I'm Scott Hershovitz, professor of law and philosophy, and author of NASTY, BRUTISH, AND SHORT: ADVENTURES IN PHILOSOPHY WITH MY KIDS. I'm here because kids are fantastic philosophers -- and grownups have a lot to learn from listening to them -- a...
Edit: Thanks for all the terrific questions -- this was fun! I've got to log off for now. But I'll try to check back in for questions later. If you want to read NASTY, BRUTISH, and SHORT, there are links to order here.
I'm Scott Hershovitz, Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. I direct the University’s Law and Ethics Program. I co-edit the journal Legal Theory. And I was a law clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
My new book is recently out from Penguin Press. It's called "Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids." I've got two boys, Rex and Hank. From the time they were little, they have been asking philosophical questions and trying to answer them too. They’ve recreated ancient arguments and advanced entirely new ones. (You can see an excerpt here).
People are skeptical when I say that. “Sure, your kids are philosophical,” they say, “but you’re a philosopher. Most kids aren’t like that.”
They are wrong. Every kid -- every single one -- is a philosopher. They’re puzzled by the world and they try to puzzle it out. And they’re good at it, too. Kids are clever and courageous thinkers. In fact, adults can learn a lot from listening to them – and thinking with them.
So if you've got a kid with big questions -- or if you've got questions leftover from when you were a kid, -- Ask me Anything!
More about my book: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/639701/nasty-brutish-and-short-by-scott-hershovitz/
One reason I love talking about philosophy with kids is because it undermines the standard hierarchical relationship between parents and kids. When you talk philosophy, chances are you don't know the answer either, so you can have genuinely collaborative conversations.
Some of my best conversations I've had with my older son, Rex, were about skepticism -- and the possibility that he's dreaming his entire life. For a long time, we played a game where he would try to prove he wasn't dreaming, and I would try to find a way to undermine his proof. That's an example of a way you can work together to figure things out.
In your book, you talk about practicing religion as a form of fictionalism—you’re pretty sure there’s no God but want to do Jewish things. How deeply are you engaging with religion? Do you believe there’s value in studying religious texts like the Bible, Talmud, or Code of Jewish Law or is it just about showing up to synagogue for services?
I do think there's value in studying religious texts, but more as philosophy or literature than for their theological content.
We celebrate Jewish holidays, attend services with some inconsistency, and mark major life events with religious rituals. I was more engaged when I was younger -- in fact, I once finished in the top 20 in a national bible contest.
Do you have a favorite Jewish religious thinker or writer?
No, not really. I don't tend to have "favorites" in philosophy. I think that's a consequence of knowing so many philosophers. But I also encountered most of the Jewish religious thinkers I know before I thought of myself as a philosopher, so I wasn't reading their work the way I'd read it now. Someday, I'd like to revisit some of it.
Are you exposing your children to eastern philosophy or keeping it just Eurocentric?
Yes, we've discussed the Zhuangzhi and some other eastern texts.
Hello, thank you for doing this AMA. I have two questions for you.
- I'm afraid I have not read your book (though I mean to), but a lot of your philosophical discussions seem to have been with your children one on one on or in small groups. Do you believe engaging with philosophically with children is something that could be done institutionally (IE, schools), or do you feel like a more personal approach is essential?
- A few years ago, there was a TV show called 'the good place' that focused a lot of philosophical concepts, and I wondered if you had any thoughts on how they phrased their discussions? As a laymen, I found it very engaging and approachable.
1) Yes! There's an organization called PLATO that does terrific work with kids in schools, and in other parts of the world, philosophy is a more regular part of the curriculum.
2) I love The Good Place. They didn't a terrific job of incorporating philosophical ideas and questions into the plot -- and they had real philosophers helping behind the scenes.
What's your advice for talking to young children about weighty subjects: war, gun violence, political oppression? Anything we can learn from the ancients?
I think it's important to let kids know what's happening in the world and to field their questions about about it. You don't need to overwhelm them with information -- or images. But they can handle more than we think, and they are often hearing about events on their own anyway, so if you don't talk to them about them, you're leaving their questions unanswered.
And I think the ancients have lots of wisdom. We're not trying to raise Stoics. But we do try to encourage our kids to recognize what they can and can't control about the world -- and to worry more about the former than the latter.
Why do you think people are so resistant to ideas outside of their established world view?
I think there are many reasons, but the most important may be that they can be threatening. If you've built your life around a picture of the world -- and a set of values -- the possibility that your picture is wrong or your values misguided calls into question the way you are living your life and the choices you've made. That's disconcerting.
One of the advantages of doing philosophy with kids is that it helps them get used questioning what they believe and thinking through other possibilities.
What's the most profound thing your children have said? Did it change the way you saw something (as an adult)?
When he was four, Rex asked whether God was real. "What do you think?" I asked. He said, "For real God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real." I was stunned, and I asked what he meant. "God isn't real, he said, but when we pretend, he is."
That totally upended the way I think of religion and the role it plays in my life. I participate in lots of religious rituals. But I don't think of myself as a believer, so I always wondered why. Rex helped me understand -- it's a form of pretend play that enriches my life.
There's a longer explanation here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/02/opinion/god-evil-problem.html
That’s cool. My daughter made up her first joke when she was four. “What’s a good ice-breaker? A rock.”
It still haunts me, philosophically
That's a strong joke. 12/10.
With the possible overturning of Roe, there has been a lot of conversation lately about when life begins and at what point it should be protected by laws.
I've always considered myself to be pro-choice, but don't feel like my thinking here is especially principled, leaving me stumped. Any thoughts on how one could think about this problem?
I don't think the question when life begins is the right one to ask. Instead, I think we need to ask when a fetus achieves a moral status such that it would be wrong to withdraw support or end its life.
If you're looking for a place to start, I'd listen to Ezra Klein's recent interview with Kate Greasley, which you can find here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-kate-greasley.html.
You use Kant’s exhortation against using human bodies as a means to an end to solve the trolley problem (differentiating between the wraparound hypothetical and the burly-man hypothetical). Does Kant substantiate this axiom in his work? On what basis does he claim we shouldn’t use humans as a means to an end—i.e., why not? This is important because you support abortion (ending what some consider a life) on this basis.
Kant argues that we have to treat people as people, which requires that we respect their rational capacities, not just seem them as bags of body parts of physical objects. Does he succeed in establishing that claim? Well, there's hundreds of years of debate about that. I'm attracted to the view that we disrespect what's uniquely valuable about people if we treat them merely as means to ends.
Why does philosophy matter?
I think philosophy can be useful in all sorts of ways. It can help us identify hidden assumptions and new possibilities. It sharpens our skills as thinkers. But I also think the activity is intrinsically rewarding--it's good to understand the world in a deeper way--and it can be fun too. One of the aims of my book is to show people that.
Have been loving the book so far (haven’t completely finished yet), big fan of your 'in lieu of fun'-appearances!
How should people transition from amateur/child-level philosophy to really engaging with academic philosophy? Should people bother with 'professional' philosophy in the first place if they're not pursuing a related degree?
Do you prefer the UK or US cover of your book?
And - only because you asked for it on Twitter - why is Scott Shapiro wrong about exclusive legal positivism? ;)
Again, great book!
Glad you are enjoying the book. These are three great questions!
1) I'd read philosophers that are great writers -- Judith Jarvis Thomson and Ronald Dworkin are standouts for me. But if you're interested in a particular area of philosophy, you could check out the relevant entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Many are accessible, though some aren't. But they all have really terrific bibliographies of works on the field, so look for what sounds interesting.
2) I love both. The US cover has such a great illustration of my kids. It captures them so well. And the UK cover has a beautiful blue, with a subtly different title, cleverly worked into the drawing.
3) I wrote about this in a paper called The Model of Plans (and the Prospects for Positivism). You can see the full explanation there, but roughly: I think Shapiro's argument has hidden normative premises. He's best understood to offer reasons why it would be good if the content of the law depended solely on social facts than to show that it necessarily does.
What constitutes a moral wrong? What does wronging another involve?
There's some dispute about this among philosophers, but I think we wrong others when we breach rights of theirs. That's different from just doing the wrong thing -- acting inconsistently with some norm, like putting the fork on the wrong side of the plate.
How much of your kids personalities do you think was baked-in at birth?
Somewhere between some and a lot. When you have just one kid, it's easy to believe you are having a big influence. Then you have a second kid, and you seem the attitudes and practices yield pretty different results. I don't know how much is baked in at birth though, but I'm convinced a good bit is beyond parental control.
Does the existence of fairly 'normal' people with half a brain, or even less, prove that brain function does not necessarily correlate with mind?
If not, why? If so, why does it seem to me like this is an Earth shaking revelation that is typically ignored?
I don't think so. I think it just indicates that brains are really complex -- they aren't simple machines such that when you remove one part, the whole thing stops working. There's more resiliency than that.
That said, the relationship between the mind and the brain is an open question in philosophy and cognitive science. There's a chapter in Nasty, Brutish, and Short that surveys the leading views.
Certified Uncle here.
I would love to hear your advice on how to best nurture and guide the curiosity and imagination of little people without imparting (too much of) our own bias and beliefs?
I think it's best to treat kids as partners in conversations. Take an interest in their views, and ask them questions. Let them do as much of the thinking as possible.
Enjoying the book, about halfway through it right now. Great job answering! Very interesting responses!
Do you ever go too far in explaining something to your kids, to undesirable results? Or humorous?
Returning to my first paragraph, is it okay to Shamu a philosopher via Reddit?
So glad you are enjoying the book! And yeah, I'll let the Shamu-ing slide.
I have definitely had my words turned back on me many times, and sometimes have wondered whether I did myself a service in training to challenge other people and argue.
Have all the philosophical conversations with your kids had a deep effect on them? Do you think it has made them more thoughtful than the average kid, or than they might have been otherwise?
We're in a bad position to judge, since we only have this set of kids. But I suspect the answer is yes, in some ways. They've held onto their interest in philosophical questions, and I think that reflects the fact that we take them seriously and value their views. They are also pretty adept at arguing.
What is a commonly held belief that you think is wrong?
I think that revenge is sometimes warranted. I also think that resentment can be a helpful emotion. Chapter 2 in Nasty, Brutish, and Short explains why.
Is revenge a justifiable reason for capital punishment?
No, I don't think so. While I think there are circumstances in which revenge is warranted, I think the state is obligated to remove that warrant by establishing a criminal law that treats people fairly and humanely - securing the good that revenge can (sometimes) achieve, without its many downsides. I don't think capital punishment is consistent with our obligation to treat people humanely.
Could you give an example? I'm struggling to put this in concrete terms, but definitely feel that revenge is sometimes warranted, or resentment, or unforgiveness.
Check out Nasty, Brutish, and Short -- there's a chapter on revenge.
If you drop soap on the floor, is the floor clean or is the soap dirty?
I doubt that simply dropping the soap will be sufficient to clean the floor. Whether the soap is dirty would, I suppose, depend on the prior status of the floor.
How do you see philosophy as intersecting with literature, or art? It seems like philosophy to me, but I can't quite name why. Maybe because it's meaning-building, but there's never one narrative, so it's more complicated than like a streamlined analysis that I usually associate with philosophy.
Could you name a few works of literature (fiction or poetry) that have especially resonated, or made you (re)think?
I think that literature and art can often be ways of conveying or working out philosophical ideas. And even when the author doesn't see them that way, they can often be a rich source for philosophers. Lately, I've been thinking about Bucky Sinister's poem "The Other Universe of Bruce Wayne."
How did you get into philosophy?
Accidentally! I wanted to sign up for Intro Psychology as a freshman at the University of Georgia. But the class as full, and Intro Philosophy fulfilled a requirement. The professor -- Clark Wolf -- was phenomenal. and by the second hour, I knew that I wanted to be a philosopher.
Are there any texts (historical or contemporary) that you would recommend to someone who wants to start exploring philosophy beyond the introductory level?
Once you get past an intro level, I'd start reading in the topics that interest you. But here are a few lesser known books that I think are great: Murphy and Hampton's "Forgiveness and Mercy," Liz Anderson's "Value and Ethics in Economics," and Kate Greasley's "Arguments About Abortion"
I don't even know if this relates to philosophy but here we go.
In our world what is 1 way to truly determine whether something is right or wrong? For example we all (hopefully) believe that violence (without reason) is morally wrong. But how do we know for sure? What I'm trying to get at is that I feel our world is built on trust. We trust our instinct to tell us something isn't right. But we can't really scientifically prove something is right. Even if we can, we usually also can't, for example if you are given a graph full of information about the earth's pollution over time, you can manipulate the size if the graph to make it seem different than it might actually be. I'm not sure if you understand what I'm saying, but what I'm trying to get at, do you think trust is one way to go about shaping our world? Have more to say about this but I'll keep it like that for now since I'm pretty bad at speaking 😅
What is infinity and is it possible? If we have a number that constantly goes up or down by 1 every second for example, would that count as infinite? In our universe It seems as though everything has a limit, everything that doesn't seems to just be something we haven't fully discovered or gotten to the bottom of yet. I assume even pi has a limit to the number of digits it has. You could say there are infinite possibilities or infinite things that don't exist, but to me, those are things that are beyond our existence/universe because they don't actually quite exist. What do you think?
Do you think time exists? I remember thinking about how for dogs 1 minute is equal to 7 minutes. It got me thinking whether time truly exists or whether it's an illusions we process differently. When you go at high speeds, time slows down for you, maybe if ur a different creature, such as a dog, you process time differently than if ur a human, I'll keep this one short tho, how have you thought about this one?
There are discussions of the first two questions in Nasty, Brutish, and Short! As to whether time exists, I don't think the fact that different people -- or maybe animals -- perceive its passage differently casts doubt on its reality. But there is a long debate -- in physics and philosophy -- about the reality of time. It's far outside my field, so I don't have a strong view.
Why do you call (mini) people with less life experience and knowledge fantastic philosophers? Being a fantastic philosopher implies there's a lot to learn from them, but in reality our society evolved like this for thousand of years, is in a pretty good shape and kids just don't understand things.
If I were to meet an alien civilization and ask some strange things about their culture doesn't mean that I am a great philosopher, it means that I don't know where they're coming from.
Asking good question is the first step in philosophy, and sometimes, its easier to do when you are new to something -- you don't yet know the standard explanations, you haven't yet learned what people take for granted, or developed the habit of ignoring the hard questions. But also: kids are really clever and creative in the ways they answer the questions they ask. Often, they recreate ancient arguments. Sometimes, they invent entirely new ones. And again, their fresh perspective aids in that.
Hi! As someone in the same field (Law, Econ & Philosophy student), how do you go about writing long-form works like this? Also how do you get from the ‘idea’ stage to the writing stage? Finally, besides your kids, do you have other sources of inspiration w.r.t philosophy?
Personally, I have a lot of ‘ideas’ but somehow whenever I want to put them down they feel shallow or I lose my train of thought.
Thanks in advance!
I write it a little bit at a time -- chapter by chapter, but really story by story. But you don't need a plan out the whole thing in advance. Just pick the bit that excites you most and try to write it up. Then put it down for a while and come back and try again. The more you rewrite, the better the writing gets.
How should we reconcile democracy and morality? What should we do when the majority is morally wrong?
I have the view Ronald Dworkin defended in Freedom's Law -- democracy isn't pure majority rule. It's a political system that treats everyone with equal concern and respect, and that requires insulating some rights against the actions of the majority. That said, that's a small number of rights. Sometimes its more important that we make decisions together than get them right. So democracies might have, for a while, law that is morally regrettable.
What's the most challenging question you've been asked by a kid and how did you explain it? I feel like most parents want to be seen as all-knowing by their kids, but do you engage with them over the idea that you don't have the answers to everything?
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