, it will seem that the same value that is the root of feminism causes Islamophia, and that feminists must choose one. Given a choice between being a relativist (or more accurately, a patriarchal apologist) and being an imperialist, it is not surprising that some feminists decide to bite the bullet of chauvinism and imperialism.

I believe instead that this dilemma is false. Feminists need not embrace wanton destruction of traditions, because feminism does not require value for freedom from tradition. Feminism, I think, is not best understood as a project of liberating women from traditions. Feminism is instead, as bell hooks wrote in an early piece, is opposition to sexist oppression.[5] Oppression, as Marilyn Frye argues in her classic work, is systematic disadvantage and powerlessness that accrues to one because one is a member of a social group.[6]

This conception of feminism accommodates the fact that traditions, and particular traditional practices, are often antifeminist without suggesting that tradition as such is the enemy. To the extent that traditions, or what are called traditions, cause women, or members of other gender-subordinated groups to be socially disadvantaged, feminists should want to change these traditions. But the link between traditionalism– that is, perceived historical external dictatedness– and oppression is contingent. Traditions can be emancipatory, and new, ostensibly chosen practices can be oppressive. For an example of the latter, consider the existence of seemingly new practices, such as the expectation that women’s genitals conform to those displayed in pornography, that disadvantage women.

Actual Muslim women’s movements reveal that calls to adhere to tradition can be deployed in ways that are explicitly feminist. Some of these movements even share the view of that tradition is unquestionable shared by the Cairo women; they just have a different interpretation of the content of Islam. For example, Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, in her early work, argues that the Qu’ran is unquestionable, but also that the Qu’ran dictates gender equality. In fact, according to her, the Qu’ran provides better tools than human reason for discerning what is wrong with oppression.[7] Many Muslim women have organized movements that oppose oppression by appealing to the value of tradition.

Once we recognize that feminism is opposition to sexist oppression, and that freedom from tradition is only contingently related to it, we can see, not only that the dilemma pitting feminism and opposition to imperialism against one another is false, but also that many feminist proponents of the marginalization of Muslims seem more strongly motivated by a parochial morality than concern about gender equality. Margot Badran, in a discussion of Islamic feminisms, writes that feminism is a tree that can grow in many kinds of soil, and perhaps a feminism that is less easily co-opted into Islamophobia would do well to recognize this.[8] Mahmood rightly ends her book with a wish for a feminist “vision of coexistence that does not require making the lifeworlds of others extinct or provisional” (2005, 199). Detaching feminism from value for freedom from tradition makes it possible to oppose sexist oppression without surrendering that hope.

[1] Politics and Gender 12: 727-753.

[2] Badinter, Elisabeth, Re´gis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Elisabeth De Fontenay, and

Catherine Kintzler. 1989. “Profs, ne capitulons pas!” Le Nouvel Observateur,

November 2.

[3] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. 2007. Infidel. New York: Simon & Schuster

[4] Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[5] hooks, bell. Feminism from Margin to Center, 1988. More recently, hooks has also offered a definition of feminism as the struggle against all oppressions. I employ her old definition, not to deny the fact of intersectionality but rather because of the problem I am trying to address in this post. The problem this article focuses on stems from the possibility of two anti-oppression aims as conflicting—the end of imperialist domination and the end of sexism. Keeping the forms of oppression analytically distinct helps us see the problem, even if the two forms of oppression are often deeply intertwined with one another in practice.

[6] Frye, Marilyn. 1983. “Oppression.” In The Politics of Reality. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press,


[7] Wadud, Amina. 2006. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. London: Oneworld.

[8] Badran, Margot. 2001. “Locating Feminisms: The Collapse of Religious and Secular

Feminisms in the Mashriq.” Agenda 50: 41–57.

Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Mainstreaming Indian Political Philosophy

Meena Krishnamurthy 

A version of this post was originally presented at the Pacific APA, April 15, 2017 as part of the APA Committee Session: The Current State of Asian and Asian American Philosophers. Thanks to Jon Tsou for organizing the panel and to Michelle Pham for thoughtful comments. 

In an earlier post, I argued that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of (among other things) Indian political philosophy. I argued, in particular, that analytic political philosophers had ignored Indian political philosophy and that there were many reasons for why we should be worried about this exclusion. I offer a quick summary of these reasons before exploring some of the further questions that are raised by this argument.

Why should we mainstream Indian political philosophy? 

The first reason is epistemological. Exclusion of this work from political philosophy is problematic because it means that political philosophy has not benefitted from the unique and distinct political insights of Indian thinkers on the nature of liberty and equality, among other things.

The second reason is social. On many people’s views, philosophy is in a state of crisis. Academics and public intellectuals outside of professional analytic political philosophy believe that it has become irrelevant to today’s most important moral and political struggles and, in turn, that it is disconnected from the concerns of today’s people. People are left wondering what the purpose of political philosophy is if it cannot be used to challenge today’s structures of inequality and injustice. Relatedly, it has been widely noted that philosophy also lacks diversity among its student body. In part, this may be because of philosophy’s lack of connection to real and lived social injustices. At least some (certainly not all) people of color, who are concerned with contemporary racism, for example, leave philosophy and turn to other disciplines to understand and address issues of racial injustice. Similar things can be said of those who are interested in colonialism and empire. One reason for including a broader range of thinkers is that we might be able to increase the number of racial minorities enrolled in philosophy courses and programs.

The third reason is methodological. Analytic philosophy at its core is the method of critical reflection, the giving of reasons in favour of one’s conclusions, and the consideration of potential objections to the reasons that one gives, and the development of responses to these objections. Thinkers from the Indian tradition of political philosophy often engaged in this method. For example, following a tradition that can be traced to classical Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue. In it, he outlines his arguments in support of Indian home rule and he responds to concerns that are raised by an imagined interlocutor. In doing so, he not only criticizes Western conceptions of civilization – responding to the views of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Jean Jacques Rousseau – but also gives us a positive vision of true civilization and the appropriate means of attaining it. This dialogue is an obvious example of analytic philosophy. There are many others in Indian political thought.

If these arguments are correct, then they suggest that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of Indian philosophy. Indian political philosophy should be mainstreamed, so to speak.

“Who” should do the work of mainstreaming Indian political philosophy?

One question that arises is, should this work of bringing Indian philosophy to the mainstream fall to anyone or should it fall primarily to those who are or see themselves as being Indian?

On some views only those who are or who consider themselves to be Indian should engage in this work. The claim is, since they have grown up immersed in Indian philosophy, culture, and identity, Indians are likely in the best position to make this sort of progress in philosophy. This claim might perhaps stem from a version of standpoint epistemology. It might also stem from the thought that extended practice – over the course of one’s life – leads to expertise.*

As a practice, requiring Indians to do the work of Indianizing political philosophy may place a further burden on those who are already burdened. As immigrants and/or people of color, Indians likely already face an uphill battle in philosophy. Since manyt Indians in the profession don’t already work in Indian philosophy, asking them to Indianize political philosophy may add the extra task of taking up a new specialty. For example, while I had preexisting knowledge of Indian Political Philosophy, I didn’t think I knew enough to write or teach about it. Wanting to immerse myself in the project of Indianizing political philosophy has meant that I have had to take up a new specialty. This has taken a number of years (and countless hours and sleepless nights!) to even to begin to do. As Olufemi O. Taiwo, a graduate student at UCLA, stated on Facebook, asking those who are already marginalized “to pick up a whole other specialty seems like it is asking a lot.” Furthermore, and more pragmatically, even if we thought that Indians should do this work, there are very few Indians in philosophy, generally. It simply isn’t feasible right now.

For pragmatic reasons alone, we may need to allow that non-Indians will have to do at least some of the work of Indianizing political philosophy. As a matter of fairness, it might also be good and appropriate for the burden to fall on both Indians and non-Indians. Moreover, there may be epistemic benefits that follow from non-Indians doing this work. As “outsiders,” they may have a unique perspective to offer on Indian political philosophy; they may also benefit in their own thinking and work in other areas from engagement with this body of work.

There is the worry that lacking in previous exposure to and knowledge of Indian philosophy may sometimes lead outsiders toward a tendency to appropriate rather than genuinely engage with Indian philosophy. Because of this lack of exposure, outsiders may be more likely than insiders to engage in caricatures or to perpetuate stereotypes of Indian philosophy, for example. This is an important worry. I myself have already seen examples of outsiders engaging in what might be called “appropriation” of Indian philosophy rather than deep engagement with it. I think this problem can be avoided, however, through a deep commitment to good scholarship and depth of understanding. A sense of humility and openness to taking the critical views of insiders seriously may also work as an important corrective.

In contrast, insiders may have a greater tendency toward genuine engagement with Indian philosophy and may be in a better position to engage deeply with Indian philosophy. As insiders, they are more likely to have spent their lives thinking through and discussing Indian philosophy (especially because Indian philosophy is an integral part of Indian culture). If so, as insiders, they will bring this history and the sense of respect it tends to gives rise to to their work. This may constitute an additional reason for thinking that the work of Indianizing political philosophy should be done by Indians.

Furthermore, if outsiders do the work of Indianizing political philosophy, there is always the worry that this will only work to marginalize the work being done by Indians themselves – some have recently called this “the gentrification of philosophy.” Because of implicit bias, white voices are most likely to be considered authoritative and central to the field. This is true even if the work is on marginalization itself, as much of the work on caste and colonialism in Indian political philosophy is. If this worry is real and genuine, then perhaps we have a further reason for focusing on insiders: it could prevent the gentrification of Indian political philosophy.

Ultimately, if we wish to bring Indian political philosophy to mainstream political philosophy, I think that we not only need more people to work on Indian political philosophy but we also need to diversify those who are doing philosophy. To Indianize philosophy, we need more Indian faculty members. I think this point generalizes to Asian philosophy more generally. We need more Asian and Asian-American philosophers to do the work of diversifying philosophy. And, we need to reward them for the hard and often uncompensated work that they do.


*See the comment below for a slight expansion of this thought.

Featured Philosopher: Adam Hosein


Adam Hosein is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado.  He works mainly in moral, political, and legal philosophy, with a special interest in areas of international concern and issues relating to gender or race.  He has held fellowships and visiting positions at Chicago Law, Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and the Université catholique de Louvain. He holds a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from Merton College, Oxford and a PhD from MIT.

Taking Public Philosophy Seriously

Adam Hosein

First, let me say a huge thanks to Prof. Krishnamurthy for inviting me. I’ve learned about all kinds of important work from this blog and really value its contribution to the profession, so it’s an honor to be here.

I thought I would say a few words about public philosophy: a brief overview of my own work in this area, and some questions I’ve had about the place of public philosophy within the discipline.

My own public facing pieces have mostly discussed the rights of AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) people. So I’ve written about prosecution for torture committed as part of the ‘War on Terror’, how politicians in the U.S. and Europe should discuss Daesh and its relation to Islam, the morality of Hamas’ activities in Gaza, and the (in)justice of Trump’s revised travel ban. This work has grown in part out of my own direct experiences of racial profiling, fears of surveillance, and so on in the post-9/11 world. And it also came about because I was following various political debates and wanted to involve myself more in them.

I’ve also been inspired to write these essays by the significant amount of (it seems to me) high-quality public philosophy produced by many different people in recent years, combined with the greater visibility and support for that work: the creation of the APA Prize Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize, for instance. I think these are really important developments, for many reasons. There are some more ‘pragmatic’ benefits: in a world where the humanities are frequently under attack and where student enrollment is crucial, it’s surely important for our field to be better understood and valued by the public. And philosophy, at its best, can make crucial contributions to the world outside of academia: raising the quality of political discussion, revealing the insights of various historical thinkers, helping members of the public to reflect on questions that have always troubled them, and so on.

While recognizing these great developments in public philosophy, I want to raise some questions here about the remaining barriers to spending time writing it, especially for more junior scholars. The main problem is this. Even if we as a field claim to value public philosophy, we often discount it in our most consequential evaluations of scholars: when they apply for jobs, come up for tenure, and so on. At most, work in public philosophy tends to count towards someone’s ‘service’ record, which in turn get the least weight in hiring, promotion, etc..

I think certain kinds of service should probably be given more weight. Why shouldn’t we value very highly what someone contributes to the community or does to improve the climate in their department or field? What I’m going to raise here, though, is the suggestion that public philosophy should—in some cases, at least—be relevant to someone’s ‘research’ record. Public philosophy is, after all, philosophy: writing (or speaking or whatever) on (at least partially) philosophical issues using philosophical tools. So why doesn’t it count in the same way as journal articles and so on?

One reason for discounting public philosophy is its (typically) short length. The assumption is that a short piece cannot be really getting deep into the issues.   And, of course, sometimes a short piece will be superficial. But we, as a field, have already squarely rejected view that short pieces cannot make major contributions: just look at the respect given to papers published in Analysis.

A second possibility—and I think this gets more to the heart of why people are skeptical about counting public works towards a tenure case or whatever—is that people have a particular model of public philosophy in mind. According to this model, public philosophy essentially involves taking one’s research and finding a way to popularize it so that non-philosophers can understand it. There is skill involved, but only the skill of translation, and not those of, say, critical reflection and creativity, which were engaged only in the initial phase of doing the research itself.

One response to this line of thought is to point out that ‘mere translation’ is often very difficult and involves a distinctively philosophical exercise: we teach our students all the time that taking abstract ideas and technical terms we find in various texts and finding a way to express them in simple, ordinary language is itself a crucial philosophical task.

But more fundamentally, I think the assumed popularizing model of public philosophy is out of date and doesn’t fit a lot of what is currently being produced. I value, for instance, the work philosophers have done responding to apparent tensions between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, and the role of anger in dealing with oppression (to take just a couple of examples from a long list of work I really admire).[1] These authors haven’t mainly been engaged in just making grand theories more accessible: they have been using philosophical tools to directly address problems that arise out of current social conditions and debates. And clearly doing this kind of work engages the full range of philosophical skills, including creative, sensitive and rigorous thinking.

I’ve aspired to do work within the second model: to take some issues that came up in my personal or political life and wouldn’t let me go, and then try to use philosophical tools to address them. I don’t think of this as descending from the tower to share my results, but just trying to make interventions in ongoing public debates. (Debates that I don’t think any philosopher, or philosophers, can resolve alone, but that I hope we have something to contribute to.)

Often I’ve been very grateful for the existence of public venues not just for opportunity to reach a broader audience, but also for the chance to do some philosophy that was really important to me but quite possibly couldn’t have been published anywhere else. I had the strong view and (I thought) original argument for prosecuting those responsible for torture, for instance, but without the Boston Review I don’t know what I would’ve done with it. To that extent, then, creating barriers to doing public philosophy can block a vital outlet for our philosophical and political energies.

[1] I should say that while I’ve focused on social and political philosophy here, because it’s my area, I also think there’s terrific public philosophy being done on issues in epistemology, medieval philosophy, and so on.

Featured Philosopher: Şerife Tekin


Şerife Tekin is an assistant professor of philosophy at Daemen College in Buffalo, NY. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She completed her PhD at York University in Canada, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Dalhousie University and the University of Pittsburgh. Her work is at the cusp of feminist approaches to philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and medical ethics. Her co-edited book, Extraordinary Science and Psychiatry: Responding to the Current Crisis in Mental Health Research, has recently been published by MIT University Press. Her work has appeared in journals such as Synthese; Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology; Public Affairs Quarterly; Journal of Medical Ethics; Philosophical Psychology; The American Journal of Bioethics, and in books such as Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds (MIT Press); The Psychiatric Babel: Assessing the DSM-5 (Springer’s Press); Philosophical Issues in Pharmaceutics (Springer’s Press). She is the Executive Coordinator of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry. A native of Denizli, Turkey, she spent her childhood and adolescence on the Aegean coast, wandering around the ruins of Ancient Greek civilization, contemplating the meaning of life. The Olympic torch she has been carrying around since her early childhood days have helped her happily make home in North America.

The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry

Şerife Tekin

Thank you, Meena, for giving me the opportunity to say a few things about my research. Before I do, let me say how much I enjoy your blog – it has been a joy getting acquainted with the work of philosophers working in such a wide range of areas. I am honored to be included in such an impressive group. I am taking this opportunity to talk about the main arguments in my article “The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry,” which is recently published in Syhthese: An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. 

Most mental disorders are expressed as anomalies in such self-related capacities and attitudes as self-control, self-conceptualization, self-respect, and self-esteem, and, as such, they cause an individual’s relationship with herself and others to deteriorate. In this regard, most mental disorders directly affect the self – the dynamic, complex, relational, multi-aspectual, and multitudinous configuration of capacities, processes, states, and traits that support agency (Tekin 2017b, 2014b; Bechtel 2008; Jopling 2000; Neisser 1988).

Starting with Socrates’ admonition to know oneself and his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, the self has occupied a central place in philosophical and scientific inquiry. Debates about the self include metaphysical questions on the nature and reality of selfhood, empirical questions about the developmental and historical trajectory of the human selves, and ethical questions about agency, responsibility, and autonomy. The answers to these metaphysical, empirical, and ethical questions are intertwined, as the nature of selfhood both constrains and enables the range of moral and political actions of an individual in a social world.

In psychiatry, the concept of the self has a complex history. While it was a popular clinical and scientific notion in the early days of psychoanalytic approaches to mental disorders, starting in the 1980s, scientific psychiatry began to sidestep the concept, even though it remains central to clinical contexts (for further discussion see Tekin 2015, 2014a; Tekin and Mosko 2015). In fact, as I argue in the article, there is a misalignment between the scientific research and clinical work on mental disorders with respect to the concept of the self.

Various traditions in mental health care, such as humanistic, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, existential and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that a disruption of the self, or the person, or the agent (often using these three concepts synonymously) is a common denominator of different mental disorders. They emphasize the importance of understanding patients as reasons-responsive, in their full mental health relevant complexity, if their mental disorder is to be treated successfully. Self-related phenomena, such as personal identity (e.g., age, gender, race, socio-economic status, employment status, interpersonal relationships) and self-regarding attitudes and capacities, such as self-conceptualization, self-esteem, self-respect and self-control, are important constituents of mental health. In these clinical traditions, the concept of self is used to do the explanatory work of mental disorders, e.g., when the clinician explains the condition to the patient and the family members, and it reappears in subsequently prescribed therapies. For instance, the betterment of the self, e.g., increasing self-esteem, improving self-concepts, enriching self-control capacities, and enhancing self-respect, is set as the goal of the therapeutic encounter and achieved by engaging with various properties of the self, such as reason-responsiveness, self-interpretation and self-assessment.

The centrality of the concept of the self is not mirrored in the mainstream scientific approaches in psychiatry, however. In fact, the self has rarely been the object of scientific research, the empirical investigation of which might yield successful explanations of and interventions in mental disorders. Thus, even though self-related phenomena are clinically relevant insofar as they give important information about a mental disorder to the clinician and help the development of effective interventions, they are not considered among the scientifically relevant properties of mental disorders.

To cite only one example, the tradition of psychiatric research driven by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a classification manual of mental disorders created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to guide research, clinical, and policy related inquiries, does not take the concept of the self as an explicit object of scientific inquiry (APA 1994, 2013). Instead, it opts for a mental disorder construct, e.g., major depression, individuated through observable behaviors such as signs and symptoms, not the plethora of self-related phenomena that are compromised in the presence of a mental disorder.

In other words, the properties of mental disorders targeted by clinicians and those targeted by researchers are misaligned. Among the former group, self-related phenomena are considered relevant properties of mental disorders, while among the latter, they are neglected.

The fact that self-related phenomena are missing from scientific research on mental disorders can arguably be attributed to the presupposition that the self is not empirically tractable and its use will hinder psychiatry’s goal to be scientific. Researchers might want to exclude the self from scientific psychiatry because, as a folk concept, it does not sit well with the kind of concepts studied in sciences with the promise of unpacking the etiology of mental disorders, such as neuroscience or genetics. In the near future, the concept of the self might be fractured into different components, some related to memory (auto-biographical memory), others to high-level action control, and so on.

In the paper, I take issue with these connected challenges. I argue the self is empirically tractable, and its use as a target of research will not hinder psychiatry’s scientific commitments. The concept of the self offers rich scientific resources to investigate and intervene in mental disorders; available resources include not only neuroscientific and genetic research but also those areas of study considering the role of interpersonal relationships, environment, culture and epidemiological factors in the development of illness. Though I do not focus on the topic in the paper, the concept of the self can be a rich resource for contemplating the nature of agency, free will, and responsibility, especially in the context of mental illness, thus explicitly connecting psychiatry to other fields in the humanities such as anthropology, law, and politics – if we are to fathom the complexity of mental disorders in the lives of individuals, communities, and the cultures, we must use the resources offered in these fields of study.

In the paper, I raise and respond to two challenges inherent in the presupposition that the self is not empirically tractable and its use will hinder psychiatry’s goal to be scientific.

The first is the question of how psychiatry can meet its aspirations to be a scientific discipline. I respond by proposing that psychiatry, very much like other special sciences, such as economics or biology, should be considered a model-building science. Different objects of inquiry, including the self, the mental disorder construct, or the brain, can be represented and studied using scientific models, thus making complex real-world phenomena empirically tractable. These models can be used to accomplish scientific goals, such as explanations of and interventions in mental disorders.

The second challenge is whether the self is fit for empirical investigation. In response, I offer an empirically tractable model of the self, i.e., the multitudinous self, and explain how it can provide insight into and contribute to our understanding of mental disorders. While a fractured engagement with different parts of the self, e.g., auto-biographical memory, is fruitful, there is virtue in researching the self as a whole, because what happens in one component affects another component – and the entire self-system. In other words, an integrated understanding of the different parts of the self is necessary to fathom the complexity of mental disorders. To illustrate this, I focus on addiction (for a detailed account of my approach to addiction see Tekin 2017a; Tekin, Flanagan, Graham 2017).

The overall goal of my research is to illustrate that we cannot theorize psychopathology by sidestepping the self that is the subject of mental disorders, and a philosophical account of the self is incomplete without including psychopathology. I call for methodological alterations in psychiatric research on and treatment of mental disorders; there is much to be learned from the multidisciplinary sciences of the mind, feminist philosophy, and the memoirs of psychopathology. My hope is that my research program will influence philosophers, bioethicists, psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists, facilitating the development of valuable inquiry into mental disorders.

Works cited:

Bechtel, W. 2008. Mental mechanisms: Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. London: Routledge.

Jopling, D. 2000. Self-knowledge and the self. New York: Routledge University Press.

Neisser, U. 1988. Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology, 1, 35–59.

Tekin, Ş. 2017a (In press). Brain Mechanisms and the Disease Model of Addiction: Is it Really the Whole Story of the Addicted Self? A philosophical-skeptical perspective. In The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Science of Addiction, Pickard, H. and Ahmed, S. eds. Routledge University Press.

Tekin, Ş. 2017b. The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry. Synthese. DOI.10.1007/s11229-017- 1324-0.

Tekin, Ş., and Mosko, M. 2015. Hyponarrativity and Context-Specific Limitations of the DSM-5. Public Affairs Quarterly, Volume 29, No: 1, 111-136.

Tekin, Ş. 2015. Against Hyponarrating Grief: Incompatible Research and Treatment Interests in the DSM-5. The DSM-5 in Perspective: Philosophical Reflections on the Psychiatric Babel, P. Singy and S. Demazeux, eds., History, Philosophy and the Theory of the Life Sciences Series, Volume 10, Springer Press, 179-197.

Tekin, Ş. 2014b. The Missing Self in Hacking’s Looping Effects. Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds, H. Kincaid and J. A. Sullivan, eds., MIT Press, 227–256.

Tekin, Ş. 2014a. Self-insight in the Time of Mood Disorders: After the Diagnosis, Beyond the Treatment. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology, 21 (2), 139-155.

Tekin, Ş., Flanagan, O.J., Graham, G. 2017. Against the Drug Cure Model: Addiction, Identity, Pharmaceuticals. In Anthology on Pharmaceuticals, Ho, D., ed., Springer Press.






Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Race Talk, Justice, and Self-Respect: A Brief Analysis of Rachel Dolezal

Meena Krishnamurthy

Rachel Dolezal was president of her local NAACP and chair of a municipal police oversight commission. She went to Howard University, a historically black University, and was given a scholarship to do an MFA in fine arts based on her portraits of African Americans. She is also married to an African-American man and has an African-American son. She has adopted “black” cultural practices such as wearing her hair in box braids. As a college instructor, she also educated people about African-American history and contemporary political matters. Dolezal has long referred to herself as “black”. However, according to her family, she should be referred to as “white”. Dolezal’s parents told local media outlets that their daughter’s ancestry was, largely, Czech, Swedish, and German. Their revelation came soon after Dolezal reported a racially motivated hate crime.

Dolezal’s case is philosophically fascinating. It raises questions about the racial terms that we should use to talk about Dolezal; in particular, should we refer to her as “black”? As the current popular discussion of her case and philosophical discussions of race illustrate, ordinary language makes use of a variety of concepts of race. Some are based on objective (mind-independent) facts and others are based on subjective (mind-dependent) facts.

One objective concept of race that is implicitly appealed to in many of the current discussions is ancestral. To be black Dolezal must have (recent) sub-Saharan African ancestry. On this view, Dolezal ought not be referred to as “black” because her recent ancestors are not from sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

Another objective concept of race is behavioural. On this view, an individual’s race depends on whether she engages in certain behavior, behavior that is typically associated with a specific ancestry. Some, including Dolezal herself, have suggested that Dolezal is “black” because she engages in “black” behavior. For example, she wears certain hairstyles and clothing, behaviour that is typically associated with people who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. She is also an instructor of African American studies and has shown a deep commitment to promoting “black” causes through her teaching and participation in the NAACP. On this view, Dolezal ought to be referred to as “black”.

On a first-person subjective concept of race, race depends on first-person mind dependent facts. This concept depends on facts about an individual’s feelings and views about her own race. On this view, self-identification is what matters. Dolezal states explicitly that she perceives herself as being “black” (largely because of the cultural practices that she engages in) so she ought to be referred to as “black”.

There is also the third-person subjective concept of race. On this concept, an individuals’ race depends on facts about whether other individuals perceive or identify her as being of a particular race. We can refer to Dolezal as “black” so long as she is “perceived” by others as having sub-Saharan African ancestry, “perceived” as having the visible features of black individuals, and/or as engaging in the relevant behaviour. What matters most is the perceptions of “insiders”, that is, the perceptions of those who are already perceived as being members of the “black” community. Initially, many people in the black community – including members of the NAACP – perceived Dolezal as being black. This changed, however, after her parents’ revelation. She is no longer perceived as being black by many members of the black community, including members of the NAACP. She ought not be referred to as “black”, on this view.

As this brief overview demonstrates, there are many concepts of race that are available to us and that have been appealed to in current discussions of Dolezal. This raises the question, which, if any, of these concepts of race should we use or appeal to when we refer to Dolezal? I will argue that, in contexts where such considerations are relevant, such as the public sphere, political considerations of justice ought to be given priority. They trump, so to speak, when it comes to concept selection in the public realm. Dolezal, as the president of her local NAACP, chairwoman of a municipal police oversight committee, and now celebrity of the moment, is a public figure and political factors are of central importance. So, in asking whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, we have to ask ourselves, would doing so be consistent with and express a commitment to justice in the United States?

As John Rawls argues, a just society is one that ensures that each individual, black or white, can participate in that society while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect, that is, a secure sense of her equal worth. Referring to Dolezal as “black” is not consistent with the demands of self-respect or a just society.

If society broadly accepts the practice of referring to Dolezal as “black,” this would work to socially erase or make invisible the racial privilege that Dolezal experiences as someone who does not suffer from the downstream and long lasting effects of slavery. It would express the shared public sentiment that the national political history of racial oppression and the resulting differences in power can simply be cast away whenever a person of racial privilege desires to do so, for personal benefit or otherwise. Referring to Dolezal as “black”, would fail to publicly express respect for properly “black” people by failing to express an equal valuing and acknowledgment of the lived experiences and realities that properly “black” people experience. It would suggest that they and their experiences do not matter. Because of this, it is difficult for other properly “black” individuals to participate in a society that refers to Dolezal as “black” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect. In short, referring to Dolezal as “black” is inconsistent with political values of self-respect and, in turn, is inconsistent with the demands of justice. We ought not refer to Professor Dolezal as “black”.

On what basis should we refer to people as “black”? When political considerations of self-respect and justice are taken into consideration, the ancestral concept of race ought to take linguistic priority in the public sphere. People who have sub-Saharan African ancestry are properly referred to as “black”. Ancestry is the appropriate basis for referring to people as “black” because it tracks politically relevant considerations such as oppression and slavery (historical political injustices), which are considerations that ought to be given weight to and taken into consideration when interacting with others in the public sphere. This is what self-respect and a just society require.

However, a just society requires that we respect not only black people, but white people too. If Dolezal self-identifies as “black” isn’t that at least some reason to refer to her as “black”? Wouldn’t not referring her to as “black” suggest that her own views and feelings about herself are unimportant, that they lack value? Wouldn’t it suggest that her own views about her history and participation in black culture and social movements, over the last ten years, are insignificant? Wouldn’t it, in turn, be difficult for Dolezal to participate in a society that refers to her as “white” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect? The potentially surprising answer is that yes, it would be difficult for Dolezal and those like her to participate in such a society.

This suggests that, for reasons of justice, we may need to accommodate, in ordinary language, concepts of race that place emphasis on self-identification. For reasons of self-respect, the term “black” ought to be reserved for those who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. However, a new or different set of terms could be used to refer to those who merely self-identify as black. For example, some of have suggested the use of the term “trans-black.” Indeed, Dolezal herself uses this term to describe herself. Use of these types of terms would express that even those, who lack the relevant ancestry, but still self-identify as “black” are “black” in some sense. This would allow people such as Dolezal to participate in society while also maintaining a sense of self-respect.

There is some precedent for the use of these types of terms in regards to race. In India, the term “anglo-Indian” was historically used to refer to people who were not ancestrally Indian. They were typically of British ancestry, but were born in India, lived in and worked in India for many years (during the time of the British Raj), and often engaged in Indian cultural practices, such as language, dress, and food habits, among other things. We could similarly use a new and different set of terms to describe those who are not ancestrally black but self-identify as black. [2]

However, in order for “black” individuals to maintain a secure sense of self-respect, it must also be the case that similar terms exist for “black” individuals who self-identify as “white.” Historical precedence does exist. Consider the terms “oreo” and “coconut.” It is important to note that these are pejorative terms. They are insults that are used to refer to people who are, respectively, perceived as being black or brown in appearance and as having the relevant ancestral heritage but as acting in ways that are typically attributed to white people. The fact that there are terms to describe black and brown people who are identified as “white” or who self-identify as “white” but are used as insults is telling. It suggests that, even if black and brown people (in the ancestral sense) are identified – by themselves or others – as “white”, it is not considered morally acceptable to be identified in such a way.

In short, if white people like Dolezal are the only ones who can have access to morally neutral terms (or morally estimable terms) to talk about their chosen racial identity, then justice would not be served. The practice would be undermining of the self-respect of those who are excluded, namely, of black and brown individuals. Ultimately, as the episode “B.A.N.” from the FX show Atlanta highlights (see below), racial equity on this matter is simply not possible now and may never be. And, until it is possible, the Rachel Dolezals of the world may be stuck with the term “white” to talk about them themselves.


[1] Note that one this view race is also a third-person subjective concept. The fact that certain phenomena (physical, biological, and geographical) are conceived of as being of significance is a matter of social practice – it is a social fact – which, in turn, depends on the collective mental states or intentions of those who participate in the practice.

[2] In a similar, vein, Nell Irvin Painter has recently suggested that we need new terms for white allies, that is, ancestrally white people who wish to abolish white privilege. He suggested that we use the term “abolitionists” for such individuals, referencing “black” and “white” individuals “who joined together as ‘abolitionists’ to bring down American slavery in the 19th century.” See Nell Irwin Painter, “What is Whitness?”, New York Times, June 21, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/sunday/what-is-whiteness.html?_r=0

Featured Philosopher: Elizabeth Scarbrough


Elizabeth Scarbrough is a lecturer at Florida International University. She received her BA from Oberlin College, MA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and PhD from the University of Washington (2015). Her research interests revolve around the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (“Visiting the Ruins of Detroit: Exploitation or Cultural Tourism”) and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism ( “Unimagined Beauty”). More information about her can be found at elizabethscarbrough.com.

War and Ruins

Elizabeth Scarbrough

I would like to first thank Meena for curating this blog and for inviting me to share some of my work. I hope to provide a few informal reflections about the importance of architectural ruins. I welcome all comments and thoughts.


As a kid, I was an unabashed American tourist. I remember climbing the largest pyramid of Chichen Itza when I was 12 years’ old (called “El Castillo” by the Spanish, and “the Pyramid of Kukulcan” by the Mayans), admiring the view at the top and wondering what it must have been like to see a similar view a thousand years before. Thus began my fascination with ruins. I visited Chichen Itza before it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and well before it was roped off to climbers. The effect of roughly a million tourists per year climbing the structure eventually took its toll, and the decision to close the pyramid to climbing was made both to preserve the structure and to protect visitors from (sometimes fatal) accidents.

Ruins, like Chichen Itza, are popular tourist sites for numerous reasons. Ruins are evocative structures, and we value them in different ways for the various things they mean to us. Ruins can be aesthetically appreciated, but they are also valued for their historical importance, what they symbolize to different cultures and communities, and as lucrative objects, i.e., for tourism.

My research has focused on how we aesthetically engage with ruins and how this aesthetic engagement might buttress ethical arguments for historic preservation. I’ve also written on how ruin tourism (especially photographic tours of ‘ruin porn’) can exploit local populations. I believe that ruins are important objects of aesthetic appreciation due in part to the variety of modes of appreciation one might employ in engaging with them: one might use them as props to help imagine long-ago people, as beautiful architectural marvels, as parts of a picturesque landscape, or as potent elicitors of the sublime and memento mori. We best appreciate ruins when we address a ruin’s tripartite nature—i.e., ruins are windows into the past, they display unplanned beauty in the present, and they help us imagine the future. Ruins simultaneously help us think about our human ancestors, our current experience, and what will be. In my view, the tripartite nature of ruins should inform how we appreciate and conserve ruins. I argue for a pluralist model for the aesthetic appreciation of ruins, one that respects multiple narratives. All of these ways of engaging with ruins (e.g., imaginative reconstruction, as elicitors of the sublime, and as memento mori) can be ampliative, though they might be incompatible in a particular moment.

Tourists marvel at structures like Chichen Itza in part because they stand the test of time, outlasting the rise and fall of civilizations. However, today an increasing number of ancient ruins have been damaged or completely destroyed by acts of war. In 2001 the Taliban struck a major blow to cultural heritage by blasting the Bamiyan Buddhas out of existence. These gigantic likenesses of the Buddha had been carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan in the 4th and 5th century. They were not easy to destroy (as evidenced by video evidence of the destruction). This direct targeting of cultural property might change our attitudes toward conservation practices. Francesco Bandarin, the UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, states, “Deliberate destruction has created a new context. At the time, Bamiyan was an exceptional case.”[1] Unfortunately, since then, ISIL has continued the Taliban’s destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Particularly heart wrenching were images showing the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra on August 30th, 2015. The Syrian Army recently retook the area on March 2, 2017, and hope remains for a 2016 plan to resurrect the Temple of Bel.

Bandarin’s comments notwithstanding, the destruction of cultural property in times of war is not new. For example, the Mỹ Sơn Archaeological Sanctuary, in the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam was irreparably damaged by the American War in the 1960s. Mỹ Sơn is the foremost Champa archaeological site, and the largest archaeological site in Việt Nam. At the time of its ‘rediscovery’ in 1898, the site had 71 relics comprising 14 architectural grouping built successively from the late fourth/fifth centuries until the thirteenth/fourteenth centuries. Unlike similar temple structures in Indochina (such as Angkor Wat), Mỹ Sơn’s iconography remained distinctly Hindu. The Champa ruins at Mỹ Sơn primarily consist of brick temple towers called kalans; a kalan is a corbel structure composed of bricks that are stacked in a slightly offset manner.

In August of 1969, a bomb dropped by an American B52 bomber struck Mỹ Sơn, reducing its largest kalan (A1) to heaps of unrecognizable rubble. In 1970, under intense international pressure, President Nixon agreed to spare Mỹ Sơn from further attacks. After the war, the Vietnamese government de-mined Mỹ Sơn so that restoration work could commence. This effort took the lives of nine workers and inflicted serious injury on eleven others. In 1999 UNESCO deemed Mỹ Sơn a World Heritage Site.[2] Ultimately, while other temples at Mỹ Sơn were reconstructed, A1 was left alone. What remains of the A1 kalan is part of an altar and the bomb crater. A1 thus serves as a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of modern war.

The conservation of ruins requires tough decisions. Even with those ruins that have not been touched by war (such as Chichen Itza) conservationists have to balance competing interests of access and preservation. The balance is even more difficult to strike for ruins whose architectural integrity has been altered by war. When ancient ruins are reduced to rubble, either as collateral damage (e.g., the A1 temple at Mỹ Sơn) or as direct targets of warfare (e.g., the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and the Bamiyan Buddhas), local communities have to decide whether or not to reconstruct the ruin, and how to frame the destruction.

Ruins are objects in flux – they are objects in the process of decay and as such, their aesthetic foci can be moving targets. Their changing characters (and characteristics) can lead to shifting valuation practices. The conservation community decided not to reconstruct the A1 kalan at Mỹ Sơn, and I believe this was the right decision. What remains is the bomb crater – a ghost of a ruin.[3] An important question conservationist ought to ask themselves is what story does this site tell? Ruins are valued in part because they evoke the importance of age-value, the endurance of human effort through time. This is no longer true for A1, which stood inviolate for a thousand years only to be inexorably changed in a matter of seconds. The crater at A1 speaks to the wanton destruction of historic sites like these to make some political point. This is just one story A1 tells, but it is an important one in my view.

Many ruins have a mournful quality and A1 is no exception. We might mourn the loss of the complete architectural structure, we might grieve and wax nostalgic for the loss of a culture (i.e., the Champa culture), or we might lament the loss of time. Confronted by the majesty and tragedy of A1, we mourn the myriad costs of war. I believe this narrative must be preserved and should be foregrounded.[4] Figuring out what narratives to tell and which ones should be foregrounded is difficult work that must include input from disparate stakeholders.

We bring our knowledge to bear on our aesthetic experiences. Ruins have a life span. The A1 kalan became a ruin, not because of damage caused naturally by the passage of time, erosion, or overgrowth of plants and trees, but rather because of damage caused by my nation’s government in an arguably unjust act of war. If A1 looked perceptually identical, yet had decayed due to “natural” forces, such as time and water damage, our aesthetic engagement with the kalan could be altered. The fact that it was destroyed by war is relevant to our aesthetic interpretation and appraisal. Allowing it to remain unreconstructed speaks to this mournful quality and foregrounds a narrative about war and destruction of cultural property. If there were no other kalans like A1, perhaps we would have good reasons to reconstruct it. The fact that is one kalan among many in the archaeological sanctuary gives us permission to allow it to ruinate and enjoy the aesthetic qualities ruination brings.

Unlike A1, there are no duplicate/similar Bamiyan Buddhas or Temple of Bel. Those losses are thus arguably far more tragic.

While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for conservation of ruins impacted by war, I believe there are good aesthetic and political reasons to allow such sites to remain in their post-bombed state. The empty niches where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood are aesthetically powerful. As columnist Roger Cohen wrote, “Absence speaks, shames, reminds.”[5] The bombed A1 also speaks, shames, and reminds, and unfortunately so, too, will the Temple of Bel. While acts of war might have turned these ruins (and their tripartite aesthetic foci) into memorials, and thereby change how we engage with them, we should not abandon war-torn ruins as a complete loss.

[1] Luke, Ben. “Ruin or Rebuild? Conserving Heritage in An Age of Terrorism.” The Art Newspaper (January 2017: Accessed January 28, 2017: http://theartnewspaper.com/features/ruin-or-rebuild-conserving-heritage-in-an-age-of-terrorism/

[2] UNESCO determined that the Mỹ Sơn temple complex satisfies two criteria for world heritage status (out of ten), specifically criterion two and criterion three: 

Criterion (ii): The Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent.

Criterion (iii): The Champa Kingdom was an important phenomenon in the political and cultural history of South – East Asia, vividly illustrated by the ruins of Mỹ Sơn.

[3] ‘Architectural Ghost” is a term coined by Jeanette Bicknell. See: Bicknell, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72 (4): 435-441 (2014).

[4] For recent work on the narrative element of cultural heritage, see Mattes, Erich Hatala, “The Ethics of Historic Preservation,” Philosophy Compass, 11 (12): 786-794 (December 2016).

[5] Cohen, Roger. “Bamiyan’s Buddhas revisited,” New York Times, October 28, 2007.

Featured Philosopher: Shen-yi Liao


Shen-yi Liao is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He was a Marie Curie Fellow at University of Leeds, an Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a PhD student at University of Michigan, and a BA student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is Taiwanese. He has published on the cognitive science of imagination, experimental methods in philosophy, and relationships between morality and aesthetics. His other research and teaching interests include philosophy of race and classical Chinese philosophy. His website is liao.shen-yi.org.

Oppressive Statues

Shen-yi Liao


In this picture, a Chiang Kai-shek statue is dressed up as Jason Voorhees, the serial killer from Friday the 13th movies: like Jason, it is wearing a mask and wielding a (handmade) machete. Just in case you missed the reference, the installation artists have helpfully hung a big sign over the statue that said “serial killer Chiang Jason”.

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) was a murderous dictator. He ordered the February 28 Massacre, in which 10000-50000 Taiwanese people were killed by the colonial Republic of China forces. In the White Terror period that followed, from 1949 to 1987, many more Taiwanese people were imprisoned, executed, or disappeared. Yet today, statues of Chiang Kai-shek remain pervasive in Taiwan. You can find them in parks, in schools, and in major tourist sites like the memorial hall that bears his name.

In recent years, there is a nascent movement to turn Chiang Kai-shek statues into installation artworks around February 28th. (The photo above, and many others, can be found at this Facebook group.) Some installations are serious, and others are whimsical. Some involve splashes of paint, some involves papers of victims’ names, and others involve even more elaborate props. By some measures, the movement is successful. Some municipalities have chosen to remove Chiang Kai-shek statues. And there is now increased police protection of prominent statues around historically significant dates.

There continues to be controversy about what should be done with Chiang Kai-shek statues in Taiwan. In this respect, they are not unique. Similar controversies remain regarding the John C. Calhoun monument in Charleston and Cecil Rhodes statues in South Africa and Oxford. In each case, the controversy has centered on the question of whether the statues should be removed or preserved. In Taiwan, the removalists argue that the statues must go because they are symbols of authoritarianism and the preservationists argue that the statues must stay because they are markers of history. Analogous arguments have been made with the other statues too.

I think the wrong question is being asked. The options of removal or preservation are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. To really understand what we might do with these statues, we need to ask more fundamental questions about what they are and what they do. My answer, to preview, is that these statues are oppressive things that structure our thoughts and behaviors, and in doing so, they set forth norms about which responses to the statues are permissible and which responses are not.

* * *

To think about what oppressive things are, we need to take a small detour. Around this time last year, I traveled to Miami to give a talk and stayed at a little bungalow that I rented via Airbnb. After a long flight, I wanted to take a warm shower before exploring the town for the evening. So I turned the shower on, but it was cold. I turned the left-hand knob all the way up and the right-hand knob all the way down, but it was still cold. I never got my warm shower that evening. The next day, only by accident did I figure out why: against the norm, whoever built this little bungalow had connected the hot water to the right-hand knob and the cold water to the left-hand knob.

This is a mundane example, but it also illustrates the ways in which material things in our lived environments can structure our patterns of thoughts and behaviors. In this case, the shower knobs structured my thoughts and behaviors in (at least) three ways. First, it served as a prompt for associative thinking. Unconsciously and automatically, I associated the left-hand knob with hot water and the right-hand knob with cold water. Second, it served as a guide for elaborative and imaginative thinking. When the shower came out cold, I thought to change that by turning the left-hand knob up even more. In fact, I did not even imagine the possibility that the left-hand knob could be connected to cold water. Third, it served as a motivator for behavior. I took the actions that naturally followed my automatic and deliberate thoughts.

There is an especially interesting class of material things that structure our patterns of thoughts and behaviors in congruence with systems of oppression. Call them oppressive things. Chiang Kai-shek statues are good examples.

Signs of their oppressive nature can be found in the guidelines for their construction. Like other such statues, they are not intended to be neutral historical representations of a person. Instead, as the guideline states, they are sculpted to show Chiang Kai-shek’s “spirit of compassion, wisdom, courage, determination, and optimism”. They are also more than statues of a person. Given the social and historical context in which the “mainland Chinese” (waishengren) exerted violent domination over the “Taiwanese” (benshengren), these statues also function as physical anchors of that oppression.

These oppressive things demand people in their presence to associate Chiang Kai-shek and his oppression with compassion and courage. In turn, the statues also function as guides for mandated re-imaginings of Chiang Kai-shek and of Taiwanese history. And, of course, these ways of thinking are intended to encourage behaviors of honor and respect. The official authorization of these statues’ physical presence adds another dimension to their impact: they do not merely structure particular patterns of thoughts and behaviors, they are meant to normalize them.

* * *

We can also think about what oppressive things do by exploring an analogy between language and art. A central insight of speech act theory is that words do not merely represent, they also do things. As mentioned, oppressive things such as Chiang Kai-shek statues also do more than just represent. In particular, qua public statues, they not only encourage some behaviors like honor and respect, they also prohibit other behaviors.

In a series of papers, Mary Kate McGowan has honed in on a kind of speech act called the exercitive, which enacts permissibility facts. Consider one of her examples. A restaurant owner in the segregated South puts up a sign in his restaurant that says “Whites Only”. In doing so, he does not merely represent the racial composition of his clientele, he also makes it the case that non-whites are not permitted to enter his restaurant. In this example, the sign has this force partly because the permissibility facts it enacts are in congruence with racial oppression in the US.

Oppressive things also enact permissibility facts. Even if you do not judge Chiang Kai-shek to be worthy of honor and respect, in the statues’ presence you must behave as if you do. You are not permitted to act disrespectfully toward the statue. For example, you cannot place a mask over its face, put a machete in its hand, and label it “serial killer Chiang Jason”. Indeed, as mentioned, Chiang Kai-shek statues demand so much honor and respect that police protections are necessary to preempt such behaviors.

People do things with words, even if the words are not their own. By letting the “Whites Only” sign stand, the patrons of the racist restaurant are consenting to, and perhaps socially sanctioning, the permissibility facts that the “Whites Only” sign enacts. Similarly, by letting oppressive things stand, we also seem to be consenting to, and perhaps socially sanctioning, the permissibility facts that they enact.

* * *

Despite some differences, there are obvious similarities between the oppressive statues and institutions named after dead racists. In writing about the latter, Regina Rini has argued that to answer the question of should we rename institutions that honor dead racists, we need not ask for comprehensive judgments of the dead racists’ moral character; rather, we need to only ask ourselves whether the continuing uses of the dead racists’ names reflect our values.

I think Rini’s insight applies to oppressive things too. We need not be asked to make comprehensive judgments about the moral characters of the people represented. Instead, we need to only ask ourselves whether we want to continue to encourage particular patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and to continue to enact particular permissibility facts.

Suppose we decide that we do not, removal is not the only option. There are other ways of changing the thoughts and behaviors that Chiang Kai-shek statues encourage and the permissibility facts that they enact. For example, we as a democracy might open them up as materials for installation artworks that critically examine Chiang Kai-shek or his oppression. In doing so, the statues can remain markers of history—not only of the past, but also of our present.

Featured Philosopher: Jason D’Cruz

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Jason D’Cruz is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University at Albany, State University of New York. During Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 he is a visiting scholar (chercheur invité) at the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRE) at Université de Montréal, where he is writing a book on trust and distrust. He is giving a colloquium paper entitled “The Moral Stakes of Distrust” at the upcoming APA Pacific Meeting in Seattle on April 14.

His work in ethics and moral psychology focuses on the topics of trust, promising, rationalization, and self-deception. His recent work appears in EthicsPhilosophical PsychologyRatio, the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

You can find links to his work at his website.

Reasons to Renounce Distrust

Jason D’Cruz

What are good epistemic reasons to distrust a person? How do these reasons square with moral reasons to give someone the benefit of the doubt? When do we have moral reason to renounce distrust, and what does renouncing distrust amount to if feelings of distrust are not under a person’s control? These are the issues that guide my present research and that keep me up at night. Rather than attempt to canvass answers in this blog post, my aim is to convince you of the moral urgency and of the philosophical interest of the questions.

Here’s a real-life case that has stuck with me.

When Dr. Cross boarded Delta flight 945 from Detroit to Minneapolis last October, she confronted a situation where her skills as a physician would be of vital use, but where her offer of assistance would be declined. A Washington Post story on the incident describes the circumstance with economy: “Unconscious man on plane. Wife screaming. Doctor is two rows away. What happens next? Emergency care is delayed because flight attendant doesn’t believe black woman is a doctor. True story.” In a Facebook post that subsequently went viral, Cross relates how her offer of help was met with the patronizing response, ‘Oh no, sweetie put ur hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.”

Cross’s story is an object lesson in the power of distrust to insult. Several features of the story explain the fittingness of Cross’s feelings of insult: the condescending tone of the flight attendant (“sweetie”); the assumption that Cross couldn’t be a “real” doctor; the further the presumption that either Cross was not speaking honestly when she described her credentials, or else, perhaps worse, that she was not competent to discern her own status as a physician.

I propose that this kind of interaction, and many others like it, are of normative consequence that is presently under-appreciated by moral philosophers. Unwarranted distrust that is predicated on prejudice is pervasive phenomenon whose moral complexity theorists have yet to reckon fully with. If we reflect as deeply as we should, cases like this call on us to consider the high moral stakes of distrust, and in particular, to pay attention to the consequence of typically non-deliberative and spontaneous behavior that is expressive of attitudes and emotions constitutive of fearful distrust.

Here’s another case that has stuck with me. In a 1990 NYTimes op-ed, later re-written for Ebony, the philosopher Laurence Thomas relates with bitter irony that, “At times, I have looked over my shoulder expecting to see the danger to which a White was reacting, only to have it dawn on me that I was the menace.” Thomas argues that black men rarely enjoy the “public trust […] no matter how much their deportment or attire conform to the traditional standards of well-off White males.” To enjoy the public trust means “to have strangers regard one as a morally decent person in a variety of contexts.” Distrust of black men is rooted in a fear that “goes well beyond the pale of rationality” and eats away at a person’s capacity for trustworthiness:

Thus the sear of distrust festers and becomes the fountainhead of low self- esteem and self-hate. Indeed, to paraphrase the venerable Apostle Paul, those who would do right find that they cannot. This should come as no surprise, however. For it is rare for anyone to live morally without the right sort of moral and social affirmation. And to ask this of Blacks is to ask what is very nearly psychologically impossible.

Thomas picks out a feature of unjust distrust that is particularly troubling: distrust, irrational or not, has a tendency to be self-confirming. Much recent empirically-informed work in virtue ethics has come around to Thomas’s view that in order for virtue to take root and thrive, it must find social support. (Ryan Preston-Roedder’s “Faith in Humanity” (2013) give a good overview). Maria Merritt (2009) points out that even Aristotle himself thought that virtuous character needs support from social relationships. Virtues such as justice, liberality, magnificence, pride, due ambition, friendliness, and good temper all require for their practice “a social world inhabited by a community of peers.” (32) Aristotle’s own conception of virtue is highly sensitive to concerns of honor. As Thomas shows, acts that signal distrust can be deeply dishonoring. My view is that we sometimes have reason to abjure distrust because we have reason to mitigate the risk of dishonoring a person unjustly.

Contemporary philosophers working on trust have focused their attention on hazards of mislaid trust, which they rightly point out can be confidence shaking, demeaning, and even humiliating. To be let down in one’s expectations is bad enough. To be made a fool of adds insult to injury, and can damage a person’s ability to trust in the future. Trust without due caution is reckless. On the other hand, distrust without warrant (distrust that fails to target incompetence or ill will or dishonesty) is liable to insult, demean, and disempower, planting the seeds of alienation expressed in behavior that does warrant distrust. As a result, distrusting others exposes us to a kind of moral risk.

To arrive at an understanding of what it might mean to disavow distrust I draw attention in my work to distrust’s practical aspect. In my view, distrust is essentially a protective stance that responds to the perceived threat of another person’s ill will, lack of integrity, or incompetence. I think it’s useful to model distrust as having a structure that is isomorphic to that of entrusting rather than to that of trust.

Entrusting is a three-place relation: X entrusts g to Y, where g is some good. Entrusting does not involve the expectation of any particular action on the part of Y. Rather, X puts some cared-for object in Y’s hands, on the assumption that Y will not do it harm. Distrust is best understood as a refusal to entrust or a withdrawal from reliance. My working model is that distrust is an affectively-loaded withdrawal from or wished-for withdrawal from exposure to the vulnerability of reliance, on the basis of a belief or construal of the distrusted party as malevolent and/or as incompetent and/or as lacking integrity.

One upshot of thinking about distrust in this way is that distrusting a person does not require the expectation that they will act in a particular way or fail at a particular task. Rather, it consists in the refusal to expose oneself to the hazard of reliance. The refusal to entrust need not be grounded in any confident belief; mere skepticism or suspicion is sufficient.

Attention to the practical aspect of distrust helps to uncover what it might mean to renounce trust, and how it might be possible to renounce distrust while still withholding trust. My proposal is that, when we have moral reason to renounce distrust, such renunciation takes the form of entrusting others with things that are valuable to us. To be sure, when we entrust in this way we may continue to feel fear and to continue to harbor suspicion. And, needless to say, risk is unavoidable when we entrust in the face of incomplete information. But by entrusting we give others the opportunity to respond in ways that show trustworthiness. And it is the experience of this response that enables those who renounce distrust also to overcome it.