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Just "trans" or "trans*" people. A lot of people find "transsexual" offensive. Also, just "transsexuals" is offensive (e.g., "trans people"). You didn't say "blacks" so why just use the adjective for trans people but omit "people"?


This sentence also needs to be fixed:

"Now, we might want to achieve 1) for obvious reasons, the first of which being that, e.g., disabled are very …"

Just "disabled" is super problematic.


In the interest of inclusivity, you might wish to revise "transsexuals" in (1) to "transgendered people." The term transsexuals is considered less inclusive.


The comments here should remind us that the goal of "inclusion" is strongly correlated with a certain kind of exclusion. Or, at least, a never-ending competition amongst proponents of "inclusion" to position others as insufficiently "inclusive" for the most trivial reasons. (I will bet any amount of money that, once everyone starts saying "trans" instead of "transsexual" there will be a new group of super-sensitive, super-enlightened thinkers chastising the rest of us for saying "trans" rather than "schmans". Or whatnot.)

I have an alternative proposal. Let's try to "include" anyone, regardless of their race or sex or ability to walk or run marathons, who demonstrates a real interest in philosophy and some real ability to do philosophy. Could it be that by focussing on _that_ instead of consciously aiming to include people because of these other facts about them, the problem of "including" everyone who should be included might take care of itself? I ask in part because it seems to me that we never actually tried in a serious way to do this. We went directly from a system in which people were excluded on the basis of irrelevant factors such as race and sex to a new system in which people are "included" on the basis of those factors (and a different group of people are excluded).


If the point of including more people from underrepresented groups is to bring important contributions *from the standpoint of the accepted intellectual framework*, I believe this is not necessary. Let me explain:

(a) There are thousands of philosophers around the world, working in all areas of philosophy.

(b) These thousands of philosophers are likely to disagree with one another, as well as to bring brilliant and important contributions to the discipline, and there are enough of them not to be afraid of “too much consensus” --- they will, so to speak, clear the market of ideas.

(c) Therefore, from the standpoint of the accepted intellectual framework of philosophy, it makes no difference whether some group is underrepresented in the whole group (of philosophers).

That is, if it is about not missing important contributions, it is likely that, for any person of an underrepresented group, there is at least one person in the “insider” group who is able to make/has made a similar contribution.

So I believe that the point of (1) should be egalitarian, rather than aimed at not missing important contributions. From the standpoint of the discipline, it does not matter whether contribution C is made by a white man or a black woman. But, if we are concerned with equality, there is a serious difference between a world where the accepted intellectual framework is that of white men and a world where the same accepted intellectual framework is that of “everybody”.

Now, I’d also suggest that people from underrepresented groups are likely to bring experiences that people from the “in” group do not have, e.g. the experience of being a woman in a more-or-less sexist world. To this extent, point (2) *could* depend crucially on point (1). This, I believe, could be “transitional” just like Rawlsian nonideal theory can be transitional (er, I work a lot on this these times...), i.e. on the path to a more inclusive practice in both senses.

It is thus plausible that, in the long run, making the practice more inclusive will (would?):
-bring new insights from people from underrepresented groups;
-open people from the “in” groups to currently underrepresented fields or ideas;
-allow people from any group (if there are such groups in a strongly egalitarian practice: if all we care about is arguments, it does not matter to us that you are a woman from an minority group and I am a white man) to work on what is of interest for them. As you say, “We don't want to blame disabled philosophers because they do not focus on the impact of embodiment on philosophy and prefer to specialise on modal logic”.

So I’d say I agree that both (1) and (2) are important, but (1), in my view, might be important for reasons other than those you mention.

Elisa Freschi

Rachel and anon, I deeply apologize. I usually get annoyed when I read/hear other people using the word "transsexual", so that I really cannot apologise enough for having used this word myself.
Rachel, thanks also for the pointer concerning "disabled", that I just did not know (as I said elsewhere, English is not my first language and not even my second one).

Still, I would be interested in reading your view on the general topic.

Elisa Freschi

Pierre, you make (at least) two interesting points:
--1 might include 2, insofar as people from underrepresented groups might be more interested in focusing on underrepresented topics. This might be, but I would repeat that it does not need to be (as you also say). Thus, I would use it only as an additional reason for 1, and not as the main reason for the need to achieve 1.
--1 is not needed for utilitarian reasons. I agree that the ethical imperative to achieve 1 does not depend on the utilitarian argument I mentioned, but still, I try to use it whenever I can because it helps with people who are not sensitive to the egalitarian issue. However, I disagree that there are already "enough philosophers" around. In the area I work on, I would tremendously need more colleagues and I regret that some of them had to leave because of reasons independent of the value of their research (e.g., because they were mobbed for having a family).


Elisa, on the first point I completely rejoin you. But if this is so (and I hope this is so or will be soon), it seems to me that the “utilitarian” argument is somewhat weakened. I do agree that it can help with those insensitive to the egalitarian argument, but to a limited extent.

Concerning the “enough philosophers”, I rejoin you. My point was only that, with respect to the “pool of available ideas”, it is *plausible* that the current accepted intellectual framework would not be different, had the whole process been more inclusive. I do not believe this would be a successful objection *from the standpoint of the accepted intellectual framework*, for I believe we agree that this framework has been impoverished by the process’s lack of inclusiveness. I’d say that we agree because we both admit that, had the process been more inclusive, our common framework would be quite different, even though, say, women do not focus exclusively on feminism, or Black people on Africana philosophy, and so on (correct me if I’m wrong).


On a different issue, I am grateful to you and Marcus, not only for raising an interesting and urgent issue, but also because the discussion helped me find a topic for one of my term papers. I hope I’ll be able to pay the debt I owe both of you :)

Elisa Freschi

personally speaking, I agree. I do not want to be considered anything else but a human being studying philosophy (no more, no less), which is also the reason why I do not put my photos on the web. I would not want to get a position only/partly because I happen to be a woman, since the X-cromosome is (I believe) irrelevant to my research (I do not focus on gender studies, nor on feminist philosophy, nor…). However, I wonder whether we should not make some efforts to avoid falling back to prejudices we have been accummulating for centuries, and which can still be alive in the form of implicit biases.
A very brilliant colleague of mine, who works on logic, has once been mistaken by a visiting professor as a "secretary", just because she was the only woman in a seminar. I once opened a classroom door and seeing two people of a similar age, one of them being black I assumed that the teacher was the other one ---and I was wrong. Similar cases have happened to me and, I imagine, to us all many times. Don't you agree that we should be aware of them in order not to fall prey of them?


Anon: "transgendered" is also offensive. It's on par with calling someone "coloured" or "lesbianed" rather than "a person of colour" or "a lesbian."

Just trans or trans*. The latter is maximally inclusive.


Ambrose's first comment exemplifies what is wrong with academic philosophy right now (and Elisa, you seem to agree). It utterly ignores how systems of oppression have excluded people based on various intersectional identities. It sure sounds nice to say things like "I just want to be seen as a human, not as a queer disabled person of colour," for example. But that's not reality. There are many physical and procedural barriers to philosophy including such people at the moment.

Shifting the worry on how this may "exclude" people as not inclusive is offensive in the extreme.

Marcus Arvan

What Rachel said.

Consider Ambrose's comment, "I have an alternative proposal. Let's try to "include" anyone, regardless of their race or sex or ability to walk or run marathons, who demonstrates a real interest in philosophy and some real ability to do philosophy."

This *completely* ignores the issues I raised in my previous post, which is that the very notion of a "real ability to do philosophy" is perspective-dependent. Feminists think they have a real ability to do philosophy. So do critical race theorists. So do Asian philosophers. So do people who do Indian philosophy. BUT, these people are systematically excluded by the western philosophical mainstream because what they are doing does not conform to *our* standards of what counts as good philosophy (which is, roughly: beginning with the "received body of wisdom" we have inherited from a very narrow body of people).

In other words, I think Ambrose is ignoring the way in which power and privilege have infected philosophical standards, and how these standards function to exclude people. If I am right, the only *way* to pursue Ambrose's "alternative proposal" -- to include everyone -- is to do precisely what he *doesn't* want to do: take seriously alternative traditions and standards. But again, he doesn't want to do that. So, I say, what he wants is incoherent. He wants (1) to include everyone "who can do philosophy well", without (2) questioning and challenging power-structures and dominant standards defining what it *is* to do philosophy well.

Ben A.

Pierre, I am not sure why you are so confident that greater inclusivity in philosophy of people from underrepresented groups will not promote utility. As I read it, your argument seems to be that because there are thousands of philosophers, and we are relatively independently minded, we will consider any and all philosophically relevant issues that excluded people would have articulated. You write, "if it is about not missing important contributions, it is likely that, for any person of an underrepresented group, there is at least one person in the “insider” group who is able to make/has made a similar contribution." I don't see how this is anything but speculation. What reason do we have to think that "thousands" is the relevant threshold for saturation?


Philosophy is not a zero-sum game.

Ben A.


You write, 'I will bet any amount of money that, once everyone starts saying "trans" instead of "transsexual" there will be a new group of super-sensitive, super-enlightened thinkers chastising the rest of us for saying "trans" rather than "schema's".'

This comment gives me the impression that you don't think of people who are hurt by particular labels as genuine people, but as just pretensions trying to make your life more complicated. But this is not a game of gotcha! Rather, let us recognize their testimony as genuinely meaningful, and take it seriously. There is power in empathy. Among other things, taking others' testimonies seriously extends our capacities to explore ideas and understand the world.


Ben A., my point was restricted to the accepted intellectual framework *as it is now*. If our practice were more inclusive with respect to people, but not with respect to topics (assuming the two can be disjoint), it seems to me difficult to claim that, say, a woman will bring something that no white man could have brought.

I doubt myself that this could be conclusive, for we can admit that points (1) and (2) are, to some extent, interwoven, even though I don’t believe (and, I suppose, neither do you) that women should do feminist philosophy, or Black persons Africana philosophy, and so forth. In the long run, it is likely that (for example) women would have brought their experience into the common framework, so that it would have been quite different from what it is now (and, in this sense, more inclusive).

As regards why I would take “thousands” as a relevant threshold, I admit it’s quite arbitrary. All I could offer is a weak argument: namely, that we cannot read each and every piece written in our area (unless it is really “small”), so that, beyond some threshold, we would fail to notice some arguments/objections.

Ben A.

Pierre, thanks very much for the response.

We don't need anything as strong as "a woman will bring something that no white man could have brought." This may or may not be true. I take it we're having a discussion about improving our collective chances of success, not establishing necessity claims.

Justin Caouette


I would like to suggest expanding (1) to include folks from poverty stricken backgrounds. I have not come across many in the discipline (or in academia for that matter) that have grown up on food stamps, in housing projects, or in dire poverty. I feel this group (since the poor constitute most of humanity) are underrepresented in the academy.

Ben A.

Recall the basic liberal/utilitarian/social-epistemological line of reasoning for inclusivity in social roles articulated by Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill in the Enfranchisement of Women and The Subjection of Women.

Marcus Arvan

Elisa: Thanks for raising these issues. A couple of thoughts.

I guess I want to say both goals are about equally important, but that in terms of practicalities -- that is, in terms of promoting both goals! -- (1) is more important.

My feeling is that certain ideas tend to be underrepresented because classes of *people* -- people who do not necessarily share dominant ideas -- are underrepresented.

This idea is prominent in a lot of feminism and critical race theory. Why have abstract, universal, idealizing moral and political theories dominated political philosophy? Answer: because abstract conceptions of "freedom and equality" appeal to people (primarily white males) who do not encounter discrimination on a daily basis. This is part because it can be difficult for a person in a privileged person to see *how* their conception of morality or politics defends their point of privilege. Consider, for example, Lockean/Nozickean natural rights. In *theory* these rights sound great -- but how have they been used in practice? (One answer: to defend white privilege. Whites plundered the world and NOW we say, "People have property rights", in effect, to defend the property we have illegitimately obtained. Nozick, for instance, *never* grapples with how to extend his account to the nonideal world we live in -- a world of colonization, genocide, slavery, racism, etc.).

Now, I do not mean to suggest that underrepresented ideas never occur to members of dominant groups. All I mean to suggest is that, historically and psychologically, dominant groups often *unintentionally* marginalize ideas precisely because they are a member of a dominant group, and are unable to see past certain biases. Because members of historically disadvantaged/marginalized groups tend to experience the world differently (morally, socially, and politically) -- experiencing things like domination and subjugation directly -- in order to bring those ideas into the mainstream it is necessary to bring the *group* into the mainstream. And that is only accomplished by prioritizing (1) over (2).


Ben A. writes:

"This comment gives me the impression that you don't think of people who are hurt by particular labels as genuine people"

That's quite a leap. I think all of us are genuine people, but I'm also aware that demands for "sensitivity" and the like have many purposes. They are not necessarily always just expressions of deep pain and suffering that obligate the rest of us to change our behaviour. Often, they are ways of indicating social status within an ideological system. If you don't think that's possible you must have a very optimistic view of human nature.

How can we tell whether that's happening? I think that the sheer implausibility of the claimed offense is evidence. For example, I read the other day that the word "homosexual" is now to be considered bad and insensitive. Why, exactly? The article didn't really explain, but simply asserted that many people now find it very hurtful and homophobic. Well, okay, but why? Is their hurt or offense rationally defensible? I can't see how. A "homosexual" is someone sexually attracted to members of the same ("homo") sex as him or her self. Likewise with "transsexual". What _exactly_ is supposed to be wrong with the term? It does not seem to be similar to terms like "degenerate" or "pervert", or whatever. It seems to be a fairly reasonable, factual description of a certain kind of person. And how is "trans" any better? I suppose I might now object that the term carries the hurtful, bad implication that there are sex or gender _distinctions_ that are being somehow crossed or ignored by these "trans" people. And some may think that it's wrong to conceive of gender that way, etc.

Bottom line: I'll happily change how I talk if you can show me that it is _rational_ to object to some familiar use of words. Otherwise, I assert the modest freedom to speak in ways that seem reasonable and fair to me. The bald assertion that some term just _is_ bad or "insensitive" in the absence of any good argument is not a good reason to change how we speak (or think). To resist changing in response to that kind of assertion is not to show a lack of empathy. It is merely to insist that empathy be constrained (modestly!) by reason.

Elisa Freschi

Justin, you are right, and I emended the post accordingly.
Your comment is also useful in another sense. We are all complex beings. I, for one, am priviledged in many senses (e.g., because I could afford going to university) and I am also a member of several underrepresented or disadvantaged groups (e.g., of the group of scholars of philosophy writing in English but not having English as their mother toungue---and God knows how embarrassing and expensive it is!).

In this sense, 1) is a goal we are bound to try to achieve (ethically speaking), but it is a complex one, and one which requires a constant reframing of our categories (I can very well remember the schock I experienced when I read the many different posts in http://disabledphilosophers.wordpress.com and started understanding how differently one understands "disability").
2), by contrast, is easier to hold in sight. I might not be able to see that the person I am interviewing is psychically disabled (e.g., she suffers of depression), but I will not miss the fact that she or he deals with non-conventional philosophical topics.

This leads me back to Marcus: What would you do if you had to choose between giving a position on political philosophy to a woman/trans/lesbian/person from a different background… working on mainstream political theories and a white person from an ordinary background who trained himself as a scholar of feminism? (This is a genuine question, I am not implying that there is a right answer for me.)



Whether or not a word is a pejorative can't be read off its etymology/origin. Here's a made-up story about "homosexual" that, while I make no claims for its accuracy, should at least give you a feel for why some people might find the word offensive.

T1: "Homosexual" is the word everybody uses for gay people.
T2: Gay people start referring to themselves as "gay". Why? Various reasons--maybe because it has positive connotations, or because it can function as a code word--you can describe yourself as "gay" and get your meaning across to other gay people, without straight people knowing what you're saying. (think 1960s--before the use is widespread)
T3: As time passes, many straight people sympathetic to gay people's plight start using "gay" to refer to gay people, as a show of solidarity, or because they have gay friends who use "gay" and it feels weird to correct them/not use the same words they do.
T4: Because of what happens at T3, there's now a reasonable inference that if somebody uses "homosexual" rather than "gay", they're both (a) straight, and (b) not particularly sympathetic to the plight of gay people, or at least they don't have any gay friends, etc.
T5: Because of what happens in T4, gay people will tend to feel unwelcome/threatened in environments where "homosexual" is the word of choice--they'll suspect they're not in a particularly friendly environment (e.g., Fox News still uses "homosexual".)
T6: Because of what happens in T4-T5, using "homosexual" is a way of signalling, somewhat discreetly, that you're not among the group of straight people who's particularly sympathetic to gay people, or concerned with their plight.

OK, I made that timeline up, but I think it has a decent amount of plausibility, and that some dynamic like that explains why lots of words end up making the transition from acceptable to unacceptable ("coloured", "negro", etc.). What's crucial to notice, I think, is that it doesn't really matter what the explanation is for why some word ends up falling out of use among the targeted group. Once it does, then continuing to use the word that members of the group don't use for themselves will tend, because of the dynamic from T3 on, to signal that you're not sympathetic to their situation. So asking for some a priori deduction of the connotation of a word is totally out of place--obviously it depends on contingent historical facts, that will change as time passes, and as different words come to be used by different groups. So that means that yes, if you're going to avoid offending people, you may need an occasional vocabulary update. This doesn't strike me as super hard to deal with.

Ben A.


Thanks very much for your response. One cannot always tell why others may object to particular labels by speculating on our own; sometimes, or often, we must ask them. It's too bad the article you mentioned offered no insight into why some people object to "homosexual," but if you are genuinely interested, many queer theorists take up such matters extensively. Regarding "trans" labels, Talia Bettcher's SEP entry "Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues" is really good and includes a nice bibliography for further investigation.

I myself am pretty interested in trust and epistemic difference, and so I am interested in that moment *after* one learns that another living, breathing, actually existing human being sincerely testifies to their experience and *before* one learns of their reasons. Sometimes, in such a moment, it is difficult for me to imagine what reasons this person could have. I must ask myself, is this difficulty because there are no good reasons available to them, or because of the limits of my speculative imagination (or possibly both, of course)? This is a genuine question, one for which each of us must balance as best we can our self-trust with our trust in others.


We need to stop thanking Ambrose for his responses. They're increasingly offensive.



I didn't say that "whether a word is a pejorative" can be determined by its etymology.

I merely said that some reason needs to be given for regarding it as truly pejorative if we have any kind of moral obligation to not use the word, or to use another one instead.

The reason could be historical or etymological, I guess, but I never said it needs to be -- or that there are such reasons for thinking that "homosexual", say, is not pejorative.

Your example is telling, though. It might be argued, I suppose, that the word "homosexual" has now somehow come to have a pejorative tone for some people. But it doesn't have any such tone in my language or in the language of anyone I'm used to dealing with. In _our_ language, it's a simple description with no normative tones at all. At least, that's how it has always seemed to me.

So the question is this: if someone now tells me that, unbeknownst to me and the people I talk to, the word just _does_ have a bad, insulting meaning, why should I believe this person?

If "homosexual" was once a word with no normative tones, but then started to seem to have some bad tone to some people, how exactly did that happen? Why did it seem that way to them? Were those people _then_ being at all reasonable in inferring that when people then said "homosexual" they meant something pejorative? Is it reasonable for them now to assume that everyone else uses the word with the same pejorative tone or implication that people in their group take it to have?

Surely these people should be aware of the obvious fact that millions of people are simply not as cool as they are -- not as familiar with how gay people may like to speak these days, or not as familiar with the use of the word "gay" as a deliberate act of "signalling" some political attitude. Doesn't any of this occur to them? Do they just leap to the conclusion that, since everyone's social-linguistic world must be just like theirs, everyone must mean whatever they would mean in using the word?

It is an empirical question what the word means or signals to different speakers. It seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the word does not have any pejorative meaning for millions of competent English speakers. IF someone simply asserts that it does, it is possible that this person is NOT simply telling us some important empirical-linguistic fact. Possibly she is engaged in a shaming ritual that is not reasonable (and not respectful towards those millions of ordinary people).

I say the same thing about "transsexual". There are no known facts that indicate that this word actually has a pejorative meaning for most people, or for all of us in most contexts, etc. Other than the fact that all of a sudden some small group of people have started chastising others for using the word. My point is that I do not regard these attempts to chastise people as a sufficient reason for believing that the word really does have a pejorative meaning, at least for now and for most people.

Marcus Arvan

Following Rachel's comment, I am going to propose that we wrap up the conversation on what language is and is not offensive (and why), and for two reasons.

First, the conversation seems to me to be completely off-topic. It has largely derailed the discussion from the issues raised by Elisa in her OP -- and I think it is reasonable to expect comments in a thread to address the topic the OP posted on.

Second, as Rachel notes, some readers may be offended by the discussion, and this is -- above all -- intended as a safe-and-supportive blog; and, as I have explained many times before, respecting this mission requires some restraint.


I'm happy to wrap up. But if I might I'd like to add something on the meta-topic, to Rachel. You are doing the very thing that quite legitimately concerns some of us: I have not called people names or derogated anyone, but have merely asked for some _reason_ for thinking that we have a moral obligation to speak in the way that you are saying we should. Now you say, with no argument, that that too is simply "offensive". This attitude is contrary to the spirit of philosophy. Socrates often offended his interlocutors, you might recall; he even had the gall to think that they should thank him. Maybe we too should be thankful for rational disagreement even when it's offensive. (Though I still don't know why my ruminations about language use should offend any reasonable person.) A cocoon is one thing but -- if I may offer a suggestion to Marcus -- the site doesn't have to be a kindergarten either. We're grown ups and we should be able to disagree rationally even about "sensitive" topics.


Marcus: Sorry, but I do have one more thing to say on this topic. It seems important. (I hope you'll be as generous as you've already been, and post it even though you want the thread to end :))

Rachel says that my earlier comment "exemplifies" a problem with philosophy, in that I am ignoring how power and oppression have excluded people, etc. And Marcus agrees.

BUT I never said or assumed anything like this!

I didn't say (and don't think) that no one is ever systematically excluded, or that everything is fine as it stands. Instead, my claim was that we _should_ aim to include all those whose purely philosophical merits entitle them to inclusion. I didn't say that we in fact are doing this. I'm certain, in fact, that this has never happened. My "alternative proposal" was a prescription, not a description.

Everyone seems to agree in the abstract that the prescription is correct. The question is how to achieve that goal. What concrete measures?

So, according to Marcus:

"the only *way* to pursue Ambrose's 'alternative proposal' -- to include everyone -- is to do precisely what he *doesn't* want to do: take seriously alternative traditions and standards. But again, he doesn't want to do that."

Wait a minute. Did I say that I refuse to "take seriously alternative traditions and standards"? Absolutely not. Ironically, I am probably far more interested in alternatives than 99% of academic philosophers. My political views are considered kooky right-wing. I've been told by a tenured philosopher that my politics entails that I am "batshit crazy". Ironically, my experience as a "batshit" right-winger in an academic culture strongly hostile to such positions makes it quite easy for me to understand how ideas and people can be systematically excluded. And sympathetic to those who are excluded, whether they are right-wingers or not. I get it: I have long first-hand experience of being despised and ridiculed for holding views that the in-crowd take to be despicable and ridiculous.

The "alternative proposal" is meant to be a genuine ALTERNATIVE to what is actually the case.

And I would argue that, contra Marcus, there is a way to achieve the goal that we agree on _without_ consciously setting "diversity" as a goal. Just as the best way to be happy is probably not to consciously set yourself the goal of being happy.

What I refuse to do is to take seriously some theory T _because_ it is coming from a "diverse" thinker, regardless of my own best efforts to assess its rational status. But since (I assume) T might well be a reasonable or true theory on its merits, despite being contrary to prevailing norms, I am happy to take it seriously for _that_ reason.

I would not be at all surprised if the result of seriously trying to assess things philosophically -- for the first time, maybe -- were the inclusion of many ideas coming from "the diverse". But my proposal was that we should not _aim_ for that result.

If my "alternative proposal" is "offensive" and unacceptable even when cast in these terms, I can only conclude that this whole topic is now closed to rational inquiry in our philosophical culture. That there are just these two camps that can't understand each other and can only settle their differences by the exercise of arational power -- one group just will somehow manage to silence or exclude or delegitimize the other, and that will be the new system. That where anything really important is at stake, academic philosophy is just not philosophy at all. But I hope that's not the case.

Elisa Freschi

Ambrose, I hope you don't mind if I step back in, although you were asking for Marcus' reply. I guess that the problems the other commentators saw in your view are:
1. centuries of oppression of some groups have objectively diminished their chances to be good philosophers (take the obvious example: because they had less free time to dedicate to thinking, because they needed to work). This seems to demand positive actions to change the status quo. Some of us think that these actions should be, e.g., a fixed number of positions only for people of these groups. Others (I am among them) think that the causes of the problem should be addressed (e.g., more scholarships for poor but valuable students, so that they can focus on the study and do not need to spend the night working as cleaners).
2. centuries of oppression have made us dumb to the needs and the voices of these underrepresented groups. We are implicitly biased against them (I am sorry to say that I detected implicit biases also in my own attitude, as said in a reply above) and we need a conscious effort to rewire our initial responses.
3. I am intriged by the idea of judging scholars because of their own merit (honestly, because this is how I would like to be judged), but it is difficult to assess the merit of A, if until now A has not even been part of your horizon of thought. What happens to me when I apply for positions in, say, moral philosophy, is that my articles on free will are not recognised as parts of that AOS because they are full of names the commission does not know how to pronounce.

Thus, how do you concretely think that an evaluation based on merit only could be possible?

Justin Caouette

Ambrose, to your last paragraph: a sense I get from both the web and with many I have discussed this topic with is that *it is the case* that there are two sides and they don't seem to understand each other. I think this is a problem that makes many feel uncomfortable, and further, I think it's a problem that is becoming an obstacle to achieving the goal many of us share re: inclusion.

Take this post as a microcosm. I don't agree with everything you have said, but I do agree with lots and do not feel comfortable explicating those points in public because it is becoming almost taboo to agree with you (I mean Rachel called out the first few people who even said "thanks for your response"). So, my apologies for not delving into those details earlier but I did not feel like being bullied or having to deal with the backlash.


Hi Elisa,
Those are good questions. I may have to think about the matter more carefully, but for now here's a quick reply. My proposal is that we make a serious effort to _think philosophically_ rather than dismissing this or that simply because it seems weird or counter-intuitive or whatnot. Maybe it would be hard or even impossible for most philosophers to do so. But in that case, they also can't be relied upon to make reasonable (philosophically defensible) choices about which "diverse" contributions should be included or taken seriously -- those kinds of choices will be just as irrational as any past choices to exclude the "diverse" for equally bad reasons. So a necessary condition for including _worthy_ non-traditional or "diverse" ideas or people rather than any old nonsense that happens to come from some allegedly oppressed group will be an ability to think in a more truly philosophical way than is presently typical of our discipline. But then I say: if that's necessary in order for the "inclusive" agenda to be fair and reasonable, rather than degenerating into a new exclusionary and irrational system no better than the old one, why not simply try harder to think philosophically? We'll have to do that anyway, and if we can do a proper job issues of "diversity" will take care of themselves. (Of course, the result of this policy will not _necessarily_ be that all groups or types of people achieve "proportionate" representation in philosophy. So if some people think that that is a desirable end in itself, they won't be satisfied. But that would only show that those people are not truly concerned with philosophical standards, that what they really care about is not philosophy but some kind of political power or whatever.)

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: I get your point about open philosophical discussion, but as a moderator -- and I think it is really hard for people who don't moderate blogs to understand this -- it is *very* difficult to know where to draw the line.

A while back, you may recall (a couple of years now), we had a discussion on gender equality quickly spiral out of control. Similar things have -- notoriously -- happened time and again at many, many philosophical blogs, utterly wrecking the atmosphere.

The Philosophers Cocoon is intended to be a safe and supportive forum, and because past experience dictates it is difficult to draw the line *before* anyone steps way over it, creating an *unsafe* atmosphere, I have adopted a very conservative policy. I understand to some people this may be concerning. Open philosophical discussion is important. However, this blog has always been intended to be something unique -- a safe place for people. There are thousands of other forums to debate sensitive issues. At this blog, however, it is our mission to tread carefully. I hope you understand.

Justin Caouette

Marcus, I appreciate the conservative policy. I really do. That said, this issue is a *sensitive issue* for some, so it makes commenting on it nearly impossible. I wonder if you should restrict posting on sensitive issues altogether in the future. It's tough because such issues are very important.

FWIW, as soon as I saw the title of the post I thought to myself "this might turn into a shit storm". I'm not sure what to think about this coincidence, maybe I have synesthesia.

Marcus Arvan

Justin: Thanks for the suggestion. it's a conundrum I have struggled with ever since I started the blog. For the most part, we have stayed away from sensitive issues for the very reason you mention -- and, if the community wishes, I will institute that policy. Although I own the blog, it is a community forum, and as such it seems to me the community should weigh in on. All the same, I myself prefer not to have a blanket policy because -- or so I am perennially hopeful -- I think it is possible to discuss sensitive issues in a safe and supportive way. But maybe I am wrong. It is difficult, that's for sure.


I can understand the reasons for a conservative policy. But I worry that it seems in practice that only conservatives and conservative ideas are ever taken to present a risk to the "safe and supportive" atmosphere of the blog.

Why is it never threatening or dangerously insensitive or offensive to demand affirmative action? Or "inclusion" and "diversity"? Those demands imply, in practice, that some people -- white men, for example -- will not have opportunities they'd otherwise have. Some people will not be able to do the work they love as a result, and simply because they are not members of some racial or sexual class that has been deemed to need "affirmative action". So they get "negative action". Now maybe all of that is entirely fair. Maybe it's beyond any reasonable doubt that it's entirely fair and no reasonable person could disagree. Still, could anyone blame a white man whose kids are poorer than they might have been if he too feels that it's a "sensitive" topic? I find it odd that this is never taken into account. (Not that I'm saying the topic shouldn't be discussed for that reason.)

And consider just how _mildly_ and _locally_ conservative it is to doubt the wisdom of setting up "diversity" or "inclusion" as a goal to be pursued for its own sake. That's something that most liberal-minded or even left-wing philosophers would have considered quite dubious even recently -- say in 1985 or 1990. Lots of philosophers today are very skeptical but afraid of being ostracized or bullied if they admit to it (as Justin says he is). This isn't how philosophers should treat reasoned disagreement. (And it also seems unlikely that those who are so "sensitive" and oppressed that mere disagreement is a threat to their "safety" are at the same time in a position to make so many others feel that they should keep quiet if they know what's good for them.)

Justin: It's true you have to be careful. I've found that it's a good test for real friends, though. The people who'll want to bully you or whatever for disagreeing are not good philosophers, not people you should want to be friends with. And lots of others will actually be willing to discuss things intelligently despite not agreeing -- like Marcus and others on this site :) It's important not to let the bullies ruin it for everyone else.

Elisa Freschi

Ambrose, at least ideally, affirmative actions are meant to compensate preexisting negative conditions. If I as a person of the "first world" start at the departure line and a disadvantaged person needs to start 10m before, it makes sense that I have to reach a target line which is 10m after the target s/he is supposed to reach, don't you think so?

Elisa Freschi

Justin, I will send you the draft, the next time I shall think of writing a post on an applied-philosophy issue:-)

Justin Caouette

Elisa, you should. I would only have to give it a brief look to see if it passes what I will dub "the shit storm test". :)


Hi Elisa,

I don't oppose affirmative action in principle. But whether it's fair depends on what kind of policy we're talking about, and who the people affected may be. Certainly I don't have an objection to the abstract idea that someone who's been disadvantaged in a "race" (so to speak) can be given a "head start" of some kind. But now the question is: Who are those disadvantaged? I can think of white guys who are the first in their families to finish high school. Why should they not get a bit of a "head start" in comparison to a non-white woman who, as it happens, is the child of diplomats? But anyway, even if actual AA policies were entirely fair, it would not follow that any individual person who is disadvantaged by those policies has no right to be "sensitive" about that fact. Even if it's fair that I don't get a job under AA for some larger social purpose that is good, my family and I just _are_ worse off as a result. Possibly in some very serious and life-altering ways. So the topic might bring up some hard feelings for me, quite naturally and understandably, even if it's not wrong for the policy to be there...

But about something you mentioned earlier: you want to consider in detail how "inclusion" might work under my proposal, i.e., without making "diversity" or "inclusion" things we value or aim for. Specifically: you apply for a job and your work isn't considered part of the AOS because it's full of names unfamiliar to the hiring committee. I think that here the hiring committee has to do better, but maybe you do as well. If you're going to participate in a North American philosophy department, for example, you should have some familiarity with -- for example -- analytic work on epistemology and metaphysics. Not much is needed, but enough that you can "situate" your work and the literature that interests you in relation to the work of Russell or Quine or Chalmers or whatever. I'm sure you could do that with a little effort. And it would be good: there is a lot of value in the analytic or contemporary scene, and you might learn something important by figuring out how to relate your concerns to that tradition. At the same time, the hiring committee should not need MORE than that from you. It should be enough, for them, that you've indicated how this or that Vedic theory (for example) compares with this or that theme in their philosophical tradition. And if the rest of your work is focussed largely on that other, non-Western or non-analytic literature then THEY should be expected to learn enough about it that they can learn something from that other tradition. So they should not reject your work just because most of the names or terms or ideas are unfamiliar; they should familiarize themselves enough that they can do a bit of philosophical thinking about what you're saying! I don't know that the solves the problem completely, and of course the proposal is very vague. But you get the idea: you're an ambassador to them from another world, so you should figure out how to communicate in ways they can understand; but they have to be gracious hosts -- they have to meet you halfway. That kind of inter-cultural dialogue is surely possible if we all try harder.

Elisa Freschi

Ambrose, let us remain by the race example. Suppose X is starting 10m back of me (because s/he had a hard time being accepted in a university because of his or her skin colour or religious beliefs whereas everything was smooth for me) and still manages to reach the goal at exactly the same moment I am reaching it. The jury thinks s/he has won the race. I may be unhappy, but s/he DID run faster than I. Similarly, I can see that a white man who does not get a job because of AA is upset, but ---if I have not misunderstood you completely--- he should think that meritocracy won. At least if AA works the way it should.


Hi Elisa,
Yes: I agree that *if* AA works as it should, or as it is supposed to work, then in this situation the white man should think that "meritocracy" won. Though I doubt that the concept of meritocracy makes sense. Let's say that, if it works as it should, he should recognize that it's not unjust that he has been made worse off than he'd otherwise have been. That he has nothing to complain about. Even though, understandably, he might feel deeply disappointed to realize that he and his family will have to suffer for the sake of some larger social good.

On the other hand, I also doubt that the antecedent holds under actual AA policies. Think again of my (real) example: a white man who comes from a very poor, immigrant family; he's the first in his family ever to finish high school. Compare with a white woman from a rich upper class family, or a non-white person from a family of wealthy diplomats or merchants or professionals. Under actual AA policies, the white man will be treated _as if_ he were the runner with the "head start" and the rich and privileged white woman or non-white person of either sex will be treated _as if_ s/he was the runner who was held back. This is just not the case. If there should be a "head start" of any kind here, it should go to the white man and not to these other people. More generally it should go to those who are _actually_ disadvantaged by poverty or oppression or whatever rather than those who just happen to belong to some larger class that is thought be statistically _more likely_ to suffer from these disadvantages.

In actuality, AA policies tend to impose on many people exactly the same kinds of undeserved privileges and penalties for which AA is supposed to be the remedy.

Elisa Freschi

Ambrose, I agree that there are many ways to be disadvantaged. However, I do not agree with the fact that being wealthy/from an educated background completely eliminates a racial or a gender background. I am afraid that being a woman (etc.) does not mean having an initial disadvantage only. Rather, it means starting 10m back every single time in one's life. I have only anedoctal evidence (starting from men who looked open minded but took for granted that their partner would have taken care of their first baby), but I am still surprised by how frequently this confirms the said claim that for many the intellectual *egalité* of men and women (etc.) is by far not obvious. Now, as hinted at in a previous answer, I think that the reasons for that should be addressed, rather than giving an advantage to women (etc.) at the end of the whole race. For instance: childcares at universities, or at conferences, or public campaigns against implicit biases. Advantages which only come at the end do not change the situation and risk to be felt as unfair by white, heterosexual (...) men.

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