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It seems like there should be a long list of answers to the question: "What are all the things that could possibly help address injustice in academia?". And I agree that promoting civility, in the limited sense of "civility" described in the OP, should be somewhere on that long list. I also think that this is a good question to ask and answer.

But I think some more urgent and important questions are ones like this one: "What one or two changes will do the most to address injustice in academia, and soon?" And I'm pretty skeptical that promoting civility will show up in the right answer to that question. (I don't think that you've argued for such a view, but I do get that sense from some of the academics that have recently been talking about civility.)

A Philosopher

Thanks for the reflections, Helen. I also agree that, if we're looking for a virtue to cultivate in the leaders of philosophy which will minimize injustice, civility isn't it. Perhaps I'm just being blind to it, but I haven't noticed a lack of civility among prominent philosophers and those at the top of the pecking order in departments. Perhaps the obvious example is aggressive questioning in Q&As, but overall these people usually approach interpersonal interactions in a dry, professional stance (lots of "Dear so-and-so's", etc) which involves no incivility. If anything, it seems to me that this adherence to civility allows a lot of people to skirt their duty to another virtue, empathy. We should be weary of too much civility not only because it's a tool to silence the oppressed, but because it offers cover for a lack of empathy. Empathy requires feelings, and feelings aren't dry and civil. Of course, the proper cultivation of civility, in this case, may mean learning to dial that civility back to make room for empathy. Whether or not too much civility is the cause or a cover, I do think cultivating empathy will have more of an effect on injustice. Someone who deeply empathizes with sexual assault victims or those unfairly losing professional opportunities due to prestige bias is likely to enact the sort of institutional rules needed to curb these problems.


Civility is good, especially how described here. But when most people hear "civility" I think the regular language intuition is one can be civil while also being a jerk. So we might need another word that demands but also portrays the need for certain types of motivations in addition to actual words and displays.

Helen De Cruz

Anon: You're right that civility certainly doesn't seem like the first and more pressing way in which we can solve problems that beset academia - we need strong structures (e.g., unions) to help us do this. But yet the Confucians found civility of absolutely fundamental importance to understand how humans should interact with each other. One way one might understand this is to think that many of us, individually, cannot change the structures but we can change our own attitude and behavior.

Civility in the Confucian view are not sticking to empty formulas (this may alleviate some of the worries posed by A Philosopher above). They are also not there to merely entrench existing power relationships (though experts disagree in how far norms of civility have the power to disrupt, e.g., Michael Puett thinks they are disruptive and transformative, but I feel less optimistic especially if you read some of the rituals described by e.g., Xunzi which seem to merely reinforce status, age etc). In the Mengzian view, and also in Kongzi's view, civility by itself is not enough. You need to exert wisdom to see when it is better to prioritize civility or when you should rather go with empathy (see example above of saving one's sister-in-law, which violates civility but stems from a sense of compassion with the person in distress). Cultivating empathy would be important to address injustices in academia - it would be for instance a motivator for treating adjuncts better, or for being more considerate of healthcare needs of e.g., disabled colleagues, which civility by itself cannot provide. Eventually you can put a lot of this into norms of civility, but it takes a while for those norms to be accepted and widely used.

A Philosopher

I must admit I've never thought seriously about civility as a virtue. (It sounds like I'm missing out on a large literature about it.) I'm struggling to clearly articulate in my mind what civility comes to, beyond the sort of thin sense of civility which still allows for being a jerk or just involves forgoing aggressive ways of speaking. On the one hand I sort of give it. I can vaguely see how, given our deeply social nature and the importance of cooperative living, *being civil* is *somehow* really important for properly greasing the social and cooperative wheels of our lives. But as I try to articulate just why or how being civil is important, it seems like a mere enabling condition: maintaining social relations and securing cooperation requires that I "be civil" towards others (not a jerk, not hostile, etc), but it also seems like once you achieve a fairly low level of civility that its function will mostly have been achieved (and hence that civility isn't really a "virtue" to be cultivated, or at least, not one that's difficult to cultivate). It also seems like the sort of civility required for greasing social wheels mostly is just the thin trappings of a certain way of speaking; I have the intuition that when you get beyond those, you're venturing into more substantial virtues like justice and empathy.

Here is a thought: there are different ways to cut up the virtue pie. The Greeks treated justice much more nebulously than we do, including under it a lot of components that don't quite sound like justice to us and which I'd assign as other virtues. You know, it's the highest virtue that leads to all the others (presumably just because they've defined it to include them). Is something similar going on here with "civility" in this tradition? Are they treating it more nebulously, including under it components of other virtues (like empathy), as some kind of "master" virtue?

If I read enough Plato and Aristotle, I can get into the head space of speaking of "being just" in this grand way where it has connotations of the best sort of social creature who lives their social life as best as possible (and thus accrues all the benefits of it). I can get myself in the same space with the term "civil", although in neither case am I sure the concepts themselves, so construed, help me to actually know how to act. If you read either of these virtues as "master virtues", they don't seem to be very action-guiding anymore.

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