Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Rawlsian Ageism at Yale: A Highly Ironic Call for Papers

Just a very short note on this little thing that created some discussion on Twitter today, after a tweet by Liam Shields, a young (yes, that is relevant, you'll see!) UK political philosopher, currently at the University of Manchester. It's a call for papers to a conference at no less a university than Yale, called John Rawls: Past, Present, Future, to be held the last day of November this fall. It all looks like a great event for anyone into political philosophy and theory, and it's especially nice since quite obviously, the organizers have wanted to avoid the usual parade of post-retirement academic giants that usually fill the programs of spectacles like these, despite having had very little new to say the last 30 years or so.

The call specifically states that no less than six papers, given ample amount of time for presentation, by younger contributors will be selected for the program. Again, very nice had it only been the "academic age" that was the target. However, whether by oversight, lack of insight or intention, this is not the case. The call runs:

We will select the most interesting three papers authored by students or scholars below 28 as well as the three most interesting papers from students or scholars between 28 and 37.
Yes, the author of the call has focused on biological age, when specifying what is a young contributor. Thus leaving out this nice opportunity for academically young students/scholars, who happen to be older than 37. One of the commentators on twitter actually belongs to that category. Moreover, it makes it technically possible (albeit not very likely) that in this category will fall some (to me unknown) political philosophy and theory prodigy, who already at the splendid age of 27 or 37 is a chaired professor and academically looks more like the post-retirement people I mentioned earlier.

Now, so far, this may be written off as just a silly mistake. However, the fact that the conference is on John Rawls in particular makes for a more subtle and sophisticated turn, theoretically as well as how to assess the mistake of the organizers. Rawls, as you may know, is most famous for his phenomenally influential book, A Theory of Justice, from 1971. The theoretical core of the complex body of thought presented there is a renewed variant of the formula of social contract theory, made into what philosophers, when I had my basic training, used to call an ideal observer theory of justification. What Rawls does, in short, is to defend a set principles for a just society on the basis of asking himself what principles a set of (highly hypothetical, naturally) self-interested, perfectly rational parties would accept, were they forced to make a choice behind what Rawls famously called a veil of ignorance. That is, they would know nothing about their own (or anyone else's) particular place or fate in a society resulting from application of the principles they select, but otherwise (being perfectly rational) know everything about that society in general terms. In this way, Rawls reasoned, the chosen principles would be immune from criticism based on claims of unjustified or unfair bias or discrimination. Typical examples of what the choosing parties would not know is their social standing, their race, their life-style preferences, their sex or gender and, indeed, their age.

So, ironically, it would seem that the call for papers not only misses the apparent target that the organizers presumably had in mind. It would, as it were, in fact not pass the very test that Rawls himself is famous for having brought forward as the source of justification for principles of distributing social goods. We can all make mistakes, but it boggles the mind how the organizers – all very established names in the field – would bring that double jeopardy on themselves.