The Unethical Ethicist And Yale: If Bill Cosby Were A Famous Ethicist, He’d Be Prof. Thomas Pogge

The Accuser and the Ethicist

The Accuser and the Ethicist

Here is the short version:

Yale’s Thomas Pogge is a world famous Yale professor of philosophy and ethics who is especially renowned for condemning the terrible human rights effects caused by disparity of resources between rich countries and poor ones. His books, lectures and a well-recieved TED talk argue that the power imbalance between rich countries and poor countries is so great that poor countries cannot reasonably be said to “consent” to agreements between them. Pogge has also accumulated many credible accusations of exploiting, harassing, and taking sexual liberties with his female students in multiple institutions. In the case that has led to this contrast becoming public, Yale offered a female accuser, a Yale graduate named Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, $2000 in exchange for ending the matter and keeping the story out of the news media.

The long version is here. Because the publisher is BuzzFeed, which is not widely regarded as a sterling source of trustworthy journalism (to say the least), the detailed and apparently well-researched report will be easy for Pogge and Yale to ignore and shrug off. However, other publications, including the Yale Daily News, have investigated the work of author Kaitie J.M. Baker, and so far it has held up to scrutiny.

Pogge has responded, less than convincingly, I would say, to the Lopez Aguilar allegations here. I say unconvincingly because he does not address the previous accusations made against him at Columbia University, and if there is one common characteristic of sexual harassers and abusers that stands out above all others, it is that they are habitual and repeat offenders. Anyone who has spent any time in academia (like me) is well aware that the culture permitting professors, especially male professors, to use the student body and bodies as a sexual perk of the job is widespread and only weakly restrained, if at all. Does that prove that Pogge is one of the professors who partakes in the lusty opportunities presented to him as an object of trust and admiration? No. There is, however a lot of smoke surrounding him, and the smoke has been issuing for a long time.

Yale’s institutional conduct is more than smoke. Yale appears to be another example of a trusted institution deciding that it is preferable to cover up the possible, likely or proven misconduct of a valuable employee than to risk damaging the reputation of that institution, or alienating the loyalties of other employees, by addressing it openly and decisively. I’m sure you can name other infamous examples of this phenomenon, broadly covered by the rationalizations “The King’s Pass” and “The Saint’s Excuse” on the Rationalizations List. Among the most infamous of these are the Catholic Church’s decades, perhaps centuries-long enabling of child sexual predators in the priesthood, the Watergate cover-up by the White House, and Penn State’s failure to stop a known child predator from using the school’s football program and its campus as a base of operations. Yale’s particular variety of this unethical choice is an especially unsavory one, closer to the Joe Paterno/ Sandusky and “Spotlight”scandals, because it intentionally  places future innocent victims at risk of harm.

I accept that there is a possibility that Pogee is an impeccable  professional and as pure as the driven snow, and thus himself a victim of a smear, though this seems unlikely. What I am more interested in now is to address the questions asked in the BuzzFeed piece, which relate to how we should regard unethical ethicists as well as other prominent figures who defy, in their actions, the wisdom they are celebrated for dispensing to others—the Bill Cosbys of the world.

I have some additional questions of my own, but for now I will restrict myself now to those posed in the article.

1. Can someone fight tirelessly to balance the inequities of global power while at the same time abusing his own power?

Sure. It’s not even necessarily hypocritical to do this: an authority can persuasively and honestly be an advocate for ethical conduct while being incapable of meeting his own ideal. From the article:

“Louise Antony, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, pointed out the difference between the moral views of an individual and their ethical behavior: “The evaluation of the philosophical work — the quality of the arguments — is one thing, and the evaluation of the philosopher’s behavior is something else.”

I agree. However, an authority who champions an ethical position while ignoring the principles he advocates in his own life certainly undermines that authority. For a teacher, this undermines the ability to convince and persuade. If these principles are as good and important as you say, Professor, why don’t you live by them yourself?  If you don’t believe in what you teach, why should we, your students?

2. Can a discipline [that is, philosophy and ethics] built on the quest to describe a just society afford to ignore misconduct like abuse of power, gender discrimination and harassment on the part of its most distinguished practitioners, theorists and teachers?

Not if it wants to be taken seriously by anyone in the real world outside of academia, it can’t.  Unethical ethicists, like unethical leaders and elected officials, feed what is already a cynical attitude held by the public towards rules, principles, moral codes and laws, as typified by the refrain, “Rules are for the little people.”

3. What is our collective responsibility when the flawed humans we enshrine as intellectual heroes are accused of being far from heroic?

That’s an easy one. Hold them to the higher standard required of those who claim to be leaders, teachers and role models. Make them accountable, and recognize that while a messenger and the message are distinct, a discredited messenger alters the message, and sometimes distorts it completely. For the sake of the message, such a messenger must be replaced.

Professor Pogge cannot continue to teach students about the social malady of power inequities while he knowingly employs them for his own selfish purposes to victimize his trusting and admiring students.

2 thoughts on “The Unethical Ethicist And Yale: If Bill Cosby Were A Famous Ethicist, He’d Be Prof. Thomas Pogge

    • Not at all. I went back to the post again, but as before could not find anything else to say that you hadn’t covered. Would you hate a “ditto” button as much as a “like” button?

      Then again, it could be that $2,000 would be an insufficient amount to create a power imbalance between relatively rich professors and poor students so small that a poor student could not reasonably be said to “consent” to an agreement between them.

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