Skip to content

Female Philosophers and Sexual Harassment

I’ve been reading, for a research project, about a group of remarkable philosophers who were educated in Oxford during and after World War II: some went on to teach at Oxford.  They include Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock.

Several of them, it transpires, were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel.  In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment.

What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behaviour seems to have had on the young women he pawed over.  Warnock writes that she had never ‘after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behaviour seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us’.  Iris Murdoch concurred.  Just imagine a female student today writing, ‘Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…’..

Miranda Fricker argues that where an invidious attitude or practice is widespread, those guilty of having such an attitude or engaging in such a practice should not be held as blameworthy as they ought to be if the attitude or practice were (correctly and widely) seen as morally unacceptable. Thus we are not to hold the chauvinist pig or sexual harasser or casual racist of 1951 to the same standards as the chauvinist pig or sexual harasser or casual racist of 2011. 

Perhaps, in their reaction to Fraenkel, the philosophers I’ve been reading about are not representative of his other victims: Warnock mentions one student for whom the effect was deep and long-lasting.  But there’s another interpretation….

The evolution of a moral norm will, hopefully, have the huge beneficial impact of reducing the number of violations of that norm.  When it’s generally regarded as inappropriate for a professor to make sexual advances to a student, there will be fewer professors who do it.  But, perversely, it’s possible that, at a time when such behaviour was so much more commonplace, students felt less violated by it than they would today.  Altering the norm means that when a violation of the norm occurs, the harm might be all the greater. 


Share on

10 Comment on this post

  1. I think something needs to be added to this analysis… After all, in Nazi Germany, it was commonplace for Jews to be exterminated, but I wouldn't say that the harm was less since it had sadly become the norm. If anything, the harm was greater because it was the norm.

    Maybe we can make a distinction between two kinds of ethical transgressions, those who harm grows exponentially because of its commonality, and those who harm lessens because of its commonality (but would never vanish because of its universal acceptance). But how we could distinguish one from the other, I'm not entirely sure.

  2. This is a very high risk subject to write about, Dave, and I agree that it is possible that altering the norm means that when a violation of the norm occurs, the harm might be all the greater. 
    I believe that part of the answer is that the reaction to all crime is in part socially conditioned, and that this is particularly so in the case of sexual crime. Part of the problem with dealing with, for example, pedophiia, is that the psychological reactions of the victim can be amplified by well-meaning but over-reactive responses. This is NOT to argue that pedophilia is  not a serious problem, but merely that simplistic over-reaction can actually make it much worse for the victim. 
    (This intuition goes furtherthan merely citing the prevalence of invidious practices to explain the reaction of victims.)
    Regarding unwanted sexual  avance by Oxford dons, I am not surprised that women who were able to defend themselves, psychologically as well as (presumably) physically, bore no malice to their tutor. This is in no way a defence of his actions, merely a statement that there are no fixed absolutes in the hierarchy of bad actions. 

  3. I don't think your sample is representative. The women you cite were terrific philosophers.* It's likely that people who are endowed with fantastic natural gifts and generous dollops of confidence are better positioned to shrug this sort of thing off than those who are less capable and less confident. I think there are especially reasons to think that a lack of confidence might exacerbate the effects of harassment/discrimination. So I think you might want to be careful about drawing general inferences from such a specific and high-powered sample.

    But I broadly agree with the point you draw from Fricker – there are a lot of background norms that do a lot of work in our relationships with the world, and expecting everyone to police all of these at once isn't realistic. We all use heuristics and shortcuts to get around and some of these may end up being unfair on people.** Pretty much all of us have blind spots. But I agree that it's one thing to have the same blind spots as a lot of other people by habit or by default. That can of course do harm. But it seems nastier just because of the premeditation involved to wilfully cultivate blind spots in areas to which attention has been widely drawn.

    *I'm a particular fan of Mary Midgely, who wrote one of my all-time favourite articles: Duties Concerning Islands.
    **I frequently hear otherwise careful and thoughtful academics making sweeping, dismissive and essentially hateful claims about groups such as Daily Mail readers, "Middle England", Tories and US Republicans, for instance, that strike me as unfair, supercilious and hypocritical. Certainly some of the language regarding the intelligence and moral bankruptcy of these groups would be regarded as unacceptable if it were applied to other groups, regardless of whether membership of these groups was a matter of choice (eg political party membership), habit (newspaper readership) or randomness (being born into "Middle England" or a "fly-over state").

  4. Forgive me if i'm missing a trick with the general thrust of this argument, but I think something may be a amiss or overlooked at least. The thing I want to question is the inference that the harm is somehow less if the accompanying moral norm is not yet established or socially accepted. One could look at this a different way. Just because a moral norm is not established does not necessarily mean less harm to the victim. On the contrary, it 'could' even mean more harm, insofar that the would be victim would have to 'suffer in silence' and not have the solace that their feelings of indignation, abuse etc, were in fact morally approriate and backed up by soceity. Perhaps one may want to bring a temporal dimension into the mix, in that perhaps 'initially' the harm maybe less due to the non-establishment of the moral norm, but over time (due to soceital ignorance) the harm may become more psychologically damaging. Forgive me, if i'm being a bit abstract, but the example I have in mind–or trying to imagine at least–was when rape was more commonplace and even normalised.

    1. I agree. I imagine how these women might have rationalized to themselves what was happening to them. I wonder how it affected their sense of self-worth. These women said it was okay, and that it didn't bother them much after the first time. Many women today who are victims of long-term sexual harassment say the same thing- that it's okay, they deserve it, that he still loves them. Part of continual sexual harassment is the power dynamic in the relationship, where the victim comes to accept they have lost rights over their own body. I suppose it would be easier in some ways to experience sexual assault back then, because you wouldn't be expected to deal with it personally and to overcome it. In other ways, I think it would be horrible to never deal with the personal demons it might have brought, and to believe your whole life that you deserved it.

  5. Thanks Wayne, Anthony, Dave and Kristopher for your comments.

    Yes, I guess a risky subject to write about, but then what's the point of a blog if not on occasion to cover provocative topics….

    I should have been more careful to distinguish two types of harm: we can be harmed if a friend betrays us, even if we never discovered the betrayal. Then there are subjective (psychological) harms.

    I should have stressed that I was talking about subjective harms. I didn't claim that changes in any moral norm will have the perverse effect I discussed: but that it's possible for some shifts in norms. I guess this matter can be settled empirically. Might a racist comment now have greater psychological impact than it did half a century ago?

    1. It may be a mistake to equate the 1951 racist offense to the 2011 racist offense as the same sort of action or event. In 2011 it is most obviously clear that you are victim than sixty year earlier. There is harm in both but it is only in one that you are socially seen as a victim. And being a victim might involve a substantive moral difference: a serious psychological effect on your self-worth. This is Jonathan Wolff's rumination on what it might be wrong with being the object of crime or offense (Ethics & public policy, 115-6). Being a victim would involve feelings of humiliation and shame or being the object of other's pity. Interesting.

  6. There might be a connection to the old personal argument on corporal punishment that says "I was beaten as a child, and it never did me any harm!" Being beaten in circumstances where everyone else is being beaten is probably considerably better than being beaten when it's only you. When you're alone, you have no shared support with other kids, and you must feel singled out for such terrible, unique treatment.

  7. Indeed we should not shy from discussing such topics just because they are "risky". That would be cowardice.

    To me it is obvious that the subjective harm of abuse will be influenced by society's norms in the matter. Anthony and Stuart have pointed out ways in which the harm (per incidence of course, not overall) may be increased with a stricter societal attitude: respectively, well-meaning but over-reactive responses, and the increased feeling of having been "singled out". Kristopher points out a possible opposite effect, whereby the victim gets more support (in particular moral support) from society.

    As David says this is in principle an empirical matter, and the ethical implications will depend on one's ethical framework. On that I still think rule utilitarianism is the way to go, with all the caveats that we've discussed over various threads. In this context, I have a lot of sympathy Anthony's point about well-meaning over-reactive responses. I don't see anyone here wanting to question that the shift in norms in this matter is a good thing, but we live in a deeply neurotic society, and I have the feeling that our attitude to sexual crimes and misdemeanours tends to reflect that especially.

Comments are closed.