Elizabeth Anderson: The Art of Theory Interview

Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. We spoke with her in late 2012 by Skype.

Art of Theory: What initially led you to political theory?

Elizabeth Anderson: Well, it turns out it was a home influence. My father was an aeronautical engineer before retiring, and he always missed not having received a liberal arts education. So when I was in high school he decided that we would read some political philosophy together. We read parts of Plato’s Republic and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and we also read some economics. We were a pretty politically-oriented family, so we always had dinner table conversations about politics and public policy, justice and freedom and the like. So it was kind of a natural!

Art of Theory: Elsewhere you’ve mentioned the influence of Henry Hazlitt’s book on economics. Did that have anything to do with your early interest in free market economics?

Anderson: Absolutely. Economics in One Lesson (Harper, 1946) really is a terrific book, and I do recommend it. I think now, looking back, that it does have a narrow perspective. But what it offers is still one of the best popular cases around in favor of free markets, and there’s a lot to be learned from it.

Art of Theory: Although you were an early believer in rational choice theory and free markets, you’ve written that Amartya Sen’s work helped to dissuade you of some of those beliefs.

Anderson: As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, I really was a true believer in free markets and rational choice models. Rational choice really is a compelling theory in many ways, and of course it fit in very nicely with microeconomics, which offers a lot of tight, analytical arguments for free markets. So it really seemed to fit.

But when I began doing some research, I happened to come across this lovely little article by Sen called, “Behaviour and the Concept of Preference” [Economica, vol. 40, no. 159 (Aug. 1973), 241-59]. In that article, he proposes thinking about this concept of preference that’s so important in decision theory and in economics. He pointed out that the concept of preference actually refers to multiple things: it could refer to what you actually choose, it could refer to your sense of what would make you better off, or it could just refer to a feeling that you ought to choose something because, for instance, there’s a social norm in favor of it. So Sen proposed that these concepts have to be differentiated. And once you do so, you can’t necessary infer from the fact that somebody chose A over B that they thought that A would make them better off than B. Maybe they chose for the sake of another person, or out of deference to some felt sense of duty. Consequently, you can’t draw the neat, welfarist implications in a free market equilibrium that economists like to draw.

Art of Theory: How did you move from this free market perspective to the broader concern for egalitarianism that you’ve written so much about?

Anderson: That was actually a really long trek, and it’s still continuing. My initial concern coming out of undergraduate and moving into graduate school wasn’t so much thinking about equality, but thinking about the ethical limitations of the market; there can be other, non-egalitarian concerns about market exchange. For instance, should we put a price on environmental goods and endangered species, valuing them according to willingness to pay? My dissertation and my first book was really thinking about these issues that were tangential to egalitarianism, but addressed other concerns that one might have about market distributions. And it was only later that I returned with concerns about equality front and center (although other parts of my work, for instance in democratic theory and feminist epistemology, have dealt with equality in a very broad sense).

Art of Theory: Tell us a bit about studying philosophy at Harvard in the 1980s. Who were some of the faculty you worked with, and who influenced your thinking?

Anderson: Obviously the dominant influence was John Rawls, my dissertation advisor. Part way through my graduate career, Tim Scanlon also joined the Harvard faculty, and so I immediately put him on my dissertation committee. But if I think about the really formative influences, they came when I was an undergraduate. Probably the deepest influence in the way I do philosophy, in terms of methodology, came from Hugh Lacey, who was a philosopher of science at Swarthmore College. He taught what was by far the most exciting course I’ve ever taken in my entire career—a course in the history and philosophy of science. We were reading Kepler, Newton, Galileo, and then of course philosophy of science by thinkers like Kuhn. This I just found incredibly exciting.

I noticed something significant about how the philosophers of science worked. Philosophy of science, as thinkers like Kuhn and his successors were practicing it, begins by reflecting on the actual problematics of scientific theories. They dig deep into the details of, say, an astronomical theory or some theory in physics. And they start puzzling about philosophical questions that arise internally to the scientific investigation. That struck me as an incredibly fruitful way to do philosophy, including moral and political philosophy, and that has endured for me.

The most important thing I learned about how to do political philosophy is to start one’s thinking from concrete engagement with the actual structure of the political problems we’re facing, to engage with those problems in detail, and to make use of theories from the whole range of social sciences in doing so. So it’s a counsel against excessive abstraction, or a warning to engage in abstraction only with a firm understanding of the problems that one wants to address.

Art of Theory: Your most cited essay is “What is the Point of Equality?” [Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2 (Jan. 1999), 287-337]. How did you become interested in luck egalitarianism, and how did that essay arise?

Anderson: As I mentioned before, my early work wasn’t really engaged with the issues of distributive justice. It was engaged with questions about the market and about social relationships that are built through commodity exchange. Some of those relationships did implicate egalitarian concerns, but not of a distributive sort.

With respect to contract parenting, or what we call commercial surrogate motherhood, for instance, I was worried in particular about problems of manipulation and exploitation that arise from the conditions for enforcement of such contracts, and about how children come to be conceived as commodities. The focus of that early work was really about the nature of human relationships, and not about how much stuff different people were consuming.

Several years later, I started returning to look at the egalitarian literature, and I found that it had really lost track of these concerns about relationships. At that point I really found my inner Rawls! I hadn’t really been engaged with specifically Rawlsian ways of thinking, but what I noticed in the luck egalitarian literature is that they had forgotten so many important insights that Rawls had offered (even though they were drawing from select passages of Rawls). I had always read Rawls from the start as someone who was fundamentally concerned with constructing a society of free and equal people through democracy. Distributive concerns were always intimately related to the conditions for creating such a society, and all those concerns were completely ignored by the luck egalitarians.

That’s what really fired me up. I wanted to highlight the great importance of egalitarian social relations, and point out how that requires us dramatically to expand our agenda, well beyond distributive concerns. And that’s what has led me to what is now a series of works on egalitarianism and democratic equality.

Art of Theory: How did the luck egalitarians respond to your critique?

Anderson: I recently published an essay called “The Fundamental Disagreement between Luck Egalitarians and Relational Egalitarians” [Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 36 Supplement (Dec. 2010), 1-23], which outlines several key differences in our understandings of justice. In my view, justice is fundamentally about interpersonal claim making; that is, what things are we entitled to demand and exact from other people? There’s a long tradition of defining justice in this way. You can find it in Adam Smith, in John Stuart Mill, and indeed in Rawls. On that view, principles of justice essentially regulate interpersonal claims—claims that real people are actually making. The luck egalitarians have a different conception of justice that is more consequentialist, in the sense not of utilitarianism, but of justice as a pattern of distribution that may exist in the world or not.

One of the common responses to my critique of the luck egalitarians in that essay was, in effect, “We never addressed whether this was a good idea to implement! Maybe it would be bad to actually implement luck egalitarian principles and social policy, but we’re just talking about what’s just.” You see that also in Gerry Cohen’s famous critique of Rawls in his book. So the luck egalitarians are not thinking of justice as essentially a set of principles to govern interpersonal claim making.

My response is: then you’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about something else. You’re talking, perhaps, about a state of affairs that you approve of, or think would be desirable. From my point of view, we’re then no longer engaged in political philosophy. Maybe we’re engaged in an aesthetic assessment of patterns of distribution in the world, but I don’t see what that has to do with justice or politics. Politics is essentially about people interacting, making claims and demands on each other, asserting rights and responsibilities, assigning blame, and taking it upon themselves to exact performance from other people.

Art of Theory: Another set of responses to your work has come from proponents of the capabilities approach.

Anderson: That’s right. The thing that I found really rich about the capabilities approach, as developed by people like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, is that it broadens the agenda for thinking about justice beyond distribution. Sen and Nussbaum both make the very important point that the ability of particular individuals to convert resources into valued functionings depends crucially on things like prevailing social norms, as well as on the kind of body that one has.

Take issues of disability, for example. Disabilities can interact with the infrastructure of transportation and communication such that people with various disabilities are unable to convert resources into important functionings like the ability to travel and to communicate with others. That insight helps us to broaden the agenda of justice to include issues like the nature of public infrastructure, the inclusiveness of the economy, and so on. But those aren’t distributive concerns: infrastructure is not distributed bit-by-bit to different individuals, but it’s something that we share in common.

The same goes for norms of discourse. The capabilities approach also helps us think about how people could be unjustly treated according to social norms that impose obstacles to realizing valuable functionings. So we consider, for instance, how the disabled can be stigmatized if others expect them to hide themselves from public view. We can also think about norms that prevent gay, lesbian, and transgender people from operating in the world openly. Finally, norms of communication and discourse have been absolutely central to my research on social epistemology and democracy.

Again, these are social norms, i.e. shared expectations. They’re not bits of stuff to be distributed separately to individual people. They’re part of the shared infrastructure of communication, so to speak, or the social infrastructure of communication. We have norms of discourse that address who is entitled to speak up and whom we should defer to, norms of epistemic authority, norms that determine whose ideas are taken up in conversation and who is neglected and ignored. Norms determine who has credibility. There really are profound considerations of justice at stake here, and they form part of what determines whether or not we have an effectively functioning democracy.

The capabilities approach helps us to understand this. I think that approach is much better equipped than are resource-based approaches to tackle a broader agenda that’s directly concerned with building the conditions for a free society of equals, and hence realizing a relational ideal of equality.

In this vein, one of the things I’ve been interested in pursuing is alternative agendas in the labor movement, many of which have focused on relationships of domination and subordination within the firm, rather than strictly distributive concerns.

Art of Theory: What are the questions about labor that ought to be addressed, in your view?

Anderson: When I was starting to study philosophy in the 1970s, there was greater attention paid to issues of the laboring process itself. In those days, radical economics was a viable branch of economic theory, and I took some courses in it as an undergraduate. I have to admit that when I initially started taking these courses, it was on the principle of “know your enemy.” We were studying these Marxist-inspired theorists, and I hated Marxism. I have never accepted some of the core ideas of Marxist economics; I still think, for example, that the labor theory of value doesn’t make much sense, normatively or analytically.

I was resisting what I was being taught in every possible way, but I was studying it really seriously. And there was one thing that really struck me about what the radical economists were doing that the mainstream economists weren’t: they were actually looking at what work is like. What is it like for an average, working-class person to enter a factory floor as an assembly line operator or machinist? Or what is it like for an office worker? What is it like to be getting orders from your boss? That attention to the actual empirical and lived reality of the laboring process was something completely neglected outside radical circles. There was almost nothing written about it in mainstream economics or in philosophy, except for those philosophers who were inspired by Marx.

In those days, they were talking primarily about alienation, but it wasn’t clear to me that alienation or the meaninglessness of work was really critical. What really turned my head was when I got a summer job at a bank. I was a bookkeeper. It was a pretty collegial office, but one thing that was happening during that era was cubicalization. I happened to be there when this bank moved from an open office format to cubicles. We hated it! While we all took our work seriously and worked efficiently, we would banter. We’d be telling jokes and stories and having a pleasant conversation while we we’re working, and then suddenly the cubicles came up and we were cut off from each other.

Talk about alienation! I really experienced it personally, and the full-time workers were hostile to the head of the bookkeeping department for having inflicted this on us. It also impaired the efficiency of our work. We felt that part of what motivated our cubiclization was that the boss of the bookkeeping department actually did want to separate us, because that was kind of a power move, and it prevented us from communicating our gripes, as well.

So that was a point at which I focused on the fact that adults spend a spectacular percentage of their life at work, and what that’s like is a tremendous concern. Scholars were talking about this in the 1970s. I don’t think “alienation” was really the best vocabulary.

Instead, I try to think in more egalitarian terms about who’s bossing whom. It’s the arrogation of excessive authority that I think is most dangerous, and that can involve invasions of privacy and undignified and humiliating treatment of workers. Such issues need to be put back on the agenda, especially now that labor is so down on its heels and disempowered. I find it shocking that there’s so little talk about labor.

Art of Theory: You’ve also contributed important work in feminist epistemology. Tell us about that work and its political implications.

Anderson: I first started doing research on feminist epistemology after getting tenure. I discovered that the reputation of feminist epistemology had almost nothing to do with what feminist epistemologists were actually writing. The reputation was: it’s about women’s ways of knowing, and some kind of feminine intuition, or the like. I thought that was all nonsense and not really empirically supported, but it turns out that the real, on-the-ground practice of feminist epistemology was entirely different.

What it was really about was the basic observation that knowledge, and experience, is asymmetrical. What people get to know depends on their situation: where they are, when they live, and, crucially, what social roles they occupy. People have contact with different aspects of reality, and that premise is not founded on any kind of skepticism or relativism. The simple insight is that, if you’re a woman in a woman’s role, you’ll have access to information and experiences and perspectives that someone not occupying female gender roles is not going to be familiar with. And that information and those perspectives can be very important for solving a variety of human problems, and they need to be taken seriously.

I see feminist epistemology as basically the study of asymmetries in socially situated knowledge, and the consideration of how we can structure institutions of knowledge generation and communication in order to mobilize neglected local information and perspectives, in order to solve the problems that we face—including, in particular, the problems that women face.

Art of Theory: Clearly, then, the tasks of feminist epistemology as you’ve described them are important to political theory.

Anderson: Yes. I see it as really working hand in hand with democratic theory. One of the fundamental justifications of democracy is precisely that it takes advantage of widely distributed information held by different citizens. Democratic norms of communication and civil society—freedom of press and the like—are all designed to help us mobilize widely dispersed knowledge and utilize it for the solution of collective action problems.

Feminist epistemology reminds democratic theorists that there are various obstacles, arising from gender roles, to creating an effective democracy, because women tend to be placed in subordinated roles in which their voices are neglected or demeaned or misrepresented. So we can see that that’s a more general egalitarian concern. It’s not only women who suffer from these kinds of neglect and denigration: there are other subordinated groups that also suffer in these ways, and hence their knowledge doesn’t receive adequate uptake for the solution of collective action problems, which means that our democracy doesn’t work very well and the solutions that people come up with tend to disproportionately disadvantage the people at the bottom, the people who are subordinated or excluded from society.

Art of Theory: Your most recent book, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton UP, 2010), explores the relationship between inequalities of social and economic resources with social group identities. Why do these two always seem to go together?

Anderson: That is a place where my methodology of doing political philosophy is indispensable.

Here is a phenomenon that a lot of political philosophers are dealing with. There’s a lot of discussion of identity, especially inegalitarian circles, but not so much analysis of how that correspondence between social identities and social inequalities arises. I went out looking for an answer to this and found that the great sociologist Max Weber and his American follower Charles Tilly had come up with a theory of why this happens, that is pretty much made to order for political philosophers.

They argued, with impeccable empirical support, that the reason why socioeconomic inequality tracks social identities has to do with the social closure of privileged groups. If a group manages, perhaps for accidental historical reasons, to acquire a relative monopoly on some resource that is critical for social advancement, they may close ranks so that they only have to share it within their own group. That practice of closing ranks requires a sharpening of identity boundaries, so that outsiders can’t cross in and you don’t have to share those resources with outsiders. And of course monopoly power enhances profit-taking. Even if it’s outside of a purely economic context, the same is true with respect to political power or even spiritual power, as in the monopolization of offices of a church.

Closing ranks enhances the power of the small elite. Another way to put the point is that when privileged groups close ranks, they self-segregate. They separate themselves from less privileged groups in order to monopolize their privilege.

Art of Theory: What are some of the remedies available for addressing that issue of privileged group segregation and inequality?

Anderson: In the book I explain in detail the multiple mechanisms by which self-segregation of the privileged reinforces socioeconomic inequality. There are many, many mechanisms. It is impressive is just how strong the empirical case is once you investigate and see how everything ties together. Some of these mechanisms are material and spatial: people live in different neighborhoods. Some of them are role-based: taking powerful roles and assigning disempowered roles to subordinates. Some of them are social-psychological mechanisms having to do with stereotype formation and distorted norms of communication. They all interact and reinforce each other. But if segregation is the fundamental cause of social group inequality, then it stands to reason that integration is the solution. To undo the cause, you integrate. That’s the core of my book: to explain different policies for promoting integration, with a central case being racial integration in the United States.

I chose that case because we have by far the most richly developed empirical literature on the effects of racial segregation and on the consequences of racial integration. Very impressive empirical work has been done by social scientists on this problem. And we have a lot of experience to draw from about the power of integration to improve the lives of African Americans in this country, and about its power to more fully realize democracy in American society.

Art of Theory: What is the role of that sort of data-rich theorizing in the best sort of political philosophy? More generally, what makes for excellent political philosophy, in your view?

Anderson: I think that is where philosophers ought to be moving. Of course, most philosophers are reluctant to do so, and you know why. Philosophers are still different from political scientists or even political theorists, in that we engage in higher levels of abstraction than most political theorists (though not all of them, by any means).

Nevertheless, in my view, even when you engage in abstraction you have a responsibility to show that this abstraction remains attentive to the underlying problem. Too often—and this is one of the reasons why I object to luck egalitarianism—the dominant modes of abstraction have left us with a set of analytical tools that are inept for addressing so many concerns of justice, having to do with distorted social norms, social segregations, and more. So it’s not that I oppose abstraction. Quite a lot of my own work is pitched at a fairly abstract level. But I want the abstraction to be apt for addressing the problems and issues at hand, and that requires, in the first instance, having a clearer sense of the empirical dimensions of those problems.

Art of Theory: From what sources, outside of philosophy, do you draw inspiration for your work?

Anderson: I read pretty widely in all of the social sciences. And I’m also now moving pretty deeply into history. These days, I probably read more outside of philosophy than inside—much as I earlier described the philosophers of science as doing. The philosophical puzzles arise from reflection on the work of other disciplines. And that’s mostly what I’m doing these days.

Art of Theory: What about the career of being a philosopher do you wish you had known when you got started? Put differently, what about your job has most surprised you?

Anderson: It took me a long time to realize what it was like to be the only woman in my department. Philosophy remains far behind the other humanities in integrating women into the profession. It’s quite stunning if you look at the statistics: we have lower representation of women than even the natural sciences. There are far more women in biology, for instance, and even in some places where you might not expect—astrophysics, I think. There are more women in astrophysics than in philosophy. So that’s really weird.

As a graduate student, I was pretty oblivious to these kinds of considerations. And John Rawls had quite an excellent reputation for sending successful women off into the profession, so to a certain degree I may have been insulated from those concerns. But it was a shocker taking my first permanent position in the philosophy department at University of Michigan, and finding that I was the only woman. Since then my department has changed dramatically for the better, and now there are several women among the faculty, and the chair of my department is a woman.

It’s been a huge sea change. But we’re talking about 25 years later. It took a lot of time, and quite a lot of internal struggle, to reach that point. Now I think we’re in an excellent position; we also have a lot of successful women graduate students. Now we’re working hard to bring in more women at the undergraduate level. Still, philosophy has a lot of work to do on this issue; other disciplines have managed it more successfully.

Art of Theory: Tell us about your work space and work habits.

Anderson: I think of myself as a Boeing 747 or one of these giant planes. You need a 1,000-foot runway before you can take off. But once you take off, you can cruise for an unbelievable number of hours! Fly to Japan without refueling. That’s sort of what it’s like for me.

First, I have to be reading a huge amount and thinking a huge amount. It takes me a long time before I can start writing words down. Things have to be tumbling around in my head long before I actually start writing. And then it takes me a long time. I’ll sit down on my computer chair and I’m surrounded with books and I’m thinking. Writing the first page, for me, is always by far the most difficult task. Once I get past page one—and by “page one” what I really mean is the setup, setting up the problem, stating my thesis, and sketching out how I’m going to execute the argument, all of which is usually more than just a page—then I’m in flight.

And then I can sustain writing for a really, really long time. I am lucky to have a very, very long attention span. So I can keep concentrating for hours and hours on end, which is very useful if you’re in writing mode.

Art of Theory: What does the initial process look like for you? What materials are you dealing with?

Anderson: The paper piles up and gets unwieldy, so these days I’m trying to keep as much of my reading as possible in electronic form. I almost never will deal with an actual paper article or a paper journal. I’ll get it online and I’ll take very extensive notes on it in my computer program. Even books now—I’ve got my Kindle. Whenever I can, I’m, highlighting and taking notes and storing them on my Kindle. That’s been great, because then I don’t have to go searching. I know it’s on my Kindle and so only have to keep track of one item.

Art of Theory: What’s on your horizon? What are you working on next?

Anderson: I’ve taken a historical turn, as I mentioned earlier. In my last book, I was deeply embedded in the social sciences—especially economics, sociology, and social psychology. But now I’m writing a history of egalitarianism from the Levellers to the present—it’s a big picture kind of history. Part of it will be intellectual history. I’ve found that intellectual historians are really great because they tell you who influenced whom, and who was reading whom. They’re also fantastic about the social setting in which ideas are arising, the social context, and that just makes things marvelously clear.

Beyond the intellectual history, I’m also reading social history, political history, and especially focused on political demands arising from below. That’s why I’m starting with the Levellers. Many of them were members of the New Model Army; they’re soldiers in the English Civil War. They’re not intellectuals. A lot of them were pamphleteers—they wrote—but they certainly weren’t academic philosophers. They didn’t have academic appointments and they weren’t clergy; they didn’t have offices, except in the Army. So theirs are demands being made by common people, and luckily we have records of them, and they’re making arguments. They’re making claims. This stuff is incredibly rich and interesting, politically. So I’m wandering well beyond the standard philosophical canon. I’m reading all kinds of stuff that philosophers don’t usually read and finding an incredible wealth of ideas.

This of course links up to the work that I’ve done in feminist epistemology, and social epistemology more generally. There are sorts of knowledge that exist all over the place, not just among intellectuals. We have to listen to them, recover their voices, and consider what claims they were making in the context in which they were struggling. In a way, this historical research is enacting a program in feminist, naturalized social epistemology, for the purposes of writing a history of egalitarian thought.

It’s also deeply influenced by pragmatism. The idea behind pragmatism is that much learning takes place by putting your moral principles into practice and considering whether you can live with the consequences. What we see is a lot of egalitarian experiments out there, some of them highly successful. One chapter I’m working on is a history of social insurance, which I think has been a tremendous success and a huge boon for democracy and for human welfare. Although it’s still an experiment in construction and an ongoing process, I think it is by and large a successful experiment in living.

We have other egalitarian experiments of living that haven’t turned out so well. Repeatedly in the history of egalitarian thought, people think, “Let’s live in a commune. That’s how we’re really going to be equal.” You look at what actually happens in these communes, and most of the time they fall apart. There are some long-lived communes, but when you investigate the details, what you often (though not always) find is that these are not egalitarian at all. They’re held together perhaps by some charismatic leader who is carefully closing off everyone’s relations to the outside world, so that he can control them. Or perhaps they’re bound together by some bizarre sort of religious superstition. So it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be: for the vast majority of people, communal living is not something they care to pursue for more than a couple of years.

Art of Theory: What can modern egalitarians learn from the history of egalitarianism?

Anderson: It’s not unlike studying the history of science, which allows us to understand, say, the development and refinement of experimental techniques. We can do that sort of thinking about experiments in living, as well. We can learn from both the successes and the failures. And becoming more reflective about our history can help us to understand why we are where we are today, since much of that has to do with path dependency.

It’s not as if all possible futures are open to us. We are constrained by the past and we have to come to grips with those constraints, and become more conscious about where we are, so that we can better chart feasible paths forward. At the same time, if we see egalitarians continually going back to experiments that, in fact, have been done before, it helps to know that history. For example, communal ways of life, although they are constantly called upon to symbolize ideal egalitarian relations, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, experience shows. Perhaps such history can help us to avoid similar failures in the future.