Interview: KIE Scholar Sean Aas on new course: Overcoming Injustice

This semester, Georgetown welcomed Sean Aas as the KIE’s newest Senior Research Scholar and Assistant Professor of Philosophy. His primary areas of research are bioethics, metaethics, and social and political philosophy, with a significant focus on issues of disability. These interests tie to broader projects: especially on the construction of social facts and the grounds of egalitarian justice.

Aas is tackling these issues with students this semester with a new course: PHIL-171 Overcoming Injustice. From the course description:

“Black Lives Matter” “The 99%”. Race and class are in the news, now, perhaps, more than ever. Political campaigns seek to pit frustration with stagnant wages among the working class against the demands of equal opportunity, respect, and inclusion for immigrants and oppressed minorities. Institutions like Georgetown join a broader conversation by asking what the beneficiaries of racialized oppression owe those harmed by it. This course will ask: what, if anything, should we as a society do about inequality?

This month, we sat down with Aas to find out more about the course and how he is settling into life at a new university.

KIE: How are you settling into Georgetown and the KIE?

Aas: Very well, thank you! My colleagues are awesome; I love being on the hallway. And I’m so honored to sit at [what once was] the desk of the great Tom Beauchamp!

KIE: This course asks how, as a society, we handle inequality. It seems like the idea of guiding or moderating this type of discussion is as daunting as participating in the discussion itself–how, as a professor, does one begin (and then sustain) a dialogue on equality in a class that potentially consists of students who possess very different contextualizations of that word?

Aas: Philosophers have been thinking and talking about inequality for a long time, so the tradition of political thought provides great resources to help students understand the experiences they’ve had in their particular contexts. Conversely, the diversity of the students in the course helps us to make abstract ideas from the philosophical literature more concrete, and to see how these ideas might make a difference to our lives. Georgetown has great students; they’re really good at learning from one another.

KIE: What does an actionable, ethical solution to this problem look like? Does perpetuating the debate devalue any result we might get from it?

Aas: In an academic setting, and especially in philosophy, the question is more: what is the problem, in the first place? Rather than: what should we do about a problem, we all already recognize? ‘Perpetuating’ the debate is a way of figuring out which direction we should go, so that our political efforts are not wasted or worse.

KIE: Georgetown University has begun a sustained and long-term process to engage the historical role of our University in the institution of slavery and its legacies in our nation. How does that context guide your engagement with this class?

Aas: The class is structured around a potential tension between traditionally ‘color-blind’ utopias, like those detailed by Rawls, Nozick, and Cohen; and the realities of racial injustice. We are asking whether there is something institutions like Georgetown – and perhaps more importantly, states and their governments – should do in response to histories of racial injustice which is different from the things institutions should do to promote justice anyway.

KIE: Racial inequality is an inescapable topic in the media, though it seems like this class will deal with a varied selection of inequalities. Is there a holistic way to overcome injustice or are these each individual problems with their own symptoms and treatment? And how do we grapple with the “greater than the sum of its parts” nature of the inequality–how do we bear witness to, and then meaningfully address, that inequality–and how is addressing it itself impacted by the layered and cross-cutting nature of the issues?

Aas: Philosophy, as I teach and practice it, proceeds primarily from the armchair. To diagnose and treat inequality as a malady, to understand its causes well enough to work responsibly to remove them, requires interdisciplinarity, not to mention intersectionality: we would have to talk to those who study real-world injustice, and those who experience it, to know how it really works. What I, and the class, seek to do, is to figure out which questions we should be asking, about the facts in the world, so we know where to look before we decide to act.

KIE: How can we/your students use the tools of philosophy to work through these questions?

Aas: Philosophers from our arm-chairs and seminar tables can reflect on the principles that guide real, impassioned, political actors. We can have a reasoned discussion about the relative importance of values like liberty, security, and equality. We can lay bare assumptions, and see if they are are valid ones. We can clarify arguments, seeing if participants in political debate are talking past each other rather than to each other. Per the above, though, we can’t often decide which side of a political debate is right, using philosophy alone: often, the most we can hope for is clearer question, rather than clear answers.