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 either couterproductive  or 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 for 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 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 any 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 God’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 1,002,017.

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 you’re Daddy and  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 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’re 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’d 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 qua one of us, want to live in. But what about you qua 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 members of the jury 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 a breathing 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 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’s 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 knows 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 kneeding 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 revenge fantasies 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 how they evolve, 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 after us they’ll be coming.

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


It never ceases to amaze me that whatever it is, it’s almost invariably a thing. Who knew, for example, that if you google “diary” and “Holocaust”, there are tomes upon tomes of articles on whether the Anne Frank diary was forged, and thousands upon thousands of people taking a keen interest in what I had no idea even could be an issue.

Well, turnabout is fair play. I know you know that serial killing is a thing. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that being a serial killer is its own thing. By which I don’t mean we have our own chat lines. As with pedophiles that goes without saying. Rather I mean we have our own online conferences, how-so seminars, how-not-to seminars, our own organizations – I’m VP External of the Southern Alberta Chapter of Off Your Knees, Serial Killers, or OYKSK. In short, it’s a thing. And it’s a thing as multi-layered and multi-faceted as 9/11-Trutherism, anthropogenic global warming, and yes, pedophilia.

And just as pedophiles take umbrage at all being painted with the same brush, so do we serial killers. We are not tokens of some type. We are sui generis individuals, each with his own axe to grind – or wield – his own strengths and weaknesses, his own penchants and would-never’s, his own religious affiliation, party membership, sexual orientation, allergies, underlying medical conditions, hopes and dreams and fears – usually of getting caught – and so on.

In a blog entry of this size I can at most touch on the tip of the iceberg. But some consciousness-raising is better than none.

There is an organization called Serial Killers Anonymous (or SKA), but we consider them outliers, because they’re trying to quit, which we liken to apostasy. Do LGBT clubs welcome members who are ashamed of being LBGT? Why then should we welcome members of SKA? That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily proud of being serial killers, any more than heterosexuals are proud to be heterosexuals. Pride is just the wrong concept here. Each of us is what he is.

And I say ‘he’ here because yes, almost all of us are male. (Well okay, ‘male’ according to our birth certificates. Sheesh! One has to be so careful these days!) According to StatsCan – Canada, by the way, is one of the few jurisdictions willing to regard this data as important for social policy purposes – only 3% of serial killers are female, whereas our own internal survey shows it’s actually even lower. Some psychologists argue that this has to do with lower testosterone levels in women. Others conjecture that it’s because men place a higher value on justice, whereas women tend to value maintaining social relationships. I suspect they’re both right. But I digress.

We don’t deny that there are, among us, those who fit the stereotype promoted by Hollywood thrillers, according to which we kill prostitutes because my mother laughed at my penis, or we kidnap and starve fat women so we can harvest their skin to make ourselves a coat less hirsute than the one we were born in. But there are crazies in every organization or walk of life. Not unlike what you call terrorists, their numbers are less than miniscule, and yet those are the people you’re obsessed with. Get a grip, we say. We have a grip. That’s why we harbor our ‘damaged’ people the same way you’re finally learning to harbor yours. With compassion. But we don’t give them the reins of our government, which is more than we can say for who you’ve elected as your President. (Okay, that was a Trump-shot. Not terribly clever, I admit, but it had to be inserted somewhere.)

No, the vast majority of serial killers are, as the Blues Brothers put it, “on a mission from God”. Only the sexually repressed think God has a problem with prostitutes. Or Kantians that He has a problem with your garden variety murderer. (We call the latter ‘one-offs’, by the way. We use it in the sense wizards use ‘muggles’.) Or with abortionists. Or with the ‘greedy’ point-zero-zero-one-percent. Truth be told, we don’t really give a shit what God has a problem with. We have a problem with what we have a problem with. And on that score there’s no limit to the variation within our ranks.

What I can attest, however, is that to the best of my knowledge there are no racists in our ranks, no homophobes, no anti-Semites, and no Islamophobes. We simply don’t tolerate intolerance. There are, amongst us, two who kill Scots, but not because they’re Scots. It’s because of the haggis. There’s one who kills country-and-western signers, but not because, with the exception of Charlie Pride, they’re all white. On the contrary, we all kill with a reason, and for the most part with good reason.

Of the 8,861 members currently on our books here in North America, only eleven have been brought up on Justification Beyond Wonky charges. And of them only three have been found to be killing with JBW. We may not be “stomping out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored” – we leave that to the Salvation Army – but we’re doing the work God should be doing but is otherwise occupied because of His own personal hang-ups about seafood and fabric blends. In fact there’s more than a few us us who’ve filed for permission to put Him on our hit list. But because the Christian Caucus still controls 41% of the vote, we’re still 8% shy of the two thirds we need to override their theological squeamishness.

And you’d be amazed at what some of us are squeamish about. Like Leon in The Professional, some won’t do women and children. Others, for reasons intelligible only to them, give vegetarians a free pass. As is said in Sad Cat Diaries, “There is no logic in this place.”

And yet there is a logic of sorts about who does not get a pass. For example, mass murderers don’t get a pass. Does that mean none of us can kill mass murderers en masse without having to then commit suicide?

Nice try, but no cigar. Attend to the meaning of the word ‘murder’. A murder is a wrongful killing. But since killing a mass murderer isn’t wrong, it’s not murder, and so nothing prevents us killing any number of them, especially if – as would be the case with the thousands of SS officers involved in the Shoah – killing them en masse would be a matter of efficiency.

Some of our members have argued that, by parity of reasoning, mass murderers of mass murderers – the Tutsi militias in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, for example – aren’t really murderers at all, and therefore not mass murderers, and therefore ought not to be targeted, at least not on the grounds that they’re mass murderers. This is my own position. But others have argued that the mere sight of Tutsis mass killing Hutus, even though they deserved it, triggers the same visceral reaction in the ‘avenging angel’ in us as did the mass murder of Tutsis by Hutus, and therefore that visceral reaction should be serviced with like abandon. But these non-cognitivists – or Non-Cogs, as we call them – are as much an embarrassment to us as are Hasidic Jews to sensible-hat Jews. I agree that we should have a visceral reaction to mass killing. But we need to override those instincts. Killing killers of killers isn’t fair. If you want to kill Tutsis for killing Hutus who had it coming, do it because of their cooking.

Because as I say, we don’t only kill killers. I’ve already mentioned our two serial killers of Scots, and our serial killer of country-and-western singers. And, of course, we also have serial killers of abortionists, of anti-abortionists, of overly officious loan officers, rude immigration officers, university administrators … As I said, we’re a motley crew. In fact the only thing that keeps us from killing each other is, as Thomas Hobbes explained it, that no one wants to be killed himself.

Which busts yet another myth, namely that we all have a death wish, or subconsciously want to be stopped. No we don’t. (Well, yes, obviously we do have a death wish, but not for our own.) We do what we do because we think we’re in the right. Some of us, no doubt, are not in the right. For example, one of us has been killing Roughrider instead of Stampeder fans. But we believe in live and let live, or in our case kill and let kill.

All this said, let’s turn to some of the conceptual issues surrounding our ‘thing’. And those issues are legion. To begin with, suppose I want to kill all whooping crane chefs, but there being a serious shortfall of whooping cranes in the world, it turns out there was only one whooping crane chef to kill. Having killed him, how do we distinguish between a whooping crane chef serial killer and a one-off? This should be a question of import not just to us but to members of any Genocide Studies Department. Suppose the Wannsee Conference included a plan to keep a few Jews in a zoo after the war. It’s the same question, is it not?

A related but more general issue is whether one can remain a serial killer if he’s run out of victims. Can he say to the judge, Yes I was a serial killer, but I’m no longer a danger to the public? And if so, should it be, like the sign by the pond in the park, “Catch and release!”?

And then comes the obvious problem of distinguishing the serial killer from the solider. The standard distinction – at least since we decided going to war needed justification – has hung on this business of killing in self-defense or in defense of others versus just for the fun of it. That, in turn, hangs on satisfying the clear and present danger test. And both ‘clear’ and ‘present’ can be mean whatever one damn well likes. So the more honest answer has been that the soldier, but not the serial killer, has leave in the jurisdiction which would otherwise treat him as a serial killer. It would seem, then, that ‘serial killer’ is a political designation, not all that distinguishable from ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’.

Not so, counters the legitimacy realist. An insurgent or terrorist is challenging the authority of the state, whereas your garden variety serial killer is not. He votes, he pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. Most importantly, he considers himself a criminal, albeit the criminal protagonist, not unlike the George Cluny or Brad Pitt character in one of those caper movies.

This helps, but only a little. What about the serial killer of abortion doctors? He too votes and pays his taxes, he gives uptake to all the institutions of the state. He just thinks the state is in error in not protecting the unborn, in much the way you and I would consider the state in error if it thought, as in Canada, that aboriginal women don’t matter, or in America, that black lives don’t matter. So what’s the difference between the so-called terrorist, the serial killer of abortion doctors, and the cop-killer who’s killing cops not to resist arrest but to avenge those of his brothers and sisters who are being gunned down in America like a replay of Sharpeville?

So yes, other than the crazies, all serial killers regard themselves as crusaders, but only some – I’d say about a fifth – are making a political statement. The rest – typified by our anti-haggis activists – aren’t trying to have haggis outlawed. So in that sense they don’t consider their crusade political.

And so once again, drawing these distinctions isn’t a challenge peculiar to us. Drawing the same or similar distinctions is central to the concept of a hate crime and/or of a terrorist attack. If the victim was a Jew but it would have been any Jew, then it’s a hate crime. If he bombed the tax office because it wouldn’t recognize his golf clubs as a business expense, that’s one thing, and perfectly understandable. If he bombed it because it collects money to buy ordnance to be dropped on children playing in an Afghan playground, that’s something else. That’s terrorism.

So the governance of the serial killer community is in many respects a microcosm of the governance of society at large. Some of us consider ourselves dissidents, but most do not. The crazies aside, we all consider ourselves justified in what we do. But then so do all of you. You might want to sit us down and disabuse us of the justifiability of our actions. But then how open are you to sitting down with your interlocutors and working out how best to accommodate conflicting views about vaccination safety or anthropogenic global warming?

You think you have the moral high ground on us because you’re not killing each other over the issues that divide your polity. An alternative interpretation is that that’s because your Precious, whatever it happens to be, is just something to identify with so that people won’t think you’re shallow. I think Sartre would call this your inauthentic self. By contrast, the one thing that cannot be said about us serial killers is that we’re inauthentic.


Each of us has heroes. And in that, the having is enough. Which is just to say my hero needn’t be someone I aspire to be. I don’t aspire to be Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, because I don’t aspire to be black. Not aspiring to be Irish I don’t aspire to be Bobby Sands. Not aspiring to be Arab I don’t aspire to be one of the nineteen martyrs of 9/11. But for what little I’m sure it would’ve been worth to them, these are the men and women who would’ve had my respect and admiration.

To say I hope I’d have done what they did is incoherent. If I’d been them I wouldn’t have been me, and so it couldn’t have been me doing what they did. But the role this hero-izing does play in my life is this: Whenever I’m faced with something requiring the kind of principled backbone they had, I ask myself, “What would Parks or Mandela or Sands do?”

Note that I do not ask what would Martin Luther King do. That’s because having a backbone is a necessary condition of being a hero but not a sufficient one. I shared with King his aspirations for social justice, but I did not share his convictions about how to achieve it. So I respected him for the strength of his pacifist convictions, notwithstanding in my view those convictions were ill-placed. King wasn’t among my heroes because, put simply, what he would do I wouldn’t. Or more accurately, what I would do he wouldn’t. In my view – I thought this then and I continue to think it now – what turned it around for blacks in America, to the degree it has turned around, wasn’t the march on Washington. It was the return from Vietnam of a half million black soldiers who knew how to use an M16. For me the heroes weren’t the men who marched. They’d done plenty of that in boot camp. For me the heroes were the men who would have used those M16s. And white America knew it!

Ayn Rand was a brilliant writer and a terrible philosopher. But in The Romantic Manifesto, her attempt at a philosophy of literature, the one thing she did get right was the what-would-John-Galt-do account of fiction. It’s not that we put ourselves in the place of the hero in the story. It’s that we import the hero from the story into our place. This is just Aristotle’s virtue ethics said so much better than Aristotle could. The question is not, what should I do? Rather it’s, what kind of person do I want to be? Picture him and then simply do what he would do.

Think of the number of times you tell yourself what you should have said. Almost invariably it’s what you imagine your hero would have said. And it’s when you’ve internalized him, when he’s so in you that he’s there even when you’re not, those are those rare times when you high-five yourself because, dammit, you did say it, with not a split second’s delay and not a quaver in your voice. Those are our finest moments. We get maybe a half dozen in a lifetime. But it takes decades of living with our hero to prepare for those moments.

No, Virginia, fantasizing is not a waste of time. Of everything we do, it yields our highest return on investment.

Not unlike our bookshelves – and for the same reason – our heroes tell us something about ourselves. As I say, not about who we’d like to be, but rather about what kinds of behaviors we take to be heroic. I’m a thinker and a writer and an orator, and I take some not-inconsiderable pride in how well I do what I do. But I find nothing heroic in it. Rather I find my heroism in the man or woman of action, notwithstanding I’m not. I’d much rather just lay on the couch. I find nothing heroic in the soldier, but I do in the assassin. I find nothing heroic in the per se exercise of force, but I do in the precision of its exercise.

I find especially heroic the unsung hero, because the song cheapens him. This is why the mandatory medals scene at the end of every Star Wars movie makes a bad movie even worse. No Star Wars character has ever done anything heroic, so the medal is for just being the one who hit the target. But hitting the target has to do with aim, not character. And so lucky-shot-gets-the-princess is how on-the-cusp-of pubescent boys learn to fantasize.

As he gets older his fantasies mature. But the most mature are not about having superpowers, or saving the planet with only two seconds to spare, or becoming the President. They’re about breaking a dissident out of a Soviet or Israeli prison, and then turning up to work in the cafeteria in the Kremlin or Knesset the next morning. Heroism has to be undetectable. What’s crucial is that a) it could have been anyone but that b) it wasn’t just anyone.

Maimonides understood this.

There is nothing heroic about seeking opportunities for heroism. The true hero is the one who has heroism thrust upon him. This is why the village buffoon, played by Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, was, for me, the paradigmatic heroic character. It’s a story about rising to the occasion. And in keeping with the role of the hero in our lives as described above, it’s mustering the backbone to rise to the occasion we didn’t seek that heroism is all about. It’s about what just so happens to happen on my watch.

No one but me can tell me where my watch begins and ends, though of course everyone else has an opinion on the matter, which they’re more than happy to share. The truth about 9/11 is not on my watch. Neither is anthropogenic global warming. That the former is on the Truthers’ watch, the latter on some of my colleagues’ watch, is what they’ve decided, and I wish each of them God’s speed. It’s enough that we tend our own garden, Voltaire counseled. But there’s no theory of ethics that can dictate how far and in what directions my garden extends. Hence, from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “He works his work, I mine.”

I have, if I’m lucky, twenty years to live. I’ve noticed something about men and women my age, at least those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, and don’t, touch wood, have a loved one requiring extraordinary care. We become a Don Quixote in search of a dragon to slay. And we delude ourselves into thinking our experience makes us better lancers. But at the risk of overgeneralization, no, Virginia, it’s men and women in their prime who change the world. And if that prime has passed us by, but we feel no dragon has yet to quiver at our approach, we have to prove the manhood [sic] we didn’t prove when we should have, even if, having had loved ones to care for at the time, we really couldn’t have.

I find this at the same time both noble and sad. Noble in myself. Sad in others. I’d like to learn to overcome this myopia. I think there might be something heroic in that.




“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

“Mais non, monsieur, zis eez our fly zupe, zee specialite de la maison.”

How do we resolve this issue? By deferring to the intentions of the chef? But he might dissimulate, to save the restaurant from having to offer a reduction from my bill. So the more general question to be grappled with here is how ought we to deal with extensional equivalences? And deal with them we must, because as with my bill at the restaurant, much can hang on how the matter is resolved. Such as? Such as a charge of false advertising, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the defensibility of Creationism, the laudability of being law-abiding. The list goes on and on.

A return flight from here to there is advertised as $59, but when I get to the website’s checkout it’s $319. Is this bait and switch advertising? Certainly not. The difference of $260 is all taxes imposed by the government, or the fee charged by the credit card company, neither of which has anything to do with the airline. Are you going to say the 12% sales tax bringing a $9.99 shirt up to $11.19 is false advertising?

But hang on a minute. Aren’t there all kinds of taxes embedded in the $59 as well? Isn’t the percentage of the company’s contribution to its employees’ government-run mandatory unemployment insurance scheme likewise a government tax having nothing to do with the airline? So isn’t it entirely arbitrary which expenses to the airline are just part of the cost of doing business and which are not?

Arbitrary yes, but $319 sounds like too much to spend, and $13 sounds too good to be true, whereas $59 is what the focus group has decided sounds just right.

Many years ago, while I was putting myself through university, I drove a school bus two hours a day five days a week and lived in government-subsidized single parent housing. I had a friend who worked as a crisis intervention worker, alternating between ten hours a day for four shifts one week and then ten hours a night for four shifts the next. She lived in the identical unit next door, but paid fair market value. So after rent we each came home with identical disposable incomes. Wasn’t a school bus driver making four times as much per hour as a professional social worker? Certainly not. Unlike me, she had the dignity of full time professional work, which she hated, by the way. And she complained bitterly about having virtually no time to spend with her kid.

I’m not even a theist, let alone a Creationist. But I like to ridicule my Creationism-ridiculing colleagues by advancing in its place the Five Minute Hypothesis, according to which the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was fine minutes ago, with all our pseudo-history books on the shelves where we now find them, and all our pseudo-memories in our heads where we now pseudo-remember them. All three hypotheses – my colleagues’ fifteen billion year, the Creationist’s six thousand, and my five minute – are non-falsifiable. Whatever would count as evidence for one would as readily count as evidence for either of the other two. So, I argue, since what’s at issue can’t be the so-called science, it has to be the politics.

Certainly not, says the atheist. Certainly not, echoes the Creationist. My father always said, Do what you’re best at. Well, my signature forte, or so I’m told, is my irritating supercilious grin.

According to Justice Devlin, if what the sovereign commands is egregiously immoral it can’t be a law, and therefore one needn’t obey it. By contrast, according to H.L.A. Hart, if it’s a constituent of a legal system and it has the right pedigree, it’s a law all right, but egregiously immoral laws ought not to be obeyed. So wherein lies the difference? It lies in Devlin wanting never to be a criminal, and Hart, in these circumstances, taking it as a badge of honor.

Differences that can make no difference are no differences at all. But the difference between fly soup and a fly in my soup does make a difference. It makes a difference in the bill. So the question before us is under what conditions should we allow a non-difference to make a difference? Then we can infer backwards to whatever it is that’s making this difference. This should be straightforward enough, shouldn’t it? Well, let’s see.

Okay then, suppose the chef experimented by putting a fly in a soup, tasted it, approved, and that’s how it ended up on my table. In that case I think I should pay. Suppose a fly landed in the soup, the chef tasted it to see if it was still acceptable, and decided it was actually an improvement. Once again I think I should pay. Suppose he saw the fly land and drown, but this time he served it without tasting it. Now I’m beginning to waffle. The intention was still there. But did he intend for me to eat a soup with a fly in it or to eat fly soup?

Suppose I make an atom-for-atom replica of the Mona Lisa and burn one of them but I don’t know which. Suppose further that this has become known. Is the surviving painting worthless, halved in value, or unaffected? Surely this is an empirical question. What sense would it make to say how it should be?

Suppose I might have just made up this story, but the art world doesn’t know whether I did or didn’t. Since there’s a 50% chance I made it up, there’s a 50% chance there’s a 100% chance it’s the original, which means there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. But since there’s a 50% chance I didn’t make up the story, then once again there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. So what difference does it make whether I did or didn’t make up the story? How would the art world deal with these equivalent probabilities?

It might be supposed that what matters here, in both the soup case and in this one, is whether there’s been a possible actus novus interveniens. The mere announcing that I could have duplicated the painting raises a question that wasn’t there before. It’s like my saying there’s no evidence whatsoever that so-and-so is a pedophile. If that were true, why would I be saying it? To say there’s no debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a performative contradiction. And so on.

What’s going on here, I think, is what’s being rendered salient. It’s always been the case that the original Mona Lisa could have been destroyed and replaced by a replica. It’s always been the case that my wife could have been switched with a functionally indiscernible android. What’s always been part of the background has just been made foreground, and now I’m creeped out by it. Could be fly soup. Could have been advertised as $319 in the first place. Could have been we’re all paid the same but some of us put in four times the hours that others do. Could have been only five minutes. Could have been do what’s right rather than what’s lawful unless it’s not right.

All men are mortal, except Jesus. All men are immortal, except everyone other than Jesus. These claims are extensionally equivalent, but do they mean the same thing?

Suppose you concede that there was nothing Jesus said that hadn’t been said a thousand times before. So the entire Christ story hangs not on its social gospel but on the salvific power of the Cross. Then what theological difference would it make at what age Jesus was crucified? So since we can represent Jesus as black as readily as we can white, we should be able to nail a plastic infant to a cross and parade it through the village on Good Friday. But we don’t. And that we don’t should be taken to falsify the claim that the Christ story hangs on the soteriology of the Cross. And what this shows, in turn, is that analyzing non-differences that make a difference is a way, indeed the way, to get at what’s really going on in the back of our heads. What’s going on in the back of our heads – if by ‘our’ I was speaking as a Christian – is that it’s not enough that God was willing to sacrifice what He had begot in order to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. It’s that what He had begot must itself understand its sacrifice as a sacrifice to that end. An infant couldn’t do that. Only a grown man could.

But hang on. In saying that an infant couldn’t have understood that, we’re explicitly denying that the omniscience of God passed directly to what He’d begotten. And this, in turn, puts a lie to the opening passage of John. If at one time the infant knew not, but at another the adult knew, then sometime in the interim he must have learned. For him to have learned it must have been imparted to him. But to have been imparted to can’t just amount to God saying to him, “Just trust me on this.” Presumably he must have explained how the Cross would reconcile humanity to Him. But if God could explain it to Jesus, why can’t He explain it to us? Let it be granted that Jesus was smarter than the average bear. But it’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of conceptual coherence. So if God can’t explain it to us, neither could He have explained it to Jesus, in which case the adult was as much of a mindless dupe as the infant would have been. This does not bode well for kindergarten Christianity, if one thinks about it. Well, I guess some things don’t bear thinking too much about them.

Impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, my point here is not to trash any particular view about any particular subject. My point is simply that analyzing the difference a non-difference might make can do important conceptual work for us. It’s revelatory. It reveals to us what we might not have known we’ve been thinking. In some cases we’ll double-down on what we’ve been thinking, in others we’ll realize our thinking has been idiotic. In the case of pricing and incomes, I’ve learned to go straight to the bottom line. Hence capitalism and socialism are terms of rhetorical flourish, not economics. In the case of the Creationism debate it’s not about cosmology. It’s about the social conservatism that’s sometimes contingently attached to Creationism. In the case of criminality I’ve decided that, the law of the land be damned, an occupied people do have the right of armed struggle. And in the case of my might-be-android wife, I’ve decided she’s fungible, and so I’ve kept a spare in the closet.

That leaves the soup, for which my solution is to ask before ordering. If I’m averse to fly – just as were I allergic to it – I’d order something else. Though more likely my wife Andry – I mean Pam – and I would eat in a less expensive and pretentious restaurant.


There are a few things that I get that other people don’t. If this weren’t so I wouldn’t be of much use to them, now would I? So no, since it’s not hubris, no apology warranted, so none forthcoming.

And then there are a few things other people get but I don’t. For example, I don’t get homophobia. Never have. Many if not most non-homophobes are proud of their non-homophobia. I’m not. I’m a little embarrassed by it, because it’s not that the non-homophobe gets something the homophobe doesn’t. It’s that the non-homophobe doesn’t get something the homophobe does get

And then there are things I get that everyone else gets too, but some of them only pretend not to get. For example, racism. Look, it’s not rocket science. The people I’ve always hung out with look a certain way, and I’ve come to know what to expect from them. These people don’t look like them, so I don’t know what to expect from them. Simple rule of survival: if you don’t know what to expect from something, stay away from it.

So notwithstanding I totally get racism, the degree to which I’m not a racist is because I have hung out with people who don’t look like the people I’ve always hung out with. And what I’ve discovered is that the theme song from Cheers is right. “People are all the same.” But I only know this because I’ve had the opportunity to know it. People who haven’t are just going with what they know.

So what’s unseemly about racism is not the racism itself, but the gratuitous hostility that sometimes accompanies it. If we feel ourselves entitled to be hostile to Moslems or blacks or First Nations or whomever, by parity of reasoning we should recognize their entitlement to be hostile to us. But we don’t. We think their hostility is unwarranted. Why? Because we know what to expect from ourselves, so why don’t they?

Here’s another example of pretending not to understand what one understands perfectly well. Suppose I told you I’m into sex with ants. My guess is you’re going to think I’m joking, because you can’t imagine what sex with an ant would be. And if I told you I’m serious, you’d just be befuddled. But if you say you don’t understand how anyone could be into sex with young children, you’re lying, because you’re not the least befuddled. You might disapprove. But if so you’d be disapproving in precisely the way it would be odd for you to say you disapprove of someone having sex with ants. Disapproval in the ant case seems out of place. But it’s not out of place in the pedophilia case precisely because you do understand it. That understanding doesn’t make you a pedophile. But it does mean that if you enter a discussion about pedophilia, you know what you’re talking about, which you quite literally wouldn’t if you truly didn’t understand it.

Change of subject, but you’ll see in a minute that it’s not. I had a lover once who wanted me to hit her, and I don’t mean a playful slap. I’m not a prude. I’m of the view that when it comes to sex, it’s whatever pleases one’s lover. But I couldn’t go there, and so I didn’t. Why? Because I knew something about how things like this tend to escalate. And that’s not the direction in which I wanted my sexuality to develop. What this shows, I submit, is that we know ourselves well enough not to trust ourselves.

What’s this got to do with the subject at hand? Just this. I have a colleague who’s a 9/11-Truther, for which I mock him mercilessly. He’s used to this, so he doesn’t get angry. But he’s invited me on innumerable occasions to do a little research before I beak off about something about which I readily confess I know absolutely nothing. I invariably decline, and for any number of reasons, each perfectly defensible. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about 9/11 really matters, any more than the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo matters. But the one reason I don’t share with him – or anyone else for that matter – is that I know myself well enough not to go there. What I know about myself is that I’m hardwired to follow the evidence wherever it takes me. And what if it takes me to where there be dragons? Then I’d be as much as a nut case as he is. And I have better things to do with my life than spend it being another nut case.

My 9/11-Truther, in turn, has a friend who’s a Holocaust denier. When she went public with this she went from being a highly respected and valued member of her community to a social pariah. She’s done a helluva lot of research into the Holocaust. I’ve done absolutely none. If I did I have no idea what I’d find. No, that’s not true. I do know what I’d find. I’d find that one question would lead to another, and in no time at all I’d be instantly pulled down into the quicksand of trying to reconstruct what did happen and what didn’t. But the very act of even looking at the evidence would get me immediately disinvited to every dinner party in town.

So as long as, and only so long as, I don’t look, I’m safe. I’m safe socially, and I’m safe morally. I’m safe morally because I have the same perfectly defensible reasons not to question the Holocaust as I do not to question 9/11. I don’t have the time, and even if I did I don’t think the truth about the Holocaust matters, any more than does the truth about the Exodus or the Alamo. But what makes me just a tad uncomfortable with myself is that if I didn’t have these perfectly defensible reasons not to look, I still wouldn’t look because I couldn’t trust myself not to find what I wouldn’t want to find.

To 9/11 and the Holocaust, let me add yet a third example. I know dick all about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I don’t think my True Believer colleagues do either, but that’s another story. Because I’m so kneejerkedly averse to reaching conclusions about anything too hastily, I worry that, not unlike Buridan’s Ass, I’d be frozen in perpetual agnosticism. But agnosticism about AGW, not unlike agnosticism about the Holocaust, is taken as AGW denial. And AGW denial would get me disinvited to the same dinner parties to which Holocaust denial would get me disinvited.

So when my colleagues rant about AGW – and God help me they do – to delude myself into thinking I’m maintaining my integrity, I nod knowingly but remain silent. And the silence, I tell myself, is not hypocrisy because I do not hold a contrary opinion about which I’m holding my tongue. Look, I tell myself, I don’t watch hockey. When my bar buddies are prattling on about who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year, by not joining in I’m hardly being a hypocrite. Why then am I a hypocrite by not making a display of my ignorance and indifference to AGW?

And yet like a hypocrite is exactly how I feel. Why? I think it’s because I subconsciously suspect that agnosticism about the Holocaust or AGW is a substantive third position, a position which can be defended, and so should be advanced, just as asserting or denying the Holocaust, or asserting or denying AGW, are substantive positions that should be advanced and defended. I think I think I’m a hypocrite because I hold a substantive position on these issues that I’m declining to advance because I’m afraid of being disinvited to dinner parties if I do.

The fact that agnosticism is not denialism is irrelevant. Even my colleagues who are supposed to know the difference between “It’s not the case that S believes that p” and “S believes that not-p”, just lose the distinction when p is their Precious. So I can at least console myself in citing their stupidity as necessitating my hypocrisy. Barry Goldwater once remarked that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Well, neither is hypocrisy in the face of stupidity.

I wouldn’t be blogging about this if it weren’t a serious problem in my workplace. Less so for me. I’m tenured and near the end of my career. But I worry about our students. The abuse of academic authority is worse than that of the clergy diddling with our kids. Most of these kids, though not all, are not scarred for life. But our students are damaged for their entire careers. What they’re supposed to be learning is how to speak truth to power. Instead they’re learning how to be Uriah Heaps. When and only when they think it’s safe will they then strike a blow to recoup their dignity. But they’ll do so by striking out at their own students, perpetuating this pattern of abuse.

Here’s what I’d like to see. If a student – or anyone else for that matter – is yet to be convinced of your Precious, it’s not because she’s stupid. It’s because you’ve yet to make your case.

Except, of course, in the case at hand. It can’t be because I’ve yet to make my case, so it must be because my colleagues really are stupid.



Environmental Philosophy (henceforth EP) is that series of phonemes and/or chicken scratches that sustains itself by assiduously refusing to define any of the dozen or so terms which can then be randomized to form sentences which sound deep but say absolutely nothing. Unfortunately this same definition also applies to Continental Philosophy, so what distinguishes the two are their constituent defining undefined terms. Whereas Continental Philosophy drones on about things like – as if there are things like – being, nothingness, authenticity, in short all the brooding words, EP plays its game of jacks with environment, biosphere, sustainability, all the warm fuzzy ones.

“What’s the environment?” you ask?

You’ve just failed the first quiz. What did I just say? You don’t ask. Got it?

“Got it!”


The word universe means all that is. At one time we thought that wasn’t much. Now we know it’s a helluva lot more. More specifically the universe consists of a whole bunch of worlds, one here, one there, and so on, and a whole bunch more nothing – or maybe something, who knows? – in between. But EP isn’t concerned with any of that. It’s concerned only with those worlds which are life-sustaining, and of those only the ones that are anthropic.

Well no, that’s too quick. Most environmentalists – remember: don’t ask! – hug trees, but not rocks. But there’s nothing in environmentalism per se that rules out concern for the integrity of rocks. That said, we’re going to stick here with the tradition, if the fifty years since EP became a thing can be called a tradition. Traditional EP takes no interest in worlds without a biosphere. And since the only biosphere we know of, at least for sure, is our own, that’s where the scope of EP’s inquiry stops.

For some it would stop at the top of the biosphere – that’s about 200 kilometres, right? – even if our planet was not anthropic, or anthropic but as yet uninhabited by humans, or anthropic but no longer inhabited by humans. These are the crazies. They’re the people who’d mourn the extinction of the human race only because then trees would have no one to hug them. These are the dangerous people. They’re dangerous because if they thought the trees would be better off without us – and let’s face it, they probably would – these people would wipe us out without a second thought the moment they found the wherewithal.


 Fortunately – not for the trees obviously, but for the rest of us – the crazies are few and far between. Most EPers confine their interests to the one world we know is inhabited by humans, and because it’s inhabited by humans. But even here there’s a palpable split between those who think of us as being merely on the world, and those who think of us being of it. On the former view we’re alien invaders. Even if technically native to the planet, we’re like the Morlock, having recently crawled up from some cavern deep under the earth’s crust.

On this view our task is plunder, albeit plunder constrained by principles of husbandry. And it’s that constraint which, as we’re about to see, renders this first view indistinguishable from the second. But only from the outside. From the inside, that’s to say phenomenologically, the two are as night and day, because they have completely different vocabularies by which to say the same thing.

For example, only on the second view are we as much a natural part of our biosphere as the trees, the frogs, and the lichen. As we’re assured by the “Desiderata”, “[we] have a right to be here.” And so on this view EP is the study of our rightful place in the natural order. Here there can be no suggestion that we’re acting contra natura, because nothing can act contrary to its nature; otherwise it wouldn’t have been its nature.

There’s no fact of the matter as to which of these two conceptions is correct. But there is a fact of the matter about which is the more useful perspective to adopt. If I’m an SS officer in Warsaw, or an IDF soldier in the West Bank, it would be unseemly to expect a great deal of cooperation from the people over whose lives I’m running roughshod. But if I shed the uniform and my sidearm, apologize for my past intrusions, and ask to be accepted, if only provisionally, into the Polish or Palestinian community, I might be pleasantly surprised. And if I cast my lot in with the Poles or Palestinians, even if against my erstwhile own, I might be more pleasantly surprised still.

This is precisely the state of mind that dominates the Sane Wing of the environmentalist movement. It doesn’t naively abandon the view of “nature red in tooth and claw”. It inserts itself into nature, from whence it had always been in the first place. It accepts, as Val Plumwood once remarked, that we too are food. And it doesn’t require, as some have insisted, that we now become submissives. We can still walk upright and tall, but gingerly. Not with mincing steps, but with footfalls carefully placed nonetheless.


 If we have a right to be here, then so does everything else. And this talk of rights is not, for the Sane Wing EPer (or SWEPer), just a facon de parler. She thinks of her world, and of herself, as being governed by laws of nature, laws of physics and chemistry, certainly, but also by some kind of moral natural law. The so-called lower animals follow these laws by instinct, but humans have to discover them. So there’s no contradiction in supposing both that a) we cannot act but according to our nature, and b) we sometimes act contrary to the moral law.

This idea that there are moral laws, and hence duties incumbent upon us independent of having been posited by some sovereign or community of sovereigns, is pulled out of the environmentalist’s ass. How did it get there? you ask? Well, you get pregnant by sitting on a toilet after a man’s peed there. So you must get moral natural law up your ass by sitting on a pew in church. There’s simply no other way it could have got up there. And once you’ve got the moral law in hand – you might want to give it a rinse first – you’ve just assigned purposivity to the cosmos. How so? Because if there’s no answer to the question, “What do we want the law to do for us?”, there’s no answer to the question, “Why should we obey it?”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that at the very core of the SWEPer’s weltanschauung is an oft unrecognized but ineluctable theological commitment. She may not believe in God, but she sure as hell believes in teleology, and in herself being duty bound to fulfill that telos. She is, in short, a Thomist. And from her Thomism we get the predictable litany of stupidities philosophers qua philosophers have always railed against.

Why, then, do they suddenly get stupid when teaching a course in EP? I think it has something to do with what makes them volunteer to teach EP in the first place. Analytic philosophy is a blood sport. “If you want to bleat about ‘justice as fairness’,” we tell them – well, okay, I tell them – “or about a learning environment safe from feeling offended, take it outside!” In short, analytic philosophers come across as assholes, because, well, we are. But EP, not unlike Women’s Studies or Feminist Ethics, is this outside invited back in. It’s a time out. It’s an opportunity to show the kinder side of philosophy, and so to be thought more kindly of. It’s self-promotion. Speaking of which, this is why it takes them a full semester to teach what I can in twenty-three minutes. You are timing me, right?

But I digress. We’re talking about stupidities. Let’s start with …


 Here’s the argument that’s driving our intuitions:

  1. A turkey is best carved at the joints.
  2. If it didn’t by its nature have joints, it couldn’t be best carved at them. So
  3. turkeys have natural joints.
  4. Turkeys are part of the world. Therefore
  5. the world has natural joints. That is, even if turkeys were the only constituents of the world that had natural joints, the distinction between things that do and do not have natural joints would itself be a natural joint. So since, cf. (5) the world has joints,
  6. the world can be carved at its joints.

Now it might be supposed there’s some equivocation here, and there is. But only because it’s trying to be pithy. That pithiness is not enough to undermine the soundness of the argument were it more carefully formulated. So yes, the world has joints. If you bend it it’ll break at some places but not others. And that’s just what we mean by having joints. Now let’s see about kinds.

The world is not an amorphous mass of atoms in the void. There are regularities in the configurations of these atoms. Were this not so, then save by the perpetual grace of some mother hen God, we couldn’t live in this world. But we do. We survive, in fact flourish, by noting these regularities in our environment and exploiting them. And these regularities are what we call natural kinds. So, for example, a turkey is a token of one natural kind, a stick a token of another. What makes us think so? Because tokens of the type turkey can be used for one thing, tokens of the type stick for something else.

Some discussants get hung up on the word ‘natural’, which they rightly take to be distinguishing natural regularities from artificed ones. A toaster performs as reliable a function for us as a tree, but whereas “only God can make a tree”, only Tim Horton’s can toast the perfect bagel. So a toaster is a token of a kind, though not a natural one. Now we just need to know whether a regularity that is of no use to us can be, though natural, not a token of a kind. And the answer is clearly yes.

Think of all the things that are artificed and yet not tokens of a kind. This pen is a token of a kind, as is this sock. But this-pen-and-this-sock is not a token of a kind. If it were then the kind of which it is a token would have a name, because the regularity it betokens would have a function for us which would have behooved us to give it one.

All the more so, then, must this be so of natural useless regularities. If we want to say that every useless natural regularity is also a natural kind, then we have to find a way to define a regularity independent of its possible use. But that, as any information theorist will tell you, can’t be done. And because it can’t be done, and yet we want to be realists about natural kinds, every configuration of atoms in the void will count as a token of a natural kind, and then the concept of a natural kind will cease to do any work. So it follows as a matter of logic, never mind of metaphysics, that there are no natural natural kinds, and any non-natural natural kinds there might be owe their being a natural kind exclusively to us.

Or, to put the case another way, if there are x atomics, there are a set number of ways those x atomics can be configured. If, over the course of their existence, a small subset of those atomics are configured the same way twice, that configuration is a regularity. Given the number of atomics, and the sheer size of the universe, that’s likely to be a helluva lot of regularities. In fact what would astonish would be if there were a subset of those atomics that didn’t configure the same way twice in the course of their existence. So there might not be anything left that isn’t a token of a natural kind. But if there’s nothing that isn’t a token of some kind, it’s being what it is isn’t very interesting.

Hence natural kinds, if they’re anything at all, are just one of those meaningless dozen or so postulates I referred to in Lesson #1. Call me Torquemada if you will, but I say consign that kind of patter to the flames!


Since I promised twenty-thee minutes, let’s save ourselves some time. Without natural kinds we can’t get the concept of life, without the concept of life we can’t get the concept of species, and without the concept of species we can’t get notions like equilibrium, sustainability, extinction … the list goes on and on and on. In other words, EP can’t have a domain of discourse. And if it can’t have a domain of discourse, there’s nothing for it to talk about.

How do we salvage it? By dropping all pretense at realism and acknowledging that all these terms – animate versus inanimate, speciation, equilibrium, sustainability – they’re all about us, about our needs and druthers, about the way we need to carve up the world and manipulate it, given our aspirations to survive and flourish in it.

But in the service of these ends we already have carved these concerns up into their various disciplines: the natural sciences, ethics, economics, political sciences, and so on. So by all means keep EP, but keep it as one of those fluffy liberal education interdisciplinary touchstone courses. You know, like Lib Ed 1000. What’s it called again? Ah yes, “Getting in Touch with Yourself”.

Good grief! Or in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I shall retire to Bedlam!”

Okay, time! I make it twenty-two minutes, eighteen seconds. Forty-two seconds to spare. I feel like I’m on a roll. Phil of Science? Phil of Mind? Bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em all on!

Or maybe not. What if T.S. Eliot was wrong? What if the world doesn’t end with a whimper, but with brevity?


I have a colleague who’s become a little bored with teaching modus ponens and the Meditations, and instead now fancies himself something of an authority on global warming. The way you become an authority, by the way, is by so declaring yourself. And so provided you’re not in proximity to anyone who really is an authority – whatever that ‘really’ might mean – you get to be one. Not only that, but provided you surround yourself only with other self-declared authorities who agree with you, and provided you keep your bookshelf clear of anything that doesn’t, you get to be an advocate, and as such you get to hold in contempt anyone who doesn’t think “global warming is the single most urgent problem facing the world today.” You don’t hold them in contempt for not doing anything about it, because then you’d be expected to do something about it yourself. You only demand that, like yourself, they lose sleep over it, losing sleep being, apparently, the sine qua non of membership in the human race. A well-rested countenance, by contrast, is the dead giveaway of the psychopath.

Now then, my colleague in turn had a student who wrote her honors thesis not in defense of one side or the other but rather on the rhetoric of the global warming debate. Her research being impeccable, he had no choice but to give her an A+. But not before his having taken high umbrage at her having taken some umbrage at the sloppy deployment of the notion of ‘urgency’ in the global warming literature. But it wasn’t until he dismissed this concern as a “philosophical quibble” – yes, his exact words – that she realized he’d pretty much left the building.

Others of his students have noticed it too. This happens, especially when an academic gets a little too long in the tooth. In fact I’ve assigned my most trusted student the task of letting me know when it starts happening with me. He hasn’t yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Which is not to say it’ll be time to retire. Without a few has-beens – or in my case perhaps a never-was – a Philosophy Department would be far less productive. Progress is often the product of play. And play can’t happen when one’s still looking to make a career for oneself.

But I digress. For my purpose here is to see, quibbler that I am, if I can put some flesh on the niggle that senior student had about the notion of urgency. Her worry, if I understood it aright, was that “X is urgent …” is not a well-formed-formula. Not unlike “X is valuable …” it requires a to– or a forwhom. And the problem is that a world just isn’t the kind of thing to which or for which anything can be urgent.

This is sometimes what happens when we speak metonymously. When the news reports that “The White House announced today that …”, we all know what’s meant. We all know as well that the world isn’t the kind of thing for which anything can be urgent. But when you tell me that “Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today!”, you might be intending one thing and I’m hearing something completely different. That difference will hang on with what, to render the claim syntactical, each of us is mentally substituting for the word ‘world’.

When pressed for his substitution, what will my colleague answer? That it’s the most urgent problem for everybody? Surely not for any of the hundreds of would-be boat people, just two hours down the coast from where I’m writing this, whose lungs are filling up with salt water at this very minute because their ‘fare’ didn’t cover a life jacket. To suggest that global warming is the most urgent problem facing them isn’t just factually wrong. It’s morally obscene.

But we needn’t stray that far from my colleague’s own home to note that before he does anything about global warming first he has to pee. For that matter, let’s suppose the sky really is falling. That is, there’s a planet killer that’s about to hit the earth in twenty minutes. If I have to pee then as desperately as I have to pee right now, well then, I suppose I’m just going to meet my Maker with my schlong hanging out.

So in any normal sense of the word, global warming can’t be the most urgent problem facing anybody. In the normal sense of the word, for any one of us there are hundreds if not thousands of things more urgent than global warming, including peeing, getting those papers marked, picking up the dog from the groomer’s … So surely that student and I are right to wonder in what stipulated sense of the word global warming is even an urgent problem let alone the most urgent one.

The principle of charity would suggest that, though urgency must surely have a temporal component, its intended meaning in this context is less akin to the Italian ‘subito’ than to the legal notion of a clear and present danger. Global warming is a clear danger, in the sense that there’s no doubt, at least in the mind of my colleague, that it’s happening and it’s going to have devastating consequences. And it’s a present danger in the sense that those consequences don’t need any actus novus interveniens to materialize.

Moreover, one wouldn’t use the word urgent for something that’s inevitable. For example, notwithstanding it’s a minute before sunrise, the sun isn’t about to rise urgently. In fact if global warming is a problem in the face of which we’re utterly powerless, then even calling it a ‘problem’ seems something of a misnomer. It’s a problem only if we can do something about it, or at least try. So to say that it’s an urgent problem is to say that if we’re going to try to do something about it, we had better get onto it sooner rather than later. And the ‘most’ in ‘most urgent’ doesn’t refer to how soon we had best get onto it, but rather to the direness and breadth of the consequences if we don’t get on to it at all.

But if this is what my colleague means, then he’s at best facing some very stiff competition, and at worst he’s just straightforwardly mistaken. John Leslie wrote a book entitled The End of the World, in which he catalogued all the ways the world – by which he meant a world amenable to human existence – could come to an end; and he provided a rough ordering of most to least likely, though even the least was by no means un. Global warming barely got a mention. Nuclear warfare certainly did. And I’ve just been reading about the particulates of plastic in the oceans that are rapidly making their way up the food chain to us. So by reckoning that’s by no means idiosyncratic, before we sweat to death we’ll either be vaporized or we’ll suffocate as surely we would with a plastic bag over our heads. So by this clear-and-present-danger interpretation of urgency, we – by which I mean everybody – should be trying to rid the planet of nuclear weapons and bottled water before worrying about our carbon footprint.

Or does my colleague know otherwise? In addition to being an expert in climatology, is he also an expert on nuclear proliferation and microplastic pollution? Would he like to pronounce as well on the great cloth versus disposable diaper debate?

No doubt he’d concede that all of these issues are important. But then what makes him so sure that, not unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, global warming is the first among equals? First by what measure? If the end of the world is overdetermined, such that if the climate doesn’t get us then the plastics will, then each is the most important. But then the sheer number of problems the solutions to which are each jointly necessary to save the world would render global warming completely un-special. One might even say unremarkable.

So there are at least three dimensions along which global warming must rank first to count as the most urgent problem. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the number of interested parties who’ll be affected. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the direness of those effects. And it has to outrank everything else in terms of how soon we need to get on to it. But in order to make the claim that global warming wins on all three counts, my colleague would have to know how each of these other threats measures up by these same three criteria, which means he’d have to be at least as much of an expert on all these things as he is on global warming. That’s a lot of expertise. That’s more expertise than I could hope to master in a lifetime. That’s either genius or hubris. I’m left to wonder which.

But here’s why the student’s quibble was one worth raising. Her supervisor, my colleague, pronounces himself baffled as to why virtually no one is giving global warning the priority its urgency demands. His student was giving him the answer, if only he’d listened. It’s no one’s priority because for no one is it urgent. That’s something, as an environmental activist, he needs to know, so he can adjust his argumentative strategy accordingly. If it’s not about urgency what is it about? A little more of his time spent on that question might not go amiss.

And that is why we philosophers quibble. Philosophical quibbles direct us to the right question. If you quibble with quibbling it’s because you’re really not looking for the right question. Even if it’s wrongly posed, you want to stick with the question that baffles you so you can remain baffled, because being baffled by the stupidity of others is the mark of the truly superior mind.

Yes, our cosmic insignificance is a bitch! We each deal with it in our own way. My colleague fancies himself Laocoon, and the Koch brothers the giant serpents. I see him more as Don Quixote, though I don’t pronounce on whether he’s tilting at windmills or real dragons. But I do think he should listen more to his page, or in this case his honors student. He took her as mocking his Precious, when she, like Sancho, was really just trying to give him a reality check.