Sunday, November 11, 2018

Henry David Thoreau: A Question of Character?

This is a brief excerpt from a book I am writing, The Philosophy of Henry Thoreau, forthcoming next year from Bloomsbury.
There is one more thing that I need to discuss before I move on from the subject of Thoreau's life: what you might call the issue of his character.  Henry Thoreau inspires some surprisingly – surprising to me at any rate – negative reactions in people. I have never forgotten how shocked I was when, upon first reading selections from Walden as an assignment in a high school English class, I came to class the next day and found that virtually all the comments the students made – and the teacher as well! – were utterly hostile. I think I was the only one who defended him.
I got the impression that people felt that in criticizing how Americans live he was criticizing them and they took it personally, and some of the comments about him were really attacks on him as a person. Many of the attacks I have seen on him since, at least in the non-scholarly press, were also quite personal. Not long ago there was an essay about him, in a very prominent magazine, titled “Pond Scum,” and from the title you can pretty well guess the tone of the criticisms it contained.i
Some personal attacks on Thoreau are simply cases of the ad hominem fallacy, the attempt to discredit an argument by discrediting the person who presents it. If it is done well, an ad hominen attack makes it hard to take the target argument seriously, at least if it comes from that particular presenter. It is as if they can talk all they want, but their microphone has been turned off. Their messages will not be received.
But not all attacks on Thoreau as a person are ad hominem. His great subject was the greatest of them all: How should we live? As he attacks this question in Walden, he sets himself up as some sort of example. This opens him to personal attack: certain sorts of personal criticisms become logically relevant. He says “you people don't really have to do so-and-so, and the proof is that I don't do so-and-so.” But he did do so and so! Therefore maybe you do have to do so-and-so, or at least his own case fails to prove you don't. That sort of attack is not a fallacy. It has merit, provided that it does get it right about what he is saying, and gets its facts straight about what he actually did.
A case in point is the comment we sometimes hear, that while he was at Walden he had his mother do his laundry. Actually I hear it a lot. As Rebecca Solnit has said, there is no important writer in world literature whose laundry arrangements are so often a subject of comment. There is even a web site where you can buy a Thoreau laundry bag.ii
What might be said in response to this criticism? Thoreau's most recent biographer points out that it involves a historical mistake, as middle class women in those days, women like Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, did not do their own laundry, let alone that of their adult offspring. Such housekeeping chores were done by servants, typically Irish immigrants.iii But of course the allegation would remain that somebody other than Henry did the chore. What of that? I suppose the proper response depends on what the objection is actually supposed to be. To me, this is by no means obvious. I strongly suspect that it is a charge of hypocrisy, that the charge is that he is haughtily setting himself up as someone who does or does not do something or other, and that this pretense is belied by his cleaning arrangements. Maybe the idea is that in Walden he is saying something like: “You people don't need help from anybody. Look at me! I lived at Walden as an isolated hermit and never took anyone's help!” As we will see later, in case it is not already obvious, this would be a stunningly wrong-headed misinterpretation of what he is saying.
Then again, maybe the charge is that Henry was a freeloader, a moocher who took from others and gave nothing in return. But the idea of “Thoreau the Freeloader,” if that is the idea, is nearly as false as the old myth of “Thoreau the Loafer” [answered earlier in this chapter].  It is true that for nearly all of his life he lived in the house of his parents, but it is also true that he paid them rent. We find meticulous records he kept of the amounts paid in his papers, sometimes on the backs of poems he was working on.iv He also did a substantial amount of the work of building the first house that the family owned, the the one they called the “Texas house.” He also did many repair and maintenance jobs around the house. Every year he planted an elaborate garden, thus making a substantial contribution of food to the family. Clearly, he believed in paying your way if you can, and he could.
Again, maybe the charge is something more sophisticated, something like this: “Thoreau's economic project, of reducing his needs to a minimum so that he can spend a minimal amount of time working for pay, is only possible because he is part of an economy that is highly productive precisely because most people do not live that way, but produce goods and services full time. It assumes that most people a not living as he is.” Another comment that I sometimes hear that might represent the same line of reasoning is the claim that during the stay at Walden Henry often dined out, at the Thoreau family table or those of the Emersons or the Alcotts or the Hosmers: the idea being that the Walden project was subsidized by those who were not participating in it. I have spoken with economists who raised this objection. Whether this is a sound one depends in part on just what his project is and what sorts of claims he is making about it. These are matters that I will discuss in later chapters. For the moment I would only point out that this sophisticated version of the objection is no longer a charge of hypocrisy, but rather an economic or philosophical objection to his (alleged) theory. The objection is that it is only feasible if most people don't follow it.
i Kathryn Schulz, “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia,” The New Yorker, October 19 2015, pp. 40-45.
ii Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved,” Orion Magazine;May/Jun2013, Vol. 32 Issue 3, p. 18 and ff. She presents an amusing series of examples of this comment, some quite silly.
iii Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau, p. 534, n. 40.
iv Solnit, p. 21. I believe the original source for this bit of information is Franklin Sanborn, Thoreau's friend and early biographer, but I have not been able to locate the place where he says this.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Responsibility Is Not Like a Glass of Juice

There is a certain habit of reasoning about morality that is completely erroneous, though it is very common and does a lot of mischief. And yet, strangely enough, I have never seen it identified and dissected.

It sometimes goes like is:

A: “You did it! You are to blame!”
B: “The blame is not all mine: you are to blame too.”

If B means “and,therefore, I am less to blame” then is is the error at I am talking about. The idea is that moral responsibility obeys a law of conservation, like a fluid. If I have a glass of orange juice, and you take half, there is only half left for me. There can't be more juice just because you took a share. As the juice is distributed, the different shares must always sum to 100% of the original store.

Moral responsibility is not like this. Suppose that I hire you to murder Joe Blow, my worst enemy, and we succeed. Joe is killed. We can both be fully responsible. How is this possible? How can responibility for this one event sum to 200%? Well, you could say that responibility is not a fluid, like orange juice. Or you could say, more pretentiously, that it does not occupy physical space, like the glass of juice. It exists in moral space. Morality is not a branch of fluid dynamics. But there is actually a more straighforward explanation. Responsibility does not attach to events, like Joe's being killed, but to people, like you and me. That I am fully responsible simply means that 1) it was wrong, 2) it was my doing, and 3) there are no exuses or justifications that would diminish my liability to blame or punishment. In a criminal conspiracy, where there is one event, such as the killing of Joe, that is the doing of more than one person, each can be fully responsible for the same event simply because they all meet all three of these conditions.

The orange juice picture of responibility is not, strictly speaking, a logical fallacy. It is simply the application of a false theory. If the fluid dynamics theory were true, it would be perfectly okay. But it isn't, so it's not.

We sometimes see this theory at work on both sides of a dispute. A woman is sexually assaulted and someone says, “Well, you shouln't have been in such a place dressed like that.” If this means, “The blame is partly yours, therefore that share of the blame can be deducted from from the other side,” then this is the error I am talking about. It is the reasoning of the car theif who says “it was your fault for leaving the keys in the igmition. The victim's prudential error, even supposing it is real, is not directly relevant to the blameworthiness of her attacker for his crime. To suppose otherwise is the mistake that people often describe as “blaming the victim.”

On the other hand, I think the concept of “blaming the victim” can itself me a result of the fluid dynamics idea. In particular, it is sometimes angrily invoked to block any faulting of the victim, any suggestion that she could have taken steps to avoid being a victim of crime – because any faulting of the victim, even for purely prudential errors, detracts from the evil of the predators who victimize them. This is obviously the same fundamental error as in the first case. It is a particularly virulent form it, because it tends to block discussions of how to make things better. We should be able to discuss steps that women can take – ranging from common-sense precautions to arming oneself with a gun and learning to use it safely and effectively – without being accused of being part of the problem.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Generosity: Why Is It Much More Important to Some Philosophers that to Others?

This is an article I wrote for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics. I think its interest goes beyond the purely academic, so I'm putting a copy here.
With few exceptions, the moral philosophers of the last several centuries have written little about generosity. Those of the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance periods, however, often treated it as an important subject. Though Plato ignores it, Aristotle devotes a substantial chapter to it, as does Aquina. Indeed, in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics (1119b–1122a) Aristotle recognizes two different virtues that could be regarded as subspecies of generosity: eleutheria (“freedom”) and megaloprepeia (“magnanimity”). Descartes calls generosity “the key of all the virtues, and a general remedy for all the disorders of the passions” in his treatise The Passions of the Soul (Art. 161). Spinoza discusses it at some length in Part IV of his Ethics and treats it as intimately connected with freedom (Propositions 37 and 50–73). After that, philosophers seem to have lost interest in the idea of generosity, until Nietzsche, a philosophical atavist on so many matters, sings the praises of something he calls a “gift-giving virtue” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Part I, Ch. 22). Most likely, Nietzsche’s gift-giving virtue and Spinoza’s generositas are best understood as a super-virtue, a sort of generosity of spirit, of which the trait that we ordinarily call generosity is a natural consequence.

One of the reasons for the decline of interest in generosity is fairly obvious. In premodern Western ethics it was typically assumed that the sort of value ethics is concerned with is something that inheres in the individual person, namely virtue. Virtue was typically supposed to consist of particular traits, such as courage, temperance, or generosity. The typically modern ethical theories – utilitarianism and Kantian deontology – are, essentially, rules for selecting right actions. Determining what is the right thing to do is quite a different matter from seeking to understand what sort of person is a good person. Recent decades have seen a great resurgence of interest in “virtue ethics,” but this has typically been treated as an alternative way of doing what Kantianism and utilitarianism do and has not led to a comparable resurgence of interest in analyzing particular traits, such as generosity.

Another possible reason why generosity was much more highly regarded before modernity set in is political. Moral codes and ethical ideals that place a high value on generosity seem to be most comfortably at home in aristocratic societies. The very adjective generosus, like Aristotle’s eleutherios (whence the derivative noun eleutheriotes, “freedom”), meant “noble”; and the kind of “nobility” originally meant here was one of birth or “generation” (generosus, generare, and genus are words from the same family) – hence it was political in nature. Part of the reason for the aristocrats’ high valuation of generosity must have been their disdain for productive activities. Giving wealth away was thought to be more appropriate for an aristocrat than productively investing it in agricultural land or capital goods. Further, the fact that one has wealth to give away rather than consume is proof of one’s lofty status.

Generosity differs in potentially important ways from other virtues that necessarily involve conferring benefits or detriments upon others (what is sometimes called the “other-regarding virtues”), and some of the differences might shed light on the question of which cultural and ethical systems tend to make generosity an important virtue and which tend to make it less so. Take for instance justice and charity. Justice is sharply different from generosity. Acts that are just – for instance being fair to an opponent, keeping a promise, or giving students the grades they deserve – tend to be required by considerations of justice. On the other hand, one thing that seems to be a necessary condition of generosity is that the act is not required. One gives, not from duty, but from the goodness of one’s heart. Of course, the promptings of the heart are also what typically lies behind charitable contributions. Typically, if the benefit conferred was charitable, it was not given because the giver already owed it to the recipient. To this extent, it resembles generosity. There is, however, a large difference between generosity and charity. “Charity,” at least as the word is used in modern English, refers to attempts to remedy deficiencies, such as poverty and disease. Generosity, on the other hand, is an attempt to confer a positive benefit. Generosity typically takes the form of giving, not alms, but gifts. Charity is a response to evils, while generosity is a response to opportunities to do good.

The notion that justice is the cardinal other-regarding virtue would make more sense in some worldviews than in others. The sorts of Weltanschauungen more congenial to it would have to be ones that see the most meritorious life as one that conforms to the relevant requirements – for instance one that gives a privileged position to quasi-juridical concepts like “duty” and “obligation,” as well as to other concepts that involve an agent’s being bound to do a particular act, such as “debt” and “owing.” Such a view becomes even more congenial to a lofty valuation of justice if we add a strong element of egalitarianism. Egalitarian ideas enable us to see as either unjust many facts – for instance, the fact that one person has a larger income than another – that might otherwise not seem to be so. An egalitarian worldview might well be held by someone who is quite comfortable with being a citizen in a modern, regulated, and bureaucratized welfare state based on some sort of egalitarian ideology – such as those that are characteristic of contemporary Western Europe and of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, placing a high value on charity is obviously congenial to orthodox Christianity, with its emphasis on human sinfulness and frailty and on the inability of humans ultimately to do well without powerful help (such as divine grace).

By the very same reasoning, though, generosity might be of great interest to someone who rebels against the worldviews of modern welfare-state liberalism and Christianity. This attitude is one of the factors that motivate the work of Hunt and Machan on generosity. The other-regarding traits of character connect us with our fellow human beings and thus color the quality and the very meaning of our lives. A highly valued virtue of charity connects us with others through their suffering and inability to help themselves. This might well seem like the wrong sort of focus for such an important part of one’s life. Generosity connects us with our fellow human beings though opportunities for advancing their positive well-being. Thus generosity, as a cardinal virtue, can be a fundamental functioning component in a view of life in which human beings are regarded as agents who create value and build their lives, and not primarily as frail and sinful beings in need of help from above. Justice, if sufficiently inflated, creates a social world in which the good we do for others is entirely prescribed, in which everything that is not required is prohibited: a sort of highly regulated economy of the soul. A generous act, on the other hand, is not required but chosen freely. To the extent that one treats generosity as an important other-regarding virtue, one’s ethical relations with others become a realm of moral freedom.


Aquinas, Thomas 1948 [ca. 1273]. Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Bros. (Esp. 1a 2ae: Question 117.)

Aristotle 1985. The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Book IV, Ch. 1 = 1119b–1122a.)

Descartes, René 1989 [1649]. The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen H. Voss. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Articles 156, 159, 161.)

Nietzsche, Friedrich 2006 [1883–5]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. Robert Pippin, trans. Adrian del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Esp. Part I, Ch. 22: “On the Gift-Giving Virtue.”)

Spinoza, Baruch/Benedictus de 2005 [1677]. Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley. London: Penguin Books. (Esp. Part IV, Propositions 37 and 50–73.)
Further Readings

Hunt, Lester H. 1975. “Generosity,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 12, pp. 235–44.

Hunt, Lester H. 1997. “The Unity and Diversity of the Virtues: Generosity and Related Matters,” in Lester H. Hunt, Character and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 55–87.

Kupfer, Joseph 1998. “Generosity of Spirit,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, pp. 357-367.

Machan, Tibor R. 1998. Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society. Washington, DC: The Cato Institute.

Schrift, Alan, ed. 1997. The Logic of the Gift. New York: Routledge.

Wallace, James 1978. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Esp. Ch. 5: “Benevolence.”)

White, Richard 2016. “Nietzsche on Generosity and the Gift-Giving Virtue,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, pp. 348-364.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Lawsuits

Since my original post about Jordan Peterson discrediting himself as a champion of the right to free speech I have gotten a response from more than one person that I would paraphrase like this: Peterson is suing the two professors at Wilfred Laurier University and threatening to sue the one at Bloomsburg University for libel because the former said he is “analogous to Adolf Hitler” and the latter said that he is a “white nationalist” and a “misogynist.” If libel law is not incompatible with free speech then what he is doing is not inconsistent with it.

This is like saying: if a 12-gauge shotgun is not incompatible with free speech, then my pointing one at you and threatening to shoot if you say one more word in defense of Donald Trump is not inconsistent with it.

A lawsuit is an attempt to use government coercion against someone. A threat of one is a threat to coerce. What feature of libel law makes it possible to think this is consistent with free speech? I would put it like this: Libel law does not prohibit points of view or ideas, however bad they might be. The tort of libel consists, roughly, in maliciously harming someone by damaging their reputation by making false statements about them. Moreover, the harm has to be something that is in some way measurable in money, since the whole point of a libel suit is to get compensation for the harm that the plaintiff has suffered.

In all the public pronouncements Peterson has made defending his lawsuit threats and explaining their motives, I have not seen him say one single thing about how these professors have harmed him. What he has said is things like this: “So I think this is a warning, let’s say, to other careless administrators and professors who allow their ideological presuppositions to get the best of them to be a bit more careful with what they say and do.” In other words, he wants to intimidate people with bad ideologies to avoid being led by them into saying objectionable things. This is not the point of libel law. It is, however, the point of typical censorship regulations.

There is an obvious reason why he does not talk about the harms he has suffered. Notice that the professors he is threatening or attempting to coerce teach at Wilfred Laurier University and Bloomsburg University. I was employed as university faculty continuously from 1974 until I retired in 2016, and I never heard of either of these institutions until this case. On the other hand, Peterson is a tenured professor at The University of Toronto – one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Beyond that, he is probably the most prominent professor in the English speaking world right now, at least as far as the mass media are concerned. Every week, hundreds of people (for reasons that I do not pretend to understand) give him thousands of dollars by contributing to his web site.

The idea that comments that one group of these professors made about him in a closed meeting and the other in an obviously intemperate twitter message can damage his professional reputation and cause him damage is patently absurd. However, unsophisticated people who do not understand the law very well can easily be intimidated into silence by threats of a lawsuit from someone who, like Peterson, has vast financial resources, even if the lawsuit is in fact frivolous and groundless and would violate their rights if successful. To deliberately intimidate people into silence by threatening coercion that would violate their rights is itself a violation of their rights: their rights to speak freely.

Jordan Peterson is the biggest kid in the schoolyard, and he is picking on little kids who have no way to harm him, but who do seem to be able to make him very very angry. He is simply a bully, and like any bully he is violating the rights of others: in this case, rights to freedom of speech.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Jordan Peterson Is No Friend of Free Speech

The worst enemies of a controversial opinion are not those who use facts and logic against it. If the opinion has any value, such opposition will only make the opinion stronger and better by provoking better arguments in its favor, or by leading its proponents to to revise it so that it becomes a more nuanced and fully-rounded picture of reality. John Stuart Mill pointed this out long ago, in On Liberty.

No, a much more damaging opponent is the proponent whose behavior is so venal and hypocritical that it gives the impression that people who defend the view have ulterior motives or do not mean what they say. This can bring on a phenomenon that I call “turning off the microphone”: proponents can talk and talk but people will not hear their words. The words will be perceived as a cover for something else, which what is really going on. Turning off the microphone can be a much more effective way to silence an opinion than threatening proponents with legal punishments.

Jordan Peterson is the most conspicuous proponent of free speech in the mass media right now -- unfortunately. He recently discredited himself as a proponent by launching one law suit and threatening another – for things professors have said about him! He even tells one interviewer that his motive it to get professors “to be a bit more careful with what they say.” This of course has been the motive of censors throughout history. Watch what you say, buddy!

Thus he strengthens the case for the old Stanley Fish line that nobody really cares about how much freedom of speech there is, they only care about how it is distributed.  It tends to justify the attitude that was pilloried in the title of Nat Hentoff's classic book, Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee.

His justifications for this behavior reveal his cluelessness as to what freedom of speech is. In one interview he gives two explanations for why his law suits are not inconsistent with his status as a champion and standard-bearer for free speech. First, he claims that the professors who compared his views to those of Hitler “were breaking the law” in doing so. This is an almost incredibly lame argument. As any bright freshman would notice right away, it begs the question – obviously! – of whether the law in question, and his use of it, are themselves violations of the right of free speech. He seems oblivious to this obvious point. His second explanation is marginally less lame:

But there’s always risk in every decision, there’s the risk of doing something, and there’s the risk of not doing something. Both of those risks are usually catastrophic in every decision that you make in life. So I weighed up the risks and I thought, no, the risk here of not doing something is greater than the risk of doing something.

Once again, this is the point of view of the opponents of free speech. Any time you hear someone say that they are going to have to “weigh” or “balance” your freedom of speech against some other value, you can bet that they are going to favor violating your right of free speech. A freedom as fundamental as speech is not about weighing or balancing or compromising anything.

The most familiar argument for the contrary idea fails completely to support it: this is the idea that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater – because it is just too risky. As Alan Dershowitz pointed out once in a lecture, this case is actually not about speech at all. I would be committing exactly the same offense if I simply hit the fire alarm switch, saying absolutely nothing. If someone randomly murders several people by deliberately causing a panic, we will not prosecute them for expressing bad ideas or harmful attitudes. The charge will be some sort of homicide.  Some acts that violate rights involve the use of words and some do not.  What is legitimately a crime is not a viewpoint expressed by the words but the act of which they are a part.

To judge by his behavior, Peterson's advocacy of free speech seems to be an attempt to get something he wants -- for himself and people who agree with him.  That he views it as a right possessed by everyone, even those who say things that he finds abhorrent, is very doubtful at this point.

Advocates of freedom of speech who think that Peterson is their ally should turn their backs on him.  You are known by your associations, and association with him can only contaminate you.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

L’Affaire Ansari, or: Why Etiquette is Important

 Well, the internet slime machine went to work on Caitlyn Flanagan’s piece on L’Affaire Ansari right away.

She’s defending Ansari!  She’s blaming the victim!  I don’t see her as doing either of these things.  I think she is suggesting that we should have a conversation about important matters that seem to have somehow dropped off the map.  She points out that, when she was the age of the pseudonymous “Grace,” young women read articles, even books, that in effect were guides to how to avoid being victimized by men.  Women her age discussed and thought about ideas that could be express as rough rules of thumb, like  these: “A date should not begin with your meeting him alone in his apartment/hotel room/house.”  “Never drink alcohol alone with an older man you hardly know.”  “Be willing to slap his face if necessary.”  “Always have cabfare.  If things go wrong, trusting him to take you home may be a bad idea.”  For the most part, such ideas, and the issues raised by them, seem to be far, far from Grace’s mind.  Should they be?

The attitude behind much of the response to the Flanagan piece and the backlash against the #MeToo movement (a movement that I applaud) seems to be something like this: There is a problem in the land, and the problem is that men are like Ansari.  What is the solution?  Men have to change.  It’s their responsibility, not ours!  I agree.  Change into what?  They have to respect women!  Agree again, but what does that mean in terms of concrete behavior?  Every step in a sexual encounter has to be consented to.  Fine.  What does consent consist of, in terms of actual behavior?  Consent is not mere acquiescence.  It’s more subtle than that.  It can consist of non-verbal cues.  The same is true of refusal of consent.  Men have to learn to noice and respond to these things.

It’s not that I disagree with any of the italicised statements above.  It’s just this: You are asking for a moral revolution.  Well, good!  You might say I’m in the moral revolution business myself.  Always have been.  But if your revolution rests on cues that have to be given and noticed when you are both half-undressed and his tongue is in your yoohoo, then entirely too much work is being done by this abstract notion of “consent.”  Your revolution is going nowhere, because it asks people to do something that they cannot do.  You are asking them to regulate their conduct by abstractions with little obvious concrete meaning.

At the beginning of this republic, Thomas Jefferson realized that the old notions of etiquette and courtesy, which were aristocratic and based on respect for hierarchy, would have to be demolished and replaced by a new democratic etiquette based on respect for everybody.  Obviously, the demolition did happen, but Jefferson’s dream of a new etiquette of respect for persons never took place.  Courtesy was replaced with – nothing.  “Respect” and “consent” are not replacements, because they are high-level abstractions.  They need low-level rules of thumb in order to be applied to actual conduct.  Does a guy who suggests that a first date begin with a woman coming into his apartment, alone, and drink with him, thereby show a lack of respect for her?  I think it is arguable that he does, but my point really is that, whether he does or not, thinking about whether the question gives your idea more body and heft than a mere gaseous abstraction.  Etiquette and casuistry are where the rubber of moral principle hits the road of conduct.  We need to talk about things like this.  And trying to shame those who bring it up into silence by accusing them of “blaming the victim” is really not helpful at all.