Ten (more) commandments

I was pottering around the garden and my spade hit something solid.  Another stone?  No.  It was two platinum-iridium plates, with markings I could not make out.  But it was sunny, so I put on my polarizing Raybans.  Suddenly, scales fell from my eyes, and I could read the Old Irish, written in Ogham runes.  The plates commanded me to convey this message unto you.  (I did take pics of the plates to prove all this, but my phone fell in the fishpond. Then a funnel cloud sucked them up.  Backing up my wheelchair, I ran over my magic Raybans.  But I remember every word, as dictated by the Angel Anti-Moron.)  The plates begin, for reasons not given unto me, at number XI. 


XI. Thou shalt have no gods that were merely elected.

XII. Thou shalt not make unto thee any face mask of one layer, nor of mixed raiment, nor having a breathing valve. Thou shalt always wear a mask when amongst the people. So commands the LORD.

XIII. Thou shalt not take in vain the name of any actual epidemiologist who has an actual PhD, neither shalt thou mob them on Twitter nor dox them.

XIV.  Remember that every day is precious and keep it holy.  Thou shalt not waste thy time. Nor mine.

XV.  Honour thy friends and thy medics, that thy days among men shall be long and healthy.

XVI. Thou shalt not infect others, not even thy teachers, parents, parishioners, nor grandparents.

XVII.  Thou shalt not hook up with random people, not even when there is nothing on Netflix.

XVIII. Thou shalt pay just taxes and enter into fair agreements with thy debtors. All thine income shalt thou declare. Thou shalt not profiteer, for the LORD also knows how to calculate compound interest, and thy debt shall never be repaid.

XIX. Thou shalt not forward false news, nor free-ride on the kindness of thy neighbour.  So commands the LORD thy God.

XX. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s work-from-home job, nor his balcony, nor his garden, nor his social bubble.  As much as thou canst spare, shalt thou share. And then, in union, you shall vote the morons out.



The tablets ended here. As far as I recall.

When ‘good faith’ goes bad

In law and in life, it matters that people act ‘in good faith’.  Bona fides varies in different contexts, but the main idea idea is that beliefs expressed are sincerely held as true or acceptable, and that cooperative actions are undertaken in a spirit of honesty.  That sounds like a good thing.  Sometimes it even excuses or mitigates conduct that would otherwise be wrong: ‘At least he was acting in good faith.’

The law of contract carries an implied covenant of good faith: the parties are held to a presumption that they deal honestly and fairly with each other, aiming for a mutually agreeable deal, not a plot to destroy someone.  In employment law, one cannot refuse reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, though the fact that something is a ‘bona fide occupational requirement’—genuinely necessary to the job—will deflect a claim of discrimination.  (An airline need not hire a blind pilot—not for now, anyway.)

But satisfying a principle of bona fides can be neutral, or even bad, in particular circumstances.  Knowing that someone has said something, or done something, in good faith can make things worse.

Some things said by politicians are said in bad faith. Perhaps some Russians believe homosexuality is a Western import, that gay men prey on children, and that homosexuality is contagious.  But I doubt Putin really believes that.  He may be evil, but he is not stupid, as current leaders of the superpowers go. Putin says and supports these things only to pander to his ‘base’, thinking—perhaps rightly—that some of them believe it.  But I think he knows it is all malarkey, and I will assume he came to know that in the right way for it to count as knowledge. Putin’s pandering is in bad faith; it is strategic, aimed not at sincerity or truth but at power. So we subtract moral marks for pandering and dishonesty, but not for being irresponsible in forming his beliefs. Putin knows the truth, and we can give him one mark for that. 

Suppose, now, that that a western Lawyer campaigns against non-discrimination protections for gay people, resists teaching children about the variety of human sexual interests, and opposes same-sex marriage.  He labours, not on behalf of a paying client, but intellectually and politically to keep gay people in their place. Still: he is not pandering.  He is aware that his views stain him (in societies that aspire to any form of liberalism) as comical, even contemptible.  There is hardly anyone left with such views to whom he might pander.  But—I here assume—the beliefs on which he bases his views are not only manifestly false, but also that it is open to him to find that out.  He just fails, as philosopher John Rawls puts it, to bear ‘the burdens of judgment.’  He does not eschew lively argument.  Far from it–he is a model Millian controversialist. He knows how to assemble propositions into paragraphs that look a lot like arguments.  Some even turn out to be valid (though not sound). He never insults or growls; he calmly explains and argues.

In my hypothetical, Putin gets a moral minus for monstrous conduct, but a modest plus for knowing the truth. Lawyer, however, gets two minuses. Like Putin, he promotes policies that are unjust and inhumane.  Unlike Putin, he sincerely believes them, and in all bona fides.  Putin grasps the truth but refuses to let it shape his conduct. Lawyer persists in falsehoods (a strict liability offence in this case) with complete sincerity. He acts in good faith, but here bona fides makes his character, and our world, not better but worse. If Lawyer were just a hack or a hired gun, we might care less. But he believes this stuff. Putin has a vice in his heart. Lawyer has a vice in his heart, and another in his head.

And so it is with some who believe: that blacks have failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that the police preserve the rule of law, that vast concentrations of wealth trickle down to the greater benefit the poorest, that face masks poison us with carbon dioxide, and that COVID-19 will disappear like magic, one day this summer.   

Odd as it must sound, I actually hope such folk know that all of this is false, and that they are just displaying their colours, taking the piss, or trying to grab a minute’s attention online.  In that case, we may have something to work with.  But I’m sometimes afraid that their beliefs and attitudes are sincere, and held in complete bona fides. If that is right, we are in big trouble.

The little statue that could

None of us achieved distinction. My father’s people were labourers drifting around Donegal, Derry, and Greenock, wherever work could be found.  My mother’s were scarcely more elevated.  They farmed the West of Scotland, produced one Free Church minister, several masons (and a lot of Masons), and a couple of petty officials. They occupied a lowly niche in the absurd hierarchy of Scotland’s clan system.  Among my seize quartiers, only my mother’s great-grandfather, Hugh Laird, was memorable.

When he was seventeen, Laird joined the 72nd Highlanders and served 12 years in India, based at Mhow as one of the ‘kilties on camels’ who helped brutally suppress the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857-58.  There is no statue to Laird, though the 72nd are magnificently honoured on the Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh.  But Laird received the medal and clasp above, and his name appears on a small memorial statue in our village.  As a child I knew a little about him (but a lot more about the uniforms of the highland regiments).

Yet it was two artefacts—a medal, and a village statue—that created an elective affinity between me, Hugh Laird, the 72nd, and India. You will not be surprised to learn they did not make a schoolboy reflect on Empire, race, or injustice. (You may be surprised to learn that the dispossession, famine, and continuing poverty among my father’s people had already done that.) The only ‘lesson’ I took from Laird is that it was possible to escape. Uniquely in his generation—and very nearly uniquely until mine—Hugh Laird went somewhere else. The rest of us remained within ten miles of where we always had been. My mother’s family were practically indigenous.

But there was a much later ripple.  As a university teacher, I became curious about 1857, the Raj, and even about medieval Indian philosophy: I spent five or six years trying to think through its bearing on the morality of speech.  I planned a book, though other things kept getting in the way of writing it.  When people asked how I ever got interested in any of that, I realized—though rarely said—that it had to do with one old medal and one little statue.   Any number of other things could, and perhaps should, have been more powerful spurs to my interest:  one friend was a Professor of Commonwealth History, another a Professor of Sanskrit; I made my own living as a Professor of the Philosophy of Law.  But for me it took a personal, material connection to care about an old injustice and how we might now help remedy it.

There is nothing generalizable here. That is my point. When Simon Schama says it is silly to suppose that removing statues might ‘erase’ history and that, ‘It is more usually statues, lording it over civic space, which shut off debate in their invitation to reverence’, all I can say is that may be true in some cases. But neither a grand statue in Edinburgh, nor a tiny one in a Scottish village, were able to silence me. Just the contrary. More than anything else I encountered in life, they established a link between me and a country I never visited, an injustice my people never felt, and a civilisation I could admire only from a philosophical distance. I certainly had views about England and Empire, but the racism and oppression I worried about had previously involved only its other provinces.

That tiny connection made me care about what had happened at Mhow and Lucknow, but they never made me proud of it. I never revered the Raj, the 72nd, or even Hugh Laird.  Public artefacts bear social meanings; but how those meanings affect us can be hard to predict. I can think of no more reason why we should be ‘originalists’ about the meaning of statues than about the meaning of statutes.  It rarely matters what a statue meant; what matters is what it now means–and that is often a complex matter.

Your freedoms–and theirs


The COVID-19 pandemic will end when enough people acquire immunity or die, or when we create an effective vaccine (and enough people take it).  Until then, our only hope is to slow transmission by testing, tracing, and isolation; masks, handwashing, and ‘social distancing’.   But most are weary of this, many are anxious, some are angry.  A few now say the cure is worse than the disease, not because of the health or economic costs of the mitigations, but because they involve giving up something beyond price—freedom.

The first thing to notice is that most of our actual mitigation strategies are advisory or prohibitive, not preventative.  Advice limits no one’s freedom, and a legal prohibition, or the imposition of a legal duty, limits freedom only when it is enforced or when a credible threat of enforcement renders an action infeasible. In most places, with respect to most strategies, enforcement remains the exception.  Advice and prohibitions make some people angry, but you can be very angry while remaining perfectly free.

The second thing to notice is that, when freedom is at stake, it appears on both sides of the equation.  Ill health itself limits our freedom to do a wide range of things, and not only for the twenty percent of victims who end up hospitalized or who suffer irreversible lung or kidney damage.  Weeks of poor health is a real restriction on anyone.  Those who refuse precautions or who insist on large indoor gatherings impose on others the risk of a freedom-limiting illness.  The others can avoid that risk only at the sacrifice of their own freedoms, for example, by staying home to avoid the negligent and the reckless.  In a pandemic, our freedoms are interlinked.

Admittedly, there are disagreements about freedom.  Some philosophers say these turn on people having different ‘concepts’ of freedom; others say that we have various ‘conceptions of the concept’ of freedom. (It can only be a matter of time before someone says that we have different ‘concepts of a conception of a concept’ of freedom.)  My own view is parsimonious.  I think we are free to do what we can actually do, and not free to do what we cannot do because we are prevented from doing it or because the action has been made infeasible.  What we disagree about is why freedom and unfreedom matter.

Some people hate restrictions just because they hate anyone making them do things they don’t want to do. (Teenagers, and some libertarians, tend to fall into this class.)  For others, unfreedom is of concern only if it also limits their autonomy, the power to shape their lives to fit their needs and character, as JS Mill put it.  Being forced to wear a mask while shopping may outrage the first group, but not the second because (save in special cases) wearing a mask does not limit any further activities.  A third group have still narrower concerns.  They only chafe under unfreedoms they judge to be imposed arbitrarily or unreasonably, in which cases they think they are being ‘dominated’.  These are all real disagreements, but they are fundamentally disagreements about the value of particular freedoms, not about freedom’s nature.

The disagreements are nonetheless likely to affect people’s willingness to comply with measures necessary for linked freedoms to be preserved.  We tend to imagine that the free-rider (the non-masker, the crowd-basker, the anti-vaxxer) is always a simple cheat trying to take the rest of us for suckers.  There are plenty of those.  And I doubt we can demonstrate that they are always making some kind of logical error or disappearing into a self-defeating vortex of egoism.  We need other tools to deal with cheaters.

David Hume—no pessimist about human nature–recognized this when he wrote about the ‘sensible knave’ who thinks it reasonable to reap the benefits of social cooperation while refusing to chip in on the costs.  ‘That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions: and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.’  Hume’s answer is only this:  ‘I must confess that, if a man think that this reasoning much requires an answer, it would be a little difficult to find any which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing.’  That is: if you find yourself dealing with someone who genuinely wants you to prove, on his own premises, that he shouldn’t cheat, you will come up dry.  But Hume wondered how many such people we really encounter.  Almost everyone has some fellow-feeling.  The photo at the top may make you despair at the selfish vectors of new infections.  But look carefully—at this photo or other similar ones—and you’ll see that the reckless have come to the party without their parents or their children.  Most people care about some other people.  We can try to widen that circle.

And we can remember that not every self-styled freedom-fighter is a ‘sensible knave’.  Freedom is what it is.  But it is a lot easier to comply with restrictions if you judge the costs to be lower because you think the freedoms lost are less important than the freedom gained.  People make such tradeoffs all the time.  Is there any way to build consensus around which freedoms are, in the end, not really that valuable?  I am not confident, though it seems to me that the Teacher is right when he says, ‘Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion.’  Perhaps we could start there.





COVID-19, from where I sit

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What will things be like after COVID-19?   At least in rich countries, there will be a time after this pandemic.  I do not think it will be soon.  And, for reasons not here pertinent, I am unlikely to see it. But I think I see, perhaps darkly, some features of your future.  We now know that parts of many jobs—and all of some jobs—will be done remotely. ‘Working from home,’ we now say.

Some predictions about how that could change our lives will prove as comically wrong as travel by jetpack.  It will not stop the climate crisis, eliminate cars, or move all shopping online.  It will not reverse—it may exacerbate—the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power that scar capitalist societies.  ‘Essential workers’ will need to show up, and they will still be paid—if they are lucky—no more than their marginal product. In the medium term, the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ will grow, so their wages may even go down.

But for people whose access to work is limited mainly by disability, especially by mobility impairments, things may improve.  At least, they will if equality and employment law remain roughly as they are in the more decent societies.  Many countries have something like the following regime:  employers may not discriminate against people on grounds of disability, and they have a positive duty to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ or ‘adjustments’ in employment so that people with disabilities can participate with dignity and on fair terms.  What is ‘reasonable’ is contested.  An employee has to be able to do the job, but need not do it in the time, manner, or with the efficiency of one with no disability.  The point of equality law is to put a thumb on the scale in favour of disabled employees.  For nearly all employers that means a cost, and often a nuisance as well.  Compliance is therefore patchy.

As my own mobility declined (I use a wheelchair), I discovered that even attentive employers struggle to understand, never mind accommodate, disability.  I have never encountered ill-will or indifference, but plenty of incomprehension and dithering. And, incredibly, I have seen institutions that draw on the public purse build or renovate in ways that introduce new barriers to access.  (The distinguished Canadian lawyer, David Lepofsky, rightly says that this should be a red line.)  But here is the good news.  Everyone now knows that significant aspects of some jobs can be done off-site.  We know this is possible because it is actual.  (Legal philosophers: take note.)  Classes, seminars, lectures, and meetings are being offered in new ways because, well, for now we have no choice.

Some of these are imperfect substitutes for ‘the real thing’.  They will be dropped, as general practices, just as soon as it is safe to do so.  But—and here is my point—for some employees they will become not only feasible but required forms of accommodation.  An academic ‘manager’ once told me, ‘We already have the most flexible work conditions there could be!’  They did not mean to suggest a flexibility including the right to work at a time or place that accommodates a disability.  (Nor did they have in mind casualized teachers: they meant tenured law professors.)   But COVID-19 has taught us that there are, after all, flexibilities we never noticed.

Not everyone who could ‘work from home’ should have a right to work from home. And, really, how many would want to?  But some should have that right, including some people with disabilities.  I would rather we had learned this some other way, but at least we have learned it.  I hope you remember it when this disaster passes.

Jurisprudence in a pandemic

Jean & Charles Miller HardingCharles_Reynaud_1901

In the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, a philosophy professor posted in the social media a cry of despair: he was having trouble ‘working from home,’ knowing that almost any work he might do would be less important than anything he could do that would help others.  A friend quipped, ‘It took the pandemic to make you see that?’

I have no doubt that the philosopher had at hand all the familiar replies: (a) we have a contractual obligation to do our work, but not to help a frail neighbour get groceries; (b) we have our own lives to lead and are already set on them; we are not resources for the use of others;  (c) we refuse to be taken for suckers, and our colleagues are getting on with their work; (d) our work may not be helping others, but at least it isn’t hurting anyone.

Those are, in ordinary circumstances, good reasons for not conscripting us to help those to whom we owe no special obligations.  But in our actual circumstances, they are pretty weak reasons for deciding to do nothing to help anyone outside our households.

As terrible as this pandemic is, we have not yet reached the point where general conscription is justified.   But any of us can now change the balance between getting on with our research (or scholarship, or whatever) and attending to someone else.  Most of us could do so without coming close to breach of contract, abandoning our lives, becoming doormats, or hurting more than we help.  The most senior and best paid among us can do so at no significant cost to ourselves or even our careers.  So why don’t we?

An easy answer is selfishness.  But I have come to think that explanation is too easy.  It isn’t merely that when we are dependent on reciprocity selfishness can be self-defeating.  I  think it isn’t as easy to be selfish as some assume.  It takes discipline and effort to bring yourself to care mostly about your profession, your recondite passions, trivial marks of distinction, or purely positional goods.  We were taught the necessary skills as students.  Many of us then adopted principles that reinforced those skills.  For some, keeping faith with those principles became an end in itself.  It was hard work, and did not come naturally.

To think a narrow selfishness is the academic’s default is as wrong as thinking that bias is the default disposition of a judge.  Left to themselves, many judges would be decent.  It takes a deep commitment to the rule of law to be willing to apply, consistently and without exception, any and all existing laws, no matter what they are or how they affect people.  That disposition is not impartiality: it is a willingness to give full effect to the biases encoded in the law. Without discipline, an ordinary (human) judge is liable to veer off into justice, humanity, or common sense.  Solomon’s wisdom did not lie in his skill at applying rules.

My guess is that academics (in my own fields, anyway) are less selfish than we are embarrassed to help. Admittedly, a few seem without shame in explaining to epidemiologists how the pandemic will progress, or to all of us how we should value human lives against the stock markets.  But they are outliers.  Many of us feel ashamed at now having so little to contribute to the public good, especially if we were educated (as I was) entirely at the public expense.

One remedy is to remember how much we can do that is non-specific.  Any of us can help someone (the housekeeper, the gig worker, the laid-off server) fill in the forms that stand between them and the benefits our ravaged welfare states still provide.  Before heading to the grocery store, any of us can ask someone what we can pick up for them—and not,  by the way, by saying  ‘Let me know if you ever need help.’  We know, or can easily find, people who always need help.  Don’t expect them to supplicate.  We also probably have phones, as well as the numbers of people who just need to talk. (And not, unless you are under 25, by texting.)

We omit these small services, not because we are selfish, because it is hard to admit that these are the only sorts of things that many of us in good jobs, ‘working from home,’ can do for others.  We feel embarrassed that we have little more to offer.  We wish for something grander, something that would display our expertise, perhaps leading to acknowledgment of how smart and important we really are.  That is not selfishness.  But it does exhibit, shall we say, an unhealthy relationship with one’s self.












A Lenten thought on good Samaritans


In an article published twenty-years ago, Christopher Wellman introduced legal philosophers to the idea that the duty to obey the law might be based on a duty to do one’s fair share in assisting others.  For reasons that puzzled me, Kit called these ‘Samaritan duties.’  The paper deserved and got lots of discussion, and ‘Samaritan duties’ entered the jurisprudential vocabulary.  I’ve heard someone say Catalans owe a ‘Samaritan duty’ not to seek independence from Spain (Catalonia being a more wealthy part of a less wealthy country), and last week a desperate unionist even told me that Scots now have a ‘Samaritan duty’ not to abandon the United Kingdom (Scotland being a relatively humane part of an increasingly inhumane country).

I admired Wellman’s article, and still do, though I think his argument mistaken.  (Admiring things one considers mistaken used to be normal amongst philosophers.)  But I never understood why Kit thought a duty of beneficence was particularly ‘Samaritan’.  I had one lawyerly worry and one philosophical worry.

Our legal systems have two mechanisms that push back against the selfishness they often aid and abet.  The first is the duty of (easy) rescue, more common in civilian systems than in common law.  The second is not a duty but an immunity.  ‘Good Samaritan statutes’ protect certain people from liability when their good-faith attempts to help others go wrong. A duty to help is different from a Samaritan immunity, though both can deflect tort liability.  So why didn’t Wellman just say his theory was based on a duty to rescue, or more generally on a duty of beneficence?  It was (to me) confusing.

More important than nomenclature, however, is the fact that the Samaritan story in Luke’s gospel (10:25) is not there to teach us to help others in need.  That principle was already entrenched in the Hebrew scriptures and would have been well known to the priest and the Levite who crossed the road to avoid the man robbed, stripped and left for dead.   Nothing in Luke’s story intimates that priests or Levites were devotees of Ayn Rand.  The theological point is that a body in that state could have been ritually unclean—a corpse–so  Jews would then face a conflict of duties: to get close up and help, and to stay away from what could be a dead body.    (Today we might think of American evangelicals who say they are to love all sinners, and also that America has a duty to keep out destitute migrants, who could be rapists and drug dealers.)

The duty to rescue is simply taken for granted by Luke. And not easy rescue:  the hated Samaritan goes far beyond that.  What then is the point?  Remember the context.  A lawyer (νομικός) is trying to trip up (ἐκπειράζων) Jesus, an illiterate peasant getting too big for his boots.  The lawyer asks what he should do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus returns with the question: What do the scriptures say?  The lawyer recites the answer they both know well.  It includes the duty to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Lev. 19:18) The crunch follows. The lawyer thinks he has now cornered Jesus and asks, ‘and who is my neighbour (τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον)?  The tone of the question is: and exactly who is my neighbour?  Where exactly do we draw the line?  Jesus’ shocking, over-the-top, answer is absolutely anyone you can actually help, even an enemy, and even at very substantial cost to yourself.

There is something wonderfully anti-nominian in the parable.  Every lawyer knows tactical uses of the question ‘but where would we draw the line?’  But they do not always know that it demands different responses in different contexts.

In North America, we approach not only Lent but income tax season, in which those with resources pay lawyers and accountants get just as close as they can to the line between tax avoidance and tax evasion.  Maybe that is OK.  But in other contexts, our attitude to law’s lines should be: ‘stay well back!’  How do we draw the line between enhanced interrogation and torture, between persuasion and coercion, between misleading and outright fraud?  There is no good, general, answer.  But when we have the line, we should not be trying to get as close to it as we might get away with.

Law is filled with ‘line-drawing exercises’.  It is part of the law’s function to lay down lines in areas where, absent law, no lines exist.  We need lines for guidance, and sometimes for fairness.  But the Good Samaritan parable is mainly about the spirit in which we are to approach law’s lines.  If a ritual duty forbids touching what could be a corpse, the Samaritan duty tells us to push up hard against the artificial line dividing reasonable fear and opportunistic avoidance, even at significant cost to ourselves.

How do we distinguish lines that we may push up against from lines from which we should stay back?  I don’t know, and Luke gives us no help.  But it seems to me that when it comes to the destitute and despised, we do well to push up hard against whatever line suggests we may or should leave them to die by the roadside, or in the refugee camp.








Research, Scholarship, and Curating


For the first time in ages, I did some research.  I do not mean I did whatever it is that, when added to my teaching and administrative duties, sums to 100% of my contractual obligations as a university professor.  I mean I researched something—I found out something I didn’t know, but which was there to be known. (‘What authority do Scottish courts now accord the 17th century ‘institutional’ writers, such as Erskine and Stair?’ There is a [vague] answer to this question, and I found out what it is.)

I also often try to find out what others are saying about things I’m interested in: so I do look at periodical databases, SSRN, Westlaw, and so forth.  But that’s not really ‘doing research’.  What’s more, that once-common activity of ‘keeping up with the literature’ has become, like visiting parish churches, the pastime of a certain class only.  An influential philosopher told me he never reads the journals anymore:  he has his own work to get on with.  It takes a certain kind of person to assume that everyone else is waiting for your next, while you have nothing to gain from their last.  (A kind of person now well represented in my subjects, and I suspect in the humanities more generally.)

But if I’m not doing research in jurisprudence, what exactly, or even roughly, have I been doing all these years?  For a long time, I thought that it should be classified as scholarship.  I arrived at that conclusion by applying this rough test:

R=df:  If your failure, or delay, in writing something means someone else might do it first, then you’re doing research.

 S=df:  If your failure in writing something means that no one else will ever do it, then you’re doing scholarship.

I think you get the drift.  But the definition of scholarship proves over-inclusive. No one else is going to write your poems either, and not just because of the metaphysical necessity of origins.  It’s just that, if you don’t write them, they are not going to get written by anyone. There weren’t competing crews working on a Toy Boat, then Ocean Vuong’s crew crossed the line first.  But that doesn’t make Toy Boat a piece of scholarship.

My definition also struggles with historical studies.  In principle, someone else might be working on A History of Freemasonry in Kilbarchan, and might publish before you; but his will not be your history.  Indeed, if your history is any good, it is unlikely to be just like his.  He will approach your shared subject with different preoccupations, background, and maybe even methods.  Still, both of your histories are likely to include, or produce, research.

I’ve now come to think that, not just my definitions, but my dichotomy of research and scholarship is too crude.  I am now wondering whether we might think of some of our work in jurisprudence, or in philosophy more generally, as more like curating. (I wanted to write ‘curacy’, but OED tells me the word has been taken.)   Like research, curating can find out things; like scholarship it can communicate things in a way unique to, or bearing the indelible imprint of, the creator.  But curating also does something else.

A curator attempts to care for knowledge and culture we already have.  Not by freezing it or ensuring no others can touch it, but by conserving it while placing it in a new context, or displaying it from a new angle, or in the company of new ideas, so as to make it intelligible and perhaps useful to those who follow us.  A curator protects what we already know (and value), not only against forgetting, but also against the disintegrating forces of self-importance (including national self-importance) and against the blaring noise of the news cycle.

At the end of his play, The History Boys, Alan Bennet gives the closing words to Hector, the childlike schoolmaster whose career is ruined by his fumbling and fondling affection for the boys.  But it is Hector, not the smarmy if effective Irwin (another, even more tragic, closet-case) who actually gives the boys an education.  Irwin merely teaches them how to game the system and win places at Oxford.  Yet Hector does neither research nor scholarship: he recites, assembles, displays and, especially, places in the context of their world some truths the boys need to know.  Mostly, they are things everyone already knows, but which cannot be counted on to survive without care.  Some truths are fragile:

“Irwin He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching any more.

Scripps No. Love apart, it is the only education worth having.

Hector Pass the parcel.

            That’s sometimes all you can do.

            Take it, feel it and pass it on.

            Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.

            Pass it on, boys.

            That’s the game I wanted you to learn.

            Pass it on.”

The thought is put more sentimentally than we should in jurisprudence or philosophy.  But Hector’s core idea now seems true to me—some of what we do, and some of what we should be doing—is neither research nor scholarship, but ‘passing the parcel’, in the hope that it will be of value to someone, somewhere, one day.  It’s a decent, and honest, ambition.



Free Speech and Pronouns


Suppose someone asks to be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun: ‘their’, or maybe ‘ze’.   (A) Do you have to do it?  (B) Is it wrong if you don’t?  (C) Does anyone else have the right to require you to do it?  The answers are:  (A) Yes;  (B) Normally; and (C) Sometimes.

(A) We have a social obligation to address people and refer to them in the way they prefer. If your friend wants to be called Daniel and not Dan, then Daniel it is.  If Dad wants to be called Dad and not Bob, you call him Dad.  If Ms. Ahmed marries Mr. Mackenzie, you continue to call her ‘Ms. Ahmed’ unless and until she tells you otherwise—you never insist on ‘Mrs. Mackenzie’ against her wishes.  You call an instructor ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ as appropriate, unless invited to call them something else.  (Especially in the case of women. They earned their titles, yet often suffer ‘Miss,’ or even ‘Judy,’ from people who reflexively acknowledge the authority of male instructors.)

(B)   At the same time, a breach of a social obligation isn’t always a big deal, morally speaking. You shouldn’t wear a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral, and you shouldn’t smoke in a friend’s company without permission.  But these are matters of etiquette, not morality.  Why is deliberate mis-naming different? People’s names, titles, and pronouns are part of their identity, and to deliberately address them in a way other than they wish is a gratuitous insult.  That is wrong in itself.  But it is also to presuppose that they are to be admitted to your conversational world only on your terms, not on their own.  That is not only offensive to them, it is also an offence against them.  Of course, there are exceptions.  If you oppose titles of nobility or religious nomenclature, you have no duty to call someone ‘Lord Black’ or ‘Father Brown’, even if their bearers prefer it.  But what if you firmly believe married women should take their husband’s names, because St Paul said something that, in your view, requires that?  Doesn’t that make it morally permissible for you to insist on calling Ms. Ahmed ‘Mrs. Mackenzie’?   No: Love your neighbour as yourself.  And grow up.

(C)  Now, what about free speech? Even if mis-naming is a breach of social obligation, and even when it is also a breach of moral duty, doesn’t the free speech principle prohibit others requiring me to address people as they wish.  Isn’t that my call?  Who is anyone to boss me around?

It is hard to believe, but a Canadian professor of psychology (who insists on ‘Dr. Peterson’ from the press) thought that this would amount to ‘silent slavery with all the repression and resentment that that will generate.’ Knowing even less about the law than he apparently does about psychology, Dr. Peterson fears that pronominal intransigence might expose him to hate speech prosecution.  It would not.  But it might, and I think it should, expose him to discipline on his campus.

Universities are not just public platforms; we have work to do.  One aspect of that work is teaching students in an environment in which they can learn without distraction and, in particular, without being insulted or needlessly exposed to risk.  To insist on calling transgender students (or faculty) by anything other than the name and pronouns they prefer is a gratuitous insult.  (See above, (B): ‘Grow up’.)  More important, students cannot learn effectively when subjected to regular offence or humiliation from their instructors.  So take your opposition to the ‘silent slavery’ of pronouns to Youtube or Hyde Park Corner, where your audiences are not captive.

Mis-naming can sometimes be worse than an insult.  Imagine an anti-Semitic professor who thinks far too many Jews are admitted to his university.  Imagine it is already dangerous for Jewish students on campus. The professor breaches no other laws or regulations, but does insist on mis-naming his Jewish students:  He knows that Green’s father changed the family name from ‘Greenberg’, so that is what he calls Green.  He pronounces all middle-European names ‘correctly’, to emphasize their foreignness:  ‘Weidenfeld’ gets ‘Vy-den-feldt’, never ‘Wy-dun-feld’.  Mike always gets ‘Micah’.  And so on.  If challenged,  he says his mis-naming is merely correcting errors.  He says his purpose in doing that is to highlight Jewish over-representation.  His secondary purpose–he also says–is to stand up for free speech, and to strike back at ‘social justice warriors’ who are trying to sell people like him into ‘silent slavery’.  The effect of his behaviour is that Jewish students are now even more anxious than before, for he has made them visible targets for anti-semitic discrimination, or worse.

There used to be instructors like this.  (Perhaps in some places they still exist.) But there are now many more instructors like Dr. Peterson, who insist on their right to call transgender students by a previous name (perhaps the one on their application form) or to refer to them by what he considers to be their genitally mandated pronouns.  Where transgender people are at risk of discrimination and violence—which is to say, everywhere—this marks them as targets, even if the actual discrimination or assault is left to others.

But isn’t that effectively to ban discussion of transgender rights or (in the case of the Jewish students) to cramp exploration of admission policies?   Of course not.  Prohibiting deliberate mis-naming would be a reasonable time, manner, and place regulation in a university classroom. There is no ‘slavery’ here, silent or otherwise.  Then what about ‘all the … resentment that that would generate’?  Feelings of resentment are partially within our control.   The case for campus speech regulations is at the same time a case for learning to control one’s resentments.  If they prove intractable to rational control, there is always psychotherapy.




Law, Norms, Hate, Porn, Progress, Gender

Some thoughts on these things: in an interview with Richard Marshall.

Marshall has had to migrate his interviews with philosophers to this new site, owing to a hecklers’ veto of 3:AM magazine (as it then was). I’m glad to see he is keeping up his work, and not grovelling to the Twitter mobs.

‘[W]henever you see someone groveling to another person or flattering him insincerely, you can confidently say that this man also is not free, and not only if he is doing it for the sake of a meager meal but even if he is hoping for a governorship or a consulship. Call people who act like this for small things petty slaves, and call the others, as they deserve, slaves on the grand scale.’

Epictetus, Discourses, 3 (trans A.A. Long)