Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Anca Gheaus (Page 2 of 2)

It is standard practice to ask applicants for academic jobs – at least for jobs in philosophy – to submit reference letters. Yet, an increasing number of people have been recently expressing scepticism about the practice. (See, for instance, the comments to this blog post.) This may be a good time for public discussions about it; the present post is a sketch of the pros and cons of using letters of reference in the process of selecting people for academic jobs in philosophy.
One worry with hiring on the basis of reference letters is that this tends to reinforce the regrettable importance of ‘pedigree’ – that is, of the university where candidates got their doctoral degree and of the people who recommend the candidate. There are relatively few permanent jobs in the current job market, and significantly more qualified candidates than jobs, whether permanent and temporary. One consequence is that there are many (over-)qualified candidates for (almost?) each job, and this makes the selection process really difficult. Considering dozens, sometimes hundreds, of applications for one position is onerous, so it’s appealing to take pedigree into consideration because this is an expedient method to decide whom to short-list or even whom to hire. (As I mention below, this doesn’t mean expedience is the only appeal of relying on pedigree.) But this is unfair: those candidates who weren’t supervised by influential letter-writers, or who otherwise didn’t make their work sufficiently know to an influential letter-writer, have fewer chances on the job market. Moreover, relying on letters of reference can also be bad for quality, to the extent to which letters fail to closely track merit. This kind of problem will not entirely go away just by eliminating reference letters – the prestige of a candidate’s university will continue to matter – but its dimensions would be more modest.
Another worry is that reference letters reflect and perpetuate biases, perhaps unconscious ones, against members of groups that are under-represented in philosophy for reasons of historical or present discrimination, such as women or racial minorities. There are studies suggesting that reference letters written for female candidates tend to make recommendations in terms less likely to ensure success than those used in letters recommending male candidates. If this is true, letters of reference can, again, be unfair.
Another group of reasons to give up reference letters has to do with avoiding corruption – of the hiring process and of personal relationships within the academia – and their unhappy consequences. As long as they are used in hiring, reference letters are highly valuable assets. Those able to write the most influential letters can treat letters as tokens in exchange for illegitimate benefits from the candidates they recommend. Hiring without reference letters would diminish the potential of unfairness towards candidates who resist such exchanges, and the likely unfairness towards others when they don’t. At the same time, it would eliminate one source of illegitimate power of letter writers over the candidates they recommend. To depend on a supervisor, or on other powerful people in the field, for a reference letter, seems in itself undesirable: a relationship in which one person has enormous power to make or break another’s career looks like a relationship of domination. But even if it isn’t, there might be a good reason against such dependency: to protect the possibility of genuine friendships between established and budding academics. Genuine friendships are more difficult to flourish when structural conditions make it likely that people who pursue the relationships have ulterior motives. It is great not to have to worry that your professor cultivates your company because they want from you something they could ask in exchange for a reference letter. It is great not to worry that your student or younger colleague cultivates your company because they hope you’ll give them a good letter. (Not all such worries will be averted by giving up on reference letters; one can and some do advance their students’ careers by unduly facilitating for them publications in prestigious venues or by over-promoting them.)
Finally, there are reasons of general utility to hire without reference letters: Writing them takes time and, unlike other writings, they rarely have value beyond getting someone hired. (Plus, it’s not the most exciting way to spend one’s time). Interpreting reference letters properly can also be a drag in the context of praise inflation. And it is stressful to ask people to write letters recommending you. Admittedly, these are not, in themselves, very strong arguments, but they should nevertheless count in an overall cost-benefit analysis of reference letters.
All this is not to say that there are no advantages of having reference letters in the hiring process. They may be useful proxies to determine that a candidate received proper philosophical training: in philosophy, at least, we learn an awful lot by simply seeing how others do good philosophy, and being allowed to participate in the process. The mere fact that one has been taught by a respected philosopher should count for something. But, in fact, in this day and age it is becoming increasingly easy to witness good philosophy independent from who mentors you. There are numerous conferences, and it became easier to travel to them; the internet is turning into an inexhaustible source of filmed philosophical events. Almost everybody can study the best philosophers in action, and many can interact with them on a regular basis at philosophical events. These philosophers will continue to feel particularly responsible towards their own students’ careers (and so write letters for them) but, thanks to contemporary media, they can benefit an ever higher number of students in philosophy. Of course, search committees will not know which candidates who were not taught by the most prestigious philosophers did in fact benefit from the easily available resources (conferences, recordings of lectures and other events.) But nor can they assume a wide gulf between candidates who have and candidates who have not been taught by very respected philosophers.
A very important function of reference letters is, to my mind, that of giving prospective employers a way to check certain aspects concerning candidates, in case of doubt. This pro is specific to references, and as such has nothing to do with pedigree. Is a prospective employee a good team player? How much did she contribute to a particular publication? How close to publication are the papers listed on a c.v. as ‘in progress’? But this aim can be satisfied in the absence of a general requirement that job applications include letters. It is enough if candidates are asked to list, in their application, a few people who can comment on them, with the understanding that referees are only to be contacted occasionally/exceptionally.
It appears that, on the balance of reasons, the pros count less than the cons. Letters may be important when employing people in many other fields because, together with interviews, they form the main basis for assessing a candidate’s ability. But in philosophy hirings, where both written samples and job talks are required, we could and probably should do without them.

What is the value of (even fair) equality of opportunity in an unjust society?

People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs?’, about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:

And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.

I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose in front of individuals’ efforts to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls‘ principle of fair equality of opportunities(henceforth FEO) requires this: ‘[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.’ The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.
One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one’s family of origin determines one’s chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone’s life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents’ money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserve to reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.
Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.
You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be often irrelevant in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, ‘good enough’ will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.
An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.
One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.
Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls’ theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?
So, it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.

How poverty antagonises the interests of children and those of women

This is a post about the difficulty of addressing a particular issue of justice that exists against a background of unjust economic and politic arrangements. It illustrates how attempts to rectify one kind of injustice risk to aggravate others.

All around the world there are lots of kids who spend many of their childhood years, and sometimes their entire childhood, without much face to face contact with the people who used to be their primary caregivers, and whom they still see as their parents. This happens as a result of temporary migration for work, of the kind that, for legal, economic and other pragmatic reasons, doesn’t allow migrant parents to take their children with them. Temporary migration has always existed, but it has been on the raise recently, thanks to the opening of labour markets and to the increased accessibility of long-distance travel. Moreover, temporary migration has become increasingly feminised due to the world-wide abundance of jobs in traditionally feminised sectors such as care for children, the ill, the elderly and menial work.

And this is the point where some of the trouble starts: parenting, too, is a traditionally feminised activity, especially the bits that have most to do with hands-on care, daily involvement and emotional support. It’s true that a new model of involved fatherhood is becoming popular in some of the richer countries in the world; but most temporary migrants come, for obvious reasons, from the poorer countries that also tend to be more gender conservative. Because mothers are usually the more involved parent, their migration (without the children) is bound to be harmful at least in one way: it deprives children of continuity in care. And children are generally believed to need continuity in care: severing a firmly established bond between children and parents represents significant harm to the child. No doubt, many of the migrants’ children also benefit from their parents’ migration, because parents usually send remittances that pay for better housing, education and creature comforts. It is hard to aggregate the benefits and harms that parental migration entails for children. Some studies suggest that these children are worse off with respect to educational achievements and social relationships with their peers, others deny it. Most studies I’ve seen tend to agree that, compared to their peers, migrants’ children suffer from more feelings of sadness, insecurity and isolation and from lack of adult guidance. So, even if migrants’ children are better off materially, this doesn’t take away from the fact that growing up with very little, and only sporadic, face to face contact with one’s parents is an important kind of deprivation. These children suffer an injustice.

But who is responsible for the injustice – who has the duty to prevent or mitigate it? It is their individual parents, to whom they are already attached, that children need, and so it seems that it is these individuals who should make things right. This is a difficult claim to make, for two reasons. First, on closer inspection, it often turns out that the mothers’, rather than the parents’, absence is most harmful. But isn’t it obviously unjust to blame women for ‘abandoning their children’, as the media often puts it? Why aren’t fathers equally involved in parenting in the first place, such that they become able to provide practically and emotionally for their children when mothers-only migrate? And, second, leaving this unjustified gender asymmetry to the side, in many cases it seems unjust to ask migrants to take the full responsibility for their children’s predicament. Temporary migrants usually cannot find proper – or any – work in their country or region of origin, and migrate in order to provide for basic necessities for themselves and their families. They do not abandon their children merely in order to keep up with the Joneses and, morally speaking, they don’t abandon their children at all; part of their reason to migrate is children’s wellbeing. Migrant parents merely find themselves in the impossibility to provide for all the important interests of their children: in continuity of care as well as in proper housing and reasonable economic security, for instance. It is not their fault that they cannot ensure all these things. And it would be too easy to say ‘they should not have had children under these conditions.’ Maybe it was not entirely their choice to become parents. Maybe they did not, and could not, foresee their current poverty or economic insecurity. And, in any case, it is unjust for people to find themselves in a situation in which they ought not to parent due to (collectively avoidable) economic circumstances.

What do you think?

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