A Moral Obligation to Retire?

Philosophers offer views -- ethical and practical -- on whether older scholars should be making room for new Ph.D.'s.
July 21, 2008

Brian Leiter, a philosopher at the University of Chicago and a popular blogger, recently noted his concern about the job market for young philosophers – especially as the economy deteriorates. One commenter on his blog responded with this question: “This raises serious ethical questions for tenured faculty. Since keeping one's position and not retiring is likely to directly cause the unemployment/underemployment of young philosophers, is it wrong to postpone one's retirement past a certain age? If so, at what age should one retire? I don't have answers to these questions but would like to see them discussed on your blog.”

Professor Leiter’s readers responded. Following are some of their thoughts, reprinted here with permission of Professor Leiter:

Arguments against a special obligation to consider retirement now:

  • "Do senior faculty have an obligation to retire at some point? Certainly not. Who would such an obligation be owed to? Young graduates? That suggests life owes them a career. How nice for them that they don't have to take risks for their careers like other young workers. The whole idea is smacks of utopian fantasy."
  • "Retiring when economic times are bad with the idea that it will provide a position for younger philosophers rests on the assumption that the department will retain the lines. My department has had two retirements this past year. There are no searches to replace them this coming year. The department and the college may simply lose the lines, for the college is meeting the demand for a 6 percent cut in its budget in part by eliminating faculty lines."
  • "Suppose it is granted that unproductive senior faculty have a special unmet obligation to would-be faculty or the profession as a whole. It doesn't follow easily from this that such an obligation is best discharged by retiring. For reasons many have mentioned, the link between philosophy retirements and new tenure lines in philosophy is tenuous. Mass retirements may even be counter-productive insofar as they hasten the demise of the tenure system in favor of part-time labor. Senior faculty who have become unproductive are in a wonderful position to be politically active on behalf of the profession: 1) Presumably, they have little to fear as they likely lack the desire for "upward mobility". 2) Their tenure affords them a pulpit typically unavailable to retirees. 3) They have (by their own choosing) a lot of time on their hands."
  • "At many state universities, the pay is very poor (and I mean very poor – less than typical retail managers) until one hits the rank of full professor. Obviously, it would hurt recruitment of talent if one's lifetime earnings were cut down even further by 'forced retirement' policies. I certainly would have chosen another career if philosophy professors were commonly forced into retirement or 'non-academic employment' at the age of 60 or 65. (Who the hell is going to hire you when you're 65?) People count on those last 10 working years to pay off their children's college tuition and to pay off their homes. In large cities (New York, San Francisco, L.A., and Boston for sure) it is very difficult for those of us who won't have help from wealthy relatives to buy a house until we are associate or full professors. And at that point (say, age 38), we will be signing up to pay back $500,000+ on a 30-year mortgage. We will need to work until we are in our late 60s. If we were forced into retirement, we might be forced out of our homes.

Arguments in favor of considering retirement:

  • "If the senior professor is just showing up to teach out-of-date versions of his or her minimum course-load (when their contract stipulates research and service) he or she does have a defensible obligation to get out of the way [I've known several full professors that just come in, teach their classes, and then do things like run their antique business, restore homes on the side, go on vacations with inherited money, play in a band, or just watch commercial television all the time like the poor saps that actually have to work forty hours a week.]…. Instead of mandatory retirement, why not increase the course-load of professors who no longer do meaningful research? I realize this actually is 'utopian' …. But it's a good idea, and would have the added benefit of gently encouraging retirement when it is needed."
  • "It's about reducing the huge inequality between an age-cohort that's had it extremely good (those hired in the 1960s) and an age-cohort that are going to find it very tough (those now coming onto the job market). Or do we just say the latter group can go to hell?"
  • "It seems obvious (to me anyway) that there's something ethically suspect about holding on to a professorship just out of self-serving economic concerns. I don't think that necessarily relates to the age of the professor, though I imagine that it's a dilemma aged professors face more often than others. As naive as it may sound, I think there's a certain expectation of selflessness expected from any teacher -- some self-sacrifice for the sake of the students, education, and research and all that. I'm reminded of a poor Wittgenstein insisting that he could not take a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation unless they 'knew the complete truth about me.' Despite the fact that Wittgenstein was actually still capable of producing valuable philosophy at the time (even though he died not much longer later if I recall correctly), I think it's hard to deny that what Wittgenstein insisted is what we expect from ethically scrupulous academics. As for making sure that the department isn't narrowed upon your retirement, there may be something to that, if that's your real reason for refusing to retire. Otherwise, appealing to such an excuse is a bit of tartuffery, albeit of an arguably benign form. Please don't crucify me for saying this but it may be that, in any case, it's not right to cling to a position even for that reason--i.e., to put the interests of your department ahead of the whole university's (which isn't to say that some dialogue isn't in order)…."
  • Everyone who disagrees with the following is an anti-youthist! I think we can all agree that that just as young people don't have a right to an academic job, older people don't have a right to keep their job indefinitely. Remember, tenure is designed to ensure academic freedom; it is not designed to prevent the influx of new blood into the profession. If a university sees that it’s in [its] interest to move on- i.e. give older professors a pink slip and hire younger people- then that university is not violating anyone's rights nor academic freedom. In my experience, older professors do their jobs as well as, if not better than, their younger counterparts. But even so, there are all sorts of reasons to bring in new people and let older professors go: new perspectives are good, change is good, some students relate well to young faculty, etc. The idea that universities might take lines for retired philosophers and give them to other disciplines is a bit of a red herring. The decline of philosophy departments is a separate problem and should be dealt with as such. I'd be interested to hear what Rawlsians have to say about all of this. I think if I were looking at the academic world from the original position, I'd be terrified about being a young, unemployed philosopher: i.e. the worst off. I'd be somewhat less concerned about being an older professor who was forced out by some sort of early retirement law or social convention. Thus, I wonder whether we should have forced retirement as a law- or at least as a social convention, where older professors are expected and pressured to retire. (Perhaps I'm abusing Rawls here. No matter.)"

The full discussion may be found here.


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