Here’s the exchange:
Gross: A lot of your works cite white male academics who, for lack of a better phrase, take up a lot of space in intellectual conversations: Joshua Greene, Steven Pinker, Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Sandel, Benedict Anderson, John Rawls, to name a few. Because so much of your work is fundamentally about equity, I wonder if that is something that’s on your radar.
Singer: That’s the manner in which I was educated, I suppose, and which still is very influential in the ideas that I’m involved with. I’ve certainly worked with a lot of philosophers who are not male, but they have been white generally. I’ve got a project now about the issue of global population, with Alex Ezeh, a demographer of Nigerian origin at Drexel University. I worked with Pascal Kasimba when I was at Monash University, who is of African descent, on a project relating to in-vitro fertilization. I have also co-authored things with people of Asian descent, with Yew-Kwang Ng, for instance. But, I have to say, I want to work with people whose ideas are, you know, at a level of discussion that I’m interested in, and that I’m progressing. If you’re thinking of the work of Africans, for example, I don’t know the work of many of them that is really in the same sort of—I’m not quite sure how to put this—participating in the same discussion as the people you’ve just mentioned.
Gross: There’s a big difference between “I haven’t found them yet” and “They might not exist.” Do you think it’s for lack of searching? Or lack of representation, period, across philosophy and the fields that you work in?
Singer: There’s certainly an underrepresentation of philosophers of African or African-American backgrounds. No question about that, in the field of philosophy that I work in. And there is an underrepresentation of women, although I think that’s changing. I’ve tried to encourage women in philosophy all my career. But there’s still an underrepresentation. I was the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics, in the early eighties, and we did try very hard to get global representation. So I wouldn’t say that I’ve not searched, but it’s true that that’s not been one of my priorities, really.
Singer’s reply to Gross is being widely discussed on social media, where responses to it have ranged from highly critical to highly defensive. In the philosophy blogosphere, there have been a varied responses, too.
Over at Philosophers’ Cocoon, Helen de Cruz (SLU) interprets Singer as saying that
philosophers from the global south are not really worth engaging with, because their work would not be at the same level as the more prestigious, well-known (mostly white and male) philosophers from wealthy countries.
She says that this reflects a narrowness that favors the advantaged in academia’s “credit economy”:
I want to argue here that this view is mistaken, and also that not engaging with philosophers and philosophies from the global south presents a missed opportunity…
Let’s look more closely at Singer’s idea of “participating in the same discussion”. It is true that disproportionately many philosophers outside the anglophone west are not partaking in the most prestigious academic discussions, as is done in top peer-reviewed journals, monographs and edited volumes by presses such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge, Princeton etc. They do not participate in the prestigious conferences, they are not part of hiring networks and citation networks. As far as this goes, Singer is correct that there is little “participating in the same discussion”.
A different way to look at this lack of participation is to shift perspective: anglophone, western departments are insular, mostly engaging with a narrow group of narrow peers. We are a bit like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who proudly declares that “we dine with four-and-twenty families”. Obviously, there are many more families, but these are not of the correct social standing, and deemed not worth engaging with. This gives the illusion of interconnectedness while one continues to engage only with a narrow subset of people…
We try to curry favor with prestigious individuals and departments. The credit economy of academic philosophy further amplifies existing inequities, given that research-focused American departments (who disproportionately benefit from the credit economy) already have so much structural advantage in terms of research funds and academic freedom. More engagement with philosophers outside of the credit economy would diversify the field.
Meanwhile, over at Leiter Reports, Brian Leiter (Chicago) criticizes Gross’s question, and writes:
…citing more Black writers would not contribute to equity… it is pernicious ideological obfuscation to act like keeping a tally of the race of authors you engage contributes anything to equity or human well-being…. If past racism has resulted in neglect of scholars who can contribute to truth and knowledge in a particular domain, then the demand should be to name those scholars so that they can be studied. But equity-qua-demographic-diversity per se is not a scholarly value.
Knowing that sometimes during an interview one may be confronted with a question one is not quite prepared to answer, and that sometimes, when speaking extemporaneously, one might not end up saying exactly what one means, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask Professor Singer to follow-up on his reply to Gross. Here’s what he wrote back:
My response to Daniel Gross’s question seems to have sparked a Twitterstorm that isn’t likely to produce anything positive. In retrospect, it would have been better if I had asked Gross whether he had in mind any works by non-white philosophers that he thinks I should have cited, but did not—works on the issues of most concern to me, including ethical issues like the obligations of the rich to people in extreme poverty, our treatment of animals, climate change, life and death issues in bioethics, as well as issues related to utilitarianism and the objectivity of ethics.
Among non-white philosophers who have contributed to these debates, I cited Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on cosmopolitanism in The Life You Can Save, and in the interview I mentioned Yew-Kwang Ng, with whom I have co-authored an article, and Amartya Sen. I could also have referred to the Venerable Chao-hwei, a Taiwanese Buddhist nun with whom I am having a dialogue that we hope to publish as a book, in both Chinese and English. Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, which I co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek begins its historical account of the theory with Mozi.
What am I missing? I was educated in Western philosophy, and have worked all my life within that tradition, so it would not be surprising if I missed some important contributions from thinkers in other traditions. If I did, then others are likely to have missed them too, and we could all benefit from knowing about them. Perhaps now that this issue is being discussed on Daily Nous, we can draw on your readers’ wide range of knowledge, and invite them to suggest the most important works we have missed.
I think Professor Singer’s request for suggestions of important works from non-Western philosophical traditions relevant to the topics in moral philosophy he writes on is a good idea. In light of Gross’s question, we could also add to the request suggestions for overlooked but relevant works in the Western tradition by non-white authors.
I know that one likely reply to this request is to complain that Singer is asking others to “do his homework” for him, and that many of those best positioned to fulfill this request are already overburdened with other tasks related to combatting—or simply dealing with—various forms of disadvantage. I understand and appreciate this response. That said, I’d urge readers to consider that this is an opportunity to reach not just Peter Singer, but thousands of other philosophers, with suggestions of important works currently negelected in mainstream anglo-analytic moral philosophy. It could do a lot of good.
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