Closet Conservatives

Conservatives in philosophy face an uphill battle as soon as they decide to come out and defend their views. Everyone who has ever tried to publish an article or a book that is critical of progressive views on, for example, race and gender, knows how extremely difficult it is, especially if one is hoping for one of the regular journals or publishers in philosophy. (The reason certainly is not a lack of interest in the topics of race and gender on the part of journal editors and publishers.) Even a manuscript that is not critical of progressive views is often held to a standard of political correctness that only radical progressives are likely to meet. For example, describing a woman as “beautiful” is already considered sexist by some referees. There is every reason to think that being hired as an openly conservative philosopher is even more difficult.

Now it may be thought that one can still opt for the easier life of the closet conservative who is happy to shun sensitive topics, and to comply with strict standards of political correctness when choosing words or examples. However, there is another problem lurking for him or her, namely: it is becoming harder and harder to stay in the closet. The reason is not just the temptation to “like” or share something on social media that could reveal one’s true identity. After all, that temptation can be resisted; if necessary, by simply staying away from social media. The main reason is that more and more job advertisements specify competences that one cannot claim to have unless one reveals one’s political proclivities. Think, for example, of how you might prove that you are competent in teaching “feminist philosophy”, or the “philosophy of race and gender”. Most likely, you will have to prove that you have taught or published in these areas. Even if you did not devote an entire course to feminist philosophy, or to race and gender, you may still be expected to have incorporated these topics in your metaphysics, epistemology, ethics or philosophy of science classes. And this is where the problem for the closet conservative arises. It is almost impossible for anyone, conservative or not, to teach or publish in these areas without revealing one’s political identity. The reason is not just that one may find it difficult to remain neutral when discussing these topics. The reason is also that neutrality may itself be interpreted as a sign of bias (in the wrong direction). Even just a proposal for a course outline or a reading list is likely to be suggestive, and any remaining doubts are likely to be dispelled as soon as one appears before the job interview panel (for example, imagine a closet conservative answering the question, “so what do you think of Haslanger’s book Resisting Reality…?”). As a result, a closet conservative is likely to avoid teaching, and most certainly will avoid publishing, in these areas. Perhaps he or she will also avoid teaching and publishing in social and political philosophy, and in applied ethics. But then he or she is also unlikely to meet the explicit desiderata or requirements for quite a few jobs.

And the numbers are not small. There is considerable demand for philosophers who can teach in the areas of applied ethics and political philosophy. More significantly, there seems to be a growing demand for feminist philosophers, as well as philosophers of race and gender. For example, of the first 50 advertisements listed on Philpapers (on 22 November 2016) for tenure-track or permanent positions 14 (that is, 28%) mention feminist philosophy and/or philosophy of race and gender, either as one desired area of specialization or competence, or as an area in which the successful candidate may be asked to teach (the areas are not always listed among the AOSs or AOCs; they may only show up in the full text of the advertisement). Restricting the job advertisements to the US, the percentage is no doubt higher. Hence, there are significantly fewer jobs for which closet conservatives can apply, at least if they wish to stay in the closet. Of course, once they come out of the closet, they face all the problems that were mentioned in the beginning.

As said, there seems to be a growing percentage of job advertisements in philosophy mentioning feminist philosophy and the philosophy of race and gender as at least desirable areas of competence. To some extent, this change could simply reflect a growing interest in these areas. But given what was said earlier, there could also be another motivation, namely, to signal to both open and closet conservatives that they need not apply. Whether or not this is the intended effect, it certainly is an expected effect. And, unless there is some strong counteracting force, the effect will lead to even fewer conservatives in philosophy than there are today.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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16 Comments

  1. Very interesting. Bob do you have any idea of how things are in the catholic or religious universities in the states? Are these institutions at all immune from such developments?

    • John Doe,

      Religious institutions, especially Catholic ones, are very interested in race, gender, and feminism. I have seen several such institutions in this job market. Professors at these institutions are, mostly, trained at the major universities. Furthermore, they want to be friends with those in the major universities.

    • Thanks, John Doe. I guess some religious universities are more hospitable than others (perhaps http://heterodoxacademy.org/resources/guide-to-colleges/ can provide guidance here). However, one’s career in philosophy depends not just on institutional policy, but also on cooperation from other members of the profession, including journal editors, publishers, conference organizers, committee members of professional organizations, and so on. Hence, I guess, the problems mentioned by Walter Montgomery.

  2. This piece is overstatement–much like the war on Christmas. I know plenty of middle-of-the-road ethicists and some conservative Thomists who publish and teach on a variety of topics. My anecdoal evidence of the profession is a far cry from being perfect.

    I just taught Marquis and Thomson in an applied unit, and while I endorse a right for a women to abort the fetus personally, I admitted to the class Marquis has the better argument. If you do ethics, you can admire arguments from a distance teach students to be intellectually humble about those arguments. If you keep discussions grounded in the text and remind students when they do make comments in class, you keep in grounded in the argument and the text, then you have nothing to worry about. It does not follow that balanced classes are evidence for one’s conservatism.

    My students ask me all the time my views, and I tell them that I don’t discuss my views on morality and politics. I taught a class on the fallacies and we watched as Clinton made Strawman and Trump made red herrings. Both Clinton and Trump committed ad populums too. A conservative student came up to me after class and told me that my class was the only class that wasn’t going off on Trump and soapboxing my politics. I told him to pay attention to see if those people had arguments against Trump or were they just emoting.

    As for growing popularity of some subfields, this can be explained independently of the bias Bob is observing allegedly in the profession. The fact that minorities together are rising faster than Caucasian populations will mean that some greater concern of their lived-experience may be pedagogically appropriate given who will eventually be attending university. The fact that we have to sell* philosophy to our students might mean (sometimes) reading about themes these students can connect to. The social ontology of race is not, as it were, a politicized problem, and it’s intriguing like the metaphysics of value or mind I’d imagine even though I myself would never publish on or ask questions about the ontological status of race just as much as semantic indeterminacy in philosophy of language does nothing for me.

    Part of the problem of this entire blog post is the reactionary nature of its writers extolling and overstating the biases of your colleagues when there are plenty of us who believe you’re missing something fundamental about the structural violence of capitalism but would nonetheless buy you a beer at the APA just the same.

    • Jim, your evidence that he is overreacting is entirely anecdotal, as you say. And no one here thinks that there aren’t plenty of non-conservative philosophers who would buy us a beer at the APA. Of course there are lots of nice, non-conservative philosophers, and I’d buy them beers at the APA too. That doesn’t change the fact that they are less likely to want to hire a conservative than someone who is like them ideologically, all other things being equal.

      By the way, your statement, “The fact that we have to sell* philosophy to our students might mean (sometimes) reading about themes these students can connect to” is problematic. Whether you meant it, it subtly suggests that these minorities can’t connect to the traditional topics of philosophy, which have nothing to do with race. Why would students be able to connect to the traditional topics of philosophy for 2000 years, and suddenly struggle to connect when a larger percentage of those students have a different skin color, as they do now? It sure as heck isn’t that they need the authors to be the same color as them in order to relate them.

    • [[That doesn’t change the fact that they are less likely to want to hire a conservative than someone who is like them ideologically, all other things being equal.]]

      There are two things fundamentally wrong with this. First, let’s just dispel the myth. If I am on a search committee, I want my colleagues to be great teachers (no matter if it is my discipline or others). I look at the reviews. I see how they organize their courses. I see if the teaching letters resonate with a service-teaching-first attitude. Researcher-newly-minted Ph.D types, the types trained by top Leiter programs, are not the faculty I want teaching in my department. I want someone that will put students first. One is not rated on their next book on libertarianism and free market thinking. I want to know how the candidate is likely to be with students. If the reviews tell me the candidate doesn’t organize lectures well, rarely is available during office hours and if the teaching letters are less than stellar, I won’t hire someone. That’s the reason I don’t hire someone. I could give two shits about whether or not someone thinks libertarianism is the best political philosophy or if someone wrote a dissertation on Oakeshott.

      Second, the above statement can possibly be the type of thinking of persecution delusions. It also implies that those on search committees are solely driven by finding people who are like them ideologically rather than teaching quality. It’s such a blank and general statement that serves to ambiguously mean what you want rather than thinking that there might be something deficient about oneself. For the last few years while on the market, I would e-mail people when I didn’t get jobs. I finally noticed that a really nice dossier might help, or I had not offered a narrative to help guide teaching reviews.

      [[By the way, your statement, “The fact that we have to sell* philosophy to our students might mean (sometimes) reading about themes these students can connect to” is problematic. Whether you meant it, it subtly suggests that these minorities can’t connect to the traditional topics of philosophy, which have nothing to do with race.]]

      I don’t think that statement subtly suggests that minorities cannot connect to traditional topics of philosophy, but I also think it helps pedagogically to read philosophers that are asking questions students are asking, too. It’s very easy sometimes to think that traditional philosophical problems are the types of things everyone might care about. It’s also a very easy to create classes where the only author students see are white male subjects, so the history of philosophy becomes, as it were, the de facto history of white male subjectivity. Now, I know everyone here will resist this, but I can also say that being a white male dude teaching heavily slanted minority populations, from a pedagogical perspective reading some of the sermons by Martin Luther King has helped crack open my classes. To break the ice as it were. It helps.

    • Jim, maybe I’m wrong, though I have no idea what way I’d be “fundamentally” wrong, or how that is any different than just being wrong. Thanks for more anecdotal stories.

      Look, your response doesn’t even give an argument for what is wrong with what I said. Are we supposed to think that, based on your anecdotal story, all philosophers approach the job candidates in the way that you do? That would be a huge hump in reasoning.

      Sure, the statement I give_could_be persecution delusion thinking. Are you arguing from possibility to reality? At any rate, you haven’t shown anything wrong with my statement that you highlight. The statement is true. Suppose one candidate is a Lutheran and another a Catholic. Suppose further that I’m a Catholic on the job committee, and that absolutely nothing separates the two candidates qualitatively. Furthermore, in their interviews, they came off as decent people. Who should I choose? It makes sense that I choose the Catholic. I’m more likely to have something in common and get along with that person, given that the candidates are equal in every other way that matters.

      I really don’t think it is horrible out there for conservatives, but it’s better to be liberal than conservative. It would be better to be conservative if conservatives dominated the academy in the way that liberals do.

      “It also implies that those on search committees are solely driven by finding people who are like them ideologically rather than teaching quality.”

      No, my statement implies no such thing. I said, “all things being equal”, which acknowledges that there are many factors into how a candidate is judged.

      “I don’t think that statement subtly suggests that minorities cannot connect to traditional topics of philosophy, but I also think it helps pedagogically to read philosophers that are asking questions students are asking, too.”

      I agree with that.

      “It’s also a very easy to create classes where the only author students see are white male subjects, so the history of philosophy becomes, as it were, the de facto history of white male subjectivity.”

      I can see it making a small difference to students what the ethnicity of authors are. If they share an ethnicity, this makes them initially more relatable. But surely the fact that most philosophers have been white males is easily overcome through good teaching. So, I resist the jump from authors being mostly white males to the history of philosophy becoming the de facto history of white male subjectivity. Why would a reasonable person think this? If I were a black man interested in how trains work, and I decided to read up on it, and it turned out that most of the authors of such books were white, would it be reasonable to conclude that the question how trains worked is the de facto history of white male train engineer subjectivity? No! It’s just obvious that wanting to know how trains work has nothing to do with color. And it’s just obvious that how we give an account of knowledge has nothing to do with color.

    • “As for growing popularity of some subfields, this can be explained independently of the bias Bob is observing allegedly in the profession. The fact that minorities together are rising faster than Caucasian populations will mean that some greater concern of their lived-experience may be pedagogically appropriate given who will eventually be attending university.”

      Why should we think that an alleged feminine way to do epistemology or metaphysics, or the more general hermeneutics of suspicion, would increase if females in philosophy increase? Aren’t male and female IQ’s about the same? (You’re not admitting a biological difference here are you?)

      Are undergraduate freshman females clamoring for it? Of course not. They won’t even know there is such a thing unless it’s taught. Nor will they know about Modern Philosophy unless it’s taught.

      If you want to sell “philosophy” to students do philosophy of sport or philosophy of porn or philosophy of pop music or some other bullshit. Those classes sell like hotcakes.

    • AR-15,

      I’ll just say that there’s no alleged feminine way to do epistemology, and that’s not really the point of feminist epistemology. I can’t speak about feminist metaphysics. Feminist epistemology is grounded in the thesis that power and context affect our ability to know world. I find that to be a tenable thesis. Whether or not you think past ideas have or have not contributed to the suffering of women is your business, but again, I didn’t mention anything about females increasing in philosophy… That’s on you.

      I only claimed that teaching at public universities will see greater increases of African-American and Hispanic students since these groups are having more children than Whites. Then again, it depends where one teaches ultimately.

    • Jim Sutton, in a context in which “soapboxing” left-wing politics in class is the norm (cf. your quote from the conservative student) balanced classes are likely to raise suspicions. I’m not saying that they always will, because there may other clues to your political sympathies. Another thing: “[t]he social ontology of race is not, as it were, a politicized problem”. The fact that you refer to it as “the social ontology” is perhaps telling enough, but in case you think the philosophical discussion of race is not, as a matter of fact, politicized, I recommend reading Sesardic, ‘Nature, Nurture and Politics’ (Biology and Philosophy).

  3. Bob, I don’t think there’s anything telling about the expression: social ontology of race. The fact that I’ve read some philosophy of race is not a reliable indicator to make any inference about what I think valuable. It’s a philosophical problem with practical consequences–whether or not that means politicized to you… I guess it does. I think philosophy can help shed light on what race is.

    Perhaps, it’s politicized with respect to the fact that I and everyone reject essentialism about race, but that is such a common move that within philosophy of race that’s not altogether that controversial. Most ontologies of race are constructivist, but yet there’s a lot of disagreement about just how race is constructed.

  4. Catholic Hulk,

    These are more than just anecdotes. You cannot ignore my example of having done search committee work before. These two instances are “what I do”, did, have done, and will do in the future. The fact is at a small liberal arts college that doesn’t pay a lot my department looks for, has looked, and will look for talented teachers. I don’t even care about research. I do not dispute that many colleagues are liberal (myself included), but being a conservative is not a defeater for a job in my department. Quite the opposite, it’s teaching, and this would be really clear from those of you who are either on the market, have been on the market, are looking, and are professional philosophers. Many graduate departments train candidates to be researchers, yet only a few train really great teachers.

    • Dude, that just is ancedotal. You’re talking about your personal experiences or actions, or intentions. Nothing about that undermines the point made.

    • CH,

      Except for the fact that this situation is not unique, but can be generalizable to the whole of those tier 2 and 3 small liberal arts colleges that need good teachers. There’s more consensus about this than just my own experiences as my many years teaching indicate.

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