“Ethicist” sees no ethical issue with excluding women

We’re hip-deep into a year that’s been overflowing with virulent antifeminist backlash. Another outbreak of the epidemic as occurred, but this time it’s in a most unexpected place: the New York Times’ Ethicist column. Ethicist columnist Ariel Kaminer has announced a contest inviting omnivores to write essays about why it is ethical to eat meat. The problem? The panel of luminaries she’s selected to judge the contest are ethicists Peter Singer and Andrew Light, food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, and novelist Jonathan Safer Foer. All, as you may notice, white dudes.

The lack of diversity of the panel has been pointed out to Kaminer. She has claimed that there aren’t any qualified women who have the name recognition of the men on the panel. It has been suggested to her that this is untrue, and people have identified a number of highly qualified, high-profile women who would make excellent additions to the panel, for example: chef and food activist Alice Waters, nutritionist Marion Nestle, novelist Barbara Kingsolver (who wrote a book on the ethics of eating), Frances Moore Lappe (author of the mega-best seller Diet for a Small Planet), scientist and activist Vandava Shiva, investigative journalist Tracie McMillan (author of the fascinating-sounding new book The American Way of Eating), and many others. But Kaminer has dug in her heels and refused to make any changes to the panel.

I can’t tell you how depressing and demoralizing it is to still, nearly 50 years after the dawn of the second wave feminist movement, be fighting for basic issues of diversity, representation and inclusiveness. And to have to be making the case for the value of women’s full humanity and participation in society to a so-called ethicist, yet!

In addition to the ethical side, the practical case for the value of diversity is well-known. (Here, for example, is an excellent recent article which surveys some of the research on the business case for women in the boardroom). And for heaven’s sake, by now it should be second nature for every single person who’s in the position of hiring someone, or putting together a panel or committee, to make an effort to include women and people of color whenever possible. That’s just basic human decency.

I also wonder just who Kaminer thinks her readers are, particularly her readers who are most interested in issues like food, diet, and cooking. I strongly suspect it is women who are overwhelmingly interested in this topic, and to exclude women’s voices on the panel and then blithely dismiss the concerns of those who value this kind of diversity is just plain arrogant and disrespectful.

Scholar and activist Frances Kissling, who is a bioethicist and was the longtime president of the wonderful pro-choice organization, Catholics for Choice, has written a thoughtful and powerful letter about this controversy to Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Times. She has given permission to circulate it, and you can read it after the jump. All I can add is, what she said!

Dear Mr. Brisbane,

There has been considerable commentary regarding the judges selected for a “contest” initiated by the Ethicist on the ethics of meat eating. I share many of the concerns expressed by bloggers and various experts on the topic. Five privileged white men would be inappropriate whatever contest one held; but for a column on ethics and on a topic that so significantly impacts women’s lives, it was especially disappointing.

Granted, the column is in a popular venue, written by someone who is not an expert in ethics and is a bit more of a cross between advice to the lovelorn and Emily Post than a serious exploration of the very profound ethical questions we confront in modern life.

The contest and Ms. Kaminer’s reaction to criticism only highlighted the lack of seriousness with which she and the Times take the matter of ethics. Would we find a similar feature in economics, health etc in the Times? I doubt it.

I won’t repeat what I am sure you have already heard regarding the number and names of highly qualified women and people of color who could have contributed to a more robust judging process (see http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/03/an-argument-in-favour-of-eating-meat/#comment-14286 for comments on this).

I do have however have some questions I hope you will explore should you chose to deal with this issue. As you know, Ms. Kaminer has characterized her goal in conducting the contest as creating an event that gets lots of attention. The way to do that she believes is to have big name high recognition judges – content be damned. Is that the approach to serious issue the Times editors like? It can get one on MSNBC, create a personality, but does it do justice to the topic?

Ms Kaminer also views diversity as of lesser value than making waves. In her response to some who have written her, she pays lip service to it. I think she rightfully notes that not every single panel, etc needs to represent all diversities, but she ignores that this panel has no
diversity. My apologies for not finding an age range among white males significant. What is the Times’ commitment to diversity?

Finally, what would we expect from the Times and its columnists and editors when a mistake is pointed out in plenty of time for it to be corrected? Does having a column in the Times mean never having to say you are sorry? Ms Kaminer knew no women of comparable stature to the men she chose. She has been clearly shown she was wrong and names provided. All she needed to do was to say woops, let me add three of four women, people of color etc. It would also seem something editors should step in and make happen.

For a column focused on ethics, this would have been *the right thing to do*. Ethics, after all, as Peter Singer says, is about what is the right thing to do in a given situation.

I, for one, have lost confidence in this columnist. It has not been a particularly provocative space under her authorship, but now it is tainted by poor ethical judgment.

Many thanks for your kind consideration.

Frances Kissling

Visiting Scholar, Center for Bioethics
University of Pennsylvania

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee