When economists are bought directly by Wall Street interests (cf. Inside Job) or -- more subtly -- indirectly by lucrative private and government contracts, astute observers recognize that even when there are very transparent conflict of interest disclosures (which is not the norm in professional economics) that the discipline as a whole may well have lots of structural and tacit biases in which it handles evidence and what questions it considers worth asking. Ideology functions most slyly when presented in the language of science. We philosophers think we are better than this (and some of us even specialize in teasing out the methodological and normative commitments that make the ideology of economics hidden from many of its own practitioners).
Yet, the dirty secret of professional philosophy is that one can make a fine career promoting justice. That may seem swell. Yet, in practice this amounts to the fact that one can make stellar careers promoting changes in others. There is now an established discourse, which crosses over from the seminar room to the public media, in which one can speak empty words of condemnation about rich people’s lifestyles in the name of global justice, while knowing that the only real world consequences of one’s moralizing will be felt by folk in countries far away. One can do so while (a) being a distasteful character; we philosophers have accepted a methodological stance in which arguments are evaluated, disembodied from a person’s moral worth. Moreover, (b) many philosophers allow on similar methodological grounds that global justice can be promoted while ignoring ‘private sphere’ justice and ‘justice within the profession.’ [Obviously, there are also people that apply concerns over global justice reflexively to themselves.]
That is to say, one can become a “hero” to others by being a “moral philosopher.” One’s career can become so cherished by others because they discern in you “political” causes worth promoting, even if you turn out to be scumbag in your personal life. I am quoting from an anonymous essay -- [HT Feministphilosophers; after first linking, Leiterreports removed the link] -- that has, human nature being what it is, inspired speculation into the author's identity and the "big-shot Ivy League professor" described in it. I have no idea who the author is;* her account rings true to my experience of what goes on in the profession and I have some suspicions about the identity of the big shot. Even so, here I want to focus on a feature of the essay that may well be ignored because of the all-too-human ways in which sexual politics get played out (especially in online fora). The essayist writes:
he is a big-shot Ivy League professor. At the end of the day, nothing will happen. At the end of the day, powerful men will reciprocate sexual and romantic gestures from pretty young women, so long as there are no legal repercussions. At the end of the day, this wrong that I speak of is the norm.--Anonymous
Perhaps it is true that at the end of the day nothing will change. But, norms are not eternal truths. And while I incline toward skepticism about reform projects, the author's fatalism strikes me as unnecessary. Disciplinary norms need ongoing institutional and social reinforcement. Moreover, once they become objects for public discussion one is already half-way toward a new norm (which may be worse, of course). This is so, because the most powerful norms work silently without explicit controversy (recall this post).
The norms that facilitate the behavior of our big shot Ivy-league professor piggy back on methods of doing philosophy that are under scrutiny now, that are reinforced by once popular conceptions of justice that now seem too limited (as the anonymous author nicely exhibits in her piece), that rely on a practice of professional bullying by philosophical enforcers that cannot be justified, and that rely on cultures of silence that are being destroyed by our courageous friends at Feministphilosophers. One of the most heartening facets of the last half decade is that all kinds of lousy institutional practices in professional philosophy are now being publicly reevaluated in blogs, on facebook, in workshops, and in department meetings.
Thinkers as diverse as Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, and Wollstonecraft recognized that if one wants to promote social and political reform then the character of the philosopher as public figure needs to be beyond reproach, or, at least, consistent with the mores one prescribes to others. Our generation is discovering a version of their shared insight. Professional philosophers need to have their professional house in order. That is in the ways we conduct our profession, we need to accommodate ourselves to the demands of justice in a variety of fashion if we want to speak with ongoing authority on the world's problems. Our status as something other than intellects for hire requires from us a way to integrate our concern with justice into shared best practices (that is, new norms).
So, to conclude on a constructive note; here are four norms (which I collect under the rubric of 'analytical egalitarianism') that I suspect our profession will start to embrace in light of our collective experiences in dealing with our own shortcomings:
- Experts/philosophers can't keep themselves (their incentives/their roles, etc) out of the model/proposal. In practice this means that we can't simply assume that philosophers are disinterested truth-seekers in the context of policy.
- Experts/philosophers shouldn't promote policies where the down-side risks of implementation are (primarily) shifted onto less fortunate others.
- Experts/philosophers should make an effort to educate policy and opinion-makers to counter-arguments to the policies they advocate.
- The rhetorical and political standing of (a community of) experts/philosophers requires that their practices conform to the demands of justice.
In practice, of course, considerable and controversial contextual judgment is required in evaluating the suitability and content of these norms (which may involve a weighing of conflicting interests, etc.). The four norms will undoubtedly allow future abuse and, perhaps, generate new ones. But I am hopeful we will live to see them embraced more widely.
*UPDATE [29 April]: what if the essay is an elaborate hoax? Given the author's anonymity, that's not impossible. I have tried to write this post without focusing and relying on the purported details of this case.