Later, when one of the leading liberal moral philosophers of our time was asked by his students not to take his lunch, as usual, at the Harvard Faculty Club, since the Club was at the same time hosting the Minister of Education of the Greek military junta, which had ended academic and press freedoms, and tortured thousands, he replied that the question was indeed “important”, but “too complicated to decide”. And went in.--Peter Railton from the (draft) Dewey Lecture, "Innocent Abroad: Rupture, Liberation, and Solidarity" (7).
Judging by the multitude of satisfied reports, Railton's Dewey's lecture seems to have been the public philosophy event of the year including standing ovations. It has already provoked a lively public discussion on depression and mental illness in the discipline (e.g., Dailynous, Leiterreports; IHE; recall).
Another feature of Railton's lecture has received less attention. On Facebook, the political philosopher, Martin O'Neill, called attention to the passage that I quoted above. It prompted informed speculation about the identity of the Harvard philosopher who preferred his regular lunch over a small gesture of solidarity, thereby providing an unexpected vindication of Brecht's famous maxim: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral. I was immediately reminded of the following, telling story:
On September 17, 1969 I sent a letter to eleven senior members of the philosophy profession, asking them to serve as co-signers with me on a motion to be presented to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the APA, calling for the establishment of a Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. Alice Ambrose and Morris Lazerowitz [who were husband and wife] came on board, as did Justus Buchler [whose wife taught philosophy], and Sue Larson and Mary Mothersill, both of Barnard. Maurice Mandelbaum, who along with Lewis White Beck had read my Kant manuscript for Harvard, was sympathetic, but pointed out that as the incoming APA president, if he signed he would be in the position of petitioning himself. A good point. The great Classicist Gregory Vlastos also said yes, as did Ruth Marcus, whom I knew from my Chicago days, when she was at Northwestern. Morty White was supportive, but declined to sign for fear that if the motion passed, he would be expected to serve on the committee, something he said he could not do because of writing obligations. That left Jack Rawls, who declined to sign. In retrospect, this does not surprise me. Although Jack was on his way to becoming the world's leading expert on justice, he never seemed to be there when action was needed. I was reminded of the great story [possibly apocryphal] about Karl Marx. whose mother is reputed to have said, "I wish Karl would write less about capital and make some." The motion passed, and my old student, Margaret Wilson, was elected the first Chair of the new Standing Committee.--Robert Paul Wolff.
Now, I seriously doubt I would have been alongside Railton in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). When, a generation later, I was involved in campus (and national) politics, I was frequently the least radical student activist in the room (as we negotiated with then middle-aged, happily bourgeois former SDSers); if I stayed in politics I would have probably been a "moderate" obeying the conventional wisdom of the moment shared by my fellow over-educated peers. To this day I find juggling the demands of fairness with my instinctive preference for the rule of law and incremental change difficult.
I do recognize the enduring irritation that Railton (who in the lecture self-describes as a "Deweyan" with a preference for shared discussion and mutual education) and Wolff exhibit toward those moral philosophers who helped shape our intellectual lives but who somehow also handed down, by many small acts of participation and omission, exclusionary institutions of philosophy (higher education, etc.) that manifestly exhibit injustice and unfairness (this is compatible with personal and professional generosity and kindness.) In fact, Railton's lecture is importantly on the nature of activism within given institutional frameworks. It is also about the responsibilities of privileged insiders. As Railton puts it (on one of the relevant issues), "those of us who are beneficiaries of the extraordinary privileges of senior academic life have to take up the cause of helping to make it the case that those at the beginning of academic careers have real prospects of secure and productive professional lives." (10)
To be clear: everybody has the right to exit from activism, even ones that are merely symbolic or small gestures. The world needs thinkers as much as it needs activists. As Hobbes notes humanity's actions proceed from opinions, and the activity that shapes the content of these opinions is a philosophical task. In fact, the issue at stake here is not just a matter of personal morality or individual conscience. Rather, the issue is more closely connected to (for lack of better terminology) professional norms. For, the educational, rhetorical and political standing of the institution of philosophy requires that our practices, especially among our most powerful and famous members, do not fall short of the demands of justice (this is a species of the fifth norm of what I call 'analytical egalitarianism'), and inspire, as it were, if not respect for the moral law as such then at least more spirited (that is, philosophical) education.
The concluding lines of the last paragraph are undoubtedly a bit obscure. In his lecture, Railton puts the key issue as follows: "We must own our institutions or they will surely own us." (9) To be owned is to be a slave. To accept a morally flawed status quo without (symbolic) defiance is to be servile (recall) in spirit. While all of us make prudential decisions that accomodate the power of given institutions, the public role(s) of philosophy often demands more from us. Thank you, Peter Railton, for re-igniting the conversation about this!