In this interview Alastair Norcross, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder, and I discuss his parents, who were literally card-carrying communists, Shakespeare, explosives, the IRA, Test Match Sofa, nukes, Thatcher, what’s wrong with Christianity, Isaac Asimov, the Stranglers, ABBA, the Boomtown Rats, Gilbert and Sullivan, pot, LSD, Hume, Getting into philosophy and doing plays with Hugh Grant at Oxford, studying utilitarianism under Julia Annas, working for ISIS, moving to the states and going to Syracuse, Hobart and William Smith, then Texas, waiting for Godot, directing, acting, Shelly Kagan, the NRA, how he ended up in Colorado, the publication of APA’s negative climate survey of the Colorado department, the blogosphere, veganism, regressives, Simpsons, RoME, student evaluations, how he has developed as a philosopher and teacher, effective altruism, artificial fanciful cases and the role of intuitions in philosophy, Parfit, why people bash utilitarianism, his forthcoming book, The Road to Hell, Brahms’s first, Beethoven’s seventh, Watchmen, and what question he would ask an omniscient being, if given the chance…
Were you a 'philosophical' kid?
In retrospect, yes. I was always questioning things, and had a very keen sense of justice and injustice. I would never let an argument drop, and was generally quite annoying. My parents certainly weren’t surprised that I became a philosopher.
What did your parents do for a living?
They were both English teachers (they met at Leeds University). My father taught in secondary schools (the English school that combines middle and high schools, spanning 7 years—think Hogwarts without the magic), eventually becoming a headmaster (principal) of a large school in North London. My mother started out teaching the English equivalent of junior college, and gradually worked her way down the ages. She much preferred younger children, and taught the last fifteen years of her career in kindergarten.
What was your family like, generally?
My family was loud, argumentative, and competitive. We discussed politics, religion, literature, music, and pretty much anything else that people can disagree on, all the time. We also played many board games, word games, and card games, and each one was a serious fight to the death.
HA! So, you had brothers and sisters, then?
I was the second of four children (one brother 16 months older, one sister two years younger, one brother eight years younger). The three of us who were fairly close in age argued and fought endlessly. My mother would give us mental arithmetic problems, and logical proofs, while on road trips, just to keep us from killing each other in the back seat of the car. She also told us endless stories from Shakespeare and Greek and Norse mythology, and recited lots of poetry. We played a lot of word games. We all rebelled to a greater or lesser extent. My older brother was always in trouble when he was in his teens, and used pretty much every drug you can think of. He also liked to make his own explosives, and blew up my sister’s dollhouse in our back yard. This caused some panic in the neighborhood, because it was at a time when the IRA was blowing up much bigger things in London, where we lived. Needless to say, the police were involved. He also distilled his own truly vile spirits in our cellar, and he and I brewed disgusting (but highly alcoholic) beer when we were around fourteen or fifteen. We then transferred the beer brewing operation to our school, where we both worked on the stage crew, and had access to the roof of the hall, where it was warm, and the basement, where it was cool. My sister and I were just the usual kind of rebellious. When my sister told my parents that she was lesbian, they struggled with it at first, but came to accept it, and grew very fond of her partner (now spouse—same-sex marriage wasn’t legalized in the UK until after my parents died). My younger brother was always a truly fanatical cricket fan. He started his own streaming cricket commentary service, “Test Match Sofa”, and now has realized his life-long dream to be a cricket commentator for the BBC, where he gets paid to do what he would do anyway—talk endlessly about cricket. Kind of like me, really, except that I talk about different things (though sometimes about cricket).
Were you thinking about politics back then?
My parents were both Marxists when we were young. They were literally card-carrying communists (they showed us their membership cards when we cleared out our childhood home). My earliest memory is attending an anti-apartheid rally. The worst insult I could think of when I was ten was “Tory”. Then, when I was a teenager, they became Thatcher supporters. They said it was primarily because of the Labour Party’s education policies (they were both school teachers). It was very confusing. As a teenager, I briefly shared some of their admiration for Margaret Thatcher, all of which I lost within about six months of her becoming PM, which happened shortly before I started at Oxford. The prospect of nuclear war weighed heavily on me when I was very young, in the sixties. I used to lie in bed at night, hearing the noise of airplanes flying overhead (living in London, there was a lot of that), being genuinely convinced that they were Soviet bombers coming to drop nuclear bombs on London. When I got a bit older, I realized that was silly, because the bombs wouldn’t be dropped from planes, but I was still quite afraid of nuclear war.
Seems to happen to all of our parents. Hey, it might happen to you. So, your parents were Marxists. I’m assuming they weren’t religious?
You have to remember we were English. There is no separation of church and state in the UK. The Queen is head of the Church of England, and religion gets taught in school, and that’s not restricted to private schools (many of which are, puzzlingly, called “public schools” in Britain). I went to state schools, what would be called “public” school in the US, but they were church affiliated, had chapels, and involved assemblies every day, at which the whole school said the Lord’s Prayer. The result of all this is that people in Britain are, or at least were when I was growing up, (a) much more knowledgeable about what Christianity, especially the Church of England branch, actually says, and what it’s in the Bible than are people in the US, and (b) much less likely to believe in much, if any, of it. In my experience, a close familiarity with the teachings and sacred books of a religious tradition is the surest cure for any tendency to believe in it. Most people I have met, who claim to be literalists about the Bible, are actually unfamiliar with most of what is in that book, and tend to quote the select passages fed them by their pastors, usually to justify their appalling views about sexual morality. The absurdities, contradictions, and moral horrors are just too glaring, beginning in Genesis, with conflicting versions of the creation story, continuing with the unjust punishment of an entire species for two people doing what they couldn’t have known was wrong to do until they did it, many divinely-ordered genocides, mass slaughter of innocent children and baby animals, in order to persuade a king to do what he was going to do anyway until the monstrous protagonist “hardened his heart”, and so on, and so on.
Anyway, my family were members of a church (St. Luke’s), and all the children sang in the church choir (I sang very badly). My mother even claimed, for most of her life, to be a Christian. When I asked her, a few years before she died, if that meant that she believed that an eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and perfectly good god created everything, and somehow managed to be incarnated as a different person but same god, and that all, or even some, people would have eternal life after death, she replied “no, of course not, no-one could believe something so silly”. “So, what does it mean to be a Christian?”, I asked. “I think that the teachings of Christ, regarding being good to other people, are worth following”, she replied. This isn’t to say that there weren’t some people I knew growing up who actually claimed to believe in the doctrinal elements of Christianity. They were very nice, well-meaning, liberal people. I could never really understand how they believed what they claimed to believe. I did have a great-aunt, who believed that fairies lived at the bottom of her garden (backyard). She was a very sweet old lady. To me, genuinely religious people were like my great-aunt. I was really shocked, when I moved to the US, and discovered that large percentages of people claimed to believe in the dogma of Christianity, and that large percentages of them were very right-wing and socially intolerant. It was only after some considerable study that I realized that US Christians pay a lot more attention to the Old Testament than do British Christians, and a lot more attention to the socially retrograde teachings of Paul, than to the words of the character the religion is supposedly named for.
Favorite books as a teenager?
I loved science fiction, especially the Dune trilogy (I read the second three as well, but preferred the initial trilogy), and pretty much everything by Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I was also a big fan of William Golding. The Spire is both a brilliant book, and the definitive refutation of the religious experience argument for belief in god. I also read and enjoyed a lot of Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, and Tom Sharpe.
I wasn’t exposed to much, if any, popular music, until I started working Saturdays in a record store when I was fourteen. My parents disapproved and played only classical music and Tom Lehrer in the house (which I also loved, and continue to do so). So, at 14, I suddenly discovered all the 60’s music that my friends had been enjoying all along. I fell in love with the Beatles, of course. Anyone who doesn’t love the Beatles clearly has no soul (rubber or otherwise), in the sense of “soul” in which some people do have them. The Who, Stones, Led Zeppelin followed. Then David Bowie. I was a big Bowie fan as a teenager (and beyond). The punk band that I liked best was the Stranglers. I didn’t really pay much attention to the words, which is probably a good thing, but I loved the atmosphere of Rattus Norvegicus, which I still regard as one of the best albums of the 70’s. I could listen to Hanging Around over and over again. I was delighted a few years back to learn that my son had independently discovered the Stranglers and also loved Hanging Around. I also liked some of the Clash, especially the album London Calling. The Boomtown Rats were another favorite of mine. There I did pay attention to the lyrics. If you’ve never heard "I Never Loved Eva Braun”, you should do so immediately. Also the Tourists, whom I saw in Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in London before they even had a record contract. For those (that’s most people) who haven’t heard of the Tourists, they were the band from which Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart graduated to form the Eurythmics, but that was just after I stopped being a teenager. Despite trying to catch up on the 60’s music I’d missed, and keep up with the 70’s music, I still loved classical music, and went to Promenade concerts at the Albert Hall in the summer. My favorite composers were (still are) Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, and Mendelssohn.
What are you listening to nowadays?
My popular music tastes are all fixed in the amber of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties (Beatles, Stones, Who, Bowie, Led Zep, Clash, Stranglers, Eurythmics, Dire Straits, etc. Even Abba). As for classical music, I’m fairly conventional. Brahms’ first symphony and Beethoven’s seventh never fail to delight me. I also enjoy most of the orchestral music of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. I love Gilbert and Sullivan, and detest Wagner, which makes me boringly British, probably, but I don’t care.
Ha! Did you start thinking about what you would do in college?
It was pretty much always going to be classics. For the last two years of high school (what Brits call “sixth form”), I was the only student doing Latin and Greek, with a classics department of five teachers. I knew I had to do classics at Oxford (what they call “literae humaniores”), or they would all be disappointed. So, I went to Christ Church, Oxford, and read classics (“reading” is what they called studying). Note, not “Christ Church College”. It’s the only Oxford college that doesn’t have “college” as part of its name. You learn that on day one!
Did you experiment with drugs?
I was born in 1960, so, obviously, yes. I was lucky though, in that my older brother was into pretty much every drug, and massive quantities of alcohol, so my consumption of both, while enough to make me a problem child in most families, was barely noticed by my parents. The one exception was the time when I was fifteen and went to a party, but was told by my father that he would pick me up at 10pm. Naturally, my first thought was how much alcohol I could consume in the short amount of time available. My friends suggested whisky, mixed with orange squash (a sweetened concentrate) to make it go down more smoothly (ugh!). I drank a whole bottle of whisky, and was hungover for a week (literally), and lucky not to die. The bad thing was that I couldn’t even think about whisky for about three years without feeling nauseous. The good thing was that the hangover was so bad, that I have actually never had a hangover since, despite drinking plenty in college and grad school (but never again as much as on that one occasion). As for other drugs, mainly pot. My first experience of pot was at a vicarage tea party (no, really), when I was sixteen. My older brother handed me a joint. I inhaled deeply, and then offered it to the vicar, who had just walked up to say hello. He politely declined. I didn’t smoke much pot until I got to Oxford, apart from a joint or two in the workshop in the basement of the school hall. I do fondly remember an occasion in my last year of secondary school, when my brother was home from college (he started a couple of times, and dropped out). He came down to the kitchen carrying a plate of brownies, which he said he’d made. He said we could have any we liked, except for one, that was “special”, which he’d taken a bite out of. He then, foolishly, left the bitten brownie on the plate, while he went to the bathroom. I, beastly younger brother that I was, took a bite out of each of the other brownies on the plate. When he came back to find a whole plate full of brownies, each with a bite taken out of it, and no way to tell which was his special one, he proceeded to eat them all, just to make sure that he got his. I thought it was hilarious (actually, I still do). Once I got to Oxford, of course, the pot flowed like wine, beer, and port, which all flowed freely, and cheaply. Each Oxford college had three bars: one in the Junior Common Room, for undergraduates; one in the Middle Common Room, for graduate students (called “postgraduates" in England) and fourth year undergraduates (most degree courses in England are three years, but classics at Oxford is a four-year course); and one in the Senior Common Room, for faculty. The alcohol is heavily subsidized in all these places. For example, beer in most JCR bars was half the price of the local pubs. So, plenty of alcohol and pot in Oxford. I also tried both speed and LSD, but neither did much for me. I was particularly disappointed with LSD that I didn’t see even a hint of tangerine trees, marmalade skies, or a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Was college what you expected?
Pretty much, yes. My school sent a small, but steady, number of students each year to Oxford (Cambridge, being the Australia of universities, was shunned by us), and they came back to visit. So I knew what to expect. Lots and lots of Greek and Latin. The classics course at Oxford consists of two parts. The first, Mods (short for “Honor Moderations”), consists of reading huge quantities of Greek and Latin literature and history, and then sitting a week of exams at the end of the fifth term (around late March of the second year). I didn’t perform very well in these exams, but just well enough that my college didn’t consider suspending me (unlike what happened with my younger brother). I was too busy drinking, smoking, and acting in as many student plays as I could, to study very hard. My uncle was a professional actor, and I was always very much into amateur theatrics. I considered trying to pursue it as a career. I was in a couple of plays with Hugh Grant at Oxford (he played exactly the same part then as he does in every movie now), and knew others who went on to become reasonably successful actors. Philosophy intervened, though.
One thing I did pay attention to in my first couple of years was Hume. Even though most of the classics course was fairly rigidly prescribed, and swamped with Latin and Greek texts, there was a choice of “special subject”. One option was logic, which I shunned, because I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that I already knew enough logic, having been taught syllogisms by my mother. Another option was Hume’s “Enquiry”. At last, philosophy that wasn’t originally written in Greek! I loved it. After Mods, the second part of classics at Oxford is “Greats”. For that, you had to pick two of the following three areas: ancient literature; ancient history; philosophy (both ancient and modern). I picked literature and philosophy. So, for the remaining seven terms (three terms a year), half of my course was philosophy. One peculiar thing about Oxford then (and maybe now, I don’t know), is that you couldn’t study only philosophy. Every course that included philosophy was a combination of subjects. PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), Philosophy and Mathematics, Philosophy and Physics, Philosophy and French, etc. And, of course, classics (if you opted for philosophy in Greats). The philosophy part of Greats consisted of three areas: ancient philosophy, which was really just Plato and Aristotle, in my case that meant the Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics; moral and political philosophy; and what they called “philosophical logic”, which was every area of (analytic) philosophy other than normative stuff.
Work with any interesting people?
For ancient and moral and political, I had Julia Annas as tutor (what would be a professor in a US university), who moved to Arizona just a couple of years after I graduated. Julia was a terrific teacher. She also was about the least sympathetic person to utilitarianism that you could imagine. Her hostility to the theory succeeded only in making me think that, perhaps, rule utilitarianism was the preferable version. That delusion didn’t survive my first year of graduate school, though, when I realized that rule utilitarianism either collapses into act, or requires the kind of rule worship that renders it no more than deontology in thin disguise. The fact Julia was the teacher who introduced me to utilitarianism, and I ended up adhering to it anyway, is pretty good evidence that it was the clear light of reason that led me to the ethical truth!
David Pears was my tutor for philosophical logic, which included two weeks (that’s two one hour tutorials, and two sloppily written student essays) on Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. I remember being so lost, trying to get something out of that, that I focused one of my essays on deriding Kripke for being a famous philosopher of language and yet claiming that it never occurred to him that “Dartmouth” might mean “town at the mouth of the river Dart”. Because I grew up in the UK, I assumed that everyone knew that a town name of the form “X-mouth” (including the actual Exmouth) meant “town at the mouth of the river X”. How could you be a famous philosopher of language and not know that? Needless to say, David Pears was not impressed by my incisive criticism.
Were you politically active at Oxford?
I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and went on marches. The election of Ronald Reagan, which happened during my second year at Oxford, had a pretty big effect on me. I remember lying in bed listening to the radio the morning he was elected (it was still the middle of the night in the US), thinking that war between the US and the USSR was pretty much inevitable. Pretty much the only respect in which Reagan didn’t turn out even worse than I expected was his not starting a nuclear war. Even though I became more and more left wing during my time at Oxford, I didn’t fully embrace the Labour Party, but rather was initially sympathetic to the breakaway Social Democrats, who formed an electoral pact with the Liberals for the 1983 election, and then merged with them to form the Liberal Democrats. I admired Michael Foot personally, who was the most left wing Labour leader in years (perhaps even more so than Corbyn now), but knew that his ideological purity would be electorally disastrous, as it was. The Falklands war had been a huge, and disgusting, electoral boon to Thatcher, boosting her popularity enormously. The later discovery that she had engineered the bloody escalation of the war, by issuing the command to sink the Belgrano when it was outside the exclusion zone, had me wishing that I believed in Hell, because she would certainly be burning there now. I campaigned for the SDP-Liberal Alliance during the 83 election campaign, and was hugely disillusioned when they received almost as many votes as Labour, but about a tenth of the number of seats. What is worse, of course, was that the Conservatives won a huge parliamentary majority with just over 40% of the votes. That made me a supporter of proportional representation, which I still am. I still can’t believe that the Liberal Democrats screwed up the referendum so badly. Anyway, the political events of the early 80’s induced quite a lot of cynicism in me, and turned me off journalism, which had been a career I contemplated for a while. I worked for a while on the Oxford student magazine ISIS. I haven’t checked, but I imagine they’ve changed the name.
Nope! So, when exactly did you decide you wanted to do philosophy for a living?
I was a pretty bad student as an undergrad. Most of my time was spent acting in plays (I acted in 18 plays in 5 years at Oxford), drinking, smoking, partying, being a bit involved in politics, doing a bit of student journalism. The Oxford system, with all the weight being placed on exams at the end, allowed for that to happen. When I really started concentrating on studying for my upcoming finals, I discovered a deep interest in philosophy. I had enjoyed the philosophy part of my Greats more than the literature part (though I liked that too), but I never thought that I would want to pursue it further, until I gave it the kind of attention that I should have given it earlier. After I graduated, and surprised myself by getting a respectable, but by no means spectacular, class of degree, I decided to apply to graduate school. When I asked Julia Annas for advice, she advised me to apply to the US, because there were far more opportunities than in the UK, and there was a lot more funding. My degree would have qualified me for a postgrad grant in the UK, but it would certainly not have guaranteed me acceptance to the programs I was looking at. When I looked into graduate work in the US, I discovered that there were lots of universities there, and not just Harvard and Yale. This sounds incredible now, but I had actually not heard of any US universities beyond those two. I took the GRE, and scored in the 99th percentile in two areas and the 94th in the third. That was the only reason why Syracuse offered me acceptance and funding (Jonathan Bennett later told me that it was the GRE scores that convinced them to take a chance on me). I’m sure my recommendation letters were, justifiably, fairly weak, and my writing sample was something I threw together over a weekend.
I had been working as a private tutor in Oxford the fall after I graduated, and didn’t get around to applying to graduate school until early in the new year. I was surprised to discover that I’d missed the deadline for application for a lot of programs (the deadlines for international students were often earlier than for US students). Syracuse just happened to be one of the few that had late enough deadlines for me to apply. I think I applied to a total of four programs, and was rejected from the other three. I didn’t know anything about Syracuse, but when I mentioned it to Julia Annas, she said that Jonathan Bennett was there, and that he would be a good person to study with.
She was right on both counts.
What did you want out of your experience at Syracuse?
I went to Syracuse to pursue a Ph.D in philosophy, but I just wanted to study philosophy some more. I really hadn’t given any thought to what I would do with an advanced degree in philosophy. It was when I saw some of the more advanced students in the Syracuse program applying for, and even getting, jobs teaching philosophy in universities that it dawned on me that I was on the same trajectory. Before that, I was just in the program to study philosophy. I know that no-one thinks like that anymore, but this was before the internet and all the professionalization of graduate students. It was very rare back then for graduate students to go to conferences, or to publish papers. The first conference I went to was the Creighton Club, which took place within an hour’s drive of Syracuse every year, on the shores of a beautiful lake. I gave comments on a paper, and then, the next year, gave a paper there myself. But that was only a year before I graduated. I didn’t go to a national conference, until I was interviewing for jobs at the Eastern APA.
Was moving to the states a culture shock?
A bit, but not nearly as much as the culture shock eight years later of moving from Syracuse to Dallas. Upstate New York is far more similar to England than it is to Texas! It was the practical things that took the most getting used to. Cars on the wrong side of the road, paper money all the same size, some words that meant different things on different sides of the Atlantic.
Nightmare. How did you end up teaching at Hobart and William Smith? Geneva is a beautiful place!
Yes it is. When I was at Syracuse, there was a sort of pipeline for graduate students there to teach classes at Hobart and William Smith, when they needed classes covered, because of sabbaticals, etc. The department was pretty small (5, I think), but they had fairly generous leave policies, so they almost always needed someone to cover their classes, and sometimes more than one. In the summer of 1988, I assisted Jonathan Bennett on an NEH summer seminar for college teachers on consequentialism. One of the participants was Steven Lee, who was chair of the Hobart and William Smith department at the time. I got to participate in the seminar, as well as help with the organization, and got to know Steven fairly well. The Syracuse grad student who had been teaching there for the previous year, and was scheduled to teach in the fall, decided he wanted to concentrate in finishing his dissertation instead, and he recommended me for the job. Steven already liked me, so he offered me the teaching. It was just one course, but it got my foot in the door. I think I did a good enough job, that I picked up more later that year, and the next, and was hired for the whole year the year after.
Nice. You met your wife in Syracuse, yes? What does she do?
Yes. She was doing a Master’s in television, radio, and film, but didn’t pursue that, so she went back to school (also at Syracuse) in Education, and did a Ph.D in Educational Design, Development, and Evaluation. What she studied was Educational Psychology. She taught that in the Education programs at SMU and Rice, and a couple of classes in the Education school here at CU when we first moved here. Now, she writes romance/mysteries/thrillers about trail runners in Boulder.
So, what was trending philosophically at Syracuse? What was your dissertation on? How did your philosophical views evolve in grad school?
Metaphysics and Epistemology (including the epistemological issues in Philosophy of Religion) were big when I was there. Because of Peter van Inwagen, pretty much all the grad students were incompatibilists about free will and determinism. They split between the hard determinists, who were mostly the atheists, and the libertarians (about free will), who were the theists. Any attempt to defend compatibilism at one of the many grad student parties was met by howls of derision from both sides of the theological divide. Since escaping that echo chamber, I have become a compatibilist (I probably was all along, but didn’t dare state the view). See the final chapter of my forthcoming book for an explanation. Van Inwagen (known to the grad students as “PvI”) also had a big influence with his views on ontology. Successive graduate students, starting with Mark Heller (who left Syracuse weeks before I arrived, but was subsequently my colleague at SMU for ten years), and continuing through Michael Patton and Eric Olson, wrote as their dissertations better versions of PvI’s Material Beings. There was also a lot of work on Philosophy of Religion, because of William Alston and, again, PvI. Those of us who worked in Ethics were definitely in the minority, which actually helped when it came time to find a job, because we weren’t competing with so many of our fellow Syracuse graduates.
Grad programs aren’t cults, but they’re not not cults! What was your dissertation on?
My dissertation, under Jonathan Bennett’s supervision, was on moral conflicts. I argued, in particular, that consequentialist theories have no trouble accommodating the existence of choice situations in which a morally good person will feel negative moral emotions, no matter which option they choose. These are importantly different from moral dilemmas, which are situations in which every option is all-things-considered morally forbidden, and which don’t exist (even if scalar utilitarianism is not the correct version of the theory).
How’d your views change in grad school?
In grad school, my philosophical views evolved from an attraction to rule utilitarianism to an acceptance of act utilitarianism, and the beginning of my development (at first in collaboration with Frances Howard-Snyder) of the scalar version. In epistemology, I evolved from having pretty much no views to being attracted to some kind of reliabilism (which has since taken a contextualist form). In metaphysics, I became a realist about the external world and a conventionalist about classification (there are objective mind-independent facts about what there is, but how we classify what there is—chairs, tables, organisms, species, pretty much everything—is just a matter of convention, heavily influenced by pragmatic considerations). In philosophy of religion, I realized that there are, in fact, interesting and challenging arguments to grapple with about the existence and nature of putative supernatural entities. I didn’t become any more likely to believe in such entities, but I understood how some smart people could be attracted to them.
Were you still involved in the dramatic arts in Syracuse?
Yes. In fact, I started a theatre group with Philosophy graduate students and friends, called “The Unbound Variables”. We put on Twelfth Night (I’ve acted in Twelfth Night three times, directing one of them), Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Country Wife in successive summers in Syracuse.
Again, really difficult. It’s between Twelfth Night, Waiting for Godot (I’ve been in Waiting for Godot twice), and Noises Off. I’d love to be in Noises Off. I’m always delighted to go to a production of any of these.
After Hobart, you spent ten years in Texas.
14 (1992-1999, and 2000-2002 in Dallas (1999-2000 in Tucson), 2002-2007 in Houston.
Highlights in Texas?
Shelly Kagan visiting SMU to give an early version of his Geometry of Desert talk, and laughing that the campus was closed because of 1/2 inch of snow (he was coming from Chicago). The Texas State Fair. Giving the beginning of year commencement address at my college at Rice, and doing my imitation of Phil Gramm’s infamous “Ah haaaave mo guns than aaaah neeeud, buuuut less than ah waaaunt” speech to the NRA, and then being told afterwards by the Master of the College that Gramm’s son was in the audience (he was a freshman in Baker College that year). Being asked by Rice students to teach a course on Philosophy and the Simpsons, which I did three times.
Best Simpsons episodes?
There are so many great ones. Unlike many people, who confidently proclaim that the Simpsons went terminally downhill after season x (for some arbitrarily selected x), and that they haven’t watched an episode in years, I still watch it and enjoy it. The ones that stick most in my mind are from the early seasons, though. The Streetcar named Desire episode, in which the musical version of Streetcar has a hilarious song about New Orleans, which prompted an even more hilarious and humor-impaired protest from the city of New Orleans itself. The monorail episode, with the great Music Man parody/tribute. The episode in which Homer stops going to church, and, when Marge worries that he’ll go to hell for angering god, produces the definitive response to Pascal’s Wager: “what if we pick the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making god madder and madder.” The Flowers for Algernon episode in which Homer has the crayon, which had been stuck far up his nose since childhood, removed from his brain, rendering him super smart. At one point he produces the definitive proof of the nonexistence of god, which we never see. We do see Ned discovering the proof, looking nervously for flaws in it while muttering “diddly”, eventually realizing that the proof is flawless, and responding to a logically sound proof of the nonexistence of god, not by losing his faith, but by burning the proof. Both hilarious, and troublingly accurate.
Also, people forget removing the crayon increased his sub-normal intelligence to within a normal range, 105, which give the gag more bite, there. Anyway, favorite episode?
My favorite episode, unsurprisingly, is the one where Lisa becomes vegetarian. The education film with Troy McClure touting the greatness of the American cattle industry is an all-time classic: “C'mon Jimmy, lets take a peek at the killing floor. Don’t let the name throw you, Jimmy. It’s not really a floor; it’s more of a steel grating that allows material to sluice through so it can be collected and exported.”
Low points in Texas?
Seeing George W. Bush dedicate a library extension at SMU, joking that this was the closest his wife Laura (an SMU grad) had ever been to the library. What a dick. Flooding in Houston. Trillions of mosquitos and cockroaches in Dallas and Houston. Asking an employee at a sub shop next to the SMU campus whether they had any sandwiches without meat, and being told that yes, they had turkey.
Ha! So, were you politically active in Texas?
A bit. I spoke at anti-war rallies at Rice.
What was going through your mind at the time…when you thought you might spend the rest of your life there?
I tried not to think about it too much, but my friends in Dallas and Houston made Texas quite bearable.
What did you do for fun?
Went to plays and movies. Hung out with friends. Had wine tasting parties. Cycled (in Dallas, but not Houston, which had even more unbearable weather than Dallas).
So you’re in Colorado now. Biggest differences between Colorado and Texas?
Colorado is higher (in both senses), much more scenic, has more varied weather. Colorado is also, on the whole, a much more progressive state, though there are millions of progressives in Texas (but even more millions of regressives). Colorado, at least the parts I am most familiar with (Boulder and surroundings, Denver, Fort Collins) is much more amenable to outdoor activities, and thus the people tend to be more concerned both with their own health, and that of their environment (these are generalizations, of course).
Not inaccurate, from what I understand! What do you miss about Texas?
Favorite parts of Colorado?
Personally, the running community, the theater community, in particular the Rocky Mountain Revels, for whom I’m the stage director and an actor. Getting to meet Olympians and famous ultra-runners, all of whom (the ones I’ve met) are really friendly and interesting people. Drinking good wine and beer, movies, hanging out with friends. In Boulder, we are fortunate to have a summer concert series every year, often including my favorite composers, at a beautiful location. My wife and I get to at least three concerts each summer.
Favorite aspects of CU Boulder, academically?
Professionally, the CU Boulder Philosophy department is a great community of scholars and teachers, from whom I’m constantly learning. The graduate students here are also terrific. I’ve been very lucky to direct a bunch of great dissertations and theses. We have one of the largest undergraduate majors in the country, and I’ve been lucky to teach some great undergrads and direct some really original honors theses.
Can you tell me a bit about the scandal at CU Boulder?
This is a really difficult question to answer. Partly, it’s difficult for epistemic reasons. There’s still quite a lot I simply don’t know about what happened. That’s because the system for handling complaints here, like those at many other universities, is shrouded in secrecy. When a complaint is lodged with the relevant office here (which has changed its name in the years I’ve been here), if the people who work in the office decide that the complaint merits some kind of investigation (there are different levels of formality), only the complainant, the target of the complaint, and the target’s supervisor (e.g. department chair) are informed. Even if an investigation is conducted, a finding of guilt is reached, and sanctions are leveled, the only people who know are those people and higher levels of administration (deans, etc.).
Several years after I arrived here, I heard a rumor that one of my colleagues had been found guilty in these proceedings and sanctioned. I also heard that this wasn’t true. I still don’t know whether it was true or not. I did hear from people I trust at other institutions that this same colleague had engaged at their institution in the same behavior for which he was rumored to have been investigated and found guilty here (twice). He is no longer here. So, for a while here there were many rumors about complaints being lodged against two or three of my colleagues, but no-one, except maybe the chair, actually knew which, if any, of these rumors were true. That is, we didn’t even know whether complaints had been lodged, let alone whether such complaints, if lodged, had merit. It certainly negatively affected the climate here.
The department decided that it needed to do something about improving the climate, so we appointed a climate committee, and conducted a climate survey. At about this time, the APA announced that it was starting a site visit program for departments who wanted to improve their climates. We thought that it would be a good idea to have such a visit, so we invited the APA to send a team to visit, conduct many interviews, and send us a report. We thought that it would help us to improve the climate here. I think we were the first department to have such a visit. The report we received contained many suggestions, some of which were helpful, and many criticisms, some of which were accepted by some members of the department, and disputed by others. It would, at least, have been the basis for a frank and potentially beneficial discussion in the department. The agreement we had, in writing, with the site visit team was that they would send the report to us (the Philosophy department), and only to us. However, they sent it to the University administration as well (dean of Arts and Sciences, and Provost, I think). The charitable interpretation of this behavior is that they simply hadn’t read the clause in their own agreement that specified that the report would only go to us, and when the dean or provost (I don’t know which) asked for a copy of the report, they sent it. The administration here (I don’t know exactly which level) then decided, for reasons I can’t begin to imagine, to release the report to the entire world.
The result of that was a severe worsening of the climate, and exacerbation of tensions within the department. In my view, it delayed the eventual improvement of the climate here by several years. Instead of an honest attempt to improve the climate from within, which we had begun, there was now a certain amount of circling of wagons, in the face of the inevitable outpouring of opprobrium from all and sundry in the philosophical blogosphere, including many people who gave the impression that they knew exactly what had happened here, from simply reading the site report and paying attention to gossip, whereas very few people, including the site visitors and most members of the department (including me) actually knew a whole lot.
In the last few years, I have spoken to many people at other departments here at Colorado, and at other philosophy departments, about the climate in their departments. My impression from such conversations is that the climate in this department, and the behavior, even if pretty much all of the rumors that circulated were true, was neither better nor worse than the average. That isn’t a defense, of course. It has certainly improved a great deal. I think the improvement would have come sooner, if the report hadn’t been made public by the administration. But that is just a guess.
Thanks for sharing that, Alastair. It is good to hear the climate improved, eventually. Research routine nowadays?
I don’t really have a routine. I have so much on my plate at any one time (organizing the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, directing a Residential Academic Program here, supervising grad students, teaching all levels, running, theatre, etc.) that I just squeeze in the research when I can. It often comes in clumps. I am somewhat envious of others who have a routine, to which they stick.
I’ve always heard great things about RoME. In the past 20 years how have you evolved as a philosopher?
I have mostly become less harshly critical. Many of the views that I formerly thought to be false, absurd, and evidence of feebleness of intellect, I now think merely to be false (and occasionally a little absurd).
How have you developed as a teacher?
As with the other question, I think I have become less harsh. I try really hard to remember what it was like when I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy, and to be patient with students who have trouble getting the point of things that seem blindingly obvious to me. As I say on all my syllabi, philosophy is hard. Don’t expect to get it at the first reading. Or even the fiftieth, for that matter.
Favorite student evaluation?
“Why does he wear those ugly-assed pants?"
What would a young Alastair Norcross make of who you are now?
That person would probably mock my running and veganism, and be utterly amazed that I’ve stayed happily married to the same person for over thirty years.
If you could give yourself advice when you were younger, what would it be?
Exercise more! Take up running now, rather than wait until you’re nearly fifty. Be more tolerant of undergrads who can’t write well. Don’t expect all philosophers to be left-wing atheists. Don’t take so long to become vegetarian and then vegan.
Why did it take you so long to convert to vegetarianism?
Weakness of will. I have no excuse.
Most serious objection to utilitarianism?
Difficulty of application. I don’t think any of the theoretical objections are serious, in the sense of having any chance of being successful.
Why do people, even thoughtful philosophers, bash on utilitarianism (and Singer)?
It’s psychologically difficult to accept that we’re all pretty bad. Two of the most important features of utilitarianism (and most other versions of consequentialism) are the radical equality of moral standing of all sentient creatures (and the associated agent-neutral value theory), and the denial of moral significance to the doing/allowing distinction. The denial of one or both of these allows the privileged among us, which at least includes all academics, to avoid guilt about our neglect and mistreatment of other sentient beings (including other human beings).
I always thought the demandingness objection odd. How do you deal with the casual dismissal of utilitarianism?
I remind myself of the psychological difficulty of facing up to the truth, which I also experience in many aspects of my life.
I like utilitarianism a lot, but sometimes, I think to outsiders, it seems like it is such a straightforward theory, that there is little left to say about it, beyond exploring its application to new cases. Does it ever seem sort of stale to you (even if right)?
No, it never seems stale to me. In fact, every time I teach Mill, I find more to like and admire in his work. My own version of utilitarianism, the scalar view, still seems strange to many utilitarians, so there’s lots still to do. I have a book coming out soon on that (Morality by Degrees: Reasons Without Demands, OUP 2019).
Ah yes, any other interesting projects on the horizon?
I have two book projects to follow my book on scalar morality. One is about the kind of fetishizing of causal processes that underlies much (but not all) deontological thinking. The other is about the moral status of animals, and the serious immorality of much human behavior towards them.
Nice. Could you tell me a little bit about The Road to Hell.
Hadn’t you heard? It’s paved with good intentions. I have a paper I have been presenting on and off for many years now with that title. It’s basically an argument that the distinction between what is intended as a means to something else and what is unintended, but foreseen as a byproduct of the means to something else, has no basic moral significance. This is the standard consequentialist approach. Most consequentialists, though, then say that this distinction is relevant to character assessment. I argue that only final intentions are relevant to character in this way. What is intended as a means is either irrelevant to character, or relevant in the opposite way. I think there are good reasons for thinking that the willingness to bring about a harm to someone as a means to bringing about a greater good is actually a better character trait than the willingness to produce the same harm as a byproduct of a means to producing that same good. This is all on the assumption that the distinction, which is at the heart of the doctrine of double effect (one of those views that I now think merely false and a bit absurd, rather than also evidence of feebleness of intellect), can actually be meaningfully defined. I have my doubts about that, which I also explain in the paper.
By the way, what was Kant thinking, you think?
Charitably, he correctly saw that ultimate moral reasons are universalizable and necessary, but then got led astray in the serpent-windings of his own construction. Uncharitably, he (insert joke about masturbation here).
Do you think Parfit is right: y'all are climbing the same mountain?
No. Parfit was right about many things, but not that. There may be quite a few similarities between Kantianism and rule utilitarianism, but they are both false views. Parfit was, unfortunately, too much in thrall to unreliable intuitions about cases. For example, even if I found the “repugnant conclusion” repugnant (which I don’t), I see no reason to think that such a gut feeling tells me anything about moral reality.
Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
I’m not sure whether you can call this a trend, because it seems to have been the dominant approach for the last forty years, but the over reliance on intuitions about artificial fanciful cases in both ethics and epistemology is something that I think will be looked back on with the same kind of disdain and amusement as we now look back on the ordinary language philosophy of the early to mid-twentieth century. We all do it, of course, but some of us try to do it mainly as part of our critical engagement with the views of those who rely on such things, and not as providing the main arguments for positive views. Another trend that I am vaguely aware of is that of a small number of philosophers generating a large literature on some obscure, and frankly silly, debate in metaphysics or epistemology, by writing endless replies to each other. This is probably partly the result of university administrators demanding large citation counts in the humanities to match the ridiculous numbers in the sciences. If a paper has a large citation count, almost exclusively as a result of the same small set of friends endlessly citing each other, what does that really tell us about its “impact on the field”?
Which artificial fanciful cases do you dislike most?
The ones involving really large numbers, especially infinite numbers. Larry Temkin has an example (adapted from one by Stuart Rachels) involving comparing human lives that last for many millions of years, and differing in that some of them involve minor annoyances (such as hangnails) for the entirety of the multi-million year span, and others involve intense pains for proportionally tiny (but absolutely long) periods of them (but no hangnail pain). Young people starting a new job have enough trouble imaging what their lives will be like in 40 years’ time for the purposes of making retirement decisions. The idea that we can trust any reaction we have to a story involving living for many millions of years, and draw substantive conclusions from such a reaction (Temkin tries to argue for the absurd conclusion that “all things considered worse (or better) than” is not transitive) is fantastical. Likewise, thought experiments involving worlds in which one person lives an infinite lifespan at differing constant levels of utility are pointless. There’s plenty of empirical evidence that our intuitions simply give out when thinking about even moderately large numbers (in the thousands even). To construct theories based on the intuitions that we supposedly have about cases involving much larger numbers is just silly.
What role should intuitions play in an ethical theory, exactly? I mean aren’t intuitions and the principles we formulate in order to organize them the foundation of ethics?
This is a great question. I think that some very simple intuitions might be reliable. That number, in ethics at least, might be as small as two (pleasure is good, and pain is bad). My distrust of intuitions in philosophy is mainly the result of seeing evidence (either informal, as in my own experience of teaching, or formal in the form of rigorous studies) that certain intuitions and kinds of intuitions are unreliable, because subject to the influence of factors that the very people who claim to have these intuitions accept to be irrelevant, and not a distrust of intuitions as such. One perfectly respectable role for an appeal to intuitions in philosophy is as a consistency challenge to a philosophical interlocutor. If you believe theory X, and disbelieve theory Y, at least partly on the basis of your accepting certain intuitions about (probably hypothetical) cases, I might produce a hypothetical case to which you intuitively react inconsistently with your theoretical commitments. You then have to either change one of your commitments, or explain why your intuitive reaction to this case doesn’t undermine the results of your intuitive reactions to other cases. The fact that I mistrust all intuitions of this kind is irrelevant here. If you are the one basing your views on this kind of intuitive reaction, you need to answer the challenge.
Exciting recent developments in philosophy?
Maybe a slightly greater openness to empirical research (e.g. the effective altruism movement, which really riles up those philosophers who want to justify their own selfishness, and certain [not all] forms of experimental philosophy).
Biggest misconception non-philosophers have about philosophers?
That we’re psychologists.
haha…how do we correct this misconception?
Explain to them, in easily understood language, that we’re not. In particular, try to explain the crucial difference between descriptive claims and normative claims (I found myself doing this just yesterday).
Right. Favorite movie?
That’s really difficult. I loved David Lynch’s Dune (I know others didn’t, but fuck them). I also loved Watchmen for being pretty much the only honest treatment of consequentialist reasoning in popular entertainment.
YES! Big fan of Ozy…any others?
The movie I could watch again and again, and from which my wife and I quote most often, is Young Frankenstein.
You’re a liberal guy. How did the election of Trump affect your worldview?
Well, it certainly wasn’t my favorite event of the recent past, that’s for sure. I’m not sure that it affected my “worldview”, though. I already knew that many people were easily swayed by propaganda to vote both against their own interests and against any kind of moral decency. It was also clear that the Supreme Court’s truly horrible decision to strike down most of the Voting Rights’ Act would make it far easier for Republicans to suppress the votes of the people who were most likely to vote Democratic. That they did so with such ruthless efficiency wasn’t a huge surprise. Add to that a lot of clever social media manipulation by the Republicans and the Russians, and a big dose of hubris by the Clinton campaign in not devoting enough campaign resources to states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and a racist bigoted proudly self-avowed sexual predator and compulsive liar squatting in the White House with the largest popular vote loss by an electoral college winner in history is the inevitable result. I’m a generally optimistic person, though. I’m pretty sure that we, and the rest of the world, will eventually progress beyond this, though less sure than I was that we would survive the George W Bush regime. And W was still an absolutely horrible president, despite the rose-tinted glasses that seem to be affecting some people’s rear-view mirror vision of him now.
I haven’t had it yet (I hope).
If you could ask an honest omniscient being one question, what would it be?
Is there continuation of worthwhile conscious existence after physical death? I’m pretty sure the answer is no, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed to hear that. But if the answer is yes, that would be worth knowing.
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]