Non-Zombie in Milwaukee (weather-permitting)

by Harry on November 25, 2010

Given the irritation at JQ’s short notice for his zombie talk, I thought I’d give more notice for my own talk at the UW Milwaukee Philosophy Department, on Justice in Higher Education, next Friday (December 3rd)[1]. It’s a more public-oriented talk than I imagine the other talks in their colloquium series (from extremely eminent scholars) have been [2], hence the unusual step of highlighting it here. Like JQ, I like meeting CT readers (even including those in my own field who know me from CT rather than from my scholarly work), and welcome feedback on the ideas I’ll present.

[1] I have been warned that for the past three years the first Friday in December has seen blizzard conditions between Madison and Milwaukee, so bear that in mind when planning…

[2] when I previously gave a talk at UW Milwaukee, thinking that my more mainstream work was more appropriate than my education related work, I gave a paper on democracy, only to be greeted with disappointment that I was not talking about education, which is one of many things I like about the department.



Timothy Scriven 11.25.10 at 11:56 pm

I can’t make it because I’m half a world away, but higher education is a major interest of mine, post a summary?


GrueBleen 11.26.10 at 4:08 am

“Justice” in higher education … that’s a rather quaint notion, isn’t it Harry ?

Do you provide a definition of ‘justice’ as part of your talk ? Or is the audience left to infer one ?


Harry 11.26.10 at 2:49 pm

TS: Yes, I’ll provide a summary before very long. Good idea.

GB: are you taking the piss?


conall 11.26.10 at 4:02 pm

I hope you will explain a bit about the Justice involved in the Netherlands Medical School entry system — you know, the one that uses a weighted lottery of the qualified candidates. So much more just and efficent than the usual producer-capture technique of raising the entry barriers by demanding higher and higher SATS scores?

More about Lotteries for Education at


Shelley 11.26.10 at 4:49 pm

As a “creative” writer, I’m always struck by how much we have in common with the philosophy teachers (without the rigor of your field), and I’m always also impressed with how accessible to anyone a philosophy lecture, well done, can be.

More power to you!


GrueBleen 11.27.10 at 2:06 am

“Taking the piss? Moi ? No, no, a thousand times no. :-)

I’m just curious about “justice” – given that Russell’s ‘summation’ of the Socratic dialog on this topic (and ignoring the irrelevant kibitzing of Thrasymachus) amounts to the proposition that “justice … is a place for everyone, and everyone in his place” (which I’m sure that you recognise is the whole basis of Plato’s utopian Republic. And yes – “his place” – I’m sorry but Socrates, and Russell, were sexist).

So I am just a little curious as to what people might mean when they use the word “justice”, and in particular when they use it in specific instances, such as ‘Higher Education’. So I am looking forward to your didactic deconstruction of this concept.


rosmar 11.27.10 at 4:59 am

Plato very clearly includes women in his Republic, including as Philosopher-Monarchs. Sexist in some ways, yes, but not to the degree you implied. (Also, justice within the individual is at least as important, and has a lot to do with education.)

Harry, I wish I could make it to your talk.


GrueBleen 11.27.10 at 6:51 am

rosmar @7

I guess it’s just as well then that I didn’t accuse Plato of sexism, only Socrates and Russell. Unless you are saying that as the ‘true’ author of the Socratic dialogues, I have thuswise implicitly included him.

With respect to “justice within the individual” I have some difficulty seeing ‘justice’ as a unitary thing. Perhaps you could expand on this idea, or provide a link or two ?


rosmar 11.27.10 at 2:55 pm

What is your evidence that Socrates, as opposed to Plato, is sexist?

On justice within the individual, I was only referring to the way the book is set out–to find justice within the city in order to see (on a larger scale) what justice is within the individual. I wasn’t saying that was my definition of justice, but that it was an important part of the definition of justice given in Plato’s Republic.


Harry 11.27.10 at 3:52 pm

Sorry to be pugnacious, GB. In the paper/talk I offer some standard principles that plausibly play some role in a good theory of justice, and in the paper (but not the talk) I give them some defense. Then I observe that the way selective HE is organised in the US involves the institutions in being complicit in quite a bit of injustice. My response is not to call for its abolition, but to explore what kinds of things policymakers, administrators and faculty members ought to be doing, given HE’s complicity in injustice, and given the fact that the broader social environment is going to remain pretty unjust in the medium-term future, to the extent that they take those principles seriously. So I certainly don’t come up with some grand theory of justice (in HE or elsewhere), but I do offer fairly specific principles, and some reasonably specific suggestions for action.


Margaret Atherton 11.27.10 at 4:30 pm

I hope all who are interested will come to Harry’s talk this Friday at UWM. It will be held at 3:30 in Curtin Hall Room 124. (Curtin is on Downer Avenue.)


Zach 11.27.10 at 9:25 pm

This is exciting! I hope I can make it, but I will actually be defending my MA thesis at UWM that very same day, also in Curtain Hall.


GrueBleen 11.28.10 at 5:08 am

Harry @10,

“Pugnacious” ? Thee ? Now you’re taking the piss, aren’t you. :-)

However, to keep flogging the same poor moribund equine, I simply find the concept of “justice” to be elusively ineffable. Most discourse on ‘justice’ that I have encountered is about some specific instances of inequity or oppression or something like that. Perhaps a summation of cases of inequity, oppression or similar can be conflated into a definition of ‘justice’ – much indeed as a Wittgensteinian ‘family’ of instances may be considered a definition of ‘game’ – but I think not.

Nonetheless, your reference is to specific instances of what you call ‘injustice’, and you are offering your audience a defended ‘definition’ thereof, so I too regret that separation by a large ocean and many timezones will prevent me from hearing you expound. Is the paper itself available for download (or online reading) somewhere ?


GrueBleen 11.28.10 at 5:18 am

rosmar @9,

What evidence have I that Socrates was sexist ? Well, I don’t claim to be a serious student of either Socrates or Plato (we have moved on somewhat from ancient Greek times after all), so my ‘evidence’ is merely snatches of testimony from at least some of those who do claim to be more dedicated scholars of Socrates/Plato.

As a typical example, I quote this piece from the Wikipedia entry on misogyny:

“In the Routledge philosophy guidebook to Plato and the Republic, Nickolas Pappas describes the “problem of misogyny” and states

“In the Apology, Socrates calls those who plead for their lives in court “no better than women” (35b)… The Timaeus warns men that if they live immorally they will be reincarnated as women (42b-c; cf. 75d-e). The Republic contains a number of comments in the same spirit (387e, 395d-e, 398e, 431b-c, 469d), evidence of nothing so much as of contempt toward women. Even Socrates’ words for his bold new proposal about marriage… suggest that the women are to be “held in common” by men. He never says that the men might be held in common by the women… We also have to acknowledge Socrates’ insistence that men surpass women at any task that both sexes attempt (455c, 456a), and his remark in Book 8 that one sign of democracy’s moral failure is the sexual equality it promotes (563b).” ”
I am a little curious, however, as to why you didn’t also query my ‘evidence’ as to Russell’s sexism. I’m on much firmer ground with him.

As to the definition of ‘Justice’ in the Republic, I think my contention is that Socrates/Plato don’t really have a definition of justice to impart. But then, neither does anybody else.


Harry 11.28.10 at 1:57 pm

GB – I think of justice as a fairly simple concept in the context I’m interested in — something like “the principles of action that should constrain and guide agents when collectively using power over others and on another”. Beyond that there is no definition exactly — we have to provide normative arguments for what those principles are and how much weight they have relative to one another (the latter being even more difficult than the former). A definitional approach won’t get us far. You’ve read Rawls, right? Not that he has the right principles of justice with the right weighting, but his approach to what he is seems the right one. Or Mill? Or Locke?

I’ll write a 2000 word summary and post it on CT when I have time.


rosmar 11.28.10 at 3:49 pm

The Apology and The Republic were both written by Plato, as you noted above. I wasn’t denying, in any case, that there are sexist phrases in them, I just was wondering why you seemed to think Socrates was sexist but Plato wasn’t.

The Republic imparts a definition of justice. I don’t agree with it entirely, but is explicitly given as a definition of justice.


rosmar 11.28.10 at 3:50 pm

Sorry, Harry, I was responding to GrueBleen. I agree with you that a definitional approach to justice isn’t the best one.


GrueBleen 11.29.10 at 6:37 am

Harry @15,

I look forward to reading your summary when you have the time to do it.

No, I haven’t read Rawls, just some summaries/commentaries which didn’t motivate me to pursue him any further. He seems to be advocating a sort of purpose-built ‘situational deontology’ (my term), an idea I have very little confidence in. And even less confidence in his “veil of ignorance”. He is, after all, constructing an arbitrary axiom set in which the axioms all purport to be ‘principles of justice’. But surely in this day and age, everybody knows the work of Goedel and understands the limitations and dangers of arbitrary axiom sets.

Besides, as I’d bet you understand only too well, there is a yawning abyss between ‘principles’ and ‘practice’, and as we have been reliably informed, “when you gaze into an abyss, it gazes back into you”. Kinda like one of Socrates ‘paradoxes’ – the one about about ‘who, knowing the good, would choose the bad’ (or words to that effect). Who ? Why, just about the entire human race at some time or another in my experience.

The best we usually manage to do is some kind of formalised ‘code of conduct’ (aka The Law when it is enforced by selected agents and administered by courts of some kind). But of course ‘black letter law’ is just another arbitrary axiom set, albeit a very large and messy one, and (as Goedel would indicate), an incomplete and almost certainly inconsistent one. So we also have to have a form of Common Law based on vague notions of ‘natural justice’ and ‘the rational expectations of a reasonable man’ (I’m sure Rawls would applaud that idea) with a considerable leaning on precedent to guide its ‘practice’.

Or so it appears to me – I look forward to reading your views.


GrueBleen 11.29.10 at 6:54 am

rosmar @16+17,

Entirely fortuitous that I accused only Socrates and not also Plato of sexism. I was writing in the context of Russell’s ‘summary’ of a dialog that was supposedly the work of Socrates, even though it was Plato acting as amanuensis (and adding his own touches, of course).

However, may I make it unanimous and also agree that “a definitional approach to justice isn’t the best one”. Because, of course, and notwithstanding Plato and the Republic, or Rawls, or Locke or Hobbes or indeed anyone you may care to add, producing a ‘definition’ of ‘justice’ is an impossibility.

Now, my simple, naive question is this: is there any such thing as ‘a best approach’ to justice ? is there any such thing as ‘an approach to justice’ at all ? Perhaps, after 2500 years of thinking, arguing and writing, Thrasymachus has a point that we, like Socrates/Plato can only “answer in quibbles” [Russell].


daveWI 12.02.10 at 2:54 am

Don’t worry about the weather. Hi around 32 and mostly sunny. 2 to 3 ” on Sarturday. Will try to make it. Although I wasn’t at the Shool of Philosophy, more like the School of Hard Knocks

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