In some circles, there have been rumours going around for a while that Thomas Pogge, the hugely influential global justice philosopher, has been having sexual affairs with several students, and has been engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour towards other female students. Earlier this week, the academic community seems to have lost its faith in the formal institutions being able to adequately deal with the complaints by the accusers, and more than 160 (mainly philosophy) professors have signed an Open Letter “to express [their] opposition to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education” and condemning Pogge’s “harmful actions against women”. (Anyone not knowing enough about the Pogge case can find the relevant background information via the links in the Open Letter). In the meantime several hundreds have added their signature to the Open Letter, and many others have been invited to do so.
There are many academic philosophers who hold the view that as a scholar Pogge has made important contributions to the literatures on theories of justice, and global justice in particular. And for decades Pogge has generously supported scholars, without regard of institutional affiliation or their fame or seniority – often opening opportunities that helped these people pursue their careers. Many of these collaborators or mentees of Pogge (including young women) never had unpleasant encounters with him, and in fact have regarded him as a highly valued colleague. So naturally they feel this is all very painful and tragic – an unfolding of events that is harming not just the victims, but everyone. Pogge’s reputation is deeply damaged, but also the reputation of the fields to which he has been a major contributor has been damaged, and perhaps even the activist causes he has been trying to advance.
The letter has been circulating widely, and many individuals have been invited to sign. It will increasingly be difficult for people to not have heard about the Open Letter at all. This has led many to ask themselves: should we sign this letter?
Some people have a strong gut feeling against signing such letters. And they have reasons that are prima facie valid and which would, in many contexts, be strong pivotal reasons not to sign such a letter. First, no trial by the internet (also known as: “no witch hunt”, “no character assassination”) and, second, no accusations until one has seen all the facts.
Of course, not everyone should feel that they have to take a stance. The question is whether one regards oneself to be a member of the relevant academic community. In Pogge’s case, the relevant academic overlapping communities are (at least): academic philosophy/political theory; the community of people working on global justice; and the universities where Pogge works or has worked, and organisations to which he is affiliated. If one is a member of any of those overlapping communities, then knowing about the Open Letter yet not signing can reasonable be seen as a statement that one believes that this is none of one’s business since (i) this is merely a matter of a person’s sexual preferences, which is a private matter; and/or (ii) the legal institutions will do their work, and we must let them do their work; and/or (iii) we don’t have all the relevant information and hence shouldn’t judge. (Some people who are long-time friends of Pogge may feel that they should not sign because of the friendship, but then for them the question is: should they talk to him about what is happening?)
Let’s first look at reason (i), the view that this is about sexual preference and hence a private matter. Albeit this reason may sound astonishing to many, I have heard it once and have also been told that it is the dominant view in some circles. Yet independent of the question how widespread this view is, I think we should be clear: this case should not be framed as a matter of a man having sexual affairs. This is a matter of abusing one’s hierarchical position as a professor. There are clear (and fully justified) social norms that positions of authority come with codes of conducts regarding not creating situations in which one could abuse that authority. If the information that has become publicly available is correct, then that’s what this case is about. This is not about non-mainstream sexual preferences that are a person’s own private business and hence that in a pluralist world should not be the concern of others; phrasing it like that is rather an attempt at legitimising behaviour that is morally wrong.
What about those who believe that we shouldn’t sign because of the second or third reason? It is certainly true that in the case of the accusations against Pogge very few of us have seen all the facts. In such cases, the default position should indeed be to refrain from condemning and merely counting on justice being done via the formal institutions.
But alas, it is clear that in the Pogge case the institutions that should protect the vulnerable have failed. (In this case the vulnerable are young female students, and allegedly a disproportionate share of them coming from developing countries and hence perhaps less sure about local social norms, which made them more vulnerable for abuse).
So we should answer the question whether we should sign this Open Letter in this radically non-ideal world, where the formal institutions that should protect female students have failed. In that non-ideal world, we gather the information we have. And given the amount of information that is by now out on the web, and given the trustworthiness of some of the witnesses who have made statements in courts already two years ago, it would be cowardly and irresponsible to say: We do not have all the facts for the full 100% and hence cannot judge. Imagine, just for a second, that we would have put up such a high standard of evidence in some vicious periods in our political history? A reasonable amount of evidence need not in all contexts be 100% complete and objectively documented evidence. Let’s call this view that in some contexts, we have good reason to regard the evidence to be trustworthy enough and solid enough to allow us to make our judgements, the reasonable evidence view
Pogge should agree with this ‘reasonable evidence view’, since in his work on global justice he reports on facts that he gathers from other sources; he does not tell his readers to go and check for themselves these facts about global harms being done, and the existence of unjust global structures. Rather, he wants us to trust his reputation as an expert in the area of global justice, and to endorse the claims on global injustice which are, in part, also based on empirical evidence. The same for evidence-based activism in which Pogge has been involved: for sure not everyone who has donated or who has joined Academics Stand Against Poverty, has checked whether all the facts they report are true: that is simply setting the standards of gathering the relevant evidence too high. There are too many (alleged) injustices in the world for us to be able to gather all the evidence in all details ourselves. We would not be able to say anything about almost any alleged case of harm or injustice if we couldn’t work on the assumption that some reputable party has checked the evidence for the rest of us.
So I believe that professional academics now have enough reputable evidence to accept that even if we don’t know all the details about Pogge’s misconduct, he did abuse his position as a professor for many years, and exploited the vulnerability of female students.
In sum, those three reasons for not signing the Open Letter should be rejected. There may be other reasons for not signing the Open Letter, but those probably only apply to an extremely small number of people (e.g. his close friends who may feel that the virtue of being a good friend implies that one does not sign an Open Letter. But it doesn’t follow that friends of someone accused of severe misconduct can simply shrug their shoulders).
But is there a reason why members of the relevant overlapping communities should speak up?
Yes, there is a reason why members of the relevant communities should now speak up. The reason is that the poor manner in which Columbia University and Yale University have handled those cases, has contributed to an institutionally-supported social norm that powerful and successful men can get away with morally unacceptable behaviour. (And perhaps this also applies to other universities where Pogge has had or has been having an affiliation; I cannot tell).
As the research by Christina Bicchieri and others on changing harmful social norms shows, a dominant social norm changes if a debate about the need for that norm-change goes hand in hand with a public declaration (e.g. an oath) by the relevant parties, especially the most powerful relevant parties, that they will no longer themselves contribute to the upholding of that social norm.
So this Open Letter does at least two things. First, to tell Yale that we, members of the relevant communities, strongly disapprove of what has happened, and that Yale should quickly and fairly proceed with the complaints against Pogge. Second, to tell ourselves, as members of those communities, that we do not tolerate such behaviour in our communities, and that we commit to each other to speak up about other (and future) incidents that we may get to know about.
Many have said that the Pogge case illustrates that there has been a culture of silence, or a culture of brushing sexually offensive behaviour under the carpet. This petition is about Pogge, but not only about Pogge. Let’s gather the courage to speak up about other cases of sexual harassment that we know about. Let’s strengthen the social norms that it is not OK to abuse your hierarchical position to receive sexual favours. Let’s demolish the social norms that if everyone else is turning a blind eye, it is fine for us to also turn a blind eye. Let’s address these problems by both institutional change and a change in culture and social norms in the profession.
And what to say to Pogge himself? In my view, there is nothing to add to what Melissa Williams wrote in the letter she sent to Pogge, and which she published on her FB-wall.