Sexism, Philosophy, and the Reciprocity of Virtue


Dan Hicks


December 2, 2013

Sexism in philosophy has been on my mind lately, between my colleague Kerry McKenzie’s review of a disastrous attempt at philosophy of physics by notorious sexist philosopher Colin McGinn and a visit to our department last week by Jenny Saul. I’ve also been thinking a lot about virtue ethics, in part because I get to teach it for the first time next term. It seems like virtue ethics has some valuable insights for the problem of sexism in philosophy. In this post, I want to develop one small insight, starting with something that seems to be a challenge to a virtue ethical discussion of sexism in philosophy.

The challenge targets a key notion for many virtue ethics, which is often called the unity of virtue. Julia Annas calls it the reciprocity of virtue; that’s the term I’ll use here. The idea is that each virtue requires other virtues, and so all of the virtues hang together in a way. Put a little more strongly, having one virtue requries having every virtue.

The challenge to the reciprocity of virtue runs something like this:

McGinn is just one of a depressingly large number of good philosophers who are horrible sexists. They have the virtues that go into being a good philosopher — call these the philosophical virtues — but they’re sexist, disrespectful, chauvinist, and objectifying. They lack the non-sexist virtues. The reciprocity of virtue seems to imply that they cannot have the philosophical virtues without also having the non-sexist virtues. So the reciprocity of virtue seems to be false.

You might respond to this by claiming that McGinn and his ilk are a rare exception — just a few bad apples. The reciprocity of virtue is meant to apply generally and for the most part, and so it can accommodate a small number of exceptional cases. However, if you follow the first link at the top of the post, you can read hundreds of horrible stories about sexist behavior, often attributed to people who have high standing as professional philosophers. Unfortunately, it seems like there are many people who are both good philosophers and horrible sexists.

Another response is to separate “ethical” virtues from the virtues of specific professions. Consider someone who’s a “good assassin” or a “good mercenary.” It seems perfectly intelligible to say that someone is good at assassinating people, or killing people from money. And we can identify the character traits that go along with being good at these professions: being merciless and not hesitating to kill, for example, and being skilled with deadly weapons. These character traits are the “assassination virtues,” and clearly they have nothing to do with ethical virtues like mercy and justice. Sexist philosophers are a less extreme version of this same kind of case. They have the philosophical virtues, and these philosophical virtues have nothing to do with ethical virtues.

However, I think one of the major strengths of virtue ethics is that it does not separate morality or ethics from the rest of our lives. Ethics doesn’t occupy some special sphere or make use of distinct kinds of considerations. Instead, it emerges from all of our various activities, in large part because, when these activities are worth doing, they require the virtues to be successful. For example, doing philosophy well requires courage and justice, to defend an unpopular argument or to concede that your position has been shown to be flawed. As we reflect on the various activities that fill our lives, we come to recognize that certain ways of acting and thinking are valuable in every activity worth doing — being courageous, just, honest, and so on. These things are the virtues.

The idea of “assassination virtues” confuses excellence and efficiency. The “good assassin” is an efficient killer: given a target, they can be relied upon to kill them quickly, expending a minimum of resources. But killing someone isn’t a fine, worthwhile achievement that fits with all of our other activities to produce a full and edifying life. On the other hand, something like philosophy, done well, is this kind of achievement. In other words, when it’s done well, philosophy achieves an excellence that assassination can’t. Because of this, the “assassination virtues” reciprocate with the ethical virtues — they don’t hang together — while the philosophical virtues do reciprocate — doing philosophy well requires the virtues, and indeed beyond a certain level having the virtues requires philosophical reflection.

So how would I respond to the challenge to the reciprocity of virtue?

Philosophy is a complex social activity, and like many such activities, it has a complex institutional reward structure. Within this reward structure, certain kinds of behaviors are rewarded, and so encouraged, and philosophers come to recognize these behaviors as constituting “good philosophy.” For example, publishing articles in certain journals, or publishing books with certain university presses, are rewarded with job offers and promotions. Gradually the kinds of problems and solutions and the kind of writing style used in these journals and books come to be recognized as constituting “good philosophy.” This same reward structure punishes other behaviors — which come to be recognized as “bad philosophy” or “not philosophy.”

In contemporary philosophy, sexist behavior generally falls under a third category, where it’s neither rewarded nor punished. Consequently, it’s not recognized as “good philosophy,” but it’s also not recognized as “bad philosophy.” Instead, it’s regarded as “philosophically irrelevant.” In this way, McGinn and his ilk can be thought of as “good philosophers,” despite being horrible sexists. Their sexism is regarded as irrelevant to their philosophical activities. (It’s not hard to find blog comments that take this line.)

As I said above, good philosophy requires the virtues. This includes the anti-sexist virtues. A sexist philosopher doesn’t take his opponent’s arguments seriously, just because she happens to be a woman, and consequently fails to recognize a problem with his own views; this is a failure of both justice and courage. The problem is that the reward structure of contemporary philosophy generally doesn’t punish him for his sexist behavior. So long as he does an adequate job responding to his men opponents, he’ll be treated as though he were a good philosopher. He’ll get the publications and prestigious positions that a good philosopher deserves, despite the fact that he’s not actually that good.

Virtue ethics call this kind of problem compartmentalization. When society is compartmentalized — divided into distinct spheres, with each sphere rewarding certain virtues and ignoring others — the reciprocity of virtue can seem to fall apart. It might seem as though being a good philosopher doesn’t require having the anti-sexist virtues. But in fact they are required. It’s just that philosophers generally aren’t rewarded for having the anti-sexist virtues, and so someone can become a highly promoted philosopher despite being a horrible sexist.

This response has several important implications. One is that sexism is an institutional problem, not an individual problem. Even when we’re talking about individual attitudes (rather than structural sexism, which is a whole other problem), the underlying cause is the institutional system of rewards and punishments. It’s this system that must be changed, not just the attitudes and beliefs of many individual sexists. A second important implication is that we can’t address sexism in philosophy without changing our understanding of what makes for good philosophy. At a minimum, we need to recognize that sexist philosophy is bad philosophy, rather than regarding sexism as irrelevant to the quality of the philosophy. The necessary changes may not go further than this. But they may go further. For example, a major point of Saul’s talk was that the focus on defining “sexual harassment,” and giving counterexamples to any proposed definition, leads us to fail to actually do anything about sexual harassment. Paradoxically, perhaps certain kinds of demand for rigor are leading to bad philosophy.