“Am I serving myself in the best way I can right now?”

This is my mantra for the rest of the hell that is the 2020 Election.

Sometimes I best serve myself by focusing my energy elsewhere: to a yoga practice, to my coursework, to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender whilst being curled up with my friend.

And sometimes I best serve myself by temporarily quieting my anxiety and refreshing the live election results, just to make sure (again) that nothing decisive has happened yet.

I know this is my first blog post in quite some time but it’s been a gnarly past several weeks. But this mantra, at least, I thought was worth documenting.

2 | “The just life is the happiest life.” Socrates on the proper constitution of the soul

[This is installment 2 in my Ethics 101 project.]

In my first installment, I posed the question: Why be moral?

Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic suggests that this question is difficult to answer because there seem to be prima facie reasons to prefer acting immorally when it benefits us. The problem is that, intuitively, we think of morality as something intrinsically valuable – something that should carry weight in itself, regardless of whether or not it results in good consequences. Saying that one ought to be moral because, and only because, good things come from doing so seems to be a debasement of the idea of morality.

So anyways, this was the challenge posed by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Hundreds of pages later (because Socrates has a tendency to ramble and get sidetracked), we finally get our answer.


As any good philosopher should, Socrates begins his response to Glaucon’s challenge by getting clear on the subject matter. Up until this point I have been using the terms “moral” and “just” somewhat synonymously, and indeed in everyday use we tend to associate one with the other. But Socrates has a very specific conception of justice: each part of a system playing its role and only its role, rather than taking over the role of another part for which it is less suited.

This can be applied generally, for example to a city: Justice in a city is achieved and maintained when everyone in that city knows their role and sticks to it; nobody is attempting to do anything they’re not supposed to do. Those who are best suited to rule are in positions of governmental power, those who are best suited to defend the city are soldiers, and so on for all the different roles a citizen may play.

This conception of justice can also be applied particularly, to individuals. Just like a city, an individual has different “parts” with different ideal functions. This is true in many senses – biologically, for example – but for Plato and Glaucon’s purposes the relevant sense is psychological.

According to Socrates, there are three main parts that make up our psychology (in the Republic he uses the word ‘soul‘): the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. The rational part of our psychology is in charge of weighing the options, making the best decisions for ourselves, and all that good stuff. Pretty intuitive. The appetitive part is also pretty intuitive: it’s the part of our psychology that deals with desire – whether that be hunger, lust, or whatever else one might crave. The spirited part of our psychology is probably the most difficult to grasp, but basically its job is to “help” the rational part. Oftentimes, what we rationally judge to be best for us conflicts with what our appetite craves. Our ‘spirit’ is supposed to help drive us in the direction of what’s rational.

Justice, then, when applied to the individual, means that each part of our psychology is playing the role that it ought to: the rational part is ultimately in charge of making decisions and the spirited part helps ensure this by keeping the appetitive part in check.

Conversely, injustice in an individual is when the parts of our psychology are out of whack; maybe the spirited part isn’t doing its job properly and our appetitive part is calling all the shots or something. I hope it’s immediately obvious to all of us how and why this could be a very bad thing.

So it turns out we do have reason to value justice as justice: we’d be pretty fucked without it! In some cases it may seem like not playing the part we’re supposed to (a law-abiding citizen, for example) can get us ahead, but Socrates thinks this is mistaken. If justice just is the parts of a system working together as they ought to, it’s pretty clear that we ought to want this wherever it can occur – whether it be in a city or in ourselves.


Reading this back to myself, I realize this is a bit anticlimactic. Honestly, I found Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s challenge to be pretty unsatisfying too. In Plato’s defense, the book as a whole has a lot more to say – it was just irrelevant for my current purposes (i.e., the Bib Exam).

Next week I’ll discuss Hobbes’ response to the question “Why be moral?” from his work Leviathan.

Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

Becoming Friends with my Inner Critic

“Inner critic” has been known to mean lots of different things, but my therapist and I use it to refer to that voice inside my head that always has something negative to say – whether it be about my academic performance, my personal relationships, my body image, or something else. We both agree that I have quite the aggressive inner critic, and we’ve been talking a lot about how I can better manage it.

The problem, as she so insightfully put it, is that my inner critic has been the source of a lot of my success. I wouldn’t have gotten my black belt, run marathons, won debate competitions, graduated college summa cum laude, or been accepted to some of the best philosophy PhD programs had I not pushed myself further than most others did. My high standards have always been what sets me apart – and I’m proud of the ways in which they do. Silencing or ignoring my inner critic just doesn’t seem like an attractive option to me.

But I do realize that in the long run having such a vocal and fierce inner critic is harmful to my health and wellbeing, so the solution we’ve (i.e. my therapist and I) have come up with is, rather than trying to rid myself of that vicious voice in my head, to become friends with it. To acknowledge what it’s saying and be able to have a conversation with it. I’m still struggling to find that middle ground, but it’s a start.

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

The Bad Days

Yesterday I was feeling really, really shitty. My mental and emotional state was at a solid -5. Anyways, like I’ve said before, part of my intention in keeping this blog is to honestly document the experiences I have during grad school. So, here’s a transcription of what I wrote in my journal yesternight, as unpolished and raw as it gets:

I woke up at noon with unbearable feelings of depression and anxiety. Actually, I woke up at 8. I was too unmotivated to do anything so I drifted in and out of sleep until noon. Eventually I forced myself out of bed because I had office hours at 2 and class at 4.

I was pretty productive between those hours. No one came to my office hours and I managed to finish up a post for this blog on the ethics of body modification and made some progress on planning my MA thesis. Finally a bit before 4 I dragged myself away from my laptop and headed to class. It was impossible for me to focus. I ended up skipping out halfway through because I was just feeling so terrible and tired. I got home and slept some more.

I finally dragged myself out of bed at 8 pm. Usually when I’m feeling really depressed, doing things helps. I did the dishes and cleaned my room. Then I did laundry. (And folded/put it away right after!) I went for a run, then showered and got ready for bed. Then I lit a candle and did some meditative yoga. I used a guided meditation focused on depression and self-soothing.

Now it’s midnight. I feel a little better. Still shitty, but proud that I was able to engage in these healthy forms of self-care.

It’s so stupid that my life is going great on paper and yet I still feel this way. I’m ahead on my reading assignments and coursework, ahead on my MA thesis planning, I’m exercising regularly, and my space is clean and orderly. But I spent most of my day in bed, and I only ate one meal today and I’m not even hungry. I just feel numb and sad. I hope I feel better tomorrow. This is the worst day I’ve had in a while.


I called my boyfriend after I wrote this and we talked for a while. Just hearing his voice and feeling his presence made me feel a lot better, and I was able to fall asleep relatively quickly. This morning I woke up feeling okay. Today was loads better.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! 🙂

Responsibility for Attitudes: Our Pasts; Emotional Requirements

I recently finished Smith’s “Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life” (2005) and wanted to jot down a few thoughts and questions I have after reading.

First, a thought: I really liked the way she states her view towards the end of her paper:

What matters in determining whether an attitude is morally attributable to a person is whether it can reasonably be taken to reflect that person’s evaluative judgments. The fact that a person’s evaluative judgments are usually shaped in various ways by her early attachments and environment does nothing to undermine the claim that they are still genuinely her judgments… The responsibility one has for becoming a certain kind of person must be distinguished from the responsibility for the attitudes one in fact holds. (267-268)

That is, whether or not a person is morally responsible for their attitudes depends only on whether it reflects their internal, evaluative judgments. How this person came to have these evaluative judgments is not relevant here. I am inclined to agree with this statement, and am sympathetic to the arguments Smith puts forward in defense of it. She puts the point quite beautifully; I expect that I will return to this portion of her paper in the process of preparing my MA thesis.

Second, a question: Are we always morally responsible for not being emotional or sympathetic enough?

Surely there are situations in which we could be blamed (Casually conflating moral responsibility with blameworthiness here. Move along.) for lacking in emotional sensitivity, but I think the topic merits a little more examination that Smith gives in her paper.

She introduces an example from Williams of “unavoidable but harmful consequences”: A truck driver, who, through no fault of his, runs over a child. He will feel differently from any spectator, despite people trying to convince him he was no worse than one. Nonetheless it is good that the driver still feels regret, for we would have “some doubt” about him if he did not: “This would indicate a failure to appreciate the seriousness and significance he has, however blamelessly, helped to bring about.” Smith immediately accepts this, adding, “to feel regret involves the judgement that something of value has been lost.” (249-250)

I myself am not so ready to grant this. Firstly, it is not clear to me how this explains why the driver should feel differently from a spectator. Wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) the spectator also make the judgment that something valuable has been lost, and so feel regretful, as well? If this is the case, then we should feel perfectly at ease if the driver felt the same as a spectator. From “the driver should feel regret”, we cannot then say “and this is how he differs from the spectator.” In fact, I think, the correct conclusion to be drawn here given the description of regret is “and so too should the spectator.”

But this brings me to my second objection: Why should we take this to be a correct characterization of regret? Why couldn’t some different attitude be the result of acknowledging something valuable lost? Is this the only underlying judgement that regret could have?

My general concern here is that we are expected to feel in a certain way. Why should we feel worse than a spectator? Why should we feel some sympathetic emotion at all? And why are we morally answerable for not doing so?

What would be so wrong about the driver feeling a detached, somber acknowledgement for his situation instead? There are approximately 1 million suicides worldwide per year, and this is generally the feeling we have towards each of these cases. (Perhaps even that is a stretch – we don’t even know about most of these cases except for the fact that they are happening. It’s hard to feel deep emotions in general towards things we do not know anything about.) I would be hesitant to call these attitudes wrong. Given that our personal (as opposed to causal) contributions in all such cases are equally irrelevant, why is it not morally acceptable to feel the same about them all? Why should our causal contribution be relevant if it was completely through no fault of our own? A detached, somber acknowledgment towards your situation seems morally permissible to me; Smith seems to assume it is not. Why must we feel more?

1 Down, 5 To Go. (Revisited)

After I turned in my last term paper of the school year I made a promise to myself: No reading philosophy. No writing philosophy. One week.

Now that I’ve had a chance to step back a bit and recover from the hell that is term paper season, here’s a more positive reflection of my first year of grad school.

First and foremost I want to express how incredibly lucky and thankful I am to find myself among such a spectacular group of grad students. More so than simply being intelligent, passionate, and talented (and believe me – they are), they’re incredibly kind and caring.

During my first few weeks I received messages from several women in the department asking me out for coffee or breakfast just to get to know me one-on-one and ask about how I was adjusting. One of the senior students (who has just graduated this spring) reached out to have lunch with me and chat just because we had similar areas of interest. She then sent me her dissertation bibliography as recommended reading. When I expressed to one of my colleagues that I was struggling and had just started taking antidepressants he was incredibly open to sharing his own experiences with them and offered his time if I ever needed someone to talk to. The women in my cohort were a constant source of encouragement and warmth. There are countless other times I can point to where I felt like people went out of their way to reach out to me and make sure I was doing okay, and for that I’m forever grateful.

I am also incredibly grateful to have had such a fantastic first-year mentor. I know from talking with other graduate students (both in my own department and in others) that sometimes professors aren’t always the best mentors, so I braced myself for that just in case. But my mentor went above and beyond: he reached out to meet with me several times over the school year just to check in, offered thoughtful advice on both academic and personal matters (for example, the two-body problem), helped me with a fellowship application by reading over my personal essays (twice), and never took more than a day to answer my emails – whatever they were about.

Aside from all the support I received from my colleagues and mentors, one thing I have really welcomed as a graduate student is the new capacity I have to make change and carry out projects I’m passionate about.

I serve as a chapter representative for MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) and am one of the primary organizers of a workshop aimed at diversifying the philosophy graduate student body. Getting to play such a huge role in MAP and this workshop means so much to me as a minority in the field and certainly something I would not have been able to do as an undergrad. I love the newfound influence and power I have as a graduate student and I fully intend to use it to further goals which I think are worthwhile.

Lastly, as difficult and trying as my first year has been, I am now only more sure that this is what I want to do. Being immersed in the university environment, surrounded by fellow academics, making a living by studying what I love… This is the life I want. Over and over again I’ve made huge sacrifices – childhood dreams of becoming a lawyer, relationships, proximity to my friends and family – in pursuit of a PhD in Philosophy and a place in academia. I used to wonder if I was making a big mistake throwing so much away. Now, after a year of doing this, I know I made the right decision. I will always choose this. Cheesy as it sounds, this is where I belong. This is what I’m meant to do.

1 Down, 5 To Go.

Yesterday I submitted my final term paper for the semester, which means my first year of grad school has officially come to a close.

I’m not really quite sure what to say. I wish I could say that I’ve become right at home in my new department, dove headfirst into all my classes, impressed all my professors with insightful comments during class, and produced work I was proud of. But in all honestly, none of that is true. When I look back on this year, what stands out the most is all the bad stuff.

I’ve struggled to find people in my department who I can form close relationships with. There are a handful of people I’m comfortable hanging out with, asking advice from, and even talking about my personal problems with, but they don’t feel like close, natural friendships. I still feel like I can’t completely drop the “friendly and professional” act.

As far as classes go, there were three that I genuinely enjoyed. I couldn’t get into any of the rest. I skipped the readings, often didn’t contribute to discussions, and really had to rack my brain just to find something to write about when term paper season came around. There were a few moments where I was proud of the work I turned in, but more often than not it was me struggling to meet the length requirements and breathing a sigh of relief when it was over with.

I’ve been told the first year of grad school is one of the hardest, and the reason they push us so hard is because it forces our skills to develop significantly in a short period of time, but to be honest I just…don’t really feel like I’ve improved all that much. Oftentimes I just feel way out of my league and like I still need to prove (both to myself and to my colleagues) that I deserve my spot in this program.

I know some part of this can be chalked up to the stress involved with moving clear across the country to a brand new place and leaving all my friends and family behind, and some more is just impostor syndrome, but a very real chunk of it is just…me genuinely not doing so great.

Don’t get me wrong – my first year didn’t go terribly. I passed all my classes, got involved in outreach and projects I’m passionate about, and met some amazing people. But I know I can do better. I refuse to believe that grad school is always going to feel this shitty.