COVID-19 Narratives #9: From Nebraska to New Jersey and Back

From Nebraska to New Jersey and Back: College Life Under Pandemic
Catherine Lentsch

The COVID-19 pandemic first became a reality for me when I was flying back from my home state of Nebraska to New Jersey after spring break. I was chatting with members of the Columbia University baseball team on our plane when they received a notification that Columbia was canceling school for the next few days, and would then be holding online classes for the next two weeks. We were all a bit shocked. It was a bit hard to believe that they’d cancel school over a virus. Nor was it clear what this meant for the future. Continue reading

Ex Parte Khawaja

A letter addressed to Mr Gregg I. Adelman, Principal of the firm Kaplin-Stewart, Attorneys at Law, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.

Dear Mr Adelman:

This is not the first time I’ve informed your office that no one by the name of “Shane M. Loercher” lives at [my address]. Nor is it the first time I’ve informed your office that no one by that name has lived here since at least July 2018, when my wife and I first bought this property. I am not sure what is accomplished by repeatedly sending legal notices to a person who doesn’t live here and can’t read them, but whatever the aim, you may wish to re-think it. Continue reading

Giants and Dwarfs

Two years ago, my cousins Sa’ad and Salman (Khawaja Saad Rafiq and Khawaja Salman Rafiq) were arrested in Pakistan on charges of “corruption” by that country’s absurdly named NAB, or National Accountability Bureau. For two years (and not for the first time), they endured incarceration and vilification at the government’s hands. The first time this happened (to both of them), was during the military dictatorship of  General Zia-ul-Haq; the second time (for Sa’ad, but not Salman), was the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharaff. This time, for both, was under Pakistan’s Trump-like civilian Prime Minister, Imran Khan.* Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Continue reading

Can an Employer Unilaterally Change the Terms of an Employment Contract?

In a whiny blog post at 200 Proof Liberals addressed to his provost, Jason Brennan claims that you can’t enforce a contract which gives one side unilateral and unlimited power to change the terms of the contract. The context is a “compact” that Georgetown’s administration has imposed on students, faculty, and staff regarding the spread of COVID-19. Continue reading

Tyler Cowen on the Harper’s free speech letter

Here is a link to the letter:

And here is a link to Cowen’s blog post (quoted extensively below, with my reactions/comments interspersed — italics):

[Cowen] Of course I side with those who signed the [Harper’s] letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

[me] Certainly, there are special issues when speech/expression regulation (and personal exclusion) is involuntary – especially when the sanctions come from the government and even more especially when that government is appropriately committed to the basic values of a pluralistic, liberal society). And voluntary speech regulation still needs its standards – presumably that is part of the issue here. Moreover, when standards become public and dominant, they might as well be enforced through the government. There is a similar chilling effect. And there may well be similar – or even more intense – censorious ill will behind the regulation. I take it that it is these cases of voluntary speech regulation (and personal regulation – inclusion or exclusion from benefits, institutions, etc.), not the cases of voluntary regulation or exclusion that are pretty clearly things we should allow (like my decision not to associate with this or that person whom I regard as an asshole), is the matter of concern. True enough, we need to say more about when speech regulation and associated personal exclusion are appropriately allowed or not (and why). It will matter a lot, I think, whether a personal speech-regulative or associative/dissociative action is merely personal or part of a larger, public dominant standard.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

Maybe this (the character of the enforcement personnel) is the main problem, but maybe not. Are the present standards for what speech is to be regulated and how perfectly okay, the main problem being that they are enforced by folks who are incompetent, borderline mentally ill, etc.? I think there are significant issues with the standards themselves (e.g., offense as a harm and a sufficient reason to regulate) and how they are to be enforced (e.g., via collective ostracism and often actual hatred directed against the offenders). Also, because of cultural and institutional changes in modern life (e.g., social media but also shifts in reasonable weightings given to different competing values), we need to update traditional ideals of free speech (so I don’t think that the problems with extant dominant standards for speech regulation is that they just don’t get it that we had the right standards before). 

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

Sure, we need to know when “toleration” is bad and “censoriousness” (if this term is being used in a non-pejorative way) is good. And why. I don’t think it is too much to ask, in such a letter, to provide something of a contrast object – to say something about the kinds of speech and expression that should fall on the okay-to-regulate side of the ledger and what the salient factors are for making this determination. You don’t need a full theory and you don’t need to be off-putting.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters… But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world… So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

And this brings into relief, once again, the contrast object of acceptable speech regulation. So far, so good. However, though these folks are obeying and enacting certain constraints on speech in order to achieve consensus with their target group (mainly, the “woke” left), they are not knuckling under in the face of threatened or imagined sanctions. There is a “deep” free speech ethic that they are not exemplifying (and that I am sympathetic to): that of systematically and decisively elevating truth (and difference and error and contention as an essential means to the truth) and the free expression of one’s person, over avoiding giving offense. In line with such an ideal, one would speak one’s mind no matter what and even offend people and create contentious situations on purpose (not to hurt, but to achieve truth/expression and model the ideal that includes the essential means to these). Maybe the right lesson here is that such a deep ethical ideal of free speech – as opposed to a probably-narrower but more public one grounded in basic moral reasons we all share – is a rare flower that does not grow well everywhere. For the purposes of this letter, defending free speech by modeling “deep” free speech (that ideal of free speech) would not work out very well…

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

Depressing, I think, only relative to one’s acceptance of what I’m calling (with a Rawlsian twang) the deep ethical ideal of free speech. But maybe a thinner but still worthwhile ideal of free speech is available. Maybe such an ideal will neither decisively elevate contentious truth-seeking over avoiding offense nor revel in disagreement, contention and even giving offense – but will nonetheless treat moral hysteria mobs, especially those generated on thin pretexts and meting out ruinous punishments, as unacceptable. I can envision a “public” free speech ideal like this that is both inspiring and not in the least betrayed or ignored in this letter or the strategies behind it. With Tyler, I’m disappointed that we don’t live in a “deep free speech” world. But I’m a truth-seeking, rationalist outlier and so, as a matter of realistic and respectful public consensus, I’ll have to take my half loaf. We need to be clear on what this half-loaf is, and then clearly defend it, or we risk getting no loaf at all and living in a “woke” version of sectarian society. 

I worry some that the Harper’s letter is not clear about just what ideal of free speech it is defending – and thus might be (or might be reasonably interpreted as) defending, as a reaction to new information and a changed weighting of values in society, an old-school free speech ideal that is, I believe, more sectarian than publicly-defensible (and, in any case, quasi-Rawlsian framing aside, a bit reactionary). I definitely worry that Tyler, in addition to making a similar mistake, also errs in pinning the main problem of excessive speech regulation on the “neuroticism” of the speech enforcers, thus distracting from academic and public discussion of what speech-regulation standards should be, how they should be enforced, how one might enforce them in good or bad faith (borderline mental health issues aside), etc.  I would address the neuroticism (or whatnot) indirectly, through calling out the failure to meet valid public standards. When the failure is rooted more in borderline mental illness than in error, ignorance, incompetence, etc., then I guess we’ll have to deal with the borderline mental illness.

Reason (having-reason, there-being-reason) fundamentalism

Suppose that there is reason for Ronnie to go to the party because there will be dancing there and Ronnie loves to dance. As Daniel Fogal points out in his “Reasons, Reason, and Context,” ‘reason’ here is used as a mass noun, to refer to the action having what I’ll call a specific valence that has quantity to it. (Thus there is some/much reason for Ronnie to go to the party. We might also say that Ronnie has reason — some or much — to go to the party, where having-reason language does not indicate, as it does in some other contexts, that the specific valence is partially explained by Ronnie believing that there will be dancing as against the fact of such). Distinguish specific valence from overall valence or the valence that an option has in virtue of all of the respects of specific valence that bear (e.g., perhaps Ronnie also ought to go to the party because the sum of any competing specific valences here fail to outweigh).

Normative reasons (count noun here, not mass noun) explain there being reason (for some agent). Put another way: the reason-status of an item is that of explaining or helping explain, in a certain way, there being reason (for some agent). Fogal persuasively argues that reasons-talk and causes-talk are the same in that they pick out pragmatically/communicatively salient representatives of clusters of conditions that constitute full explanations or causes. The bits singled out stand in for the whole thing. And because of all of the variation in the sorts of things that it makes good pragmatic/communicative sense to single out as reasons, there is no special metaphysical explanatory role for reasons themselves in explaining reason. Though there are different explanatory roles in the overall explanation of there being reason for X to A (e.g., Ronnie loving dancing and the fact that there will be dancing play different explanatory roles, the former playing what is sometimes called the “source” role), no such roles neatly map onto this as against that item being cited as being a or the reason for Ronnie to go to the party. 

So we might say that the fact that there will be dancing at the party is a reason for Ronnie to go to the party or that the fact that there will be dancing at the party explains why Ronnie has reason to go to the party (maybe part of the assumed pragmatic/communicative context here is that we know that Ronnie loves to dance). But, similarly, in some pragmatic/communicative contexts, the fact that Ronnie loves to dance is the relevant explainer of why Ronnie has reason to go to the party. For these reasons, we should reject Mark Schroeder’s claim that desires are not reasons but rather mere background conditions for reasons. Any distinction between reasons and background conditions (or enabling conditions) essentially involves pragmatic/communicative selection from among the elements of the total explanation of why there is reason for Ronnie to go to the party. And that reflects us, not the metaphysics of it, especially as such categorization crosses over the lines between distinct metaphysical, explanatory roles.


There was never much of any reason to think of normative reasons themselves as normatively more fundamental than specific normative valence itself. I never thought this, for years having held a less-sophisticated version of the metaphysics of reasons/reason implied by the mass/count noun distinction in reason/reasons language that Fogal stresses. Perhaps it is because these distinctions have not always been clearly recognized that many philosophers have spoken as if normative reasons (the normative-reason-status of items) were normatively fundamental. We need to stop such sloppiness. And, if we do, then a “reasons-first” program of constitutive normative/evaluative explanation makes little sense. The relevant constitutive-explanatory program in the ballpark would be a “having-reason first” (or “there-being-reason first”) program, according to which specific normative valence is the sole normatively/evaluatively fundamental feature (whether or not there is any constitutive explanation of specific valence by clusters of conditions, any one of which might be pragmatically/communicatively salient and hence a or the reason; after all, specific valence could be explanatorily primitive). But also, if we are concerned with different explanatory elements in the explanation of specific valence, that is a separate issue from what we do or should cite as the or a reason why Ronnie has reason. Fogal’s paper brings this point into particularly sharp relief.

What might a “having-reason-first” program of constitutive normative/evaluative explanation look like? This is something that Fogal’s paper does not address. That is curious because, putting on my somewhat-confused reasons-first theorist hat, I would retreat to claiming that this — or some confused version of this — is what I meant all along. Thanks for helping me get clearer, Fogal!

That constitutive-explanatory program might look something like this: necessarily, specific normative valence is related to overall normative valence via an “additive” or “contributory” explanatory relationship. Hence, the right explanation of ought-features (and other overall valence features) is always via specific having-reason features, specifically via these, pro and con, being weighed or added together in a “contributory” style.

Here are two problems with this view. The first one denies the universal validity of this pattern of explanation for all overall valences (and all ought-features). The at-least-possible cases I have in mind here are those in which a specific valence entails, all on its own, corresponding overall valence. In such cases, necessarily, there is only one specific valence relevant to deciding between a set of options (perhaps a binary set of options, as the plausible cases might suggest). In such a case, there would be no “contributory” explanatory link between specific and overall valence. Certain normative relationships of requirement, correctness, appropriateness, fittingness might work this way (e.g., maybe fitting-attitude standards, if and when they are normative, work this way).

The second problem denies not the reality but the importance of the contributory sort of explanatory link. On this sort of view, what is important, metaphysically, is that a specific valence (again, perhaps a kind of requirement, correctness, appropriateness, etc.), though in principle only one of many factors and subject to being overruled, in conjunction with other factors commonly present, entails the corresponding overall valence. For example, most moral requirements usually entail oughts, but do not if more-important requirements (or other super-important factors) override. On this sort of picture, though some contributory explanatory link is present, it is simply of the right minimal sort for the entailment to hold (given that enabling conditions have been met). What matters is the entailment, not any weighing up of distinct respects of specific valence.

Combining these two objections into one, we might say that specific normative valence includes both merely-having-reason and something like requirement — a specific normative valence that either necessarily or circumstantially (and defeasibly) entails the corresponding ought-feature. (There might also be specific valence that, conjoined with relevant conditions that often or generally obtain, entail that one has sufficient reason to do the thing. But I’ll leave such cases aside for now.)

However, supposing these objections hold, the following not-insubstantial elements of the program remain. 

First, overall valence is always explained, one way or another, in terms of specific valence (and hence in terms of any explanatory basis for this and, by proxy, by what is appropriately cited, on pragmatic/communicative grounds, as a reason). 

Second, the generic quantitative language of having reason (and there being reason) applies to all specific and overall valence (even if using such language is not always conversationally appropriate, given pragmatic/communicative implicature). Whenever there is some normative valence attaching to A-ing for X, it is true that X has reason to A (or there is reason for X to A). 

Third, the explanatory linkage between specific valence (and therefore its explanatory basis and therefore any reason taken as representative of this basis) and overall valence is (a) centrally explanatorily relevant in the evidently “contributory” cases (e.g., additively explained ought-features), (b) centrally explanatorily relevant in certain hard or unusual cases that are not evidently “contributory” (e.g., describing what is going on in the proper balancing of competing requirements) and (c) relevant to good theorizing whenever more than one specific valence is potentially in play in determining the overall valence, providing formal-level description and explanation.