I’m not a neurologist but … I’m told that when the doctor tests your reflexes with that rubber hammer and your lower leg springs forward, the message isn’t going all the way up to the brain. I guess that’s because evolution decided it didn’t need to. And so we get the metaphor of a kneejerk reaction.

Assuming I have the neurology right, the metaphor’s a good one, because a kneejerk reaction – whether it be to a snake or to an insult – is treated in this perfunctory way because further reflection on whatever’s happening would be a burden without compensatory payoff. By the time you’ve deliberated about it the snake would have already struck, or enough time would have passed since the insult that any counter-insult would just be lame. So we don’t deliberate. We just strike out at the snake, or strike back at the insult.

But as with any shortcut algorithm, kneejerk reactions can sometimes get things wrong. And as it turns out there are patterns to these errors. Psychologists – foremost among them Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – have done us yeoman service analyzing these patterns. As it turns out, some are domain-specific, others infect our thinking right across the board. But to our credit, we philosophers scooped these psychologists by several centuries. For example:

If today is Tuesday I have to teach Logic today. I do have to teach Logic today, therefore today is Tuesday. We call this affirming the consequent. We all do it. But the point of taking a critical thinking course is to learn not to do it, though of course the most we can hope for is to do it less often.

There’s a perfectly good reason why we affirm the consequent. More often than not a conditional is just half of a bi-conditional. So notwithstanding affirming the consequent is an invalid inference, more often than not the conclusion turns out to be true anyhow. So the speed with which we get the right answer has a higher payoff than the avoidance of the harm we incur by occasionally getting the wrong answer.

Yet another error in reasoning is denying the antecedent. If there’s steam coming from under the hood the radiator is out of water. There’s no steam coming from under the hood, so the water in the rad must be fine. This, by the way, is how I blew my last engine. But more often then not the water in the rad is fine, which is why we just keep driving.

As with affirming the consequent, we can train our students not to deny the antecedent. But as just noted, our predilection to these errors is domain-specific. And there’s at least one domain in which no amount of training seems to make the slightest difference. That’s the domain we might call ‘issues’.

Do I have an opinion about this or that? Of course I do. I’m pro-Choice. I’m in favor of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. Notwithstanding I’m a Jew I have grave misgivings about Zionism. Notwithstanding I have gave misgivings about Zionism I suspect the Spielberg version of how six million of my co-religionists disappeared is probably pretty close to the way it was. I suspect 9/11 really was the work of nineteen incredibly brave young men and not an Israeli false flag operation. And so on. And if we were sitting in a bar, I’d be more than happy to bend your ear with any or all of these opinions.

But the promotion of none of them is my job as a philosopher. As a philosopher my job is to evaluate the validity of arguments about these and other matters, not pronounce on the truth-value of any end-of-pipe conclusions arising out of them.

I have a colleague down the hall for whom anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is his Precious. Among his argument for AGW is that those who deny it are shills for Big Oil. I point out that this is an invalid argument. (It’s called an ad hominem circumstantial.) He concludes that I too must be an AGW denier. This is just a straightforward case of denying the antecedent. If I deny that shilling against AGW in any way suggests the truth of AGW, then I must be denying the truth of AGW.

This is the kind of mistake I’ve learned to expect from my Intro to Phil of Religion students. I show them how each of the proofs for the existence of God fails, from which they conclude I’m trying to convince them of atheism. I do what I can to disabuse them of this. No, I tell them, absence of proof is not proof of absence. For that proof of absence I direct them to the problem of evil. Only if that can’t be solved, I tell them, do we then have a proof for the non-existence of God, or at least of the God of the Omnis.

But these are our students, many of them straight out of high school, where learning critical thinking skills is judged incompatible with inclusive socialization, or some such nonsense. But my colleague isn’t straight out of high school. He’s paid to have long since mastered these critical thinking skills. So what’s going on?

What’s going on is that True Believing is a critical-thinking-skills paralytic, including paralysis of the skill to recognize that one’s become a True Believer. It’s not that my colleague has so left the building that he can no longer see that he’s using an invalid argument form. It’s that he can no longer see that it matters. What matters, and all that matters, is his crusade.

Fair enough, say I. But what he doesn’t see is that those he thinks he’s trying to proselytize, though they may not know the names of these fallacies, nonetheless have a sixth sense for picking up on these cons. As soon as you stoop to this kind of argumentation, I tell him, you’ve joined your opponents in the gutter. And so all you’ve done is added to the cross-screeching. And when all they hear is cross-screeching, people just stop listening.

Put another way, as soon as you’re not listening to each other, no one else is listening to either of you. You think you’re saving the world from the deceits of the devil, but all you’re really doing is making yourself irrelevant to anything that could count as the conversation. In short, you’ve succumbed to Someone is Wrong on the Internet Syndrome (or SWIS).

SWIS was brilliantly captured in an episode of the West Wing. The Josh Lyman character – in spite of his assistant’s persistent warnings that these people are crazy! – can’t stop himself from correcting what was initially just someone’s innocently critical comment. But then, of course, the thing escalates. This is what you’re buying yourself into once you engage with one of these sites. You think you’re safe, because is just preaching to its own choir. But trolls are no more interested in ‘just the facts Jack’ than you are. They’re just looking for some fun, and like Josh Lyman you’re naive enough to provide it to them.

But maybe it’s fun for you too. Maybe you like showing off your command of what you take to be the ‘facts’, about which no one really gives a fuck. Maybe trolling and counter-trolling is your hobby. Maybe you’re like the gamer who’s forgotten it’s just a game. Maybe you’re becoming just a tad unhinged. Maybe you’ll pull your head out of your ass. Maybe it’s stuck there, and all we can do for you is just leave you alone.

What we can’t do, however, is leave you alone with our students. If they don’t know you’ve left the building they’re going to assume you’re still in it, and then, whether in class or in your office, they might say something philosophical, and then you might yell at them. Then we have to do something about you.

None of this would be necessary if we’d developed and sustained in our Department the ethos of combative camaraderie that characterizes a healthy intellectual community, a community in which we don’t resent being corrected but rather delight in it, because we’re interested in getting it right and not at all in being right. And this requires the instrumental supposition that we’re more likely than not wrong.

From which it follows that more likely than not I’m wrong about this. That’s why I’d desperately like to be corrected.




I’m guessing that there was a time in Europe – say the late 16th Century Sixteenth – when 97% of the population believed in the truth of the Gospels. The dissenting 3% were Jews. Should a Jew have followed the 97% and converted to Christianity? No, that would have been to have fallen for the ad populum fallacy. A responsible epistemic agent would have passed judgment only after having investigated the claims of the Gospels.

But since none of the claims made by the Gospels can be investigated, the epistemic issue as such is pretty much stillborn. At that time, belief in either Christianity or Judaism was permitted but not belief in neither. So epistemic responsibility got replaced with doxastic responsibility, which, under these coercive circumstances, amounted to asking which of the two communities on balance offered the more lucrative benefits. Jews were on average slightly richer, but considerably more vulnerable. Conversion from Jew to Christian was quite frequent, especially in Spain under the Inquisition. Conversion from Christian to Jew was almost unheard of, but mostly because Jews were and are reluctant to accept converts.

Replace the Gospels with AGW and for most of us the situation today is identical. Few of us are in a position to investigate the claims of AGW. We have no idea what percentage of our fellow citizens are on each side of the issue. According to one science communication researcher, Dan Kahan, most people give it 4 or 5 seconds thought and move on to what’s for lunch. But we know perfectly well what side our peeps are on, our peeps being those with whom we share our workplaces and dinner invitations.

In some peepdoms AGW assertion runs closer to 100% than 97%, in others closer to 0% than 3.%. This is because over the past couple of decades AGW denial has joined Holocaust denial as a disqualifier for membership in polite society. People turfed from this polite society have no choice but to seek or create their own, which in turn becomes equally intolerant of AGW assertion. And once ensconced in one’s peepdom, apostasy becomes almost impossible.

All of this, I trust, will be granted. But what’s not yet a res judicata is how effective if any is the deployment of arguments ad populum, not in encouraging apostasy, but in proselytizing the as-yet unaligned. Your arguments ad populum won’t work on the already otherwise committed because either she’ll deny your numbers or else take pride in her minority status. You can’t win. But with the as-yet unaligned, the ad populum is widely thought to be the argument of choice.

As already noted, insofar as most of us are in no position to pronounce with anything even approaching knowing whereof we speak, we have no choice but to rely on those who are in such a position. If these people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. If the people in a position to know who are the people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. Bring it as far back as you like, and the problem persists.

So instead of using the “Everyone believes that …” version of the ad populum, the AGW rhetorician has to settle for the “The scientific consensus is that …” version of it. The stronger version is vulnerable to falsification by a single dissenter. But the weaker version is invulnerable to virtually any number of dissenters. Every dissenter is by definition just another outlier.

Outliers become the new inliers if but only if they outnumber the erstwhile inliers. Well no, not quite. A 60/40 split does not betoken a consensus. Neither does 80/20. This is why the 97/3 figure is so important to the AGW rhetorician. Anything more would lack credibility; anything less would give the outliers too much cred. If one didn’t know better one might even suspect the number was focus-grouped. If not focus-grouped it was certainly crowd-ratified. That is, if the number hadn’t done the work assigned to it, it would have been massaged until it did.

The 97/3 ad populum would have done yeoman service were it not for suspicions that there might be some sleight of hand going on here. 97% counted by whom? Of what sample size? Of what population defined and then identified by whom? What exactly is each asserter actually asserting? Being less than forthcoming on any one these scores was bound to lead to grave doubts, not surprisingly among the deniers, but also among those to whom the argument was addressed.

Foremost among these worries is that expressed by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams in his I quote him here in full:


One of the most famous statistics in the world of politics is the claim that 97% of climate scientists agree with the idea that humans activity is boosting CO2 to dangerous levels.

Critics say the 97% is misleading, because the critics like to include in their own list the scientists that are working for energy companies. The industry-paid scientists and engineers have less credibility, say the critics of the climate science critics.

Recently I retweeted a link to a climate science whistleblower. I don’t have any way to evaluate his claims. But his story did a good job of illustrating the flow of data from the measuring devices all the way to the published papers and then to your brain. And what I got out of that was that very few people have direct access to the measuring devices and the original data. Let’s say 1% of climate scientists are actually involved in generating the temperature data and deciding what to include, what to smooth, what to replace, and so on. Apparently you can measure Earth’s temperature a number of ways, from ice core samples, to satellites, to ocean buoys, to land thermometers. I might be missing a few. Oh, and each of those methods probably change a bit over time, so you have some apples-to-oranges comparisons if you look at history.

In other words, even the 1% involved in direct measurements might not be involved in all the different forms of it.

What follows next is pure speculation, based on my years of experience in corporate America and my understanding of human nature. But it seems to me that 99% of the 97% are relying on the accuracy and honesty of the 1% who actually produce the temperature measurements. Sure, the other scientists read the papers, and see whatever “adjustments” were made by the authors. But that seems like opening the hood of the car, looking at the outside of the engine, and determining that it’s all good on the inside.

Speaking of my corporate experience, this reminds me of a situation when I worked for the phone company. 100% of the employees believed that one of the Executive Directors in our group was a PhD in some sort of technology field. After all, he said he was, and the Human Resources group does background checks before hiring. So he had to be a PhD, right?

But it turns out he was a con man. He had no PHd. The Human Resources group was two years behind in their background checks. When they caught up with him, he was fired immediately.

I’m open to correction on my assumption that the 97% of climate scientists depend on the accuracy and honesty of the handful of people with direct access to the data. Let me know if I got that wrong. If I’m wrong, that supports my point that non-scientists such as myself can’t be expected to have useful opinions on science topics.

You just witnessed a little trick I learned from President Trump. I gave myself two ways to win and no way to lose. You should try it. It works every time.


So, in short, the ad populum hasn’t worked, because there’s grounds to believe both that a) outlier voices have been dismissed or repressed, and that b) the ‘populum’ to which the argument appeals may be no better qualified to pronounce on AGW than any of the rest of us.

What’s interesting about all these arguments – ad populum, ad hominem circumstantial, and so on – is that they go not to the credibility of the science but to the credibility of the scientist. This need neither surprise nor disappoint us. Almost everything we believe or don’t believe hangs on what we judge to be the trustworthiness of the source.

In most cases we believe what we’re told because we can’t think of a reason why anyone would lie to us about it. AGW asserters can think of a reason why deniers would lie to us. But then the deniers level the same charge against the asserters. The one are shills for Big Oil, the other are in the service of the international socialist conspiracy.

All I can do is go by my own experience as an intimate of both the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent – with whom, not for whom, I worked side by side for thirty-six years – and the two dozen or so life-on-the-line political activists from Chile, with whom I worked for sixteen years. From that experience I judge that both of these charges misfire, and those who level them should be ashamed. David Koch cares as much about his three young children as does Elizabeth May about hers. And Tommy Douglas was no greater enemy to individual liberty than was Ayn Rand.

As to wherein the consensus lies, be it on AGW or the Holocaust or who’s the latest celebrity heartthrob, I neither know nor care. If there were only one AGW asserter, and she happened to be right, she’s going to need David Koch to help her help us save the world. One way not to elicit someone’s help is calling him the devil.

Again, based on nothing more than my experience as an observer of the passing scene – two thirds of a century of it – I suspect this AGW thing is approaching its best-before date. Sound bites and 140 character Tweets don’t allow for the sustainability of any issue, much less the issue of sustainability. God knows I’m bored with it. Aren’t you?

What’s keeping me fascinated is not the substantive issue – I’m not even sure what that is – but rather one side resenting the other for plagiarizing its rhetorical techniques. It’s like watching Goebbels studying Stalin studying Goebbels studying Stalin.

To be honest, I think even this fascination is approaching its best-before date for me. The interests that have proven sustainable for me have been Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of War. So what I’d like to see is either the Second Coming or else a (preferably limited) nuclear war. In either scenario I’d don’t think would be getting too much ad revenue.





Once you believe, as most of us do, that 9/11 was the work of nineteen young but guileless men, sent on that mission by a few older and wiser men, you need to have a hold on their motivation, either from their own lips, or if not then from what you know about what would motivate people to do this kind of thing. And no, that they’re just crazy, or they hate freedom, or any of that nonsense, won’t do. What would do is that they wanted to raise the cost of (what they perceived to be) American military and economic imperialism in the Middle East, in order ultimately to free their people from that imperialism.

Likewise, then, in order to believe, as most Truthers do, that 9/11 was not the work of these nineteen young men but rather an Israeli false flag operation, we need to know what the real perpetrators hoped to achieve by it. The standard answer is that they hoped to provoke the Americans into going to war against Islam, which would save the Israelis some of the expense of continuing to fight that war themselves. This makes some sense, I suppose, but it does seem to fall slightly to the side of overkill. Surely something less destructive to an ally, and less vulnerable to being found out, would have achieved the same end, which, come to think of it, it had been doing ever since 1948 without the need to dissimulate. So sorry, guys, I just ain’t buyin’ it.

But there’s a certain Alfred Schaefer who’s taken the motivation problem several rungs up the credibility ladder. According to Schaefer, not only did we Jews false flag 9/11, we also faked the entire historicity of the Holocaust. But we didn’t do it just to secure the State of Israel. Rather it’s all part of our master plan to take over the world.

Now not surprisingly I have a number of problems with this plan, not the least of which being that I was never let in on it. And I resent that. In the wake of what was to me a revelation, I’ve made some inquiries, and it turns out I wasn’t told because the Elders – as in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – needed a few Jews, like Noam Chomsky and me, to be openly and genuinely anti-Zionist to render the real truth implausible to the always suspicious Gentile mind. But now I feel used. Now I feel like Judas must have felt when he found out his role had been scripted from the beginning of time, rather than an expression of his own authentic self.

But my personal high dudgeon aside, I can’t for the life of me figure out what we Jews would do with the world once we have it. God knows we don’t want to wipe everyone else out. We’re entrepreneurs and professionals and intellectuals and artists and comedians. The last thing we want is to have to work the land and man the assembly lines ourselves. Are we going to reintroduce slavery? What, and have to work up a sweat brandishing whips under the noonday sun? As Marx himself observed, wage slaves are far more productive. But hang on. That’s who we have working for us now.

It’s true that our own womenfolk leave something to be desired. But we’ve never had a problem attracting Gentile chicks. Hell, I’ve had four wives, every one of them a shiksa. And look at what Woody Allen manages to get. So, in short, what exactly would we do with the world that we’re not doing with it now?

I feel like I’m in a Little Theatre play and the director won’t tell me my motivation. But if I’m going to have to come up with my own motivation, it may not dovetail with those of the other actors. And then I worry that the plot won’t make any sense to the audience.

So please, Alfred, I understand why my rabbi won’t tell me. But could you? What’s my motivation? I need to know my motivation!

Okay, confession time. This blog entry isn’t about 9/11-Truthers or Holocaust denial or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s all been just a setup. What it’s really about is David Koch, and a colleague of mine who thinks that David Koch knows that AGW is true, but he’s promoting its denial so he can delay any action on it as long as possible. Why? So he can have a few more years to pad his already multi-billion bank account with a few more billions.

Since my colleague knows so much about David Koch, he must know he has three young children. But apparently my colleague thinks this particular father doesn’t care whether his own children have a future.

And my problem with this? Just that I don’t find this motivational matrix credible. But more to the point, I think there’s something deeply wrong with someone who does.


There are as many Islams as there are Moslems. There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. And there are twice as many Judaisms as there are Jews. This is because for any one of us it’s invariably “On ze vun hand … but on ze ozer …” So in offering my colour commentary on all three Religions of the Book, I’m going to be painting with a very wide brush. I make no apology for that because, well, what good would it do me?

The first thing I want to say is that orthogonal to the distinction between Jews, Christians, and Moslems, is the distinction between a set of metaphysical claims and a set of instructions on how to live. Historically, the latter always precedes the former, though in the telling of our foundation myths the order is invariably reversed. That is, first God created the heavens and the earth. Then, a bit later, He flooded it. Then, later still, came His encounter with Abraham. And only then did He hand down His Law to Moses, and/or to Jesus, and/or to Mohammed.

But in fact that’s not how it actually happened. How do I know? Because He told me. First there were people in need of law. Only then came the metaphysical stories. Why? What work did those stories do? Did these stories in some way justify the law? It’s hard to see how. First, beyond what the law does for us, it doesn’t need justification. And second, there’s nothing in these stories that does seem to be justifying the law. So the metaphysics must be doing something else. What else? The same thing secular metaphysics is doing. It’s explaining why the world’s this way rather than some other.

Does every civilization need an explanation for why the world’s this way rather than some other? Probably not. But it does provide a base upon which the regularities we identify in the world can supervene. For example, if you ask what caused this, and then what caused that, and so on, eventually you’re going to want to know what caused the whole thing. And since even a cave man knows better than to be satisfied with an infinite regress, what you get is the Uncaused Cause, or the Grounding of all Being, or, as it came be called, God.

Anthropologists of religion tell us that originally God – or more commonly the gods – bore only natural properties like sunshine or rain or wind, but no moral properties. Or if they did they were conceived of as either a) good, b) evil, or c) complicated. Which, not surprisingly, is pretty much how we think of ourselves. These anthropologists have advanced various theories about how these traits got combined into one Being, though of course they haven’t really. None of our three religions has transcended the need to personify the forces of both light and darkness. And not just “the better [and worse] angels of our nature” but also the myriad other facets of being human. Hence the mother of God, the pantheon of saints, and so on. The amalgam of theism and Greek metaphysics drives us ‘upwards’ to theoretical monotheism, but we’re forever pulled back down. Our inherent polytheism will not be denied.

As plausible a story as any as to how polytheism devolved into monotheism, or at least monolatry, is that in the wake of conquest it’s almost invariably less costly to absorb the gods of the vanquished than try to kill them. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Yahweh, God, and Allah are names for the same god. What’s at issue between us, then, is not so much who God is, but rather a) what He’s been up to, and b) what He wants from us.

When going to war we need our God on our side, and this means we need our respective histories with Him to reflect this partiality. Thus we get the switch between Isaac and Ishmael in the two competing accounts of the Abrahamic Covenant. We get the Book of Exodus, notwithstanding scholars are now saying none of it ever really happened. And we get Jesus’ infamous “Lo, I turn to the Gentiles!”, from which we get the supersessionism that poisoned Jewish-Christian relations right from the get-go and culminated in the Shoah, which in turn gave rise to the Naqba, which has since given rise to coming up now to seventy years of internecine warfare that will come to an end when hell freezes over.

That God’s moral judgments are projections of our own is shown conclusively by Plato’s Euthyphro. So apart from the Problem of Evil, a.k.a. theodicy, there’s nothing philosophically perplexing about what God wants from us that’s any different from what we want from ourselves. But it’s the metaphysics of God that is, for me at least, utterly fascinating.

That a coherent metaphysics for post-apologetic theism is impossible goes without saying. Or if it needs to be said, it can be shown, and then said, pretty quickly. But that is not a proof for the nonexistence of God. It’s only a proof for the nonexistence of the kind of God of whom the requisite metaphysics is incoherent. So yes, the God of (what’s sometimes called) high theology is one whose existence is a piece of cake to refute. But the God of low theology is not such an easy target.

It’s not an easy target, complains the atheist, only because it’s a moving one.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a stand-its-ground conception of God the metaphysics for whom, though implausible, need not be incoherent. And it’s this which makes me (what I call) a sympathetic atheist, by which I mean I do not think one has to be crazy to believe in God, provided her conception of Him is of this coherent variety. The reason why theism is such an easy target for atheists is because too many theists want to have their cake and eat it too. The low theology God does all the explanatory work that needs to be done by their belief in God. And yet they’re greedy. They want their God to do additional explanatory work, work, He can’t do and, more to the point, work that doesn’t need to be done.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, one of which has a grounding to its being, the other of which does not. Beyond the having of this grounding, what property, pray tell, had by the one is not had by the other? None. So, it would seem, it’s not, as some atheists have argued, that being can be its own grounding. It’s that being isn’t the kind of thing that needs a grounding in the first place.

Grounding-talk is patter. As are any of the pseudo-properties one would like to assign to the God of high theology – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, eternal, and so on.

The key to the proof that this kind of talk is mere patter is (what I call) the univocality requirement, which is the insistence that any words predicated of God must be univocal with those same words predicated of anything else, since otherwise we don’t know what’s being said. And if we don’t know what’s being said, neither does the speaker. And if he doesn’t know what he’s saying, then, to paraphrase Rudolf Carnap, he should just shut the fuck up!

This is not to say there couldn’t be something ‘out there’, so to speak, which is ineffable. In fact I’m reasonably confident there is. But if it’s ineffable then we can’t say anything about it. And if we’re not going to say anything about it, then let’s talk about something else.

So here’s the summary of my argumentative strategy. From the univocality requirement we get the unintelligibility of high theology. And from its unintelligibility we get its vacuity.

It’s an unforgiving line of argument. One might even call it brutal. But it’s pretty much the same argument I use in dismissing the lion’s share of what masquerades as philosophy on the Continent. It’s why the first thing I say when I wake up every morning is not, “Thank God I was not born a woman!” – which, as a Jewish male, is what I’m supposed to thank Him for – but rather, “Thank God I was tenured into a proper analytic philosophy department!”

Now if only I could get my foaming-at-the-mouth atheist colleagues, when I’m on my way to teach my Phil of Religion class, to let me pass their open doorways without their mocking me with, “Off to Bible study are we? Well, break a leg. Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of genuflecting.!”


As a philosopher of mind Kant was beyond brilliant. As an ethicist he was an idiot.

Kant asks us to consider two scenarios: I steal your wallet, you steal mine. If I think the one is okay, I have to think the other is too.


“Well, because they’re the same.”

No they’re not. In fact I can’t think of two scenarios more different from each other. In the first case I end up with my money plus yours, and in the second I end up with neither. In what pair of possible worlds are these two the same?

“No no no, you misunderstand. The two cases are morally indistinguishable. They’re morally indistinguishable because morality must be blind to indexicals.”

Okay, so replace the indexicals with proper names and we still have the same problem. In the one case Paul ends up with his own money plus Peter’s, in the other he ends up with neither.

Let it be granted that one of the axiom driving morality – in fact it drives all of our inductive reasoning – is treat like cases alike. But the work to be done here is fixing on the respect in which, for moral purposes, the two cases are alike. Kant doesn’t tell us. Nor, with the sparse resources he allows himself, can he. So his is a pseudo-theory. It purports to say something when it really says nothing at all.

This is not to say there couldn’t be a respect in which two cases are morally indistinguishable. In fact there has to be, since otherwise moral discourse could be nothing more than casuistry. And if it’s just casuistry we’re all just flapping our gums.

For example, I want to say that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza is morally indistinguishable from the Nazi treatment of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. If we’re just counting properties, the two cases have orders-of-magnitude-more unshared properties than properties in common. And yet I claim they’re morally equivalent. You and I can dispute this, but if so we’re disputing what counts as a moral property, or more likely we’re agreeing about that but disagreeing as to whether that property is in fact present in both cases.

Suppose, for example, the agreed-upon property is the intentional targeting of non-combatants. You argue, appealing perhaps to the Principle of Double Effect, that those non-combatants killed by the Israeli shelling of Gaza are collateral damage. I counter that the intention of an action is not what’s in the mind of the actor but rather that in virtue of which tokens of the action-type self-replicate. Thus the intention of the shelling of an apartment building in Gaza is not the killing of the Hamas leader who may be having his breakfast there – he’ll be replaced within the hour – but rather the terrorizing of the Palestinian population by the slaughter of the fourteen children sitting around the table with him. No one, from the gunner all the way up to the Prime Minister, needs to harbor that intention in his mind, not even subconsciously. But it’s that that’s driving the shelling, and therefore it’s that that’s the intention behind it.

Again, we can disagree about this. Or we can agree but then you’ll find some other unshared property by which to distinguish the two cases. And every time you do I’ll try to collapse the distinction. And so on it’ll go.

If I’m pro-Choice and you’re pro-Life, I’ll make heavy weather of the location of the fetus, to distinguish it morally from a newborn, whereas you’ll challenge the moral relevance of location. If I concede the irrelevance of location I’ll appeal instead to the fetus having no self-concept, and then you’ll point out that neither does a newborn. And so on it’ll go.

But my purpose here is to talk more generally. I want to call the claim that two things are normatively equivalent – if one is justified so is the other, if one isn’t neither is the other – the symmetry thesis. And so by the asymmetry thesis I’ll mean simply the denial of the symmetry thesis. The dead giveaway that someone’s about to deploy the asymmetry thesis is the phrase, “Oh but that’s different!” I use it all the time to defend why I can interrupt my wife when she’s writing but she can’t interrupt me. It’s what we do, because we’re human, and because, well, that’s what humans do.

But it’s not the claims and counterclaims regarding moral equivalences that I want to talk about here. Rather I want to talk about equivalences, or the lack thereof, between claims of doxastic warrant. To explain:

A way of coming to believe some proposition has epistemic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have epistemic warrant – is the degree to which that way is likely to get at the truth. A way of coming to believe some proposition has doxastic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have doxastic warrant – is the degree to which one would be well-advised to believe a proposition thus acquired. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the two coincide. But there are occasions of not inconsiderable import when they don’t.

Believing in the historicity of the Holocaust on no more grounds than “I’ve heard tell of it” has virtually no epistemic warrant, but it has doxastic warrant in spades. Why? Because were I to announce that I’m as yet unconvinced about the historicity of the Holocaust, I can pretty much forget about ever getting another dinner invitation in this town. And since merely faking belief in the Holocaust is a burden without compensatory payoff, I might just as well simply believe it, which is precisely what I’ve done.

Which is precisely all you’ve done. Neither of us has put any epistemic labour into the matter because epistemic labour is expensive. Expending resources to acquire what one can have for free would be stupid. And expending resources to run the risk of discovering what one would prefer not to discover is doubly stupid, because it’s double the cost, since now one has to either a) unlearn what she’s just learned, or else b) dissimulate about it, or else c) bear the burden of being a social pariah.

This much, I suspect, will be granted. We don’t investigate the historicity of the Holocaust because that way there be nothing but dragons. But what I want to argue now is that for most of us – by which I mean ordinary doxastic agents like you and me – falling into the same doxastic category as the historicity of the Holocaust are anthropogenic global warming (AGW), vaccination safety, the abject depravity of the Koch brothers, and so on. All and only what hangs on your beliefs or mine about these things is whether we can expect any more dinner invitations.

Not so, you insist. That this is so of your subscription to the historicity of the Holocaust you can’t deny. You’ve read nothing about it – certainly nothing from any Holocaust denier – and you know better than to ever do so in the future. But, you insist, you have done your homework on your Precious, which, let’s suppose, is AGW. You’ve read a whole bookshelf on the subject. It’s true that you haven’t read any of the so-called denialist literature, but only because it’s all been refuted by the books you have read. You’ve attended religiously to the blogosphere, especially In short, you’re not a climatologist, but, dammit, you’re an informed citizen, in much the way that AGW deniers clearly are not.

But why are they clearly not? They’ve certainly read as many books on the subject as you have, in fact probably more, since each step in hiking up an incline demands more effort than walking down it or on the flats. Just like the fundamentalist Christian with her morning Bible reading, and just like you with your, they too start their day reading their favorite blogs, they too …

“Oh but that’s different.”

How so?

“Because they’re being mis-informed.”

By whom?

“By shills hired by the Koch brothers.”

But aren’t the scientists and lay authors you’re dittoing also paid to do what they do and report what they report?

“Oh but that’s different. They’re not being told what their research has to show.”

The Koch brothers actually tell their shills what to find and report?

“Well maybe not, but everyone knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

And the AGW asserter scientists march to their own drummer, do they? How exactly does one apply for yet another NSERC grant for a problem he’s just reported doesn’t exist? And while we’re at it, are you saying the Koch brothers care more for a few more shekels in their already bulging-at-the-seams bank accounts than the survival of their own grandchildren? Can they really be such monsters?

Keep pushing and yes, it’s precisely this difference that all this “Oh but that’s different!” will come down to. We’re the good guys, they’re the baddies.

And therein lies the problem. It’s that the baddies say precisely the same thing about the goodies. And this presents the rest of us – those of us listening in on this cross-screeching – with something of a Euthyphro problem. Each is claiming that it’s the other guy who’s evil, the proof of which being that he’s trying to deceive us. But we can’t know who’s trying to deceive us without knowing what’s true independently of being told what’s true. And we can’t know that without putting our trust in people we’re being told not to put our trust in.

And so what do we do? We do the only thing we can do. We stop asking which claim has the greater epistemic warrant. Instead we simply ask which has the greater doxastic warrant. And the one with the greater doxastic warrant is the one the subscription to which gets us the most dinner invitations.

You say you’ve come by your belief in AGW differently, and you proceed to tell me how. And when I point out to you that that’s precisely how the AGW denier claims she came to her belief, I know exactly what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Oh but that’s different.” And when I push that putative difference far enough, and you’re too embarrassed to admit your views are just a matter of your tribal affiliation, you’re going to accuse me of being a skeptic, or a nihilist, or a relativist – whatever that means but you won’t say – or you’ll change the subject, or you’ll just decide I’m no fun to talk to anymore.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been through this with pro-Lifers and with pro-Choicers, with AGW asserters and with AGW deniers, with 9/11-Truthers and with Holocaust deniers. The invoking of the asymmetry thesis respects no partisan boundaries.

You can argue with the True Believer for only so long, and then you just have to give up. I’m trying to train myself to recognize the signs so I can pull out earlier. But if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed this effort isn’t going well.


What things need to be licensed, what can but needn’t be, and what shouldn’t be?

Doctors, engineers, pilots, certainly. But some people have argued, though mostly tongue-in-cheek, that if anyone needs to be pre-qualified it’s parents. Requiring a license to drive doesn’t seem unreasonable, but there are plenty of jurisdictions, especially in the so-called Third World, in which if you’re driving it’s assumed you can. But requiring a license to own or carry a firearm has arguably less to do with safety than with maintaining the state’s monopoly on the means of lethal force.

All of these issues can be and have been put on the table. But none of them are on mine. In an earlier blog I did talk about licensing journalists. My position was, and is, not that they should be licensed. That way there be dragons. Rather it’s that we should feel free to simply decline to honour the press cards of journalists who’ve proven themselves to us as incompetent. That is, I don’t complain to the publisher of our local newspaper about the bimbo he sends who consistently misquotes me. I just don’t do interviews with her. (By the way, she’s not malicious, just stupid.)

In this entry, I want to take a similar position with respect to professional philosophers.


Look, none of us is licensed, as such. All that our doctorates and reference letters certify is that we passed muster with someone. But it’s the institution that hires us, and eventually grants us tenure, that entitles us to do what we do – teach, research, pontificate – within but only within that institution. But when one of us steps outside that institution – say to contribute his two cents worth to the blogosphere – he can do so as either a philosopher, or as just a guy, but not both.

By ‘as just a guy’ I don’t mean he can’t boast that he’s not just any guy. Certainly he can say that his day job is as a philosopher. But he can’t be adding his two cents worth to the blogosphere as a professional philosopher unless he’s prepared to bring his philosophical professionalism with him. If for whatever reason he prefers to leave it behind – perhaps he just wants to pre-reflectively rant the way he hears plaid-shirted guys do in the bar – he needn’t apologize, neither to himself nor to his colleagues back at the office the next morning. God knows we all need to speak our minds sometimes, without having to self-monitor our every word. But what it is to be a professional philosopher just is to monitor every word, every word spoken by others – that’s what the widow’s mite is paying him for – and a fortiori every word he speaks himself.

So it’s not a matter of the hoi polloi pulling your philosophy card when you fail to announce you’ve changed hats. How would they know? The onus falls on you to announce it. And if you won’t – and since they can’t – it falls to one of your colleagues back in the office to say something.

To say something to them? They wouldn’t know what he’s talking about. No, to say something to you. And if you can’t or won’t look in a mirror to see what hat you’re wearing, then neither can you be trusted to know what hat you’re wearing when you’re back in the office and the classroom.

So then what’s your colleague to do? All he can do is keep his own distance and counsel students to do likewise. And that’s not a very collegial position to put a colleague in, now is it?


It had to happen. It was just a matter of time. In fact it’s been happening incrementally, probably since before we came down from the trees. When there was nothing around we just shut our eyes and masturbated to what we imagined. For some it was adults, for others children, and for still others sometimes adults and sometimes children. In what proportions we don’t know because there was no Kinsey Report back then, no Masters and Johnson with clipboards at the mouth of our caves. And we still don’t know, because lusting after children has become something of a thought-crime of late, if not legally then certainly socially.

When there was something around – something we might associate with a token of the type for whom we lusted – we used it as a masturbatory aid. The smell of a piece of clothing, a lock of hair, a shoe, a handbag … Association has no limits.

Fast forward to modern times. You can’t tell me no man ever masturbated gazing into the sultry eyes of his daughter’s Barbie doll, or that no one ever bought a bigger baby doll rather than a smaller one so he could improvise a hole between its legs and line it with something soft and warm. So let’s not get too excited. Child sex dolls, commercially produced, distributed and consumed, have been with us for centuries.

Zealous defenders of the common good have burned books ever since there have been books to burn. But people tell each other stories, those stories are written in our minds, and as soon as the Torquemadas aren’t looking, they’re committed once again to paper. Zealous crusaders for the penitent silence God demands of us have smashed cd’s ever since there’s been cd’s to smash. But people hum and tap their fingers anyhow. And soon enough they find other media by which to invite others with them into perdition. So I’m not terribly concerned that people who want these dolls may have to improvise a little, or spend a little more for the contraband dropped just offshore to be retrieved in the dead of night by brave men in fisherman’s knits and blackened faces.

Eventually all this enforcement will just seem silly, as it did with Prohibition, prohibitive taxes on cigarettes, hardcore porn, and yes, someday soon – or so I predict – child porn. The civil liberties issue is there, of course. And I don’t mean to minimize it. But at the end of the day the customer is always right. And apparently there are more customers in the queue for sex dolls, both adult and child, than for the new Tesla.

But that doesn’t settle the issue. Which issue? The issue of whether our disapproval of these dolls, adult or child, is justified.

Look, there are all kinds of malfeasance the criminalization of which will never do away with completely. Think of murder, think of theft, think of tax evasion. But that hardly means we shouldn’t criminalize these things, provided criminalization reduces the frequency of this malfeasance. Even supposing, however implausibly, that consumption of alcohol and abortion were both wrong, their criminalization failed to reduce their frequencies. Hence their decriminalization. But one could hope that criminalization of child sex dolls will, if not reduce their frequency, then at least retard the increase in their frequency.

So as I say, the debate need not focus, at least not up front, on enforceability. If there’s no justification in interfering with their production, distribution and consumption, then the enforceability issue doesn’t arise. If and when it does arise we can then talk about the balance between the need for criminalization and the invasiveness of enforcing it.

In short, then, we need to know what if anything is wrong with the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

In the case of child pornography, one could argue that the harm lies in its production. But that argument is getting weaker and weaker as animation gets more and more sophisticated. Very soon now, if not already, animation will outperform live action pornography, both adult and child, both economically and aesthetically.

Inadvertent production is another story. A trusted uncle posts unstaged but nonetheless provocative photos of his young nephew or niece on a child porn site. Since few very small children are recognizable from one year to the next, the right to privacy is probably not being all that seriously violated. And besides, this is one area where what counts as provocative really is in the eye, or loins, of the beholder.

In any event, mens rea isn’t enough. There has to be actus reus. So to convict the judge must himself confess to being stimulated, or pretend he’s not but the man on the Clapham omnibus would be. Either that or the actus reus must be met by the venue in which the images are being shown. The baby Jesus in the manger is one thing. The identical baby Larry in the identical manger is something else. The law has to try not to make a laughing stock of itself. But the juxtaposition at the front of the courtroom of these two images would be just a tad risible.

Then what about some third party – one incapable of interfering with the interference – filming the sexual interference with the child? Then what we have, it seems, is something jurisprudentially indistinguishable from the photo-journalist filming, for example, an ISIS execution. Here the public’s right to know what’s going on in the world – or so it’s standardly argued – trumps the victim’s right to privacy. Fair enough. But then why should small children be afforded greater such rights than an equally innocent adult?

So here the issue must come down to seemliness. It’s unseemly to expose the public to ugliness. That’s why newscasts do tend to cut away from the uglier scenes of man’s inhumanity to man. Or to child. But the pedophile doesn’t find the scene ugly. Quite the contrary. That’s what makes him a pedophile. Come to think of it, by definition. So since no one’s forcing you to look, neither should anyone force him not to.

So confining ourselves, as we have so far, to Mill’s harm principle, there seems to be no good reason, or soon won’t be, to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child pornography, and so by parity of reasoning, no good reason to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

But this might be too quick. In addition to Mill’s harm principle there’s Joel Feinberg’s offense principle. No one’s being asked to watch the consumer having his way with his doll, but apparently the very knowledge that he is is deeply offensive to some people.

But it hardly needs saying that this argument proves too much. We fought wars to assuage our outrage at how others worship, and in the wake of that slaughter we decided to live and let live rather than kill and let kill. Anyone who wants to reprise those wars we should kill right now, to save us the bother of having to do it later. This applies to both the recent surge in Islamicism in the Moslem world and of the Christian right in America. No, Fatima, no Virginia, what I do in the privacy of my bedroom is none of your fucking business!

Still too quick. Neither the harm principle nor the offense principle captures what’s come to be called the symbolic harms argument. It’s been most rigourously articulated by Melinda Vadas in a 1987 Journal of Philosophy paper entitled “Could Pornography be the Subordination of Women?”, but it’s since been ratified by the Supreme Court of Canada in its dicta in Butler (1992).

Suppose a female student comes to my office to discuss a paper. I’m looking at her over my glasses, as I’m wont to do when I’m listening intently. but behind me is one of those tacky Mexican velvet paintings of a nude woman. The question is not whether I’m looking at her the same way I’d be looking at a male student. It’s whether she feels herself being looked at the same way I’d be looking at a male student. And that painting has a great deal to do with that. So, argues Vadas, insofar as pornography represents women as meat, and women know they’re being represented that way, such representation needn’t cause the subordination of women because it just is the subordination of women.

I think Vadas is right. But does the argument transfer, first to child porn, and thence to child sex dolls? It’s hard to see how. Child porn doesn’t subordinate children. Children just are subordinate to adults. That’s just what we mean by their being children and our being adults. And so how does a child sex doll subordinate them further? By representing them as acceptable objects of lust? But why wouldn’t they be? Surely that’s what has to be established. And however that is established, it can’t, on pain of circularity, invoke the symbolic harms argument.

And there’s something odd – is there not? – about saying some object, animate or not, ought not to be an object of lust. In what sense of ‘ought’? God has made it clear that a man ought not to lay with a man as with a woman. Well, okay, no one’s asking Him to. But what makes Him think He’s entitled to impose His heterosexuality on the rest of us?

Leaving aside for the moment what does and doesn’t count as an infant, a child, a statutory child, and so on – and so what would count as pedophilia – I’d guess that pedophilia plays a much bigger role in male sexual fantasy than homosexuality. The latter, or so I’m told, runs about 7%. The former must be well over 50%. By which I don’t mean 50% of us are pedophiles. I just mean that for 50% of us pedophilia is included in our fantasy repertoire. If having a sexual response to children is ‘an abomination in the eyes of God’, He’s going to have a whole lot of retooling to do come the Rapture.

Okay, so the unacceptability of lusting after children can’t lie in either the lusting, nor on their being children, but rather in one’s acting on that lust. Is masturbating with a child in mind acting on one’s pedophilia? Presumably not. Is masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid acting on it? Hard to see the distinction. So it must be that masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid, like a picture or a doll, is thought likely to increase the likelihood of acting on one’s pedophilia with an actual child.

There’s a preponderance of evidence that those who have acted on their pedophilia entertained pedophile fantasies before doing so. But that’s just a duh. The question is whether these fantasies upped the frequency of the actual interference. Common sense might tell us they must. But common sense is often wrong. Hard to prove it wrong, of course, since it’s hard to imagine how research into it would pass muster with the ethics board.

Nor can we invoke what’s called the precautionary principle, which counsels us, when operating under two or even one-dimensional uncertainty, to take the safer route. But since it’s as much common sense that access to child sex dolls would actually be cathartic rather than provocative, we’re not sure which route is in fact the safer one.

Then try this. Sexual play is practice for the real thing. Practicing on children, even if only simulacra of children, is just poor sexual training. Children aren’t sex partners, and a fortiori neither are dolls. Real adult sex partners don’t act like either children or dolls, and certainly not like child sex dolls. And a fortiori real children don’t act like dolls. For one thing, they cry when you hurt them, and that, for most pedophiles of my acquaintance, is an immediate turn-off.

But the bad training argument hangs on the image of a young man prepping for his first ‘going all the way’, buying the doll, getting the hang of things with it, losing his virginity, and then selling it on Ebay. I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m just saying it doesn’t. It doesn’t because that’s not what people buy these dolls for.

All right, let’s try again. Sex with a prostitute is cheating. Not on one’s wife, though certainly that too if one were married. No, it’s cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to invest the time and energy the rest of us do. Sex with a sex doll is doubly cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to pay the prostitute. And sex with a child sex doll is the ultimate cheat because it’s getting sexual access without even having to conjure the illusion of having to work for it. That is, with an adult sex doll one might run a conquest scenario in one’s head. But no such scenario would make sense with a child.

I’m not sure this is right. It seems to me the pedophile could imagine himself seducing the child, though I concede that a resistance scenario, available with the adult doll, would be a bit of stretch with the child one.

Still, I don’t think there’s much to this authenticity argument. The authenticity objection to prostitution is that it puts the prostitute in a position of having to be inauthentic, not the john. Replacing her with a doll relieves the prostitute of that burden. But maybe that’s the problem. It’s yet another case of automation putting real breadwinners out of work. And that, I think, the proliferation of sex dolls will, especially when, with economy of scale, these products become affordable on pretty much any budget.

But it’s not just prostitutes who’ll now have to fend for themselves with more ‘honest’ toil. It’s also a lot of ordinary women who’ve been making their way in the world on the backs of their sexuality. The sex doll is the men’s movement’s revenge on the lesbian separatists. If you say you don’t need us, well neither do we need you!

But from feminists or others, the worry seems to be that these dolls, adult or child, are going to have a devastating impact on the fundamental nature of our social relations, relations which supervene in large measure on our interpersonal sexuality. When one’s buddy is having sex with his Angela Jolie simulacra, how long can the neo-Luddite keep up his claim to the moral high ground with his aging crone? Just as drones and google glasses are doing away with all pretense of privacy, so will sex dolls retire the sexual component of love. Philia will survive. And maybe, if He’s lucky, agape. But not eros. And with eros goes the lion’s share of all poetry, music, drama, and art.

But what does this really amount to, if not the same argument that your same-sex marriage devalues my heterosexual marriage. This is nonsense, on stilts. One could as readily argue that heterosexual marriage devalues same-sex marriage, which, since it doesn’t, neither does the opposite. So no, Virginia, you’re not going to be so special any more, at least not for your vagina. I guess you’re just going to have to find your self-esteem somewhere above your waist.

The argument for these dolls is predictable enough. It’s simply false that there’s a girl for every guy. And certainly false that there’s a child for every pedophile. Some guys just really are too ugly, or socially inept, or isolated in a fire tower, or whatever. To deprive these people of a fundamental human need is a violation of a fundamental human right. It’s not a positive right. No one has a correlative duty to provide these ‘losers’ with sex. But it’s a negative right, imposing a duty not to interfere with their pursuit of it.

My intuitions tell me that the human rights argument trumps. It wouldn’t if there were actionable costs to the exercise of this right. But so far as I can tell, there aren’t.

Of course I’ve been thinking about this entirely from the male perspective. Suppose it were women buying male dolls and so cutting me out of the action. That would be a very different story. Turnabout is not fair play. What’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander. Then I’d have to rethink the issue from the ground up.

A dildo is one thing, and if it were attached to a doll in the image and likeness of me, I could probably live with that. But I have a sneaking suspicion the doll wouldn’t be in my image and likeness, because women are notoriously shallow. But I suppose I’ll just have to bite the bullet and concede that if automation renders me redundant, I shall walk off into the sunset knowing I was there when I was needed.

Note to self: Maybe not a line to recommend to post-menopausal women looking to console themselves for the loss of their husbands’ fidelity.


Those who claim that the end is nigh – today it’s anthropogenic global warming that’s most widely thought is going to do us in – are aware, are they not, that the world is going to come to an end sometime. Either it’ll be the universe having so expanded that we’ll freeze to death, or we’ll all be fried when it implodes upon itself, or the sun will burn itself out, or a planet-killer asteroid …

That’s very different, of course, from its coming to an end “e’er this generation shall come to pass”. No one today cares one whit about the end of the world a billion years hence. But here’s the mystery. People are precisely as indifferent to its coming to an end a million years hence, notwithstanding that the latter is a thousand times more immanent than the former. Yet another thousand times more immanent would be the world ending a thousand years hence, and yet people care about the year 3017, if at all, only a nano-whit more than they do about the year 1,003,017.

All this is explained by two considerata. First, each of us has an epoch of interest, and that interest dissipates as it’s projected future-ward. And second, the principle of diminishing utility (or PDU) instructs us to take note that the return on “the best laid plans of mice and men” becomes less certain with each possible actus novus interveniens. Both of these constituents in our decision-protocols have been naturally selected for. And we should be grateful that they have.

And the same is true of our moral weightings. Future generations and distant people matter less than proximal ones. Black lives matter, but if we’re white they matter less. My suffering matters, yours a bit less, theirs less still, and theirs over there hardly at all. And so on.

End of the world prophets would do well to remember this. There’s a reason why most of us Nero’s are fiddling while Rome burns. To get us to man the bucket brigade you’re going to have to do something to reverse, or at least neutralize, the effects of these two perfectly legitimate decision-vectors.

And calling us names just ain’t gonna do it. You’ve got to get down and dirty, and talk to us not as children, taking as given that “father knows best”, but as one equal to another. You do not know something we don’t know. You do not have cares that we don’t share. If anything we have cares that you don’t share. And that’s a problem. You’re a talking head, and from our perspective, well paid for it. We’re just bread-winners of families.

You’re right. Out here in the oil patch, or out here on the farm, whether we drill or not, or whether we fertilize or not, we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But we do have to worry about paying for Ricky’s hockey equipment, or Melissa’s ballet lessons. No one kills himself out of hunger. People kill themselves over failure. Failure to provide the non-essentials of life? Yes, precisely over those. That’s what you’re up against. And until you have a beer with that father of young children, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”

Wanna know how to get people to man the bucket brigade? Stop talking and start listening. And start reading about “How to Make Friends and Influence People”. There’s a whole lot of wisdom that’s been accumulated over the past two or three millennia about how to solve a collective action problem. Claiming the high ground is precisely what that wisdom teaches you not to do.

You know that good counsel is out there. If you don’t want to follow it it means there’s something else driving you, and it’s not saving the world. Something others can see even if you can’t. Or choose not to. It’s about you. Which, given those dual aforementioned vectors, is perfectly understandable. It’s just that those vectors are at play on everyone else’s priorities too. And the sad fact is that you’re just not all that important to most of them.


You and I allow each other to freely be in each other’s presence on condition that we won’t misbehave. Were this not so we’d all still be cowering in our caves, “and the life of man [sic] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In aid of our being able to exit the cave we forfeit our means of self-defense to authorities who promise to defend us from this misbehavior. If instead they employ the very means we’ve seconded to them to misbehave, then that misbehavior is (what jurisprudes call) aggravated by their authority.

On this much we are all of a mind. Now put this on the backburner for a moment.

Suppose you’re being raped. If there are no such authorities in earshot but you have the wherewithal to render your attacker incapable of proceeding, you’re entitled to do so. Now suppose you did not have that wherewithal. He stands before the court convicted. If you were entitled to render him incapable of rape then, why are you, or that now-present authority, not entitled to render him incapable of rape now?

Well, you’re not, but that authority is. That authority figures, quite rightly, that he would be incapable of rape if he genuinely saw the error of his ways and was not under any kind of irresistible compulsion. That would make him indistinguishable from me. Neither he nor I are exactly incapable of rape, but we’re near-enough-good-enough incapable of it. So any punishment could only be justified by its deterrent effect on others.

But suppose at least one of these conditions is unsatisfied. Either he doesn’t see the error of his ways or his behavior is compulsive. He’s rendered incapable of rape if he’s incarcerated, but only so long as he is. Once released he’s indistinguishable from the man he was just before he raped you. I understand why the authorities are loathe to render him permanently incapable of rape, either by killing him or at least castrating him. That’s not the kind of polity any of us, including you, want to live in. But what about you? If you were justified in rendering him incapable of rape then, why aren’t you justified in rendering him incapable of rape now?

The answer, of course, lies in (what’s called) the clear and present danger test. That the Turks and Caicos Islands might invade England some day is not grounds for England to invade the Turks and Caircos Islands. But that Egypt had blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba did justify Israel’s preemptive strike on the Alexandria airfields, the first and decisive salvo in the Six Day War.

That the rapist has raped before goes some distance towards satisfying the clarity component of the test, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. Suppose that, having raped you, he retires to the bathroom, you find a loaded pistol in the drawer of the bedside table, he emerges from the bathroom, and you put a bullet through his head. Most jurisdictions would recognize you had a reasonable expectation of further bodily harm and so acted in self-defense. But now suppose it was reasonably clear he was finished with you, at least for now. Perhaps he emerged wearing a shirt and tie as if readying himself to return to the office.

Some jurists would say shoot the fucker anyhow. But if they say this because they know you know that if you take the matter to the authorities the voluntariness of the encounter will be your word against his, then what they’re saying, in effect, is that you have the right to take the law into your own hands – to be judge, jury, and executioner. They can reason this way – and should reason this way – if conviction is a virtual impossibility. Then what the court is facing is jury nullification, and the only way for the judge to protect the accused from a violation of natural justice is to override the jury’s guilty verdict. And if he does that there’s going to be a lot of dead rapists on a lot of bathroom floors!

So there’s an interesting dialectic at play, not just in rape cases but likewise in cases of vigilante behavior in general. In evolutionary game theory getting this equilibrium right is called an evolutionary stable strategy (or ESS). Elsewhere it’s just called common sense.

Being locked in a closet with a snake that may or may not be poisonous is a present danger but not a clear one. Being buried alive in a coffin with no air tube to the surface is a clear danger but not a present one. So the score for the test is cumulative. There’s no formula for the requisite threshold to trigger a defense of self-defense. It’s what the reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus would do, or in this case the reasonable women taking an evening stroll through the park.

Can that reasonableness be informed by past experience, be it hers or that of her sisters? Certainly it can. And should. But this way too there be dragons. The less acceptable term for past experience is stereotyping, a.k.a. prejudice. A black youth wearing a hoody in a white neighborhood at three in the morning is up to no good. Stand your ground. An aboriginal man blocking your egress from the park is likely drunk and thinking himself sexually irresistible. If you don’t shoot him now you won’t be able to once he’s grabbed you. And so on.

These are precisely the issues that come before the courts, both of law and of public opinion. Juries tend to acquit the cop who kills the unarmed black man, whereas the public thinks the case should be open and shut. No doubt there’s a fact of the matter as to who’s right and who’s wrong. But is that a material fact or a political one?

The fact to which I’m referring here is not what happened that day. I’m referring to whether the shooting was justified. And justification, as it’s used in jurisprudence, is a political term. We decide what we’ll accept as justified and what we won’t. And we decide that by balancing conflicting interests.

The onus of proof on a charge of rape is being lowered because there are enough women who want it to be and too few men who don’t. If this be doubted ask yourself why else was it mutatis mutandis until recently that a man couldn’t be charged with raping his wife? What does the work here is power, physical power, sexual power, and now economic power. Arguments for and against come ontologically afterwards, and are therefore epiphenomenal. And if this be doubted, in turn, ask yourself how the legal status of the fetus could be settled metaphysically. Or the age of consent could hang on some discoverable material fact about nonage. Omar Khadr has been called a ‘child soldier’ because he was fifteen when he got his licks in at Ayub Kheyl that day, notwithstanding that fifteen is at or above the mean age at which men have gone to war pretty much since we emerged from the cave. Cats get pregnant in their first heat. So did our own females within a month of their first period. That we’ve decided it should be otherwise has been a political decision, and a local one at that.

But I digress. Let’s scroll back up the page and move that pot about aggravated misbehavior from the back burner to the front. Because we’re so habituated to authority we often forget the conditionality of our having given uptake to it. The merely corrupt cop we can understand. There are temptations wherever there are, well, something tempting. But the core of the cop’s entitlement to the monopoly on the means of violence we afford him is that with it he will protect our lives. Everything else can be recouped, but not that. So when a cop kills one of us, in neither self-defense nor in the defense of others, he returns himself to the jungle – and us along with him – and to the law of the jungle, which is precisely that “life of man [sic] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In less ‘civilized’ polities it’s understood that the police are just one gang of thugs morally indistinguishable from any other. (Or in Libya, the Coast Guard just another cartel of human smugglers.) But in more ‘civilized’ polities, like America is presumed to be, the recent spate of cops emptying their sidearms into innocent (mostly black) bodies is undermining the very raison d’etre of the police. They are becoming to black America what the IDF has been to the Occupied Territories. Nor does the recruitment of black officers counteract this, any more than the recruitment of Palestinian collaborators has made the Occupation less intolerable.

I do not presume here to be telling the American people something they don’t already know, if not in the forefront of their minds then at least in the periphery. But not unlike the Israelis, their solution of choice seems to be to double-down rather walk it back. Just as with rape, what’s needed in America is, mutatis mutandis, a lowering of the bar for conviction in cases of police-authored homicides.

Or so it’s being argued. But apart from every such lowering inviting violations of natural justice, what would be the autonomous effects of this? Certainly fewer police-authored murders. But also fewer police. No one wants to place himself in a position where he is in fear of losing his life and, at the same time, in fear of losing his liberty. So the smart money goes to finding something else to do for a living. So once again we have a balancing of interests in search of a stable equilibrium.

As with the climate, the stability of an equilibrium between the police doing their job and being willing to do their job, can’t be measured over the duration of a few news cycles. Decades is probably the right calibrant. About two or three decades behind the climate alarmists, the talking heads are just beginning to talk about America’s descent into another Civil War. Since I likely won’t be around to see either, I can prognosticate without having to buy a cookbook on how to prepare crow. It’s like I tell my students. “Every marriage eventually ends in divorce.”

“But Professor Viminitz, my grandparents have been happily married for …”

“Look,” I interject. “I never said some people don’t die before they have to chance to get divorced.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that Guantanamo Bay has set jus in bello and jus post bellum back at least two thirds of a century, to the beginning of the Second World War. And for the same reason that these police-authored murders of unarmed black men is setting race relations in America back to the early Sixties.

The counterargument – and it’s a good one – is that ‘twas always thus. There’s nothing new about post-Geneva violations of the Geneva Conventions, nor about American cops murdering black American kids. In fact if anything the rate of such murders has been steadily declining since the outset of the civil rights movement.

Right on both counts. But two things have changed. Social media has made it almost inevitable that these murders will go viral within minutes, complete with video. And we’re living in a much more symbol-sensitive age. The killing of a black teenager means something it didn’t mean before.

But on second thought I take it all back. The one thing I promised myself I’d never become is just another Laocoon like my colleagues. Their end-of-civilization-as-we-know motif is anthropogenic global warming, and I mock them mercilessly for it. Surely I deserve no better.


I am not going to claim that all of us play host to revenge fantasies, because then I couldn’t deny – which I categorically do – that I certainly do. So everything I say here is prefixed by an I-hear-tell, or an I-have-a-friend-who. When I slip into the first person, plural or singular, or into all-talk rather than some, it’ll be for stylistic purposes only.

I’m with Descartes, who thought that no one ever does something he knows to be wrong. That is, whatever we do, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And if what we do has moral implications, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. So it would be odd if things were different in our fantasy lives. If I’m wondering what it would be like to do something wrong, I’m really just imagining someone doing something I think is wrong but he doesn’t. That’s why I can’t fantasize about rape. And fantasizing about someone else committing rape –I have no trouble doing that! – just isn’t sexy to me.

So when I fantasize about taking revenge – not that I do, remember – it’s always, at least in my mind, justified revenge. Put another way, if in my mind it wouldn’t be justified then I don’t fantasize about it. And so inducing a pattern in what I’m responding to in my revenge fantasies is a window into my particular moral theory, one I might otherwise never be able to articulate. Or if “moral theory” is too pretentious – and it probably is – then how ‘bout, as virtue ethicist would put it, what kind of person I’d like to be? Why the latter over the former? Because “Let your behavior be guided by your theory of the right!” is a two-step process, whereas “Act as the person you’d like to be!” is unmediated, not to mention probably more reliable.

This is not to say that attending to our revenge fantasies can exhaust our moral self-understanding. Revenge is a response to perceived injustice. But there’s nothing unjust about falling to supererogate. Compassion, courage, forbearance … None of these are implicated in revenge.

Nor am I suggesting that all our intuitions about justice are implicated in revenge. I might think – and I do – that justice dictates that polygamy should be decriminalized, but there’s no one I fantasize killing over it. Some things are just inadvertently unjust. And inadvertent injustice does not warrant taking revenge over it.

In fact even what I just said tells me something about what I must think about justice and injustice. It tells me that I think only injustice need be intentional. And now I can think about why I think that. For example, now I have to reconcile this view of injustice with my claim that no one ever does what he believes to be wrong. So it must mean I find it perfectly coherent and acceptable to wreak vengeance on someone who believes he was doing what’s right.

Can I ratify that implication? Yes I can. But someone else might discover that he can’t. He might find that he insists that the miscreant acknowledge his malfeasance, and that if he doesn’t then any attempt at revenge will misfire.

And from this disagreement, his and mine, I think we can abduce something about who’s the Hobbesian here – I am – and who’s the Kantian – he is. So though nothing in this navel-gazing, into mine and into his, tells us who’s right between Hobbes and Kant, it does help us see what hangs on it. The Kantian needs the heretic to confess the error of his ways before being burned at the stake. The Hobbesian is happy just to put a bullet in the back of his head on his way to the exercise yard.

But I can’t entirely maintain this either-or-ness. Even if mine are weaker than his, we all have Kantian intuitions. And that explains why I don’t want the miscreant to acknowledge that what he did was wrong. Because if he does, now the revenge is robbed of its pleasure for me. What I do want, however, is that he know why I’m taking revenge on him. If he accepts this comeuppance, and yet sticks to his convictions, then he’s a martyr, and once again there’s no pleasure in taking revenge on a martyr. So what I need is that he knows I have my reasons, he knows what’s coming to him, but he doesn’t know he has it coming to him. That is, for him there are no moral dimensions to what’s about to occur, but he is terrified just like his victims were terrified without their attaching any moral dimensions to their terror or suffering. For that’s just the thing about suffering, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to. And if it does, it’s something else. It’s penance. But if it’s penance it’s contrition. And if it’s contrition we’re back to his acknowledging that what he did was wrong.

As I say, this is my dialectic, but I’m sure there are others. My point is only that our revenge fantasies are layered, they’re subtle, and they’re supple. We work them, like a fine piece of copper tooling. We’re never quite satisfied. That’s why we keep working them, always trying to find that whatever-it-is we know is missing, if only we could find it. They’re like those floaters in our peripheral vision we can never look at directly. They are the gargoyles, at the same time hideous and sublime, without which our cathedral looks incomplete.

But they’re something else too. They’re the mark of things are not all right. Sometimes, we go weeks or months without any. And it’s only when we stop and notice this that we realize how things have been pretty all right of late. Can we go too long without them? How would I know? How would anyone?

Some people find the having of them so unpleasant that they seek a religion that promises to rid them of them. I find such people sad, and their religions a tad cowardly. I don’t know why I say this. Maybe my revenge fantasies make me feel ‘in it’. Not in the sense of being alive, but in the sense of being a player. If I’ve never been wronged I’ve never lost. If I’ve never lost I’ve never really played.

Maybe it’s something like that. But just as likely it’s that our revenge fantasies are there to help us monitor our moral maturation. They evolve over a lifetime. And that, I think, tells us something.

Here, I think, is the ultimate test for one’s moral imagination. What would revenge against God look like? Peter Shaffer made a stab at it in Amadeus. But Salieri essayed his revenge through one beloved of God, not on God Himself. I want to know how to make God Himself suffer for the suffering He’s inflicted. Turning the Christ story on its head to capture this wouldn’t. Jesus is no more the son of God than is that toaster. I know plenty of people – not me, remember – who’d flock to a religion that could turn “Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord,” on its head. “No,” the congregation would answer in unison, “vengeance is ours!”

I think that’s what those gargoyles are doing on the rooves of those cathedrals. I think they’re a promise of a Judgment Day to come, and it’s not upon us they’ll be coming.

Of course I don’t believe any of this. I’m just reporting what a friend of mine thinks.