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Debra Satz: Putting political philosophy to work

As an opulent moon climbed above the Himalayan peaks, Debra Satz found herself far more intrigued by the Nepalese porter who sat beside her.

Earlier that day she had watched him cross the snow pack in rubber flip-flops, with 70 pounds of hiking gear strapped to his back. Now she couldn't take her eyes off the 32-year-old widower as his rough fingers tracked each word on a paperback page and he read aloud to her from The Brothers Karamazov by candlelight.

"He literally grabbed the book out of my hands to show me that he had learned to read English," Satz recalls. "He didn't understand all of what he was reading, but he could make out the words.

"All I could think about was his energy and his love of learning -- and how constrained his life choices were, given the accident of where he was born."

As the child of an immigrant, working-poor neighborhood in the East Bronx whose parents had little formal education, Satz thought she knew what poverty meant. But she was blown away by what she found in Nepal last December, on her first trip to Asia.

"[Philosopher] Amartya Sen has this wonderful phrase about one of the requirements of living in a society being the ability to appear in public without shame," Satz says. "What it takes in the United States to appear in public without shame is a lot more than what you would need as a poor person in Nepal. But since I've been home, I've been trying to think more about how to define national poverty from within an international perspective.

"What do we owe each other as co-nationals or citizens, and what do we owe each other as members of the human species? How ought we to think about our obligations to the poor of Nepal, as opposed to the poor in our own backyard?"

Probing questions like those have impelled Satz from her earliest days. She has looked for answers in radical socialism, mathematics and philosophy, on a search that has taken her from street-corner debates in the Bronx to a doctorate in philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Today, as Stanford's sole political philosopher, she continues to study economic inequality and social injustice. She asks the complex questions: How is equality defined? What are appropriate remedies to legacies of racism and injustice? How should people treat one another?

John Ferejohn, the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has co-authored several papers with Satz since she arrived at Stanford. As a member of the program committee that oversees Ethics in Society, the interdisciplinary honors program Satz heads, he says she is a rare breed in the philosophical flock -- one who is both a thinker and a doer.

"What sets her apart from many other philosophers is that they tend to focus on conceptual or technical analysis as an end in itself, while Debra gets interested in issues because she sees there are stakes involved," Ferejohn says. "For her, the technical stuff has to have a reason and she is driven to get to the socially important issues."

With Ferejohn, Satz has explored interpretations of rational choice theory, a formal mathematical theory that is used in the social sciences to explain human behavior. For all of her professional life she also has studied relationships of power and authority.

As incoming president of the American Association of University Professors, Satz recently helped to organize a panel discussion about faculty governance at universities. It will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Monday, May 12, in room 204 of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford, and featured panelists will include Provost Condoleezza Rice and Michael Bratman, professor of philosophy.

Last year, after a complicated tenure case, Satz was promoted to associate professor, becoming only the second woman to be tenured in philosophy in the history of that department.

Bratman, who currently serves as chair of the Faculty Senate, says, "It is clear that we have a long way to go before we have an appropriate balance of women in the tenured ranks -- just look at the Stanford statistics.

"But in Debra's case, the institution, in the end, worked, and now we have many years to look forward to her teaching and research."

As a result of her experience, Satz now is looking for ways to achieve greater gender equity in the philosophy department and in the university.

"I was always aware of the effects of class in leveling aspirations, but I wasn't aware until later in life that gender was another structure that constrained people's lives and ambitions," she says. "It's certainly something I've been aware of as a faculty member at Stanford, and as a woman in a profession and a place that doesn't have very many women faculty."

With Estelle Freedman, professor of history and director of the program in Feminist Studies, Satz recently applied for and received funding from Robert Weisberg, vice provost for faculty recruitment and development, to begin a mentoring program for junior and senior women faculty in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The first lunch session to launch the program is scheduled for May 8.

"A number of us in the Faculty Women's Caucus have been concerned about morale among junior faculty women, and Debra and I wanted to find a way to share some of the lessons senior women have learned about academic survival," says Freedman, who waged her own exhausting campaign to overturn a decanal decision and win tenure in 1983.

Satz adds, "I'm concerned about the very low number of tenured women at Stanford. I think it's a fair question to ask, in the light of these numbers, what kind of environment Stanford is for women."

Antiracism course

Satz's undergraduate courses and graduate seminars explore issues that range from cooperation to corruption. The introductory class in political philosophy she teaches each fall consistently draws around 90 students who read the work of Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Marx and Rawls, and write term papers about whether it's fair for some people to be richer than others.

Two years ago Satz also began to offer Philosophy 177: Antiracism, Multiculturalism and Common Humanity, a course that tackles current fears and addresses society's aspirations. She says the challenge of the course is to move students to think beyond their own identities to the relationships they share.

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