Tricky Decisions in Public Philosophy

X-posted from Leiter Reports.

I released an episode today about norms of gender that begins with the story of the opening up of combat arms to women under Obama. I use the story to explore the view that militaristic cultures and their need for self-sacrificial protectors engaged in war help to explain certain norms of masculinity and femininity. The episode arose out of interesting conversations I had with Professor Graham Parsons about the positive reception to feminist philosophy in his courses at West Point, an institution that is around 80% male for students, and likely higher for faculty.

In the process of production for this episode, I had to make a decision about whether and how much I wanted to raise the issue of sexual assault in the military. There were competing considerations that made it difficult for me to be confident in whatever decision I ultimately made. For one, the issue has loomed large in the press for a long time. Reforms have been slow, and on the eve of the release, we had the Marine online photographs scandal. In light of this, how could I make an episode about gender issues in the military without a mention of the issue of sexual assault? The competing consideration is that many military women I talked to and read have expressed consternation that all that ever gets covered in the press about women in the military is related to sexual assault. Their other challenges, achievements, and the day-to-day experiences, namely the things that make up 95% of their lives, make up 5% of what people talk about when they talk about them at all. Moreover, because of the big public relations concerns of large institutions such as DOD, the Army, and USMA, the subjects of the episode had very real concerns about how they would be portrayed, even in a start-up podcast. The considerations pulled me in opposite directions, but ultimately I had to make a decision, one that others might have made differently.

This is a theme that will reoccur as I post this week. As philosophers, we aren’t always in direct contact with people who stand to be affected by the philosophy that we produce. The same has not been true of producing Hi-Phi Nation. When subjects of the stories agree to talk to me, that does not mean they are necessarily agreeing that their experiences be premises in a philosophical argument, their lives examples in a thought experiment, or their story fodder for a take-down of some competing view. But these are central practices of philosophy, so how do you connect story to philosophy without them? In the kind of philosophy I’m doing for the public, I am trying to make connections back to the lives of people, but this raises some very tricky ethical concerns I hadn’t anticipated.

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