Skip to Main Content

Philosophy Prof: Resistance Isn’t Futile

Hay Wins Prestigious Award

UMass Lowell Image
Carol Hay is the first junior scholar to earn the Kavka Prize in political philosophy. Photo by Tory Germann.

03/30/2015
By Julia Gavin

Carol Hay, an assistant professor in philosophy, earned the American Philosophical Association's 2015 Gregory Kavka/UC Irvine Prize in Political Philosophy. The Kavka prize is regarded as the most prestigious prize in political philosophy and Hay is the first junior scholar to ever receive the award. 

Hay's winning paper, "The Obligation to Resist Oppression," is a chapter from her book “Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression.”  She will present her research on oppression and resistance at the American Philosophical Association's Pacific Division Meeting. In it, she argues that people who are oppressed have a duty to resist their oppression. Her work has stirred debate in her field and beyond.

Hay shared her thoughts on taking philosophy from the ivory tower to the public and the role of resistance in oppressive societies.

Q. What does a modern philosopher do?

A. The role of a philosopher is, and always has been, to ask the questions that no one else is asking — because the questions are too big, or too abstract or even too uncomfortable. Our culture really needs philosophers’ ability to reflect on how we’re living our lives. But I think some philosophers tend to stay in the ivory tower and have discussions using so much jargon that other people can’t understand them. Many philosophers aren’t engaged with the public. Also, some people in the general public have become distrustful of academics and philosophical thinking. Fortunately, there’s a growing push for philosophers to go public. 

Q. You’re the first junior scholar to win the Kavka Prize. What does this mean for you and for the field?

A. I was shocked when I heard I’d won the award. In the past, it’s usually gone to people who are very prominent in the field. I was also surprised because philosophy’s not generally known as a very progressive discipline. Unlike in other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, topics like feminism and oppression have been relatively marginalized in philosophy. It’s heartening that philosophy’s moving to see itself as a discipline that can and should affect the world.

Q. Why do you think your research is considered controversial?

A. I have this tendency to use the philosophical canon in ways that we’re not supposed to. I argue that people who are oppressed have an obligation to themselves to resist oppression. Most philosophers think of obligations as the sorts of things we have to other people, not to ourselves. The exception to this is the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that we do have obligations to ourselves, and that the most fundamental one is duty of self-respect. Self-respect, for Kant, involves doing everything we can to protect the thing that is most important about us — our rational capacities, or our ability to figure out what we want and how to get it. In my work, I explore the ways that oppression can restrict or damage people’s rational capacities, and I argue that this Kantian way of looking at things can give us new ways to understand both why the harms of oppression are so bad and how we might avoid them. 

But most feminist philosophers absolutely hate Kant. They rightly criticize the horrifically sexist things Kant actually said (there are some real doozies), and they argue that he and other Enlightenment thinkers mistakenly privilege our rationality over the social, interdependent, embodied and emotional aspects of our lives. So I’ve spent a lot of time convincing my fellow feminist philosophers that there’s something worth holding on to in the Kantian moral framework. 
My work is also controversial because there’s a concern that by arguing for an obligation to resist one’s own oppression, I’m burdening those who can’t or don’t resist — in effect, that I’m blaming the victim. I take this charge very seriously, but I think I can get around it if we understand this duty of resistance in the right way.

Q. Why are oppressed people obligated to resist? How can they do it, especially in potentially violent situations?

A. Our world is never going to get better if we don’t resist the things that are evil in it. But the last thing someone needs when they’re already oppressed is to be told, “Oh, by the way, you’re also harming yourself by not speaking up.” As if they don’t have enough on their plate already. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways that people can resist oppression. Some forms of resistance are external — activism, direct confrontation, donating time or money, opting out of or working to reform institutions. But in some situations external resistance is too risky or dangerous. Still, even in such cases I think you have an obligation to say to yourself that what you’re going through isn’t ok and you deserve better — this counts as a kind of internal resistance, and it maintains your self-respect.

Q. Why do you teach philosophy?

A. You become a professor because you can’t conceive of doing anything else. I’m the sort of person who’d be reading and thinking about these sorts of things anyway, so that it’s my job feels like I’ve won the lottery. 

My favorite part of the job is the variety. If I was only able to teach, or only able to write, I think I’d go a bit bonkers. But the combination of such different kinds of work is really wonderful. Being in the classroom conveying this knowledge to my students is very different from writing about it, but there’s actually a lot of crossover. Things that come up in class discussions inform my research all the time. 

Philosophy classes teach students to develop clear, rigorous and precise thinking, which is helpful in any major. Philosophy majors routinely have the highest LSAT and GRE scores and routinely out-earn people with more “practical” majors 10 years after graduation. This isn’t just because our students are smarter; it’s because they’ve had this training in how to approach topics clearly and in detail.

I really believe studying philosophy helps create a properly mature mind and it’s gratifying to teach people those skills.

Hay has also published work in the New York Times and Aeon Magazine.