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.



Featured Philosopher: Alexus McLeod

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Alexus McLeod is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Asian/Asian-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He works in Comparative Philosophy broadly, with specific interests in the Chinese, Indian, and Mesoamerican philosophical traditions. Recent publications include Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time (Lexington), Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach (Rowman and Littlefield International), Astronomy in the Ancient World (Springer) and Understanding Asian Philosophy (Bloomsbury). He is also editor of the Critical Inquries in Comparative Philosophy book series (Rowman and Littlefield International). He is currently working on a book on madness and self-cultivation in early China, and a project on truth in Indian Philosophy. He considers himself a philosophical explorer, in the spirit of his favorite fictional explorer (pictured on the tie in this photo).

Comparative Philosophy in an Age of Cultural Chauvinism (or “The Art of Traveling Without Traveling”)

Alexus McLeod

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain, from The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress

My philosophical work is, to put it mildly, all over the map. I work on numerous different philosophical traditions (most recently the Chinese, Mesoamerican, Greek, and Indian traditions), and on numerous different philosophical issues within those traditions. I don’t think any of my books has covered philosophical terrain anywhere close to that of any of the others, and I don’t anticipate this changing anytime soon. In a field like our own that rewards (relatively) narrow specialization, it has been difficult to make my way like this, but somehow I have. I keep writing this stuff and people keep publishing it, and by the grace of God, I have a job as well. What I’ve never offered in any of my work yet, however, is an explanation of why I insist on working this way, hopping over so many area and disciplinary boundaries. There is purpose behind my philosophical wandering. I’d like to explain at least a little of this here, and why I think the field needs at least a few of us doing this kind of thing.

I am a huge fan of travel shows. I love watching others travel between continents, seeing historic sites, meeting people, and learning about different cultures across the globe. Indeed, I discovered the first part of the Mark Twain quote that opens this post though my favorite travel show, Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope, which closes each episode with the quote. It is a powerful statement of the importance of travel. Though Mark Twain was talking specifically about the kind of physical travel that requires long journeys over many miles, travel can happen in a variety of ways. It does not need to be the kind of physical “get up and go” trekking that requires enough free time and either a job that provides it or a large enough bank account. Anyone can travel. The key is that it involves leaving one’s “little corner,” as Mark Twain called it, and wandering into unfamiliar places. In fact, even though I personally tend to physically travel very little these days (at least in comparison to most philosophers I know), in part because I loathe transit, I engage in different kind of travel, from the armchair. Call it the art of traveling without traveling (I have a soft spot for Daoist descriptions).

Much about my own background makes this kind of travel natural for me. Even though I grew up within a pretty small range, I had the good fortune of growing up in one of the most international and cosmopolitan cities in the world, Washington, DC. One could walk a mile in any direction and find people who spoke many different languages, from all over the world. You didn’t have to globetrot to see the world, because everyone was already there. My own background is relatively diverse—I am the son of a mainly Irish-American woman from the Northeast and an African-American man from the Deep South. I married the daughter of a diplomat from India, who has herself lived in various places around the globe. It was in fact she who first got me interested in Chinese, as she’d lived in Beijing for some time and convinced me to take a course in Mandarin with her when we were undergrads. Cultural diversity has always been a central part of my own life, even though, like Socrates, I tend to stick close to home.

Travel, to me, happens through exploring different places, whether those are the physical surroundings of a different nation on a different continent, or the intellectual heritage of a culture—its language, literature, and history. I studied a number of languages and cultures as an undergraduate, all without stepping foot in the lands of their origin. I studied Mandarin Chinese and then Classical Chinese long before I ever visited China, diving into the classic philosophical, religious, and historical texts. I did the same thing with a number of other languages and cultures. This study opened my eyes to all kinds of ways of thinking about the world that differed from those I knew. Some of them I found implausible, but the longer I have reflected on these texts and traditions, the more plausible I have come to find them. And not only that, I’ve found that they have shaped the ways I think and act. My “travel” through the world’s traditions has not only enriched my life as a whole, but has made me a better philosopher than I would have been without it.

The multiculturalism I discuss (if you want to call it that) was for me never associated with elitism or any other class consideration. I was never part of the “jet set.” I come from about as typical a “middle class” an American family as one can imagine, and most of the people I knew from around the world were not much different in terms of economic class. This is part of why it pains me today to hear the enemies of multiculturalism today proclaim that it is an ideology of a so-called “Davos class”, as if the rich and powerful are trying to force cultural diversity on the unwilling masses. This was never my experience. And part of what I aim to do with my work is create the conditions in philosophy for others to travel, to have the same kind of experiences I had growing up living in the midst of diversity, and then intellectually traveling.

The kind of intellectual travel I engaged in is easier today than it has ever been. One of the unique advantages we have today is the sheer wealth of information we have at our fingertips, and all around us. The world is more interconnected today than it has ever been. It is far easier to travel intellectually, in the sense of immersion in the cultural products of a distant people, than it was when I was starting out (and it was easy then!). Travel has never been easier, even for the physical travel-averse homebody like me. There are of course deep advantages of living in a cosmopolitan city like DC or NYC, but such travel is available to people living in less diverse areas as well.

Nonetheless, in recent years visceral and even violent reaction against the kind of multiculturalism I prize has arisen at home in my country and around the world. The reasons for this are complex, having partly to do with the association in the minds of some of cultural diversity with a certain rapacious economic ideology. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the kind of rhetoric that props up such reaction against multiculturalism can only be effective in the absence of widespread travel—whether physical or intellectual travel. Echoes of this broader cultural resistance to diversity can be found even in our own discipline of philosophy. Thus, when we ask why the world is sinking into the mire of nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry, we should also look to ourselves. Haven’t we understood Non-Western thought as an “optional other” through the years? And even now, don’t we still tend to consider the philosophical value of these traditions in terms of what they can do to advance the projects we are already engaged in?

I think the questions of whether a historical thinker or text from a Non-Western tradition is “interesting” or “important” or can “help us solve problems” are the wrong questions to be asking. What, after all, determines whether a philosopher is interesting? Part of the problem is that when we are provincial, our provinciality does not limit itself to the content we choose to engage with, but seeps into the very ways that we reason, and shapes our conceptions of what we find valuable. Are Mengzi, Dharmakirti, and Nezahualcoyotl important because they deal with problems we’re already inclined to think are important? This strikes me as similar to a person who says that he’s only going to go try the Salvadorean food cart if they have good food. It will be completely unsurprising when the insular non-Salvadorean concludes that it’s not good food because it doesn’t taste right, because they don’t have pizza and hamburgers and fries. One’s view of what counts as good food will be shaped by the communities one moves in, by what one is exposed to. Likewise, what one understands as a good argument, an apt intuition, or an important point, has much (but not everything of course) to do with what one is exposed to, with where one stands. We are deluding ourselves if we think there is some kind of universal and culturally transcendent standard for what is “important”, or even of proper reasoning. This is not to say that we should accept a radical postmodernist stance toward reasoning itself, but reasoning itself is always half-formed. There are no arguments without assumptions, intuitions, implicit valuations—including shared assumptions about just what constitutes good argument. One of the things I have been most struck by in my years of studying various philosophical traditions is just how different assumptions can be concerning all of the aspects of philosophical reasoning mentioned above. Even if we are right that there is One True Method (although, like Zhuangzi, I think we should run for the hills when anyone starts pontificating about the One True Anything), we cannot simply assume that we have it, when there are so many other alternatives out there.

Ultimately, my hope is that through intellectual travel we will form new ways of living, thinking, and speaking. My own aim is to contribute to the development of global philosophy, which is part of a larger project we might call “globalization”. Not the kind of globalization that looks to impose a single cultural standard on everyone, but the kind of globalization that involves mutual exchange and true fusion. True fusion does not involve the “land grab” of using parts of some traditions to achieve the purposes of another, rather it involves the transformation of multiple traditions into a new tradition that shares features of each. True fusion is not philosophical appropriation. Rather, it involves being open to the transformation of oneself in light of a mutual exchange. When a true fusion happens, there can no longer be an “us” and “them”, because “they” become “us”.

So when I’m asked (as I occasionally am), “is this all just about inclusion? Is it diversity just for the sake of diversity?” I answer emphatically—“yes!” Inclusion is critical. What we include as part of ourselves shapes how we view and reason about the world and our lives. It is no accident that those whose communities are most restrictive also have the most insular and impoverished worldviews. It is simply impossible to spend much time with others without being influenced by the ways they think and act, and without developing more expansive (and ultimately more adequate) worldviews. If we aim to understand universal concepts like truth, being, morality, and others, we can’t sit still in our “little corner of the earth.” We have to travel. We have to explore. Sic itur ad astra!

Featured Philosopher: Meena Dhanda

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Dr. Meena Dhanda is a Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton. She migrated from the Indian Punjab to the U.K. as a Commonwealth Scholar at Oxford University in 1987. She has published two books: a monograph, The Negotiation of Personal Identity (Saarbrüken: VDM Verlag, 2008) and Reservations for Women (ed.) (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008). From 2007, Meena has engaged in transdisciplinary studies connected with caste/race, publishing several papers including: ‘Punjabi Dalit Youth: Social Dynamics of Transitions in Identity’, (Contemporary South Asia, 2009); ‘Runaway Marriages: A Silent Revolution?’, (Economic and Political Weekly, 2012); ‘Certain Allegiances, Uncertain Identities: The Fraught Struggles of Dalits in Britain’ (Tracing the New Indian Diaspora, 2014); ‘Do only South Asians reclaim honour’? (‘Honour’ and Women’s Rights, 2014); ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism’ (Radical Philosophy, 2015). She has been an active member of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK for more than 25 years.

Doing Socially Engaged Philosophy

Meena Dhanda

[The following is a revised extract from two Keynotes presented at the Women and Minorities in Philosophy conference, University of Edinburgh, 21st April 2016 and the annual Ratio and 7th Experimental Philosophy as Applied Philosophy international conference, University of Reading, 24th April 2016. Many thanks to the organisers for the occasions to voice my views then, and now to Meena Krishnamurthy, for inviting me to publish on her blog.]

When I arrived from India in the U.K., I had assumed that caste was not likely to be an issue in the U.K. I was wrong. My awareness came from chance conversations with students. I also realised that there was little empirical work on caste in the U.K. I was intrigued that, despite the possibility of erasing caste identity and living as ‘equals’ in the U.K., South Asians seemed to maintain their caste enclaves. As a philosopher, it was a big step for me to find out through primary research what kind of caste awareness existed in the U.K. In 2007-8, a research award gave me the opportunity to work on a comparative pilot project interviewing young people in Wolverhampton as well as the Indian Punjab about caste-identity. From 2010-2012, the award of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship gave me further opportunity to engage with the South Asian Dalit communities in Wolverhampton and elsewhere. My initial interest in Untouchability (Dhanda 1993), caste-identity, inter-caste relations and caste-based prejudice, extended to understanding caste discrimination too.

The stories about caste prejudice I heard shocked me. Young Dalits told me that when friends discovered their caste, their behaviour towards them radically changed. They said that as professionals they would prefer to move away from residential areas of high South Asian concentration, because they did not want to face questions about their caste, questions that would inevitably be raised if they stayed within South Asian communities. All this was terribly disturbing. I learnt, that often young people experience caste labelling without having any framework within which to locate this denigration. They may get called a name, be insulted, or joked about, but they don’t understand: why? They may begin from a vague sense that there are divisions between South Asian groups, but sooner or later, especially by the time they are of marriageable age, a full-blown, birth-ascribed, caste-identity catches up. Even those who do not identify with their caste, ‘high’ or ‘low’ (and there are many such people) they too end up being identified by community members as belonging to a caste grouping. There are several caste-based organisations, U.K. charities, which have the purpose of protecting the social and cultural interests of certain caste groups. So, if someone says caste is dying in the U.K. we need to ask them when will this come to pass? Caste is not about to be to eliminated in the U.K. any time soon.

What is the link between the practice of caste, and the existence of caste discrimination? What must a responsible philosopher do about caste discrimination? Can some kinds of caste discrimination be lawful? If caste discrimination is to be eliminated, must we use the law, or address public opinion alone? Are these pragmatic considerations or are there matters of principle at stake here? These are questions that political philosophy ought to consider. There are real people, victims of caste discrimination, demanding that the law should be used to protect them. The law makers are dillydallying, under pressure from powerful lobbies resisting change.

In his Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, Hugh Lafollette (2003) notes that to say anything informative, we must make the effort to acquaint ourselves with the facts of the matter. ‘If we do not understand the way people act and the way our world works, we will lack a plausible standpoint from which rationally to evaluate current practices’ (2003:7) and the danger of ill-informed theorising is that the status quo will remain unchallenged. If we want to use ethical theorising to check biases, prejudices, and selfishness, then we must learn to understand how these biases work in the ‘real’ world of people.

If philosophy is taken as the activity of clarification, elaboration or invention of concepts, this activity takes place in the context of problem solving. We start from a given articulation of the problem, say for example, trenchant difference of opinion about the value of a practice (e.g. caste-based endogamy). To make a defensible judgment about the value of that practice, we will need first to understand what the practice means to respective practitioners. We will, therefore, need to gather ‘information’ about the variety of actual positions. For those who want its continuation, the practice may be expressed as definitive of a people’s identity, or seen as necessary to maintain continuity with tradition. It may also be defended as simply a matter of individual choice. For those who oppose that practice, it is equally necessary to their oppositional identity to expunge the practice from their lives. On endogamy, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote that caste causes a ‘division of labourers’ ‘graded one above the other’ (Ambedkar 1936/2002: 263); ‘[a] caste is an enclosed class’ and ‘endogamy is the only characteristic of caste’ (Ambedkar 1916). The defenders of endogamy differ with Ambedkar’s analysis of caste.

I took on a mediating role when setting up a face to face organised deliberation on the value and limits of legal measures against caste discrimination in Britain, specifically on the inclusion of ‘caste’ in the U.K. Equality Act 2010. For this task, I was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing together the fullest range of stakeholder organisations by the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as a part of the project Caste in Britain that I led from Sept 2013 – January 2014, concluding in two published reports (Dhanda et al 2014a and Dhanda et al 2014b). From the start of this project till today, it has been a challenge to maintain the role of a mediator. I have been accused of ‘colonial consciousness’, a charge to which I responded in ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste an aspect of race’ (Dhanda 2015). The U.K. based Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO) had conceded in a press release after participating in our EHRC Stakeholders’ workshop that ‘[w]e accept that there is evidence of geographical pockets of discrimination’ (dated 13 November 2013). Nonetheless, after the publication of our EHRC reports, AHO wrote in a letter to the Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on British Hindus: ‘The word Caste must not remain in Legislation, its continued use is an act of anti Hindu racial and religious violence and prejudice of the highest order’ (dated 20 March 2014).

To untangle the thinking behind such responses to the inclusion of caste in the Equality Act 2010, is a not an easy matter. From regurgitating conceptual muddles, to made-up histories of ideas, to veiled threats of withdrawing political support from their respective mouthpieces in the Houses of Parliament, to personalised attacks on academics arguing for legislation, the opposition to legislation on caste discrimination in the U.K. demonstrates various ploys of power used to subvert orderly discussion. Can a philosopher stand up to such an onslaught? Are professional philosophers equipped to participate in bare knuckle fights? George Yancy’s remark: ‘Only now have I really begun to recognize how discourse designed to hurt can actually leave its mark’ sounds a warning.

‘We desperately need a transformation in philosophy’ as Naomi Scheman said in her dialogue with Kristie Dotson, offering a convincing diagnosis of the straight-jacketing of philosophical practice. Post-second world war professionalization of the subject of philosophy happened alongside a de-politicisation, curtailing engagement with the world beyond the text, and valorising the text as the narrowly defined object of study. This, she argues, in the context of North America was partly a defensive response to McCarthyism and partly an attraction of scienticism. I agree with her Wittgensteinian and socialist bent of mind attuned to looking at the bigger picture, one where: ‘we live in a world of irreducibly divergent perspectives … enmeshed with power and privilege and vulnerability’ (14 April 2016).

Reflection on ‘real’ world problems can generate surprising conceptual connections. I have begun to make one between racism and casteism. I also want to recall a historical connection. The racial division and segregation of the American South was in the 1930s described in terms of two ‘castes’ — ranked, endogamous, ascriptive racial groups— before the language of ethnicity and race itself overtook this (Fuller 2011). For India, there are studies of the racialization of caste both in colonial times and in contemporary attitudes towards Dalits; and the language of racism (or ‘hidden apartheid’) has been promoted by Dalits mobilising to bring international attention to caste discrimination through United Nations forums (initially at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at Durban in 2001).

The opposition to the U.K. caste legislation objects to the comparison between racism and casteism. But there is a historical connection between racial purity and caste purity rigorously argued by Dorothy Figueira (2002). Racism in Europe, took its vicious form of Aryan supremacy, through the imperialist foraging of ancient Indian texts. There are echoes of the racial script of Aryan supremacist thinking within Indian nationalists too: Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) worried that caste Hindus mixing with non-castes, leads to Aryan degradation (Figueira 2002: 137). The idea of racial purity is historically tied to the idea of caste purity – to promotion of ‘breeding’ and to a fear of miscegenation. In the U.K., Casteism is experienced most intimately in the personal domain, but it spills over into the public domain of education, work and services, covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Relying on the comparative analysis of race and caste made by the anthropologist Gerald Berreman I support the advantages of juxtaposing the structural oppressions of racism and casteism, albeit, by spelling out as fully as possible their respective manifestations in the lives of the oppressed. Berreman (1968) warns, that ‘Our silence…. leaves to politicians and journalists, to entrepreneurs, scoundrels….but especially to the powerful – the interpretation and manipulation of matters about which they frequently know little…’ and ‘to shrink from value, from passion, or commitment, is as inappropriate as to shrink from reason…we must seek to apply our knowledge and skills to real problems, defined by us…’.

For me, the real problem is making sense of contested practices of caste. Are caste differentiations and divisions about inequality or are they fundamentally about domination? We cannot hope for a consensus on our understanding of caste discrimination and convincingly establish the point of using the law in protecting victims of caste discrimination, without filling out the ‘bigger picture’. This, for me, is doing socially engaged philosophy.


Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1916) ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’. In Valerian Rodigrues (Ed) (2002) The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1936) ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ in Rodigrues (2002).

Berreman, Gerald (1968) ‘Is Anthropology Alive? Social Responsibility in Social Anthropology’ Current Anthropology. Vol 9: 5; 391-396.

Dhanda, Meena (1993) ‘L’éveil des intouchables en Inde’ (translated by Isabelle di Natale) in Catherine Audard (ed) Le Respect : De l’estime à la déférence: une question de limite. Paris: les Éditions Autrement – Série Morales Nº 10 – Février 1993 – 120 F. Pp. 130-145. ISSN: 1154-5763.

Dhanda, Meena (2008) The Negotiation of Personal Identity. Saarbrüken: Verlag Dr. Muller. Pages 231. ISBN: 978-3-639-02931-4.

Dhanda, Meena (2015) ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste as an aspect of race’. Radical Philosophy, 192, July-Aug, 33-43, ISSN: 0300-211X

Figueira, Dorothy M. (2002) Aryans, Jews, and Brahmans: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fuller, Chris J. (2011) ‘Caste, race, and hierarchy in the American South’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, 604-621.

Lafollette, Hugh (2003) The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics. Oxford: OUP.

Featured Philosopher: Marcia Baron

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Marcia Baron is the James H. Rudy Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University. She also recently was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, and many moons ago taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Publications include Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology (Cornell, 1995), Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate, co-authored with Philip Pettit and Michael Slote (Blackwell, 1997), “Manipulativeness” (2003), “Gender Issues in the Criminal Law” (2011), “Self-Defense: The Imminence Requirement” (2011), “The Standard of the Reasonable Person in the Criminal Law” (2012), “The Ticking Bomb Hypothetical” (2013), “Rape, Seduction, Shame, and Culpability in Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (2013), “The Mens Rea and Moral Status of Manipulation” (2014), “A Kantian Take on the Supererogatory” (2016), and “Justification, Excuse, and the Exculpatory Power of Ignorance” (2016). 

Is More Better? Another Take on Citation Practices

Marcia Baron

I want to express my gratitude to Meena for creating and running this site, and for inviting me to contribute to it. Although the suggestion was to write about my research, another option was to offer a comment on the profession, and I’ve decided to go with the latter. The former is more fun, but there is an issue that’s been on my mind, particularly as a concern regarding younger scholars, and this seems the right place to address it (apart from the slight awkwardness that I am using Meena’s site to take issue with a proposal she put forward).

Recently I refereed a paper for a journal that sends each referee not only the verdict but also the other referee’s report. The paper received a revise-and-resubmit, which was fine with me; but I was concerned about the requests for revision from the other referee. I wanted this point clarified, that section expanded, wanted the author to either remove one section or make clearer how it fit into the overall paper. The other referee wanted more work on the topic cited and addressed. My reaction was “That’s one kind of paper, but not the only kind!” It was a really interesting piece, deep, complex, an engaging read, and I couldn’t see any way the author could comply with the referee’s request without lowering the quality of the paper.

Around the same time a friend drew my attention to a piece by Meena Krishnamurthy and Jessica Wilson proposing that “large numbers of individuals commit, in their capacity as journal or other referees, to rejecting for publication papers or other submissions that fail to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, on grounds of failing to meet basic standards of scholarship” or at least commit to not accepting any such articles (the idea, I take it, being that the author would be asked to revise and resubmit). It should be “generally considered a necessary condition on a submission’s getting a full review that the author engages in basic scholarly due diligence.” Although this is far less burdensome than a proposal to require not merely citing but engaging with all clearly relevant work, I am not in favor of it.

I don’t want to claim that there is nothing amiss in current citation practices. Routinely citing only articles in the most highly-regarded journals, or only the articles one thinks referees and journal editors are most likely to expect one to cite, or only the work of one’s friends, or the “in-group,” or the most famous people who have written on the topic, is clearly pernicious. Moreover, anyone who claims that approach A has been neglected in recent decades had better do her homework to be sure that is the case and should certainly cite any exceptions; ditto for anyone who claims her approach is novel.

But what if the author does not claim her approach is novel, or that approach A has been neglected? Is it critical that she do a thorough search to figure out who else has put forward a view similar to hers and then take care to cite all such work? I don’t think so. To be sure, a paper that betrays ignorance of relevant alternatives, i.e. that assumes that the only options are A and B when C should also be acknowledged, is ipso facto flawed and referees or editors should note the failing and ask that the paper be revised accordingly. Presumably editors and referees already are doing that. I take it that what is proposed here is something more than that, involving a more robust notion of ‘scholarly due diligence.’

The paper that cites extensively, noting various other approaches and arguing against them, or when in partial agreement, mentioning them in a footnote and explaining where one agrees and where one disagrees, is one kind of paper; I’m glad such papers exist (at least when they are done well, without misrepresenting others’ views; see below). But most of the papers I am inspired by, return to, assign in advanced courses–papers by Susan Wolf or Barbara Herman, for example–do not cite extensively. It never occurs to me to wonder whether the author adequately researched the possibility that someone else had already made a similar point.

Nonetheless, there is a problem–the work of some philosophers is unjustly ignored–and the question remains of how best to address it.

(1) I agree that we as authors should pay attention to whom we cite, and revise accordingly: are we citing mainly just those who are well known? (Or mainly just men? Or just our friends?)

(2) In refereeing, we should recommend that an author take into account the work of S (but I mean to contrast that with simply requiring much more extensive citing).

(3) In editing a book or guest editing an issue of a journal, we should make a point of inviting not only well-established authors but also junior scholars.

(4) Invitations to present papers to one’s department or at a conference should be issued with these concerns in mind. The APA has been doing this for quite some time; in my experience, often we consider an author-meets-critic session or an invited speaker but decide that although excellent and sure to draw a good crowd, his work is showcased often enough as is, and we should instead invite some people whose work, though also quite good, receives less attention, including especially people from marginalized groups.

(5) In refereeing proposals for anthologies and (especially!) textbooks, we should be bold about objecting if there is inadequate representation of women authors and non-white authors, and also encourage the editor to invite some less established authors to contribute.

(6) Although we need to assign the work of various famous philosophers in our courses, we should include as well work by the less famous. (I am assuming that we already all agree that we should not assign only the work of men.)

(7) Last but not least, and important for all of the above, we should read widely.

But why not also go with Wilson and Krishnamurthy’s proposal? I’ve already hinted at one reason: there is more than one way to write a good philosophy paper. Many very good papers do not cite all or most of the relevant philosophical literature and are by no means the worse for it. Relatedly, the requirement proposed would absorb a great deal of one’s time and attention, and (as I often see in papers I referee or in drafts that early career philosophers send me) too little attention is then paid to getting really clear on what one’s position is and defending it well. Now, if all that is called for is listing a large number of people who have written on roughly that topic, that is not very demanding (though there is a question of how valuable it is to do so). But this brings me to a further reason why I oppose the proposal, and indeed the most serious “citation failures” that I frequently encounter: misrepresentation of others’ views.

To be sure, the proposal doesn’t say ‘Don’t worry about whether you are accurately representing others views’! But the problem is that compliance with it either takes a great deal of time, or it works the way a number of recent papers read: one follows a practice, common in other fields, of listing after a sentence a long list of author-date citations. E.g., “The view has faced numerous challenges [several papers cited in author-date fashion].” But is it really that view that each of those authors has challenged? And: did they all actually challenge it, or did some at one point in their papers discuss a challenge to it and then endorse the view? Mistakes about such things are more likely if there is pressure to increase the number of papers we cite. My impression is that these mistakes are more common now, and specifically in papers with large numbers of citations. It might be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

Of particular concern is that if the proposal were adopted, the burden would fall disproportionately on philosophers whose careers are not well established, in particular on graduate students and untenured faculty members.[1] They are under considerable pressure to publish but unlike those of us who are doing most of the refereeing and editing, they rarely receive invitations to contribute to a volume and thus have no choice but to go through the refereeing process. I would rather not see a further burden imposed on them. One might reply that it is not imposed only on them; the proposal is to impose it on oneself, not only on those whose papers one referees. But even assuming conscientious adherence to the same citation requirements that one is imposing on others, there is still the fact that for those with well-established careers the burden is self-imposed and (probably) escapable and for others it is not.

A further problem is that the proposal, if accepted, would have the unintended effect of discouraging engagement with work outside of philosophy, a point that emerges thanks to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. The proposal in no way suggests that engagement with such work would be frowned upon; but given time and space constraints, those needing to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals would be unlikely to be able to do this as well as strive to cite all the relevant work in philosophy. This would be a significant cost to the profession (and not only because it would be demoralizing for the author who is trying something a little different). A lot of very interesting work in philosophy draws from a wide array of sources, not only that of professional philosophers (and, for that matter, not only that of academics); such work reduces insularity and contributes to diversity in philosophy in more ways than I have the space to list here.

Taken together, these considerations constitute very good reasons for resisting the proposal.

But isn’t frequent citation of one’s papers of great importance to one’s career? I doubt it. Attention to one’s work that involves serious engagement, assigning it in courses, recommending it to colleagues, reprinting it in an anthology—that makes a difference. So do invitations to present papers or to contribute to a prominent anthology or guest-edited issue. Simply having one’s work cited seems very unlikely to do so, particularly if it is merely cited (without even a gloss such as ‘For an intriguing alternative, see…’), one among a large number of articles. Thankfully, in our field we do not rely at all on citation counts. (I fervently hope that does not change.) In the dozens of tenure and promotion cases for which I’ve been a reviewer, the matter has never come up, nor has it come up in tenure committee meetings I’ve been part of. It would be bizarre to think that in our field frequent citation of an article is a sign that the work is held in high regard; it could be cited frequently as a glaring example of an egregious error or a common confusion. So here is something else we senior scholars should do: make sure that tenure committees and deans do not get the idea that the frequency with which a particular article (or a scholar) is cited is an even slightly useful measure of the quality of the person’s work. And everyone: please do not provide a citation count on your CV or website.

Neglecting the work of those not in the “in group” is serious. But we don’t need to address it by citing much more than we now do; we need instead to work to correct tendencies to cite and engage with only the famous, and in particular need to modify our practices in choosing whom to invite to speak in colloquia and conferences and in selecting work to assign in our classes.[2]

[1] In her reply to Táíwò (see below), Krishnamurthy acknowledges the challenges for junior philosophers and says that “what matters most is that we make a good faith attempt to cite what is objectively relevant to the topic at hand,” but doesn’t indicate whether she still endorses the proposal she and Wilson put forward concerning referees and editors.

[2] Thanks to Nathaniel Baron-Schmitt, Meena Krishnamurthy, Adam Leite, Frederick Schmitt, Sandra Shapshay, and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò for helpful comments.

Featured Philosopher: Kyle Whyte


Kyle Whyte holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities and is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. He is a faculty member of the Environmental Philosophy & Ethics graduate concentration and serves as a faculty affiliate of the American Indian Studies and Environmental Science & Policy programs. His primary research addresses moral and political issues concerning climate policy and Indigenous peoples and the ethics of cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and climate science organizations. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Indigenous Research and Professional Philosophy in the U.S.

Kyle Whyte

I write as an Indigenous philosopher working in a U.S. department of philosophy. One of my goals is to make it possible for more Indigenous persons to be professional philosophers while also living fulfilling lives and careers according to the values of their own communities and nations. Here I would like to introduce the idea of Indigenous research as a way of glimpsing just one of the topics that requires critical reflection for this goal to be advanced.

Indigenous peoples refer to self-determining communities and nations who now live in territories dominated largely by nation state governments, such as New Zealand, corporations, such as Exxon Mobil, and all their subnational and subsidiary organizations, such as the state of Michigan or Dakota Access, LLC. Indigenous peoples continue to exercise cultural and political self-determination across diverse places, including metropolitan areas and treaty lands, though they must reckon with legacies and ongoing practices of capitalist exploitation, colonialism, settlement, and imperialism. For many of us Indigenous persons, our lives are closely tied to the resurgence of our communities and nations across the diverse places in which we live, work, and play.

Indigenous persons with PhD degrees in philosophy from anglophone universities and who work at U.S. institutions of higher education are relatively few in number, roughly less than 20 persons total, including those who are retired and those close to finishing their degrees. They have produced significant work, from Anne Water’s comparative philosophy, to Brian Burkhardt’s epistemology, to David Martinez’ histories of Indigenous philosophy, to Viola Cordova’s ontological and moral philosophy, to Dale Turner’s critical philosophy—and more philosophical projects and writings, of course, than I have the space to reference here.

There have been a range of projects that Indigenous philosophers working at U.S. institutions have been part of, including an anthology, American Indian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), and The American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Indigenous Philosophers. The committee, currently chaired by Waters, has revived its newsletter under the editorship of Shay Welch, Agnes Curry, and Andrea Sullivan-Clarke.

Indigenous research is a global movement that—at least in my experience—few philosophy PhD holders have really heard of, exceptions being philosophers working in some areas of Indigenous philosophy, decolonial/anti-colonial philosophy, feminist philosophy, and certainly others too. Here I mean a narrow conception of Indigenous research as referring to any investigations produced through Indigenous systems of inquiry and that seek to advance Indigenous peoples’ aspirations.

In this narrow sense, not all Indigenous philosophy research is Indigenous research. This statement is by no means a criticism of the former. For the Indigenous research movement is not recommending a comprehensive agenda for all matters related to Indigenous peoples in philosophy or any other field. Indeed, as I will try to explain in this piece, it is an open question as to whether it is possible for philosophers working in U.S. institutions to do Indigenous research while succeeding in their professional careers.

Though diverse in its intellectual origins, including connections to community-based participatory research and feminist methodologies, one key architect of the Indigenous research movement is the Māori research movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Linda Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Zed, 1999) and the Tertiary Education Commission’s funding of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence (2002), are two major events that built off of over 30 years of advocacy for Indigenous research by Māori leaders and scholars.

Called Kaupapa Māori research, Smith defines Indigenous research in the Māori context as inquiry that “sets out to make a positive difference for Māori, that incorporates a model of social change or transformation, that privileges Māori knowledge and ways of being, that sees the engagement in theory as well as empirical research as a significant task, and that sets out a framework for organizing, conducting, and evaluating Māori research. It is also an approach that is active in building capacity and research infrastructure in order to sustain a sovereign research agenda that supports community aspirations and development” (pg. 120, On Tricky Ground, 2007).

As a member of the International Advisory Board for Ngā Pae, I have reviewed a range of Kaupapa Māori research projects. One study investigates Māori language revitalization through centering Māori family and social relationships as a research method for finding out more about language learning. The results promise to inform Māori leaders and educators and New Zealand policy-makers too. Another study investigates whether people’s environmental health is related to their participation in community conservation activities. The study is organized using Māori conceptual frameworks that are hard to translate into English, including kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and mauri (holistic cultural, ecological, and community well-being).

Professional philosophers are engaging with Kaupapa Māori research too. Krushil Watene recently received a Marsden Foundation grant to investigate Māori concepts of social justice in comparison to Potawatomi and Ubuntu concepts, instead of using privileged philosophies such as those of Plato or Rawls as the assumed basis for comparison. This project will perhaps be one among many more to come.

In these projects, what is distinctive about Indigenous research is the process of research itself, which, in short, takes place largely outside of academic institutions or at least does not privilege nonindigenous organizational structures, curriculum, and expected qualifications for faculty or expert status. Māori leaders and community members worked with the Māori researchers to develop the goals, approaches to inquiry, and strategies for ensuring the work builds Māori research capacities.

In North America, Indigenous research is growing too, and features thousands of notable examples. The College of Menominee Nation (Keshena, WI) developed its own research institute in 1994, the Sustainable Development Institute, which is “dedicated to examining sustainability issues and applying them to the Menominee model of sustainable development.” Through observing research processes that involve spending large amounts of time in the Menominee’s sustainable forest, some scientific collaborators begin to grasp how Menominee’s protocols of respect for the agency of the forest as a living, spiritual ecosystem translate into stewardship practices that continue to support the Tribe’s continuance in the face of U.S. settler colonialism.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Department of Natural Resources organize their environmental and climate change research through following the processes and protocols of their comprehensive social and ecological system, difficult to translate, called Tamanwit. While many scientists consider such processes and protocols highly unusual for research, investigating the world this way not only has improved understanding of ecological indicators other scientists would miss, but promoted awareness of gender justice in the Tribal community.

The Indigenous research movement is active within U.S. and Canadian institutions to of higher education. Indigenous Studies programs, such as at Trent University, have elders as faculty members, require students to engage with the languages and philosophies of the Tribes in the region (Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee), and offer spaces and peer review options for students to engage in research according to their own traditional learning and research practices (or those of the nations and communities they work with). They have redesigned everything about the organizational structure of the program to reflect, as best possible, learning and research processes associated with Indigenous systems of inquiry.

I reference these examples because they involve both the production of processes of inquiry but also the capacity building that Smith discusses. They produce knowledge at the same time they rebuild Indigenous peoples’ capacities to create and govern their own research. The processes of research generate different questions and insights; at the same time, they produce benefits for Indigenous peoples and strengthen Indigenous capacities to facilitate further beneficial research in the future.

Even though, since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have always engaged in inquiry, like most other societies, Indigenous research must be articulated as a movement because U.S., New Zealand, Canadian and other settlers suppress Indigenous systems of inquiry and exploit Indigenous persons in settler research, which has given “research” a bad name among many Native people. Settlers rejected Indigenous systems of inquiry as nonscientific, subjected Indigenous persons to brutal research practices, forcibly divested Indigenous peoples through boarding schools of the building blocks of Indigenous systems of inquiry, including language, skill sets, and kinship relations, and created theories of genetics or history that relegate Indigenous persons to positions of inferiority, among other wrongs.

While the field of philosophy does not have some of the riskier research methods of other fields, there are nonetheless quite blatant problems of settler colonial erasure in the U.S. philosophy profession. Indigenous people typically only garner mention in teaching and research as cases or illustrations that factor into settler and other philosophers’ debates as evidence or counterexamples. Despite there being thousands of Indigenous philosophical traditions in North America, few if any philosophy departments offer more than a single class (if that) on any of these traditions, even the ones of the peoples on whose lands particular colleges or universities stand. Departments and professional organizations have also not engaged in reconciliation efforts as have occurred in other fields, such as geography.

More insidiously, philosophical topics are sometimes organized conceptually to convey falsehoods about Indigenous peoples, e.g. the debate over whether Indigenous peoples are justified in making “special rights” claims against “states.” It is also just troubling to be in a profession, at least in the U.S. context, in which you know that many of your colleagues were not raised to have any awareness of the thousands of Indigenous nations and communities living today—so many complex and diverse cultural, political, social, legal, economic Indigenous worlds that are erased from the perceptions, memories, and experiences of so many colleagues working in U.S. institutions.

Is it possible for a professional philosopher at a U.S. institution of higher education to pursue Indigenous research? If something like Indigenous research is possible for philosophers, we first have to start with the idea that Indigenous peoples already have institutions and contexts where philosophizing—broadly construed—occurs and matters to Indigenous aspirations.

For example, Anishinaabe/Neshnabé peoples have rich philosophical practices, from the more esoteric societies, such as the Midewiwin lodges, to the formal consensus processes and informal everyday dialogue protocols used to deliberate about the reasonableness of competing theories for how people should respond to pressing cultural, political, social, ethical and economic issues. These processes and protocols are fora for debating topics as diverse as the meaning of environmental stewardship, the nature and existence of Indigenous rights, the legitimacy of traditions (e.g. gender traditions), and the nature of political authority, among many other topics.

The conventions of philosophizing are likely to be different in these contexts than in U.S. philosophy departments. For example, the environment is not cordoned off from any philosophical concepts, the Anishinaabemowin language is invoked to clarify concepts that can’t be expressed in English, having a PhD in philosophy is not privileged, and there is no expectation to persuade anyone that one’s philosophical ideas are “new” or the pure products of one’s individual intellectual labor—and many more differences. Anishinaabe conventions for philosophizing promote the possibility of different philosophical questions, connections, insights, debates, and solutions than may get raised elsewhere.

If, again, Indigenous research involves making investigations through Indigenous systems of inquiry that advance Indigenous aspirations, then “Indigenous research” by professional philosophers would mean actually philosophizing in the type of Indigenous context such as the one I described—which is just one of many.

While I am hopeful for the future, I have serious concerns in the present in the U.S. as to whether it is possible to meet the research, teaching, and service requirements of our departments while at the same time engaging in Indigenous research processes designed collaboratively with Indigenous communities and nations and that benefit their aspirations. Indigenous research approaches, such as Kaupapa Māori, require researchers to ask demanding questions before they begin their work.

Consider just a few of these questions. Can philosophical research in U.S. philosophy departments really benefit Indigenous peoples? Would a department ever change its own organizational structure, curriculum, and expected qualifications for faculty appointments as an attempt to decenter colonial power from the pursuit of philosophy? Suffice it to say, Indigenous persons and others creating paths for advancing Indigenous research in relation to their appointments in U.S. anglophone institutions navigate, as Smith would say, tricky ground.




Featured Philosopher: Esa Diaz-Leon


Esa Diaz-Leon is a Ramon y Cajal Researcher at the University of Barcelona. She received her BA from the University of Murcia (Spain), and her PhD from the University of Sheffield (UK). Before joining the University of Barcelona, she taught at the University of Manitoba (Canada). She specializes in philosophy of mind and language, and philosophy of gender, race and sexuality, and she also has interests in metaphysics and epistemology. Her current work focuses on methodological issues having to do with conceptual ethics, verbal disputes, and metaphysical deflationism; and she is also interested in applying these methodological insights to the study of gender, race and sexual orientation.

Sexual Orientations: The Desire View

Esa Diaz-Leon

Talk about sexual orientations is widespread in our society and our culture: in the media, in political debates, in religion, in the natural and social sciences, and in fiction. But very few analytic philosophers have paid attention to questions about the nature of sexual orientations, such as what sexual orientations are, what ‘sexual orientation’ means, and whether sexual orientations really exist. Some important exceptions include Edward Stein (1999), Cheshire Calhoun (2002), William Wilkerson (2013), and Robin Dembroff (2016).

In this post I aim to propose and discuss a new version of the view that identifies sexual orientations with certain mental states of the subject, namely, sexual desires or sexual preferences.

Before we start, it will be useful to clarify what question is our main focus here. Following Haslanger (2006), we can distinguish between two different projects in philosophy. On the one hand, we have the descriptive project, which seeks to reveal the concept we actually use, that is, the ordinary concept associated with the corresponding term; and on the other hand, we have the ameliorative project, which seeks to reveal the concept that we ought to use given certain purposes (or all things considered), that is, the concept that would best serve certain aims and goals, which may or may not correspond to the operative concept. This is known as the target concept. I believe that the most central question is to reveal the target concept, that is, the concept of sexual orientation that would best serve the aims and goals of sexual orientation talk. But in order to know which concept we should use, it will be useful to know first which concept we are actually using. In this post I will mostly focus on the question of what our ordinary concept of sexual orientation is, as a first step of the project of figuring out what the most politically useful concept would be.

A natural idea that comes to mind when we think about sexual orientations is that they are in part determined by the subject’s sexual behavior. According to behaviorism about sexual orientations, a person’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual behavior they engage in during their life. But this view seems implausible. As Dembroff (2016) and Stein (1999) have argued, behaviorism does not seem to capture our ordinary notion of sexual orientation. The main problem has to do with the fact that there can be individuals who engage in behaviors that do not express their sexual desires. For example, we can think of individuals who repress their sexual orientations, so that they do not act on their real sexual desires, or do not even realize that they have those desires. On the other hand, we could have individuals who engage in some behaviors because of coercion or societal pressures. Also, we could have cases of individuals who have chosen to be celibate for personal or religious reasons but could be said to have a sexual orientation. Intuitively, these seem to be cases where someone’s behavior does not express their “real” sexual orientation. Therefore, sexual orientation cannot consist just in the behaviors one engages in.

Given the problems facing behaviorism, it seems natural to say that someone’s sexual orientation is not determined by the sexual behaviour they actually engage in, but rather by their dispositions, that is, the sexual activities they are disposed to engage in, or in other words, the behavior they would engage in given certain conditions. This idea corresponds to the dispositional view of sexual orientations, which Stein (1999) characterized as follows:

According to [the dispositional view], a person’s sexual orientation is based on his or her sexual desires and fantasies and the sexual behavior he or she is disposed to engage in under ideal conditions. If a person has sexual desires and fantasies about having sex primarily with people of the same sex-gender and is inclined under ideal circumstances to engage in sexual acts primarily with such people, then that person is homosexual. Conditions are ideal if there are no forces to prevent or discourage a person from acting on his or her desires, that is, when there is sexual freedom and a variety of appealing sexual partners available. (1999: 45)

In my view there are two different ideas in this passage. First, we have the idea that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual behavior she is disposed to engage in, given certain circumstances. (Dembroff (2016) has developed a very interesting and sophisticated version of this idea.) Second, we have the idea that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by their sexual desires and fantasies (which may or may not be expressed by their sexual behavior in ideal circumstances, depending on how ideal circumstances are characterized). My aim here is to put forward a new view, which combines elements of these two ideas but is different from both, namely, I want to suggest that someone’s sexual orientation is determined by the sexual desires and fantasies they are disposed to have, that is, the sexual desires they would have in certain circumstances, which may or may not be actual.

There are two main reasons for endorsing a view of this sort. First, I believe that it would be very hard to characterize our sexual orientations purely in terms of the sexual behavior one would engage in, given such and such circumstances, since our behavior (sexual or otherwise) would always be influenced by a huge variety of other mental states one might have, so that there is no easy correspondence between our sexual orientation and the behavior one would engage in, given certain circumstances. This is why it is more intuitive, in my view, to characterize sexual orientations in terms of the sexual desires and fantasies one is disposed to have, rather than the behavior one is disposed to have. Second, I believe that there is no easy correspondence either between someone’s sexual orientation and the sexual desires and fantasies they actually experience, since this would also depend on many features of the subject’s mental life and their environment. For this reason, it is more intuitive to characterize someone’s sexual orientation in terms of their dispositions to have certain sexual desires and fantasies, rather than the sexual desires and fantasies they actually have.

Therefore I want to propose the following conjecture: we could understand sexual orientations in terms of sexual preferences, where a sexual preference is understood as a complex mental state. In particular, I understand preferences as dispositions to instantiate certain desires and feelings. That is, we can understand a sexual preference in terms of the dispositions to have sexual desires under the relevant manifesting conditions (as opposed to the dispositions to engage in certain kind of behaviors). Therefore, my suggestion is that we characterize sexual orientation in terms of sexual preference, and sexual preference in terms of a disposition to have sexual desires of certain kinds, given certain manifesting conditions. We can call my proposed view of sexual orientations the desire view (or more strictly, the preference view) of sexual orientations, which we can characterize a bit more precisely in terms of a new version of the dispositional view (drawing on Dembroff (2016)’s formulation):

Dispositionalism*: A person S’s sexual orientation is determined in virtue of the sex[es] and the gender[s] of persons for whom S is disposed to have sexual desires under the relevant manifesting conditions (and S’s own sex[es] and gender[s]).

A remaining question in order to flesh out this account is the following: What is sexual desire? A first take on the notion of sexual desire goes as follows: according to a standard conception of desires, a desire is a propositional attitude of the form “subject S bears the attitude of desiring towards proposition p”. Therefore, a sexual desire could be understood in terms of the desire that certain propositions about sexual activities be the case, such as the proposition that S has sex with a certain man (or woman), or men (or women) in general. But some problems arise: this formulation doesn’t seem to capture our concept of sexual desire. For instance, S might have the desire to have sex with a certain person in order to get paid, or to win a bet, or in order to cheer them up, etc. Therefore, having a propositional attitude of the form “S desires that S has sex with such and such” is not sufficient for instantiating sexual desire in the relevant sense. What is missing is the connection with some specifically sexual experiences, such as sexual arousal and sexual pleasure. Stein provides a formulation along these lines in this passage: “[A] desire is sexual to the extent that it involves (in the appropriate way) the arousal of the person who has the desire… . By arousal, I do not mean the various physiological manifestations of arousal …but the psychological state of being aroused” (1999: 69). This seems very plausible to me: sexual desire is a mental state that is somehow connected with some experiences such as sexual arousal (which is typically correlated with the physiological state of arousal but is not identical to it).

In my view, we should distinguish between standing mental states such as beliefs or desires, which are dispositional and are not always manifested, and occurring mental states, which enter into the stream of consciousness during a certain interval of time and are necessarily conscious and manifested. It seems intuitive to say that sexual desire or sexual attraction is a standing mental state (e.g. someone could be attracted to another person, say her partner or her lover, during a long period of time, and this does not mean that she is experiencing arousal during the whole period), whereas the experience of sexual arousal per se is an occurring mental state, because this is necessarily conscious. On the other hand, a person can be said to have sexual desires for women, or for men, even when she is not conscious like for instance when she is dreamlessly sleeping, or when she is suffering excruciating pain, and so on. Here I want to suggest the following hybrid view of sexual desire:

Hybrid view: A sexual desire (for men and/or women) involves the combination of a propositional attitude (of the form “S bears the relation of desiring towards proposition p”) plus a disposition to be sexually aroused by, or sexually attracted to, men or women.

To sum up: in this post I have provided an account of the ordinary concept of sexual orientation in terms of S’s sexual preference, and I have characterized sexual preference in terms of S’s dispositions to instantiate certain sexual desires in certain manifesting conditions. And furthermore, I have characterized the relevant sexual desires as complex mental states composed of a propositional attitude of the form “S desires that S has sex with such and such people”, plus the disposition to instantiate certain sexual experiences.[1]


Calhoun, Cheshire (2002) Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement, Oxford University Press.

Dembroff, Robin (2016) “What is Sexual Orientation?”, Philosophers’ Imprint 16(3): 1-27.

Haslanger, S. (2006) “What Good Are Our Intuitions? Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Sup. Vol. 80(1), pp. 89-118.

Stein, Edward (1999) The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientations, Oxford University Press.

Wilkerson, William (2013) “What is ‘Sexual Orientation’?” in Powell, Halwani & Soble (eds.) Philosophy of Sex, 6th edition, Rowman & Littlefield.

[1] I further develop the ideas in this post in my paper “Sexual Orientations: The Desire View”, forthcoming in Feminist Philosophy of Mind, edited by K. Maitra and J. McWeeny.

Featured Philosopher: Liam Kofi Bright

Liam in a Suit.jpg

Liam Kofi Bright is a philosophy PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University. He primarily works on social epistemology and the philosophy of science.

On Grandstanding

Liam Kofi Bright

Recently an interesting new paper (forthcoming in Philosophy and Public Affairs) by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke has been generating discussion on the philosophy blogosphere. The paper is concerned with characterising and condemning `moral grandstanding’. To morally grandstand is to produce some public moral utterance or act that is, in the typical case, aimed at convincing an audience that the utterer or actor is an especially moral person. (I add “the typical case qualification” because they allow that some non-paradigmatic instances can arise from other pernicious motives, or naivety. I’ll set that aside in what follows.) The authors give a more detailed analysis of the kind of behaviours that typically accompany moral grandstanding that I am not going to go into here, but which I’d recommend checking out by reading the paper itself. I’m going to be largely critical, but let me begin by saying what I like about this paper. I like the fact that this is an attempt to give serious outline and defence of an idea that is popular on the right at the moment. The idea in question is that there has been some kind of pernicious cultural change that has led to people constantly `virtue signalling’. But what does this mean and why is it pernicious?  The author’s analysis of moral grandstanding can be seen as answering that question. I also like the fact that they have raised this issue to salience in the philosophical community, because I think it proper for philosophy to try and speak to, and sophisticate, contemporary moral debate. What is more, I think the paper is very accessible, and will therefore be a real contribution to public discourse.

The authors give a number of arguments against grandstanding. I summarise the conclusions here. Grandstanding, we are told, makes us cynical about morality and thereby undermines the proper function of public moral discourse, it will lead to group polarisation wherein we become more extreme and entrenched in our moral views, it exhausts our ability to feel outraged about injustice, and renders us unvirtuous agents who will not treat our peers as equals. Despite finding their arguments to these effects interesting, I did not come away convinced, and in the remainder of the post I explain why.

First, Justin Weinberg pointed out what seems to be a rather serious flaw in this — “if moral grandstanding promotes cynicism, so must doing things that encourage people to interpret moral utterances as instances of grandstanding, such as writing a paper like theirs”. Weinberg’s post is largely tongue in cheek, but I think this is a serious problem. Their own arguments speak against writing and publishing this paper.

Grandstanding is said to make us cynical by convincing us that morality is a fraud, and it makes us unvirtuous by having us come to see ostensibly moral actions as opportunities to grab power and prestige over others. Even when focussing on other of their arguments, a large part of the discussion in the paper turns on ways in which grandstanding makes us cynical and unlikely to see public moral discourse as a source of self- and other- improvement. But it’s not quite right to pin this effect on grandstanding itself. The reason grandstanding make us cynical is precisely that people `unmask’ it. On its face, moral grandstanding is passionate moral exhortation. It is (allegedly — more on this below!) cynicism inducing when we sees through this surface appearance. If only we refused to break the spell, not point out the underlying self-interest, allow people to self-delude themselves that they are just taking a stand for what is right, then many of the problems the authors identify would simply cease to be problems. Indeed, this seems to have affected the authors: some of their worries concern the possibility that grandstanding has/will become the main sort of public moral discourse; that seems maximally cynical already! In short, the problem with grandstanding on this analysis largely results from people complaining about grandstanding! (The irony here seems similar to that which we see when folk say that ‘people are not ready’ for a leader from group X; often the primary source of worry is the people making that very utterance!)

Second, as I believe was being raised by Eric Schliesser, I think that the authors make some assumptions that they are not dialectically entitled to. I came away from their piece still wondering: what is wrong with wanting people to think you are good? Isn’t it a good thing that people are socially rewarded for virtue? They worry in various ways that moral grandstanding will perhaps lead to a kind of excessive zeal: but I recall it being said, by a figure I would guess some people who worry about grandstanding would rather like, that after all extremism in defence of liberty is no vice. What’s so bad about using one’s public utterances to move people towards being more strenuously committed to justice? What’s so bad about using one’s utterances to, say, rally the moral troops, and, what’s more, make oneself look good as one does so? In general, it doesn’t make me cynical about people to learn that they want to look good in their communities and use ostentatious commitment to moral principle to achieve this; what is so bad about that?

Here I think that what is going on is that a lot of their arguments are trading on there actually being substantial moral disagreement. My guess is that for one reason or another their image of the moral grandstander is somebody they strongly disagree with. Indeed, when noting their problems with group polarisation they put it thus: ““[t]his effect not only increases the likelihood that participants advocate false views; it also encourages an impression in persons not associated with the group that morality is a nasty business, and that moral discourse consists primarily of extreme and implausible claims.” Quite so; if the group is wrong. Likewise, I think the ‘outrage exhaustion’ they worry will be induced by too much moral grandstanding is only an issue if one would not otherwise be inclined to be outraged at whatever is in question. For, if it turned out the grandstander is making people more often do what I think they ought, these things complained of here may actually make moral discourse as a whole seem more righteous. Without the assumption of substantial moral disagreement with the grandstander, moral grandstanding seems no more inherently problematic than guns are inherently problematic: where problems arise they depend rather on the particular use these tools are put to, and in other circumstances they can be beneficial. There may well be good reasons to regulate when people make use of these tools, but it is some kind of category error to condemn the tools themselves.

One could say in return that what is cynicism inducing about moral grandstanding, what is genuinely problematic in the act itself rather than the uses it is put towards, concerns the fact that it involves people Acting For The Wrong Reasons (AFTWR). The Kantian sounding thought here would be that the good moral agent should just want to do right for the sakes of right, and in so far as they have other motives behind their purportedly moral utterances/acts they are AFTWR. Now personally I always recoil in horror from ethical theories wherein AFTWR features as a worry — I am aghast to learn that it is not enough for the moralist that they regulate my behaviour, how I interact with others; but now they must also discipline my mind, I may not even have the sanctuary of my own reasons! Maybe that’s just because I read too much Foucault and now I am ruined.

But even setting aside my post-structuralist quibbles, I think that this Kantian response takes us back to the above point. It is dialectically granting too much to grant that moral grandstanding is AFTWR. I take it that part of what is up for debate when we wonder about moral grandstanding just is whether or not moral actions which are intended to make us look good are permissible. With that open, why is wanting to look good for doing what is right a wrong reason to act? At most I can see that maybe if looking good was all I cared about then that is just obviously very unpleasant of me — but no reason is ever presented to suppose that moral grandstanding is unaccompanied by genuine moral concern. What is more, if Xunzi really is right, and people are not (without significant social moulding) disposed to care about the good, then moral grandstanding actually seems like a nice second best solution: producing in people a derivative concern for the good, as a useful means of socially looking good.

This dialectical point brings me to what I take to be a future-work suggestion for the authors, or others interested in the topic. I actually think this is a paper that would have benefited from being less secular. The authors couch their arguments in a kind of neutral secular (even sometimes pagan — i.e. Aristotelean) terminology. But underlying some of their concerns, I would claim, seems to be an especially Christian idea that they do not give adequate discussion or defence of. Matthew 6:2-4 has Christ say “So when you give to the needy, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be praised by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” I think it is the felt moral pull of this ideal that sways people against moral grandstanding. Now, one way of reading the passage from Matthew is to see it as a call to do good things things for the right reasons. In which case this is no advance. But perhaps Christ’s claim here could be defended on other grounds. And if one could find some way of independently justifying the Christian virtue of secretive goodworks then one could derive some of their arguments against moral grandstanding. But without a defence of this or something like it, I think the question is being begged — I do not yet grant that it is wrong to want people to think well of you for being moral, and so I do not yet grant that acts of moral grandstanding (acts which realise this intent) are wrong.

That is how I would go, if I were to work on this further. But before signing off I should like to sound a note of scepticism. For some time now I have harboured a suspicion about the outsized role of moralising in public life. I suspect that moralising against moral grandstanding is itself an example of moral overreach, moral condemnation where none is needed. The sympathy I have for Tosi and Warmke’s paper is this: I think they are right that there is a phenomenon of moral grandstanding, and that it is irritating when people do it. But, I don’t see why moral argument is needed beyond this. Moral grandstanding is irritating, annoying, makes social spaces just that little bit less bearable; it is like wearing garish clothing, or playing saxophone loudly, or playing U2 songs at all. Why must we wheel in the theoretical apparatus of virtues or a functional analysis of the purpose of moral discourse to condemn such things? Now, I’ve recently been reading enough Confucian philosophy to not feel comfortable neatly separating morality from social nicety, so I am open to persuasion on this point. But as it stands, despite the efforts of Tosi and Warmke, I am not convinced that there is a moral issue here at all.

Featured Philosopher: Carole Lee


Carole J. Lee works on the production and evaluation of knowledge, with a focus on peer review. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and is now an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate Faculty at the Center for Statistics and the Social Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Another Way to “Leave” Philosophy

Carole J. Lee

Thank you, Meena, for hosting this blog and for inviting me to share what’s on my mind.

The mission of my research is to understand scientific practice with an eye towards improving it. In this vein, I’m studying potential racial disparities in grant funding under a contract with the National Institutes of Health. I’m waist deep in a project studying the gender composition of co-authorships across disciplines and sub-disciplines represented in the JSTOR corpus. And, I’m serving as a Coordinating Committee Member for the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines, which aims to improve the reproducibility of research. All of these projects are incredibly stimulating. By collaborating with people from different disciplines (e.g., statistics, information science, sociology, ecology), I’m constantly learning about new concepts and methods. By working with data, I get to draw generalizations about some corner of the actual world. And, by working with organizations, I’m coming to understand the machinations of how policy changes can and cannot take root.

But, in light of recent events, I’ve been asking myself what more I can and should do in my work. One possibility I hadn’t considered took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago.

Last summer, I was invited to join a program – run by the Provost and a handful of Deans – that trains future University leaders and incubates future campus initiatives. I joined because I was glad to have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, meet a broader swath of my local academic community, and give voice to ideas that I had tucked away in my head.

We recently had our first meeting. I hadn’t anticipated the power of being in a room with others who, fresh from the election, were hungry to find ways to protect our public institution’s commitment to education, inclusivity, and the communal good. Worried about what will happen to undocumented students? Worried about students who are being targeted for hateful speech and violent acts because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual identity? Worried about students who may lose their healthcare? Being in conversation together, I recognized the power of strategizing responses to these worries – not just as a teacher or mentor – but as an administrator or campus leader.

I get it now. I understand why some post-tenure faculty pivot to become a career administrator or campus leader. It is a profoundly interesting, important way for an action-oriented, values-driven person to “leave” philosophy – or any home discipline.

I myself am not planning to leave philosophy. And, I’m not suggesting we overlook the ways in which the call to service can burden women and racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately. Research suggests that women – associate professors in particular – spend more hours on service per week than their male colleagues [1]. And, too often faculty of color are subjected to extra, unrewarded service to their institutions – a form of cultural taxation – in which they feel obliged “to show good citizenship toward the institution by serving its needs for ethnic representation on committees, or to demonstrate knowledge and commitment to a cultural group, which may even bring accolades to the institution but which is not usually rewarded by the institution on whose behalf the service was performed” [2]. Indeed, among my colleagues at the leadership training, a disproportionate number of us were women and/or faculty of color.

Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful and honored to have a long-term academic position, to be a part of a university that pro-actively cultivates a healthy community of leaders, and to be invited to join the conversation at that table.

I’m just startled, after working so hard to make it through the pipeline all the way past tenure, to discover such a compelling way for someone like me to “leave.”

[1] Misra, J., Lundquist, J. H., Holmes, E., & Agiomavritis, S. (2011). The ivory ceiling of service work. Academe, 97(1), 22.

[2] Padilla, A. M. (1994). Ethnic minority scholars, research, and mentoring: Current and future issues. Educational Researcher, 23(4), 24-27.