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‘We Middle-Class Liberals’

This post is the third in a series on:

Ethics in Academic Events

As theorists of justice and professional ethicists we are used to scrutinizing the practices of others. Is it not about time that we turned our analytical skills and discerning moral sensitivities on ourselves? Inspired by discussions at the closing of the workshop ‘Global Justice and Global Health Ethics Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young’, this series of posts seeks to examine our own actions and practices and explore the moral dilemmas of the academy.


Exclusivity in Academia

Verina Wild’s post highlighted that much of the polemical critique of liberal elites is unfair and dangerous. However, academia has played a role in sustaining the cultural divide that is now being effectively exploited by the right to turn people against each other. In this post I explore this issue and discuss how academic philosophers should respond to it.

‘We Middle-class Liberals’

Countless times I have heard ‘we liberals’ or read ‘as middle class people’ in academic discussions concerning questions of justice and ethics. At first it made me think I didn’t belong, later it just made me uncomfortable to be part of an in-group. The idea of a liberal middle-class ‘we’ is troubling and yet class awareness is vital to understanding injustice.  The tension for radical and progressive political theorists between the need to recognize in-group privilege and the need to challenge and oppose rather than reproduce it is a complex one.

One of the things that bothered me most about Peter Singer’s work on poverty was that it exclusively addressed the upper middle classes in western countries. However, his choice of audience was natural: the vast majority of those he taught and sought to influence were from extremely privileged backgrounds and almost all would have the opportunity to make some serious money on leaving his institution.

Excluding Non-Elites

The language and spaces within which scholars associate are predominantly white upper class ones. These spaces are difficult to access to those who lack financial resources and contacts in the field. What’s more those who do not share the traditions and practices of these spaces often feel distinctly uncomfortable. Most of those who work in academia are upper-middle class white men and those who are from other backgrounds often adopt western middle-class cultural norms to get through the door.

One of the strands of the polemical critique discussed in Verina Wild’s post was the idea that liberals impose diversity and equality in a way that disrespects those who reject this agenda: that liberal egalitarians disrespect the non-elites who do not share their ideas. The proposition that diversity and equality should be rejected as being ‘elitist’ is internally contradictory. However, the accusation of exclusion, condescension and disrespect is one that should be addressed.

Tackling these Challenges

Having a commitment to achieving equality and diversity is not enough, it should be coupled with a commitment to fulfilling these values in the process of reform itself. Efforts to diversify academia must seek to engage with those who have been excluded on terms of equality and respect. The formerly excluded should be included in discussions concerning what measures would really enable them to participate as equals. A further reason in favour of this is the fact that the privileged face epistemic challenges in identifying the barriers to accessing academia. These barriers are likely to be much more visible to those who have encountered those barriers.

It is vital that inclusion efforts do not ignore class. Although measuring and implementing policy on class diversity in a practical and respectable way is challenging it cannot be neglected. Opening up elite circles only to the economically privileged members of previously excluded groups will never be sufficient for achieving real equality, diversity and openness.

When exploring means and ways to open up academia and prevent exclusion and inequality it is vital that academics are conscious of the fact that how they speak and the questions they choose to discuss are important. By ‘othering’ the working class and those from the global south political theorists contribute to the social processes that lead people from these communities to be side-lined and marginalized both in academia and in politics. By addressing solely the concerns of the upper-class elites of western countries they contribute to a political environment in which these concerns are privileged over those of others. Furthermore, they create an academic environment in which it is harder for those that do not share this position to participate. Comfortably and self-consciously only addressing the western middle class is problematic.  In our political theory and moral philosophy we should be thinking about the duties and dilemmas of all people and addressing them. There is even an argument to be made for embracing ordinary language that those without a basic grasp of Latin can follow.  Changing rhetoric, direction and manner is by no means sufficient to diversify and open the discipline however it is an essential part of reform that must not be ignored.


For details of the conference for the workshop “Global Justice and Global Health Ethics: Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young”, go to: http://www.irisyoung2016.de

Beth Kahn

Beth Kahn is a moral and political philosopher working at the University of Durham. Her research centres around questions of social injustice and political action. Previously she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Goethe University as part of the ‘Justitia Amplificata’ research group.



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1 Comment

  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you, Beth.

    I follow you on the case for embracing ordinary language.

    Could you expand a bit on the affirmation that “class awareness is vital to understanding injustice”? Why is it so in your opinion?

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