CU Boulder’s Iskra Fileva wins Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest for 2020 essay about dustup surrounding Kobe Bryant’s death and life
Just after basketball star Kobe Bryant died in a 2020 helicopter crash, a journalist tweeted a 2016 article about the sexual assault charge brought against Bryant in 2003. In that time of general mourning, the journalist’s tweet spawned widespread outrage, including death threats and rape threats against the journalist.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed titled “What Do We Owe the Dead?”, philosopher Iskra Fileva, framed the uproar this way:
“Not all people who die were good people. Yet there is strong social pressure to pretend they were, at least for a period of time. Exactly how long a period of time that should be has never been made clear.”
For this essay, Fileva, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, has won the 2021 Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest, sponsored by the American Philosophical Association (APA). She is one of five scholars to win the award this year.
The APA committee on public philosophy sponsors a contest for the best opinion-editorials published by philosophers. The award honors outstanding essays that “successfully blend philosophical argumentation with an op-ed writing style” and that call public attention, directly or indirectly, to the value of philosophical thinking.
In general, Fileva writes, people pretend that the recently deceased were either good or better than they actually were. She suggests potential reasons for this custom, including the notion that the dead can’t defend themselves. But, she notes, living people subjected to furtive gossip suffer more harm than the dead, suggesting that an inability to mount a defense is not the reason for the custom.
Fileva suggests that there’s “something about death itself that motivates us to act as we do” and propels us to behave with restraint. This is evidenced by the fact that we all, including non-religious people who do not believe the dead could hear, lower our voices when in a cemetery. Perhaps, in praising the recently deceased, we attempt to show respect for death itself.
But Fileva argues that the dead, while they are not coming back and, in that sense, belong to death now, previously belonged among the living. “The truth about what they did or didn’t do, how they treated us or others may, in a deep sense, be our own—living—truth.”
Reasonable people can therefore engage in “somber and honest reflection on the person’s entire legacy—the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Quoting Voltaire, she adds, “We owe respect to the living; to the dead, we owe only the truth.”
We owe respect to the living; to the dead, we owe only the truth.”
Fileva earned a PhD in philosophy from Boston University in 2009. She joined the CU Boulder faculty 2014 and is currently a representative on the Honors Council and associate director of the Center for Values and Social Policy. She has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Fileva specializes in moral psychology and issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and psychiatry. She also does works in aesthetics and epistemology.
She is currently working on a book manuscript provisionally titled Character and Values, in which she develops a novel conception of character and uses that conception to tackle problems in the philosophy of character, such as character fragmentation, the role of brute psychological facts in the constitution of character, and the boundary between flawed characters and psychiatric conditions such as such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
She is also the editor of Questions of Character, an interdisciplinary volume of essays featuring work by leading philosophers, psychologists and social scientists. She also writes a blog for Psychology Today.
In 2013, Fileva’s New York Times essay "Character and its Discontents" won the Character Project's Essay Award.