Rethinking the formula of humanity
Japa Pallikkathayil interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Japa Pallikkathayil is a funky new philosopher in New York University. She discusses the relationship between morality and politics. She knows there are layers to the problems facing women in philosophy. She often disagrees with Kant. She broods on what an ideal government should be like, on bodily rights and on coercion. She is a rising star.
3:AM: Can you say how you became a philosopher. Were you always asking philosophical questions even when little or is it something that gradually happened in reaction to experience of the world?
Japa Pallikkathayil: I have long been interested in philosophy but it took me a while to decide on philosophy as a career. As a high school debater, I read a lot of philosophy and enjoyed it. But back then I was more practically oriented and was very involved in local politics in my hometown (Kansas City, Missouri). In college, I was a double major in government and philosophy and I initially planned to go to law school and eventually pursue a career in government. I really wanted to make the world a better place. But eventually I realized that I didn’t know what the world should look like and, in particular, what the role of the government in our lives should be. These kinds of questions gripped me and never let go. So, philosophy seemed the right fit for me.
3:AM: You have focused on ethical issues connected in particular with the use of coercion. My initial thought is that coercion is a bad thing. But you want to get clear just what makes me think that and so you pull apart the idea of coercion. So can you say what makes coercion bad?
JP: I actually think that it is sometimes okay to use coercion. The state, for example, threatens to put people in jail for committing crimes like robbery or assault. At least in a just state, maybe this use of coercion is not morally suspect. I think that coercion is objectionable when what the coercer threatens to do is wrong. This takes away options that the person being threatened is entitled to have. So, the mugger who says “Your money or your life,” wrongfully takes away your option of keeping both your money and your life. That’s the first problem with wrongful coercion. And I think this first problem leads to a second. If you don’t have the options you are entitled to have, your choices don’t have the same significance that they usually do. Normally, if you hand your money to someone, you are consenting to let that person have it. But that’s not true in the interaction with the mugger. In that way, the mugger deprives you of a kind of authority over your money. So, I think that the second problem with wrongful coercion is that it deprives victims of what I call ‘normative authority’.
3:AM: You make a distinction between what you call ‘physical coercion’ on the one hand and ‘volitional coercion’ on the other. This is a crucial distinction for you so could you tell us what they are?
JP: Physical coercion involves taking physical control of at least some part of another’s body. So, for example, consider grabbing someone’s arm and pulling her out of her chair. Volitional coercion operates on another’s actions rather than her body. The mugger, for example, is trying to get you to act in a certain way without taking control of your body by, say, wrestling you to the ground and prying the wallet out of your pocket.
3:AM: You argue that we often mistakenly think about these two kinds of coercion as being pretty much the same and involving the same kind of thing. But you think that this is a mistake. Can you tell us about this?
JP: Someone who is physically coerced is not able to move as she chooses. There is a temptation to understand what volitional coercion involves in the same way, so that someone who is volitionally coerced is not able to act as she chooses. But if you think about it, this can’t be quite right. The point of the mugger’s threat is to get you to make a particular choice rather than preventing your choice from being effective.
3:AM: So the ‘volitional coercion’ idea makes us worry that somehow we are choosing to do what a bully, for example, is asking us to do. So this is about analysing what is happening when the mugger says ‘Give me your money’ or the rapist says ‘let me rape you’ and I agree and give up my money or my body? This is the issue that you’re interested in isn’t it? Can you say something about the background to this issue and how philosophers have looked at it before you.
JP: One natural way of understanding what goes wrong in those kinds of interactions involves describing the victim’s autonomy as somehow compromised. That idea, however, involves an ambiguity that I think people working on this issue have sometimes lost track of. The idea of autonomy and related ideas like freedom are often understood in terms of an agent’s internal psychological states and how those are connected with her actions. But autonomy might also be thought to have some kind of interpersonal element so that in order to be autonomous one must stand in certain relationships to others. So, in locating the problem with wrongful coercion in its effect on the victim’s autonomy, it’s easy to slide between these two senses of autonomy. To avoid this problem, I try to set aside the talk of autonomy and just focus on whether wrongful coercion’s problematic effect on a victim is best understood in terms of its effect on her internal states or on her relationships with others. And I think that the latter story is the right one.
3:AM: You discuss the contrasting ideas of ‘impaired action’ and kind of reject it don’t you? So could you say something about what’s wrong with saying that my choosing to act (i.e. handing over my money to a mugger or allowing a rapist to rape me) is only my action in a broken or impaired way?
JP: This view locates the problematic effect of coercion in the internal states I was just mentioning. The idea is that the victim is in some sense not properly connected with her actions. I think it is important to recognize that victims of wrongful coercion are still acting in a meaningful sense because there is a way in which we still regard those people as responsible for their choices. So suppose a terrorist threatens to kill your family unless you help her plant her bombs. Here the terrorist is certainly wrongfully coercing you. But it is still true that you are responsible for the choice you make in response. Of course, if you give in, the circumstances might lead us to evaluate your conduct less harshly than if you were an eager participant. But we need to recognize you as really acting in order for your conduct to be evaluable in the first place.
3:AM: You also reject some ideas of contemporary Kantians such as Christine Korsgaard and Onora O’Neill about ‘impaired consent’ but find something of value in this account. Is that right? Can you say something about this.
JP: Let’s go back to the case of the mugger. As I mentioned, when you hand over your money, you can’t consent to let the mugger keep it. And this is a kind of problematic effect on the victim’s relationship with others. But the ability to consent isn’t the only kind of normative authority that you lack if you are the victim of impermissible coercion. So, suppose someone tried to wrongfully coerce you into making a promise. That promise wouldn’t bind you for the very same reason you can’t give consent to the mugger, namely, you lack the options you are entitled to have when deciding about whether to make the promise. So, I think that focusing on the victim’s impaired ability to consent is illuminating but not the whole story.
3:AM: One of the things you say about your approach is that we don’t need to completely define coercion before we can come to a sensible and rational position about the ethics of coercion. Can you say something about why you think this rejection of the definitional project is very important? Is it an approach that you have found obstructive to other aspects of philosophical investigation?
JP: The definitional project has occupied most of the recent work on coercion. And the way that project has typically been pursued involves reflecting on cases and trying to assess intuitively whether they involve coercion and then developing a definition on the basis of this data. None of the accounts that have resulted from this strategy have quite been able to capture all of the cases in a way that seems satisfying. I think that this is good evidence that the way we use the term ‘coercion’ involves some confusion or ambiguity.
So, instead of trying to settle on a definition from the outset, I focus on paradigmatic cases of coercion, like that of the mugger, and ask normative questions like why is what the mugger is doing wrong and how does this action affect the victim’s responsibility for her response. And by answering these questions in paradigmatic cases, we arrive at the features that are relevant for answering these questions in other cases. We can thereby answer the normative questions without labeling an act coercive or not. And I think that the normative project can then shed light on where the confusions or ambiguities are in our use of the term ‘coercion’. While the preoccupation with a definition has been particularly striking in the work on coercion, I think that many of the concepts that are familiar in moral discourse are also better explored using the more normatively focused strategy.
3:AM: Your work focuses not just on coercion, but also deception and exploitation. Sadly these are issues of immense traction and relevance. The link between morals and politics often raises issues about deception, exploitation and coercion. You have written about this in your essay Deriving Morality from Politics: Rethinking the Formula of Humanity. So can you say something about the formula: what was it and what should it be?
JP: Kant’s formula of humanity requires that we treat people as ends in themselves rather than merely as a means. In one way, this is a very intuitive idea. We shouldn’t use other people but should instead let them live their own lives. The trick is in articulating what this involves. To do this, most Kantians have focused on one-on-one interactions. I think that this focus misses the way in which our political relationships shape our interactions.
In order to recognize people as separate individuals with their own lives to live, we need to respect their rights. And I don’t think that we can do this without just political institutions. Without such institutions, we face three problems. First, our rights are indeterminate. For example, how loudly can you play your music without violating your neighbor’s rights? There isn’t an obvious rule settling this and, as equals, none of us is uniquely entitled to decide what this rule should be. Just political institutions give us a way of impartially establishing these kinds of rules. Second, however detailed these rules are, there will still be cases in which there may be reasonable disagreement about how the rules apply. Once again we need an impartial procedure for settling this, and just political institutions provide this procedure. Finally, rights only give people the space to live their own lives if others don’t violate those rights. Just political institutions give people the assurance that their rights will be observed. It turns out, then, that respecting others in the way that the formula of humanity indicates crucially involves being in just political relationships with them.
3:AM: Many of us look at politics and just see a miasma of immorality and corruption, greedy immoralists exploiting our hopes for private selfish gain. So how do we get morality from politics?
JP: Just political institutions create a space within which we can situate everyday one-on-one interactions. So, suppose you need a ride to the airport. Your friend might want to help you out, but it wouldn’t be okay for her to steal someone’s car to do that. In this way, people’s rights place limits on the kinds of interactions we may have and so shape our moral duties. In this case, the content of our duty to help other people depends on the resources we have a right to control.
I think a lot of moral duties involve this kind of sensitivity to people’s rights. And since our rights are indeterminate without political institutions, we need those institutions in order to be able to fulfill our moral duties. That’s how politics gives content to morality. But of course here I am talking about just political institutions and, as your question brings out, most of the political institutions we are familiar with fail to realize that ideal to some extent. While no one doubts that injustice is a problem, my account suggests that it is an even deeper problem than we might have realized. By failing to properly establish our rights, unjust political institutions disrupt our ability to discharge even moral duties that do not initially seem to have much to do with politics.
3:AM: When we look out at vast areas of the globe there seems to be abuse at all levels. War, inequality, bullying, just a general swamp of nastyness. Are you driven to these philosophical questions by recognition of the general screwed up world? Do you think philosophizing can help? What would you say to someone who cried out in despair: look, thinking isn’t helping, we need action?
JP: Action is certainly important, but we should also not underestimate the role of ideas in producing change. Action without a vision is bound to be unfocused and runs the risk of being counterproductive. On the other hand, without real engagement with the world, ideas are bound to be empty. So, ideally, action and reflection go hand in hand.
While we are trying to address the serious problems in the world, we should not shy away from asking questions about the big picture. At the same time, we shouldn’t get so caught up in abstract theories that we lose sight of the problems that motivate them. Of course philosophers are especially susceptible to making the latter mistake, but I think that there are many philosophers who are really making an effort to contribute to the public discourse about important issues. Change can sometimes be fostered simply by helping people understand their own commitments, and sometimes change requires an entirely fresh way of looking at things. Philosophers are particularly well positioned to help on both these fronts.
3:AM: Talking to some women philosophers and reading reports, academic philosophy seems to be pretty bad at recognizing women philosophers. You are of course an exception to this, being a top philosopher in the top department for philosophy. But is this an issue that concerns you and have you any thoughts about why this is so and what might be done?
JP: There are lots of layers to the problems facing women in philosophy. To start with, unfortunately, overt sexism still exists. I have been lucky enough not to have much first hand experience with the kind of horror stories reported on the blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” But the posts there are very revealing. It’s really hard to know what to do about the situation when sexist attitudes are pervasive. But sometimes there are just one or two problematic professors who everyone knows are problematic but no one does anything about. In these cases, I think other faculty members need to be more proactive in addressing the situation. While this is not easy, not intervening fails to take seriously the very pernicious effect even a few people can have on the entire climate of a department.
There are also ways in which practices in the discipline are poorly suited to manage implicit biases. To take just one example, consider a problematic element of the hiring process. Many of the first round interviews of job candidates take place at the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. In the evening, after the formal interviews, everyone gathers for a kind of cocktail hour during which candidates are supposed to seek out and chitchat with the people from the schools they interviewed with. This is a format that seems likely to exacerbate the influence of implicit biases and other irrelevant factors on the judgments of those involved in hiring. Given this, it is mysterious to me why this practice persists.
Another layer of the problem facing women just has to do with the numbers. As I understand it, fewer women major in philosophy, even fewer apply to graduate school, and so on. I don’t know if there are ways of improving the experience of women in particular in their first exposure to the discipline, but I do think that there are ways in which the discipline might be healthier for all involved. We can choose to approach our interactions with others in the discipline in a way that is collaborative rather than competitive. The very same questions can be posed in ways that are constructive rather than combative. The latter approach shuts people out of the conversation and closes down lines of inquiry rather than opening them up. Individuals and departments differ in the extent to which this issue of approach is a problem for them. But I think that if we were all more mindful of how we are interacting and what we are conveying when we do so, we would all be better off.
3:AM: What do you make of the experimental philosophers who utilise findings in cognitive science and psychology to test out the moral intuitions of folk. Is this something that you find helpful or useful? Will you be burning any of your armchairs any time soon?
JP: For the topics that I have been working on recently, like coercion, I don’t think that studying people’s intuitions is likely to be very helpful because, as I mentioned, I think that people’s intuitions on these subjects are muddled. So, I prefer the more normatively focused strategy to the study of intuitions about hard cases, regardless of whether those intuitions are from the armchair or from the laboratory.
3:AM: Finally, have there been books outside of philosophy that you have found enlightening for you as you brood on these essential moral issues?
JP: When I first started thinking about these issues, I enjoyed the classic dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World. And I must confess a recent fondness for The Hunger Games trilogy.
3:AM: And finally finally, for the sassy crowd here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would get them thinking about these issues?
JP: The classic Watership Down by Richard Adams engages issues of authority and coercion in a very compelling way. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is also an enjoyable read. For a more recent novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is worth checking out. For some historical accounts involving these issues, try Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and Hiroshima by John Hersey. I also want to throw in two movies that involve these themes and are worth checking out: The Sea Inside and The Greatest Happiness Space.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 30th, 2012.