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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Working as Equals" Conference

This, via Larry Solum's blog, sounds like a very interesting conference:

If we’re equals, then how come you’re my boss? This question lies behind a growing wave of ethical criticism that is directed at hierarchical workplace structures and deploys various ideals of relational (or social) equality. Can workplace hierarchy be justified, and how can this justification be squared with the ideal of relating to each other as equals? The Working as Equals workshop seeks to illuminate the moral dimensions of today’s workplace relations. It also aims to bring into focus the promise and limitations of the relational turn in ethical theory, using the workplace as a lens.

The basic assumption I make about academic conferences is that they may have a thesis or orientation--they seem increasingly to do so but perhaps that has always been the case--but, God willing, they will not have not proved or assumed its truth and value in advance, and will make plenty of room for exploring the nuances, critiques, and costs of that thesis. I assume that is the case here, and I should think there would be plenty of room for exploring the costs of some of the theses advanced in the abstracts, which of course have differences but pull roughly in the same direction. (There will be commentators, who no doubt will engage in some of these explorations.)

My own view, for which evidence arises nearly every day, is that the greatest general crisis of our time, which takes in all sorts of territory and all sorts of frequently focused-on terms ("norms," for instance), is institutional, and that institutions, their purposes, trust in them, and commitment to them as projects need to be shored up at least as much as they need to be reformed and far more than they need to be eliminated. No doubt some or all of the papers here will point to useful elements of institutional critique and institutional reform. So they should, and any institutionalist should welcome those elements, while insisting that it is a mistake for institutions to be everything (and thus nothing), or to "reimagine" them into something else entirely.

The papers will no doubt, as the conference description promises, be as focused on the limits as on the hopes of the general approach. But the papers also, from what I can tell from the abstracts (an imperfect indicator, admittedly), leave plenty of room to worry in advance about projects that treat hierarchy as such as "disconcerting," not just within the stereotypical modular workplace but within such institutions as churches and the military; that seem in turn disconcertingly focused on individuals and autonomy; that are disconcertingly confined to the unpoetic vocabulary and useful-but-limited tools of liberal egalitarian theory; and that seem disconcertingly suspicious of social organizations that "shape[] individuals more than [they are] shaped by them." Isn't that all of them? Or isn't it at least the case that all social organizations shape individuals as much as they are shaped by them? How alienating would it be not to be shaped by one's associations, including one's workplace? One might paraphrase Augustine: "O Lord, let me stand naked and alone before You--but not yet!"

Two more passing thoughts. First, are modern "reforms" of the university egalitarian and conducive of a greater atmosphere of non-hierarchical relational equality, to use the language of the conference? Or are they closer to the opposite? In their twinned and inseparable urge both to advance sincerely held reforms and to cave at the slightest hint of adverse publicity to the most vocal segments of their fee-paying consumer base, are university administrators being egalitarian--or are they asserting a striking, if seemingly obseisant, degree of authority, hierarchy, and power? (One, in fairness, that faculty have yielded up to them by slackening in their governance duties and in their own sense of the institution as an institution.) Second, I am reminded that the worst workplace I ever experienced was one in which my employers said, and at least sometimes meant, that we were a "family." An op-ed writer in the Times--not, admittedly, a place one goes for deep or useful thought--wrote recently, in the words of the sub-headline, that after working at Google she had "learned the hard way that no publicly traded company is a family." True enough, but oddly limited in scope; no company is a family, and I would much rather work at a company, public or private, that is clear about not being one than one that purports to be. There are surely places in this world where it is far more important to know where one stands than to be loved or cherished.

These are all critical questions and reflections, and I think they are fair in light of the conference description and abstracts. But they are not the conference itself, where I am sure all these questions and more will be fully aired by an impressive set of speakers and commentators. It sounds well worth attending, the better to appreciate and, as it were, apprehend it. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 13, 2021 at 11:28 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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