Stephen Nathanson (1943-2023), RIP

I read the other day of the recent death of Stephen Nathanson, professor emeritus of philosophy at Northeastern University. I didn’t know Nathanson very well–we never met–but nonetheless wanted to note his passing. 

I first encountered Nathanson’s work when I did manuscript reviews for Prentice Hall Press back in the mid-1990s. The Press assigned me a manuscript of his to review with the working title Who Gets What?, later called Economic Justice and published in their Foundations of Philosophy Series (1998). It’s a refreshingly well-written and clarifying book. When I first read the manuscript, I held a Rand-and-Nozick-influenced version of libertarianism at odds with the defense of the welfare state Nathanson offers in Economic Justice. It took me awhile, but I eventually came around to something like the view Nathanson defends, and did so partly by reflection on his arguments. I still turn to the book decades after the fact when I want to think things through on the subject. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to do the same.

I went on to review his 2001 book, An Eye for an Eye? The Immorality of Punishing by Death in Teaching Philosophy. Though I basically agreed with the case Nathanson made against the death penalty, I didn’t at the time share his rejection of retributivism, and still don’t share his skepticism about moral desert. In any case, An Eye for an Eye? is what induced me to think harder than I previously had about the nature of justice. I went on maybe a decade later to reject retributivism, but still hold the views of moral desert I held back then.  Every now and then, I’ll read through Nathanson’s chapters on desert to remind myself of the reasons someone might have for skepticism about desert. I’ve never been convinced by his arguments, but have never regretted the exercise of engaging with them.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, I’d started to put together an Author-Meets-Critics session on Stephen Kershnar’s book Desert, Retribution, and Torture, which offers a retributivist defense (!) of torture. Nathanson agreed to be on the panel, as (I believe) did Roderick Long, and of course, Kershnar himself. It would have been a great panel (if I may say so myself), but unfortunately, for reasons I no longer remember, it never came to pass. In any case, the planning for it gave me the opportunity to have the one and only conversation I had with Nathanson. It was a brief but friendly exchange; I forget what we talked about beyond shaking our heads and clucking our tongues at Kershnar’s defense of torture. I regret that we never ended up meeting. I’d made a mental note to read at least some of his other books–he’s got one on rationality, one on terrorism, and one on the consent of the governed–but alas, never got to them, or at least haven’t so far.

Despite my limited acquaintance with his work, what I’ve read of him has always struck me as a model of the right way to do applied ethics and social philosophy. He was a living counter-example to the dogma that discursive fairness entails neutrality. Both of the books of his that I’ve read advocated for a particular, semi-partisan point of view in social philosophy. Yet both managed, despite that, to present rival views charitably, fairly, and without snark or rancor. Having presented each view at its strongest, and having hit each with a battery of counter-arguments, he didn’t just leave the reader at sea with a bunch of unresolved dilemmas; he managed, pretty convincingly, to explain where the proper balance of reasons ended up, and tried gently to nudge you in his preferred direction. That said, his nudging never struck me as a form of badgering or cajoling. He knew and respected the difference between persuasion and manipulation, or between nudging and pushing. I wish I could say as much for half of what I read online. 

Nathanson seemed to me to combine the best features of both pragmatism and analytic philosophy as styles of thought and writing: he could discuss particular cases without getting mired in detail, and could engage in conceptual analysis without getting lost in the clouds. I often try to write that way, but doubt that I succeed as well as he did.

I’m sad that he’s gone, but glad that he was able to accomplish so much, and by his example to guide the way to further accomplishments. 

My condolences to his friends and family.    

12 thoughts on “Stephen Nathanson (1943-2023), RIP

    • I think the average reader could be expected to see red over that comment.

      I did an APA session with Kershnar on exploitation in 2009. He argued that there was nothing wrong with exploitation, I argued there was. A member of the audience was so offended by the discussion that she conspicuously got up in the middle of Kershnar’s talk, and left. I think the offensive thing was some thought-experiment in his paper that had a racial element to it. I forget the details, but I seem to remember that it involved a Pakistani woman’s being exploited by an Indian man, plus stereotypes of Indians and Pakistanis. Oddly, I wasn’t offended, and I was probably the only Pakistani in the whole room. But then, I’m not a Pakistani woman.

      I’ve lost touch with Kershnar in the last decade or so, but it looks like he’s recently managed to get himself in trouble.

      It’s kind of ironic that for all of the talk about the Woke Revolution on campus, here’s a tenured professor who’s been removed from campus through the efforts of the political Right. And he’s more Right than Left himself.

      He’s been removed on the transparently idiotic grounds that people feel “unsafe” around him. I guess they missed his “liberal argument for slavery,” and missed his repeated defenses of torture? No one was afraid twenty years ago that he’d enslave or torture them, but all of a sudden they feel “unsafe” because he’s questioning beliefs about pedophilia. The old “What about the children?” card. Raising questions about child sex? Danger to the university community. Defending the torture of adults? Perfectly safe.

      I can’t imagine Stephen Nathanson getting into this kind of trouble. I can’t even imagine getting into it myself, and that’s saying something.


    • I have mixed feelings about Vallier’s explanation. It certainly has merit as far as it goes. There’s a contrarian side to the libertarian movement, and to some extent, that contrarianism explains the movement’s dark side. Fair enough. But I see three problems.

      First problem: the explanation stops prematurely. Why is there a dark side to the libertarian movement? Because of the contrarian trap. Contrarians engage in contrarianism for its own sake. OK, why do they do that? Vallier:

      I don’t know what makes people contrarian. My suspicion is that there are a sub-group of individuals who are more naturally disposed to take up minority, unpopular positions.

      That’s either a profession of ignorance, or an appeal to nature. To read Kevin charitably, ignore the first disjunct and consider the second. The argument is an appeal to nature. There just are, by nature, contrarian personalities out there.

      Second problem: Why do we find a disproportionate number of contrarian personalities among libertarians? Because (Vallier says) libertarianism is unpopular, or a minority view. Unpopular/minority views tend to attract contrarians. That has a general implication beyond libertarianism, as Kevin recognizes:

      If I am right, we should expect to find relatively large populations of contrarian personality types in any unpopular or minority ideological movement.

      Well, we don’t. Genuine leftist politics is an unpopular/minority ideological movement. There is no large population of contrarian personalities within it. The movement for Palestinian rights is an unpopular/minority position. Same result. If anything, the reverse of contrarianism prevails in both camps. Leftists and advocates of Palestinian rights tend to be overly dogmatic, not contrarian. The positions they take are almost too predictable, down the line.

      Third problem: Kevin ignores a competing explanation. One reason why libertarians tend to adopt “dark” views is that they incline not to contrarianism but to the Right, and right-wing politics is just inherently dark. What the libertarian Right fears most is totalitarianism, which it associates with the expansion of state power. The liberal Left is explicitly, ideologically, committed to the expansion of state power. The Right is at least verbally committed to privatizing or ratcheting back (“sunsetting”) large swatches of the State.

      So it becomes easy to reason as follows: if totalitarian threats come from the State, and the Left is ideologically committed to its expansion, whereas the Right is basically not, then if we want to pre-empt totalitarianism, we should make an alliance with the Right. But making an alliance with the Right means, in part, becoming a part of the Right, and having the Right become a part of the libertarian movement. The “darkness” Vallier is trying to explain is just a byproduct of that alliance, and of the “package deal” thinking that’s a natural consequence of political alliance-making.

      The packages are: The politics of the Left = the politics of totalitarianism. The politics of the Right = the politics of restraining totalitarianism. Hence the Left is evil and the Right is OK.

      Once you accept those equations, the rest is less a matter of “contrarianism” than of motivated reasoning, where the motivations are driven by the imperatives of political success. In virtually every case I can think of, the “dark” view Vallier is trying to explain is not simply some random contrarian position adopted out of the blue, but something that plays a role in an overall political strategy. Adopting it helps promote the Right. If dark people tend to vote Left, then racism becomes an option. If gays vote Left, then homophobia becomes expedient. If anti-discrimination laws are enforced through the state, then toppling them requires that we normalize the discrimination that would take place once the laws were abolished. Etc.

      So the darkness that Kevin seeks to explain is more closely associated with libertarianism as such than his explanation suggests. Part of the explanation for “darkness” is contrarianism, but part of it is just libertarian realpolitik. Contrarianism doesn’t really fit where the latter operates. Contrarianism doesn’t tailor itself to fit the demands of partisan politics. But libertarian “darkness” does.

      One of the darkest legacies is the one left by Objectivism, but the darkness there is Rand’s own. It has nothing to do with “contrarianism.” It has to do with the fact that Rand divided the world into producers and parasites, and demonized the latter. Demonizing them was not a matter of contrarianism but of instrumentalism: in other words, demonizing “parasites” was instrumental to her political strategy. Only by marking out a class of parasites to hate could she hope to galvanize a movement of haters to loosen those parasites’ hold on power.

      Right-wing libertarianism galvanizes political support through hate (or at least hostility). So does fascism. Whatever divides them, that unites them. Kevin ignores that possibility, but that’s where I think the action is. Libertarian theory is not fascist, but libertarian practice is, for contingent reasons, fundamentally allied with fascism. What explains libertarian “darkness” is what explains fascist darkness. But no one would invoke contrarianism to explain fascism.

      Obviously, when I say “libertarianism” above, I really mean right-libertarianism. Left libertarians have other problems, but not these ones.

      I have my own explanation for Kershnar’s career. The explanation is that Kershnar is by temperament a man of superhumanly restless energy. One way to release it is to write–a lot.

      Academic ethics is, epistemically, a somewhat complacent enterprise. It’s not set up to make itself invulnerable to harshly skeptical attacks on its basic presuppositions. If you have a lot of energy to dispel, one endless project you might want to undertake is to find every undefended weak point in the literature, and attack it. A person who undertook that project would find no shortage of weak points to attack. It’s not easy to do, but not insuperably difficult, either. And it lends itself to constant output. That’s basically what Kershnar has done.

      As it turns out, his particular views on sex or slavery or exploitation or whatever are almost beside the point. His overarching meta-ethical view is that morality and moral responsibility both rest on false presuppositions. That we have moral obligations is the ultimate undefended epistemic vulnerability in academic philosophy. It took Kershnar awhile, but eventually he found that vulnerability and attacked it.

      A discipline that regards “answering the skeptic” as passe is bound to invite that response.


      • “In virtually every case I can think of, the ‘dark’ view Vallier is trying to explain is not simply some random contrarian position adopted out of the blue, but something that plays a role in an overall political strategy. Adopting it helps promote the Right.”

        I think you’re mostly right, but not entirely; not all libertarian contrarianism is right-wing. Skepticism about age-of-consent laws, for example, is traditionally more a left-wing than a right-wing thing. The libertarian attraction to conspiracy theories isn’t just to right-wing conspiracy theories; libertarians are more likely than the average person to believe left-wing conspiracy theories too. Or consider someone like Stefan Molyneux; most of his contrarian views are right-wing, but his hostility to the family isn’t.


        • I’ll defer to your greater knowledge of the libertarian scene. I didn’t know that Molyneux was anti-family, but I don’t know his stuff very well, and I’m comfortable with that.

          Age-of-consent skepticism is an ambiguous issue. Kershnar’s approach to it probably qualifies as contrarian, but you don’t have to be all that contrarian to want to question some age-of-consent laws. As written, many of them would turn Romeo and Juliet into a tale of statutory rape, and have other odd consequences besides. Granted, my impression is that these laws are only enforced in egregious cases, but as someone with trust issues when it comes to law enforcement, I don’t like the idea of having to trust their discretion. (Just to be clear: I don’t mean to imply that having sex with anyone of any age is a live option in my case; I’m motivated purely by concern for the form and content of the law). I only know one person (an Objectivist) who literally wanted to abolish all age-of-consent laws, but that person was less a contrarian than a very radical anti-paternalist. I guess I’m too outside the libertarian movement at this point to make fine judgments or broad generalizations.

          The more I think about Vallier’s claim, however, the more counter-examples come to me. His claim, again:

          If I am right, we should expect to find relatively large populations of contrarian personality types in any unpopular or minority ideological movement.

          The labor movement? Hardly contrarian.

          Minority religious sects, even of a proselytizing variety? Not at all contrarian.

          Think of “single issue” zealots of various kinds–bereaved moms in favor of very specific gun control measures, people who want to ban plastic straws, people who want mandatory bicycle helmet laws, people against declawing house cats, people who demand that you turn the water on and off when you wash the dishes so as not to waste a drop, advocates of street crosswalk reform, etc.

          These people are zealous, ideological, and in the minority, but not particularly contrarian. In fact, they’re so non-contrarian that they need a name of their own. Though in the numerical minority, these are people who’ve made a life’s crusade of enforcing every last implication of hyper-conventional values. Safety is just about the most conventional value there is. What makes safety zealots so radical is that they insist that conventional values be taken more seriously than convention dictates.

          I think Vallier’s thesis would have to be tempered by a “circle the wagons”/”convention zealot” thesis of some kind. Some unpopular/minority movements give rise to contrarian tendencies, others to “circle the wagon” dogmatisms or tribalisms or convention-zealot ones. In general, the latter seem the more politically salient phenomena to me.


  1. I used that little book on Economic Justice in Political Philosophy for many years. It was perfect. And there was nothing else like it in existence. I used some of his other books as well. He did a real service to philosophy by writing those books. They were great.


    • Thanks so much for writing. I apologize for the delay in responding, but I was abroad and without a computer. Please accept my condolences once again. Your father has more than one admirer at this blog. It was an honor to know him, even in the glancing way I did.


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