First, I am not a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA). I write about its new Code of Conduct because the APA is the wealthiest and most influential professional association in the discipline. Its views will ramify out toward many corners of the profession as a purported gold standard. In addition, my blogging career started with and has been animated by, in large part, a concern with professional mores. I have also written regularly about the need of such a Code in philosophy (and economics) [for a few examples, see here and here].
Second, I have no doubt that the committee that produced this code was of good will and animated by the noblest aspirations. Some of the members I have known and admired most of my career. The code evinces a concern with fairness and its guidelines represent a response to the ways in which formal and informal power are used and abused. I thought it especially important that it mentions and articulates some of the duties of faculty toward students.
Even so, I want to register my disappointment in and concern over this code. I will largely ignore but just explicitly note the oddity that the whole section on electronic communications seems to be restricted to work done on "institutional equipment, servers, websites, and email;" this does raise concerns (ht Stefan Hessbrüggen) over those faculty that challenge their own institutional practices on "institutional equipment." The code's flaws are three-fold: (i) it is silent on existing abuses and conflicts of interest in the profession; (ii) it has a misguided view on teaching philosophy; (iii) it is a predictable consequence that, as stated, this code will be used to silence and remove folk (from positions) who challenge local or professional abuses. It is especially notable that this code seems to have been written without addressing the widely read and discussed concerns over the abuses of 'civility' and 'collegiality (neither is mentioned much in the code, but there is an emphasis on being a good colleague) articulated by Leigh Johnson and Ed Kazarian at NewAPPS. I discuss these flaws in turn. First, there are striking omissions:
- Many of the most obvious existing ethical problems in the profession occur in the context of professional ethics. These are cases in which professional ethicists use their status qua ethicist to become company-men who fail to exercise their professional duties to care for (say) animals [recall Lori Gruen's post]; or that advocate/condone torture (and get rewarded with grants, board membership, etc.); in addition, professional (applied) ethicists have been implicated in (recall) not being reflexive about conflict of interest rules and trading sometimes indirectly and occasionally directly their professional status for inappropriate financial and sexual benefits (name your favorite examples or go read the back issues of my posts at NewApps).
- In the previous bullet point I hint at a problem with a particular journal. But professional philosophy has journal practices that can be best described as journal capture, and, more politely, as not conforming (with honorable exception to Ergo) to existing best practices in the academy (recall) this post. Connected to this is that,
- Professional philosophy has citation practices that are primarily about (aspirational) status signaling and club-joining; they do not exhibit much concern with giving credit to other people's contributions or priority. (Strikingly the APA code corrects this imbalance for one's students, but not others.) It is no surprise that professional philosophy exhibits various gendered, racial, and other patterns of exclusion.
These omissions are especially notable because the APA's Code explicitly notes that Given the varying public perceptions of philosophy, and the contributions of philosophy to the field of ethics as a domain of philosophical inquiry, the APA encourages its members to consider the connections between the public perception of philosophy and professional conduct as it relates to the values identified here. Philosophers have duties toward representing other people's and cultures' thoughts [see Bruce Janz's facebook post] and also responsibilities given the way our products enter the world of policy and practice. (For example, I have long been surprised that philosophers do not think it problematic when the predictable downside risks of their policy prescription fall on vulnerable and less powerful others.) Not to put too fine point on it, but there is a sense in which this Code does not take philosophical impact on the world serious enough.
To be sure, I am not suggesting that addressing these omissions is always easy and that my perception on these problems is beyond reproach. In effect, APA guidelines on how to think about likely conflicts of interests in the context of our professional and public activities may be useful precisely to generate discussion and awareness of the complexities involved. Some of the issues noted here are hinted at in the APA's code, in part by its appeal to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Statement on Professional Ethics (but the AAUP is primarily interested in academic freedom not professional integrity). For example, the AAUP insists that "professors acknowledge academic debt," but professional philosophers have a very curious way of interpreting this duty. So, this is not just a big missed opportunity, it also means that through its silence the APA seems to appear to condone some of the worst problems in our profession.
Second, the Code's understanding of teaching is flawed and also generates serious intellectual problems (I thank Ed Kazarian for discussion). Here are some examples:
- The report suggests that teachers present "materials in an informed and balanced way, incorporating competing viewpoints in the spirit of fairness and with intellectual honesty." Pedagogically, it can be very useful to make mistakes in one's presentation and then allow oneself to be corrected by one of the students. (I use this trick so that my students learn that I let myself be corrected in public; that was a big deal in an environment in which teachers are never wrong in their lectures.) Also, some syllabi are intentionally biased because (and this is not uncommon in seminars) they wish to develop a particular viewpoint. In addition, in contemporary American culture 'balance' has become a way to correct perceived Liberal bias in a Conservative direction. But, as I learned from Mark Lance, it's rarely used to argue for the incorporation of other viewpoints (anarchist, libertarian, socialist, etc.). Remember, lots of analytical philosophers today have no patience for pomo views, but also (as distinct from their elders) other anti-realist or idealist views. (Full disclosure: I HAVE taught David Lewis alongside Deleuze; it was great fun, but why demand balance.) The APA here has over-reached.
- All of us sometimes encounter (it even made The Onion) overconfident students (often guys) who, perhaps without fully realizing it, monopolize class discussion and fail to acknowledge other students' perspectives even if they have not done the reading (or evince other signs of lack of preparation). Sometimes, it is very important for our pedagogical aims (i.e., "to teach...students how to think, write, and speak clearly; how to read, understand, and critique philosophical texts; and how to develop their own philosophies in conversation with other people") to prevent some such students from intimidating and silencing other students. While I would not always advocate "intentionally embarrassing or belittling them," it can be very useful both for the student in question and for others, that they come to recognize their own blabbering for what it is. How to do this in ways that promotes a healthy and constructive class room requires skill and experience, but the way the Code is worded may well be used to harass the most creative and serious of our teachers.
- Sometimes what look like no-brainers ("Teachers should assess the academic performance of each student on its merits") turn out to require considerable contextual judgment. I have used teacher discretion strategically in grading to encourage more work or reward achievement of particular individuals (etc.).
- It is odd and disappointing that the document does not reflect on the obvious ways such statements can be abused to silence and remove folk that question or challenge the professional and institutional status quo. In particular, it seems predictable that if you are vulnerable and try to call out various forms of oppression in a way that others find even mildly unpleasant, you will be accused of bullying and harassment. This is not some naive thought experiment, but lived experience for many of our peers.
- In particular, a certain (let me use a stereotype, sincere apologies to all members involved) Waspy politeness in the service of keeping a shop closed gets a pass in these guidelines, whereas emotive expressions of displeasure can be easily treated as species of bullying and harassment. This Code simply pretends as if this is not a known effect of such policies. For example, I can say very politely (I learned the following point from Amia Srinivasan and Daniela Dover) that you are begging the question and insist that you accept my premises and thereby assert situational power and structure over a conversation and, thus, "diminishes the capacity" of my interlocutor "to function effectively as a teacher, worker, or scholar."
- The problem here is that the guidelines are not treated in context sensitive way in which power differentials and context can make a big difference. For example nobody (least of all me) thinks that Jason Brennan's repeated public ridicule and parody of me (he can't even get my name right here) is problematic. Even my friends call me a ballooner now. (While my name sometimes come up in the blogopshere, I have never seen any complaint about the ridicule of my persona.) There are good reasons for this lack of concern; I am not especially professionally vulnerable.
- Thus, the blanket ban on and prejudice against professional ridicule is (ahh) ridiculous. It is, after all, no surprise that dictators and tyrants dislike ridicule and satire--it's among the most effective weapons in equalizing power-differences. It is also a very effective way to undermine pretentiousness and visibly challenge professional privilege that cannot be defended on its merits, but hangs on anyway.
Let me stop here (for now). I hope this post generates respectful, wise, and inclusive discussion.:)