What Should a Statement of Professional Ethics for Philosophers Say?

As I noted last week, a petition was started, calling for the APA to create a “Code of Conduct and Statement of Professional Ethics for the Academic Discipline of Philosophy.” Meanwhile, Amy Ferrer, executive director of the APA, responded, saying that the matter will be considered at an upcoming meeting of the APA board of officers, and that it is currently APA policy to refer those seeking a code of ethics to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Professional Ethics. I encourage you to look at the AAUP statement. Is it adequate? Were the APA to devise a code of conduct or statement of professional ethics for philosophers, what should it say? (Comments will be moderated, so may take a little while to appear.)

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Adrian M. S. Piper
10 years ago

I decided not to sign this petition because like the rest of us, the APA Board of Officers consists in members of the academic discipline of philosophy who are no more or less flawed and imperfect than the rest of us. Perhaps if we pool our shared imperfections and cull the insights and wisdom they offer, we might develop a code of conduct and standard of professional ethics collectively, from the grassroots up. Philos-L would provide an ideal forum for such an undertaking. Here is a start:

– Don’t ignore your discussant’s comments and questions unless she or he is speaking Pig Latin.
– Don’t make comments about your discussant’s physical appearance unless she or he is wearing a clown suit.
– Don’t make sexual, pornographic, or scatological jokes or remarks in your discussant’s presence.
– Don’t engage in personal grooming rituals (e.g. picking your nose, flossing your teeth, digging for earwax, sniffing your armpits, etc.) in your discussant’s presence.
– Don’t comment on your discussant’s gender, racial or ethnic identity unless she or he is The Alien.
– Don’t interrupt, talk over, shout down, or threaten your discussant with a weapon, or with job termination.
– Reply to what your discussant is saying and not to how she or he looks.
– Don’t gas on for more than three minutes max.
– Don’t express disagreement through ridicule, insults, physical violence, ostracism, demonization, scapegoating, bullying, mobbing, or vandalism.
– Don’t violate your discussant’s personal space (hint: if you can count the pores on her or his nose, or if her or his breath is fogging up your glasses, or if she or he cannot gesture spontaneously without hitting you, you’re too close).
– Don’t grab, push, pat, pinch or poke your discussant unless she or he is a blob of pie dough on a plate.
– Keep your hands in your pockets. If your attire does not include pockets, sew some on.

(Keeping your sense of humor helps to heal the wounds.)

Prof. Dr. Adrian M. S. Piper
Adrian Piper Research Archive
APRA Foundation Berlin
Reinickendorfer Straße 117
13347 Berlin
Tel./Fax +49-(0)30-4403-9244
Rationality and the Structure of the Self
(2008; Second Edition 2013)
Volume I: The Humean Conception
Volume II: A Kantian Conception

10 years ago

Given how obvious Adrian Piper’s code of conduct is, it’s shocking how often I see it violated in professional settings.

Jennifer Frey
10 years ago

I am not really offering concrete suggestions here, but more like points of reflection.

First, I wonder if the code of conduct will extend to online activity, where professionalism is most likely to break down. I personally would like to see a code of conduct that does extend to blogging when this is done qua professional philosopher. For instance, Brian Leiter often represents the profession to the wider world. Brian Leiter is also *sometimes* unprofessional and disrespectful on his blog: his recent description of Professor McKinnon as “singularly unhinged” is one obvious instance of this. He is far from alone in such behavior, but since he runs what is by far and away the most prominent and influential blog in philosophy, it is important that his conduct be up for rational criticism without fear of reprisal. A code of conduct would help Brian Leiter run a better blog, and would help us all understand what constitutes reasonable and respectful behavior online. It would also help moderators of blogs, and those of us who comment on blogs.

Second, I wonder how these things will be policed. Much of the unprofessional behavior among philosophers is deeply entrenched, and even learned. It would be very difficult to change it overnight, and in many cases, I think almost unfair to expect change. After all, much of this behavior is habitual, and has never come up for censure before (in fact, it has probably been rewarded in the past). Thus, even if such people have a change of heart and suddenly want to change, it would be very difficult for them to do so, if not impossible. So perhaps it is enough to have a code of conduct, that way we can know what bad behavior is when we see it. Whether or not we need to institute penalties seems to me to be something else, and something far more difficult to do. Holding ourselves accountable to standards without the use of any coercive force may be enough, given that universities have their own policies regarding faculty behavior, to which they assign their own penalties.

Third, not all unprofessional conduct is on a par. The varieties of unprofessionalism that worry me most are the ones that tend to drive women out of philosophy and that tend to prevent philosophy from being interdisciplinary and therefore irrelevant (here I have in mind sexist behavior, as well as a seemingly unreflective dismissive attitudes towards differing points of view or methodological approaches). Other forms of unprofessionalism strike me as benign, even endearing. Benign varieties of unprofessionalism include: dressing unprofessionally, lacking social graces such as the ability to small talk or relate to others non-philosophically, inability to make eye contact, manifestations of anxiety like weird tics, talking to oneself, and even forgetting that other people are in the room, etc. These are benign because they in no way indicate a bad will; they are endearing because I think they are related to the examined life, which is a quirky and weird, and often attracts the socially less than perfect and odd. Standards of decent conduct do not have to be bourgeois, and I would hate to see philosophy become more professional in *that* sense.

Fourth, it seems to me that part of the trouble philosophers get into to is related to the fact that they are often isolated from other areas of the academy; in my experience other academic disciplines are both more civilized and more receptive and accustomed to the presence of women. I am always amazed when I present my work to non-philosophers (in my case, that has included legal scholars, theologians, historians, classicists, critical theorists, political scientists, and highly educated non-academic professionals). I find those audiences far more polite, far more respectful, and far more decent and charitable than a typical philosophy audience (this is not to be confused with the claim that there is more agreement among these audiences). I have never been talked over, talked down, or summarily dismissed by such audiences. I have been talked over, talked down, insulted, or dismissed by other philosophers in strictly philosophical venues, and on more than one occasion. I have had philosophers roll their eyes at me, huff and puff at my responses, interrupt me before I can even get my thought out, tell me I don’t know anything or suggest that I don’t know the literature in my own AOS, etc (and please, don’t even get me started on the ridiculously inappropriate, offensive, and insulting remarks about my physical appearance, especially while pregnant). One explanation of this, of course, is just that philosophers are smarter and better able to see how deficient I am. If you are resorting to that explanation in your mind right now, you might check your biases first. Of course, I am not suggesting that it would be better if everyone agreed with me; far from it. I am merely suggesting that such disagreements come in the form of an argument, rather than a dismissive wave of the hand, or an exasperated sigh, as if these are substitutes for argument, or even something closely resembling the form of a professional response to what I’ve said. Other disciplines don’t operate this way, and I don’t see why philosophy should continue on this path.

As I said, these are just some reflections, rather than concrete suggestions. The very idea of a code of conduct, while surely necessary, is also surely a hornet’s nest of problems, and we had better approach it carefully as a result. A robust conversation is needed.

Adrian M. S. Piper
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
10 years ago

Jennifer Frey’s first two points strike me as interconnected, in that both raise the issue of how to sanction behavior that violates the code of conduct: Who (if anyone) should be the one to call a powerful colleague on his or her behavior, and how? And what should be the consequences of identifying that behavior – to the perp, to the whistleblower, to the surrounding philosophical community? My thought was that if we can reach general consensus on what that code of conduct should be, and articulate it consistently and comprehensively (for example, in the first class meeting of introductor philosophy courses, the first faculty meeting of each academic year, the first pages of official professional conferences, proceedings and journals, etc.), even perps who cannot easily change their behavior can, with the help of very subtle reactions from their colleagues, develop an awareness that they are violating it; and that itself can be an effective impetus to change. Sometimes the collective vacuum of shocked silence that sucks all the air out of the room after a social faux pas can be the most eloquent comment of all.

Similarly, I find an interconnection between Jennifer Frey’s second two points. The benign but quirky and weird behavior sometimes associated with philosophy may well be connected with its relative isolation from other academic fields. Perhaps it is also connected with a personal isolation that propels one toward doing philosophy on the one hand, but interferes with the acquisition of the “bourgeois” skills that grease the wheels of social interaction on the other. Yet I find no inherent conflict between being quirky and weird, and being sensitive to the effects on others of one’s actions. I do think that kind of sensitivity can evolve only if others are willing to make the perp aware of what those effects are. This brings us back to her first two points.

Fiona Woollard
Fiona Woollard
10 years ago

I agree with Jennifer Frey’s point about the importance of the distinction between worrying and benign forms of unprofessional conduct. For that reason, I’d strike the requirement not to engage in personal grooming behaviour from Adrian Piper’s list. I’d also be inclined to leave out the requirement not to make scatological jokes. Sexual and pornographic jokes need to be very carefully watched because they can contribute to a climate of exclusion. I’m not sure that scatological jokes have this same tendency.

My motivation her isn’t a deep devotion to scatological humour in the workplace or picking my nose in public. I worry about sanctions being attached to behaviour that is simply “bad manners” but does not silence or exclude others. There is a risk that such sanctions could themselves become exclusionary.