On self-censorship

For a few years during the 80s, Modern Talking was one of the most well known pop bands in Germany. But although their first single “You’re my heart, you’re my soul” was sold over eight million times, no one admitted to having bought it. Luckily, my dislike of their music was authentic, so I never had to suffer that particular embarrassment. Yet, imagine all these people alone in their homes, listening to their favourite tune but never daring to acknowledge it openly. Enjoying kitsch of any sort brings the whole drama of self-censorship to the fore. You might be moved deeply, but the loss of face is more unbearable than remaining in hiding. What’s going on here? Depending on what precisely is at stake, people feel very differently about this phenomenon. Some will say that self-censorship just maintains an acceptable level of decency or tact; others will say that it reflects political oppression or, ahem, correctness. At some point, however, you might let go of all shame. Perhaps you’ve got tenure and start blogging or something like that … While some people think it’s a feature of the current “cancel culture”, left or right, I think it’s more important to see the different kinds of reasons behind self-censorship. In some cases, there really is oppression at work; in other cases, it’s peer pressure. Neither is fun. In any case, it’s in the nature of this phenomenon that it is hard to track in a methodologically sound way. So rather than draw a general conclusion, it might be better to go through some very different stories.

Bad thoughts. – Do you remember how you, as a child, entertained the idea that your thoughts might have horrible consequences? My memory is faint, but I still remember assuming that thinking of swear words might entail my parents having an accident. So I felt guilty for thinking these words, and tried to break the curse by uttering them to my parents. But somehow I failed to convince them of the actual function of my utterance, and so they thought I was just calling them names. Today, I know that this is something that happens to occur in children, sometimes even pathologically strong and thus known as “intrusive thoughts” within an “obsessive compulsory disorder”. Whatever the psychological assessment, my experience was that of “forbidden” thoughts and, simultaneously, the inability to explain myself properly. Luckily, it didn’t haunt me, but I can imagine it becoming problematic.

One emergence of the free speech debate. – When I was between 7 and 10 years old (thus in the 1970s), I sometimes visited a lonely elderly woman. She was an acquaintance of my mother, well in her 70s and happy to receive some help. When no one else was around she often explained her political views to me. She was a great admirer of Franz Josef Strauß whom she described to me as a “small Hitler – something that Germany really needs again”. She hastened to explain that, of course, the real Hitler would be too much, but a “small” one would be quite alright. She then praised how, back in the day, women could still go for walks after dark etc. Listening to other people of that generation, I got the impression that many people in Germany shared these ideas. In 2007, the news presenter Eva Herman explicitly praised the family values of Nazi Germany and was dismissed from her position. The current rise of fascism in Germany strikes me as continuous with the sentiments I found around me early on. And if I’m not mistaken these sentiments date back at least to the 1930s and 1940s. In my experience, Nazism was never just an abstract political view. Early on did I realise that otherwise seemingly “decent” people could be taken by it. But this concrete personal dimension made the sweaty and simplistic attitude to other people all the more repulsive. In any case, I personally found that people in the vicinity of that ideology are the most vocal people who like to portray themselves as “victims” of censorship, though they are certainly not censoring themselves. (When it comes to questions of free speech, I am always surprised that whistleblowers such as Snowden are not mentioned.)

Peer pressure and classism. – I recently hosted a guest post on being a first generation student that really made me want to write about this issue myself. But often when I think about this topic, I still feel uncomfortable writing about it. In some ways, it’s all quite undramatic in that the transition to academia was made very easy by my friends. For what shouldn’t be forgotten is that it’s not only your parents and teachers who educate you. In my case at least, I tacitly picked up many of the relevant habits from my friends and glided into being a new persona. Although I hold no personal grudges, I know that “clothes make people” or “the man” as Gottfried Keller’s story is sometimes translated. What I noticed most is that people from other backgrounds often have a different kind of confidence being around academics. Whether that is an advantage across the board I don’t know. What I do know is that I took great care to keep my own background hidden from most colleagues, at least before getting a tenured job.

Opportunism and tenure. – Personally, I believe that I wouldn’t dare publishing this very post or indeed any of my posts, had I not obtained a tenured position. Saying this, I don’t want to impart advice. All I want to say is that getting this kind of job is what personally freed me to speak openly about certain things. But the existential weight of this fact makes me think that the greatest problem about self-censorship lies in the different socio-economic status that people find themselves in. This is just my experience, but perhaps it’s worth sharing. So what is it about, you might wonder? There is no particular truth that I would not have told before but would tell now. It’s not a matter of any particular opinion, be it left or right. Rather, it affects just about everything I say. The fact that I feel free to talk about my tastes, about the kitsch I adore, about the music I dislike, about the artworks I find dull, alongside the political inclinations I have – talking about all of this openly, not just politics, is affected by the fact that I cannot be fired just so and that I do not have to impress anyone I don’t want to impress. It is this freedom that I think does not only allow us to speak but also requires us to speak up when others will remain silent out of fear.

The myth of authenticity. – The fact that many of us feel they have to withhold something creates the idea that there might be a vast amount of unspoken truths under the surface. “Yes”, you might be inclined to ask, “but what do you really think?” This reminds me of the assumption that, in our hearts, we speak a private language that we cannot make intelligible to others. Or of the questions immigrants get to hear when people inquire where they really come from. It doesn’t really make sense. While it is likely that many people do not say what they would say if their situation were different, I don’t think it’s right to construe this as a situation of hidden truths or lies. (Some people construe the fact that we might hide conceal our opinions as lies. But I doubt that’s a pertinent description.) For better or worse, the world we live in is all we have when it comes to questions of authenticity. If you choose to remain silent, there is no hidden truth left unspoken. It just is what it is: you’re not speaking up and you might be in agony about that. You might conceal what you think. But then it is the concealing that shapes the world and yourself, not the stuff left unspoken. Put differently, there are no truths, no hidden selves, authentic or not, that persist without some relation to interlocutors.

***

Speaking of which, I want to finish this post with a word of thanks. It’s now two years ago that I started this blog. By now I have written 118 posts. If I include the guest posts, it adds up to 131. Besides having the pleasure of hosting great guest authors, I feel enormously privileged to write for you openly. On the one hand, this is enabled by the relatively comfortable situation that I am in. On the other hand, none of this would add up to anything if it weren’t for you, dear interlocutors.

Why using quotation marks doesn’t cancel racism or sexism. With a brief response to Agnes Callard

Would you show an ISIS video, depicting a brutal killing of hostages, to the survivor of their murders? Of if you prefer a linguistic medium: would you read Breivik’s Manifesto to a survivor of his massacre? – Asking these questions, I’m assuming that none of you would be inclined to endorse these items. That’s not the point. The question is why you would not present such items to a survivor or perhaps indeed to anyone. My hunch is that you would not want to hurt or harm your audience. Am I right? Well, if this is even remotely correct, why do so many people insist on continuing to present racist, sexist or other dehumanising expressions, such as the n-word, to others? And why do we decry the take-down of past authors as racists and sexists? Under the label of free speech, of all things? I shall suggest that this kind of insistence relies on what I call the quotation illusion and hope to show that this distinction doesn’t really work for this purpose.

Many people assume that there is a clear distinction between use and mention. When saying, “stop” has four letters, I’m not using the expression (to stop or alert you). Rather, I am merely mentioning the word to talk about it. Similarly, embedding a video or passages from a text into a context in which I talk about these items is not a straightforward use of them. I’m not endorsing what these things supposedly intend to express or achieve. Rather, I am embedding them in a context in which I might, for instance, talk about the effects of propaganda. It is often assumed that this kind of “going meta” or mentioning is categorically different from using expressions or endorsing statements. As I noted in an earlier post, if I use an insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, my expressions are clearly detached from action. However, the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults. In other words, understanding such embeddings or mentions rides piggy-back on understanding straightforward uses.

If this is correct, then the difference between use and mention is not a categorical one but one of degrees. Thus, the idea that quotations are completely detached from what they express strikes me as illusory. Of course, we can and should study all kinds of expressions, also expressions of violence. But their mention or embedding should never be casual or justified by mere convention or tradition. If you considered showing that ISIS video, you would probably preface your act with a warning. – No? You’re against trigger warnings? So would you explain to your audience that you were just quoting or ask them to stop shunning our history? And would you perhaps preface your admonitions with a defense of free speech? – As I see it, embedded mentions of dehumanising expressions do carry some of the demeaning attitudes. So exposing others to them merely to make a point about free speech strikes me as verbal bullying. However, this doesn’t mean that we should stop quoting or mentioning problematic texts (or videos). It just means that prefacing such quotations with pertinent warnings is an act of basic courtesy, not coddling.

The upshot is that we cannot simply rely on a clear distinction between quotation and endorsement, or mention and use. But if this correct, then what about reading racist or sexist classics? As I have noted earlier, the point would not be to simply shun Aristotle or others for their bigotry. Rather, we should note their moral shortcomings as much as we should look into ours. For since we live in some continuity with our canon, we are to some degree complicit in their racism and sexism.

Yet instead of acknowledging our own involvement in our history, the treatment of problematic authors is often justified by claiming that we are able to detach ourselves from their involvement, usually by helping ourselves to the use-mention distinction. A recent and intriguing response to this challenge comes from Agnes Callard, who claims that we can treat someone like Aristotle as if he were an “alien”. We can detach ourselves, she claims, by interpreting his language “literally”, i.e. as a vehicle “purely for the contents of his belief” and as opposed to “messaging”, “situated within some kind of power struggle”. Taken this way, we can grasp his beliefs “without hostility”, and the benefits of reading come “without costs”. This isn’t exactly the use-mention distinction. Rather, it is the idea that we can entertain or consider ideas without involvement, force or attitude. In this sense, it is a variant of the quotation illusion: Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining” without believing it. Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. Does this work?

Personally, I doubt that the literal reading Callard suggests really works. Let me be clear: I don’t doubt that Callard is an enormously good scholar. Quite the contrary. But I’m not convinced that she does justice to the study that she and others are involved in when specifying it as a literal reading. Firstly, we don’t really hear Aristotle literally but mediated through various traditions, including quite modern ones, that partly even use his works to justify their bigoted views. Secondly, even if we could switch off Aristotle’s political attitudes and grasp his pure thoughts, without his hostility, I doubt that we could shun our own attitudes. Again, could you read Breivik’s Manifesto, ignoring Breivik’s actions, and merely grasp his thoughts? Of course, Aristotle is not Breivik. But if literal reading is possible for one, then why not for the other?

The upshot is: once I understand that a way of speaking is racist or sexist, I cannot unlearn this. If I know that ways of speaking hurt or harm others, I should refrain from speaking this way. If I have scholarly or other good reasons to quote such speech, I shouldn’t do so without a pertinent comment. But I agree with Callard’s conclusion: We shouldn’t simply “cancel” such speech or indeed their authors. Rather, we should engage with it, try and contextualise it properly. And also try and see the extent of our own involvement and complicity. The world is a messy place. So are language and history.

“We don’t need no …” On linguistic inequality

Deviations from so-called standard forms of language (such as the double negative) make you stand out immediately. Try and use double negatives consistently in your university courses or at the next job interview and see how people react. Even if people won’t correct you explicitly, many will do so tacitly. Such features of language function as social markers and evoke pertinent gut reactions. Arguably, this is not only true of grammatical or lexical features, but also of broader stylistic features in writing, speech and even non-linguistic conduct. Some ways of phrasing may sound like heavy boots. Depending on our upbringing, we are familiar with quite different linguistic features. While none of this might be news, it raises crucial questions about teaching that I see rarely addressed. How do we respond to linguistic and stylistic diversity? When we say that certain students “are struggling”, we often mean that they deviate from our stylistic expectations. A common reaction is to impart techniques that help them in conforming to such expectations. But should we perhaps respond by trying to understand the “deviant” style?

Reading the double negative “We don’t need no …”, you might see quite different things: (1) a grammatically incorrect phrase in English; (2) a grammatically correct phrase in English; (3) part of a famous song by Pink Floyd. Assuming that many of us recognise these things, some will want to hasten to add that (2) contradicts (1). A seemingly obvious way to resolve this is to say that reading (1) applies to what is called the standard dialect of English (British English), while (2) applies to some dialects of English (e.g. African-American Vernacular English). This solution prioritises one standard over other “deviant” forms that are deemed incorrect or informal etc. It is obvious that this hierarchy goes hand in hand with social tensions. At German schools and universities, for instance, you can find numerous students and lecturers who hide their dialects or accents. In linguistics, the disadvantages of regional dialect speakers have long been acknowledged. Even if the prescriptive approach has long been challenged, it’s driving much of the implicit culture in education.

But the distinction between standard and deviant forms of language ignores the fact that the latter often come with long-standing rules of their own. Adjusting to the style of your teacher might then require you to deviate from the language of your parents. Thus another solution is to say that there are different English languages. Accordingly, we can acknowledge reading (2) and call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a language. The precise status and genealogy is a matter of linguistic controversy. However, the social and political repercussions of this solution come most clearly into view when we consider the public debate about teaching what is called “Ebonics” at school in the 90s (Here is a very instructive video about this debate). If we acknowledge reading (2), it means, mutatis mutandis, that many English speakers raised with AAVE can be considered bilingual. Educators realised that teaching standard forms of English can be aided greatly by using AAVE as the language of instruction. Yet, trying to implement this as a policy at school soon resulted in a debate about a “political correctness exemplar gone out of control” and abandoning the “language of Shakespeare”. The bottom-line is: Non-hierarchical acknowledgement of different standards quickly spirals into defences of the supposed status quo by the dominant social group.

Supposed standards and deviations readily extend to styles of writing and conduct in academic philosophy. We all have a rough idea what a typical lecture looks like, how a discussion goes and how a paper should be structured. Accordingly, attempts at diversification are met with suspicion. Will they be as good as our standards? Won’t they undermine the clarity we have achieved in our styles of reasoning? A more traditional division is that between so-called analytic and continental philosophy. Given the social gut reactions to diversifying linguistic standards, it might not come as a surprise that we find equal responses among philosophers: Shortly before the University of Cambridge awarded a honorary degree to Derrida in 1992, a group of philosophers published an open letter protesting that “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” (Eric Schliesser has a succinct analysis of the letter.) Rather than acknowledging that there might be various standards emerging from different traditions, the supposedly dominant standard of clarity is often defended like an eternal Platonic idea.

While it is easy to see and criticise this, it is much more difficult to find a way of dealing with it in the messy real world. My historically minded self has had and has the luxury to engage with a variety of styles without having to pass judgment, at least not explicitly. More importantly, when teaching students I have to strike a balance between acknowledging variety and preparing them for situations in which such acknowledgement won’t be welcome. In other words, I try to teach “the standard”, while trying to show its limits within an array of alternatives. My goal in teaching, then, would not be to drive out “deviant” stylistic features, but to point to various resources required in different contexts. History (of philosophy) clearly helps with that. But the real resources are provided by the students themselves. Ultimately, I would hope, not to teach them how to write, but how to find their own voices within their various backgrounds and learn to gear them towards different purposes.

But to do so, I have to learn, to some degree, the idioms of my students and try to understand the deep structure of their ways of expression. Not as superior, not as inferior, but as resourceful within contexts yet unknown to me. On the other hand, I cannot but also lay open my own reactions and those of the traditions I am part of. – Returning to the fact that language comes with social markers, perhaps one of the most important aspects of teaching is to convey a variety of means to understand and express oneself through language. Our gut reactions run very deep, and what is perceived as linguistic ‘shortcomings’ will move people, one way or another. But there is a double truth: Although we often cannot but go along with our standards, they will very soon be out of date. New standards and styles will emerge. And we, or I should say “I”, will just sound old-fashioned at best. Memento mori.

You don’t get what you deserve. Part II: diversity versus meritocracy?

“I’m all for diversity. That said, I don’t want to lower the bar.” – If you have been part of a hiring committee, you will probably have heard some version of that phrase. The first sentence expresses a commitment to diversity. The second sentence qualifies it: diversity shouldn’t get in the way of merit. Interestingly, the same phrase can be heard in opposing ways. A staunch defender of meritocracy will find the second sentence (about not lowering the bar) disingenuous. He will argue that, if you’re committed to diversity, you might be disinclined to hire the “best candidate”. By contrast, a defender of diversity will find the first sentence disingenuous. If you’re going in for meritocratic principles, you will just follow your biases and ultimately take the properties of “white” and “male” as a proxy of merit. – This kind of discussion often runs into a stalemate. As I see it, the problem is to treat diversity and meritocracy as an opposition. I will suggest that this kind of discussion can be more fruitful if we see that diversity is not a property of job candidates but of teams, and thus not to be seen in opposition to meritocratic principles.

Let’s begin with a clarification. I assume that it’s false and harmful to believe that we live in a meritocracy. But that doesn’t mean that meritocratic ideas themselves are bad. If it is simply taken as the idea that one gets a job based on their pertinent qualifications, then I am all for meritocratic principles. However, a great problem in applying such principles is that, arguably, the structure of hiring processes makes it difficult to discern qualifications. Why? Because qualifications are often taken to be indicated by other factors such as prestige etc. But prestige, in turn, might be said to correlate with race, gender, class or whatever, rather than with qualifications. At the end of the day, an adherent of diversity can accuse adherents of meritocracy of the same vices that she finds herself accused of. So when merit and diversity are taken as being in opposition, we tend to end up in the following tangle:

  • Adherents of diversity think that meritocracy is ultimately non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.
  • Adherents of meritocracy think that diversity is non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.*

What can we do in such a stalemate? How can the discussion be decided? Something that typically gets pointed out is homogeneity. The adherent of diversity will point to the homogeneity of people. Most departments in my profession, for instance, are populated with white men. The homogeneity points to a lack of diversity. Whether this correlates to a homogeneity of merit is certainly questionable. Therefore, the next step in the discussion is typically an epistemological one: How can we know whether the candidates are qualified? More importantly, can we discern quality independently from features such as race, gender or class? – In this situation, adherents of diversity typically refer to studies that reveal implicit biases. Identical CVs, for instance, have been shown to be treated as more or less favourable depending on the features of the name on the CV. Meritocratists, by contrast, will typically insist that they can discern quality objectively or correct for biases. Again, both sides seem to have a point. We might be subject to biases, but if we don’t leave decisions to individuals but to, say, committees, then we can perhaps correct for biases. At least if these committees are sufficiently diverse, one might add. – However, I think the stalemate will get passed indefinitely to different levels, as long as we treat merit and diversity as an opposition. So how can we move forward?

We try to correct for biases, for instance, by making a committee diverse. While this is a helpful step, it also reveals a crucial feature about diversity that is typically ignored in such discussions. Diversity is a feature of a team or group, not of an individual. The merit or qualification of a candidate is something pertaining to that candidate. If we look for a Latinist, for instance, knowledge of Latin will be a meritorious qualification. Diversity, by contrast, is not a feature, to be found in the candidate. Rather, it is a feature of the group that the candidate will be part of. Adding a woman to all-male team will make the team more diverse, but that is not a feature of the candidate. Therefore, accusing adherents of diversity of sexism or racism is fallacious. Trying to build a more diverse team rather than favouring one category strikes me as a means to counter such phenomena.

Now if we accept that there is such a thing as qualification (or merit), it makes sense to say that in choosing a candidate for a job we will take qualifications into account as a necessary condition. But one rarely merely hires a candidate; one builds a team, and thus further considerations apply. One might end up with a number of highly qualified candidates. But then one has to consider other questions, such as the team one is trying to build. And then it seems apt to consider the composition of the team. But that does not mean that merit and diversity are opposed to one another.

Nevertheless, prioritising considerations about the team over the considerations about the candidates are often met with suspicion. “She only got the job because …” Such an allegation is indeed sexist, because it construes a diversity consideration applicable to a team as the reason for hiring, as if it were the qualification of an individual. But no matter how suspicious one is, qualification and diversity are not on a par, nor can they be opposing features.

Compare: A singer might complain that the choir hired a soprano rather than him, a tenor. But the choir wasn’t merely looking for a singer but for a soprano. Now that doesn’t make the soprano a better singer than the tenor, nor does it make the tenor better than the soprano. Hiring a soprano is relevant to the quality of the group; it doesn’t reflect the quality of the individual.

____

* However, making such a claim, an adherent of meritocracy will probably rely on the assumption that there is such a thing as “inverted racism or sexism”. In the light of our historical sitation, this strikes me as very difficult to argue, at least with regard to institutional structures. It’s seems like saying that certain doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church are not sexist, simply because there are movements aiming at reform.

Fit. A Note on Aristotle’s Presence in Academia

Since the so-called Scientific Revolution and the birth of modern science, our Western approach towards the world became quantitative. The precedingly dominant qualitative Aristotelian worldview of the Scholastics was replaced by a quantitative one: everything around us was supposed to be quantifiable and quantified. This, of course, seems to affect nowadays academia, too. We often hear “do this, it will be one more line in your CV!” 

Many will reply “This is not true, quality matters just as much!” Yes, it (sometimes) matters in which journal one publishes; it has to be a good journal; one needs to make sure that the quality of the article is good. And how do we know that the journal is good or not? Because of its ranking. So if you thought I will argue that this is Aristotle’s presence in Academia… you were wrong. The criterion is still quantitative. Of course, we trust more that an article in a respectable (i.e., highly ranked) journal is a good one, but we all know this is not always the case. 

Bringing into discussion the qualitative and quantitative distinction is crucial for assessing job applications and the ensuing hiring process. While it used to be easier for those in a position of power to hire whom they want, it has become a bit more difficult. Imagine you really want to hire someone because he (I will use this pronoun for certain reasons) is brilliant. But his brilliance is not reflected in his publications, presentations, teaching evaluations, grants (the latter because he did not get any)… You cannot even say he is a promising scholar, since that should be visible in something. At the same time, there are a lot of competing applications with an impressive record. So what can one do? Make use of the category ‘better fit’, ‘better fit’ for the position, ‘better fit’ for the department.[1] But when is someone a ‘better fit’, given that the job description did not mention anything to this effect? When their research is in line with the department? No, too much overlap! When it complements the existing areas of research? No, way too different!

And here is where Aristotle comes into the picture. It is not the research that has to fit, but the person. And we know from Aristotle and his followers that gender, race and nationality are the result of the (four elemental) qualities. Who can be more fit for a department mostly composed of men from Western Europe than another man from Western Europe? As a woman coming from Eastern Europe, I have no chance. And Eastern Europe is not even the worst place to come from in this respect. 

There is a caveat though. When more people who fit in the department apply, the committee seeks refuge in positing some ‘occult qualities’ to choose the ‘right’ person. ‘Occult’ in the Scholastic sense means that the quality it is not manifest in any way in the person’s profile.[2]

How much is this different from days when positions were just given away on the basis of personal preference? The difference lies in the charade.[3] The difference is that nowadays a bunch of other people, devoid of occult qualities, though with an impressive array of qualities manifest in their CVs and international recognition, spend time and energy to prepare an application, get frustrated, maybe even get sick, just so that the person with the ‘better fit’ can have the impression that he is much better than all the rest who applied.

So when are we going to give up the Aristotelian-Scholastic elementary and occult qualities and opt for a different set of more inclusive qualities?


[1] Aristotle probably put it in his Categories, but it got lost.

[2] I am rather unfair with this term, because the occult qualities were making themselves present through certain effects.

[3] The Oxford dictionary indeed defines charade as “an absurd pretence intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.”

On being a first-generation student

First off: the following is not to be taken as a tale of woe. I am grateful for whatever life has had on offer for me so far, and I am indebted to my teachers – from primary school to university and beyond – in many ways. But I felt that, given that Martin invited me to do so, I should probably provide some context to my comment on his recent post on meritocracy, in which I claimed that my being a first-generation student has had a “profound influence on how I conceive of academia”. So here goes.

I am a first-generation student from a lower-middle-class family. My grandparents on the maternal side owned and operated a small farm, my grandfather on the paternal side worked in a foundry, and his wife – my father’s mother – did off-the-books work as a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet.

When I got my first job as a lecturer in philosophy my monthly income already exceeded that of my mother, who has worked a full-time job in a hospital for more than thirty years. My father, a bricklayer by training, is by now divorced from my mother and declutters homes for a living. Sometimes he calls me in order to tell me about a particularly good bargain he stroke on the flea market.

My parents did not save money for my education. As an undergraduate I was lucky to receive close to the maximum amount of financial assistance afforded by the German Federal Law on Support in Education (BAföG) – still, I had to work in order to be able to fully support myself (tuition fees, which had just been introduced when I began my studies, did not help). At the worst time, I juggled three jobs on the side. I have work experience as a call center agent (bad), cleaning woman (not as bad), fitness club receptionist (strange), private tutor (okay), and teaching assistant (by far the nicest experience).

Not every middle-class family is the same, of course. Nor is every family in which both parents are non-academics. Here is one way in which the latter differ: There are those parents who encourage – or, sometimes, push – their children to do better than themselves, who emphasize the value of higher education, who make sure their children acquire certain skills that are tied to a particular habitus (like playing the piano), who provide age-appropriate books and art experiences. My parents were not like that. “Doing well”, especially for my father, meant having a secure and “down-to-earth” job, ideally for a lifetime. For a boy, this would have been a craft. Girls, ostensibly being less well-suited for handiwork, should strive for a desk job – or aim “to be provided for”. My father had strong reservations about my going to grammar school, even though I did well in primary school and despite my teacher’s unambiguous recommendation. I think it never occurred to him that I could want to attend university – academia was a world too far removed from his own to even consider that possibility.

I think that my upbringing has shaped – and shapes – my experience of academia in many ways. Some of these I consider good, others I have considered stifling at times. And some might even be loosely related to Martin’s blogpost about meritocracy. Let me mention a few points (much of what follows is not news, and has been put more eloquently by others):

  • Estrangement. An awareness of the ways in which the experiences of my childhood and youth, my interests and preferences, my habits and skills differ from what I consider a prototypical academic philosopher – and I concede that my picture of said prototype might be somewhat exaggerated – has often made me feel “not quite at home” in academia. At the same time, my “professional advancement” has been accompanied by a growing estrangement from my family. This is something that, to my knowledge, many first-generation students testify to, and which can be painful at times. My day-to-day life does not have much in common with my parents’ life, my struggles (Will this or that paper ever get published?) must seem alien, if not ridiculous, to them. They have no clear idea of what it is that I do, other than that it consists of a lot of desk-sitting, reading, and typing. And I think it is hard for them to understand why anyone would even want to do something like this. One thing I am pretty sure of is that academia is, indeed, or in one sense at least, a comparatively cozy bubble. And while I deem it admirable to think of ways of how to engage more with the public, I am often unsure about how much of what we actually do can be made intelligible to “the folk”, or justified in the face of crushing real-world problems.
  • Empathy. One reason why I am grateful for my experiences is that they help me empathize with my students, especially those who seem to be afflicted by some kind of hardship – or so I think. I believe that I am a reasonably good and well-liked teacher, and I think that part of what makes my teaching good is precisely this: empathy. Also, I believe that my experiences are responsible for a heightened sensibility to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and privilege. I know that – being white, having grown up in a relatively secure small town, being blessed with resilience and a certain kind of stubbornness, and so on – I am still very well-off. And I do not want to pretend that I know what it is like to come from real poverty, or how it feels to be a victim of racism or constant harassment. But I hope that I am reasonably open to others’ stories about these kinds of things.
  • Authority. In my family of origin, the prevailing attitude towards intellectuals was a strange mixture between contempt and reverence. Both sentiments were probably due to a sense of disparity: intellectuals seemed to belong to a kind of people quite different from ourselves. This attitude has, I believe, shaped how I perceived of my teachers when I was a philosophy student. I noticed that our lecturers invited us – me – to engage with them “on equal terms”, but I could not bring myself to do so. I had a clear sense of hierarchy; to me, my teachers were authorities. I did eventually manage to speak up in class, but I often felt at a loss for words outside of the classroom setting with its relatively fixed and easily discernable rules. I also struggled with finding my voice in class papers, with taking up and defending a certain position. I realize that this struggle is probably not unique to first-generation students, or to students from lower-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, or to students whose parents are immigrants, et cetera – but I believe that the struggle is often aggravated by backgrounds like these. As teachers, I think, we should pay close attention to the different needs our students might have regarding how we engage with them. It should go without saying, but if someone seems shy or reserved, don’t try to push them into a friendly and casual conversation about the model of femininity and its relation to sexuality in the novel you recently read.
  • Merit. Now, how does all this relate to the idea of meritocracy? I think there is a lot to say about meritocracy, much more than can possibly be covered in a (somewhat rambling) blogpost. But let me try to point out at least one aspect. Martin loosely characterizes the belief in meritocracy as the belief that “if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want”. But what does “being good enough” or “trying hard enough” amount to in the first place? Are two students who write equally good term papers working equally hard? What if one of them has two children to care for while the other one still lives with and is supported by her parents? What if one struggles with depression while the other does not? What if one comes equipped with “cultural capital” and a sense of entitlement, while the other feels undeserving and stupid? I am not sure about how to answer these questions. But one thing that has always bothered me is talk of students being “smart” or “not so smart”. Much has been written about this already. And yet, some people still talk that way. Many of the students I teach struggle with writing scientific prose, many of them struggle with understanding the assigned readings, many of them struggle with the task of “making up their own minds” or “finding their voice”. And while I agree that those who do not struggle, or who do not struggle as much, should, of course, be encouraged and supported – I sometimes think that the struggling students might be the ones who benefit the most from our teaching philosophy, and for whom our dedication and encouragement might really make a much-needed difference. It certainly did so for me.

You don’t get what you deserve. Part I: Meritocracy in education vs employment relations

The belief that we live in a meritocracy is the idea that people get what they deserve. At school you don’t get a good grade because of your skin colour or because you have a nice smile but because you demonstrate the required skills. When I was young, the idea helped me to gain a lot of confidence. Being what is now called a first-generation student, I thought I owed my opportunity to study to a meritocratic society. I had this wonderfully confident belief that, if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want. Today, I think that there is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t really know where to start. Meritocratic beliefs are mostly false and harmful. In the light of our sociological knowledge, still believing that people get what they deserve strikes me as on a par with being a flat earther or a climate change denialist. At the same time, beliefs in meritocratic principles are enormously widespread and deep-rooted, even among those who should and do know better. In what follows, I attempt to make nothing more than a beginning to look at that pernicious idea and why it has so much currency.

Perhaps one of the greatest problems of meritocratic ideas is that they create a normative link between possibly unrelated things: There is no intrinsic relation between displaying certain qualities, on the one hand, and getting a job, on the other hand. Of course, they might be related; in fact, displaying certain qualities might be one of the necessary conditions for getting the job. But the justification structure suggested by meritocratic beliefs clearly obscures countless other factors, such as being in the right place at the right time etc. Here are two variants of how this plays out:

  • “I’m not good enough.” – This is a common conclusion drawn by most people. That is, by those, who don’t get the job or grant or promotion they have applied for. If there is one job and a hundred applicants, you can guess that a large amount of people will think they were not good enough. Of course, that’s nonsense for many reasons. But if the belief is that people get what they deserve, then those not getting anything might conclude to be undeserving. A recent piece by a lecturer leaving academia, for instance, contends that part of the problem is that one always has to show that one is “better than the rest”, insinuating that people showing just that might get the job in the end. But apart from the fact that the imbalance between available jobs and applicants pushes such demands to absurd heights, the question arises whether any employer could be sufficiently good to be able to recognise the enormously refined qualities of the applicants.
  • “My qualities are not recognised.” –  The more confident applicants among us might thus draw quite another conclusion, namely that they are good enough, but that their qualities are simply not seen. The counterfactual behind this reasoning seems to be the following: Had my prospective employer seen how good I am, she would have hired me. As I see it, both kinds of reasoning are fallacious in that they construe the relation between performance and getting the job / grant etc. too tightly. Of course, most people know that. But this knowledge does not prevent one from going along with the fallacious reasoning. Why is that? Well, my hunch is that meritocratic beliefs are deeply ingrained in our educational system and spill over to other contexts, such as employment relations. Let me explain.

Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Notes on the ethics of contagion. A reply to Martin Lenz

In his previous post about the ethics of contagion, Martin Lenz treats the issue of responsibility in the current pandemic. Given how hyperconnected the world is in which we live, everyone might infect an indefinite number of other people and thus turn into a superspreader. Now more than ever we are seeing that individual actions truly make the difference, and so we all need to act as if we were potentially harmful to everyone else in the world.

This situation demands us to take a collective responsibility. Accordingly, we must comply with the rules and advise other people to do the same. Not only that, but we must help one another to take necessary precautions. In other words, we must create supportive environments, namely ones in which we “mutually enable each other in taking necessary precautions” and “in which we can comply without harming ourselves”.

Of course, to comply with any preventive norm or social rule, we need what we have called a ‘supportive environment’. But cooperation among individuals is possible in a social group only when rationality is present1. While this would be highly desirable, the risk of a full collective compliance is conformity, which might have negative outcomes for individual agency. In fact, if a social group drifts away from rational patterns, then it is likely that forms of herd behaviour emerge among its members. For instance, when someone does not take sufficient precautions, people blame him/her for deviating from the current norms of his/her country. Collective blaming, shaming and other moral judgments are forms of herd behaviour too and may have serious consequences for individuals and social life. They are already a signal of the fact that a social group is drifting away from rational patterns of behaviour.

One way to avoid cognitive bias or falling into other traps of conformity is to doubt and hesitate. In this time, doubting about our immediate beliefs and being hesitant about judging others are perhaps the first steps each of us can take to create a supportive environment. Thus, asking ourselves ‘Was that person able to comply with the rules?’ before calling out noncompliance might prevent us to undertake a course of action which has effects that might be mostly unpredictable and even very unpleasant for third parties. (No matter if some effects were beyond our intentions: if they are directly dependent upon our actions, we are at least partly responsible for them anyway). In this way, we can still keep a reasonable attitude, which is also healthy for social life in general.

I am comfortable with this opinion and I do agree with it. However, is it enough to account for an ethics of contagion? I think Lenz’s position is lacking something in its characterization of moral responsibility, for it focuses only on what individual people ought to do. In my opinion, an ethical perspective should pay attention not only to individual agency, but also to the factors that although independent from the will are nevertheless determinant for individual decision making. The aim is to see whether people are always fully responsible for whatever they do, and eventually if we can attribute a part of responsibility to the social setting they belong to. For this sake, I will borrow some notions from social ontology, and I will use them as a key tool for widen the concept of responsibility.

As Lenz himself rightly puts it, “it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures”. Why is it vital? Because social environments are not always constituted only by relationships among individuals, like Facebook groups or other meet-up phenomena, which emerge out only from random interactions. Rather, social environments may be more complex. For the sake of simplicity, I shall call those environments complex social environments (CSE). Examples of CSE are corporations, social, religious or political institutions, and the Modern State. Thus, by CSE I define a social environment that has a structure not reducible to the sum of the atomic behaviour of its members or of relations among them (like an aggregation of parts), and such that the environment can be considered a unity and identified as a single entity or an individual. Another feature of CSE is that they are heterogeneous, namely they include agents with different powers and interests (some individuals have the power to act on the structure, in virtue of their role or function in the CSE).

This leads to two preliminary points. First, if something in the structure of a CSE does not allow for mutual support, its members will mostly fail in cooperative tasks. That would be the case simply because the CSE under consideration is intrinsically not functional to cooperation among individuals. (We can intuitively understand the structure of a CSE as what designs the limits and conditions for individual agency and personal freedom within the CSE itself). Second, if CSE are single entities or individuals, it means that we can attribute to them responsibility for the collective conduct undertaken by their members. Speaking from a juridical point of view, CSE are a persona like human beings. (Corollary: CSE do not interact only with their members, but – as individuals – also with other CSE).

Going back to our notion of supportive environment, under which conditions we may then deem a CSE supportive? Some conditions are mental and primarily related to individual agency. For instance, acting cooperatively presupposes that people perceive themselves already as a unity or as belonging to the same community. In other words, people must recognize themselves as members of the same CSE. It also implies that people look at others sharing the same environment each time as the person next to them and not as a third man. There must be some degrees of sympathy among CSE members.

Other conditions are related to what up to now I have called the structure of a CSE, and it is exactly here that rationality plays the most important part. Given that it is the most relevant case to our discussion, in the list of structural conditions below I will consider only the Modern State as a CSE:

a) Fair information. Politicians, scientists, intellectuals, media and public figures in general must employ a truthful and honest communication, being informative without aiming to trigger emotive reactions in the audience. In that sense, conversational maxims (Grice 1975) seem to me to be still valid.

b) Unity of decision. There must be a certain amount of coordination among the different political actors at play. In a situation of prolonged emergency and uncertainty, it is generally advisable that local administrations follow the central government.

c) Rationality of law. Social norms and regulations introduced for a pandemic must be scientifically grounded, clear, avoid ambiguities and grey zones.

Italy failed to meet the conditions to become a supportive environment. In what follows I will try to explain why it is the case and I will treat Italy purely as an example of CSE. This might sound as an attack to Italy, but that is not my intention. There are other countries facing similar (if not worse) problems – think about the current situation in China, Hungary, Brazil or the US. I am talking about Italy only because it is the social environment I know better.

a) From the beginning of the global health crisis, in Italy there has been an increasing amount of misinformation and leading politicians superspreading fake news on Covid19. Furthermore, the way Italian media have informed about Covid19 related facts rapidly spread fear and panic among the population, as a nocebo effect [https://non.copyriot.com/pandemie-kriegstagebuecher-neurosenlehre/].

b)  Many Italian politicians showed quite a spectacular way to make people comply with restrictions. Most importantly, arbitrary decisions lead to vertical political conflicts between government and local administrations, as well as horizontal ones among local administrations themselves.

c) As a country that has already been badly affected by the last economic crisis, the harsh lockdown had devastating psychological effects among the population. It is also still a matter of debate whether some restrictions2 were necessary and other decisions would not have been better to be taken.

Compared to other European countries, it seems that Italy has been seriously hit by a wave of terror and irrationality. People’s favourite scapegoats have been runners, those practicing sports or simply whoever was taking a walk or was seen outside on the streets. In such a hostile and repressive environment, the decision to hire a corps of 60.000 volunteers, patrolling public spaces and reporting noncompliance to authorities, sounded threatening even to me. Luckily, this truly Orwellian scenario seems to have been reconsidered, and the volunteers will only be employed for avoiding the formation of crowds and for public utility purposes. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases of irrational and herd behaviour to confirm the overall negative impact that lockdown and unfair Covid19 information had in Italy. Not much data has been gathered and not enough research has been carried out yet, but to give more evidence to this point, I shall point out some examples and divide them in two groups.

Aggressions:

  • One of my Facebook contacts was stopped by a couple in an SUV, while he was going for a run in the evening. The couple threatened to beat him in case they would have seen him again hanging around outside.
  • A runner destroyed his neighbours’ car with a baseball bat, because every time he was going out for a run, they were repeatedly yelling offenses, filming and threatening him to report his “illegal and irresponsible” behaviour to the police.
  • Someone threw a bucket full of water on a woman while biking, without knowing she was simply a pharmacist coming back from work.

Herd behaviour:

  • People started spontaneously organizing in chats and social media groups to share information about infected people in their village or neighbourhood. Their aim was to avoid alleged infected people and, eventually, report their deviant behaviour to fellow citizens and authorities. Unfortunately, I had first-hand experience of this, for it has been the case in my hometown and in some other towns in the surrounding area as well. Even worse, in Vasto, a town in the Region of Abruzzo, someone wrote and spread a list with the personal information of many members of the Roma community; people labelled Roma as superspreaders and in turn attacked the major because he condemned this reprehensible action3.
  • The anti-establishment and Covid19 denial movement “orange gilets” organized demonstrations in several Italian cities (the two main ones in Milan May 30th, and Rome June 2nd). In a few days, thousands of people gathered without keeping any social distance or wearing face masks. The orange gilets claim that the Covid19 virus has been created to weaken the Italian economy and allow foreign countries to take the control over Italy. Thus, they demand at the same time the resignation of the government, the creation of a new constituent assembly, and an Italexit. In particular, during the Rome demonstration one of their main activists stated that the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte together with Bill Gates wanted to turn us all into “small robots”: by obliging everyone to vaccine against Covid19, they would inject mercury in our veins and thus connect our bodies directly to 5G; in this way, they would be able to control us remotely and, if they want, even to kill us just by heating up our body temperature.
  • On June 2nd, Matteo Salvini and the other leaders of the opposition organized a public demonstration in Rome, to protest the government and celebrate the anniversary of the Italian republic together. In this occasion too, thousands of people gathered disregarding the very basic safety rules, while politicians were only caring about selfies with their supporters.

In this post I have explored some conditions under which an environment might be called supportive. Indeed, in complex social environments those conditions are structural and do not substantially depend on individual agency. Quite on the contrary, the outcomes of individual agency are largely dependent upon these conditions (or the lack of thereof). The structure of a social environment explains the collective conduct of its members. This means that, if structural conditions make the social environment hostile and repressive, its members will not tend to act cooperatively and instead forms of herd behaviour will emerge. Therefore, part of the responsibility for the collective conduct can be attributed also to the environment itself, insofar that its structural conditions are a matter of human decisions anyway. (In a Modern State, politicians formulate and apply restrictions on different levels). For example, the case of Italy shows that the lack of those conditions does not stop compliance itself, rather it opens compliance to conformity, instead of cooperation, and creates a hostile and repressive environment, as opposed to a supportive one. Concerning an ethics of contagion, good information, politics and administration are the fundamental blocks to build a properly supportive environment, that would allow compliance with rules without fostering herd behaviour and encourage both cooperation and mutual help practices.

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1 One may object that the human being is a social animal. But even then, the fact that human beings are social animals means that they tend to live in groups with members of the same species. It does not entail per se that human beings are also cooperative by nature.
In the context of an ethics of contagion, by rationality I understand the capacity of deliberating on solid epistemic grounds. By rational (patterns of) behaviour I understand those relying on self-determination and awareness, without being affected by bias and external constraints of the sort. As I have argued above, during a pandemic a rational pattern of behaviour also consists in being able to doubt about our immediate beliefs and hesitate before making moral judgements.

2 Here I may think of the prohibition of sports activities, the obligation to stay within the area of 200m surrounding your house, or the obligation to always wear a mask outside of your house, whatever the place and the occasion (even if you are alone lying on a beach or sitting in a park on your own). But the list might not be limited to.

3 This very episode sadly reminds about the accusations addressed to Jews, of being the superspreaders of both leprosy and the black plague epidemies in France during the 13th and 14th centuries. Remarkably, in both cases Jews were accused to spread the virus in conspiracy with the Sultan and Muslims (Ginzburg 1991: 33-86). More broadly, as Nicolas Guilhot rightly argues, pandemics are the perfect environment for rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories to spread.

PS. This post is inspired by a previous Facebook discussion on the ethics of contagion and by The Metaphysics of Online Groups. Herd Behavior and Polarization, a research side-project in social ontology I am running. I am grateful to Martin Lenz for the former (as well as for the invitation to contribute in the debate). For the latter, I should thank Tommaso Ostillio and Giulio Sciacca. Last but not least, I am indebted to Anouk Hogers for important suggestions.

The impotence of hierarchy

Want to know a secret? There is this recurrent fear that many people in leadership positions told me about: “Now that I am in this position, I fear that people around me won’t speak their mind anymore, that they won’t dare criticising me. For all I know, they might think I am a fool but never tell me.” I think the first time it was my PhD supervisor who told me, and he even told me that this was also the worst fear of his supervisor. So there is a chain of fear passed on down the line. If I ask my students to be frank, I could also add that my supervisor … It’s a bit of a sad story, because we know how it goes. Back in the day, I wasn’t very open to my supervisor, and the times I tried, I often regretted it. – These fears are woven into the fabric of our hierarchies. Understandable as they might be, they are dangerous. The can preclude open discussion and correction. Given that I’m spending much of my time in universities, I am struck by how often I encounter this. In what follows, I’d like to look at a few instances and ask whether there are any remedies.

Before walking through some examples, let’s begin by looking at the phenomenon. Power imbalance is often portrayed as unidirectional state. The boss or supervisor has power; the employees or students dependent on the boss fear the boss. But as I see it, the fear has a reciprocal structure: You are afraid to criticise your boss because he or she might reproach you for doing so. Knowing your fear, the boss is afraid that you will hide your criticisms. This might spiral into a number of refined and uncomfortable assumptions. “I’ll rather tell him something nice about himself.” – “She only said that because she wants to divert attention from her criticism.” – “He doesn’t take me seriously.” – “She doesn’t take me seriously.” Mutual mistrust might follow.* If this kind of setting is large enough, the mistrust might translate into full-blown conspiracy theories. But I think the problem, at root, is not the hierarchy itself. The problem is that we often treat a hierarchical position as a personal rather than an institutional feature. But your boss is not your boss because he or she is a better whatever, but because the design of our institutions requires this function.** In this sense, hierarchy is owing to ways of dividing labour. However, while some contexts might require hierarchical division of labour, certain processes cannot function in the presence of hierarchy. Collective deliberation, for instance, is not possible if someone in the collective intervenes qua greater power. If my thoughts are taken to carry more weight because I’m a professor rather than a student, then we do not need any discussion. Or do we? Let’s look at some instances then:

  • Deliberation in science. – It’s often noted that the current corona crisis makes our shortcomings obvious. So let’s begin with policy design in the corona crisis. Given the complexity of the problems in this crisis, you would expect that decision makers listen to a number of voices. But in the Netherlands, for instance, the opposite seems to be true: “There is no discussion … Because there is a crisis, it is not allowed to have a discussion.” These are the words of Microbiologist Alex Friedrich. Rather than following the guidelines of the government, he caused quite some stir by speaking up against the Dutch strategy and partly changed the course of action by demanding more testing in the north. His point is that scientific advice is too hierarchical and focused on too few voices. Instead, it should be run like a “jam session” where everyone speaks up. I guess you don’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate the fact that you are more likely to hit on crucial facts when you listen to as many people and disciplines as possible. But the example shows that collective deliberation is still obstructed rather than enhanced (see also here).
  • Transitions in the university. – Borrowing a quote from a British colleague, the president of our university recently noted that implementing change in universities were like ‘reorganising a graveyard: “You don’t get much support from the inside”.’ The idea seems to be that changes like the current transitions to online teaching require an “external shock”. While shock might indeed be an occasion for change, I think that the comparison to the graveyard has clear limitations. I doubt that successful transition works without calling on the employees who actually do the implementing. So when we plan the details of this transition, I am sure our success will depend on whether we will listen carefully to the experiences and insights “the inside” has to offer. Indeed, the digital infrastructure that we now rely on increasingly provides great tools to implement change with the necessary transparency and participation of everyone involved. Sometimes this comes with comic relief: At the mercy of advanced technology, hierarchies of seniority are quickly turned upside down.
  • Hierarchy in teaching. – As I have noted earlier, my status as a professor should not enhance the status of what I have to say. And yet we all know that when I enter the lecture hall, the institutional powers put me in a special position, whether we like it or not. The fact that I am grading the very students who might criticise me seems to settle the intellectual hierarchy, too. Can this be evaded? Should it be? As I see it, the hierarchical power of professors over students is limited to the educational tasks they set within the institutional setting they share. I can give you a task and then tell to what extent you solved it well, whether you drew on all relevant resources etc. But an educational task, to be dealt with in an exam or essay, is different from the complex problems that confront us. Once we go beyond the confinement of exercises, students are fellow philosophers and citizens, where hierarchy should no longer apply. For the reasons noted above, the hierarchy might still be effective. But it is to our detriment if we allow it to happen.

Hierarchy, taken as a personal trait, then, obstructs true deliberation, diversity and learning. In an ideal setting, archangels could openly learn from the devil’s criticism. That said, it’s hard to figure out how we can evade the traps and fears that hierarchies foster. But we should be weary whenever discussion is closed with reference to hierarchical position. It harms all sides, those with more and less powers. But of course it’s hard to bypass something so deeply ingrained in our system. Yet, if someone politely asks you to shut up and listen, it might be best to go along and listen. In the same vain, those with more power should seek, not shun, advice from everyone. Acquiring knowledge and finding solutions, even if governed by good methods, is an accidental and collective process. You might have no idea what you’re missing. So keep asking around and encourage others. It’s always an institution, not you, that grants the power over people. The more power you exercise over them, the more likely it is that people refrain from telling you uncomfortable truths.

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* A perfect illustration is Paul Watzlawick’s “Story of the Hammer”.

** However, one might doubt whether hierarchies really obtain because of a functional division of labour. The economist Stephen Marglin famously argues that “the capitalist organization of work came into existence not because of superior efficiency but in consequence of the rent-seeking activities of the capitalist.” (I wish to thank Daniel Moure for pointing me to the work of Marglin, especially to the seminal paper “What do bosses do?”)

What’s it like to be (with) a superspreader? A note on the ethics of contagion

We’re used to the trope that our personal actions don’t make much of a difference. Arguably, in tackling climate change it’s not my choice to take an individual flight that makes things better or worse. In the current pandemic, however, nothing could be further from the truth. If I happen to be infectious, taking a flight these days might turn me into a superspreader, setting off a chain of infections that might harm a great amount of people. While we normally have to adapt to the world, the potential of spreading a virus like that has the uncanny effect that the (social) world, suffering infection, ‘adapts to us’, the one spreading. Of course, there are good reasons to avoid labelling individual people as superspreaders, but the fact remains that my individual behaviour might contribute to large-scale infections. The possibility of spreading the virus makes a number of very common habits doubtful and raises a number of moral questions. If I am contagious, then I should take precautions so as not to harm others. Therefore it’s not surprising that we find ourselves confronted with the recurrent advice to wash our hands and stay at home. However, even if the precautions to be taken are individual actions, they require a supportive social setting and compliance. If my employer, for instance, coerces me to work without taking precautions, the blame should be placed accordingly. Thus, new kinds of responsibilities emerge. In what follows, I’d like to consider some aspects of such responsibilities.

Being harmful. – In spreading the coronavirus, we cause harm. The idea of being alerted to the fact that one was responsible for such a spreading is enormously unpleasant, to say the least. While we might not want to attribute moral responsibility to a spreader, we will deem it epidemiologically important to track such a patient. So while such a spreading might not count as a (voluntary) action because it is not intended, it requires us to see ourselves as a cause of harm. That said, being involved in such an event might count as a case of (bad) moral luck and can hardly be dissociated from moral considerations.* Now the assumption that we are merely involuntary causes in such events no longer holds once we know that we are in a pandemic. In this case, I ought to take precautions. A failure to do so would strike me as morally blameworthy. So if I neglect hygiene measures (and end up spreading the virus), I am behaving irresponsibly and blameworthily. However, and this is the point I want to highlight, my fellow citizens and those responsible for living and working conditions in particular also have moral duties. Collectively, we might be said to have the duty to mutually enable each other to take necessary precautions. Now what does this amount to?

The moral status of spreading and spreading advice. – Advice such as “wash your hands!” and “stay at home (whenever possible)” is certainly helpful and ought to be followed in our current pandemic. Yet, it is a double-edged sword. On the one, hand it promotes risk aversion. If people comply, they might indeed prevent spreading and thus create a safe environment. On the other hand, it can be stigmatising. Given that at least staying at home comes at quite a price for some, we must bear in mind that calling out noncompliance might stigmatise and harm others, too. With the lifting of the lockdowns, we not only see people prematurely hasten ‘back to normal’, we also see a growing divide between those complying and those not complying with the restrictions. This divide is not helpful for either side. As I see it, people can only comply successfully with restrictions in a supportive environment. While it is true that individual actions can make a lot of a difference, individuals must have a chance to balance their compliance with the costs that arise. For a tenured professor like me, for instance, it’s easy to stay at home. But that is worlds apart from asking compliance of a shop assistant, who might be sacked if she fails to expose herself to hoards of potentially infectious customers, frowning at her for not wearing her mask correctly. So while everyone needs to consider themselves as a potential cause of harm to others, we need to create an environment in which we enable such considerations. Calling out others will more likely provide an incentive to shift the blame.

What is a supportive environment? – No matter what strategy (if any) your government is following, we need to comply with certain restrictions, if we want to prevent harming people through spreading the coronavirus. A supportive environment is one in which we can comply without harming ourselves. If we ignore the needs of children for a moment, one of the greatest factors that make compliance with lockdown restrictions difficult is the fact that we have to work and rely on other people’s work (to supply for our needs). Thus, we need to make sure that our working conditions allow for compliance. It is here that see a great number of difficulties. Let’s briefly highlight two issues:

  • The right to protect yourself from harm. – Compliance can only be demanded insofar as people can comply without harming themselves, be it economically or with regard to their health. Now from the very beginning of the corona crisis it was obvious that a number of people seem to have no effective means to protect themselves. If it is true that being indoors with other people is one of the greatest risks of infection, then care workers are exposed to an enormous danger of infection. Indeed, recent data shows that most COVID-19 deaths are occurring in this profession. If confined spaces are problematic, then what about schools, shops, public transport and the like? (While it might be ok to go shopping, it’s queite another question whether shop assistants are really well protected.) Perhaps with the exception of the medical sector, this seems to be largely in keeping with ongoing class issues. As I see it, our societies and the respective employers in particular are often not providing a safe working environment. But how can we expect compliance if we allow for such an amount of disregard within social settings, firms and institutions?
  • The duty to prevent spreading. – Is there a moral duty to prevent spreading? I guess, there is if we can do it without harming ourselves. This is why many people (myself included) consider the lifting of many lockdown measures as premature, especially in that they seem to incentivise outright blameworthy behaviour of crowds gathering to protest for individual liberties or whatever. But besides such aberrations there are more subtle cases. In mid-March, for instance, a colleague returning from a high-risk area was reproached for potentially causing “panic” among students by asking them to keep a safe distance. While I think that causing panic would be bad, I also think that universities ought to prioritise providing a safe environment. Thus, it is vital that universities and indeed other institutions follow policies that enable individuals to act in compliance with preventive measures. While most universities have now moved their education online, they are partly pushing for moving back on campus asap. While eventually returning to in-person education seems sensible and desirable, such moves might also incentivise an unhealthy competition, incentivising premature steps.

So in many cases we might witness (or at least have witnessed) that people are not complying with preventive measures. However, when judging the morality of harmful behavior, we must ask whether they are acting under conditions that allow for compliance in the first place. As much as I am upset to see people behaving in ways that might harm others or themselves, when passing moral judgement of their individual actions, we must bear in mind that the responsibility for enabling preventive behaviour is a collective sort of responsibility. Although I could cause enormous harm by spreading the virus, my actions to prevent such harmful actions have to rely on collective support. In a nutshell, it’s probably more appropriate to blame certain groups, firms and institutions than individuals. Both taking precautions and easing restrictions should be implemented such that these actions allow for mutual support.

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* Which reminds me of an intriguing discussion of Adam Smith on the so-called piacular by Eric Schliesser.

PS. Many thanks to Justin Weinberg for suggesting an important revision in my phrasing.