MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 3
January / February 2016
Improving Faculty Governance
For Changing Times
Is This Really Who We Are?
Constraints on Civilian R&D Budgets
From Excessive Pentagon Spending
The Roles of the Standing Committees of the Faculty in the Governance of MIT
Introducing Sandbox
A Critical Look at the Plan
for MIT's East Campus
Our Faculty Agenda
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version

Is This Really Who We Are?

Sally Haslanger

I am not writing to criticize MIT’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel. I disagree with it, but that is not my point. I am also impressed by many elements of “A Plan for Action on Climate Change” (henceforth “the Plan”). I have no doubt whatsoever that the plan is an important part of what MIT can offer and demonstrates a sincere and deeply held commitment to address climate change. I am concerned, however, with some of the reasoning about the significance of divestment and the decision not to create an Ethics Advisory Council. Ethics and social meaning are topics that fall squarely in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences. Might it be worth considering what MIT’s experts in these areas have to offer?

Recent discussions of the Fossil Free movement at MIT have revealed, yet again, how MIT’s emphasis on natural science and engineering is as much a weakness as a strength. There is no doubt that MIT’s research in science and engineering is second to none and that the Institute is a home for remarkable scientists and engineers who are deeply committed to making a positive difference in the world. But there are also world-class researchers, scholars, and artists in other Schools at MIT who create knowledge, and the value of this knowledge is as important for improving the world as anything else that MIT produces.

So the refrain that accompanies the gesture towards science and engineering, “This is MIT. This is who we are.” is not only disrespectful to the rest of us, but awkwardly calls attention to a blindspot at the core of the Institute that prevents it from being all it could be.

There is a broad temptation, both in popular culture and in certain academic contexts (expressed, for example, in the faculty forum on “the Plan”), to think that ethics and “meaning” are purely subjective matters and can only ever be a matter of opinion. People have different values, live by different moral codes, and find different things or actions meaningful. These differences, it is assumed, are no more resolvable than differences in taste. You like chocolate? I like vanilla. If you tell me that I shouldn’t like vanilla, you are simply imposing your values on me. You drive a Prius? I drive a Hummer. If you tell me I shouldn’t drive a Hummer, you are only insisting I live by your values, perhaps implying that I’m not a good person. You don’t know me. Your “political correctness” does not appeal to me. Live and let live.

I’ve described the temptation in somewhat crude terms, but I’ve done so to invite questions about moral knowledge and social critique. Just as chemistry and physics, as forms of disciplined thought, purport to offer training in scientific thinking, philosophy, as a form of disciplined thought, purports to offer training in moral thinking. Is philosophy’s aspiration pointless? Is systematic and justified moral critique impossible? Of course not. Although we still have a long way to go, efforts over the past 50 years to articulate and defend civil rights have resulted in an expansion of moral knowledge that has fueled moral progress. This knowledge grew out of both systematic moral thinking and activist movements. And this is just one example.

Moral critique takes many forms. Looking back as far as Socrates, we can see that good critics are adept at revealing inconsistencies in moral thought. These inconsistencies can arise among our beliefs or when there is a conflict between what we say and what we do; the latter are pragmatic contradictions. Such contradictions between principles and practices are typically the focus of social movements. Moral critique also highlights forms of value that are occluded or diminished by current practices. For example, within markets, things are valued as commodities. But not everything should be treated as a commodity; e.g., it would be a mistake to treat one’s child as a commodity. More generally, one should never treat another person as a commodity; persons are entitled to a kind of respect that is at odds with using them as a mere means. There are ethical limits to the market. This is moral knowledge.

As in any rational endeavor, there will be disagreements about the kinds and sources of value, and which principles should be kept and which rejected in the face of a contradiction. Moral inquiry is fallible. But all inquiry is fallible. Progress is not linear. Nevertheless, philosophical inquiry is guided by norms and standards for argumentation that have developed over thousands of years. To dismiss this is to deprive ourselves of a resource as important to human progress as the scientific method.

Philosophy cannot succeed in social critique on its own because uncovering the inconsistencies in our commitments requires an interpretation of social life. History, anthropology, literary criticism, and the arts, among others (including sociology and law, which are not well-represented at MIT) offer training in reading social meaning, interpreting social practices, and exploring new meanings. Human beings are not machines; how we act depends on how we represent things to ourselves. But representation is tricky. The same thing can be represented in different ways, with very different implications for our attitude towards it and our action. Some of these representations are individual and idiosyncratic, but the tools that enable us to coordinate – such as a shared language and shared cultural practices – also create shared meanings. Pink means girl and blue means boy. These meanings are not up to you or me. If I dress my boy in pink, that has social meaning, and social consequences, whether I intended them or not. Symbolism is not a trivial thing.

Consider another often discussed example of social meaning: Dueling was a stupid practice. Aristocratic men regularly killed each other over tiny slights. Efforts were made to end the practice. Laws forbidding it were passed. They made no difference; dueling continued at the same rate. Eventually those pressing to stop dueling recognized the significance of honor to the practice: Duels defend a man’s honor, and nothing, even the law, was more important than a gentleman’s honor. At the time, a gentleman’s honor also obligated him to serve in public office. So the movement passed a law saying that no one who had fought in a duel could hold public office. Soon after, the practice of dueling ended. Why? The new law shifted the social meaning of dueling. The risk of the duel was no longer worth it, for even if one survived, one’s honor would be tarnished. Tarnished honor would result in reduced social power and credibility.

Because social meaning is social, actions can have a meaning beyond, even in direct opposition to, what we intend. As a result, pragmatic contradictions – those conflicts that occur between what we say and what we do – may not be a sign of hypocrisy. And what we do may have multiple meanings that depend on context. So to determine the best course of action, we cannot simply introspect the sincerity of our intentions and the depth of our commitment to certain values. We must be attentive to the sources of our values, their consistency, and the meaning of the available courses of action. Of course, consequences also matter, but in the social domain, consequences cannot be wholly separated from the social meaning of our choice, for how others respond to us will depend on their interpretation of what we have done.

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Let us return to Fossil Free MIT, the recommendations from the Climate Change Conversation Committee, and “the Plan.” First, both those in favor and those opposed to divestment seem to agree that MIT’s divesting would have social meaning. How do we determine the social meaning of divestment?

One of the main arguments against divestment in “The Plan” offers an interpretation of what MIT’s divesting would mean: “Given its intent to stigmatize, divestment is contrary to the strategy of working with industry that is at the core of MIT’s culture of real-world problem solving” (page 3). And, “In our judgment, the deliberate public act of divestment would entangle MIT in a movement whose core tactic is large-scale public shaming” (page 16). These are bold claims about the intentions behind the divestment effort: stigmatizing and shaming. They are also demonstrably at odds with explicit statements by many involved in divestment work. But more importantly, even if some activists have such intentions, they do not establish the social meaning of divestment, because intentions do not create social meaning. I, personally, think these claims both about the intentions and the social meaning are mistaken. But I am not going to argue that here. MIT is rightly concerned with credibility, standing, even a modern-day form of academic honor. However, the social meaning of divestment cannot be simply intuited. It is a proper subject of inquiry, inquiry that requires expertise in fields of research that MIT systematically devalues. There is knowledge to be had about social meaning, knowledge that is produced by our very own faculty, some of whom work on social movements. Were they consulted? And might we also ask, whose interpretation of the meaning matters, and why?

Second, “the Plan” does not include discussion of the proposed Ethics Advisory Council; in fact, it doesn’t include the term “ethics,” “ethical,” or “transparency” at all. What does this say?

The proposal to divest from fossil fuels is supported by several distinct arguments. The one central to my concern here is ethical. Put simply, there is a moral imperative to do all we can to prevent the immense suffering, conflict, and injustice that is easily predictable given the current rate of climate change. Divestment is required to fulfill this moral imperative. The Climate Change Conversation Committee Report proposed that an Ethics Advisory Council would be an important part of the plan to fulfill MIT’s mandate. “MIT has been faced in the past, and will continue to be faced with complex ethical decisions regarding its investments, but it lacks a transparent, community-supported means of making such decisions.” Even if one rejects the claim that ongoing investment in fossil fuel is unethical, the argument in favor of an Ethics Advisory Council rests on the value of transparency and community oversight. However, “the Plan” does not discuss this proposal. In the faculty forum there were two arguments offered against it: (a) this proposal was controversial and provoked cries of “political correctness,” and (b) MITIMCo (MIT Investment Management Company) is already subject to oversight by the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility.

I hope that my earlier discussion of the value of moral reasoning and the possibility of moral knowledge makes it clear that those who cry “Political correctness!” are misguided about the nature of moral argument and critique. Assuming that members of an Ethics Advisory Council would include those who have a background in normative inquiry – just as a Science Advisory Committee would include experts in science – there is no reason to think that such a council would just be driven by current political winds. To think otherwise is a sign of disrespect for ethics and related interpretive sciences as areas of inquiry. Moreover, it should be obvious why the current Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility does not adequately address the concern that MIT lacks a “transparent, community-supported means of making [investment] decisions.” It is neither transparent nor community-supported. Should we conclude that the Institute doesn’t value transparency and community support for oversight of its investments? This is what “the Plan” clearly conveys, even if its authors didn’t intend this. For after all, meaning is not just a matter of intention.

Who are our peer institutions? There may be no peer in science and engineering. But is this all we are aiming for? Every institution usually considered a peer – Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, etc. – has the equivalent of an Ethics Advisory Council. Shouldn’t we respect the knowledge and expertise of our whole community – as our peers clearly do – and draw on our collective insight to make morally sound decisions? We certainly aren’t coming close to that. Refusing to establish such a Council is a public repudiation of moral reasoning and is of a piece with the distorted affirmation of science and engineering, “This is MIT.”

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