Feb 8, 2011

Gender, Politics, and the Academy

I want to highlight three interesting stories about gender, politics, and the academy.

First, as reported elsewhere, the percentage of Ph.D.'s in philosophy earned by women in 2009 was about 30%, on the low end for Ph.D. subjects in general. This is an important statistic to keep track of over time

Second, there's an important new study on the causes of male-female disparities in science. While the data in the paper are from the sciences, much of the discussion about what's to be done is applicable to philosophy as well.
Here's a blurb:

"Despite frequent assertions that women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex. It is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some
originating before or during adolescence—and secondarily to sex differences at the extreme right tail of mathematics performance on tests used as gateways to graduate school admission. As noted, women in math-intensive fields are interviewed and hired slightly in excess of their representation among PhDs applying for tenure-track positions.
The primary factors in women’s underrepresentation are preferences and choices—both freely made and constrained..."

Since the cause of the gender disparity is apparently not sex discrimination at the level of hiring and publishing, the authors argue that preferential hiring for female academics is not an appropriate response to the gender gap. Instead, they suggest:
(i) Increasing outreach to young girls to encourage interest in math-heavy careers.
(ii) Reforming the traditional route to tenure-track academic positions to make it more accommodating for academics choosing to have families.
(iii) Providing additional resources and support to academics with families (child care, stopping the tenure clock to allow for time off to care for young children, etc.) My own institution, the University of California, has taken steps in this direction, and is cited in the article.

Anyone concerned about gender issues in the academy should read this article.

Third, and finally, the New York Times has an article about Jonathan Haidt's presentation at the conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Haidt raised the issue of the disparate representation of conservatives in the academy, particularly in such fields as social and political psychology. While this is an old issue, the article is worth a read.

Divine Command Ethics and Abhorrent Commands

A familiar worry for divine command theories of ethics is the following:
(1) Necessarily, if God commands an agent to perform an action, the action is obligatory.
(2) Possibly, God commands something abhorrent, e.g. that Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
(3) Possibly, it's obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, i.e. for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

(1) is a rough statement of a simple divine command theory. (2) is a plausible premise on certain interpretations of omnipotence, and depending on how the individual theist renders certain Biblical passages, (2) might be strengthened to (2'): God has commanded something abhorrent, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This would license a stronger conclusion of (3'): It's in fact obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

That's the worry in a nutshell. Once we put the worry in this form, we see that there are three ways for the divine command theorist (which, I should note, I am not) to respond.

One option is to reject (1). Only commands from a loving God will be suitable candidates for making actions obligatory. Thus suggests Robert Adams.

A second option is to reject (2). Whatever we know about God, we might think, we know he wouldn't command human sacrifice. So says Kant, in The Conflict of the Faculties. The reason we know that God wouldn't command such things, presumably, has something to do with God's nature: it would be inconsistent with his goodness to do so. (I should note that there's a healthy debate among Biblical scholars and Jewish and Christian philosophers about whether God did in fact command some of the things that he would seem to have commanded in the Bible. See here, for example.)

A third response, of course, is bullet-biting: accept the implication that if God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, then it's permissible for Abraham to do so. This strikes most of us, I think, as somewhere between implausible and downright horrific. I think this is by far the least popular response among divine command theorists. Perhaps something can be said for this response, however, though I do not think it is enough to make this option favorable to those inclined to a divine command theory.

The quick response that I've described- and that certainly resonates with me- derives some of its force, I believe, from a poorly described counterfactual. What do we know about a world in which God (while still benevolent) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I confess I have little idea what such a world look like. It seems to me quite possible that it would be very different from the actual world, in ways that it is difficult to anticipate. It might be, for example, that the facts of human psychology, and indeed human nature itself, are radically different. (If you think human nature is entirely essential properties, then we'd have to put the point a bit differently.) Or perhaps that world has a different metaphysics of death, or a different phenomenology of suffering. At the least, I would think that we would find such a world quite unfamiliar. Our quick reaction against the bullet-biting response may be unduly influenced by thinking that a world in which God commands  Abraham to sacrifice Isaac only differs from the actual world in the content of its divine commands. When we admit the possibility that that world is dramatically different from ours, the judgment becomes more delicate, and the bullet-biting response to the abhorrent command objection more plausible. In the end, I do not think this response is sufficient. Some evils are such that in any possible world-- no matter how much we vary the facts of human psychology and other parameters--a just and loving God could not command them.