Criticism of the APA’s Code of Conduct


Last week, the American Philosophical Association (APA) issued a Code of Conduct. The document was produced by a volunteer task force headed by Nancy Holland (Hamline University), in response to a petition.

Along the way, the task force solicited suggestions for the code, issued an interim report, and had its work covered by Inside Higher Ed. Now that the code has appeared, philosophers are offering criticisms and suggestions, including in the comments at the announcement post here.

Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam), in “Against the APA’s Code of Conduct,” writes that the code is flawed in three areas:

(i) it is silent on existing abuses and conflicts of interest in the profession; (ii) it has a misguided view on teaching philosophy; (iii) it is a predictable consequence that, as stated, this code will be used to silence and remove folk (from positions) who challenge local or professional abuses.

In a follow-up post, Schliesser criticizes the code for operating in a “friction-less moral universe,” says that it doesn’t acknowledge “the reality of philosophical practice,” and argues that it fails to “articulate core values for professional philosophy as a profession.”

Meanwhile, in “Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and the APA’s “Code of Conduct,”“, Edward Kazarian (Rowan) and Leigh M. Johnson (Christian Brothers) write:

We are especially concerned now that this quasi-official document… will inevitably be used at the local (department-, college-, or university) level in unofficial, ad-hoc ways to undermine or sabotage already vulnerable members of the profession. Worse, we worry that this document will provide pretext for attempts to pressure APA members by complaining to their employers that they have in some instance or another behaved ‘unprofessionally.’ We recognize that any law or regulative code as such allows for the possibility of perverse application, but we maintain that the current iteration of this Code of Conduct is particularly susceptible to manipulation for a number of reasons.

These reasons include:

  • “First, the APA Code of Conduct is entirely silent on matters of adjudication and enforcement.”
  • “Second, some of the discursive, pedagogical, and ideological norms outlined in the APA Code of Conduct are over-corrective.”
  • “Third, the APA Code of Conduct’s insistence that philosophers have a “special responsibility with regard to potential liability issues for the institutions for which they work” is unacceptable.”
  • “Fourth, and finally, the APA Code of Conduct’s grossly ambivalent statements regarding “bullying and harassment” do more harm than good.”

There’s further elaboration in their post.

I thought it would be worth opening up a space for constructive criticism and commentary on the code of conduct, if people have more to say. In response to a query about this, Professor Holland consulted with APA Executive Director Amy Ferrer and chair of the APA Board of Officers Cheshire Calhoun (Arizona State). They wrote:

We consider the code to be a living document, one that will be reexamined, reevaluated, and revised over time. As such, we welcome and value comments, suggestions, critiques, and criticisms from members of the profession and will consider them in future updates to the document. There is no specific timeline planned for any review/revision process—it will be on an as-needed basis. However, as the code has just been approved and released, we are happy to receive feedback, but we feel it would be unwise to rush into revisions right away.

Let me add that coming up with rules of behavior that all philosophers will be happy to accept has yet to happen in human history, so it would be no surprise if there is disagreement over a code of conduct for philosophers. I urge commenters to voice their suggestions and criticisms, but also to be considerate of the time, effort, and intentions of those who worked on this difficult document.

Franz Kline, "Pittston" (detail)

Franz Kline, “Pittston” (detail)

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Bob
Bob
4 years ago

The Categorical Imperative for Philosophers: Live according to whichever normative ethical theory you believe to be best justified.

It seems to me that this rule would get us most of what we want and actually have a chance of succeeding. Of course there will still be controversy, for a start all these terms need defining: “live according to”, “whichever”, “normative”, “ethical”, “theory”, “you”, “believe”, “best justified”. Report

Jon
Jon
4 years ago

I agree with Schliesser. Plus, as a member o the APA, I am surprised there was no general vote on this issue that is supposed to be in some sense binding on all of us. A bit top-corporate,shut-up and march approach. I am already subject to rules of collegiality etc by my institution and for a good reason. But what is the point of this APA code? Demonstrating our live for the Politburo? In any case, if it stays in place, I will simply reconsider my membership and dues. I won’t lose much by not being a member, really.Report

Fritz McDonald
4 years ago

Others have mentioned this in the previous thread, but this just raises my hackles:

“Respecting the philosophical opinions and traditions of others, without disparaging those who hold positions at odds with one’s own.”

I think it would be better if this statement just said we have to respect and not disparage others, not that we should respect philosophical opinions and traditions. Honestly, I’m not even sure what it means to “respect” an opinion or “respect” a tradition.

Some people, including some of the most prominent figures in the history of the Western philosophical tradition, were committed to some pretty heinous opinions, for instance, racist and sexist opinions. This part of the tradition and these opinions are not really worthy of respect (whatever that means).

I think this passage could do some good if reworked. What would be really nice would be a statement that makes clear the difference between good argument, which involves criticism of flawed positions and flawed elements of traditions, and bad ad hominem thinking, which involves criticism of persons instead.

If all that is meant here is only that I should respect other people, including my students and my colleagues, I have no problem with it. But I don’t think this is what the statement says.

Kazarian and Johnson make this point when they write:

“One can, after all, treat others fairly, equitably and with dignity, as well as “maintain integrity and trust” in one’s commitments and interactions without obviating the possibility that one might also regard or represent the positions of one’s interlocutors as being of little worth—or even as morally outrageous. Indeed, we think it is crucial to recognize that “disparaging” others’ positions may well be part and parcel of the very needful process of critically examining both the history of philosophy and its contemporary practice with regard to racism, eurocentrism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other morally objectionable ideologies. We stipulate that (what we suspect were) the intentions of the drafting committee in proscribing “disparaging those who hold positions at odds with one’s own” are well-meaning, but the inclusion of this proscription in a professional Code of Conduct is both dangerous and frightening. Especially when coupled with our third concern (detailed below), we maintain that such a proscription will effectively work as a gag-order against those who might challenge, dispute, or oppose dominant professional discourses and norms.”Report

Paul
Paul
4 years ago

On the one hand, I recognize and respect the critiques of Schliesser, Kazarian, and Johnson. Said critiques seem very well placed! On the other hand, I can’t help but think that, in many (but not all) respects, the code represents ordinary professional and interpersonal norms that are commonly recognized by any reasonalby well-socialized adult. To that extent, and in those respects, I have to wonder if it should properly be controversial. (NB: I willingly concede that it fails in the aspects I’ve mentioned in important respects). Report

Tom
Tom
4 years ago

So, I’m wondering what sort of force this document is supposed to have. Is continued membership in the APA expected to constitute tacit agreement to this document? If not, then is is just a document saying “this is what a few people think but if you disagree, then disregard”? If it is the former, then I’ll have to leave the APA. If it is the latter, then it seems pointless as people will just continue doing what they’ve always been doing. All it seems to do is, as others have noted, potentially give ammunition to those who want to screw over vulnerable members in our profession.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

Schliesser is correct that the code of conduct fails to “articulate core values for professional philosophy as a profession.” And that’s a good thing!! To “articulate core values for professional philosophy as a profession” would be far too prescriptive. Part of doing philosophy is figuring out what you think the core values of philosophy as a profession should be and practicing it accordingly. Different methodologies and traditions have different values. A code of conduct should only express minimal requirements for decent behaviour, which this code seems to do.

I do have some concerns about this one though: “Respecting the philosophical opinions and traditions of others, without disparaging those who hold positions at odds with one’s own.” I hope we don’t want to neuter philosophy too much: for example, I find the sprinkling of “snark” you find in some analytic philosophy, like, say, David Hume or AJ Ayers, or more recently, Devitt and Dennett, very entertaining. Adds a bit of wit and liveliness. The key, I think, would to be mindful of the “no punching down” rule – save the snark for those who are in a position to take it. Report

SH
SH
4 years ago

“Frictionless moral universe” is right. Holland et al are welcome to come visit my class and demonstrate how exactly to [“maintain] a classroom environment in which students might raise hyperbolic doubts and float views that do not reflect prevailing beliefs and values”, for example, the student who believes trans*people are mentally ill and gender confirmation surgery is genital mutilation, “while at the same time maintaining a classroom environment in which all students”, including trans* students, “feel welcome and supported.” When the APA can explain how to reliably and neatly resolve these kinds of conflicts then, perhaps, they can oblige me to achieve both of these things at once. I would truly welcome this magical solution! But, in actual fact, the way to achieve these contradictory goals is simply to avoid discussing anything that threatens to be controversial or personal–something that ought to go against any teaching philosopher’s so-called “code of conduct”. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Two specific points:

1) The Code of Conduct has this sentence: “Beyond this, teachers should take positive measures both to overcome their own implicit biases and to protect students from the effects of negative stereotypes”. But the replication crisis in psychology has not been kind to either theory: in both cases there have been some large-scale meta-analyses that have found little or no effect. So I’m rather surprised to see the APA adopting this into policy when at the least it’s highly contested science.

2) The Code of Conduct notes that the APA “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification, or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, or other professional activities in which APA members characteristically participate.” From which follows in particular that the APA rejects as unethical discrimination based on religion in graduate admissions or appointments. But then the Code goes on to say that “it is not inconsistent with the APA’s position against discrimination to adopt religious affiliation as a criterion in graduate admissions or employment policies when this is directly related to the school’s religious affiliation or purpose, so long as these policies are made known to members of the philosophical community and so long as the criteria for such religious affiliation do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed in this statement.” That looks straightforwardly false: an inconsistent pair of statements can’t be made consistent merely by declaring them to be. I assume this is poor drafting: what they mean to say is that they regard discrimination as unethical *except* in this particular circumstance. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

The APA’s conception of discrimination has built into it that idea that an act is only discrimination if it is wrong. So, for instance, affirmative actions isn’t counted as discrimination because it is regarded as justified.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Doesn’t that reading cause the APA declaration that discrimination is unethical to collapse into tautology?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Yes.Report

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I’d like to propose the following revision of the code, then: “If P then P”. This is a code I’m pretty sure all philosophers can get behind. (A statement begging for a counterexample.Report

M
M
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Your argument assumes that all use of religion as a criterion counts as discrimination. The thought is rather, I take it, that what is discrimination is use of these criteria in ways that are irrelevant. It is supposed to be generally irrelevant what one’s race, sex, etc. is. But religion is not irrelevant in an institution that has a religious mission. It is assumed, I suppose, that having a religious mission is at least permissible.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  M
4 years ago

The issue is tricky. A “religious mission” could in principle give grounds for vetting candidates on the basis of race, sex, and especially sexual orientation. Is isn’t clear that an act doesn’t become non-discriminatory if a person thinks that God wants it done, rather than just wanting to do it personally.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Ugh! I wish I had an edit button. I meant to say that is isn’t clear that an act DOES becomes non-discriminatory if a person thinks that God wants it done.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

What are the replication failures for the implicit bias theory? The IAT has been replicated a bunch of times. The CV studies show massive differences correlated with race and with sex/gender. (Though some of that is *explicit* bias, to be sure.) There have been a couple of claims about very specific kinds of discrimination being correlated with IAT performance that haven’t been replicated. But that’s a long way from saying that the theory of implicit bias has not been replicated.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

I had in mind

Blanton et al, Journal of Applied Philosophy (2009): http://www.law.virginia.edu/pdf/faculty/reassessingpredictivevalidityoftheiat.pdf

Oswald et al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013):
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/239732934_Predicting_Ethnic_and_Racial_Discrimination_A_Meta-Analysis_of_IAT_Criterion_Studies

Carlsson and Agerstrom, Journal of Scandinavian Psychology (2016): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sjop.12288/abstract

(In each case h/t to slatestarcodex.com)

To reiterate: I’m not saying that implicit bias (or stereotype threat) isn’t a thing, just that the evidence for it is much more highly contested than I’d like for something that ends up in the APA statement as if it were accepted truth.

Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

All of those articles are about whether IAT predicts discriminatory behavior, not whether IAT successfully demonstrates implicit bias. But the former is less worrisome because one would expect stable associations to impact behavior, even if they do not do so in every instance. (And meta-analysis is an art.) You could reengineer your critique in that direction, of course. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

That was what I meant, sorry: that the evidence for IATs predicting real-world behavior is very contested. (I’m not disputing that IATs themselves give no zero results.)

I’ve no particular intuition as to whether to expect stable associations to impact behavior, and I wouldn’t take those intuitions seriously if I did have them.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Right, stepping back from your intuitions makes sense, as a lay person. (Those of us with expertise on the mind and the mind sciences are in a different position. As critics of experimental philosophy say, all intuitions are not the same.) But what we could really use is someone with expertise on this specific issue discussing the findings and controversies. Here is one such summary intended for a lay audience: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2014-implicit-bias.pdf and here is a discussion of how what look like small statistical effects can actually have large societal impacts: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/108/4/553/ Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

I don’t trust anyone’s intuitions in science, lay or no. In God we trust; all others, bring data.

I continue to be concerned that the APA believes good professional conduct in philosophy requires taking one particular view on some open scientific questions.Report

Emanuele Ciriachi
Emanuele Ciriachi
4 years ago

I have a question for anyone reading this page. Does your code of conduct on Discrimination means that _nobody_ associated with the APA can – on philosophical, ethical, or political grounds – be openly opposed to same-sex “marriage”, or merely (as it is more reasonable) that one should not discriminate on the married status of a person?

It strikes me as very un-philosophical to force someone to embrace a very specific and arbitrary definition of social contract.Report