Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics:In It To Win It: Is Prize-giving Bad for Philosophy? Written by Rebecca Buxton

This essay received an Honorable Mention in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Rebecca Buxton

We live in a culture of prize-giving. The Nobel Prize, the Medal of Honour, the Man Booker and, not least, the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. But, in giving such prizes, and indeed prize money, we operate under the assumption that prizes are ‘good’. However, the fact that I am offered a prize for writing
a practical ethics paper is itself a practical ethical conundrum. This essay takes a preliminary amble into the ethical problem of prize-giving with regards to Philosophy specifically, offering reasons as to why we should question current practice. Primarily, I will define what we mean by the term ‘prize’ noting its
necessary and sufficient features. Secondly, I discuss the impact of prize-giving on research, considering how the ramifications of ascribing value through prizes affects the course of academia, especially when focusing on the lack of diverse voices within the subject. I then consider the deeper question of philosophical value: does the very act of constructing an ethical argument for a prize diminish the value of the work?

Though prize-giving is prolific in our current institutional culture, we lack any analytically clear literature on what constitutes a ‘prize’. There is, however, some work focusing on the philosophical concept of ‘the gift’, most notably Derrida’s argument that the ‘true’ gift is impossible as we can never eliminate the possibility of the counter-gift.[1] Unlike gifts, prizes depend upon a reciprocal process; you receive a prize in virtue of being or doing something. Therefore, it appears that prizes ascribe value to a piece of work, an act, an object etc. That value, however, need not necessarily be positive (consider the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building). The value of this award is instead determined contextually – it is based on the history of the award, who it is awarded by, as well as who it has been awarded to in the past. The prize itself may, of course, come in many forms: a title, money, a medal. What is important is that the prize is competitive, though not necessarily competitive in the intentions of the potential winners. That is, the prize must be competitive in that it is selective; a prize that everyone wins is not a prize- if everyone is special then no one is. Indeed, this idea of scarcity incurs much of the value on the prize; if 50,000 Nobel prizes were given out each year, their value would be greatly lowered. Thus, when giving a positive prize we state not only that the recipient is valued b ut that their work or contribution is more valuable than someone else’s. Prize-giving establishes a hierarchy of value based on the subjective opinions of the prize givers. It is this value hierarchy that, I will suggest, adversely affects the overall project of philosophy.

You might be wondering at this point why I think it is practically important that we think about the ethics of prize-giving. Well, indeed, whether or not prizes are given has various consequences. There are two possible areas of critique here: (a) the competitive ascription of value or (b) the value attached to the prize-giving process. My focus will mainly be on the former, however occasionally the later will come into play. Firstly, we should consider what we mean by value. We shall distinguish here primarily between intrinsic and extrinsic value. Intrinsic value, the idea that something is valuable in itself, is traditionally found at the heart of many moral and political theories. Benthamite Utilitarians take pleasure to be intrinsically valuable for instance; something which is valued for its own sake. On the other hand, extrinsic value is simply defined negatively as not valuable for its own sake. Something may be valuable in this way instrumentally; for instance, philosophy may be valued solely for its practical outcomes, rather than being valued in its own right. This focus on extrinsic value may also have a strong social constructivist bent; many argue along these lines that some good only has value insofar as we perceive it to have value. Therefore, some argue that nothing has inherent or intrinsic value but instead only has value because we view it as such.

My overall argument is essentially this: that the forms of extrinsic, contingent value that we attach to prizes can adversely affect the intrinsic value of doing Philosophy. This paper firstly focuses on determining which Philosophy is ‘worthy’ with a discussion of the perpetuation of the current dominant voices in the canon. I then turn to the very act of prize-giving and the effect that this has on the value of Philosophy and education more generally.

We firstly focus on the problem of diversity (or rather, lack of) in Philosophy. Indeed, the competitive aspect of prize-giving may help to establish and perpetuate a problematic value hierarchy. Being the recipient of a prize gives certain voices more credence than others. Many a young philosopher has built her career, or at least a PhD proposal, upon being the recipient of an esteemed prize. Further, a work is likely to be valued more highly when it comes from a ‘prize-winning author’. Indeed, once you have won one prize, you are more likely to enter further competitions, thus being better placed to win more prizes. This system works in tandem with the lack of prizes for more diverse areas of philosophy which leads to the reinforcement of the current intellectual status quo. There are very few prizes exclusively for non-Western Philosophy and apparently no prizes exclusively for non-white academics for instance. Lack of diversity in general is an endemic problem across the subject. The Equality Challenge Unit found the Philosophy is one of the least diverse non-STEM subjects, with men holding 71% of university posts.[2] There is also a large dropout rate in Philosophy from generally under-represented groups. The American Philosophy Association found that BME students make up around 12% of total undergraduates but only 5% of doctoral students.[3] Where Philosophy is still a largely white, Eurocentric subject, those who fit within this canon are more likely to succeed. Therefore, not only does this have the consequence of altering who may get funding, it also affects the type of philosophy that we privilege and explore. This has the practical effect of blocking certain voices from the discussion; voices that are already missing from our philosophical landscape. These voices should not only be valued in themselves, but diversity is also conducive to better, more fruitful philosophy; with a broad array of backgrounds and ideas, we will facilitate new and innovative answers to philosophical puzzles. Therefore, even if prize-giving in itself was found to be unproblematic, current practice perpetuates institutional barriers against those voices outside the canon.

This problem of the lack of diversity in Philosophy is clearly not solely maintained by prize-giving, however given the likelihood of more privileged white writers being familiar with the dominant Western Philosophical canon, diverse voices are often further silenced by the practice. Even in the early stages of
education, children are also subject to prize-giving programs whereby the more ‘successful’ children are singled out. This system has lead to programs in American school whereby young students are essentially paid when they achieve high-grades in order to incentivise hard work. Not only does this create and
perpetuate the obvious hierarchy whereby less privileged children are less likely to be singled out for good behaviour, it also sours the very goal of the school system. As Sandel notes, surely the use of money as an incentive in this way devalues the overall project of education.[4]

This devaluation will be our second focus; how does the culture of prize-giving lead to the overall commodification of philosophy? Aside from this value hierarchy that may be perpetuated by our practice of prize-giving, there is also the issue of the value of philosophy and education itself. My own argument is similar to one of Sandel’s core conclusions in What Money Can’t Buy: namely, that the practice of ‘buying and selling’ certain services corrupts their value.[5] Of course, prize-giving is different from buying in some important ways. Firstly, if one could physically buy an award, such as the Nobel Prize, this would greatly reduce its value.[6] This is because, as discussed earlier, whether or not a prize is valuable depends on certain contextually dependent elements. The Nobel Prize as a physical object is not valuable, instead it is the act of achievement that is desirable and therefore noteworthy; the prize itself is merely a recognition of such an achievement. Though the ‘buying’ of prizes in this way is not possible if you wish to maintain their value, what is notable here is that the introduction of money may further devalue the overall project that prize-giving hopes to promote. Indeed, if a student writes a practical ethics essay solely for the purpose of winning the £300 prize, does she devalue the overall project of what it means to do Philosophy?

It is not clear that this argument can successfully stand its ground. Firstly, given that other accolades, such as publications and professorships, can be conceptualised as prizes it not clear that anyone is capable of undertaking ‘pure’ Philosophy. Here we should make a distinction between the value of the philosophy itself and the value of doing philosophy. Whilst the actual work of philosophy may be extremely valuable having been written for prize money there is something disconcerting about doing philosophy in the name of the prize. Indeed, this is exacerbated depending on the type of philosophy that you write. If I write a practical ethics essay on justice only for the sake of gaining an accolade, there seems something unjust about my very writing the paper (especially if I agree with the diversity argument given above). There is something disingenuous about the philosophy student who does not do philosophy at least on some level for the sake of doing philosophy. The discussion thus far leads us to the question of the commodification of the university system, as well as education more broadly. In acting within a capitalist system as a private institution, the university aims to make maximum profit and therefore loses its focus on the inherent value of education; “…knowledge [is viewed] as a commodity…and education as a path to income generation that must be privatized and made profitable in order for it to be maintained effectively”.[7] Where education is sold off in this way, the value of knowledge in itself is no longer cherished. I do not mean to suggest that the introduction of money or value whatsoever corrupts every attempt to undertake ‘pure’ philosophical reasoning. Indeed, very good philosophy can be elicited at gunpoint, or in the throws of student finance.

This essay has aimed to begin a discussion concerning the ethics of the practice of prize-giving. We have considered what it means for something to be a prize and argued that its problems may be twofold: (a) the prize-giving system may value the privileged voices of those who fit with the conventional canon therefore perpetuating the non-diversity of philosophy and (b) the very act of entering a prize for the prize may undermine the inherent value of Philosophy and the value of education. The success of the first argument entails that Philosophy prizes, and indeed, academic prizes altogether must make a greater effort to reach a diverse and marginalised audience. The second argument was harder to defend as it entailed that, within our current institutionalised system, almost no Philosophy is ever ‘pure’. However, I believe this essay has shown that the involvement of prizes and other accolades in academia need to be questioned and are indeed an area of ethical concern.


1 Champetier, Charles (2001), ‘The Philosophy of The Gift: Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger’, Angelika, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 15-20

2 Equality Challenge Unit (2014), ‘Equality in Higher Education Statistical Report’, avaliable at: http://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2014/ 

3 American Philosophical Association Report (2009), Minorities in Philosophy, avaliable at: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/data_on_profession/minorities_in_philosophy.pdf

4 Sandel, Michael (2012), What Money Can’t Buy, Penguin: London, 110

5 Sandel, 2012, 36: 110-113

6 Volberg, Michael (2015), ‘What Money Could Buy: A Reply to Michael Sandel’ in Problemos, Issue No. 88, 171

7 Caffentzis, George, ‘Academic Freedom and the Crisis of Neoliberalism: Some Cautions.’ Review of African Political Economy, 106, 599-608.

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