Duties and caring

June 11, 2013

So, prominent academic philosopher, Colin McGinn, resigns from his position under a cloud. The cloud, of course, being allegations of inappropriate sexualized behavior (reportedly email he sent to the subject of his masterbatory fantasies).

There’s a ton of discussion about the case. FeministPhilosophers, Lawyers, Guns, & Money, and NewApps all have a series of posts with generally good commentary. McGinn, after resigning instead of going through an investigation, wrote a series of amazingly embarrassing (at best) blog posts. It’s really hard to pick a nadir, but for sheer chuzpah and brutal stupidity, consider:

Elizabeth Sheldon makes a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me before. She notes that mentoring by professors is important in enabling promising students to make it in philosophy, and that this usually goes on between male professors and male students. If a male professor takes a female student under his wing in this way, he is immediately subject to suspicion; and it is assumed that the student is selected because of her looks not her brains. Therefore male professors steer clear of female students to mentor. Therefore (since male professors are in the majority) the student does not receive the necessary mentoring. Therefore the student does not make it in philosophy. Therefore there are fewer female philosophers. And so the cycle continues. This strikes me as a better explanation of the dearth of female philosophers than many I have heard.

I trust that to quote this is to refute it. If you don’t see the problem with this, then you are in deep intellectual and probably moral trouble.

My (cursory) assessment of McGinn’s career is that basically his 1989 paper “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” is about it. It’s a pretty important it, but afaict, the stuff he’s respected and prominent for is essentially that paper and subsequent elaborations. (Note on bias: The last I’d even thought about McGinn is in the mid-1990s, so I’ve obviously a massive bias. I’m also not in the profession and haven’t been for decades (eek!) now.)

So, two questions rise up for me:

  1. What conclusions should we draw about McGinn’s work given his recent performance?
  2. How should we act with respect to McGinn’s work given the whole saga?

They are not unrelated.

I am profoundly relieved that no aspect of my future professional success depends on my answering either of these questions. I feel sorry for those not similarly fortunate. Not as sorry as for McGinn’s ex-RA, but sorry nevertheless.

Toward 1: I think it’s a reasonable question. McGinn’s blogposts are so argumentatively and ethically awful that one has to decide whether this is an aberration or whether he was always this bad or whether he suffered a decline.  If he’s suffered a decline one will want to have some sense of the steepness, because he  is at a very low low.

I did reread (quickly)  “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” It seemed rather good to me (aside from the pain of having current day McGinn running through my mind). I spotted some issues I found interesting. I think the particular argument is wrong (or at least very weak), but I’m a sucker for limit of thought (and other transcendental) arguments.

Toward 2: After reading “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?”, I thought, “Oh, I could write up something about that.” I’ve not done any philosophy in a long time so that aspect was appealing to me. The thoughts I had seemed intrinsically interesting to me (obviously). However, there are two problems: a) it makes me feel icky inside and b) I’m worried about effects on other people, including possible positive effects on McGinn’s reputation or the appearance of support for his actions.

Shunning is a powerful tool of censure and McGinn deserves a lot of censure. Non-shunning (esp. when shunning is reasonable) is a form of support, however attenuated. I felt a similar way when “Chinatown” was recently showing in a local cinema. My first thought (as when all classics show up on the big screen) was “Ooo! We have to see that! Jack Nicholson…a classic..big screen, YES!” (I’ve never seen it.) My second thought was, “Polanski, so much ick (and recent ick).”

There’s so much else to see, I don’t think I’ve lost anything by avoiding it. Thus, I’ve not had to deal (internally) with Polanski or externally helped him in whatever marginal way seeing a film of his helps him.

The McGinn case seems more stark to me. Even if my writing about his work doesn’t directly help him, it potentially signals a lack of solidarity with his RA and, thus, with women in philosophy. After all, it’s not like my book on consciousness which I’ve been working on for several years and is crucial for my promotion is about to come out and has 3 chapters on McGinn.

Thus, it just seems like I can’t write about it and should find something else to occupy my time.

Quick note on the title, which doesn’t make a ton of sense without this codicil. The impetus was from the notion of duty of care which McGinn certainly had, and probably still has, with respect to his RA and which the University of Florida had with respect to him and has with respect to the student. Professions impose duties and part of professional conduct is acting to further the profession and the mission it serves. Professionals should care about the profession but also those touched by the profession. Sometimes, professionalism requires (at least) being the proximate cause of harm: I have a duty to report plagiarists. That report will certainly harm them. Sometimes, professionalism requires being indifferent to the harm caused. For example, while we should accord each other professional respect, that includes critique, even career ending critique.

Professionalism can be seen as a duty to oneself (an enactment of a form of respect and  perfectionism) and as a form of solidarity. While I have no direct or strong connection to McGinn or his RA or, really, to the profession of Philosophy (anymore), I still care and I still feel the pull of duty. Hence this post.

One Response to “Duties and caring”

  1. Bijan Parsia Says:

    I forgot this awesome post by Janet Stemwedel who is always worth reading.


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