Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Affirmative Action in Academia

There's some interesting discussion at the Leiter Reports over the role of race and gender in philosophy department hiring.

I'm tempted to say that it all comes down to the empirical question of whether the relative scarcity of female and non-white faculty causes otherwise promising students to feel unwelcome in the philosophical community. For if so, that would be really awful, and Weatherson's argument for affirmative action in hiring looks entirely reasonable (i.e. for the sake of "providing an environment where all students feel encouraged to do philosophy."). I'm pretty skeptical of the empirical claim, though.

Other underrepresented groups include conservatives, meat-eaters, and religious people, as Christopher Pynes points out. Should we thus endorse Horowitz's calls to hire more Republicans? I guess it's possible, but I'd expect that there are more important factors besides sharing group affiliations with faculty members that influence students' decisions here! [But what if many students really do feel (perhaps irrationally) discomfort on this basis? Should hiring committees accommodate student prejudices? This seems to be opening Pandora's box...]

Having said that, race and gender do seem to be especially salient characteristics in our society. That's really unfortunate. It'd be much better, I think, for everyone to generally disregard such traits in the same way as we would for (say) eye colour. But given that this isn't where we're at as a society, what is the best way to proceed? Should we act 'colourblind', and hope that students and others follow suit? Or should we play the "identity" game, and hope that we eventually reach a stage where it's no longer necessary?


  1. Isn't political affiliation more significant than race and gender in terms of feeling at home in an academic context? I think age is also more significant than race/gender. Religion matters to some people (again more than race or gender).
    Maybe activities outside of work? (possibly a litle less than race/gender?)

    So i suggest more republicans, more young people (esp very young ones) more unusual religions and more people who play rugby (er ok maybe Im steriotyping).

  2. Personally, I think it's silly to take race or gender, or anything besides qualification, into the picture when hiring. As long as there is no prejudice occuring then leave the process as it is. And affirmative action is pretty much like a forced (counter-)prejudice. It's not a good idea, in my opinion, to try to balance out prejudices. Prejudices should be removed, not countered. It would be foolish, actually just plain dumb, to try to solve a bully problem by acquiring different bullies (maybe bullies that beat up the rich kids in addition to the ones that already beat up the poor kids); rather, one should get rid of the poor kid bullies.

  3. The slippery slope argument you allude to here (what about meat-eaters, etc.) seems to me to be rather a silly one. Things like meat eating don’t seem to me to be fundamental to the way that individuals tend to view themselves and the way that individuals are viewed by others, in the way that gender or race is. That said, the other reason I don’t like the argument is that I don’t think that the argument for AA in philosophy departments on the grounds that they ought to be representative of the population in some way is such a particularly good one.

    But I do think that it ought to be the case that any person of any race or gender for example should have the same opportunities to flourish in the discipline. (I’m going to mostly talk about gender rather than race, because I don’t have any experience of being a racial minority in the discipline.)
    I don’t think, that as you suggest, we should move towards a point that we disregard those characteristics, and here’s why: often gender is a fundamental part of who we are as a person. Gender equality isn’t just about ignoring gender differences, it’s about recognising and embracing those differences. You see the same kind of response in the gay community – many members of that community don’t want their sexuality to be disregarded, they want it to be recognised as a fundamental part of who they are. The problem with disregarding characteristics like that is that it sends this message: we’ll treat you equally, but you have to act the way we act and value what we value. One group shouldn’t have to adopt that values and behaviours of another in order to be treated equally.

    But here’s where I disagree with you most: you say that you are skeptical of the empirical claim that the scarcity of women makes otherwise promising students feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in the discipline. This is a pretty strong claim – that there has never been a promising young woman, ever, who has at some point been made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, either on rational grounds irrational grounds, due to the fact that philosophy is male dominated? This seems to me to be very unlikely.

    The important question seems to me to be the extent to which this happens, and the extent to which it matters. Anecdotally, things that are important in the discipline like networking, maintaining a close mentoring relationship with your supervisor etc., do seem to be harder for some women to do in male dominated departments. And I’d imagine there are also sometimes problems around the attitude some older men have towards younger women and the way they treat them. And by this I’m not necessarily meaning overt sexism or sexual harrassment, but low-level stuff which isn’t usually important enough to cause a fuss about but can sometimes make people uncomfortable.

    Here’s the question: are these problems big enough to do something about? Presumably all sorts of people have all sorts of problems around feeling welcomed and comfortable in the philosophical community, for all sorts of reasons. While I think there are definitely issues for women, and there are reasons why women being made to feel uncomfortable is a more important issue than, say, meat-eaters being made to feel uncomfortable, it’s not clear to me that these issues are substantial enough to justify AA hires.

  4. Hi Vanessa, in expressing skepticism I didn't mean to endorse your "strong claim". (That would be silly.) I just have doubts about whether faculty demographic composition is a relatively important factor for most students. But I freely admit I only have my own limited perspective to go on here, so it remains a very tentative skepticism.

    I granted that race and gender happen to be especially salient / central to our identities (more so than meat-eating, at least; perhaps less so than religion and politics for some people). Your phrase "a more important issue" is ambiguous; I take it that lack of faculty representation may cause greater discomfort for more socially salient attributes, rather than the same levels of discomfort being "more important" when suffered by members of one group rather than another!

    Anyway, I think our main point of contention is this:
    "Gender equality isn’t just about ignoring gender differences, it’s about recognising and embracing those differences."

    What if an individual doesn't want to be bound by the scripts and expectations associated with "their group"? At least when the groups are unchosen, such externally imposed "identities" just seem unbearably oppressive. (This is Harriet Baber's argument in The Multicultural Mystique.) I don't want other people telling me that drinking beer and playing rugby are "fundamental to who I am" -- because they're not! I imagine many women feel the same about the cultural stereotypes that get forced on them.

    I'll agree that individuals "shouldn’t have to adopt that values and behaviours of another in order to be treated equally". But their unchosen demographic attributes have nothing to do with it. (Unless, of course, they make the personal choice to advertise their adoption of a certain script or communal identity. My point is that this shouldn't just be assumed. "The X community" inevitably fails to represent all people who happen to be Xs.) But I'm getting a bit far afield now -- better to continue this here.

  5. It's not the white males fault that they are the only ones who can get their heads far enough up their asses to do philosophy. ;)

  6. serious question,
    who DOESN'T think that political affiliation, age, religion, social scene, intelligence etc are more important than gender and race in terms of people feeling comfortable in a social setting?

    (maybe I am just spoilt by living in NZ?)


  7. I'd suggest that religion plays a much more fundamental role in the way people identify themselves within the arena of philosophy than either race or gender. In fact, it strikes me as downright silly to suggest that there is a male and female way of conceiving of Platonic forms, epistemic normativity, moral properties, etc. (What would that sort of distinction even look like? "Your problem is that you're thinking about universals and tropes like a man! Why not try opening your mind to how a woman might see tropes!")

    On the other hand, in many cases, one's belief in God absolutely *does* play a formative role in the way one conceives of many of the concepts tossed around by philosophers. Plantinga's reformed epistemology comes to mind. As does Quinn's divine command theory, Robert Adams' metaethics, various natural law theories among political philosophers, etc. If a philosophy student has many of the views that she has *because* of her belief in God, but finds herself surrounded by professors and fellow students that find theism itself to be utterly absurd, then that student is bound to feel as though she can not openly express her views to her philosophical peers -- which strikes me as contrary to the very spirit of philosophy in the first place.

    And yet, I *hardly* think that hiring committees are eager to hire any theists. In fact, I know from personal experience that being a theist is often a strike *against* a job candidate.

    All that to say this: To whatever extent that we're saying that "the scarcity of women [and other minorities] makes otherwise promising students feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in the discipline," the same must be said about the scarcity of theists. And to whatever extent we're driven to remedy "the scarcity of women [and other minorities]" in philosophy faculties, we ought also be driven to remedy the scarcity of theists in philosophy faculties.

  8. Pandora's Box beckons -- let's generalize even further:

    "If a philosophy student... finds herself surrounded by professors and fellow students that find [her views] to be utterly absurd, then that student is bound to feel as though she can not openly express her views to her philosophical peers -- which strikes me as contrary to the very spirit of philosophy in the first place."

    Thus we should hire moral relativists, psychological egoists, hedonists, and other philosophers to support whatever views may be expected among incoming undergraduates?

    But perhaps advocates of affirmative action could draw a principled distinction between mutable and immutable traits/identities. Discomfort arising from challenging cherished beliefs is not something that academics should shy away from. It is only gratuitous discomfort, caused by fear of unreasonable discrimination (as per sexism, racism, etc.), that we should feel a need to guard against.

    Of course, if theists face (or fear) kinds of discrimination that would actually be unreasonable, and hence are caused gratuitous discomfort by their underrepresentation among academic philosophers, then the AA advocate may be led to treat religion more similarly to race and gender, etc.


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