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A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand


Okin, Susan Moller

Toula Nicolacopoulos

Susan Moller Okin (19 July 1946 – 3 March 2004) was born in Auckland, New Zealand. After completing her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Auckland, Okin took a M.Phil. in politics (1970) at Oxford University and then a Ph.D. in government (1975) at Harvard University. She subsequently spent most of her working life at the University of Brandeis, Massachusetts and at Stanford University, California, where she became the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society from 1990. At the time of her death Okin held the Marta S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. As a feminist scholar with an international reputation, Okin’s contribution to political philosophy has had a major influence in framing issues of concern to feminist social and political philosophers working in Australia and New Zealand.

Okin’s first major political philosophical work, Women in Western Political Philosophy (1979), set a new agenda internationally and played an important part in the early development of feminist philosophy studies in Australia and New Zealand by highlighting the significance of gender as a category of analysis and gender equality as a social value. This book examined the classical political writings of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and Mill asking ‘whether the existing tradition of political philosophy can sustain the inclusion of women in its subject matter [on the same terms with men] and, if not, why not?’ (1979: 4). Okin’s response in the negative brought to light the problematic nature of grounding conceptions of the relationship between the domestic and the public spheres of social life on the fundamental premise that gender inequality is the natural human condition.

Okin’s second major work, Justice, Gender and the Family (1989a), helped to frame issues of continuing concern to Australian feminist theorists around the adequacy of liberal social and institutional arrangements and conceptions of citizenship. Here Okin argues that women’s arbitrary association with the family explains their historical exclusion from the public sphere and this in turn explains why the domestic sphere has been excluded from public-political discourse. Within the gender-structured family not only are responsibilities, opportunities and activities assigned on the basis of gender but such organisation results in unequal and unfair distributions of power, of paid and unpaid labour, and of leisure time, to the detriment of women. For Okin, then, acceptance of the family’s gender-structure is the ultimate source of the failure of traditional liberalism to conceptualise a just society for all.

Okin’s solution to the central problem of liberal theory thus conceived is to call for the degendering of its conceptions of the domestic/private and political/public spheres by rethinking questions of freedom, equality and social justice from the perspective of women’s lives. Whereas traditionally in the public sphere liberalism has appealed to impartial principles of justice (individual freedom and equality) to regulate men’s conflicting interests, in the private sphere of family life the interests of men and women have been taken to be harmonious and complementary, leaving it to the parties themselves to work out roles and responsibilities. But this ignores the reality of the vulnerability of women (due to their economic dependence on men) and of children (due to the increasing instability of marriage) within the modern family structure. So, Okin’s call to degender the public and private spheres operates on two levels. On one level, it requires ensuring women’s equal access to public life in addition to their treatment as formal equals and, on another level, it insists that the values governing the public and private spheres ought not be grounded on claims regarding (natural) sexual difference. The rationale underpinning the argument of Justice Gender and the Family holds that ‘a just future would be one without gender’ in the sense that gender should be as irrelevant to a just institutional order as ‘one’s eye color or one’s toes’ (1989a: 171).

Unlike more radical feminist challenges to liberalism’s public/private division that aspire to reconceptualise the relationship between public and private areas of life in non-dichotomous terms, Okin’s focus is on the inappropriateness of drawing a gender line between the public and private. Whilst her approach supplies an early version of the critique of liberalism’s presumption that the public and private spheres should be regulated by different norms and principles, as a liberal feminist Okin does not see any insurmountable problems for a liberal theorisation of the public/private division, whether between society and individual, or between political and civil society or between civil and domestic life.

At the same time, unlike liberals such as John Rawls, who at best merely assume the liberal character of relations internal to a marriage contract, Okin’s innovation is to argue that strategies for liberalising gendered families are justifiable within a Rawlsian conceptual framework. That is, because the interests of family members often diverge, public recognition of family members’ equal freedom entails not only abandoning the presumption that male heads of households should represent women’s interests but also adopting the view that the state should take various measures to protect the vulnerable. So, she endorses interventionist state policies, such as protecting family members’ equal entitlement to all earnings coming into a household and requiring men to share responsibility for children (Okin 1989a: 174–86).

Liberalism re-oriented away from its masculine bias (Okin 1989b) and towards ‘fully humanist’ ideals of social justice (Okin 1991) would endorse the application of principles of justice to the domestic sphere on the ground that ‘rather than being one of many co-equal institutions of a just society, a just family is its essential foundation’ (Okin 1989a: 17).


In a just society … families must be just because of the vast influence that they have on the moral development of children … And the structure and practices of the family must parallel those of the larger society if the sense of justice is to be fostered and maintained … A society that is committed to equal respect for all its members, and to justice in social distributions of benefits and responsibilities, can neither neglect the family nor accept family structures and practices that violate these norms. (Okin 1989a: 22)


In this way, Okin’s strategy of degendering the patriarchal institutions and practices of society translates into a state program of actively liberalising the family structure and the relations within it. As Karen Green (2006) points out, this approach leaves Okin vulnerable to a range of objections. These derive, on the one hand, from a classic liberal concern for the protection of individual liberty against external interferences and, on the other, from the concerns of multiculturalists who endorse state protection of cultures, and of feminists who represent female difference in positive terms and call for a revaluation of femininity rather than the abolition of gender differences within the established institutions of a liberal democracy. Okin addresses these issues in a series of papers without, however, being moved to question the adequacy of her Rawlsian theoretical framework or the liberal public/private distinction more deeply (Okin 1990, 1994a, 1994b, 1998, 2005).

Thus, in a third work that has provoked considerable international debate, under the title ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?’ (1999), Okin continues to represent her degendering and liberalising strategies as compatible and mutually informing. Drawing upon her brand of humanist liberal justice, here Okin tackles the question of what liberal states should do when the claims of their minority cultures clash with the norm of gender equality. Although the essay title suggests engagement with the broader question of the relationship of Western liberal feminisms to issues of cultural difference, in fact Okin focusses on rejecting minority group rights on the empirical ground that Western liberal cultures are less patriarchal by comparison with the ‘more patriarchal’ minority cultures whose extinction may well be in the interests of their women members (Okin 1999: 23). In arguing that it should not be the business of liberal states to protect minority cultures, Okin reproduces the rationale underpinning the argument of Justice, Gender and the Family. That is, she takes the view that the category, culture, like gender before it, is ideally irrelevant to determinations of justice. Yet, Okin sees no tension in valuing certain cultural phenomena—the Western liberal cultures that have historically been subjected to liberalising forces—more highly in judgments about the requirements of justice for the members of minority cultures (Cf. Okin 2002).

Inspiring and thought provoking on many levels, Okin’s distinctive liberal feminist approach to addressing the problem of social justice in gender-structured societies inevitably confronts liberalism’s fundamental tension between the rationale that underpins liberalising strategies—the desire to design institutions and policies that fully respect individuals’ equal freedom—and the effects of state implementation of such strategies—the subordination of personal choice to state determined conceptions of human well-being, the valuing of sameness over sexual difference and of dominant Western cultural practices and assumptions over those of minority cultures within liberal regimes.

Orr Case

Jeff Malpas

Sydney Sparkes Orr (1914–1966) was appointed foundation professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania in Hobart in 1952, but was dismissed for misconduct in 1956. The subsequent controversy endured until 1966, receiving national and international coverage, and causing enormous damage to the University of Tasmania, as well as to the individuals involved.

Orr came to the chair in philosophy at Hobart as successor to E. Morris Miller (who had held the combined chair of philosophy and psychology). Born in Annsborough, Northern Ireland, Orr studied philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast, graduating with a B.A., with first-class Honours, in 1939, and an M.A. in 1941. He was also enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Belfast, with a dissertation on Plato, but the degree was never awarded. Orr held academic positions at St Andrews, in Scotland (a temporary assistant lectureship from 1944), and at the University of Melbourne (appointed to an acting lectureship in 1946, made permanent in 1947). Orr’s appointment to the chair in Tasmania (out of a field including J. L. Mackie and Kurt Baier) had the support of the chancellor, Sir John Morris, who approved of Orr’s apparently more conservative philosophical views, as well as his seeming commitment to adult education. Reports from students and colleagues of the time suggest, however, that while Orr could appear as an intense figure, he was neither an especially able philosopher nor a particularly good teacher. Moreover, while he had been involved in various Christian associations, and was married from 1941 onwards (to Sarah née Davidson), Orr’s personal life was also somewhat unorthodox, and his conduct, particularly in relation to sexual matters, was already the source of complications prior to his arrival in Tasmania.

In Hobart, Orr became involved in the University Staff Association, and in 1954 he proposed an open letter to the Premier calling for an inquiry into the university administration. While not supported by all, the letter, written by Orr and signed by him and thirty-five others, was published in the Hobart newspaper, The Mercury, in October 1954. Orr’s letter was not the only factor in play, but it was the immediate trigger for the establishment of the royal commission that opened in February of 1955 and that gave rise, amidst continuing controversy, to a new University Act passed that same year. In December of 1955, immediately after the proclamation of the new Act, the University Council (which had not been reformed to the extent recommended by the royal commission) appointed a committee to investigate complaints against Orr alleging harassment, intimidation and other improper conduct from Kajica Milanov, a lecturer in Orr’s department, W. A. Townsley, one of Orr’s colleagues in the Staff Association, and Edwin Tanner, one of Orr’s students. In February 1956, and shortly before the committee was scheduled to meet, Orr took out writs for libel (in relation to rumours about certain sexual improprieties) against four of his university colleagues, three of whom were members of the investigating committee, with the fourth being Townsley. A further complaint against Orr was then made by Reginald Kemp, a local businessman, who charged Orr with seducing his daughter, Suzanne. The latter complaint was presented to the University Council by the Vice-Chancellor in March 1956, together with a letter of resignation received from Orr (intended, according to Orr, as a means to avoid scandal in relation to a matter from his time in Melbourne, but not to admit guilt in relation to that involving Kemp). Rather than accept Orr’s resignation, the council chose to investigate the Kemp allegations. When that investigation, along with the investigation into the Milanov, Townsley and Tanner allegations, found against him, Orr was summarily dismissed by the university—on 16 March 1956. Orr immediately charged the university with wrongful dismissal, but the action in the Supreme Court of Tasmania in October and November of 1956 failed, as did a subsequent appeal to the High Court in May 1957.

Orr did not give up, and by 1958 had gained some influential supporters. R. D. Wright, professor of physiology at the University of Melbourne, agreed to act as Orr’s academic ‘next friend’, while the Kirk session of the Scot’s Church in Hobart re-heard Orr’s case, as part of an application for his readmission to the Kirk in 1958, and found in Orr’s favour. Alan Stout, professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, also moved for a ban to prevent the chair of philosophy in Tasmania from being filled. The ban was approved by the Australasian Association of Philosophy at its meeting in June 1958, and by the end of the year was supported by philosophers in Britain and the U.S. There was also talk among university staff associations of a wider boycott on the university unless it re-opened the case, and just such a ban was imposed by staff at the University of Newcastle. There was significant division within the university on the matter, and, in December 1959, a rifle was fired at Orr from outside his home in Sandy Bay—an event interpreted by Orr’s supporters as an assassination attempt, and by his detractors as a publicity stunt. In 1961, W. H. C. Eddy published Orr—a work of over 700 pages designed to establish that Orr was a victim of the establishment he had criticised, and that he had been subject to a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet by 1963, with a resolution still not achieved, the Australasian Association of Philosophy decided that the chair in Hobart could not be left vacant any longer, and a settlement had to be negotiated. Following discussions involving Stout, the University of Tasmania offered Orr a cash payment which he rejected, as it still left him without employment. Attempts were then made to find Orr another position, but these were unsuccessful, as almost no department of philosophy was willing to take him on, and none were willing to pay for him. Finally, with Orr’s supporters falling away (in part as a result of evidence that Orr had falsified aspects of his original application for the Tasmanian chair), and with his health failing, Orr was persuaded to accept a financial settlement in April 1966. He died on 15 July 1966. The ban on the chair of philosophy at the University of Tasmania remained formally in place until 1968 (although Alexander MacBeath, Orr’s old supervisor from Belfast, and A. C. Fox both held acting appointments during the early 1960s). A new professor of philosophy, W. D. Joske, was eventually appointed in 1969, holding the chair until his retirement in 1992.

Orr has often been seen as a martyr to the academic cause, and his case as one that forced attention onto important issues concerning the relation between universities and their academic staff. Certainly, the Orr case resonated with concerns about academic tenure, and was bound up with other conflicts of the time. Nevertheless, following the reviews of the case (initially by such as Kerr and Wootten, and more recently by Pybus), and in spite of the mishandling of aspects of the case by the University of Tasmania, there seems little doubt that Orr’s dismissal was well-founded. There are also reasons for thinking that the interventions made by the academic associations at the time, no matter how well-intentioned, did little to further the cause of justice in the case. In the last analysis, however, the Orr case may have less to do with issues concerning the rights of academics, and the organisational structures of universities, as with the personal failings of a troubled and deluded, but also manipulative individual, and the willingness of others to be drawn into his misfortunes.

Otago, University of

Charles Pigden

The Department of Philosophy at Otago—twice ranked as the top-scoring research department in New Zealand—has a long and distinguished history. It began in 1871, when the chair of mental and moral philosophy (one of the four foundation professorships) went to an outspoken, 27-year-old Scot, named Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Tall, imposing and athletic, he was an electrifying lecturer with pungent opinions on a variety of topics. But he resigned in 1886, in the wake of a dispute with the Presbyterian Church, brought on by his ‘materialist’ and Darwinian proclivities. Fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, he went on to become the Inspector-General of Lunatic Asylums. Hoping for a more orthodox successor, the Presbyterians backed another Scot, the former minister, William Salmond. But Salmond soon published a polemic, The Reign of Grace, criticising the ‘intellectual terrorism’ of classical Calvinism whose inhumane God kept people in existence ‘for no reason but to inflict tortures on them through endless ages’. Salmond was tried as a heretic but survived as professor until 1913 when he was succeeded by Francis Dunlop. Though born in Scotland, Dunlop is so far the only professor to have earned an Otago degree. An adherent of Rudolf Eucken, he was passionate about books, German culture and his steam-driven motor-car. He died in 1932, to be succeeded by the 29-year-old John Findlay, the first Otago philosopher to win international renown.

A South African who had studied at Graz and Oxford, Findlay published Meinong’s Theory of Objects whilst at Otago and devoted himself, as a teacher, to ‘introducing mathematical logic to the Antipodes’. In this he was remarkably successful, since his most brilliant pupil was the great logician, A. N. Prior (1914–1969). Prior was profuse in his acknowledgements: ‘I owe to [Findlay’s] teaching, directly or indirectly, all that I know of either Logic or Ethics’. Findlay also helped get Prior his first two jobs as a philosopher, as an assistant lecturer at Otago, and as Popper’s successor at Canterbury in 1946. Findlay worked hard to keep up to date. He cultivated a friendship with the notoriously difficult Popper during the latter’s period at Canterbury, and devoted a sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein and acting as his ‘stooge’, feeding him questions when the silences became too excruciating.

In 1945 Findlay was succeeded by D. D. Raphael, who shared Findlay’s enthusiasm for the British Moralists. His book, The Moral Sense (1947), was published during his time at Otago but he did not stay long and, after a brief interregnum, was succeeded as professor by John Passmore in 1950. During this time Hector Monro (a former conscientious objector) was a lecturer, publishing The Argument of Laughter and Godwin’s Moral Philosophy.

Passmore (a former disciple of John Anderson) published two books during his time at Otago, Ralph Cudworth (1952) and Hume’s Intentions (1953), and labored on his magnum opus, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, a work of stupendous erudition which did not come out until 1957. In 1955, Passmore left for a post at the Australian National University (ANU), to be succeeded by another critical Andersonian, J. L. Mackie. Mackie published one of his most reprinted articles, ‘Evil and Omnipotence’ (1955) whilst at Otago, but the books for which he is remembered—Ethics, Problems from Locke, Hume’s Moral Theory etc.—were published later, during his time at Oxford. Published perhaps, but not necessarily written then. Bob Durrant (then a lecturer) remembered Mackie’s books as often echoing typescripts that they had discussed together at Otago during the fifties.

The next professor was from Wittgensteinian Melbourne. Dan Taylor, known in his youth as ‘Taylor the realist’, presided for ten years, and was replaced by Alan Musgrave in 1970, who continues as professor (though not Head of Department) to this day (2008).

Appointed at 29, Musgrave has had the longest reign of any philosophy professor so far. A student of Popper and Lakatos at the London School of Economics, he had already co-edited the academic best-seller, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. His chief interests are in epistemology and the philosophy of science, as is witnessed by his books, Common Sense, Science and Scepticism (1993) and Essays on Realism and Rationalism (1999b). Before he left England he had hired a logician, the Czech Pavel Tichý, a refugee from the Prague Spring (and hence a virulent anti-communist). Tichý rapidly proved his worth and in 1981 was appointed to a personal chair in logic. After the Velvet Revolution, Tichý was invited to return to Charles University in Prague as professor. He accepted with some misgivings. But his plans were cut short by his tragic death by drowning in 1994. His Collected Papers were published in 2004.

Another recruit who rose to a personal chair was Greg Currie. He started out as a Frege scholar, but his interests shifted to aesthetics and the philosophy of mind, and his recent book Recreative Minds (co-authored with Ian Ravenscroft) deals with the imagination. He is now professor at the University of Nottingham. Paul Griffiths did not stay long enough to become a professor, but his book What Emotions Really Are (1997), praised as ‘the best book on the emotions that exists’, was largely written at Otago, as those who heard his amazingly articulate extempore expositions can testify. He is now professor at the University of Sydney.

The Otago department has had a distinguished line of graduates beginning with A. N. Prior and Annette C. Baier (nee Stoop), famed as a Hume scholar and feminist philosopher, and author of A Progress of Sentiments and Postures of the Mind. In 2008, she was listed as one of the top 100 living geniuses by the consultants Creators Synectics. Jeremy Waldron (B.A. Hons 1974) remembers his Otago teachers with praise for having made him read Rawls’ A Theory of Justice ALL THE WAY THROUGH, rather than serving up philosophical tidbits on trendy topics of the day. He went on to do a star doctorate at Oxford on private property. His books include The Right to Private Property (1988), Nonsense upon Stilts (1988), and God, Locke and Equality (2002). He is now a professor in New York. His near contemporary, Stephen Guest, is professor of legal philosophy at University College London. Graham Oddie went from Otago to the London School of Economics, gaining his Ph.D. in 1979. He returned to teach at the University of Otago before taking up the chair of philosophy at Massey University in 1988. (He is now at the University of Colorado at Boulder). Much influenced by Tichý, his books include Likeness to Truth (1986) and a co-edited collection, Justice, Ethics and New Zealand Society, which features a piece co-written with Jindra Tichý (Pavel’s wife), arguing with perverse brilliance that the Treaty of Waitangi is a Hobbesian social contract. The alarmingly intelligent Tim Mulgan went on from Otago to a D.Phil. at Oxford. He returned to Otago to teach, but soon left for the University of Auckland. His (2001) book The Demands of Consequentialism deals with the unreasonable demands that consequentialism seems to make on moral agents, suggesting a new entry for the Philosopher’s Lexicon: mulganise, v. to soften up excessively demanding moral theories. He is now professor at St Andrews in Scotland.

Early modern philosophy has long been a research strength at Otago (witness many of the publications listed above). In 2006, as the result of a generous donation from an anonymous benefactor, Peter Anstey, a noted Locke and Boyle scholar, was appointed to the newly endowed professorship in early modern philosophy. Apart from the two professors, the department employs six other full-time staff: Charles Pigden (meta-ethics, Russell), Andrew Moore (ethics), Colin Cheyne (philosophy of mathematics), Heather Dyke (metaphysics, especially time), James Maclaurin (philosophy of biology), and Josh Parsons (metaphysics).

A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand

   by Graham Oppy, N. N. Trakakis