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AGNES TAM

Postdoctoral Fellow
Social Justice Centre, Concordia University
Banting Postdoctoral Fellow
Research Group on Constitutional Studies, McGill University
Incoming Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Calgary

 
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ABOUT ME

I am an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary beginning July 2022. I am currently completing a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Social Justice Centre of Concordia University, and during the 2021 and 2022 academic year, I will join the Research Group on Constitutional Studies at McGill University as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow. I received my PhD in Philosophy from Queen’s University, and hold an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and an LLB from the University of Hong Kong.


My research focuses on the empirical and normative phenomena of group agency and reasoning, and their implications for ethics and politics. My doctoral thesis titled “Norms, Reasons, and Moral Progress” developed a novel normative theory of group reasoning, called “We”-reasoning. In contrast to the widespread view in moral and political philosophy, I show that partial and conformist groups can rationally revise their group norms, under conditions of solidarity, trust, and trustworthiness. My work on We-reasoning has been published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, Analyse & Kritik and through Routledge.


My long-term research agenda is to center the “We”-perspective in political philosophy. Recently, more and more political philosophers recognize that peace, human rights and justice cannot be maintained solely by entrenching liberal norms such as neutrality, equality, and autonomy. They turn to social norms, such as trust, solidarity, remembrance and forgiveness, and explore their roles in motivating citizen support for liberal-democratic institutions. While welcoming this “social turn,” I believe that the normative foundations, requirements, institutions, and limits of these social norms remain poorly understood. I further believe that we cannot fully understand these questions from the perspective of the autonomous “I”-perspective nor the impartial perspective of the universe. To the contrary, we must begin from the “We”-perspective of the committed members of groups, a perspective which has been sidelined as communitarianism waned in the 1990s. I plan to advance the social turn by renewing and deepening our understanding of “We”-perspective with my theory of We-reasoning along four dimensions: ontology, epistemology, ethics, and institutions.


Currently, my research focuses on the ethical and institutional dimensions of We-reasoning. In particular, I study the nature of two political We-groups—“We-the-People” and “We-the-Partisans,” how their (mis)uses of We-reasoning give rise to social and political ills, such as democratic backsliding, unjust exclusion, excessive tribalism, and what normative and institutional remedies can rehabilitate We-reasoning from its abuses and excesses.


Before graduate school, I worked as a legal advocate in local and international animal protection organizations. My advocacy work has been featured by Hong Kong media. I am an affiliated scholar with the research cluster Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics at Queen's University.

Outside of philosophy, I enjoy teaching and doing group fitness. I'm a certified Les Mills instructor for BodyCombat, BodyBalance, and TONE. If you cannot find me at the gym or in the study, I'm probably in the mountains or hanging out with animals somewhere.  

 

RESEARCH

DOCTORAL DISSERTATION

Norms, Reasons, and Moral Progress

Committee: Will Kymlicka (Chair), Jackie Davies, Colin Farrelly, Margaret Moore (Internal), Joseph Heath (External)

Defended without revisions on May 1st, 2020

The dissertation offered a new answer to an old puzzle: Why do people continue immoral practices even though they know them to be morally wrong? Drawing on philosophy of social science, I argued that group agents often feel obligated to defer to their group norms, even if the latter contradict the agents’ personal moral understanding. More controversially, I argued that this obligation can be legitimate, insofar as the relevant group norms are grounded in We-constitutive joint commitments. Viewed this way, the gap between moral knowledge and moral action cannot be reduced to failures of individual moral agency or reasoning. It is due partly to a common problem of group agency: our partial obligations to We-constitutive joint commitments override our impartial obligations to universal morality. This raises a new puzzle for moral progress: How should groups revise their group norms in line with moral norms? I developed a novel solution: We-reasoning. It is a normative account of group reasoning, according to which groups re-interpret and revise their norms through partial attitudes of deference, trustworthiness, and solidarity, while respecting their deepest joint commitments. An important implication follows from this: in contrast to the widespread view in moral philosophy, partial and conformist groupthink need not be an obstacle to moral progress. In the form of We-reasoning, it can even facilitate moral progress.

PUBLICATIONS

2020. Why Moral Reasoning is Insufficient for Moral Progress

Journal of Political Philosophy 28(1): 73-96.


In the literature on moral progress, there is a major puzzle: Why do people commit moral wrongs even though they know them to be morally wrong? I offer a solution to the puzzle by distinguishing social norms from moral norms and explaining the interplay between the two. I have shown that the social norms (i.e., peer expectations) of particular groups can conflict with universally valid moral norms; and when they conflict, social norms often take precedence. This is because most people value social goods (e.g., social honour, social trust, group belonging) that conformity to social norms brings more than they value rightness. I have further traced the significance of the phenomenon of social norms for the field of moral learning. There is a longstanding view in moral philosophy that conformist and partial reasoning in groups is inferior to critical, reflective moral reasoning of individuals. I have challenged this view. Insofar as moral progress requires changing harmful social norms, we need both moral reasoning and group reasoning to identify distinctly “We”-reasons for the relevant groups to revise their social norms. Using the history of British abolitionism, I have demonstrated that years of moral reasoning alone was unable to abolish the slave trade. It was the conformist and partial group reasoning, displayed during the abolitionist social movement, that crucially transformed the British collective understanding of how the slave trade violated their norm of national honour. (Author's draft. Please refer to the published version for citation purposes.)

2020. The Legitimacy of Groups: Toward a We-Reasoning View

Analyse & Kritik 42(2):343-367 

In liberal political philosophy, a prevalent view holds that groups are typically voluntary associations. Members of voluntary associations can accept, revise or reject group practices as a matter of choice. In this article, I challenge this view. Appealing to the concept of joint commitment developed in philosophy of social science, I argue that individuals who jointly commit their wills to a goal or a belief form a “We”-group. Members of “We”-groups are under an obligation to defer to “Our” will embodied in “Our” norms as a matter of course. I further show the ubiquity of We-groups. This joint commitment account of group authority raises a much-overlooked question of group legitimacy: Do members have good reasons to obey norms of their group? I show that state-centric views of legitimacy are inapt to answer it. A group-centric view, revived from the old communitarian literature, is defended.

2021. A Case for Political-Epistemic Trust

In Social Trust (Vallier and Weber), Routledge, 220-41 

In this book chapter, I explore the essential but neglected role of epistemic trust in political philosophy, and how the norm of epistemic trustworthiness can help us improve the operation of epistemic trust. Most political epistemologists believe that epistemic trust is a vice because it is prone to abuse in a political domain characterized by corruption. To avoid ignorance, many argue that it is important to foster the virtues of epistemic vigilance and epistemic autonomy. I have qualified such a view on two grounds. First, given the complexity of political knowledge, epistemic trust for average citizens is inevitable. Second, drawing on social epistemology, I have shown that the social norm of epistemic trustworthiness is operative even in much of political life, giving agents strong motivational reason to be sincere. This opens up space for political epistemologists to improve the intelligence of trust by strengthening the social norm of epistemic trustworthiness. I have suggested that solidarity has a key role to play in this endeavour.

Forthcoming. Being Popular and Being Just: How Animal Protection Organizations Can Be Both. (With Will Kymlicka)

In Ethics of Animal Shelters (Giroux, Pepper and Voigt), Oxford University Press. 

WORKS IN PROGRESS

"Solidarity beyond the Barricades" (in preparation)

“Do liberals have to fear identity-expressive populism?” (in preparation)

“How Not to Respond to Populism” (in preparation)

“We-Reasoning: A New Ethic of Joint Interpretation” (in preparation)


“Social Ontology for Political Philosophy” (in preparation)


“Institutionalizing We-reasoning: The Role of Parties and Electoral Politics” (in preparation)

PUBLIC WRITING

2019. 如果良知不夠用,逆權運動該如何走下去?[The Limits of Conscience: How to Continue Hong Kong’s Anti-Authoritarian Struggle?] (in Chinese)

TheStandNews.

I explain what and how social norms can be leveraged to empower the ongoing democratic movement in Hong Kong. In addition, I identify some potential norm-entrepreneurs and discuss ways in which they can help embed the ideals of freedom and democracy into their group norms. The importance of a We-the-Hongkongers identity is highlighted if the social norm strategy is to be used. (Link)

 
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TEACHING

I have teaching interests in moral, social, and political philosophy and have teaching experience beyond them. I was a Teaching Fellow for the course Animals and Society at Queen's Department of Philosophy in Winter 2019. I also served as a Teaching Assistant at the same department between 2014 and 2017 for introductory, lower-level as well as upper-level undergraduate courses, covering a wide range of subjects including history of philosophy, ethics, and applied ethics. In 2017, I was awarded the Departmental Teaching Excellence Award for my assistance in the course Ancient Philosophy. In 2013, I was a Teaching Assistant for the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, running tutorials and grading examinations for courses on Chinese Philosophy. In 2011, I served as a Research Assistant to Professor Chad Hansen at the same department to help develop two new introductory courses Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought and Ancient Chinese Political Theory and Rule of Law.

 

COURSES

Animals and Society (2019)

While the scientific understanding of animal cognition, emotion, and sociability has evolved significantly over the past decades, our social institutions and practices in relation to animals remain more or less exploitative. We continue to raise and kill animals for human purposes, destroy their habitat, and drive species into extinction. As a part of the burgeoning and interdisciplinary field of animal studies, this course examines human-animal interactions in our social practices, urban spaces, capitalist economies, liberal-democratic politics, and legal systems. As a philosophical inquiry, this course introduces a wide range of normative frameworks to critically evaluate these human-animal interactions and identify ways to improve them. (Syllabus)

TEACHING PRACTICES AND EFFECTIVENESS

To make philosophy relevant to everyday life, I adopt a problem-based approach to learning. To engage students of diverse cultures, interests, and abilities, I encourage active participation through diverse modes of learning and assessment (e.g. games, debates, group presentations), use IT extensively,  and foster openness in the classroom. Here are students attesting to the effectiveness of my teaching in the course Animals and Society

ANIMAL ADVOCACY

Many of our current moral norms, social norms, and legal norms governing human-animal relationships are deeply problematic. This page documents some of my past efforts to change them.

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FEATURED IN A TV DOCUDRAMA EPISODE "A LEGAL JOURNEY: IMPRINT OF THE TIMES"

My struggles as a right of abode fighter and animal advocate in Hong Kong were featured in an episode of the TV docudrama series titled A Legal Journey co-produced by the Radio Television Hong Kong and the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong tracing the latter's journey of legal education and contribution to the rule of law, justice, and humanity in Hong Kong. At the interview, I discussed how my legal education at the University taught me about the value as well as the limits of the law through the lenses of rights of abode and animal rights.

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PHILOSOPHERS IN ACTION WITH MONTREAL SPCA

I was a contributor to the SSHRC-funded project titled Animal Welfare Organizations: Responding to Ethical Challenges jointly organized by the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRÉ), the Groupe de recherche en éthique environnementale et animale

 (GREÉA), and the Montreal SPCA. In October 2018, a team of moral philosophers met with the staff members of Montreal SPCA to discuss their ethical challenges in daily operation. We drafted and submitted ethical guidelines and policy recommendations to the Montreal SPCA in March 2019. As part of the project, Will Kymlicka and I presented a talk titled The Role for Social Norms in Applied Ethics: A Case Study from Vegan Advocacy at a symposium in March 2019.  

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CHANGING FOOD NORMS ON CAMPUS

In 2018, I collaborated with animal and environmental activists at Queen’s University to change the social norm of meat-eating on campus. Guided by my research findings about the power of peer expectations and the importance of trusted authorities in inspiring change, I helped identify the key norm-entrepreneurs (including the Sustainability Office, the Kinesiology & Health Studies and Department of Gender Studies) to lead a “Vegan Pledge” campaign, with the goal to foster new peer expectations about sustainable campus. The campaign garnered 20 departments/units and over 300 students to join, and ended with the University’s implementation of vegan chef training and increased supply of vegan options on campus.

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INTERVIEW WITH HONG KONG LAWYER

In this 2011 interview, I discussed with Wilda Fong from Hong Kong Lawyer (the official journal of the Law Society of Hong Kong) about my work as a cruelty case and legal officer for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Asia), the major animal welfare issues in Hong Kong and China, and the loopholes in Hong Kong's animal protection legislation.

 

CONTACT

Email: agnestny [at] gmail [dot] com