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Carl Elliott


Weatherhead Fellow

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor, Department of Philosophy
University of Minnesota

Carl Elliott will be presenting his Scholar Colloquium, “Degradation,” on Wednesday, December 13 at 1:00 p.m. on Zoom.

Paulla Ebron, SAR Wenner-Gren Fellow, 2022-2023

Carl Elliott
Photo courtesy of Carl Elliott


To be degraded is to be reduced in status. Adults feel degraded when they are treated like children; workers feel degraded when they are treated like robots; patients feel degraded when they are treated like medical curiosities. Degradation often involves humiliation, but not always; some people degrade themselves without shame. Nor does degradation necessarily involve people. Sometimes objects are treated in a way that is degrading, such as the desecration of a grave. The currency of degradation is disrespect. If it is possible to imagine someone or something as deserving of respect, it is possible to imagine it degraded when the proper respect is withheld. Degradation and its variants—such as shame and indignity—are unseen forces that shape the modern world. Yet degradation is hard to think clearly about. Who determines whether a practice is degrading? To what extent should we be permitted to degrade ourselves? This project combines philosophical exploration with journalistic investigation. It has three sections: degradation of the body (human taxidermy, research on the brain-dead), degrading actions (public humiliation as punishment, medications that cause bizarre behavior), and degrading work (guinea-pigging, dwarf-tossing). These practices shed light on what we value and where we get our self-respect.