Issues in Philosophy Politics and Appointments

Politics and Appointments

by Steven M. Cahn


A widely accepted principle of academic ethics is that candidates for appointments should not be asked questions that do not bear on performance as a faculty member. For example, no interviewer should inquire of a candidate, How much do you weigh?or Do you think you are the right age to assume this position?or With whom are you living?

A reason these questions are inappropriate is that while competence is a criterion for a faculty appointment, weight, age, and personal relationships are demonstrably not appropriate criteria. Thus they should never be mentioned.

Indeed, if a candidate raises such considerations, the discussion should not be allowed to continue along that path. Hence, for example, if applicants mention their sexual orientation, the response should be that the matter is not relevant to the appointment and will not be discussed further.

In addition, even if a candidates vita includes such information as date of birth or number of children, these facts should remain irrelevant. Such data should not be requested, and, if provided, should not be considered.

This much should be uncontroversial. Consider, however, a situation I faced some years ago, when one of our doctoral students asked my advice about whether to include on his vita the information that he had served as a columnist for National Review, a popular journal of conservative opinion.

Although I believe most professors would agree that a candidates politics should not be considered in making an appointment, I was uncertain whether in practice faculty were likely to act in accord with this principle. Of course, had the doctoral student worked for a popular journal of liberal opinion, he would not have been concerned about saying so. He anticipated, however, that most philosophers would be uncomfortable appointing someone with his political outlook.

At the time, my advice to the student was that the information didnt belong on the vita. He omitted it and obtained a fine position. Perhaps the result would have been the same had he acted otherwise. I hope so, but I have my doubts.

Now for a few questions:

  1. Should activity that is more political than philosophical be noted on an application for a faculty position?
  2. Would indicating involvement in conservative politics endanger a candidates chances for appointment?
  3. Should an individual’s public political beliefs be as irrelevant to the appointment process as matters of weight, age, and personal relationships?
  4. How would you have advised the student?


Steven M. Cahn, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, is author of the forthcoming book Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies (Rutgers University Press).


  1. Although I am a Bernie Sanders style liberal….

    If indicating involvement in conservative politics would endanger a candidate’s chances for appointment in a philosophy department, it might be time to start talking about closing down that department. The appropriate course of action would instead be to read the candidates political writing and see how well they make their case.

    I would advise the student not to seek employment in any ivory tower but instead to use the opportunity of their youth to build their own business with their own customers. A life time of freedom awaits you if you have the courage to reach for it.

  2. There are perfectly ethical political conservatives. Liberal ethics and politics deserve every bit of scrutiny that conservatives get.

    Traditionally viewed, some philosophical positions are more conservative or liberal than other philosophical positions ie Marx (liberal) v. Smith Adam. A philosopher’s positional/political bias may also be deeply rooted in one’s views as well.

    On the whole I think political views should not be considered for employment purposes. However, I think association with or participation in clearly immoral acts (or extremist views) such as torture, or advocating for racism should be disqualifying for professional philosophers.

    I would’ve advised the student to not include the work for the National Review just to avoid any possible objection in the hiring process. I would also caution the student that if he has to compromise himself from the inception of his employment perhaps he is applying for a job at a place where he will not be a good “fit.”


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