Interview with Scott Anderson

andersonScott Anderson’s Bio: I was born in 1964 in Chesterton, Indiana, raised there, and attended Indiana University majoring in Economics and Mathematics. I spent two years in the Peace Corps (Nepal) before going to graduate school in philosophy, about which I knew nearly nothing. (I know more now.) After a remarkably long time in graduate school at the University of Chicago (well, remarkable anywhere else), I took a one-year position at SUNY-Albany, and am now associate professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. (See also my personal webpage).

Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?

SA: I’ll simply list a number of topics I have published on, and a couple I expect to publish on, as a way of locating myself in this field. I have published papers on prostitution and sexual autonomy, aggressive dating/seduction practices, whether sexual promises are binding, the definition of privacy, the definition of rape, and sexual objectification. I have written but not yet published on sexual harassment, and on the prospects for egalitarianism in the choosing of romantic partners (a topic I am working on with Patricia Marino).

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

SA: As you can judge from the topics I’ve published on, my work concerns things that are often in the news and practically significant—unfortunately so, in most cases. Of course it is depressing that gender-based oppression is still so entrenched, but there is some reason for optimism, I think, in that it is becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to look away from, feign ignorance of, or be indifferent to the victims of such harms. Ultimately, I think that will drive real behavior change, because the expected, tacit support for such forms of intolerable behavior is slowly but surely being eroded, at least in the places I’m familiar with.

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

SA: Philosophy of any sort is difficult to do well, so the philosophy of sex/love is no different in that respect. However, I think sex and love as philosophical topics have been hobbled (in mainstream analytic philosophy, anyway) by the fact that they involve parts of the body and parts of human life that mainstream analytic philosophy disdains or finds alien, irrational, or too political. And of course women have been treated particularly dismissively (or worse) by most of the canonical authors and texts, leaving a gaping hole in their canvassing of human life. So people who want to work in this area have comparatively fewer and less widely acknowledged foundations on which to build and to warrant recognition for doing something serious and worthwhile. That has long been an obstacle and disincentive to doing work in this area, though of course many have gone ahead and done good work nonetheless. My sense is that this is changing, if only because the pressure to take up novel areas of investigation is now making under-explored areas of philosophy more tempting to younger scholars, and because the impact of previous theoretical work in this area is becoming easier to recognize. A number of areas of feminist philosophy in particular can lay claim to successes that have become part of mainstream culture and thinking, and these successes do, I think, tend to encourage more interest.

Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?

SA: I’ll be somewhat expansive on this question, since I don’t know when or if I’ll be asked this again. My philosophical interests in general might be described as reflecting a desire to reverse-engineer human systems, to try to understand how they work, and to describe the role that our ideas and thinking play in creating and changing those systems. That’s all very abstract, but I hope this thought will become clearer in due course. My interest in the philosophy of sex and gender has been overdetermined, I suppose, by my interest in “human systems,” by my graduate school teachers, and by the way my personal history and experiences have intersected with the time period in which I live.

My mother was no feminist, by theory or training or temperament, but she was not exactly typical for her era, in that she was a small-business owner and manager (along with my father), who jointly worked for and eventually inherited the nursery business her father and grandfather started. During the time her father/my grandfather was involved in the business, my father, who married into the business, drew a paycheck, but my mother worked for her father for no pay (mostly), because that was expected of her, as his daughter and as a wife and mother—that is, not a full-time employee. This was in spite of the fact that she was the main salesperson, landscape designer, and office manager (it wasn’t a big business). (I’m sure my grandmother, who was similarly situated, never drew a paycheck either.) I’m not sure when she came to the realization that this was not a fair situation; I remember her complaining of it during the period her father (an irascible bully) was finally forced by ill health to loosen his grip on the business, but perhaps she had been resentful of the situation long before. I know that she equally or more concerned that she might lose the value of her contributions to the business if her widowed father had chosen to remarry, and thus prevented the business from coming to her by inheritance at his death. (This did not happen, but it was not an unreasonable fear.)

All of this now seems to me incredibly unjust and harmful, but growing up, much of this was little discussed and/or seemed unexceptional, and I think her working for free may have seemed tolerable to her as well, at least until later in her life when the precariousness of her situation became more apparent; at least it was not something I ever heard her complain of before she took over the business. Both my parents went to college (which was rare among their peers), and worked equally hard in their business and as parents, they yet followed otherwise fairly stereotypical gender roles at home. (My mother attempted to inculcate these in me and my brother as well, but with only middling success, at least in my case.) My mother was by turns both very happy and very unhappy with the way her life went, as it was significantly constrained by aspects of feminine gender roles, some of which suited and some of which grated on her. It took much longer than I would wish for me to see how challenging things had been for her, in part, I think, because both my parents were fantastic parents, and supported my brother and me in our wildly impractical aspirations, career paths, and life choices. So I was largely oblivious to the considerable friction of her situation until its effects on her became much more apparent than they were when I was growing up.

I grew up in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the sexual revolution of the 60s and the achievements of its women’s movement were starting to become institutionalized and set into law, though the process was halting and incomplete (which it remains today). The start of my graduate school career in 1991 coincided with the hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which were something of a watershed moment for a kind of public consciousness about feminism and sex equality. I did not at the time know much about sexual harassment as a legal or cultural issue, but it did strike me around that time that the concept was not one I had grown up with, though I certainly had seen and knew of plenty of the kind of behavior it identifies. Upon later reflection and reading, I came to see this concept as a paradigmatic example of the way theorists could add something powerful and important to our understanding of our world, by identifying and throwing light on a practice and at the same time making it possible to criticize and revise it. As I learned more about feminism as an intellectual movement and practice, I became much more fully aware of the way heteronormative gender practices and roles had shaped my own background and understanding of the world, and how inequality was built into this system in ways that I was only just becoming aware of.

My development in graduate school at the University of Chicago was largely due to two amazing thinkers—Candace Vogler and Martha Nussbaum—I had the privilege of studying under. Both taught versions of courses in feminism and philosophy, though with very different emphases. Both also had real commitments to feminist philosophical practices, bore scars from things feminism opposes, and saw feminist philosophical practices as part of doing big-picture philosophy right. So their willingness to guide me in this area was a gift that even I, a guy who remains a bit slow on the uptake, was not dim-witted enough to turn down. I also credit Catharine MacKinnon’s work and the privilege of sitting in on her seminar on sexual harassment for much of my own growth as a thinker on these issues.

And I suppose that like many philosophers, my own personal quirks and insecurities play a role in my interest in certain topics in philosophy. As a straight, white, economically stable, able-bodied cis-male and ordinarily decent person, I am able to compare myself to many other such people with respect to how we have fared within heteronormative practices in finding love, sex, romance, affirmation, companionship and the like. And I think it is fair to say that by comparison to a lot of them, I have been pretty ineffective, notwithstanding the fact that I have been together for about 7 years now with a lovable, sympatico woman. So I have a personal interest in what differentiates the romantically and relationally successful people (whether that success is in a single long-term relationship or in a wealth of shorter-terms pairings) from people like myself for whom that has been a much harder good to come by. I have just barely begun to think systematically about this, but this sore spot has been a continual prod to my thinking in this area.

Q: Do you work in other areas of philosophy as well? How does your work in philosophy of sex and love relate to your work in other areas?

SA: Beginning with my dissertation, the main focus of my writing has been coercion, trying to understand both the practical tool that people and states use to constrain or alter the behavior of others, as well as our concept coercion, which figures in various theories, laws, and claims. Theorists and laws appeal to a concept of coercion when they want to criticize it, regulate it, excuse people for responding to it, and so forth. I find extremely interesting the role that coercion (the tool) plays in organizing society, but also am interested in its limits and preconditions that determine what it can and cannot achieve. For a number of reasons, I think it would be useful to have a widely shared, univocal concept to track uses of coercion for purposes of ethics, political theory, and action theory. So the main thread of my writing has been to develop such a conceptual elaboration of coercion. Understanding how coercion works, what distinguishes it from other interactions, and how we should regulate its use ought to play a foundational role in political theory and ethics, so I hope to be contributing to our ability to do this kind of theorizing well.

On my account, coercion depends on the existence of power differentials between agents (or, more generally, between kinds of agents). Such power differentials are not necessarily or always problematic (for instance, there are reasons to want the government to have more power than other entities in a society). But many power differentials are quite problematic, such as the hierarchies associated with male gender dominance, heteronormativity, and racism. So I have found the field of issues in sex and gender to be a good source of inspiration and application for my work on coercion, and my work on coercion has helped me to better understand (I think) some of the power dynamics that have historically organized relations between men and women, among other things. There hasn’t been as much uptake of my work on coercion as I would have hoped for—yet—but I think it might be useful to a lot of scholars working in these fields, so maybe someday this work will find a broader audience. So may I end by saying a special hello, and thank you, to any readers who have persisted this far, and also to Helga and Patricia for the opportunity to talk about my work.

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