Separating the Philosophy From the Philosopher

After an alleged harasser holds on to a powerful academic position, professors try to limit his influence, in part by excluding his work from their syllabi. Is that the right strategy?

August 3, 2016
Thomas Pogge

Geoff Marcy’s fall from grace at the University of California, Berkeley, last year was hard and swift. After allegations emerged that he’d serially harassed a number of female graduate students, and that Berkeley had investigated the matter but chosen not to immediately punish him, his fellow astronomers launched a public shaming campaign that forced his resignation within a matter of days.

Not so with Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Political Science at Yale University, who has achieved the kind of rock star status in his field that Marcy once held in his. Allegations against Pogge, a global ethicist, first surfaced in 2014, and he was named publicly related to a sexual harassment complaint against Yale in May. Philosophers have responded to the news with their own shame campaign, but so far, Pogge remains at Yale.

That’s prompted Pogge’s critics to propose their own ways of limiting his influence in the discipline, essentially sending a message to Yale that if it won’t act, they will. Yet the actions suggested by these critics -- including leaving Pogge's works off their syllabi come fall -- have raised internal debates within philosophy. To many, the Pogge case continues to raise important questions about how to deal with an alleged serial harasser in an institution’s stead.

Pogge’s alleged behavior has been something of an open secret in philosophy for at least two years, since the 2014 publication of an essay accusing him of moral fraud and using his influence to win sexual favor with a number of young women. The author said her relationship with Pogge was consensual, if built on lies about his personal life, but that she wanted to warn potential victims. She did not name Pogge in the piece, but speculation soon centered on him.

That chatter caught the eye of a former student of Pogge’s who said she was sexually harassed and retaliated against by him, only to be rebuffed by Yale when she reported him in 2010. Her allegations stayed mostly rumor until May of this year, when she went public with her federal sexual harassment complaint against Yale regarding its actions in the Pogge case.

The alleged victim, Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, wrote in her complaint that Pogge offered her a salaried position in his global justice program but rescinded the offer after she rejected his sexual advances, including groping and making inappropriate comments. A hearing panel at Yale found there was “substantial evidence” that Pogge acted unprofessionally and failed to uphold standards of ethical behavior, but that there was insufficient evidence of sexual assault. Yale nevertheless attempted to buy Lopez Aguilar's silence for $2,000, according to the complaint.

An affidavit included in the complaint also alleges that Pogge sexually harassed another student at Columbia University, where he taught in the 1990s, and was banned from the philosophy department when she was there. The filing says nine additional women in several countries have since accused Pogge of harassment, with most alleging offers of jobs, hotel rooms, plane tickets or other assistance from Pogge, even though he knew little about them or their work, beyond their physical appearance.

The report prompted Delia Graff Fara, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, to say on a popular philosophy blog that Pogge touched her inappropriately during a conversation at Harvard University when she was an undergraduate there and he was a visiting professor.

Pogge has since admitted to what he called inappropriate behavior, such as sleeping on Lopez Aguilar’s lap during a flight, but denied harassing or attacking her.

Thomas Conroy, a spokesperson for Yale, said the institution doesn’t comment on reports of complaints. Pogge remains on the teaching schedule for this fall.

In the interim, more than 160 philosophers published an open letter “strongly condemning” Pogge’s alleged actions against women, and women of color in particular, along with the “entire academic community.”

“Bringing the complaint to resolution will be a long and complex process focused more on Yale's handling of these claims, rather than on the specific allegations against Pogge,” the letter says. “Meanwhile, the academic community must make its own decision about how to respond in light of what has been made public. … Nothing is more important to our philosophical community than the trust he has betrayed.”

To some, decisions about how to respond mean offering alternative forms of mentorship for Pogge’s students. Several members of the American Philosophical Association earlier this month anonymously released a statement saying that regardless of the “veracity” of the claims against Pogge, his current or recent students, male or female, “may now feel that they cannot turn to him for mentoring, as any continued involvement with Pogge may taint them or call into question their accomplishments and abilities in the eyes of other members of the profession. … For those who are finishing their Ph.D.s, or have not yet secured tenure-track employment, that loss of mentoring is a great loss indeed.”

The philosophers, who identify themselves as tenure-line professors and former students of Pogge’s, say “if the demand is great enough, we propose to develop a list of senior philosophers in related areas who would be willing to step in and provide such mentoring.”

To some students, responding means boycotting Pogge’s classes. A closed Facebook group called Students Against Pogge asks supporters to stand in solidarity with Lopez Aguilar “and the other foreign women of color targeted by [Pogge] by, at a minimum, not taking any of his classes in the fall.” The page notes that it’s also “a place to brainstorm other means of pressuring the university into making student voices heard and removing Pogge from the classroom,” according to the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous.

Other academics have said they won’t participate in conferences where Pogge is present. Most controversially, some professors have said that responding means eliminating Pogge from their syllabi.

James Sterba, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, for example, told The Huffington Post that he’s no longer including Pogge’s work in exams for graduate students. “You don’t need him,” Sterba said. “He carries too much baggage -- he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not.”

The idea is provocative. Scholars are supposed to separate the art from the artist, and it would be more obviously problematic to exclude the work of, say, a major natural scientist or mathematician from a syllabus if it created a gap in the curriculum. But does philosophy -- especially that dealing with morals and ethics -- present a gray area, in which a case can be made for excluding the work of an author who doesn’t appear to live up to his or her own thoughts? Pogge is a global ethicist who advocates for the rights of the poor around the world, and that he's been accused of taking advantage of women of color who may be unfamiliar with sexual harassment reporting channels is particularly unpalatable to his critics.

Unsurprisingly, Sterba’s comments generated debate among philosophers, including on Leiter Reports, another popular philosophy blog. Commenters gave numerous examples of philosophers who seemingly contradicted their own ideals, including this from someone called Anonymous Ethics Professor: “Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his five children to an orphanage. Then he wrote a book about how to raise children. This was despicable behavior. Yet we still teach Rousseau's work. Since Rousseau's political and social philosophy contains some important insights, we are right to continue teaching it.”

The moderator, Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and founder and director of Chicago's Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, said via email that he opposes bans on Pogge’s work as a form of “malpractice.”

“Philosophy is no different than any other subject,” he said. “A serious teacher assigns material because it is relevant to the subject and pedagogically productive to include it given the students. A teacher who excludes material for any other reason is guilty of educational malpractice. This is an issue of simple professionalism, assuming one is serious about one’s profession as a teacher of an actual discipline.”

Justin Weinberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has followed the Pogge case closely on his own blog, Daily Nous. He said it would be “antiphilosophical” not to teach Pogge, if one were inclined to do so before his character came into question.

“Philosophers are interested in figuring out what's true, or, if you don't like talk about truth, what we have most reason to believe,” Weinberg said. “Apart from some statements that refer to the speaker or his or her situation, the truth of a statement does not vary according to who is saying it.” That is, philosophers don’t typically think that the identity of authors or facts about them matters in believing what they say.

So as much as “we may loathe the harassing and unprofessional behavior Pogge is alleged to have engaged in, whether he behaved that way or not has no bearing on the truth of his views,” Weinberg said. “Nor does it have any bearing on the pre-existing facts related to the influence or significance of his views.”

Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, reportedly called for a public investigation into Pogge’s behavior in a statement Lopez Aguilar gave to Yale. Nussbaum said Tuesday that she couldn’t even engage in a hypothetical conversation about assigning Pogge’s work because she didn’t have a “high opinion” of his philosophy, beyond his first book, Realizing Rawls. That “I do assign and will continue to do so,” she said.

Indeed, Pogge has -- along with many fans -- many critics, some of whom have challenged his use of data to support his views, including in an Alison Jaggar-edited volume, Thomas Pogge and His Critics.

Pogge said in an email that “there has been a good bit of antipathy to the views I have been defending, and to me personally, which helps explain some of the schadenfreude and the unwillingness to examine closely whether the alleged misconduct actually happened.” For example, he said, he was not contacted by any of the signatories of the academic letter condemning his actions to ask for his side of the story.

“Clearly, many like the story (‘the guy who argued that Westerners are violating the human rights of people in the developing world has assaulted a woman from the developing world’) and are happy to put aside the global-justice arguments I have made,” he added. “I don't think this would happen if my main contributions had been in [Immanuel] Kant scholarship or the philosophy of mind.”

As for whether an ethical philosopher’s alleged personal transgressions might merit his or her exclusion from course syllabi, Pogge said that highlights the line between being accused of such transgressions and being guilty of them. “It’s not justifiable to destroy a person's life and work on the basis of accusations that have not been tested in a suitable judicial forum where evidence can be presented, protagonists and witnesses questioned, and so on,” he said.

Even if he were guilty of serious misconduct, Pogge argued against discounting his work on the moral claims and human rights of those in poverty around the world. “The duty fully and carefully to examine the thesis that we, through the economic institutions we uphold, violate the human rights of those who are severely deprived,” he said -- for example, the chronically undernourished -- “is and always was a duty owed to the world's poor and undernourished, not a duty owed to me.”

Lopez Aguilar said she wrestled with the same questions for years. But given how “derivative” Pogge’s work is, she said, “I don’t see it as being essential. In this sense, I remain ambivalent and want to see what each individual decides to do -- to either become a bystander and continue to enable Pogge’s modus operandi, of writing drivel for the sake of getting to attend conferences or to gain access to highly idealistic and impressionable students, or to become creative in a way that still abides by basic tenets of nonviolence and free expression.”

As for why Pogge’s story hasn’t ended like Marcy’s -- or, in the words of one philosophy blog, why philosophy isn't having its full "Marcy moment" -- Lopez Aguilar said her “best guess” has been confirmed to her on the multiple occasions that she’s tried to report her former mentor. “Yale is outrageously shameless about keeping on professors whom they know have a history of bad behavior,” she said. “It’s hubris.”


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