The new leveller
Elizabeth Anderson interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Elizabeth Anderson is a chillin’ philosopher in the groove of John Dewey and John Stuart Mill. She admires the Levellers and seeks to extend democracy and egalitarianism. Her new book The Imperative of Integration examines issues around poverty and race. She brings a smart sassy vim to feminist arguments for a better world. Faboovagrass!
3:AM: When did you decide to become a philosopher? Was it a surprising choice for you and those who knew you?
Elizabeth Anderson: My father got me started reading philosophy when I was in high school. We read parts of Plato’s Republic and Mill’s On Liberty together. We also read and talked about free-market economics: Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson was among my favorites. Political discussion dominated family dinner conversations. At Swarthmore College I originally majored in economics. I was always more interested in foundational issues and political economy than in mathematical model-building, however.
Reading Amartya Sen turned me decisively toward philosophy. He showed how getting clear on foundational issues in economics, and making sure that one is using empirical concepts that track normatively relevant concerns, was essential to getting economics to answer questions that matter. But once one gets one’s concepts and tools in good working order, and uses them to understand the actual world (not just the possible worlds of a priori market models), laissez-faire doesn’t look so good any more. His non-ideal, pragmatist, empirical approach to normative issues, particularly with regard to the proper uses of markets, was a major influence on my intellectual development. His critique of the concept of preference in economics was a turning point that led me to major in philosophy. No one was surprised when I decided to make a career out of it.
3:AM: It seems unavoidable to confront the treatment of women in professional philosophy. Your work is not primarily about this, but it’s a huge issue isn’t it? In the 3:AM interviews with both established greats like Patricia Churchland and rising stars like Japa Pallikkathayil the issue is identified as a problem. What’s your take on this? Why is academic philosophy seemingly a worse place for women than in the rest of the humanities? And most other places in the academy?
EA: It is stunning how far behind philosophy is, not just compared to the other humanities, but to most other disciplines—including economics, chemistry, statistics, biochemistry, and molecular biology—in the representation of women. Even mathematics and astrophysics have more women. No theory of biological sex differences can credibly explain this.
Women were certainly not flourishing at the University of Michigan philosophy department when I joined it as its only female professor in 1987, filling a line that had been occupied by three female predecessors, all of whom had been denied tenure or left when they saw what the result would be. I entered a Department that was full of righteous denial that the flourishing of women there was a proper concern. My department has made huge strides on gender issues in the past decade, but the field still has a long way to go. Sally Haslanger has written some of the most important work on gender bias in philosophy. That even overt sexism is common in philosophy is well-documented.
The puzzle is why is gender bias greater in philosophy than in other fields? I suspect that gender symbolism, however absurd this is, plays a role. Gender symbolism is the tendency to project gender categories onto inanimate things and abstract ideas, as when we think of pears as feminine and bananas as masculine. Gender symbolism is pervasive in academic disciplines and subfields and helps predict the distribution of men and women across fields. The humanities are “soft”, hence “feminine”, hence imagined to be more suited to women—and indeed women are coming to predominate in most of the humanities as judged by Ph.D.s granted. But within the humanities, philosophy is relatively “hard”, hence masculine, hence imagined to befit men, so women are scarce. And within philosophy ethics is relatively “feminine,” so is it that surprising that women are disproportionately concentrated there?
That’s only one dimension of a big complicated issue and far from the whole story, given that fields such as chemistry and statistics have better representation of women than philosophy although they are symbolized as masculine. We need to consider dynamic issues as well. Sociologist Paula England has found that as more women enter a field, men run away from it. This can lead to tipping points, in which fields such as art history and psychology become dominated by women. But we are still only at the most primitive stages of answering the comparative question.
3:AM: You are known for your work in feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. So can you first say what the motivations for such an approach were in philosophy and who were the pioneers?
EA: I have argued that feminist epistemology and philosophy of science is a branch of naturalized, social epistemology focusing on the causes and consequences of gendered ideas and practices on the presuppositions, content, methods, concerns, cognitive authority, uses, composition and organization of diverse fields and modes of inquiry. It’s what you get when you join naturalizing trends in epistemology and philosophy of science with feminist concerns, such as the ones that underlie your previous question about the relative paucity of women in philosophy. Pioneers in the field include Linda Alcoff, Louise Antony, Lorraine Code, Patricia Hill Collins, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock, Sally Haslanger, Evelyn Fox Keller, Elisabeth Lloyd, Maria Lugones, Helen Longino, Charles Mills, Lynn Nelson, Nancy Tuana, and Alison Wylie. This is far from an exhaustive list; I apologize for errors of omission.
3:AM: So what are the basic components of feminist epistemology and feminist science? Is Harding’s tripartite classification of empiricist, standpoint theory and postmodernism still the menu of frameworks for this approach?
EA: Harding’s classification remains a useful entrée to the field. Very roughly, feminist empiricism advocates the use of empirical methods to analyze, uncover, and avoid sexist and androcentric biases in inquiry. Feminist standpoint theory claims that women, or feminists, have privileged access to certain truths or epistemic authority over certain questions concerning women’s oppression and women’s interests. Feminist postmodernism questions the unity of the category “woman,” stresses the importance of intersecting identities (of race, class, age, nationality, religion, etc. with gender) in analyzing the processes and products of inquiry, and adopts interpretive approaches to scientific theories that highlight the contingencies of their conceptual frameworks and presuppositions.
In practice, these approaches have converged. We can empirically investigate claims of gendered epistemic authority, as Alison Wylie has shown, and sometimes we find very interesting results. Intersectional analysis also enriches empirical investigations of questions of interest to feminists. And feminist empiricists such as Helen Longino have also identified contingencies in scientific theories that open up opportunities for alternative explanations of observed phenomena. However, it is hard to summarize this field briefly. I advise readers to consult my Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for an overview.
3:AM: Where do you position yourself?
3:AM: Of course the feminist epistemology approach has its critics. The charge of political correctness has been made by the people such as Susan Haak, Noretta Koertge and Robert Almeder and you note that this is the most important charge. These are serious philosophers so you have to take them seriously. What are the serious charges they make and how do you defend the approach?
EA: The most serious charge made by Haak, Koertge, and Almeder is that feminist epistemology grants a license to feminists to reject empirically supported hypotheses that are politically inconvenient, and to advance empirically unsupported hypotheses that are politically convenient to feminist agendas. They also complain that feminist epistemologists cynically reject the quest for objectivity and truth as power plays, and uncritically value supposedly “feminine” ways of knowing, even when not all women think in these “feminine” ways and even when thinking in these ways would reinforce women’s subordination.
There are three things that are striking about their critique, and the critiques of other outsiders to the field. First is how little they have read of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. Their critiques, when they succeed in striking any target at all, “beat dead horses killed long ago in debates internal to the field,” as I argued in a review of their criticisms. More often, they simply throw around false accusations. Elisabeth Lloyd and Helen Longino, for example, defend robust accounts of objectivity in science. Second is how spectacularly detached they are from engagement with actual scientific theories, methods, or practices when they purport to lecture feminist philosophers of science about the nature of science.
The leading feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science, by contrast, demonstrate their points through detailed examination of particular scientific theories, practices, and controversies. Third is how detached they are from academic norms of rational discourse, which demand responsiveness to critique. They keep repeating the same false accusations, completely ignoring feminist responses to their criticisms. There is a level of obtuseness and hysteria here that is quite shocking. It’s like trying to engage people who claim that Obama is a Muslim jihadist terrorist.
EA: Dewey’s philosophy is grounded in the actual problems and predicaments people face in life. Consider the fact that his famous ethics text, written with James Tufts, begins with an anthropological and historical discussion of the moral practices of ancient peoples around the world, and how they were tied to the characteristic problems such societies needed to solve.
Reflective moral thinking draws from how people experience their problems and attempt to solve them, and aims to help them improve their ways of thinking about problems and solutions. The call to philosophers to engage actual problems arising in human practices is of course a hallmark of feminist theory—to start theorizing from the problems and experiences of women. And it is a hallmark of contemporary philosophy of science—to start theorizing from the actual thought and practices of scientists and the challenges they encounter. The deep affinities among these philosophical perspectives helps explain why so many feminist philosophers are drawn to the philosophy of science, and to pragmatism.
3:AM: Race and inequality as well as feminism are what have driven much of your philosophical work. In your debate with Jason Brennan and David Schmidtz you attack the idea that negative freedom is enough to guarantee a just society. This is a powerful point. Can you elaborate here what you were getting at?
EA: There are at least three important conceptions of freedom: negative freedom, opportunities (options actually accessible with the skills and resources at one’s disposal), and personal independence (not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person). There are tradeoffs among these freedoms. Legally enforced private property rights themselves represent a massive diminution of negative freedom (the state will use coercion to exclude people from using others’ property), justified by the fact that this will massively improve people’s opportunities. Traffic rules serve the same function.
I argue that we should evaluate the rules of property and distribution as akin to traffic rules, in which it is obvious that numerous tradeoffs of negative liberty for the sake of expanding opportunities are justified. Social insurance offers a case in point. Universal health insurance trades off some negative liberty (everyone must pay in to the system) for a vast increase in opportunities (everyone has access to affordable health care). The cost in negative liberty is trifling compared to the gain in opportunities.
It is telling that every country in the world that has achieved universal access to affordable health care has made use of extensive state action to do so. There are collective action problems here, notably adverse selection in the health insurance market, that unregulated private enterprise cannot solve. Similarly, modern property rules forbid certain kinds of racial discrimination, as in the sale and rental of housing, and refuse to recognize contracts into slavery and debt peonage.
Such rules function to block private property from being used as an instrument for racial and caste subordination. What’s really at stake here is a choice between feudal property and forms of private property compatible with a democratic society of equal citizens. Libertarians fail to recognize the supreme importance of the difference between feudal property and a property regime compatible with a free society of equal persons, none of whom must live in subjection to the arbitrary will of others.
3:AM: So your position is an egalitarianism that privileges social relations over mere distributive equality. You began discussing this in your book ‘Value in Ethics and Economics‘. So what’s wrong with distributive equality? It’s not that you don’t want distributive equality but that you don’t want that to limit what egalitarianism means. Is that right?
EA: Right. You get a much sharper understanding of any political theory by focusing on what it is opposing. hroughout the history of egalitarianism, the enemy has been social hierarchy—social relations of domination and subjection, of stigmatization, of unequal standing. Egalitarians have mobilized against monarchy, aristocracy, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, feudalism, plutocracy, caste systems, racism, class domination, and stigmatization and marginalization based on sexuality, disability, and bodily appearance. Equalizing distributions across individuals, or moving in that direction, is often a useful strategy for dismantling unjust social hierarchy and sustaining egalitarian social relations.
But this has neither been the sole aim nor the fundamental point of egalitarianism. Moreover, many egalitarian aims don’t involve the equal distribution of anything. Feminists seek reproductive autonomy for women.There is no good that is being distributed equally when this egalitarian demand is met. The Civil Rights Movement sought an end to racial segregation in public accommodations—a goal explicitly contrasted with “separate but equal” precisely because mere equal distribution of goods was insufficient to break down the racial caste system.
Distributive equality is pointless apart from its role in expressing and sustaining equality of social relations and blocking unjust social hierarchy. Some egalitarians today, such as Larry Temkin, think egalitarians should value equal distributions of happiness across individuals who live on different planets, even if they have no interactions. I think such a distributive picture of equality abstracts from everything that makes equality worth caring about.
3AM: So you want ideals of social relations instantiated. When did this social movement understanding of egalitarianism develop?
EA: The idea that human beings are fundamentally equals from a moral point of view is ancient. I suspect it can be traced all the way back to the origins of monotheism, in the idea that we are all equally creatures of God, all made in God’s image, all in principle equally eligible for salvation. However for most of history most monotheistic churches have promised equality only in the next life; in this one a thousand reasons were invented to uphold various forms of social, political, and religious hierarchy.
That’s ideology; what about practice? Functionally egalitarian communities have also existed for a long time. Hunter-gatherer societies are functionally egalitarian because they produce no surplus. Once societies began producing surpluses it took ideological commitment to live as equals. In ancient civilizations this was generally achieved only in ascetic religious cults.
Religious communes were egalitarian not out of political ideals but usually for ascetic reasons: say, everyone had to take a vow of poverty to get closer to God. What was missing from the ancient world was a practice of universal political equality of all members of society based on an underlying idea of moral equality.
Egalitarianism as a social and political movement demanding equal social relations in this world is a distinctively modern phenomenon that I trace to the Levellers in the English Civil War. They sought a universal male franchise, representation of districts in proportion to population, and the abolition of feudal privileges, including abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords. We can even see the beginnings of feminist political demands in the 1640s, but it has been characteristic of the history of egalitarian social movements that they start off making demands on behalf of a subset of the oppressed and only expand under pressure from those excluded.
3:AM: In a sense your arguments for egalitarianism are far bigger than just redistribution. Can you say what you are critiquing and what your ideal would be?
EA: Egalitarians have always been much sharper about what they hate than about envisioning a positive alternative. Egalitarian critiques of feudalism, racism, patriarchy, imperialism are trenchant, and humanity has certainly progressed through movements to abolish the worst forms of social inequality, such as slavery and the legal subordination of married women. But social inequality survives in obstinate habits and implicit biases even after its legal infrastructure has been abolished. It has been difficult to forge complete, positive alternatives.
We have learned from experiments in living what sorts of egalitarian systems don’t work very well. Various types of communal living have been repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed. Comprehensive centralized state-managed economies have been disastrous. Other experiments have been highly successful—democracy, social insurance, universal education, human rights. While these are all continuing works in progress, we can have confidence that further steps along these lines are good for humanity.
3AM: You wrote a great essay on the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA. It again broadened out what you thought were the issues at stake in this huge event. Your disappointment with Obama and the political landscape highlights the values you are arguing for and against. Can you say something about your views on this.
EA: 9/11 was a traumatic event that empowered the Executive to take unilateral, unaccountable actions that violate people’s rights. Obama has been comparable to or worse than Bush in asserting an unreviewable power to assassinate U.S. citizens secretly declared to be involved in terrorism, to prosecute whistleblowers, and to engage in mass monitoring of private citizens. When intelligence agencies comprehensively monitor our phone calls, emailing, texting, web browsing, and use of social media, and can track our motions in detail, the right to privacy has been reduced to a nullity.
The U.S. government claims success in the war on terror, but the connection between that and mass violations of U.S. citizens’ privacy is unproven at best. Most of the terrorism convictions obtained since 9/11 appear to have been due to FBI agents whipping up anti-government fervor among disaffected incompetents, bribing and prodding them to engage in violence, and providing them with all of the leadership, organization, planning, and equipment needed to do the act.
If terrorism has to be ginned up to be discovered, chances are there isn’t much of a threat there to begin with, certainly not so much as to justify a massive expansion of the national security state. Some people claim that the innocent have nothing to lose from comprehensive government snooping. I disagree. Security of private life from the probing eyes of the state is a good in itself. In addition the probability of false accusation skyrockets under mass surveillance, since spies need to justify their jobs by fingering suspects. It will take a mass movement for civil liberties to reverse these trends.
3:AM: Your new book is required reading. Why does racial integration remain an imperative?
EA: My book, The Imperative of Integration, opens with a diagnosis of one of the most important social phenomena observed worldwide. This is that systematic inequalities of power, social esteem, opportunities, and wealth tend to track social group identities, whether of class, caste, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language, or family line.
The identities of disadvantaged groups vary across societies (although women are disadvantaged everywhere), but the cause is everywhere the same. Systematic group inequality is the result of advantaged groups gaining privileged access to goods critical to social advancement, and closing ranks so as to protect their relative monopoly. In other words, it is the result of the self-segregation of the advantaged. Self-segregation thus causes socioeconomic inequality.
It also undermines democracy. People privileged by segregation tend to be insular, clubby, smug, ignorant of the disadvantaged, inattentive to their interests, and full of negative stereotypes about them. When such people dominate positions of power and authority in society, the institutions they run are similarly negligent or even hostile toward the interests of the disadvantaged. Segregation thereby perpetuates inequality and undermines democracy. In my book I survey extensive empirical evidence that integration can help remedy these problems, taking black-white integration as my central case study.
3:AM: Do you find widespread resistance to this in the USA?
EA: Black-white racial segregation is by far the most stubborn form of segregation in the U.S. today. It is far greater than segregation of any other racial or ethnic group, and far greater than class segregation. The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow have proven to be extremely difficult to overcome, with antidiscrimination law and affirmative action making only modest and slow inroads into the problem.
Nevertheless there are grounds for hope. The simple act of voting to elect a black person for public office appears to soften racial bias. President Obama’s election may thus have more than symbolic value. More importantly, the experience of integration makes people more likely to choose integrated settings later in life. There may therefore be a silver lining in our otherwise disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. military is the most deeply integrated of all large U.S. institutions. Millions of young adults have passed through its ranks in the last decade. This is liable to have integrative effects, as is the revitalization of American cities, which are being populated with young adults with more cosmopolitan attitudes.
3:AM: It seems clear that feminism, feminist epistemology and science and integration, liberty and equality are being bound together in your work and that’s one of your complaints isn’t it, that by splintering the ideals and keeping them apart we lose what the overarching ideal is. Is that right?
EA: I don’t claim that freedom and equality are identical ideals. Pluralism of values is a deep feature of political life. Nevertheless there are several points of convergence between freedom and equality. Recall that one conception of freedom is personal independence: freedom from subjection to the arbitrary will of others. Subjection to another’s arbitrary will is also known as a relation of domination, which is a chief target of egalitarian critique.
Moreover, egalitarian socioeconomic policies, such as free, universal education and social insurance, function to open up opportunities for all, and thereby provide escape routes from personal dependency. We also should not forget the role of competitive markets in opening up opportunities. When workers have multiple employers to choose from they are less prone to abject subordination than in a company town. Similarly, access to multiple sources of credit helps people avoid debt peonage.
3:AM: So do you think your arguments endorse any particular political arrangement. So is liberalism able to address these issues, or a form of Marxism or anarchism?
EA: I am a liberal of a decidedly left-leaning anti-Marxist type. Marxism was a disastrous political experiment. The collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European bloc was good riddance for the world. Anarchism has never found a way to solve the problem of bad actors. Anarchists, like libertarians, have boundless faith in people’s reasonability and willingness to respect human rights. That faith is unjustified. If you want to know what anarchism looks like, don’t imagine a libertarian utopia. Take a look at Somalia.
3:AM: It seems there’s a world going to hell and anti-egalitarian reality and justification seem very prevalent. That’s depressing. At the same time the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring are examples of hope. Do you think these are significant in the long run and are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
EA: The Occupy movement has succeeded in putting issues of inequality back into political consciousness. Importantly, the movement has stressed how the rules of the economic game are unfairly rigged to favor the wealthy, and not just on the outcomes. This means that we need to go well beyond taxation-and-redistribution schemes to look more closely at the underlying rules.
Financial deregulation, the weakness of corporate governance, destruction of labor unions, closure of the courts to class action lawsuits by aggrieved workers and consumers, regulatory capture by private interests, weak protection of workers’ pensions, excessive protection of intellectual property monopolies, and public disinvestment in higher education all play significant roles in the growth of inequality.
Nor can a credible case be made that any of those developments are in any larger public interest, say, of economic growth—quite the contrary. Financial deregulation, for example, has led to profound and systematic instability and the deepest world recession since the Great Depression. Corporate executives are no more productive than their predecessors decades ago, who made a small fraction of their salaries. The elimination of class action lawsuits simply gives corporations opportunities to commit fraud and other illegal acts on a mass scale, because the cost of arbitration is too high when each case must be adjudicated individually. Weak protection of workers’ pensions has allowed firms to drain funds when stock markets boom and refuse to refund them when they bust.
Austerity measures are reducing seats at public community colleges and universities, thereby closing the doors of economic opportunity to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young people, at substantial cost to the stock of human capital essential for future growth. The destruction of labor unions has meant there is virtually no counterweight to business interests in Congress and state legislatures, leading to the erosion of workers’ rights and bargaining power. Excessive IP protection in academic publishing is increasing college costs and student indebtedness.
And the baleful effects of regulatory capture are too obvious to need spelling out. The U.S. public is getting some sense that the game is rigged, but we need relentless focus on the details of how the game is rigged to get progressive results. Ironically, Tea Partiers also complain that the game is rigged unfairly. But their analysis of how this is so focuses ire on the disadvantaged, such as food stamp recipients and undocumented immigrants.
Right now the momentum in the Arab Spring appears to have been mostly captured by Islamist parties, although they were not the ones to set off the protests. This is not propitious for democracy or equality. Progressive social movements need to take the long view. It took about 400 years from the Levellers’ demands to the fruition of representative democracy based on a universal franchise in nation states. Forging democracy is a long, tough slog. The hope is that once people have tasted it even partially, they tend to want more.
3:AM: Finally, are there any books or films that have enlightened or inspired you outside of philosophy?
EA: Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid, got me thinking seriously about racial segregation and its implications for inequality. Charles Mann’s 1491 makes pre-Columbian New World history come alive. His 1493, an ecological and commercial history of the “Columbian exchange”—the consequences of the world circulation of organisms and goods between New and Old Worlds—is equally stunning. On film, I’m going to recommend a forgotten classic that deserves a fresh viewing: Audrey Hepburn’s A Nun’s Story. It’s a compelling film about a nun’s struggles in the face of her moral reservations against following through on her vow of obedience, given the sorts of orders she was issued.
3:AM: And finally, for those readers here at 3:AM looking to understand justice in your terms, can you recommend five books we should be reading.
EA: Stephen Darwall, The Second Person Standpoint provides a definitive account of claims of moral rightness, including claims of justice, in terms of social relations of mutual accountability. A must-read for anyone interested in the foundations of deontology and social contract theory. Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale offers very wise reflections on the promises and limitations of markets and revives the rich moral perspectives of classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, extends concepts of justice to the realm of how we treat knowers, and thereby joins a relational theory of justice to issues of feminist epistemology. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, offers a vital perspective on global justice and its connections to an opportunity-based conception of freedom. Finally, George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, an egalitarian classic, is still well worth reading today.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 25th, 2012.