What I’ve Been Reading

  • Against Fairness by Stephen T. Asma – Frankly, this book has made me more partial to fairness as a moral good. He defends partiality, even “nepotism,” on the grounds that it is essential to human nature, and that excessively “rationalist” approaches to morality like utilitarianism, deontology, and justice-as-fairness set inhuman standards that are impossible to reach and ultimately undesirable. Yet no amount of evidence from psychology and neuroscience can ultimately demonstrate moral truths, and I was frustrated by the lack of any limiting principle to the desirability of partiality. Indeed, Asma opens the book by relating having told a shocked audience at a conference, “I would strangle everyone in this room if it would somehow prolong my son’s life.” He comes nowhere near justifying this kind of radical statement. Yes, favoritism is in some cases inevitable and even desirable, setting a kind of outer bound to the demands of fairness, but it should be possible to justify reasonable favoritism within a broader moral conception that recognizes the value of every human being. Another take on Asma here.
  • The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus – Gaus provides a public-reason justification of libertarianism. I’m only about 40% of the way through this long book and have been discussing it, irregularly, with fellow sometime Pileator Mark Lebar. So far he has spent a lot of space on metaethics, arguing that social morality requires justification because of its constraining demands on our freedoms, but that such a justification is possible from its necessity for useful social cooperation. While the justification of social morality is quasi-instrumentalist, morality itself is non-instrumentalist, consisting of rules that must be justifiable on the basis of reasons that all participants in the social-moral enterprise (which would exclude psychopaths, for instance) could acknowledge. It’s a careful and sometimes difficult book, but also useful for helping sort out the conceptual terrain in contemporary moral philosophy. I have a bit of skepticism about the public-reason project, but we shall see where he takes it. I may post more about this book later.
  • The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa – I’ve discussed one of Vargas Llosa’s other novels here; this one isn’t quite up to the standard of the two I’ve previously read by him, but it bears his trademark, matter-of-fact style. It is a light fictionalization of the life of Roger Casement, an Irish liberal who investigated and reported on gross human rights abuses in colonial Congo and indigenous Peru. A true hero of freedom in his courage and determination not to let political pressure and dark circumstances cloud his judgment or resolve, Casement was also gay and left diaries of his sexual encounters, actual or imagined, which the British government used to discredit him after he was sentenced to death for treason following the Easter Rising. Casement’s anticolonialism had led him to Irish nationalism, and during World War I many British people turned against him because of his collaborations with the German government.
  • The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher – At first, it seems as if this book is going to be a paean to localism: staying where you are, especially if it’s a small town, and becoming embedded within that community. But in fact, it eschews the romanticism one often finds from Front Porch Republic types and ends up being much more about, as the subtitle says, “the secret of a good life.” One gets the idea that Rod Dreher’s hometown was special in great part because of what his sister Ruthie helped make of it. This is a book to inspire you to do more for your fellow man, wherever you are.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass – A logical progression after reading Toni Morrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’ve been trying to understand the antislavery movement better, as well as the role that slavery played in American history. Look for Douglass and Casement both to play a significant role in my NH Liberty Forum talk next month.
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – a classic of Russian literature I’d long overlooked in my Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy explorations. The personalities are gripping, and their motivations and the situations in which they find themselves ring true. One minor gripe: as a philosophical novel, I wish there were just a bit more exploration of ideas like nihilism on their own terms. The nihilist philosophy of some of Russia’s youth in the 1870s is a prop for exploring the human relationships between generations and sexes, but there’s no engagement with philosophical notions on their own terms; no character actually challenges nihilism on philosophical grounds, even as it outrages some of them. A similar complaint goes for some of Chekhov’s stories that bring in political or philosophical ideas.

5 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading

  1. The Asma book sounds like a less vigorous but more rigorous version of this.

    Gaus is brilliant. I sat and learned at his feet at the IHS. I really could only understand about 66% of what he was saying, but enough to know he was brilliant. (I found justification and legitimacy unnecessarily abstruse and I guess that hobbled my efforts to understand.)

    Finally, if you’re interested in 19C Russian literature, I want to encourage you to look at Gogol and Chekhov. Both are more philosophical than often given credit for.

  2. I just went to NH Liberty Forum website and I was blown away. It’s my impression that both the website and the event itself look like they are light-years ahead of previous years.

    Whoever is responsible for this… your awesomeness is duly noted.

  3. Liam Leane is the guy responsible for putting together the concept and program. I agree it’s pretty awesome!

    The Asma book is similar to Payback, I’m guessing, in that it uses empirical research on human psychology to upend post-Christian/Enlightenment norms we all think we’re supposed to believe in. I think there are inherent limits to that sort of argument, but it’s a useful corrective I suppose.

    I recently read the Complete Works of Chekhov as well. Like Turgenev, I don’t see much of a direct engagement with philosophical ideas, but certainly concepts of social philosophy are at work in his writing. Chekhov is very “humanistic,” I found — he’s a very good observer of the human condition and can get inside the mind of just about anyone, from a philanderer to a priest to a mental patient. I enjoyed his short stories and novellas more than I expected, since he’s known for his plays. I’ll have to check out Gogol.

  4. It’s funny you say that; I had precisely the opposite impression of Chekhov’s reputation: that he was more known for his short stories than his plays. (Note to potential readers who are busy or lazy or skeptical; some of those short stories are only a several pages long and they’re beautiful.)

    I want to make two recommendations.

    The best book I’ve read this year has been The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by the late Harvard Professor Bill Stuntz who is widely reputed to be one of the most influential theorists of criminal law in the last 20 years. Sadly he died very young from cancer about two weeks after this book was completed. It’s a magisterial work of history, law and economics, public policy–clearly his magnum opus.

    And, as long as you’re on a Russian lit jag, I’d recommend Pushkin (whom the Russians consider to be their own Shakespeare).

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