Friday, February 3, 2012

Distributive justice

Consider the principle of charity. Here's a nice description of the principle from Gary Hatfield in his guidebook to Descartes' Meditations (the adverbs are central):
The principle of charity advises us not to take the easy way out by quickly deciding that a text is incoherent or contains deplorably weak arguments.
Let's adjust this for our purposes:
The principle of charity advises us to engage our interlocutors earnestly.
Put positively, earnest engagement might involve:
Listening in an attempt to understand both methodology and content (What's being argued for and why argue in that way?). Plausibly interpreting claims admitting of multiple interpretations. Noting any unclear formulations of claims or arguments and attempting to make them clearer. Taking all (reasonable) questions seriously.
Put negatively, earnest engagement most importantly involves:
Not resorting to unconsidered charges of incoherence, unclarity, uninterestingness, or weakness of argument without an active attempt at positive earnest engagement.
More specifically:
Not interrupting. Not making (certain types of) faces. Not actively displaying disinterest.*
One reason to employ the principle of charity in both its positive and negative formulations is that many younger folks - current company included - have impostor syndrome. And, I've recently decided that impostor syndrome in philosophy is as much due to certain sociological facts about academic philosophy as it is due to certain psychological facts about individuals.

Exaggerated, puzzled looks and rolled eyes in private conversation or during questions at public talks aggravate impostor syndrome symptoms. As do nasty comments from reviewers: "This paper is fundamentally confused." "This paper employs fancy argumentation for something that's painfully obvious."

At best, puzzled looks, rolled eyes, and claims of 'fundamental confusions' or 'painful obviousness' distract from possibly meaningful criticisms; they disguise attempts at earnest engagement. At worst, these behaviors indicate a real disrespect for the principle of charity and one's philosophical interlocutor.

Encouragement is important, sure. But, so is criticism that engages and takes ideas seriously. Real conversation in which questions are asked freely and philosophical terrain is genuinely explored without fear of attack or charges of unclarity or ignorance or being fundamentally wrong-headed is important. In other words: Doing earnest, engaged philosophy is important.

The things listed above are important not just because it makes others feel better about themselves, it's important because philosophy is at its best when the principle of charity is employed. When the principle isn't employed, philosophical practice suffers.

We might lay it down as a general principle that:
Those who fail to engage in sustained and directed philosophical practice - practice that certainly involves criticism and being told that one's views are wrong or unclear - without being dicks are bad professional philosophers.**
Back to the principle of charity.

I think application of the principle of charity should satisfy something like a philosophical version of Rawls's difference principle.
(a) Application of the principle of charity should be as ready and free in the case of our junior colleagues as it is in the case of our senior colleagues; and (b) Senior colleagues should make a special effort to apply it in the case of junior colleagues.***
I don't think that the principle of charity is applied this way very often. In practice, I find that the principle of charity is applied is more readily and freely in conversations between senior members of the profession with one another. Or, between especially precocious junior colleagues and senior colleagues.

I don't think it's readily and freely applied in conversations with those colleagues who might benefit most of all from its application, e.g., the less learned, less experienced, less adept at speaking in public. That's wrong. It fosters impostor syndrome.

Perhaps, in the end, this is all just a long way of saying:
When you don't understand something or someone, consider the possibility that it might be as much you, as it is them.****


-- JD

*Broadly or narrowly construed. Side note: Even if philosophically motivated, your interest in a problem or disinterest in a problem does not free you from the principle of charity. (However, I do think that - principle of charity aside - we do ourselves no favors when we fail to motivate or frame our projects to those (everyone) who care about our projects less than we do or know very little about our fields.)

**If someone is wrong, tell them they're wrong. Rhetorical flourishes and liberal adverb use don't make them any wronger; nor do they lend force to arguments. While I grant that someone can be confused about a fundamental issue or misinterpret a position such that the original point is lost, I think adverbs aren't proper substitutes for good arguments.

*** I'll leave it up to y'all how the principle might be formulated in the case of blind-review. As a first stab, we might think that there's an obligation to leave remarks for future improvement on poorly written, unclear papers (in the same way we might do for students). For example, "This paper would benefit from a stronger organizational structure. More signposts, etc." "The author might think about considering [X's views, arguments]."

****To be clear: I'm claiming that everyone starts with an equal claim of being subject to the principle of charity. There may be certain things we do to lose that right, but those cases are few and far between. Let's just try to understand each other, okay?

32 comments:

Ben said...

Just out of interest, is this principle supposed to apply only to professional philosophers and not to students? Because as a student I was always taught to assume that anyone marking my paper would be lazy and uncharitable - the idea being to avoid any ambiguity that could be misinterpreted.

I think it's ok to conclude that our u/g students are confused, since many of them are. I don't think that they warrant extra charity on account of their junior status. (Indeed, the principle of charity often seems to be invoked when discussing great dead philosophers, like Descartes, because we have reason to think that they're not simply stupid or confused.)

But if we admit this, then I can see why members of a search committee might think they don't owe charity to, say, an ABD job applicant. Said candidate must show that s/he isn't confused, before being entitled to charitable interpretation.

Jaded, Ph.D. said...

Ben,

I give my students the Jim Pryor line too: I'm gong to be 'lazy, stupid, and mean' when I grade their papers. So, I tell them, they better write clearly and precisely if they want to be interpreted fairly. The 'lazy, stupid, and mean' line is a neat little pedagogical tool to motivate students and make my expectations clear.

But, I do take their papers seriously as attempts to do philosophy. When I leave comments on their paper - even if the papers are confused - I at least assume they tried to tackle the assignment, provide constructive comments, and then give them some version of a 'complement sandwich' at the end:

(1) Here's something you did nicely; (2) Here's something you did poorly and/or can improve on; (3) Here's something to keep in mind going forward.

In any case, I don't think anyone should have to *earn* the right to be subject to the Principle of Charity. If we don't approach one another with the principle of charity in mind, then how will anyone ever get the chance to prove their lack of confusion and entitlement to charitable interpretation?

There should be a presumption in favor of charity:, people who get into graduate school, complete a Ph.D. and apply to jobs are really smart. Maybe not Descartes-smart, but pretty damn smart. They've presumably worked and thought hard about their topic.

Now, there are certain things we can do to help our own case and avoid misinterpretation: write clearly, say what we mean, don't use obfuscating language, read a lot, etc. And nothing precludes, after doing all these things, that I am unclear, confused, or just plain obtuse.

But, there should be a presumption of effort in favor of charitable interpretation - ESPECIALLY IN PHILOSOPHICAL CONVERSATION/DISCUSSION.

I'll leave the details of when we should give up that presumption up for debate.

BunnyHugger said...

I liked this the first time you posted it, and I still like it now. I have gotten some pointlessly cruel reviews that went out of their way, well beyond discharging the reviewers' duties with appropriate rigor, to emphasize how worthless the paper was. I have also had reviews that made criticisms just as good but without the tone that suggests I must be an incompetent idiot. The former made me want to toss the paper and in my dark moments made me want to give up philosophy since I must, indeed, be incapable as a scholar. The latter made me want to revise, or possibly rewrite, the paper and make it better. When I write reviews, I try to model them after the latter. Even if I think the paper is very weak and recommend rejection, I still try hard to write the review with this general tone: "Here are where I see the most promising germs of ideas, and here is what I think the paper would need for those germs to sprout."

Zarathustra said...

This is especially good advice to faculty at job talks. When you've brought someone to campus, that means she's amongst your top 3 or 4 candidates out of, let's say, 200. I.e., she's probably pretty damn good, maybe even better than you were when you went on the market.

Are you going to ask your question in a charitable way, or an uncharitable one?
* If you ask a charitable question and she answers well, then you've learned that you can have a productive exchange with her.
* If you ask a charitable question and she answers poorly, then you've learned that she sometimes flubs even charitable questions.
* If you ask an uncharitable question and she answers well, you still don't know that you can have a productive exchange with her, because she probably won't want to talk to you that way ever again.
* If you ask an uncharitable question and she answers poorly, you've learned nothing.
Think about it.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a significant difference between dealing with professional philosophers and graduate students as opposed to undergraduates in the classroom is that in the former case you can be sure that the people you're dealing with are operating in good faith and genuinely trying to get at the truth, whereas undergrads are often lazy and uncaring. When this happens, sometimes the only appropriate response is to get them to be ashamed of themselves, showing them that their bullshit doesn't warrant being taken seriously, thus hopefully leading them to do things differently next time. Of course one needs to be discerning in how one does this, but it can be necessary.

Anonymous said...

"The former made me want to toss the paper and in my dark moments made me want to give up philosophy since I must, indeed, be incapable as a scholar. The latter made me want to revise, or possibly rewrite, the paper and make it better."

I think the problem is not that philosophers fail to acknowledge some form of the principle of charity or fail to try to uphold it. Rather, they are unable to distinguish imperfection or weakness or disagreement with themselves from total incompetence, and so they sincerely believe they never encounter opportunities to appropriately apply the principle of charity. They behave towards each other much as first year students behave on their first philosophy papers: "Teacher, I really tried to be charitable, but it's hard when Descartes is soooo stupid!"

I've never encountered any other profession where credentialed members of the profession accuse each other of being complete frauds or utterly incompetent, as philosophers--even, and maybe especially, respected philosophers--do surprisingly often.

The problem is deeper than a failure to recognize a duty to charity. It's a deep incapacity to understand when to apply it, a systematic incapacity to read or hear well based in a systematic overemphasis on the necessary skill of arguing well. This, in turn, seems to be based in an overly combative understanding of the practice of philosophy, aggravated by a very insecure job market and future for the profession.

Anonymous said...

Charity works both ways.

I'm a professor, and I've seen a lot of job talks where the candidate thinks every question is an objection. Several times, I've been unable to even finish my (merely clarificatory) question because the candidate has interrupted me to object to the phrasing. Other times, I've asked a clarificatory question and gotten a response of "that's not a good objection because..." that still leaves me with my question unanswered. It's frustrating. (And before you ask: no, my tone was not in anyway hostile.)

Remember, we chose you out of the 400 or so applicants because we were impressed with you. We're not trying to tear you down, just to understand and evaluate your project. Yes, this might involve objections. But try to treat us like we're all in this together.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I must say I don't recognize the phenomenon. I mean, I have many times seen aggressive and hostile questions, but the hostility and aggression didn't have much to do with lack of charity. The questioner just saw (or thought he saw) a mistake. It hasn't been a matter of an uncharitable interpretation of something unclear.
My thesis adviser is one of the most aggressive questioners in the profession (known for it, too), so I've had lots of observations.
Of course, it's entirely possible that you all are just thinking of a different phenomenon, one with which I am not very familiar. But I kind of doubt it.

Jaded, Ph.D. said...

Agreed. Charity does work both ways. I often feel like people take my questions to be objections when I intend them to be questions of clarification. Perhaps that's my fault - tone, loudness, etc. - or perhaps it's a byproduct of the (wrongfully, regrettably) combative nature of the discipline.

In any case, I do think pointed and directed questioning is a part of philosophical practice. Of course we should be asked hard questions.

What distinguishes a charitable hard question from an uncharitable hard question? Well, that itself is a tough question. Perhaps we can only distinguish on a case by case basis. Do you feel like shit/attacked after the question has been asked or do you feel edified and ready to improve your view? Do you feel like your views have been taken seriously or that they've constructed a caricature of your view to take you down a few pegs?

As Bunnyhugger points out, tone might be something that helps us answer this question. So might the framing of questions - compare: I wasn't quite sure what you meant by X and hope that you might say more because it seems like you meant Y. If so, then there might be some problems. versus I thought your view of X was totally off-base. You really meant Y and that completely wrecks your view.

I think the latter formulation, instead of encouraging your interlocutor to address your worry, makes them more defensive and they focus on the wrong things: not clarifying their position but trying to justify their whole outlook.

These are just some scattered thoughts. Be charitable.

Anonymous said...

Charity is one part of what's required, but I think humility is just as important. E.g. I can recall getting an e-mail reply from a senior philosopher, after writing him to follow up on some questions he'd raised during my job talk. His response, in brief: You're wrong, wrong, wrong. And you know what? He was wrong; there were some pretty basic points he was simply overlooking. This was certainly due in part to a lack of charity in his reading of what I'd said. But equally important, I think, was an utter lack of humility, and a consequent inability to imagine that he might have something to learn from a junior philosopher with a different take on things.

Tenured Prof said...

#1. I see this post as mixing together two very different pieces of advice, which are:
(a) don't be mean, either in one's words or one's tone, and
(b) resist drawing the conclusion that one's interlocutor is confused or mistaken.

(a) is great advice, but it has nothing to do with (b).

(b) is good advice for *some people*--but only for those people who are overinclined to believe that others are confused or mistaken.

(b) is bad advice for lots of people. In my own education, it was very valuable to come to realize that when I found others confusing, this was likely due to their failing to make themselves clear rather any failing on my part. The post discusses "imposter syndrome" but fails to recognize that the insecure and inexperienced are often too likely to already follow (b) and they actually need the opposite advice.

Furthermore, it's a very important philosophical skill to recognize when a person is being unclear or confusing. It's important to be able to recognize this because (i) one learns what to avoid doing oneself, and (ii) one learns what requires further explanation and clarification, because it was not sufficiently clear the first time (e.g. "this reading was unclear so I'll have to go over it really carefully with my students" or "that part of the paper was hard to follow so as commentator I'll have to explain it to the audience").

It's also very important to notice when famous, important philosophers are being unclear or making bad mistakes.

#2. On not being mean:

In the comments, Jaded PhD writes:
"compare: I wasn't quite sure what you meant by X and hope that you might say more because it seems like you meant Y. If so, then there might be some problems. versus I thought your view of X was totally off-base. You really meant Y and that completely wrecks your view."

Neither of these is ideal. What's ideal is to be utterly straightforward. Neither obnoxiousness nor apology or expressed insecurity are a good idea. No need to say "I wasn't quite sure . . . "

Anonymous said...

@7:16 It seems to me that a significant difference between dealing with professional philosophers and graduate students as opposed to undergraduates in the classroom is that in the former case you can be sure that the people you're dealing with are operating in good faith and genuinely trying to get at the truth, whereas undergrads are often lazy and uncaring.

Well that makes it easy, doesn't it? I don't think the profession is so perfectly constituted a guild as to justify this bright line between undergraduate and graduate students. Just because the sorting devices of the profession of philosophy are a pain in the ass to those who frequent this board doesn't mean that they admit no lazy and uncaring people into the guild. In fact the whole premise of the post here is that too many philosophers are lazy and uncaring.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the profession is so perfectly constituted a guild as to justify this bright line between undergraduate and graduate students.

Okay, so the line isn't bright. But that doesn't detract from the point that was being made; it only shows that it might apply to some professional philosophers as well.

Anonymous said...

I think Tenured Prof hits the nail on the head. While it's plausible that everyone starts on an equal footing in deserving non-assholish treatment, it's harder to make the case that everyone should start on equal footing as to their likelihood of being simply confused or missing something fundamental and obvious.

And what do we mean by "starts," anyway? Does this not (always) apply to undergrads, as anon 7:16 has it?

I would think it more plausible that one should put all members of a conversation on equal footing wrt the principle of charity as much as one is able to, consistent with relevant known facts about education, level of reading, etc. This makes some of the point you want anyway, since part of what you're saying is that getting into professional philosophy requires one to care about getting in and to try very hard - so given these hurdles you have a defeater for the belief that this person is just a lazy ignoramus who's making fundamental errors and confusions all over the place.

But it also raises problems for the "difference principle" idea, since it's not unreasonable to think that someone who has been doing top-quality work in an area forever is less likely to be simply confused about something very basic than someone trying to break into that area.

Anonymous said...

btw my word verification for the previous comment was "unshag". Too good to be true!

Anonymous said...

Nah, too true to be good.

Anonymous said...

1) Many of papers given at conferences (even those at the Eastern APA) are incoherent nonsense. This is also the case with many of the publications churned out every year by faculty trying to get a job/tenure, as well as checked-out senior faculty. This is as much due to sociological facts surrounding academic philosophy as "impostor syndrome."

2) I agree with Nietzsche that demands for collegiality and politeness are, in fact, social mechanisms designed to encourage conformity and deference to authority. Anyone who has spent time in or around East Asian cultures will know what I'm talking about.

3) People who complain about the hostile climate of contemporary philosophy need a better understanding of the history of our own discipline. The Greeks put even the worst of the APA assholes to shame. Don't believe me? Read the biographical section of the entry on Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius' "Lives of the Eminent Philosophers".

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but I've got a Skype interview coming up, and I've never done one before. Are the expectations the same in terms of dress, at least when it comes to what the people at the other end will see? Obviously footwear isn't an issue, but do I need to wear a jacket and tie? (I'm male.)

Zarathustra said...

5:53:

And Plato gave the world's longest lecture. What's your point?

Anonymous said...

@Anon 5:53: Do you also agree with Nietzsche that life is no argument?







Verification word: synxen

Anonymous said...

@7:23

I would have thought my point was obvious. I even numbered the claims and everything to make them easy to follow...just in case you learned to read from the back of TV dinners.

Why it almost seems as though you are being dismissive of my points, without charitably considering them...

Impostor!

Anonymous said...

7:00

Go naked on the bottom half, suit jacket, shirt and tie on the top. Make sure you get up at least once during the skype interview and adjust your window shade. You're guaranteed to get a laugh and maybe even the job!

Anonymous said...

In response to @5:53's second point:

In my experience at least, the biggest assholes are typically those who already occupy positions of authority. It may seem as though they have nothing to lose by being polite (or, as 5:53 puts it, deferential), but that's not quite true, since one can and often does gain or lose academic capital independently of his/her academic rank. In academic philosophy (and academia more broadly), tenure only guarantees a job; it doesn't guarantee prestige. Oftentimes the more senior the philosopher, the more aggressive and/or irrationally defensive (read: assholish) s/he becomes precisely in order to maintain his/her dwindling academic capital. After all, one tried and true method for defending in your own turf is cutting up your competition into itty-bitty pieces, "charity" be damned.

And, apropos of 5:53's first point, let's remember that this has very little to do with the actual quality of arguments and everything to do with gaining and maintaining academic capital--not just by publishing and giving talks, but by being cited, reviewed favorably, etc. People often use "charity" as a way of ingratiating themselves to powerful allies and lack of "charity" as a way of destroying (or trying to destroy) actual or potential competitors. This is how professional academia works; having internalized the values of capitalism it has become every bit as nasty and cutthroat, and everyone knows it.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anon 5:53's numbered points:

To (1): Even (1) were true, it’s irrelevant to the demands of charity (and you’ve provided no evidence that its true).

To (2): Nietzsche was wrong, and needed to grow up.

To (3): Bad behavior in ancient times doesn't justify bad behavior now.

Anonymous said...

"Nietzsche was wrong, and needed to grow up."

Such a charitable interpretation!

Anonymous said...

7:00 - wear a full suit. Sure, some might find it silly, but I think wearing what you would normally wear for an interview will help you get into the right mode for interviewing. This likely sounds silly, but I suited up for a phone interview once. Wore the suit, had all my materials in my bag, had my bottle of water: same as in-person interviews. For me, it was about getting into the right frame of mind, and the suit helped. It certainly can't hurt.

Anonymous said...

5:53 claims that "demands for collegiality and politeness are, in fact, social mechanisms designed to encourage conformity and deference to authority." But the idea that philosophers who are rude at conferences, in referee reports, etc., are really just bucking convention and speaking truth to power is utterly idiotic. Does anyone, even 5:53, really believe this idea? I find that hard to believe. So I don't get it, 5:53, what are you talking about?

Jaded, Ph.D. said...

Tenured Prof is right about this:

#2. On not being mean:

In the comments, Jaded PhD writes:

"compare: I wasn't quite sure what you meant by X and hope that you might say more because it seems like you meant Y. If so, then there might be some problems. versus I thought your view of X was totally off-base. You really meant Y and that completely wrecks your view."

Neither of these is ideal. What's ideal is to be utterly straightforward. Neither obnoxiousness nor apology or expressed insecurity are a good idea. No need to say "I wasn't quite sure . . . "


First, though I agree, I'll briefly remark that it's often the case that some people justify being a dick by saying that they were "just being straightforward."

Second, contra some of the other commenters here, I *do* think that everyone starts out with the same claim to charity, but charity might mean something different from case to case. In other words, the principle of charity is not a principle that has the same content in all cases; it identifies a philosophical disposition. It's a functional principle; a regulative ideal, if you will.

This takes care of the alleged counterexamples everyone brings up.

For example, it's safe to assume that someone earlier in their career is perhaps not as well-read as someone more advanced. It's charitable not to think they are lazy idiots, but to suggest to them certain articles, books, chapters, that they might benefit from reading.

Perhaps someone later in their career has read all the things you too have read and might suggest to a younger colleague, but have an idiosyncratic view. It's charitable of you not to presume that they didn't read very closely or are lazy scholars, but to ask them about their reasons for their supposedly idiosyncratic views.

Perhaps an undergraduate has written a poor paper that muddies up a philosopher's position. It's charitable to assume that they've done the reading and to ask them why they put forward the views they did.

Of course, after closer investigation, it might turn out that the graduate student is a lazy idiot or the tenured professor an inept scholar or the undergraduate is someone who isn't taking their work seriously. In that case, we shouldn't be dicks in pointing out these things to them - we'll frame our worries in ways that are collegial - but we should point them out.

Anonymous said...

Everyone read Feb 8, 4:35 and memorize it.

Anonymous said...

"But the idea that philosophers who are rude at conferences, in referee reports, etc., are really just bucking convention and speaking truth to power is utterly idiotic."

Yes that is utterly idiotic, but then I never claimed anything of the sort...so where did the idiocy come from?

My point #2 was that a strong social emphasis on politeness and collegiality often serves (intended or not) to support existing structures of authority and suppress challenges to it.

It is rather amusing that, in good progressive academia, everyone seems so horrified by my implication.

I guess suspicious critiques of power are only fun when directed at out-groups rather than one's own professional circle.

Anonymous said...

5:53/12:08 says "My point #2 was that a strong social emphasis on politeness and collegiality often serves (intended or not) to support existing structures of authority and suppress challenges to it."

*How* would an emphasis on people being polite at conferences, in referee reports, etc., serve to support existing structures of authority and suppress challenges to it? After all, as you and I (1:15) agree, it's not as if people who are rude assholes in these contexts are challenging authority.

I don't deny that some ways of emphasizing politeness can, in some contexts, function in the way you suggest. But I don't see how anything remotely like Jaded's suggestions function this way in the context of current academic philosophy. (In contrast, 4:35's account of assholishness seems pretty plausible.) So please, tell me *how* politeness serves the function you suggest.

And while you're at it, spare me the "I'm critiquing power; you're a faux liberal" nonsense. I'd like to see you actually critique power, and not just strike a pose.

Anonymous said...

4:35 here.

I don't think it's true that politeness as such necessarily serves to promote and maintain oppressive power relations, and if this is 5:53/12:08 is arguing, I think s/he is mistaken. That said, it is important to recognize the extent to which certain behavioral norms in academia (or any institution, for that matter) end up serving the interests of the powerful, whether or not that was their original intention. Compulsory politeness can obviously play this kind of role when there is a generalized expectation, for example, that junior faculty will be "polite" (read: "deferential") toward their senior colleagues in order to appear "collegial," while senior faculty can be rude to whomever they please with impunity. In the philosophy profession, a similar dynamic might emerge if some philosophers are expected to give charity and others are supposed to receive it. In such instances, charity entrenches power relations that might not exist otherwise.