Maggie Little grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, the youngest daughter of a computer consultant and an insurance executive. She has one brother and a sister. From on early age, she started asking the big questions about life. Her curiosity led her to pursue the study of philosophy. Most of her work has focused in some form or another on ethics. She is currently an associate professor in Georgetown University’s philosophy department and a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, a think-tank specializing in bioethics. She is also finishing a book entitled Intimate Duties: Re-Thinking Abortion, the Law, and Morality.
What kind of values were important while you were growing up?
Being an all around good person. We were definitely Midwestern. I identify with that very strongly, so wasn’t achievement oriented in the external sense of you’re supposed to make it to Harvard or MIT. I didn’t even know about that sort of thing. My parents are very intellectually curious without being academically pushy.
How did that manifest itself?
Nothing fancy or notable. I remember my mom loving Upstairs, Downstairs from Masterpiece Theater instead of watching soap operas on the usual channels. My dad would read books about John Adams and the American Revolution along with detective novels. It was just a little bit bigger of a world than the usual Des Moines, Iowa, but not by much, so it didn’t feel strange or alienating.
What kind of activities did you enjoy while growing up?
Beginning around junior high I just started doing everything. I was one of those kids. For a while I baked all the bread that my family ate. I took a weaving class in seventh grade. We were very smitten with prairie life. So my friend and I got sheep’s wool, carded it ,and made our own dye from the plants around the house and knitted very, very bad sweaters; we quilted. My dad would make porringers -what the Puritans ate off of – wooden trench-like things. It was a very cute household in that sense. Then starting in ninth grade I got into debate, which was just wonderful for me, because it was very cerebral and intense. It fit my personality.
What made you get into debate?
I had a friend who I think was a year older and she was already in the debate club. She knew I would be a good match, because I talked really fast and talked a lot which was the main thing. I was very academic. I can’t say I was a nerd, because I was more socially happy than that, but just very intellectually-oriented without understanding that I was. I skipped a grade when I was in second grade. It was all very low key. When they would get my test results back, I didn’t understand they were notable test results.
And your parents didn’t fawn over you because of that?
Not at all. They were much more concerned about giving me opportunities, but not drawing any attention to anything. My dad ran the computer center at a university; when I was a junior in high school, my dad said to my sister and me (my brother had already left home), “Why don’t you take college classes. Sounds like you’re a little bored in high school.” He could get us in free, so we took college classes. Again, he didn’t make a deal of it, but he gave us those chances.
What kind of classes did you take?
I took a philosophy class. From a pretty early age (I didn’t know there was a name for it), I was really drawn to those very abstract theoretical questions-the whole universe thing.
How would you rate the influence of your parents? Were they your only role models or did you have any people outside of your parents that were mentors?
I would rate them as amazing and wonderful influences. They were just fabulous, making the world a safe and open place for me as opposed to [thinking] I want to do what theyor other loving adults in my life were doing.
A lot of that was because philosophy is a weird way to be in the world and I didn’t see anything like who I was in the world that I grew up with-outside of debate where people were similarly just obsessed with ideas. That didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t see myself – that specific way of thinking and being in the world – reflected in anyone around me until I went to college and met philosophers.
I still remember the day my mom had taken me to the University of Iowa where I went to undergrad. I had the course catalog and I opened the page and found there was this whole thing called philosophy. There were all these classes about did God exist, do we have free will, is morality objective. It was like there is another universe out there. I was in the back seat of our car. I was seventeen years old. I’ll never forget it.
Specifically, at what point did you get turned onto those ideas?
I’ve talked to other people who have ended up in philosophy. Many of us have similar stories of always thinking of things a little bit different than others. So I never remember a time that I didn’t wonder. For instance, I was a very compassionate kid, but at the same time I also wondered why should we be good to other people, what’s the grounding of that? I was very taken with the question of does God exist and how much do we have to sacrifice for others.
Were you reading any particular books that weren’t typical for your age while growing up?
I don’t think so. My sister was much more of the reader. I went to a very fine competent public high school. Maybe these days kids read philosophers in high school, but I hadn’t even heard of that. The closest were English classes where you’d read some novel that got into the existential condition. I remember reading and being very struck by Camus, but that’s just because we read it in class.
Was your household particularly religious, too?
At the time mom and dad were quite religious. They were Episcopalians. It wasn’t a restrictive environment. It was very worldly – joy is good. Nothing puritanical. The church we went to was fairly intellectual and had a youth group where people would talk about the history of the church. In that sense, it was a good match. I took it very seriously. I was much more religious than anybody else in the household for a few years in junior high. I think it was because of that philosophical temperament of seeing religion as asking those very deep questions. I remember Mom and Dad being worried, because I was taking it to an extreme. They had a meeting with someone high up in the church about me apparently. The guy warned them, “If she keeps up like this, she’s going to turn into an atheist, because that’s what happens.” And it is what happened. He was right. [Laughs] My parents were good about all that. They just went with the flow.
In what way were you extreme?
Again, this was when I was quite young, maybe even fifth and sixth grade. I would look back and say I had OCD. I prayed compulsively and I thought I should have to give up all of my allowance. I didn’t think we should stop at the donut store on Sunday after church. You’re not supposed to, because God said the Sabbath is the day of rest. I remember having theological discussions as a sixth grader with the pastor of our church. It was very sweet. He was no match, because I was taking it seriously, giving these intellectual arguments. He either needed to give better intellectual arguments or say with a smile, “Darling, you’re obsessed. This isn’t about rationality.” Either one of those would have been more helpful perhaps.
What broke the spell?
I’m not completely sure. It was reaching a head, getting more distressing, and getting in the way of my life more and more, which is what happens to kids with OCD. One of the things I did was obsessively pick up litter off the ground, so I was late for school all the time because I felt compelled. One day Dad, who got us ready for school in the morning, said, ” Oh, the little pieces will dissolve and someone else will pick up the big pieces. Why don’t I give you a ride today?” What I really understood was he was just giving me a way out. I seem to recall that as significant, just letting things shift in myself a little bit more. Then it just went away. I’ve learned since it’s not unusual for that age-that’s the age of onset. A lot people get better as in my case.
Did you stand out in high school? What drove you to do more as a teenager? What drove you to excel?
I was valedictorian. I was great at debate. I was one of the state champions and I got all A’s and all that. Looking back, it was a function of two things. One was the kind of perfectionism that makes sense with a broad profile of OCD. It felt intolerable to me to get a B. None of this was from my family, not from my school. It wasn’t like some kids these days that get placed into that high-pressure situation. It was probably all internal from brain chemistry.
At the same time, I was a very happy kid, and studying hard was almost like having been a fish out of water then discovering water. Really hard ideas that made my head hurt made me so happy. I couldn’t get enough of it in a positive sense. I went to the University of Iowa – that’s all we could afford – and it was just a smaller pond. I didn’t know there were bigger aspirations, so it was very protective. In certain ways, it was really a nice way to start, but at any rate I went to college early because I skipped a grade.
I took my first philosophy class – Introduction to Philosophy – and the professor was a fabulous professor. I was really lucky. He was really hard. When I handed him my final, he followed me out and said, “You know, you should think about taking another philosophy class. You’re really good at this.” It was a very lovely thing to say. It was even lovelier that he didn’t make fun of me, because I turned to him and said in all seriousness, “Oh, I know. I’m going to be a philosophy professor when I grow up.” [Laughs] I was seventeen. I had one class at the University of Iowa where rarely anyone even majored in philosophy. He was so sweet. He smiled and said, “That’s really great.” But I did know and I just never looked back, for better or worse.
You thought about being a philosophy professor when you were taking that class or did you know before in high school?
I knew the summer going into college, because I found out you can major in philosophy. That’s when I knew, which is just wild to me. One of my really good friends, who is a colleague of mine in the philosophy department, was a chess genius and concert trumpeter first, and only in his third year of college discovered philosophy. He’s brilliant at it. It’s not everybody who knows that was the only thing for them early on, but it’s also not unusual just like in math.
Who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes Scholarship?
What really made a difference was one of the junior faculty in the philosophy department who had done his D. Phil. at Oxford. I don’t think he was a Rhodes, but he had hung out in England and he had seen the Rhodes folks. He saw that I was good at philosophy. And Oxford, especially at the time, was a fabulous, first-rate place to do philosophy training and so he suggested I apply for the Rhodes. When I got to Oxford there certainly was a cohort like me who were there for advanced degrees, but we were smaller than the general cohort which was for the most part wonderfully smart, caring, committed, active, well-rounded people who wanted to go for another undergraduate degree, go on and do. I was only there because it was a fantastic place to do philosophy.
What was your sport?
This is a good story. I had none. I went up [for the Rhodes] in 1983 and my own armchair theorizing is that this was perhaps a reflection of the specific district I went through and the people who were on the committee. [Note: Oxford admitted the first class of women Rhodes Scholars in 1977.] It was still relatively recent and I always wondered if [the committee] did think in a progressive way that putting a little less emphasis on sport would be a way to help women get through. I don’t know. But I do remember very vividly the first level of interviews in Iowa: the last question was, “We noticed that you didn’t say anything about sports on your application. Do you do any physical activity?” I looked at them and I said very carefully, “I have canoed.” They said, “Great.” And that was the end of that.
Were you well traveled before you went to Oxford?
I had never been out of the country in my life.
Had you been to the East or West Coast?
I had never been to the East or West Coast. I had been to Chicago, Florida, and New Orleans. I had seen a lot of the South. We took road trips all across the Midwest, so I didn’t feel like I had never been out of Iowa.
How did your experience at Oxford blow your mind so to speak, if it did?
It did. The differentness of it struck me, because of never having been out of the country. I was really excited. The whole idea of being in a different country conceptually was amazing. I still remember the plane ride over. At the back of my mind I was thinking, “They speak English there, it’s just England, what an easy transition to a foreign country.” But it’s really different in teeny concrete ways. Never before having experienced what it all means to be in a different country, I was struck by all the little details. The electrical plugs were different. They put peas on top of their pizza.
Mostly what blew my mind was the B. Phil. The course I was taking was just unbelievably difficult, challenging, hard, exhausting, and angst-making.
I was given my first tutor because he was at my college. I didn’t know going in, but soon found out that he was one of the most famous philosophers at Oxford. He’s gone on to be one of the most famous English speaking philosophers in the world. He’s also famous for being opaque. He speaks almost mystically. I was just lost in the one-on-one tutorials and on topics I had chosen that I thought I had at least a background for. I had no idea what the man was saying. I switched tutors quickly and I had a much better time.
What have you taken away from being a Rhodes Scholar and used in your present day life? Were there any lessons you learned from your Oxford experience?
I’ve taken away a lot. I would say huge gratitude for that specific opportunity – the opportunity for getting outside of Iowa and getting to do this amazing degree. I learned about myself. I experienced some of my bigger flaws of perfectionism which I then worked on, because they were too painful to just keep. I also found a confirmation of fearlessness. I never felt intimidated and there was plenty to feel intimidated by. Some of that is my Midwestern upbringing which is if you sit by the Queen (not that I did), you just strike up a conversation. But an example is at University College they had a dining society, which simply meant all the graduate students doing advanced degrees in philosophy and political theory met one night a term. There were maybe six of us. In one of these very fancy, small paneled dining rooms, they would bring in the most famous philosophers from Oxford as guests with the head of the college and serve many, many courses. I had never had a five-course meal in my life. I learned what grape shears were, which were the scissors they passed.
At any rate, here are two stories. One, I had only one dress, because that was life. I wore the same dress to the dinner each term, and at one point in the second year the head of the college must have been having a bad night. I was sitting right next to him and he said for the whole table to hear, “My dear, isn’t that the dress you wore last time?” I just looked at him and said, “It most certainly is,” and kept on eating. Clearly, he was being rude. That was his problem.
Another time, they passed the Madeira, claret, and port at the end [of dinner] and you have three little glasses in front of you. I never had fortified wine in my life, so I just took one and poured it. Then one of the very famous philosophers said, “My dear, you poured Madeira in your port glass” for the whole table [to hear] again. I just smiled.
You weren’t embarrassed?
No. It was clearly about them, not me. One way to put it is they were trading in an economy of superiority. That was all about class distinctions. It would be like a punk rocker telling me that my outfit wasn’t quite edgy enough — You’re right. It’s not edgy enough. Next. That’s what it felt like.
How do you approach failure?
Much differently now.
How did you handle it before?
Very badly. [Laughs] Boring classic perfectionist. Just textbook page 32. I would work my ass off and I would always think I failed and it turned out that I got an A+.
When you did fail, what happened? How did you handle challenges?
This is not admirable: I just didn’t fail. The times that I came close, I dropped out. I pulled away. It was incredible risk aversion combined with working too hard. I remember getting an interim grade in a French conversation class, which I was taking because I knew quite a bit of French and I liked it. I was getting – hold steady – a B+. I dropped the class while you can still withdraw, which I think is appalling.
One of the things I do in my life now and pass onto my graduate students, who tend often to be perfectionists, too, is choose some areas in your life where you are only aiming for C+, choose some where you’re aiming for a B+, and choose some where you put your passions and go for the brass ring. If you never splat on your face, you haven’t risked enough. All those things are clearer to me now, partly because I saw how narrow your world could be when you think it all has to be perfect.
What do you think helped change your perspective?
Some of what helped me was at Oxford. Oxford doesn’t have grades on the B. Phil. so you get no feedback. You do tutorials and at the end of two years you sit exams and you pass or fail. That’s so horrifying to a perfectionist.
Because you need that constant feedback.
Exactly. I was starved of it even when I switched tutors. My second tutor was warm in a certain way, but very formal and contained. He did not say “good job,” but he also didn’t say “bad job.” He wasn’t about assessing me. He was about training me to get through the comps. I learned painfully and slowly. I’d study and write my papers. He’d tell me what worked and didn’t work about it. We went on. By the time the exams came, I didn’t know that they graded them and gave rankings. It turned out that I got the second highest of my B. Phil. class. It was a really different experience for me, because I was so thrilled just that I had passed and done decently. It weaned me off of it’s-an-A-or-nothing. I remember one of my classmates, who found out that I got second, asked, “Aren’t you pissed you didn’t get top?” I looked at him and I thought, I have changed, because that never entered my mind. I was just really pleased that I had done a good job.
So what do you think has been the best day in your life so far? Or most memorable?
What comes to mind is the perfect Sunday with my family when the sun is shining, the kids are all happy, we’ve just come back from the farmers’ market, and I’m chopping in the kitchen. Those are the best days because it’s against the backdrop having the most amazing job. I love my department; we’re a family. I also have my husband and two amazing daughters. We have so much fun together. So it’s the days the life that I have comes physically to the fore and it’s not an achievement day or something like that.
After Oxford did you take time off or did you go straight to graduate school?
No, which was so stupid. My husband and I both decided to go and get Ph.D.s so we applied straight from Oxford, but I was so burnt out. And I was so arrogant the first semester, because I was so exhausted. At Oxford you don’t get your results back until July 1st. Berkeley, where we went for PhDs, started early and they were making me do all these required classes. I got out of only two classes. It was just back to lecture or seminar, and I had just been through studying with these amazing people one on one. So it just really felt like a bureaucratic hurdle. Then it got much better. Berkeley is just a gorgeous place to be and I made great friends. It quickly got better, but the first semester was hard.
What are the three things that you like about what you do?
I adore mentoring graduate students. I spend a lot of time doing that. I love the research that I do. I now do a lot of bioethics, so it has an application to the real world with public policy. I chat with doctors, people at the FDA and the NIH. In particular, I work with issues on women’s reproduction-abortion, pregnancy, etc. That just feels empowering and great. I love my department. A lot of academic departments are very begrudging places. But our department is an incredibly fun, smart family. There are kids up and down the hallways.
Are you head of that department?
No, I am tenured member. The third thing I like about my job: I am full-time member of the philosophy department, but I also have an appointment at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics which is a think tank that specializes in bioethics. As part of that, I have a half-time teaching load, so I just teach one course a semester. I love teaching, but when you teach more than that you can’t love it as much, because you’re spending your time grading, which is just mind- and soul-numbing work. So I get to really pour my heart into it and love just about every minute of it.
What do you teach exactly?
I teach ethics; applied ethics, ethical theory, feminist theory, and the metaphysics of ethics — Are ethics objective? Are there truths? Do we make it all up?
You tell your grad students about reaching about the A+, B+, C+ in their lives. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What sort of mentor are you? What kind of advice do you give younger people?
A lot of the mentoring is trying to give a supportive context in which I can give pretty blunt feedback. I really think of it as mid-wifing. The midwife can help, sustain, and facilitate all your efforts and teach you things you don’t know, but at the end of the day you have to push the baby out. I see dissertations as just the same and they hurt just about as much. But you really need to be accompanied through the process. It can be very lonely being a dissertation student. Dissertation mentors can be very laissez-faire, especially in the humanities where it’s not a lab model. In biology you get company because you’re doing projects together, but philosophy tends to be solo authored. It’s usually, “Well, you’re a grown up now. I’m sure everything is fine. Just email me when you want to meet.” That works for some students but they are a minority. Most students need more structure, feedback, connection, and engagement to do their best and most creative work. They need space to take risks and make mistakes because that’s how the better philosophy is usually made.
There’s a wonderful book called Necessary Dreams. It’s two different books in one. The author, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, has done a lot of research on women’s ambivalence towards ambition — how some embrace it, some run from it and the themes that determine that. It’s a great book for that sort of feminist insight. But she also talks about the conditions that are needed to sustain agency, so often even amongst people who innately feel very confident or have lots of talents. She talks about something as simple as recognition, by which she means really seeing somebody in the exercise of something they are masterful at and articulating it. It is a real model for how I try to mentor.
One of my views is that, most people, even if they are neurotic, find the truth comforting when it’s given in the context of sympathetic connection. So when my grad students are lost, I tell them to email me and say in the subject heading “I’m stuck. Can we meet?” Then I can hear what they’re saying. In the context of that connection I can also say, for example, “You really are tackling the difficult problem head on. That’s great, and I can see this aspect is working,but really the piece has a big fat hole in the center. Let’s talk about that.” It’s comforting because someone is saying what they have been suspecting. If you just try to give cheerful, false reassurance, it can make people more anxious.
What is your perspective about work in terms of life in general? What do you see as the role of work in someone’s life?
Obviously, for many, many people work is what you do to put food on the table. That’s very honorable. I come from the Midwest, so that’s just baseline. You don’t try to get out of that and it’s not a sign of failure if that’s your job – you’re already doing something great-you can feed your family. If you are lucky enough to find something that you’re passionate about, then it becomes one of the intrinsic goods of your life. But that’s all completely different from the achievement model, where you measure success by external measures of prestige. For some professions it’s money. For some professions, like academics, it’s not about money; i t is about where you’re published and what institution you’re at.
Roughly speaking, all of that is bull. Everybody has got their ego issues, but you should figure out what are the things that really do sustain you. I don’t want to pretend ego away. I distinguish between what I call “ego candy” and real conditions of flourishing, as Aristotle would call it. So ego candy are things like somebody offering you a job from a great institution or asking you to give a talk at a fancy event. Ego candy is fabulous. My kids’ equivalent is sugar and TV. It’s totally fabulous, but don’t think you can live on it.
What would you say to someone about going beyond leading a mediocre life and leading a rich, fulfilling life?
There are a few different distinctions in there. I get very uncomfortable by that word “mediocre” but only because it presses what are the criteria of mediocrity. And this is why the Rhodes people are not necessarily leading more than a mediocre life.
I did meet a lot of amazing wonderful people, but the public’s perception is probably that they are above average on those external-oriented criteria. They got the fancy scholarship, went to the fancy place, have fancy jobs.
I think even getting to the point of the Rhodes Scholarship shows something about the spirit or the type of person.
Yes, but honestly, many times what it shows about the spirit is that they are going for those external notions of success. I met people who were resume padders from the age of two years old. I served on the selection committee for many years and we could just sniff them out. The selection committees from the Midwest tended not to reward that, but that’s not true of all districts. It’s a mixed bag, and certainly there are many wonderful people who apply for that scholarship, who choose to do what isn’t just conventional. All I’m emphasizing is, for some of these kids it’s exactly what’s conventional. It’s what Pop and Ma have been telling them since they got into private nursery school. So, distinguish between the cocktail party story of your life. You’re the person who has to live that life. So is it a life you find at the end of the day meaningful to you? If it does, you’re really lucky, because it does take a lot of luck.
What about the notion of using your talents for effective service to the world?
Yes, that one I love. That’s a big one.
Have you always tried to do that, even before the Rhodes?
Yes. I was always searching for a way to serve the broader world, obviously in ways that felt like it gave me personal enjoyment. I could provide more utility for the world if I had become a lawyer and gave all the money away, but I would hate every second of it. So I didn’t do that. The version I found is becoming what I call the intellectual activist. I don’t mean a political activist. I don’t spend time lobbying directly, but I try to come up with frameworks for thinking about issues that are women centered that can speak to people, like abortion and good medical guidelines for pregnancy delivery.
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Ana Fels