Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Politicizing philosophy

Charles Hermes, a philosopher at UT Arlington, recently started a petition calling on the American Philosophical Association to stigmatize academic institutions whose ethical norms lead them to prohibit homosexual acts among their faculty, staff, or students. (Among the institutions Hermes wants censured are Azusa Pacific University, Belmont University, Bethel University, Biola University, Calvin College, Malone College, Pepperdine University, Westmont College, and Wheaton College.)

The suggestion that the APA should officially endorse one side in a matter of longstanding philosophical controversy (in this case, a question of sexual ethics) is, of course, outrageous. Concerned about this attempt to politicize the profession, and about the discrimination the proposed policy would encourage against philosophers whose religious, political, and philosophical convictions lead them to disapprove of homosexual acts, several of us started a counter-petition calling upon the APA to reject the proposal in question. (Since APA policy inevitably affects the entire profession, the counter-petition is addressed to all professional philosophers, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or think tanks, or are independent scholars or grad students. If you are not a professional philosopher, please do not sign it.)

Predictably, the original petition’s defenders compare the policy of the institutions they want censured to racial discrimination – despite the obvious fact that a person’s actions (which, unlike his race, are within his control) have a moral relevance that his race does not have, and despite the fact that whether disapproval of homosexual acts is really comparable to racial discrimination is precisely (part of) what is in question in the debate between conservatives and liberals over this matter. For some philosophers, it seems, begging the question and failing to make a rather obvious conceptual distinction are legitimate if done in the service of advancing a political agenda.

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