George Sher’s “Desert”: The Dimensions of the Problem

This post is a summary of chapter 1 of George Sher’s Desert, keyed to session 1 of the MTSP Seminar on Philosophy. For background, read this post.

The Preface of George Sher’s Desert begins with a statement of the obvious: the concept of moral desert is central to moral judgment and deliberation, and yet (at least as of 1987, the date of the book’s publication), we lack a systematic account of the nature and justification of moral desert. Indeed, ever since Rawls’s “critique” of moral desert in A Theory of Justice (if it is one), doubt has been cast on the coherence or viability of the concept. So the book sets out to provide a justification: “one of my central aims is to display the underlying justification of desert claims (George Sher, Desert, p. xi).

Sher calls his approach to ethical theorizing “pluralistic”: instead of beginning with some higher-order account or principle that entails desert claims, he starts with the desert claims “we all make,” and works to systematize them with the proviso that “desert need not have any single normative basis” (Sher, Desert, p. xii). So the approach is both “pluralistic” and in a sense, “bottom up.”

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McCormick-Taber Seminar in Philosophy Redux

About twenty years ago, PoT blogger Michael Young and I started a philosophy discussion group that we somewhat pretentiously called The McCormick-Taber Seminar in Philosophy (MTSP), idiosyncratically named for the locations where the first seminars took place in the early 2000s: McCormick Park in Princeton, New Jersey, where I lived at the time, and Taber Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island, where Michael lived.* We self-consciously conceived the group as a successor to David Kelley’s so-called Institute for Objectivist Studies, in which the two of us were involved, or perhaps over-involved, during the 1990s.  

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Robert Hollander, RIP

Robert Hollander passed away on April 20th of this year, but having just learned the news about a week ago, I wanted, however belatedly, to mark the event. From the official announcement by Princeton University’s Office of Communications:

Robert Hollander, professor of European literature, and French and Italian, emeritus, and renowned scholar of Dante, died peacefully of natural causes at his family’s home in Pau’uilo, Hawaii on April 20. He was 87.

Hollander joined Princeton’s faculty in 1962 and transferred to emeritus status in 2003. His teaching and research centered on medieval Italian literature, with a focus on the work of Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio.* 

I took the two-semester “Great Books” course in literature that Hollander co-taught at Princeton in the late 1980s, and it changed my life. The first semester covered Greek and Roman classics, plus the Bible; the second semester began with Dante’s Inferno and ended with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I still own the very texts I bought for the course thirty years ago; every work retains its poignancy, and is still in some way indelibly imprinted on my mind.

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Ragnarok Lobster

What do Good Morning America, the Australian Outback, Mary Poppins, David Friedman, Lawrence of Arabia, and a balloon voyage to a lost colony of Vikings at the North Pole have in common? Get the answers in this video, as I take you on a journey BEYOND YOUR IMAGINATION!!!

do the wrong thing?

My last post concerned the Scanlonian contractualist idea that the wrongness of wrong action is constituted by the action not being justifiable to others. I criticized this idea on the grounds that justifying to others presupposes the existence of the justifiability-independent and entailed-by-wrongness (or more specifically partially-wrongness-constituting) normative feature of the action warranting resentment (and hence objection) by the patient — patient-objectionability. I also suggested, in the post and in replies to comments, something of a positive view of wrongness. Specifically, that the wrongness of a wrong action is constituted by the following distinct normative features (and their being tied together in some necessary way): (i) patient-objectionability, (ii) observer-objectionability, (iii) (collective) disallowability and (iv) agent-avoidability (specifically such that the agent ought not and must not perform patient-objectionable actions). That is rough, but adequate for working with. In this post, I want to make some modest proposals regarding agent-avoidability and how this might be tied to patient-objectionability.

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Justify Yourself

According to a family of “contractualist” views of morally wrong action pioneered by Thomas Scanlon (in the narrow sense of ‘wrong’ that entails wronging someone and the victim having claims against one not to perform the action — “what we owe to each other”), what makes an action wrong is that it cannot be justified to others. The appeal of this sort of view is at least twofold. First, it specifies a very intuitive way in which actions are made wrong by the reasons (interests, well-being) of others. Second, it occupies a theoretically appealing “third way” between the utilitarian take on morally wrong action as not-welfare-optimific (or indirectly some function of this) and various Kantian (and related) positions according to which morally wrong actions are a type of action that reason itself forbids us (or that otherwise are irrational or violate rational requirements). The specific formulation of contractualism that Scanlon defends is a bit different (and of necessity more complicated) from the core idea just expressed, but the core idea of justifiability-to-others captures the essence.

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The latest thinking on economic justice, care of 200ProofLiberals, by Christopher Freiman. Worth comparing and contrasting with our own recent discussions of labor-management relations here at PoT.

Marx writes, “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

However, by making you significantly richer, a capitalist society does a much better job of enabling you to hunt in the morning and criticize after dinner than a non-capitalist society. Ironically, though, you have to cut way back on your consumption to make this happen. But if you’re willing to save 50-70 percent of your income, there’s a good chance you can retire in your 30s or 40s and spend your time doing whatever you want. So capitalism allows you to achieve the flexibility that Marx dreams of—you just need to buy a lot less (which, if you reject consumer culture, should be pretty easy) and save a lot more.

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Tragedy, Catharsis, and Explanation

In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle’s Poetics, Joe Sachs writes (italics mine):

Because the suffering of the tragic figure displays the boundaries of what is human, every tragedy carries the sense of universality. Oedipus or Antigone or Lear or Othello is somehow every one of us, only more so. But the mere mention of these names makes it obvious that they are not generalized characters, but altogether particular. And if we did not feel that they were genuine individuals, they would have no power to engage our emotions. It is by their particularity that they make their marks on us, as though we had encountered them in the flesh. It is only through the particularity of our feelings that our bonds with them emerge. What we care for and cherish makes us pity them and fear for them, and thereby the reverse also happens: our feelings of pity and fear make us recognize what we care for and cherish. When the tragic figure is destroyed it is a piece of ourselves that is lost. Yet we never feel desolation at the end of a tragedy, because what is lost is also, by the very same means, found. I am not trying to make a paradox, but to describe a marvel. It is not so strange that we learn the worth of something by losing it; what is astonishing is what the tragedians are able to achieve by making use of that common experience. They lift it up into a state of wonder.

Though Sachs disclaims the desire to make a paradox, I find his claim curious–neither obviously false nor obviously true, but puzzling to the point of inducing a bit of wonderment. I’m interested to hear what readers think.

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Reason Papers Vol. 42:1 Out

The most recent issue of Reason Papers is out (Summer 2021), now fully under the editorship of Shawn Klein (Philosophy, Arizona State University). The journal has transitioned to a new format of only publishing symposia and book reviews, eliminating the free-standing Articles and Discussion Notes that were once a staple.

This issue features a symposium on Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl’s The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism, with contributions by David Kelley, Aeon Skoble, Timothy Sandefur, Paul Gaffney, and Lauren Hall, and a response by Rassmussen and Den Uyl. Also includes reviews of Eric Mack’s Libertarianism, and Marc Champagne’s Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: On the Ideas of Jordan Peterson. Links to the issue below the fold.

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