Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Martin Tweedale Q&A

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium at the Western Canadian Philosophical Association annual meeting, held in Edmonton, to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north. Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson. This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog. Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the question and answer portion of the presentation by Martin Tweedale (The first and second parts may be found here, the third and fourth here). Professor Tweedale’s presentation is titled “Ethical Dilemmas in Eliminating the MacEachran Prizes in Philosophy.” It is a discussion of the decision made by the University of Alberta Philosophy Department over whether to continue its association with the prizes in the name of John MacEachran. Professor Tweedale summarizes the factors considered in the deliberations and explores the extent to which the decision taken was rationally demanded by those considerations.


Highlights: What is the relevance of John MacEachran’s position within the university? Should the university apologize? Should the Philosophy Department apologize?

A transcript follows the cut.


Dick Sobsey: In McEachran’s case, part of… he led the charge and part of his ability to do that was his standing at the university. And so in some ways what I see different about that than if he had “only” been a serial killer is that his position as an important person in the university wouldn’t have helped him in his serial killing career, but it did enable him to be listened to etc. Do you see that as having relevance to this particular problem?

Martin Tweedale: Not to the department’s decision, because the department had no role in giving him that position, but I think it is relevant to a decision by the university if the university wanted to take such a decision. Maybe it’s more relevant to a decision as to whether the university should apologize. Because, what you’re saying is that the university actually had an ancillary role in putting this person into the position of power that they had.

Dick: I think what I’m saying is that because he used his position with the university, that it also was a hurt against the university, as well as a hurt against the people who became victims of sterilization.

Martin: Yeah, I don’t know about that, whether we could actually assign any damage to the university. I tend to think of it the other way, whether the university doesn’t have to accept some kind of responsibility for the damage that was done to Leilani and all the other people. That’s a tough one, but I mean it certainly can’t be ruled out.

Glen Griener: I actually find it a bit puzzling that early on in your paper, you were just repeating it just now, early on you said the question should be the philosophy department shouldn’t have apologized, because you know it wasn’t responsible, but I’m going to push you on that point. Actually, I thought Dick and I were going in the same direction here, but I think we’re going in different directions. I’m actually wondering in fact, if the department should in fact apologize because I think your severance of what he did as a member of the department and what he did as the chair of the eugenics board, I’m not sure those should be as separate as you want. And again, this may have some concerns about how one thinks about things historically, but I’m a member of the philosophy department and I serve on a number of boards for the provincial government doing various things. Some are sort of policy issues, some make decisions about particular cases, and it is pretty clear to me that I’ve been appointed to those boards in part, in some cases directly because of my affiliation with the university. In some cases, there’s actually a letter written to my chair saying, you know, can you recommend someone, and the chair says “how about Griener?” It’s one of those sorts of connections and I’m regularly on my annual report putting down that I’m on this board and served on that, and my chair might say to me, “you know, you’re wasting your time doing that Griener” or “that board’s doing disreputable things, you should get off of it.” I think the connection between what I do as a philosopher serving on some provincial boards, is pretty closely tied to my professional identity as a philosopher serving the University of Alberta. And it seems to me McEachran looks like the same sort of case. You have someone who, by virtue of his standing, like Dick was saying, in the university, by virtue of his professional standing there, which the university is putting its name behind, it seems then that we do then start to have connections between what he does as a chair of that board and what he does as a member of the university and as a member of a particular department. So I find it a little bit surprising that you make that… sever the department from any responsibility, and then was even more puzzled when, in answer to Dick’s question, you seemed to say the department didn’t have any responsibility and therefore didn’t need to apologize, maybe the university should apologize. It seems to me that is giving his direct professional colleagues a bit of a free ride that perhaps they don’t deserve. And those of us that were in the department years later need to consider that, as well.

Rob: He was the founding chair of the department of philosophy and psychology, the department of philosophy, psychology, and education before they all split, but, depending on what document you look at, either 1911 or 1914, he was also the provost, but he was… my understanding is that was he was appointed to the position, it was partly because he was provost of the university, but at the same time he was still the chair of the department until 1945, again if I’ve got my history right, it might be false. But when I go through things that’s what the history looks like and he was appointed there partly because of his expertise in science, because it was the Department of Philosophy and Psychology, he had studied with Wundt in Germany. If you read his dissertation in German, which I have, it’s a straight philosophy dissertation as we’d characterize it now, it’s not a scientific, psychology experimental dissertation. But he was there as one of two scientific experts on the panel. I think it just adds to filling up the factual background, the defeasible background, I might have some of the historical facts here, but that’s how I understand it.

Martin: I guess I still hold the position that as long as the department played no role in recommending him for the position as chair of the Eugenics Board, and the department played no role in his having the position in the university that he had, I really don’t see how it could be held to be in any way responsible. Now the university is in a different position, I don’t know whether they recommended him or not, certainly that would put some responsibility on them but certainly they were responsible for his having the position that he had. In those days, it wasn’t the case that the department had that much of a role in choosing its own professor, a professor was chosen by the higher-ups in the university. And then the professor pretty much chose what department… so, I think it’s extending the notion of responsibility too far, so that’s my reaction, but I think your comment’s interesting.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Martin Tweedale Q&A

  1. What I like about the handful of questions here is that the point to a few ways in which one might think that institutions within the university, and the university as a whole, might be thought to play a special role in acknowledging the history of eugenics in the province.

  2. While I agree with Professor Griener that the philosophy department probably does share in the blame for appointing MacEachran, I think his comment is besides the point. When dealing with such an issue as the MacEachran painting and award, we are not acting as historical avengers. As Herbert Butterfield points out sarcastically in The Whig Interpretation of History, “It has been said that the historian is the avenger…and by his moral indignation can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.” It doesn’t really make sense to try to decide whether the university, the department, or whoever should be assigned blame. I think what is important is to send a clear message as to what OUR position is in regards to the sterilization movement in Alberta. So I would agree that it is important to remove the painting and rename the award, not because we are somehow morally culpable, but because the painting and award both still occupy important spaces that influence how future generations view actions taken in the past.

  3. Pingback: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right! « What Sorts of People

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