Interview with Laura Purdy

This is the next in my series of interviews with my favorite women in philosophy, and a few others that have been recommended to me (see the intro to my interview with Susan Haack for why I am running this series and how you can help me, and the intro to my interview with Elizabeth Anderson for a bit more on that). This was composed two weeks ago but has been awaiting a time slot to go up on my blog.

Today I’m speaking with Laura Purdy, who was until just recently (she is now retired) Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Wells College, NY (see her brief bio at IHEU). She is best known for her books In Their Best Interest? The Case against Equal Rights for Children (Cornell 1992), which is one of the only fully-articulated defenses there are of the principle (which we normally take for granted) that children do not (and should not) have the same rights as adults; and Reproducing Persons: Issues in Feminist Bioethics (Cornell 1996), which is now one of the classical texts in the area of abortion and reproductive rights [for more see her cv].

Purdy’s work in feminism and bioethics has influenced me (especially on abortion, women’s rights, children’s rights, and the right to die), but I confess was not on my radar when developing this series (she was just one among many philosophers I consulted and benefited from before reaching my own conclusions on these issues; although my conclusions usually did end up very near to hers), until someone suggested I interview her. I thought, quite so! She is not only a significant philosopher but also an unabashed atheist.


Interview with Laura Purdy

R.C.: Thank you so much for taking the time and agreeing to this interview for FreethoughtBlogs. As a philosopher myself, I often encounter the attitude that philosophers are useless to society, not important, they don’t even do anything except dress up opinions in academic language, that philosophy is a career dead-end or a waste of potential (“Why didn’t you become a doctor or a physicist or at least a lawyer something?”). I have my own way of responding to that. But I’m curious about yours. There’s a lot of pain and labor and sacrifice and expense to get all the way to completing a Ph.D., so we have to be really driven by something! So why did you pursue a career in philosophy? And I don’t mean as a teacher, but as a philosopher, actually doing philosophy, not just teaching it.

L.P.: My first philosophy course was such fun! It was the first course I encountered in college where you were free to question sacred cows, like the existence of God. As well, I’d always loved to argue, and here was a place where that trait was valued and encouraged. So I went on to take all the philosophy courses available to me. At the same time, because of my rather limited educational background and life experience, I was relatively unaware of the huge range of possible jobs, and my unusually narrow education prior to college meant that there would have been huge hurdles to some career choices such as medicine. So choosing to go on in philosophy was a result both of the pull of the field and a push toward it by those outside factors. I might well not have stayed in the field had the timing not been right, however: what really excited me were the newly developing areas in applied ethics and political philosophy, especially bioethics.

R.C.: Which brings me to my next question. Of all your work (books and articles), what do you think most represents you and sets you apart as a philosopher? And why that?

L.P.: I would be hard put to choose any one particular book or article, since I think they all reflect the same characteristics that seem to me to distinguish my work from that of many other philosophers. One of those characteristics is my somewhat reckless willingness to let empirical facts and judgments play quite an important role in my arguments. By now, much of the bioethics literature does the same, but at the time I started writing, in the mid-70s, the mainstream view was that philosophy’s role was still primarily to focus on the conceptual issues, unsullied by dependence on such empirical work. Another is my assumption (from the outset) that what mattered was writing in such a way as to be accessible and interesting to intelligent people, regardless of philosophical background. Last, perhaps, I have always written from a feminist perspective, starting with basic assumptions that no morally sensitive person could deny. But I’ve also been committed to finding my own way on the issues, even where that implied disagreement with established feminist positions.

R.C.: I’ve noticed that. Your philosophical empiricism and dependence on science was ahead of its time (and now rightly defines how philosophy should always conduct itself), and I’ve always agreed we should be writing for all educated readers, not just other philosophers (peer reviewers in philosophy still often push back against that principle, to the detriment of their whole field). I’ve also found your pragmatic, analytically sound feminism to be one of many good examples refuting the straw-man stereotype that feminist philosophy is all just a bunch of postmodern wishywash. So I thank you for all of that! What are you working on now? And why that?

L.P.: I’m working on a paper on sex reassignment therapy (working title “A Bioethics Perspective on Sex Reassignment Therapy”). As is often the case, I was drawn into the topic by having been invited to speak on a panel on the topic, so I had some investment in it. But also, I could not find a comfortable position on it, and wanted to be able to reconcile my conflicting intuitions and judgments about these therapies. On the one hand, I believe that health care should address human suffering and advance welfare; given the suffering experienced by those with gender dysphoria, I wanted medicine to find ways to relieve it. But I am also horrified by the invasive and potentially dangerous therapies now on offer. I think the therapies currently in use are hugely invasive, and we do not know the long-term consequences. I think the emphasis should be on using the least invasive therapies, preferably psycho-social ones first.

R.C.: I’m not sure I will agree with you on that. But I’ll look forward to your article. Another thing relevant to your focus on feminism is the position and treatment of women in your field, so I have a few questions relating to that (inspired by the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog, a project of the Women in Philosophy Task Force at MIT). In the process of becoming a philosopher, and now in being a philosopher, have you met with any particular difficulties or annoyances because you are a woman?

L.P.: Yes, although for me, the issues were worse at the beginning of my career. I was not a member of the real pioneering women philosophers of the 50s and 60s, coming along, as I did, in the 70s. So there was a small precedent then for women in philosophy, although I still felt much like a square peg in a round hole. Graduate school radicalized me. I was the only woman in my class admitted into the Ph.D. program, and there was one woman admitted in the class after mine. Both of us were required to sign statements that we would never ask for money from the school (I don’t know [why]; [but] they did relent pretty quickly when I asked to be a TA and RA). There were no women faculty for my first year or so. The whole vibe was thoroughly male, and at one point I was in a small group of men that the department chair addressed as “gentlemen.”

Once out of school and in a postdoc, I was both valued, but also treated as naïve (which I was), and as lacking understanding of what was philosophy and what wasn’t. Once I was established in my position at Wells College, in most ways things got better. On the one hand, it was a women’s college, and there was a lot of support in the administration for the kind of work I thought was worth doing. Because my school is so small and my only colleague in philosophy was a woman, I was spared the kind of sexist harassment experienced by some other female philosophers. On the other, the feminist movement in academe was growing by leaps and bounds, and even in that laggard [field of] Philosophy, women (and our organizations) were an increasing presence. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that I was in a relatively comfortable bubble from which it would have been difficult to break out into the more mainstream world of the field.

R.C.: Do you think more women should pursue advanced degrees in philosophy? And what would you tell women that might inspire them to do that?

L.P.: In principle, yes: plenty of women have philosophical minds, and it’s good for the field to be challenged by what is often a different take on things. But practically speaking, I have always told students that they should pursue philosophy only if that’s the only path to happiness for them, given the ever-increasing difficulties facing those who want to try to earn a living in the liberal arts. So I don’t encourage women (or men) to go on in philosophy (unless they want to do it for its own sake), although I think that I have been a model that has led a few young women to follow my path.

R.C.: What advice would you give to women already aspiring to be philosophers?

L.P.: Know what you are getting into—there are many more woman-friendly fields available.

R.C.: That’s unfortunate, but I see what you mean. Although more women in the field is probably what it needs to make it more woman-friendly, you really do need to be passionate about it, and know what you’ll face. Of course, such knowledge can be imparted, while passion is a function of seeing the potential in a thing. Which brings me back to my opening subject and explore the future of philosophy in general. Do you see philosophers as “useful” to society? In what ways?

L.P.: Yes and no. It looks to me as if many philosophers are talking only to each other, and about topics that are extremely remote from the problems facing humanity, which I don’t see as particularly useful. However, those of us who take up topics that are relevant to society, and who write accessibly about them, could be very useful. . . if intelligent laypersons read us and thought about what we have to say. Unfortunately, it appears that reasoned viewpoints are barely relevant in policy-making any more.

R.C.: Amen to all that. Many of us have been saying that for years! When I do, one of the pushbacks I get is the claim that no one needs to read philosophy because it’s all just “dressing up opinions in academic language.” I have my own answer. But how do you react to that?

L.P.: Well, obviously, some philosophy is just that. But the best work does genuinely explore alternative views about specific issues, and, hopefully, goes on to show why one of them is the solidest, where that’s the case.

R.C.: Okay. Now for the Big Question at FtB. Do you identify as an atheist, or with any particular religion or worldview?

L.P.: I do see myself as an atheist. For me, that means that there is no evidence, and considerable counter-evidence, for anything like an all-powerful, all-knowing, good creature. However, if life in the universe is widely distributed, it’s quite possible that creatures more powerful and decent than us have evolved elsewhere and we might come to know about them.

R.C.: Indeed!

That reminds me of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A corollary would be: Any sufficiently advanced species is indistinguishable from God. Not in being able to be everywhere at once and do literally anything at will (in defiance of Clarke’s First Law, I suspect that the physics of this universe will make that impossible), but in being able to create (and thus govern) their own universe (in which they are everywhere at once and can do any logically possible thing at will). We will probably be such a species some day. We will then face profoundly serious ethical questions that right now we don’t seem prepared to handle well. Just imagine any average billionaire today being empowered to create his own universe and play god in it. It’s hard to imagine it will go well for anyone inhabiting it.

That will only change if we become more ethically serious as a species. Which I think will have a lot to do with whether we cast off faith-based and superstitious thinking, and more widely inculcate skeptical and critical thinking in its place, plus a more abiding sense of humanism. Which in turn depends a lot on what we atheists do to make that happen (since no one else seems all that keen on it). Which brings me to my next question. Knowing that thousands of atheists are reading this–in fact you have an audience of thousands of them at this very moment–what do you most want to say to them?

L.P.: Stick to your considered opinions, and don’t let the opposition wear you down. None of which precludes taking on as allies religious individuals who share your values. I’d like for atheists all to be humanists (where that assumes basic feminism as well), and to work tirelessly for the welfare of humans and other sentient beings. This would lead to a very different world from the one that is being constructed now.

R.C.: Which brings me to my concern over the future of philosophy.

In 2001 Mario Bunge wrote a book called Philosophy in Crisis, in which he outlined ten ways philosophy was failing as a field, ten ways in which philosophy had lost its way. His basic point was that philosophy used to be more relevant to the common man, more engaged with the real world, and more interested in making progress in its conclusions. Before I read that book I had come to some of the same conclusions on my own, and I have since read some other things making similar points, and I’ve heard the same from others both inside and outside the field. So I’m always curious what professional philosophers think about this.

Not all of Bunge’s complaints are of equal worry or true of all philosophers. But some of them do seem to be worrying trends that have sapped the relevance out of philosophy for most of the public. It would be too much to talk about them all. So I’ll just pick two of the five or so that I find most important.

The first is that philosophers are no longer building worldviews.

Instead, it seems like all we have are isolated specialists, who don’t do any work in establishing the foundations even for their specialty. Aristotle wrote on epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics and sought to integrate them all into a coherent system, so that each could rest on the foundation of the other, and if they couldn’t, he knew he had to adjust one or the other. Other philosophical schools then built their own systems and debated whether theirs was closer to the truth than his. But no one does this anymore. (I’m pretty sure my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism [AuthorHouse 2005] is the only one of its kind in nearly a century.)

Why are philosophers no longer doing this? Shouldn’t they be?

L.P.: Why aren’t we doing it? I suspect a number of reasons. At least one is the need to publish a lot to get and maintain standing in the field, and these bigger issues take more time to mature. Another is that it’s hard work, and very hard to get it right. Certainly, any time I’ve ventured beyond rather narrow issues to try to make more sweeping claims, the criticism has been so intense that it just doesn’t seem worth it. So, it probably is worth doing, but the costs are quite high.

R.C.: Bunge’s second most worrying point (to me, at least) was that philosophers aren’t defending any standard of progress in their field. I would assume anyone committed to logic should agree that a conclusion reached by logically valid argument from premises whose truth is highly probable should be agreed upon as most probably the correct conclusion. For example, it can be proven that “free will” can be defined in various ways, and that on some of those definitions, given present scientific facts, “free will” almost certainly exists, and on others it almost certainly does not (and only new scientific evidence could change either conclusion).

So my next questions are: Shouldn’t conclusions reached by logically valid argument, from premises that are agreed to be very probably true, be considered by all philosophers as resolved? Couldn’t we just catalogue all this progress as “established philosophy,” on some website perhaps, so philosophers can build on that, rather than having to reinvent the wheel over and over again? Or is there no such thing as progress in philosophy?

L.P.: It would be neat to have such a website. And, pretty eye-opening and provocative to see what people think are compellingly solid arguments—as well as whether (and on what grounds) they would be seen as starting points for additional argument. There certainly are positions that are as solid as you can get, and we should accept them, but I also suspect that in a society as pluralistic is the US, that’s virtually never going to happen.

R.C.: True. But then, that describes science, too: our society can’t agree even on the well-established facts of reality (like vaccines, global warming, evolution), even whole institutes of degreed intellectuals exist to argue against them. So I don’t really see that as a concern. We can still have creationists alongside progress in evolution science. Philosophy can likewise leave its own naysayers in the dust while those who accept fact-based standards of progress move on. So as I see it, a significant number of philosophers just need to band together and start doing this.

But that’s just my soapbox. What about you? Do you yourself see anything about the way philosophy is done today that could be changed for the better?

L.P.: When I first opened my philosophical eyes, people were making the point that it’s neither philosophically nor desirable in human terms for discussion to be conducted on the model of war. I don’t see that that has changed much in mainstream philosophy, where the goal still seems to be to crush any opposing view.

R.C.: Could you expand on that? What should philosophers be doing differently in this respect? Considering that debate is always going to be in some measure conflict-modeled and some positions are so bad they can and should be “destroyed” by conclusive demonstration, what is the difference between that, and what philosophers “shouldn’t” be doing, or should do differently?

L.P.: I agree, we are debating positions and claims. And, obviously, some positions are so absurd it’s hard to be polite. But overall, arguments can be couched either in gentle terms, based on the effort to try to understand why the opposition might be saying what it is, or in contemptuous terms. The latter is all too common–even in feminist writing, as I discovered to my horror early on. But I also got some very good coaching about being an editor early on. All of us have been on the receiving end of readers’ reports that focus solely on what the reader sees as problems, not an even handed recognition of what they see as strong or weak–and that dismiss the work on the basis of what they see as weak, instead of making constructive suggestions about improvements.

R.C.: You’re right, I have seen that, too. Okay. Changing gears. There is one last off-the-wall question I have. Imagine the world is about to face a cataclysm. Humanity will survive it, but almost all information will be lost, except for a collection of books that are being sent into space to return in a hundred years. You are appointed as the representative for the field of philosophy. You are allowed to put three books in that capsule. What are they?

L.P.: Not an easy question! But I might plump for JS Mill’s Subjection of Women [1869], David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals [1751], and Mary Anne Warren’s Gendercide [1985].


  1. Alscepius says

    >>I’m pretty sure my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism [AuthorHouse 2005] is the only one of its kind in nearly a century.

    You didn’t actually say that to her did you?

    • says

      Wrote, yes. It was in the questionnaire she responded to. The only thing that comes close is Bunge’s eight volume Treatise on Basic Philosophy, and even that was incomplete in respect to describing a fully integrated worldview (e.g. no volumes on politics or aesthetics).

      But if you know of any book (or set of books) that attempts to describe a complete, fully integrated worldview covering (and thoroughly linking together in a coherent fashion) all six Aristotelian categories (epistemology, science, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics–a complete integration of which also requires at least basic theories of semantics and metaethics), do let me know.

  2. says

    Being an atheist is useless to me. As a matter of fact, I have never met a REAL atheist. Every person I’ve met who claims to be an atheist ALWAYS turns out to be an agnostic..just like me!! Indeed one can go to YouTube and type “Ben Stein interviews Richrad Dawkins” in the search box and biologist and atheist evangelical Dawkins, when pressed by my Jewish brother Ben Stein, finally admits he is not an atheist after all. Richard Dawkins admits that he has NO idea how the universe got here and/or began and that he does not know how life came to be on this planet, says neither does anyone else & I guess that also means my buddy here Dr. Carrier.. and even admits that the wild theory of scientists such as Sir Fred Hoyle & Frances Crick that life likely came FROM OUTERSPACE could end up being correct. But the big kicker is: Dawkins is NOT a real atheist. I assume atheists with big balls will just come out and say “there is NO god & that is final. The universe either is eternal or created itself out of nothing..but god is a complete myth & impossible”. But Richard Dawkins disappointed me after years of seeing him with much big talk & fell a few rungs on my ladder of heros when he told Ben Stein about how certain he is that god does not exist.. that on a scale of one to seven, he is a six! Well I might be a 3 or a 4 and Dawkins is a 6. But that is NOT a 7! So no matter how you slice it, Richard Dawkins is NOT a REAL atheist. He is agnostic just like me & the majority of people who claim to be atheist and about half the people, when pressed, who believe in god. The world is full of fat heads and agnostics my good man!

    • Ryan M says

      Your reasoning that “If Dawkins does not know what caused the universe then Dawkins is not an atheist” is rather bad. Take for example three explanatory hypotheses, h1, h2, h3. Let’s say h1 is the hypothesis that Abraham Lincoln shot Kennedy, h2 is that Oswald shot Kennedy, and h3 is that the CIA did it. If we didn’t know whether h2 or h3 were true, it wouldn’t follow that we also don’t know if h1 is false. H1 is obviously false, in fact it has a 0 probability (But let’s pretend it can be a hypothesis). Just like the 3 hypothesis example it can be true that Dawkins might not know which hypothesis is the best regarding the creation of the cosmos but it doesn’t follow from this that he can’t know which ones are false.