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Philosophy Conference Focuses on Family

By Charles Spencer

Photo of 19th century family

Families—all kinds of families and their value, rights, and variety—were the subject of the 21st annual McDowell Conference on Philosophy and Social Policy, held October 26 at the Katzen Arts Center’s Abramson Family Recital Hall.

In kicking off the conference, Jeffrey Reiman, the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy at AU, said he was first drawn to philosophy as a young man because it promoted liberation from “the soft totalitarianism” of his parents’ common sense. Among the values families teach their members, he said, is to “teach the virtue of loving people whom one doesn’t particularly like or at least one wouldn’t choose based on liking. That’s an underestimated virtue, by the way, because among other things it paves the way for societies to be affective communities characterized by what [John] Rawls called civic friendship, affection for fellow citizens whose names we may not know.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, posed an unusual comparison: she contrasted the ideas on family of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (twinned in most of our minds with Marx) with those of Jane Addams (pioneering reformer, feminist, founder of Hull House in Chicago, tireless advocate for women and families, and winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize).

For Hegel, the family must be “interfered with” so that a young man may overcome the danger of “premature individualism” and be integrated into the state to act as a useful member. 

How does Addams as a philosopher fare against the hugely influential German? Surprisingly well, Elshtain said.

“She gets her own philosophic lessons through stories and narratives,” Elshtain said. “She mistrusts highly abstract theories and systematic approaches. She says these endorse, these promote a kind of dogmatism incompatible with the messiness and the uncertainty and the foibles of human life and civic life, because it’s made up of human beings.”

J. David Velleman, professor of philosophy at New York University, told a moving story about family and memory. In discussing After Long Silence—Helen Fremont’s account of how Fremont, raised as a Roman Catholic, discovered in her 30s that her parents had through a lifetime of deception hidden from her the fact that they were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust—Velleman recalled his own father’s self-deception in suppressing knowledge of how his sister Emma had died during the Holocaust. 

Contacted decades after World War II by a genealogist from Holland, Velleman’s father agreed to let him explore how Emma had died. When he reported back that Emma had died at Auschwitz, Velleman’s father sobbed as if hearing the news for the first time. Yet Velleman determined that his father knew this all along.

“I once asked my father after receiving confirmation of her death whether the family had held a memorial of any kind,” Velleman said. “The idea had never occurred to him. So I suspect that my father passed on to me an emotional task that he could not bear to do himself. And I suspect that Helen Fremont was given a much heavier emotional task with the added burden of not knowing what it was.”

Debra Satz, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, concluded the conference’s first session with a presentation on the inequalities within the family as they affect women and children. Women perform most domestic duties within the family, are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse than men, and are five times more likely to be victimized by an intimate partner than men.

Sex-selection abortions and infanticides are part of some cultures, and women with jobs perform a second shift taking care of their families once they return home. In the United States, women equally qualified with men earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts make, Satz noted.

Children also suffer the consequences of income disparities. A huge gap exists in enrichment activities between what the affluent can provide their children compared with the one in four U.S. children born into poor families. By the age of three, for example, children of affluent families have twice the vocabulary of poor kids.

The conference also featured presentations by Nancy Polikoff, professor of law at AU’s Washington College of Law; Dorothy E. Roberts, professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; and Kimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at AU.

Polikoff’s presentation was titled “Equality and Justice for Lesbian and Gay Families in Relationships,” Roberts’ was “Race, Genetics, and the Meaning of Kinship,” and Leighton’s talk was called “The Power and Politics of Being Related: Why We Should Reject the Right to Know Genetic Origins.”

As College of Arts and Sciences dean Peter Starr noted, both the conference and AU’s Philosophy Department have a long history of connecting with contemporary concerns and issues.

“One of the things I love about our Department of Philosophy and Religion here at AU, and it really does set you apart, is that you have a view of philosophy that makes philosophy enormously relevant to the concerns of our day and our world—something that cannot be said of many American departments of philosophy,” Starr said.

The conference was sponsored by the College’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.