Dan Haybron is a professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University. He was recently awarded a $5.1 million grant for a three-year interdisciplinary project on happiness and well-being from the John Templeton Foundation and Saint Louis University. In this interview, he talks about spending summers in, and falling in love with, North Carolina, developing an aversion to snobbery, and a taste for blowing things up (figuratively and literally), getting into Wesleyan and deferring upon the realization that he hated school, selling insurance, working in retail and then deciding to go back to school, the illuminating but somewhat Victorian political atmosphere at Wesleyan at the time, getting into his philosophy of science and philosophy of religion classes and eventually developing an interest in metaphilosophy, interviewing Philip Glass, moving to the Bay Area and doing tech support, going back to grad school, bodysurfing, working with Steve Stich and Wayne Sumner (one of the only philosophers working on happiness and well-being at the time), scorpions, the job market, landing a tenure track job at Saint Louis University, the protests in Ferguson, the totalitarian response, the concept of privilege, and our diversity problem, the Templeton grant, the dangers of the soap box, his favorite movie, and his last meal.
Hey man, thanks for doing this! I understand you’re a bit reluctant…
I’m not sure how to talk about this stuff, since I can’t imagine many people are interested in the details of my life. But I’m not sure it’s worth saying anything if I don’t fill things in enough to paint a real picture, especially since a lot of my approach to philosophy is rooted in my personal history. Also, a lot of people come to academia from non-typical backgrounds, and maybe it’s useful to hear the stories of others. So I guess I’ll go long…
Well, I’m interested. So, where did you grow up?
I grew up between two very different worlds, spending most of the year in a small town near Cleveland, and a few months each summer on a small island in North Carolina. As far as I was concerned, the island was my spiritual home, but I was very much a child of both places—and in some ways a child of neither—and that mix has had a huge impact on my thinking. Northern and Southern, urban and rural, affluent and not, with a good dose of piratey island culture thrown in. (Some of the islanders are descended from pirates, and there’s a long seafaring tradition that took many around the world—a very free-thinking, independent-minded bunch.)
What did your folks do?
My mother was an artist and my father a physics professor and writer, so we had a lively combination of creative/analytic thinking in our household. Both were real characters, with a lot of weird, amazing friends. My father’s background, growing up poor in Southern Ohio, also was a major influence, as he always took pride in those roots. I internalized much of his aversion to rank and snobbery—he was at the physics department at Princeton for maybe three days before deciding to hell with those people, and his favorite job might have been straightening railroad track with a crew of ex-cons and the like. I think it meant more to him that I could handle myself around roughnecks than that I could impress academics. My mother also didn’t have a snobbish bone in her body, and was as happy chatting with a homeless guy as with a fellow artist, maybe happier. Once she locked herself out of her car in a rough area and sought out the toughest-looking kids to help her get in, which they managed handily. Of course they were complete gentlemen with her. She paid them the compliment of treating them as trustworthy, and they responded accordingly.
Did your folks have an influence on your philosophy, you think?
Both parents had an enormous influence on my philosophical thinking. My mother stoked a lot of my intellectual curiosity trying to get me to read the Bible and talk about the issues; the religion never stuck, but the love of ideas did. I’m not sure most of my philosophical work doesn’t amount mainly to ideas I picked up from, or with, my father. I still hope to publish a collaboration of sorts we’d talked about. Neither was really capable of caring enough about money to make much of it, but they put every spare penny into getting us onto the island each summer. So my Ohio friends always had nicer stuff, but I got to spend part of the year in what I considered paradise. Which seemed like a pretty good tradeoff.
What was this collaborative project with your father?
He had a manuscript for a book based on the journals he kept during our years on the island. Aside from a shorter version for a literary journal, it never got published—a neat regional house picked it up but went out of business before it could see print. In general, he didn’t have great commercial instincts as a writer, so he left a lot of good material behind. Anyway, we talked about me writing a sort of philosophical postscript, making some of his ideas more explicit, roughly along the lines of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. I’d still like to do that, as he says a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking about much more eloquently and poetically than I could.
As a kid, what were you into?
Blowing stuff up, setting stuff on fire, going out in the woods and shooting stuff—you know, the usual young philosopher things. (At some point I acquired the nickname “Torch” around the neighborhood.) From a fairly early age—7 or 8—I pretty much was free to do whatever I wanted once I walked out the door. If I got into fights, which was not infrequent, that was my problem. As long as I wasn’t too much nuisance to the neighbors, what I did was my business, and my parents almost never got involved. When I was sixteen, I went down to the island and got a room, busing tables to pay the rent and keep myself in peanut butter and jelly. So I had a lot of freedom, which I really treasured.
What I most loved was anything to do with the ocean—bodyboarding, fishing, sailing, catching critters for my aquarium, or not doing a damn thing. As long I was near the sea, I was happy. Wherever I was, I had lots of books, and spent a lot of time reading. And a lot of thinking—many of the ideas I work on now have their roots in stuff I was thinking about when I was ten or eleven. By that time it was already pretty obvious to me that our way of life is nuts.
I wasn’t very athletic, but played a fair amount of front yard baseball and football etc., because my friends in the neighborhood would keep banging on the window until I put the book down and came out to play. Besides books—most of them about animals or war—I wasn’t into many of the things one might expect an academic to have been into. Chess, puzzles, debate club—that sort of stuff didn’t do much for me. Idle intellectual exercises were incomprehensible to me. I pretty much hated school and avoided it as much as I could, sometimes not showing up for the first week or two; more worth learning on the island, I thought, or from my books. Sometimes my mother would tell school I was sick and we’d be off to the zoo or something.
Some of this makes it sound like I was a delinquent; I was usually pretty mild-mannered, unless I thought someone was being a jerk. Well, I could be a pain in the ass, but generally avoided getting in trouble for it. In seventh grade they started making us do the pledge of allegiance, and my teacher didn’t care for it much when I did a Sieg Heil during the proceedings.
Whoa! That’s intense.
I figured, if you’re going to dishonor the flag by lining kids up to do forced loyalty oaths, you might as well do it right. People mean well, but I felt that a lot of flag-waving stuff ends up demeaning the flag more than anything. And I’ve never been comfortable with public displays of piety or virtue, especially when it takes zero virtue to indulge in them. To my mind, the young black men who hung the flag upside-down near my office last year were honoring the flag more than many of the flag-wavers do. They were taking seriously the symbol, and the ideals it is supposed to stand for, not sticking it on their underpants, or forcing kids into Orwellian ceremonies.
Anyway, in high school I thought it would be fun to start a Dadaist-cum-educational-reform political party for student council with some friends—the PIGs, I believe we called ourselves. It was pretty obnoxious, but nothing punishable.
Those sorts of things were about as overt as it got for me. I was relatively well-behaved for someone in my family. My father only graduated high school because he was too smart to expel; basically his school handed him a diploma just to get him to go away. The principal literally suggested he spend the latter part of senior year in a pool hall, so he wouldn’t cause any more headaches. None of us were ever joiners or “group” people, and we never entirely fit in with any particular crowd. I suspect it’s part of what’s made us good at what we do. We chalk that sort of thing up to our Scotsman lineage, but really who knows. Actually, my mother hardly encountered a rule she didn’t want to break, and not a drop of Scottish blood that I know of.
When you hit high school, did you start thinking about what you were going to do for a living?
At some level I think I always suspected I’d end up in academia, probably the sciences, or as a writer. But my teen years were all over the map. Early on I thought I’d be a Navy pilot, then maybe a video game designer, then an anthropologist or political scientist. I assumed I’d go to college and applied a few places, and decided I’d go to Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, as it seemed small enough but also diverse, as such schools go. Then it occurred to me that it was really expensive and I hated school, and a lot of the people I respected most never went to college. So why bother? I was already better read than a lot of college grads, so I didn’t see the point. I was persuaded to defer enrollment for a year rather than burn that bridge, which was a good move.
What did you do instead of school?
I started out as an insurance salesman, selling cancer insurance. For some reason I thought this would be a great career, and started collecting brochures for the snazzy car I’d get when I had the dough—Mustangs, Camaros, Audis…. I did think about college again, but this time to go to Penn and major in insurance, which is amazingly a real undergraduate major. Anyway, I got off to a promising start, but then when I went to pitch my first big sale, my mentor—a dissolute English gentleman, maybe 50, who looked like Terence Stamp—failed to show up and it fell through. I wonder if he knew he was doing me a favor. Somehow that killed my mojo, and before long it was clear I’d actually not make any money in that job, perhaps in large part because I realized it wasn’t a very good product and ended up agreeing with a lot of my customers that they’d probably be better off without it. And that was the end of my insurance career.
Then I took various jobs in retail, and lit off for Tennessee to live with a friend for the next six months or so. Seeing the jobs I could get without a college degree, I decided a little more school wouldn’t hurt. Plus there'd be a lot of girls.
Did your attitude towards college change once you started?
I had mixed feelings about college. Even while there I toyed with the idea of becoming a mechanic, like my grandfather and two uncles, one of whose transmission shop I spent some time in, working on a homely old VW bus, which remains my favorite car to this day. I liked the work and the company, but not the idea of getting up so early or dealing with employees showing up drunk or stealing things from people’s cars, so that didn’t go very far. In school I continued to be a semi-indifferent student but got a great education out of it, including getting turned on to philosophy. I also learned a lot from the other students, who were a smart and very intellectually stimulating bunch.
At the same time, it was the height of a sort of neo-Victorian era of political correctness—the film PCU was made by a couple of classmates based on our time there—and there were a lot of hipsterish kids and Life-of-Brian-People’s-Front-of-Judea types who liked to argue about things like whether the correct term is “wimmin” or “wymyn,” and might hiss at you if you got it wrong. That and a not-uncommon air of superiority, and contempt for the little people at whom their benevolence was supposedly directed, made the experience not so much fun at times. So the idea of swilling Red White and Blues with the boys at the garage while stinking of transmission fluid had its allures. But on balance, the college route was almost certainly a good choice. There were a lot of nice kids there and I got a lot out of it—best of all, my wife. A job doing philosophy ain’t bad either.
How did you meet your wife?
Elizabeth was friends with my junior year roommate, so we met through him. She was a biology major and since then has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, mostly in marketing, business development and strategy. We married in 1995, twenty years ago.
How did you get turned on to philosophy?
There was a “Freshman Integrated Program” the first year where you took history, English, and philosophy courses with the same small group for both semesters. I thought that sounded great except for the philosophy part, so I pleaded with the registrar to let me do it without the philosophy classes. I just assumed philosophy was exactly the sort of pointless pondering I couldn’t stand. They said nothing doing, so I relented and signed up anyway. At some point in the first semester we were covering Plato and I hadn’t done the reading, nor was I paying attention. The professor asked me a question about the Plato text and I made something up. Whatever I concocted, he said it was really insightful. I believe that’s when I first started to think philosophy might be a pretty good gig. The professors were great, especially Brian Fay, and I realized that a lot of what I’d been thinking about over the years were basically philosophical problems.
What were your favorite philosophy classes?
Philosophy of science comes to mind, and something where we read MacIntyre. Actually, my favorite philosophy classes were probably religious studies courses for the most part, which is a little odd since I’m an atheist (agnostic, technically, but people get the idea you’re indecisive if you say that). I guess religious traditions struck me as doing a better job of speaking to some pretty deep human concerns than most of the philosophical literature I encountered. Wesleyan had a great department, and I especially liked courses on East Asian thought, and anything taught by Jim Stone, who was a really eccentric Zen Buddhist guy who’d bark “Hi!” (Japanese for “yes,” I believe) when you entered his office. He was fascinating and a terrific mentor, the embodiment of what a college professor should be. I had to get a policy exception to graduate, because I’d taken too many religious studies courses instead of philosophy courses to satisfy the major.
What were your least favorite classes?
Probably my least favorite courses were logic and ethics, though logic eventually grew on me. Maybe it was just how it was taught, but the standard ethics course stuff left me cold. Part of it that it was all very narrowly focused on moral theory, and it seemed to me that, while there was plenty wrong with our priorities as a society, it wasn’t mainly a matter of failing to know right from wrong. Metaethics interested me more, because people on campus were always yelling at each other, with a soupçon of shooting and firebombing, and I wanted to know how to deal with the problem of clashing values. But the stuff I’d read in metaethics seemed either obviously false or gibberish. So I ended up doing my senior thesis in metaphilosophy—in particular, what makes claims in metaphysics true or false—as a way of setting myself up to deal with the metaethical problems I was mainly concerned with.
What did you do for fun?
It wasn’t a great party school. I made sure there would at least be a campus bar, but it burned down just before I got there. But we managed decently anyway, and students organized some interesting events one probably wouldn’t find at most colleges. One of the cool things about Wesleyan was all the cultural events they had—a great world music program, dance, and other things—and how normal it was for students to attend them, and also just to hang out and talk about intellectual stuff. I tried doing stuff for the school paper and the radio station, and had fun interviewing Fishbone, which was the only way I could get into the club. I also interviewed Philip Glass, but I didn’t know much about him and just asked stupid questions, and then they wouldn’t let me see the performance.
When did you decide you were going to go to grad school?
I applied to grad school straight out of college, but only got in one place, which Elizabeth wasn’t about to move to, so after graduation I followed her to the Bay Area—she’s from Palo Alto-- where we lived for two years.
Nice area. Where wouldn't your wife move to?
Columbus, Ohio—I’d gotten an acceptance from Ohio State but there weren’t any jobs for her there. On balance, it made more sense to head out to the Bay Area, where she’d grown up, and we got good jobs and got to live in San Francisco, which is hard to beat—especially then, before everyone got so crazed by money. Also, it was clear I’d botched my applications, so I could try again later if I wanted to.
What did you do for a living in the Bay Area?
I worked at Intuit and Oracle, doing tech support and then technical writing. I liked the software industry—the business world can be more rewarding than a lot of academics realize, if you pick the right sort of work. But I decided academia would still be more satisfying over the long haul, so I applied to grad school again.
Where did you end up going to grad school?
This time I got letters from philosophers instead of religious studies professors, and canned the Heideggerian writing sample in favor of what I thought was the most boring part of my senior thesis, a chapter about linguistic presuppositions. That went over much better, and I ended up at Rutgers. Which is funny because you could hardly pick a place with a more different philosophical style from Wesleyan—especially religious studies there—than mid-90’s Rutgers. Prior to that I think the only semi-contemporary analytic philosophy I’d read was Quine and Davidson. I think someone at Rutgers went out on a limb and got me a place there—whoever it was, I’m very grateful.
So I dragged Elizabeth from San Francisco to New Jersey, which she wasn’t thrilled about, but it was a very good place for her line of work. Of course, not following a philosopher around the country would have been even better for her career, but she’s been extremely good-humored about it all.
Given the fact that you had taken so many religion courses, did you feel prepared for grad school?
At first, I think so. Analytic philosophy is pretty clear and mostly not too difficult to understand, which is something I still like about it. I think I actually did very well in the beginning, speaking a lot in classes, as I hadn’t yet learned to be afraid. But my lack of background in the literature, the occasional incident of saying something stupid, and generally the realization—or at least the perception—that we were under constant scrutiny, being sorted into the “smart” and “not smart,” etc… all that gradually wore me down and I ended up being a lot more quiet and anxious.
Another important thing is that I had always led a relatively solitary intellectual life, with my parents being my main interlocutors, along with those friends who enjoyed talking about ideas, but not in any serious way. In college I had zero interest in hanging out with other philosophy majors, and in fact I think I could only name two other people who did philosophy then. If talking to someone could help me work out my thoughts and learn something, then great. But that didn’t happen a lot outside of a small circle, all of whom shared my distaste for verbal jousting, so I never had a habit of debating philosophy the way you’re supposed to in academia. If I said something and someone raised an objection, then unless I personally found the point interesting or troubling, my inclination was “good point, thanks for sharing.” And move on. It sort of still is. But in academic philosophy that can seem overly conciliatory. It can also be kind of rude—someone has taken the time to engage with your ideas, and (to a point) you owe it to them to take it seriously and try to respond as best you can. Yet for the most part, that’s a real effort for me, and I don’t always do it well—partly because I’m not a high-speed thinker/talker by nature, and partly because my heart usually isn’t in it. In general, I don’t care very much about winning arguments. Anyway, you can imagine how I might not have felt entirely at home in grad school.
Was Rutgers a friendly place?
I don’t know that it was any less friendly than most top philosophy departments, and think it was friendlier than some. Rutgers was good to me, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to study there. But my time in grad school wasn’t perfect, and it’s probably worth saying a bit about the downsides of my experience, as I think they speak to broader tendencies in the profession. So, I didn’t find it a terribly warm and fuzzy environment, and some of my favorite classmates dropped out early on. At the same time, when I think of the individuals there, I honestly can’t think of anyone I disliked. I got a lot of support from the faculty, some of whom put a ton of effort into their students, and a lot of them were really terrific people. I also liked nearly all the other grad students. In general I thought people were pretty nice. But there was something about the whole package that added up to an environment that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in, and by the end of it all I’d changed from a very laid-back guy to, well, not. Part of it, no doubt, was inherent to academic training in a tough job market. And part of it has to do with the climate issues that generally plague the profession. Generally, I don’t think we do a very good job of providing a supportive environment for young philosophers. It should be possible for most students to get their degree without raiding the pharmacists’ armamentarium like starved Vikings. Then add the East Coast status games, and you’re not having much fun.
I remember a girlfriend in college who complained that I never talked about myself (she was from Manhattan). By the time I had a PhD, there was little risk of that ever happening again. Now I give extremely long-winded interviews.
haha…that’s the idea! Who did you end up working with at Rutgers?
I started out working mainly with Steve Stich, who continues to be a friend and mentor. He had a huge impact on my thinking, as he has on many others of my generation. But when my interests turned to happiness, which took me more deeply into ethics, I started working with Doug Husak. Doug was a terrific interlocutor, supporter, and mentor, and I’m very grateful he took me on. He really gave me freedom to pursue my crazy interest in happiness—which was widely, and more or less correctly, regarded as a form of career suicide—and helped keep me on track. This was at a time when basically only one philosopher, Wayne Sumner, was working seriously on happiness (as a psychological matter). Luckily Wayne agreed to be on my committee.
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy happiness and well-being were so out of fashion, philosophically. Big fan of Stich over here. Speaking of Stich, were you still interested in metaphilosophy?
When I started out at Rutgers, I was interested in metaphilosophy, and for a while I planned a dissertation on the evidential value of intuitions, which of course went on to be a hot topic. But I felt that the epistemological questions got most of their interest from the underlying metaphysical and semantic questions: what exactly are philosophical claims about? What sort of metaphysics and semantics might make sense of philosophical practice? The problem was, pursuing those issues would mean becoming a metaphysician or specializing in philosophy of language, and I didn’t really want to do either of those things. I wasn’t that interested in other areas of metaphysics, and I didn’t think we were even close to having the necessary semantics to answer my questions. So I was kind of stuck about how to proceed.
Sometimes I think I’m more interested in metaphilosophy than anything else. Do your metaphilosophical views shape your philosophical views?
Definitely. I grew up looking at the world partly through a scientific lens, so my perspective is strongly naturalistic, and also very pragmatic. I have no idea how to make sense of ethics, for instance, except as a part of the natural world, a product of human psychology, and hence dependent on our sensibilities. In a sense, then, normative ethical theory is basically empirical: the best theory will depend on our best understanding of what human valuing is like. I don’t really know how else it could go; all other paths seem to lead to Plato. At the same time, I don’t think that means we should collapse ethics into science; to a great extent, the best way to understand human valuing is to engage in philosophical reflection about values and see where it leads us. What values are able to sustain reflection?
To me we approach those questions both from the inside, via old-fashioned philosophical reflection, and from the outside, via the scientific method. In thinking about well-being, for instance, I’d like to arrive at a theory that both makes sense on reflection and fits well with empirical evidence about the way people think about well-being. If it’s going to apply broadly and not just to people like us, then I think it should also be consonant with a plausible story about the roles concepts like well-being play in human life such that it might be reasonable to expect that people in a wide range of cultures should come, on reflection, to find that sort of conception of well-being plausible. I think we have to leave open the possibility, however, that no such convergence is forthcoming, and that the best account of well-being will somehow be population-relative. I suspect that’s actually the case to some degree, but I’m also fairly optimistic about the universality of certain values. Consider how easy it is to make friends just about anywhere.
As well, I’m not that interested in unmotivated conceptual analysis, where you just try to account for intuitions without really thinking about the point of the concepts in question. Then you spend a lot of energy playing “counterexample whack-a-mole” where you keep refining the analysis to deal with various counterintuitive results. I think it’s a lot more helpful to ask why we care about the concepts in question, which are probably fairly messy and undisciplined to start with. Concepts like those of happiness, reasons, knowledge might be good examples of that. Then perhaps we need to reconstruct the concepts, making revisions and distinctions as needed to arrive at some understanding of the subject matter that fosters clear thinking about it. I call the approach “reconstructive analysis,” but I think lots of people do it in various forms.
You sound like a student of Stich! How exactly did you get into the happiness and well-being stuff?
I got turned on to the subject in my first year at Rutgers, in a seminar with Steve, where we read some fascinating work on subjective well-being research as well as irrationality. I ended up setting that aside for some reason, though, and turned to the stuff about intuitions. Maybe around 1995 or so, I was feeling a bit stuck on that topic, and then had a short trip to the beach that vividly reminded me of my earlier experiences on the island. I got a refresher on that mindset, and was struck by how clueless I’d been about how, well, not-happy I’d been. Basically, I think bodysurfing convinced me to work on happiness. (Well, my wife reminds me that she told me that if I was going to be a professor and drag her to who-knows-where, I had to work on something I liked.)
Awesome. Were you discouraged from working on happiness and well-being?
I was advised not to do it, as hardly anyone was working on it then—one person, really—and it didn’t exactly sound like a “macho” topic. I remember going to a conference shortly after where a prominent psychologist sounded like she was going out on a limb suggesting that cognitive science begin to take seriously the “warm and fuzzy” side of human psychology, namely emotions. This surprised me, as a lot of people already worked on that, but clearly it was regarded as marginal in some important circles. And happiness was beyond marginal. I thought, well, here we are in the dark ages. Let’s see if we can change that a little.
What did you do for fun?
I liked hanging out with my wife’s colleagues a lot. They were a fun bunch. As much as I like most of my colleagues, who are nice people and can be fun too, it really helps to have friends outside academia. Grad school in philosophy has a non-trivial element of being broken on the wheel, at least for an awful lot of students, so I’m not sure fun is the operative notion. More like coping. I don’t mean that as a gibe against the field, by the way, though I think we could do much better in this department. But the training really needs to alter your thinking and habits in very deep ways, for instance building habits of self-correction and self-criticism, and I don’t know that there’s a very fun way to do that. The rewards are mostly down the line, I think, as is the fun.
Right. How did it feel to get your first publication?
The first thing I ever sent out for publication was a paper on evil character, which I mailed to APQ as a grad student. About two weeks later, I got a call from the editor wanting to publish it right away. This was very pleasing but, needless to say, not representative of the academic publishing experience. Especially as I started focusing more on happiness, which is a pain in the ass to get published. Then again, at least I was getting publications in decent places, which was really reassuring when I couldn’t get a job. Academia generally is very conservative, but less so in publishing than in hiring.
When you started teaching, did you feel prepared? Was it scary? Fun?
I started teaching around halfway through grad school, after doing a bit of TA work for one of the professors. I don’t think it was all that scary, except that I definitely over-prepared for class the first few years, with copious lecture notes to make sure no possible question or objection would go unanswered. That was a complete waste of time, and actually counterproductive.
I like teaching, and often it’s great fun, but it’s also a lot of work, and probably the hardest part of the job. I tend to optimize, and you can’t do that as a teacher because there are so many variables, and so many ways to go about it, so it’s really about managing a bunch of balancing acts. What works for some kids doesn’t work for others, and what serves some educational purposes doesn’t help with others; and then you have to consider your own personality and strengths and weaknesses. So it’s an exercise in practical wisdom, with no “best” solution. I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with my style in the classroom, but you never stop learning, or trying new things, which is kind of a neat thing about the job; you can always keep it interesting. It’s incredible that anyone thinks it makes sense to impose “accountability” on teachers through quantitative metrics, any more than you can measure good parenting.
What was the job market like when you finished the dissertation? Were you confident you would get a job?
When I went out, I was told I’d have no trouble landing a good job, and sure enough I was the first one of my cohort to hear back about a position; I got an email from a department at a Very Fancy UK university saying I was on the shortlist and asking whether I would accept an offer if they made one. I think I spent about a week debating that question before replying to the email—not one of my smarter moves. Never heard back, and I believe I only had one interview that year. It consisted almost entirely of me trying ineptly to answer a reasonable question, “tell us about you and ethics.” A great opening for a joke, which I completely missed. I didn’t get that job either, and only managed a one-year the following year, though it was at a great place, Arizona.
How did it feel to land the first gig? How did you and your family cope with the move?
While I would have preferred a tenure-track job, especially with a family, Arizona was pretty great for a one-year. Even better, we rented an amazing home near the top of the Tucson Mountains from one of the faculty who was on leave. It was like living in a resort, and my wife nearly dropped the baby when she walked in the door. I worked like a dog that year and didn’t see them much—first semester I had three courses including a grad seminar in political philosophy, which wasn’t an AOS of mine, but was certainly a specialty of that department, hence a bit nervous-making. But it was a pretty neat place to work like a dog. The wildlife was incredible—it was like Wild Kingdom, and for a while I wondered if we’d wake up to a shark in the pool, there was so much weird and dangerous stuff there. About the only thing Elizabeth really didn’t care for were the bark scorpions. We usually found one or two of them in the house every day, and she always wore shoes; I took my chances. Our next-door neighbor woke up with a scorpion on her face, and one day I caught the baby waving one around in her fist. (She was fine; the scorpion and myself, not so much.)
That’s what it feels like to wake up when you are on the philosophy job market! How was your job search coming along?
It seemed like I was getting shortlisted everywhere, but for various reasons, nothing beyond that. I knew I had some weaknesses like a long time to degree and having not really trained in my AOS, and specializing in an area that hardly anyone else was working in, which isn’t a great strategy if you want to play with the popular kids. But I thought it was still obvious enough I was doing good work on something worthwhile, so someone would hire me. By year three, I was fed up with the market and pretty much stopped caring, which seemed to help. I got two offers, one of which was for my current job at SLU.
I imagine you were excited to finally get the tenure track job!
I was thrilled to get the job at SLU, not least because it was a job. I’d almost not applied because it’s a Catholic university and I’m not religious, but my father told me Jesuit schools are really cool, so I put in. He was right, at least about this one; I immediately had a great feeling about the place, and really liked the people there, especially Fr. Ted Vitali, the chair. He met me for breakfast my first day visiting, and swore up a really good blue streak; I pretty much knew I wanted the job at that point. And this has been a great gig—it’s very collegial, no pretentiousness or posturing, and it’s a very supportive environment, where I can do whatever weird stuff I want and no one will complain. Well, maybe it’s not so weird anymore, but I like having the option.
How do you balance research and teaching?
I balance research and teaching mostly by first making sure I’ve done what I need to for my students, and then using the remaining portion of my time for research, with something carved off for family time and downtime. It’s really easy to let work eat up all your time in academia, so I think it’s important to figure out some things that are important to you—kids, exercise, whatever—and carve out time for them, no matter what. If something doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done; you have to have a life. Sort of like saving for retirement—you can always use the money now, but that way poverty lies, so you just need to commit. But then, some things really do need to get done, like a conference talk, so it’s hard not to make exceptions now and then. But those exceptions can really creep up on you, and end up being the norm. The trick is keeping them to a minimum. I can’t say I’ve really mastered that trick.
How would you describe St. Louis or Missouri to somebody who has never been there?
It’s a very pleasant mid-sized Midwestern city—friendly, unpretentious, lots of stuff to do and not too expensive, not a lot of traffic. If you’re going to raise your kids in the Matrix—which is pretty much the only option if you’re going to do what I do for a living—it’s a pretty good place to do that. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Cleveland, though Cleveland got more of the East coast/European culture—the Cleveland Orchestra is no coincidence—whereas St. Louis has more signs of its old frontier status, and is a little less sophisticated. My main gripe is that it’s about as far from the ocean as you can get.
What do you make of the whole Ferguson situation?
The general issues of racial injustice in this country that Ferguson put in the spotlight weren’t new to me—it’s stuff we talked a ton about at Wesleyan, and one of the things that spurred me to become a philosopher. And I knew St. Louis was not one of the better cities on that front. But I’d had no idea just how bad it was here, in particular the strongly predatory form of government that exists in so many towns in this county. You’d notice that it was impossible to keep track of all the tiny towns around here—Ferguson is just 10 minutes away from here, but heaven knows how many municipalities you could cross getting there. And they’re too small to survive on tax revenues, so they prey on poor people and people of color to raise money on nonsense charges, like having a date spend the night (not on the occupancy permit). That’s appalling, and it seems clear that the state or federal government needs to take over and dismantle a lot of these towns, folding them into larger entities that can actually survive honestly.
(I don’t like to call this stuff “white privilege,” incidentally, because I think privilege is more of a class thing, and I’ve spent too much time with poor white folks to feel comfortable insulting them by calling them “privileged.” Not being oppressed in some respect doesn’t mean you’re privileged. And it diminishes the problems of racial oppression, which are a lot worse than just not giving people extra perks. Having to worry about getting shot by the police is not like having to fly coach instead of getting bumped up to first class. Anyway, it’s polarizing in ways I don’t think are helpful.)
For me the worst of it was the militarized police response to the protests, which included some of my friends. The one time I ever switched on the television during that time, it was live footage of the police tear-gassing an Al-Jazeera crew on a lawn, clearly no threat to anyone. Had this stuff been done to white folks in Idaho or Oklahoma, there would have been a serious shooting war—however bad Waco etc. was, this was a lot worse. That was a glimpse of totalitarian government, and it’s really sad there wasn’t a bigger national outcry.
It’s embarrassing when you travel to other countries and see how they look at it. I was in Jamaica last summer and asked a young man who’d also lived in Brooklyn how this stuff was perceived. He said people don’t really follow international news there, but when it’s really big they do, and Ferguson was one of those cases. They found it baffling because they just don’t get racism—they think racism is funny, he said, I guess because it would be even more ridiculous in an almost all-black country like Jamaica than it is here. But basically, he said, it was just “disappointing” to see that stuff happening here. They knew we had problems but expected better from us.
In philosophy, how do we deal with our diversity problem?
I think it’s a really complex problem with a lot of interacting parts, and it needs to be addressed on a lot of fronts—affirmative action in admissions and hiring, being more attentive to implicit bias, including more women and people of color in course syllabi, and so on…basically, just being serious as a discipline about many of the remedies philosophers are already talking about. To my mind gender issues are the most pressing, but we need to do better on race, disability, and other issues of inclusiveness. It’s kind of depressing we’re having this conversation now—I mean, a lot of philosophers seem to have less of a clue about these issues than the average Wesleyan undergrad had 25 years ago. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t a great many philosophers dealing with these problems in a really discerning and sensible way, and I’m really encouraged by a lot of recent developments. Just that it’s disappointing we didn’t get to this a long time ago.
I don’t have much original to say about it, I guess, though I do think we need to focus a lot on both class and intellectual and ideological (including political) diversity. Philosophers very much tend to hail from the urban ruling class—if you find it normal to get on an airplane for vacation, or you belong to the same breeding cohort as people who do, you’re probably in the ruling class, as I was raised to think about it—and those who do come from rural, poor and working class backgrounds often distance themselves from their “primitive” past. There are already so many barriers to people from those backgrounds going into philosophy, and I’d like to see greater attentiveness to making the field more welcoming to them.
Do you think philosophy is unfriendly, generally?
I don’t think so; sometimes I get frustrated, but at least as often I think “what a great bunch of people.” But we could still do a lot better, and one thing that I think would help with inclusiveness on many fronts, including gender balance, is if people were more consistently nice to each other, more supportive, and if the field were characterized more by cooperative or constructive dialogue, and less by competitive discussion. And generally, if we related to each other more along the lines of “parity-seeking” rather than status or dominance-seeking—that is, trying to maintain a sense of equality or parity with our conversational partners rather than trying boost or assert our status over them. Less “dick-waving,” for instance. Put it this way: in the top 10-20 graduate programs in philosophy, how many of the students would characterize the environment as “warm, friendly and supportive”? I could be wrong, but I suspect not many.
Academics have always tended to have fragile egos, as we earn a living by getting the approval of our peers, which both means that we tend to be fairly conservative and conformist, intellectually speaking, and that it’s hard not to be concerned with status. (All the more reason we need to be nice to each other.) So academic culture naturally has strong pressures toward status-seeking behavior, and is only tolerable to the extent that we have norms, practices, institutions in place to counter those tendencies. Philosophy has those, but I think we could do better—and the need may be stronger because philosophers tend to prize raw intellectual power more, and philosophical ability is judged in a wider range of contexts than ability is judged in other fields (it seems to me). Dave Chalmers recently posted a really nice document on some ways we could improve, but it’s hard to know how to address these kinds of subtleties. Philosophy strikes me as a relatively unsupportive field, yet for the most part philosophers are nice people and don’t do overtly obnoxious things. It’s more a sense you have of being comfortable in some environments and crowds, and uncomfortable, anxious, on edge in others, for reasons you can’t really articulate. Maybe you just feel more like you’re being judged in some environments. I suspect we mostly need to find ways to change the basic attitude we take up when dealing with each other—the professional gestalt, as it were.
Anyway, I think our diversity problems may owe a lot to the fact that we’re often not a very fun or welcoming crowd to be around. If, on top of the bullshit I dealt with early in my career, I also faced the disadvantages of being a woman, or disabled, or a country boy, or African American, I’d likely have dropped out. If graduate study is just barely worth enduring even for many of the most advantaged members of the profession, then why should members of disadvantaged groups put up with it?
I’m a little uneasy making remarks like these, as I do like the great majority of my colleagues, who are really nice people. And as much as I didn’t enjoy graduate school, I benefited a great deal from the hard work of the faculty there and was treated well. Now I’m a tenured faculty member and mentoring grad students myself, and it isn’t always obvious how to do things better, though I’m sure I could. These kinds of problems mostly emerge at the collective level and don’t require villains. But little things can really work together and build up into a big problem. And it’s important for us to talk about them.
Low point of your career?
Probably midpoint in grad school, taking an area test (a comprehensive exam) in philosophy of language, which I chose because I’d not really studied it before. Unfortunately that’s a really hard area to teach yourself, especially back when there weren’t a lot of handbooks and such. I thought I’d bombed it and wanted to crawl into a hole. It turned out I actually did pretty well, or so I was told.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?
I guess I wish I’d realized how much of my feeling like I didn’t get something wasn’t me being stupid. It was really liberating once I realized that it usually wasn’t me when something seemed impenetrable or confusing—the problem, at least as often as not, is that the text itself is confused. Also, in general, don’t take the status game and posturing and stuff too seriously—if you interact with people enough, then generally they’ll figure out your abilities and any one thing you say probably won’t convince them you’re an idiot. You’re not the only person who’s insecure or anxious, especially in graduate school. There’s always someone who seems really cocky and sure of themselves, and seem to love the whole game, and I’ve never been quite sure if it’s an act or they just don’t have any sense. Maybe some of them really are brilliant, but in general, there’s just a lot of anxiety going around in graduate school, and it’s best not to worry too much about your inadequacies. Remember the things that got you there, and the good moments, and remind yourself that you’re not a moron.
High point of your career?
Probably publishing The Pursuit of Unhappiness. It pretty much came out the way I wanted it, and I felt like, well, if anyone doesn’t like what I’m doing, fuck ‘em. Because I knew it was good, and made a real contribution. That felt really good, and I stopped worrying about my abilities at that point. (Tenure helped too, which was around the same time.) Part of what I had in mind writing it was that you have to reach students with that sort of thing because the famous people were hardly working on these issues at all. I wasn’t about to get them to change career directions, so really all you can do in that situation is aim for the next generation. So I tried to write something that I’d have liked as a graduate student, and I felt like it worked on that level.
Any exciting projects coming up?
I’m chomping at the bit to get on two books that have been gelling for the last several years, each following up on a different thread of the first book. One of them is about the nature of good lives, in the broadest sense of the term. Part of that will involve an attempt at a complete account of well-being, as I only sketched part of my view in previous work; presently I’m calling it a “Millian hybrid” theory, as it combines eudaimonistic and hedonistic elements in a way that loosely resembles Mill’s body of thinking about well-being. Another major element, though, is to try to get clearer on the very idea of a good life, and develop the account of a good life I sketched in Happiness: A Very Short Introduction. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to have been any sustained debate about this notion, at least where it isn’t just assumed at the outset that well-being is the sole measure of a good life, as in the ancient literature. And if you think, as most moderns do, that good lives involve both well-being and, distinctly, morality—and perhaps other values as well—then you have a really tough problem figuring out how to bring it all together. Put another way: how is the eulogist supposed to figure out whether the dearly departed had a good life—not just morally or prudentially, but period? Basically, this book aims to sketch, as best I can, the basic outline of a good life.
The other book centers on a defense of well-being policy. It starts with the question: suppose you have a just society. Can we say that you have a good society? If not, what else is needed? My thought is that, while justice does have a kind of priority over other moral demands, it is not really a sovereign virtue; it’s a virtue in roughly the sense that not being a criminal is a virtue—a pretty minimal aspiration. So a society could be just yet be a terrible society, both morally and in terms of quality of life. I think this is important for multiple reasons—e.g., the left’s obsession with social justice has arguably been politically self-defeating, alienating a lot of potential allies—but the immediate motivation is to make room for the promotion of well-being, including happiness among other things, as a major policy imperative. A lot of political philosophers seem hostile to this idea, I think because well-being was long ago ruled out as a “currency” of social justice: the state doesn’t owe us happiness. I agree, but I also think that, in practice and in fact, justice plays much smaller role in political morality than a lot of people have assumed. Who cares if the state owes us happiness? Most policymaking is not in the first instance about giving people what they’re owed, but about things like trying to make this or that situation better. And it’s still pretty important whether policies are favorable to people’s happiness, or undermine it. Urban planning and agricultural policy in the U.S. have been disastrous for our quality of life, in my view, but you can admit that, and grant that it’s a huge moral failing, without thinking it unjust. Anyway, that’s what I want to say. So I want to explore the moral basis for well-being policy, and also issues about how to implement it—measuring well-being, paternalism, etc.—in this book. Because it’s so hard to say anything interesting about the importance of well-being in policy without relating it to the importance of other policy concerns, like people’s capabilities, or environmental degradation, I’m hoping to be able to sketch—no doubt crudely—the chief elements of a good society.
So these are both really big-picture books, and I’ve no doubt important things will get left out, and others gotten wrong. But big-picture stuff is one of my stronger suits—I’m certainly not the fastest or cleverest philosopher—and it’s a useful exercise just to put something out there. We’ll see; a lot of the elements of both are already in place, but these will probably take a while, like the first book did. I intend both to be more provocative and less cautious than the first book, so there’s be lots to disagree with.
Could you describe this Templeton thing you are working on a bit?
The basic idea is to do what we can to help build up well-being research as an interdisciplinary field. A lot of people work on well-being, but there’s not so much collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, especially between the humanities and sciences. For my own part, I’m especially concerned to see the philosophy side of things build up; it’s definitely improving, but the ranks of empirically-engaged well-being philosophers, let alone philosophers working on happiness, are still pretty thin. There should probably be at least as many people working on well-being as on moral theory, in my view, so we’ve got a long way to go.
The bulk of the funding for this project is going toward sub-grants, and most of that money will fund empirical research that involves collaborators from philosophy, theology and religious studies. We’re also hosting a number of workshops and conferences. The idea is basically to lock humanities and science folks in a room and make them do something together. I’m hopeful that people will find the exercise rewarding, and carry on doing this sort of thing in the future. Or at least pay more attention to what’s going on in other departments.
I think this stuff is really important, most of all because we’re essentially taking a blowtorch to the planet in the name of hare-brained ideas about the good life. We won’t survive as a species, or at best we’ll leave a biologically impoverished planet for several million years, unless we find better ways of securing a decent quality of life. Anyway, an awful lot of folks are pretty miserable, despite being awash in material abundance. And you still have a lot of people who think policy should ignore that sort of information. So we have a good deal to learn.
Is there anything you believe now that a younger version of yourself would be surprised you believe? Like, how has your academic study of well-being changed your world view?
Probably, but I think my basic outlook hasn’t changed a whole lot. I had more than my share of stupid ideas as a kid, and probably do now, but the stuff I write now is pretty much continuous with stuff I was thinking back when I was ten or eleven. Which is probably not a good sign. I have the mind of a ten-year-old.
haha…do you talk to your kids about philosophy? Would you encourage them to pursue a career in philosophy?
I don’t know how much we talk about academic philosophy, though sometimes I throw something at them to get the gears turning. But we do talk about “big ideas,” like I did with my mother. Mostly I think they overhear my wife and me talking about things. I try to be careful not to impose my political or (lack of) religious views on them, so certain things we don’t talk about so much, or I don’t let them know what I think. But that can be tricky—it’s important to take an interest in politics, and talking about it at home can foster that, but again, I want them to form their own views. If they want to be conservatives, libertarians, communists, whatever, that’s their business. There are certain things I don’t think it matters what political persuasion you are—neither climate change nor Ferguson are ok. You can deal with the problem in different ways, but you’re just missing something if you don’t think there’s a problem. Ferguson was the first time I ever thought about joining a protest, and also thought about taking the kids, because it involved basic matters of a minimally civilized, free society. I was afraid we’d get our heads knocked in by the police, but now I regret not doing it. I’m not a “fist in the air” kind of guy, but that was some serious stuff.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Do you find any trends disconcerting? Exciting?
I feel like the field is really improving in important ways—we’re starting to take inclusiveness and diversity more seriously, and also making life more tolerable for younger members of the profession. I expect things will genuinely improve as a result. We’re also becoming a lot more engaged with real-world problems and matters of public concern, and it’s wonderful to see more good philosophers writing for general audiences. I think it used to be a badge of honor not to care about making a difference in the world as a philosopher, and that seems less the case now. Mind you, I’d hate to see all philosophers doing “relevant” philosophy—there should always be people pursuing useless ideas, just because they are fascinating or beautiful. A civilization is diminished when it doesn’t leave room for people to create useless beauty. But it’s also good if, as a profession, we aren’t fiddling while Rome burns.
On that note, I hope environmental ethics becomes a more prominent part of the field, with specialists training grad students in all the top departments. I’m not sure why it remains relatively marginal—or so it seems to me—as there are a lot of interesting, very fundamental theoretical issues at stake even if the field is also “applied.” Maybe it’s just too hard.
I have some concern about what seems to be increasing shrillness and self-righteous intolerance among philosophers, and perhaps academics generally. Actually, I suspect it’s just symptomatic of the same trend in the culture at large—people everywhere seem to be becoming more politicized and polarized. But I hope it’s just a swing of the pendulum, and will correct itself in due time, as happened with the psychotic political correctness that gripped Wesleyan in the 80’s. A great deal of it is online, too, and generally people aren’t as likeable online as in person. I’m not sure that will change, just because that’s the nature of the medium. It encourages people to get on a soapbox and cultivate their inner Bill O’Reilly or Kanye West. Sort of like an interview.
What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher: roasted! Favorite movie?
Favorite curse word?
All of them.