Fred Feldman is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In this interview, he discusses the Springfield Avenue riots, his siblings, including his brother, Richard Feldman, who is also a philosopher, being a smart ass teenager, quotas and admissions, taking classes on Melville and Twain with Ralph Ellison, developing an interest in Plotinus, finding the right grad school, passing out in Jaegwon Kim’s logic class, Chisholming with Chisholm, getting into Leibniz, learning about the difference between the Chicago Circle and University of Chicago from Ruth Barcan Marcus, falling in love with Amherst on a motorcycle ride through the Massachusetts country side, shooting hoops in Michigan, getting so ill he thought his brain was cooked, his good friend Bob Sleigh nudging him into ethics, the premature death of his daughter, how this tragic event informed his thinking about death, and this led him to start working on well-being, the relationship between well-being, ethics, and psychology, building furniture, how his students have inspired him to write more about distributive justice, his decision to ‘retire’, fixing his antique house, and his beautiful retirement party...
Hey Fred, thanks for doing this! So, where did you grow up?
Throughout my childhood, my family lived at 7 Harvard Avenue in Maplewood New Jersey. If you want some insight into the neighborhood in which I grew up, you could take a look at Philip Roth’s novella “Goodbye Columbus”. In that story, Roth tells about the adventures of Neil Klugman -- a young man recently back from a tour in the army. Neil comes from a somewhat less affluent family in Newark. He meets a lovely young lady at an upscale country club. They agree to go out on a date. He is to meet her at her home in Short Hills. As Neil drives up out of Newark, he finds that he is slightly ahead of schedule. So he pulls off of Springfield Avenue and drives somewhat aimlessly around in Maplewood. Maplewood was in many ways half-way in between the crowded streets of Newark and the broad, green lawns of Short Hills. Roth describes the locale:
“I drove up and down the streets whose names were those of eastern colleges, as though the township, years ago, when things were named, had planned the destinies of the sons of its citizens.”
We lived on Harvard Avenue, near Oberlin, Rutgers, Wellesley, Bowdoin, and Yale. At the time, I did not know that these streets had been named for colleges. As it turned out, it would not have made a difference.
What was your family like?
My family consisted of my mother and father, sister and brother, and maternal grandmother. Our housecleaner was Aletha Abercrombie, who lived nearby in Vaux Hall (a section of Union) NJ. As a boy, I used to love to be permitted to spend time over at Aletha’s house. She had a big vegetable garden with all sorts of exotic plants including collards. She also had a flock of chickens.
My father was a very smart guy. He had gone to a law school in Newark. Then he passed the bar and got himself ready to set up a legal practice. Unfortunately, at about that time his father died. His father had been running a curtain-drapes-bedspreads dry goods store (aptly named “Feldmans”) on Springfield Avenue in Newark. His brothers were struggling to get a handle on the running of the store. They asked my father to help them out – mostly with the accounting, as I understand it.
That, unfortunately, was the end of my father’s legal career. He continued to run that store for many years. For a while they seemed to be doing reasonably well. The business supported my family as well as the families of my uncles. Somewhat later, the demographics of the neighborhood changed. The new residents were considerably less interested in curtains, drapes and bedspread. The fortunes of the store steadily declined until time of the Springfield Avenue riots in 1967. You can see a picture of my father’s store during the riots here. After the riots, the store never opened again.
My mother was mostly a homemaker. With Aletha’s help, and the help of my grandmother, she ran the house. Later, my mother came down with a form of leukemia. She struggled with that for several years, but eventually told us that she could not bear the chemotherapy any longer. She wanted to be allowed to die in peace at the next recurrence. And that’s what happened.
I’m sorry. What’s your sister like?
My sister Bette was an outstanding student and a very popular and charming person. She was then (and still is) about four years older than I am. She went to Douglass College. My sister and her husband, a physician, live in New Jersey where they raised four kids. She was a teacher for many years, the last twenty at a school for children with severe disabilities run by Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey. Since retiring she has become a regular volunteer at the school and a member of the Board of Trustees. You can see her here (with the green scarf) at a ribbon-cutting event.
And your brother? He’s also a philosopher, right?
My brother Rich was born when I was about seven years old. Even as a very young child, it was clear that he was tremendously smart and athletic. He excelled in school; he played bridge; he discussed investment strategies with my father; he had an extensive circle of friends.
Much later he went to Cornell where he tried a number of majors. At that time I was a beginning assistant professor at UMass. One day, much to my surprise, Rich called and said that he had switched majors again. Now he was trying philosophy. Then not too long after that he called again to tell me that he was thinking of going to graduate school in philosophy. That surprised me even more. And then he raised the idea of coming to UMass to study philosophy in my department. That really knocked me over. I thought it would be a wonderful idea, though of course it would raise some practical problems.
He arrived at UMass in the summer of 1970. At that time, my wife Lois and I had just purchased a seriously decrepit 1823 house in Moore’s Corner – a tiny village located a few miles north of Amherst. The house was in need of very extensive repairs. We had very little money. I was planning to try to do the repairs on my own. Needless to say, I was delighted when Rich moved in with us and joined me in my efforts to save the house. We spent a lot of time in the cellar, trying to construct cement block walls that would support the sills (which at the time were hanging in defiance of the laws of gravity over various muddy puddles).
Rich sailed through the UMass philosophy program. He is still considered to be one of the most impressive and successful of our PhDs. He specialized in epistemology at Rochester for many years. He served as department head through much of that time. Subsequently he became Dean of the College and rose to even greater levels of distinction. Just recently he was recognized as one of the 25 most important epistemologists in the English-speaking world. He is also scheduled to receive an award for his extraordinary success as a teacher of philosophy graduate students. Needless to say, I am tremendously proud of my brother.
What were you like in high school? Did you plan on going to college?
In those days I was a naïve, muddleheaded smart-ass. I was also very cocky. I decided that I would attend a certain very highly regarded small college down near Philadelphia. Even though I had been warned that admission to this elite college was extremely competitive, I saw no reason to apply to any other college. So I submitted my application only to this one school. Eventually I was told that I was on the waiting list. Time went by with no further news. Very late in the admissions season, my guidance counselor called me into his office. He told me that he was confident that I would not be admitted to the college I had chosen. I was shocked. How could this be possible? He replied by saying that he thought that they had a quota for Jews and that I probably had the misfortune of being ranked below enough other Jewish applicants to fill their quota.
Yikes! What did you do?
I was in a real quandary. It was important that I stay in school, working my way toward a degree without interruption. So I had to find another college to which I could apply even though the deadline for applications had passed several months earlier. The guidance counselor agreed that I was in a pickle, but he thought there might be a way out. He mentioned Bard. He was confident that they would admit me. Although I had never previously heard of Bard, I sent in my application. I was admitted.
What was Bard like at the time?
It turned out that the course offerings in this college were heavily weighted toward the arts. Many of my classmates were majoring in dance or drama. Others were painters or sculptors. Some were budding poets or novelists or photographers. Many of the humanities courses were heavily tilted toward Marx, Freud, Existentialism, and recent European cultural themes. There were not many course offerings in philosophy. In fact, there was only one faculty member in the philosophy department and while he did his best to cover the highlights of ancient, medieval, early and late modern philosophy, and classic American philosophy, he couldn’t be expected to cover everything.
When did you start to really get into philosophy?
Among the philosophy offerings, there was one in ancient philosophy. One day the instructor – Bill Lensing – mentioned Plotinus and said a few words in passing about him. After class, I read something about Plotinus and found a book in which selections from his writings could be found. I thought he had a wild and crazy metaphysical view. I also thought that some components of the standard interpretation were off base. I mentioned this to Lensing. He invited me to give a presentation on Plotinus in the course. I eagerly agreed. I then worked very diligently trying to get a grip on the strange metaphysical views that Plotinus seemed to be defending in the Enneads. They were very complicated. I wrote up a rather long talk and worked up some diagrams that I planned to draw on the blackboard.
When the day for my presentation came, I was very excited. It would be my first attempt to lecture in a classroom on a philosophical topic. Once I got talking, I found it difficult to stop. I went on and on; I fear that my classmates were somewhat less interested than I was in Plotinus’s weird metaphysics. I had so much to say that my presentation took up the whole two-hour class meeting. Now, when I look back on that episode, I am filled with embarrassment. Surely I said far too much about a topic that was of only marginal interest to the others in the class. Lensing, in his typical way, told me that my talk had been excellent and that he learned a lot from it. I wonder if perhaps the main lesson was that he should be more careful when inviting students to take over his class!
haha…did you enjoy your other classes?
Many classes at that college were organized as small seminars. Students were encouraged to express their own views on the readings. In some cases, whole seminar meetings would be taken up by discussions dominated by students. This pattern did not extend to all classes. I recall a course in American literature taught by Ralph Ellison.
Ralph Ellison? That’s amazing!
Ellison was an extraordinarily impressive person. He asked us to read some of the great classics including stories and novels by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and others. Typically, Ellison would draw our attention to the way in which the author wrote about racial topics. I can still recall the time when Ellison was talking about the passage in Moby Dick where Ishmael wakes up to find himself in bed with Queequeg. As I recall, Ellison was suggesting that the relation between Ishmael and Queequeg might be taken to represent the relation between white people and black people in America – we may be surprised to find that we are, as it were, in bed together almost like an old married couple.
So did you end up majoring in philosophy or…
Students at Bard were encouraged to construct their own majors. For reasons that I cannot now recall, I chose to create a major that was some mixture of classics, economics, ancient religion, art, and various other topics. For my senior thesis, I cobbled together something involving various aspects of ancient Greek Dionysian religion.
What on earth were you going to do with that combination of specialties?
I decided that I would go to graduate school to study classics. But since I knew very little Latin or Greek (there were no courses in ancient languages at Bard), I was not admitted to any classics department. The admissions officer in the classics department at a certain large mid-western university suggested a plan: I could enroll in the Philosophy Department at his university; I could take remedial courses in Greek; then, when I finally could pass the admissions requirements, I could apply again to the Classics Department. That seemed like a reasonable plan and so I decided to give it a try.
I accepted an offer of admission to the Philosophy Department and shortly after our college graduation, together with my new wife – Lois – I headed off to the Midwest where I would begin my studies in that huge Midwestern university.
Was that a good call? Did you receive financial support?
As I recall, there were about 42 active course-taking students in the program at that time. In virtue of my very sketchy preparation, I was Number 42. I did not receive any financial aid. The chair of the department informed me that it was virtually certain that I would never receive any financial aid from them. If I insisted on staying, I would probably remain as the lowest-ranking student in their program. Aside from one very supportive and encouraging faculty member – Gerald MacCallum – no one there seemed to notice that I was present. In spite of the fact that I felt utterly unwelcome in that philosophy department, I enjoyed some of the things we were asked to read. I began to think that I might want to stick to philosophy rather than classics. But I did not want to stick with that university.
What were your options?
A fellow student told me that there was a new graduate program in philosophy opening up at a school in New York State. They had some money and needed students. I applied and was admitted. So Lois and I moved to Chenango Forks, New York. The department was very small. As I recall, there were only three graduate students and maybe six or seven faculty members. I liked several of my teachers and some of them seemed to think I might have some potential as a philosopher. I quickly completed a master’s thesis. The topic was something about the alleged incorrigibility of first-person introspective reports. (At the Oral Exam, one of the examiners said that he felt that my writing style was similar to G. E. Moore’s. I was delighted to hear this, since Moore had become one of my favorites. But the examiner quickly corrected my misapprehension: “No”, he said, “I did not mean that as a compliment. It was intended as a criticism. I think you should do everything in your power to avoid writing like Moore.”)
I was prepared to remain where I was to pursue a PhD, but Jack Kaminsky (one of the faculty members) insisted that I would be much better off in a well-established, first-rate PhD program. He said that he thought that I would be a perfect fit at Brown. He wrote to Roderick Chisholm. He evidently told Chisholm that he had a student who might do well at Brown. He did his best to convince Chisholm that while admitting me would be risky, there was a chance that I would thrive.
Awesome. Did you finally find what you were looking for at Brown?
Brown offered me admission – but no financial aid. Though I was already happy where I was, I decided to accept their offer and so Lois and I moved again. As before, I started out as the lowest ranked student in the program. I was tremendously impressed by the extraordinary quality of the faculty; I was delighted by the energy and sophistication of my fellow students; the classes were thrilling. I quickly came under the spell of Chisholm – as well as of Herbert Heidelberger, Jaegwon Kim, and Ernest Sosa (among others). David Benfield and Joe Camp were two older students who gave me encouragement and guidance. With help from all these people (and others) I felt that I had finally landed in a place where I fit in. Later in my first year I was informed that I would receive the United States Steel Foundation Fellowship. If I continued to perform well in my classes, I would have full funding for the rest of my career at Brown. Things worked out very well for me. In fact, the fellowship persisted and I never had a TA at Brown.
Did you get to work with Kim?
I took a very popular logic course with Jaegwon Kim. Jaegwon was a wonderful teacher. Two walls of the seminar room in Maxcy Hall were outfitted with large blackboards. Jaegwon would start at one end of one of the blackboards and write out virtually everything he was saying – the whole lecture would be on the blackboard. Jaegwon had amazing skills as a blackboard writer. His handwriting was clear and beautiful – and he produced it at an extraordinary speed. He could fill up a whole section of the blackboard in just a few minutes. Then he would move on to the next section. The TA for the course was David Benfield. When Jaegwon would be filling up the last remaining free section of the second blackboard, David would start erasing the first sections of the first blackboard so as to make them ready for the next component of the lecture.
The book for the course was Quine’s Methods of Logic. I found it tremendously interesting, but at the same I recognized that I was utterly unprepared for the course. I had taken only one previous course in logic. In that course we talked about the differences among Barbara, Darapti, Celarent and the other medieval forms of syllogism. When I signed up for Jaegwon’s class, I assumed that we would be getting a little deeper into similar material.
I was wrong. I cannot recall that Jaegwon ever mentioned Darapti or Celarent in that class. I struggled to keep up with my better prepared classmates. Indeed, I struggled to take notes as fast as Jaegwon could fill up the blackboards. On one occasion – perhaps as a result of too little sleep the night before – I passed out in the classroom. Benfield picked me up and escorted me out of the room where with bit of rest and a drink of cool water, I soon regained my strength and was able to return to the fray. (In the end, as I recall, I managed to get a passing grade in the course.)
That’s intense, man. What was Chisholm like?
Seminars with Chisholm were unlike anything I had ever experienced. The seminar room would fill to overflowing before Chisholm’s arrival. Virtually all the graduate students would be there. Most of the faculty would attend as well. The level of excited anticipation was evident. At the appointed moment, Chisholm would arrive. He would open his somewhat battered leather briefcase and extract a sheaf of mimeographed handouts. He would ask someone to help him hand them out. Eventually everyone would have a handout and the seminar would begin.
Chisholm also wrote on the blackboard, but his efforts did not have the calligraphic elegance of Kim’s. Chisholm emphasized the various definitions and principles that he wanted to discuss. Though most of these were already on the handout, he would sometimes write them again on the blackboard. As the discussion moved along, it invariably became necessary to modify the definitions by the addition of extra clauses to avoid a sort of counterexample. Sometimes wholly new definitions would be produced.
Heidelberger, Kim, Sosa and other faculty members often made critical comments that called for extended discussion. Advanced graduate students would also contribute. Chisholm seemed to relish the intense and focused debate that always developed in his seminar. He would generally be able to deal with counterexamples without too much trouble. But from time to time someone would come up with something unexpected and insightful. On these occasions, Chisholm would lean back on the blackboard as he engaged in back-and-forth with the critic. In many cases, after some discussion and suggestions from other students, Chisholm would turn to the blackboard. First he would erase the troublesome parts of the original definition; then he would painstakingly write out a new version of the definition that would be intended to overcome the counterexample.
Mirror images of the original definitions could sometimes be seen on the back of Chisholm’s suitcoat; those had been picked up while he had been resting against the blackboard. It often seemed to me that it would be a great achievement if I could come up with a counterexample that would be interesting enough to make Chisholm lean against the blackboard, then turn and erase something he had written, and then write something new. What an achievement that would be!
By the end of the seminar, Chisholm’s face, hands, and jacket would generally be covered in chalk dust. Those who attended the seminar would be excited and keen to keep on discussing the problems that had come up in the class. It was always a beautiful example of one way in which a brilliant philosopher could draw his students into the most serious and productive sort of dialogue.
Any notable speakers at Brown?
Sometime early in my career at Brown, a notice appeared saying that a recent Brown PhD would be coming to Providence to give a talk. The speaker would be Robert Sleigh. He had done his dissertation just a few years earlier with Chisholm. Subsequently, he had joined the faculty at Wayne State University. But during this semester he held a visiting position at Harvard. Thus, it would be convenient for him to drive down from Cambridge to give his talk. I think Sleigh was talking about quantification into epistemic contexts. (If so, the paper was published in Nous in 1967.)
I was instantly bowled over by Sleigh. I was impressed even before he began to speak. He was dressed in a very smart-looking suit; he was wearing a narrow striped silk necktie. He was slim, very fit, and remarkably good looking. Everyone said that he looked just like Robert Redford (a movie actor well-known at that time). Then when Sleigh began to talk I was even more bowled over. His topic was very narrow and very interesting; his exposition was lucid; his style of presentation was deliberate, clear, amusing, and full of self-deprecatory humor. At several points in the paper he departed from his text to admit that he was still somewhat uncertain about some of the claims he was making in the paper. There were 38 numbered sentences in the paper as well as a variety of carefully formulated principles concerning de re and de dicto occurrences of singular terms in sentences that start with epistemic operators. Sleigh explained a dispute involving Hintikka, Quine, and Castaneda. At the end of the paper he said that maybe there was nothing new in what he was saying; maybe Castaneda had said the same thing in one sentence in an earlier paper. (Castaneda was Sleigh’s colleague at Wayne State.)
As I walked home later that afternoon, I felt that I had just experienced a major turning point in my life. Whereas previously I had always felt confused and uncertain about what I wanted to make of myself, after meeting Sleigh and hearing his talk all that confusion melted away. I decided that I would take Robert Sleigh as my idol. He would be my guiding star. Those who know Sleigh and me will undoubtedly recognize the absurdity of my decision. Sleigh is an outstandingly personable, handsome, smart guy whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. He was a graduate of Dartmouth College. I was at that time (and still am) a socially awkward, slightly strange-looking, at best modestly intelligent Jewish boy from a suburban town in New Jersey. My ancestors arrived at Ellis Island in 1902. I had attended Bard. No matter how hard I tried, I would never convert myself into a twin of Robert Sleigh.
What was your dissertation on?
The topic of my dissertation was “some problems about identity”. I was thinking about relative identity, contingent identity, theoretical identity and other such non-standard conceptions of identity.
What was the job market like when you finished?
I received an invitation to go out to Chicago for an on-campus interview. I was thrilled. It was an important lively growing department. There were some seriously heavy hitters out there. And there were some people there who shared my interest in metaphysical problems about identity.
The Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Brown at that time was Vincent Tomas. He was a charming and funny guy. He was very knowledgeable about who’s who in the philosophical world. Shortly after I got my invitation, I ran into Vince at the department. He gave me a big and (as I understood it) knowing smile. He said something like this: “I understand you are going out to Chicago to visit with Ruthie. That’s wonderful! It’s a great department. I hope you have a good time, but be careful what you say to Ruthie.”
That was a puzzling remark. Of course I knew that “Ruthie” was Ruth Barcan Marcus; but I didn’t understand why it would be especially important to be careful what I said to her. Would being careful around Ruthie be more important than being careful around any other department chair? I asked Vince to explain. But Vince just laughed me off – “You’ll see when you get there.” Not long after that, I traveled out to Chicago for my interview. My job talk was about identity – something from my dissertation, as I recall. I needed an example of an identity sentence to illustrate some of the points I would be making. In those days we used blackboards and chalk, so I wrote:
Ruth Marcus = Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago.
I thought this would be a slick move on my part, since at once it would be a good example of the sort of sentence I wanted to discuss, but it would also show what a savvy guy I was. Then I intended to start talking about proper names and definite descriptions and the necessity of identity. But I didn’t get far before there was a hearty laugh from Ruth, who was seated in the middle of the front row. With an enormous grin and a twinkle in her eyes, she interrupted my muddled yakking to ask “Young man, do you have any idea where you are?” I was perplexed. “Where am I? Is there a question about that?” She pointed to my sentence on the blackboard. Eventually it sunk in. I was not at the University of Chicago; I was at Chicago Circle. I guess that in a way I was still lost and adrift, and Ruth had given me my bearings.
I quickly came to have some appreciation for at least one thing that Vince Tomas may have had in mind when he warned me to “be careful what you say to Ruthie”. Maybe he meant to warn me that I would be dealing with person who is (as they say) “larger than life”; filled with charisma and wit; instantly ready with a laugh and a joke. Maybe he meant to warn me that I should not try to be too cute with Ruth; if I tried to manipulate her, I would be out of my league and could easily make a fool of myself.
Did you get to know Marcus better?
Sometimes during the fall of 1968 Ruth and I would have lunch together at some concrete picnic tables--everything at Chicago Circle was made of concrete--that were down near ground level under the towers. She would ask me questions about my views about identity. Did I think that if something, x, is identical to something, y, then it must be necessary that x is identical to y? What did I think about the epistemology of identity statements? Or their analyticity or a priority? My responses invariably turned to mush. Sometimes they turned to mush after Ruth exposed them to a few minutes of questioning. Sometimes they turned to mush even before she started in with her questions. In some cases I thought about what I was going to say, and I thought about what Ruth would probably say, and I recognized – even before I had given my response -- that I would surely want to withdraw it within a minute or so. What was the point of saying it in the first place?
I quickly realized that I was no match for Ruth. She was just so damn smart. She could see where I was going, and why it wouldn’t work before I could manage to formulate my view. Clearly, it was hopeless. By the end of my year at Chicago Circle I had recognized, as a result of my conversations with Ruth, that it would be best for me to turn my attention to other topics. Ruth could easily maneuver through the lofty realms of metaphysical abstraction but I could barely manage to keep up with her. So I gave up the topic of identity and began to focus on problems that were more suitable to my capacities.
How did you end up at UMass?
Shortly after we arrived in Chicago, I had a call from Herb Heidelberger. He had just left Brown and was starting his new job at UMass. He told me that the new Chairman at UMass – Bruce Aune – had been authorized to make several new appointments. Herb felt that there might be a chance that I could get a job at UMass if I could convince Bruce that I would fit the criteria for the position. They were looking to hire someone who could teach the history of modern philosophy.
I had taken quite a few courses about Descartes and Leibniz and Locke. I had written some things about Leibniz in my dissertation. The prospect of a job at UMass was very exciting, and I was prepared to devote myself to teaching and writing about topics in the history of modern philosophy. So I applied for the job. I was invited to come to Amherst for an on-campus interview.
Herb kept me informed of developments at UMass. Evidently some members of the department preferred another candidate; it was not a slam dunk. But in the end Bruce called to tell me that I would get an offer. I was thrilled. It was like a dream come true.
You'd been to UMass before?
At some time during my years at Brown, in connection with one of my courses, I was trying to write a paper about Aristotelian essentialism. I found some of the ideas pretty hard to grasp. I was discussing this with my friend and teacher, Herb Heidelberger. Herb mentioned to me that an interesting paper on this topic was soon to be published in The Journal of Philosophy. The paper was “Essential Properties” by Daniel Bennett. Bennett was then visiting at UMass. Herb gave me a draft of the paper, but I found some of it very hard to understand. Following Herb’s suggestion, I wrote to Bennett and asked him if it would be OK for me to come up to Amherst to discuss his paper with him. He agreed.
When the day came, I checked my maps, gassed up my motorcycle (a Velocette Venom Veeline Clubman) and headed for Amherst. As I rolled through the countryside in Blackstone, Sutton, Uxbridge, Palmer, Millbury, Three Rivers, and Thorndike, I was enthralled. I knew that I was in the vicinity of the fictional Arkham Massachusetts, the home of the equally fictional Miskatonic University. I kept thinking that I would soon cross the Miskatonic River, and that I might then enter into some strange and spooky neighborhoods.
I managed to arrive safely at the UMass campus in Amherst. I parked my bike in front of the Student Union. Since I had arrived a bit early for my appointment with Bennett, I took some time to wander around the campus. I was thoroughly delighted with everything I saw. Off to the west I could see rolling cornfields with the foothills of the Berkshires in the distance. The mighty Connecticut River was just a few miles away. On campus there was a lovely pond as well as several interesting old buildings. The campus was nestled at the north end of Amherst, opposite to Amherst College, which was embedded in the town just to the south of the common.
My talk with Bennett did not go well. He seemed to have lost interest in the topics he had written about in the paper. I found it impossible to draw him out. But my visit was not a waste. After visiting UMass and cruising through some of the nearby villages, I came to the conclusion that Western Massachusetts would be the place for me. I hoped that someday I could get a job at UMass; I wanted to move to Amherst; I wanted to live there for the rest of my life.
So what was UMass like?
I arrived at UMass in the fall of 1969. Bruce had been very busy with recruiting. I was not the only new recruit. Amazingly, my idol Bob Sleigh had been recruited away from Wayne State. Now we would be colleagues. The year earlier, Bruce had also recruited Ed Gettier away from Wayne State. So two of Wayne State’s brightest stars had been lured away to UMass. Also in the fall of 1969, Gary Matthews arrived from Minnesota. In the years that followed, we hired Vere Chappell. I had known Vere in Chicago; we brought him in to take over the chairmanship when Bruce tired of that job. We also hired Michael Jubien from Chicago Circle. As a result of all this, and some subsequent hiring, the UMass department had suddenly grown into a significant place.
In those days UMass had an undeniably strong faculty. But from my perspective, there was another factor that was equally important. My colleagues at that time included several dear friends (Herb, Gary, Ed, Michael, and Vere, for examples) as well Bob Sleigh. I was then surrounded by people I respected as philosophers and colleagues, and for whom I had great affection as friends. I was the baby of the department; all of these colleagues (aside from Michael) were older and wiser (Michael was wiser, but not older). I learned from all of them. For me, this period was a sort of “Golden Age”. It was an exciting time for me.
You spent some time in Michigan, right?
My former teacher at Brown, Jaegwon Kim, had moved to the University of Michigan to become department chair. Sometime in 1972, he invited me to come to Ann Arbor as a visiting assistant professor for a semester. That seemed like an interesting idea, and so I accepted his offer. Around Christmas in 1972, we left for Ann Arbor. In those days, in keeping with my commitment to Bruce, I was trying to specialize in modern history. I taught a course on Leibniz in Michigan. I enjoyed the stay in Michigan; there were a number of bright young philosophers in the department. Nick and Trish White had a basketball hoop set up on the garage of their house. I used to shoot baskets with Nick there. I regularly had lunch with Jaegwon and Charles “Steve” Stevenson.
Coincidentally, Jaegwon also invited Bob Sleigh to come to Ann Arbor for that winter semester. Sleigh also accepted the invitation, and so even though I was out of Amherst, I would continue to have my role model handy. I was relieved to know that I could always call on Bob to give me guidance.
The winter in Ann Arbor was cold, dark, and wet. Sometime near the end of our stay there, I became ill. I had a relentless terrible headache and fever. I was seriously exhausted. I could not bear going out in the light. I pulled down the shades and pulled the covers over my head. This carried on for several days until Lois began to fear that I might have something more serious than a mere cold. Fortunately, my cousin Steve lived nearby in a Detroit suburb. He was a doctor. We got in touch with him and he encouraged us to come over so he could figure out what was wrong with me. When we got there, Steve quickly diagnosed some sort of viral meningitis. He said there was not much he could do for me. He made some recommendations concerning food and drink and rest. “Take some aspirins for your headache and fever; pull down the shades; get in bed; pull the covers over your head; wait.” We went back to Ann Arbor and sure enough after a few days my symptoms began to fade and I was feeling somewhat better – except that I had lost a fair amount of weight and I felt as if my brain had been fried. I could not think straight. I feared that my days as a philosopher were over.
A few weeks later we got back to Amherst and I returned to work at UMass. I now faced yet another quandary: I would be coming up for tenure soon, and I felt that I was intellectually disabled. Preparing papers for publication seemed impossible. Yet I knew that I would have to do something to make myself seem qualified for a permanent position in my department.
Seems scary. What was your plan?
I settled on the idea of writing a textbook in ethics based on my lectures from Introduction to Ethics. Since I had very extensive neatly typed up lectures on all the topics, the project would not require any new thought. I would just have to convert my lectures into chapters. I felt that even in my current state, I would be able to manage that. So I set about writing a book. The resulting manuscript was accepted for publication by Prentice-Hall and was subsequently published. It was my first book.
I was delighted when I learned that the book was selling well. As time went by, Prentice-Hall began to encourage me to write a second edition. I had no interest in such a project, and so I declined their invitations. The first edition of that book has remained in print since 1978. It still sells a few copies each year in spite of the fact that the catalogue price has now risen to $144.80. I think that when it started out they were getting about $12.00 per copy. A reviewer on Amazon said,
“This is indeed a great book for introductory ethics, but the price has reached the point of absurdity. I am not willing to inflict this hit upon my students! Maybe the publisher will get a clue, but probably not. All we can do is complain like this. When this book gets down to the ballpark of $50 (still crazy for a book of this length), I'll reconsider. But at this price it's a no-brainer to reject it. Truly sad! I'll call it a five-star book, but I think the price is more painful than 1 star, so I'll settle on a total of two stars.”
I asked Prentice-Hall (later Pearson) to offer the book at a more reasonable price, but I was told that they need to keep the price on my book high, so that teachers will adopt cheaper new books. If instructors were to adopt my book, students would buy used copies and neither Prentice-Hall nor I would make any money. Needless to say, I was (and still am) disappointed about this.
So, why did you switch from research on the rationalists to research on ethics?
I continued to teach courses on Descartes and Leibniz. I directed some dissertations on these figures. I also wrote some papers (one that was published in the Philosophical Review) on historical topics. I also wrote a book – A Cartesian Introduction to Philosophy – in which I presented some of my ideas about Descartes. I guess that my mental condition gradually returned to something approaching normal.
One day my friend and idol Bob Sleigh came into my office at UMass. He closed the door – always an ominous sign. He said that he wanted to discuss a matter that would be important to him, but probably not to me. He said that he had reached a kind of crossroad in his academic career. He had been specializing in epistemic logic for many years, going back to the time of his dissertation at Brown. But now he felt that he had nothing more to say on that topic. He wanted to move on to something new. He had given it some thought and he had decided that he wanted to focus on Leibniz. He wanted to teach the Leibniz seminar (which I had been teaching) and he wanted to redirect his research toward Leibniz scholarship.
He went on to say that there was not room for two Leibniz specialists in one small department such as ours. The natural solution, he felt, was for me to take up some other specialization. He thought I should redirect my focus into ethics.
Then came the “Sleigh Ride”. He went on about how smart I am and how stupid he is; about how I could be a great success at virtually anything, while he was at best a one trick pony. So, he concluded, it would be no problem at all for me to redirect my research and teaching into ethics, while it would be nearly impossible for him to do anything other than Leibniz.
Bob was remarkably charming, and his remarks were full of flattering praise, and after all he was my idol. So I didn’t fuss. I agreed to “move over” so as to get out of his way. From then on I would focus on ethics, and he could have the rationalists to himself.
Wow…so did you have any idea where you would begin with the ethics stuff?
As it happened, I already was interested in some questions in ethics. Ever since my days at Brown, I had been aware of a very tricky puzzle that Chisholm had posed concerning the logic of obligation (in his ‘Contrary to Duty Imperatives and Deontic Logic’, Analysis 24 : 33-36). The puzzle concerned the logical relations among four sentences:
1. Jones ought to go to the aid of his neighbors.
2. If Jones goes to the aid of his neighbors, he ought to tell them he is coming.
3. If Jones does not go to the aid of his neighbors, then he ought not to tell them he is coming.
4. Jones does not go to the aid of his neighbors.
These seem to be consistent – such a collection of sentences could be true of some actual person. Furthermore, none of them seems to entail any other. But what, precisely, is their logical form?
Using ‘O’ as an obligation operator, and using ‘G’ and ‘N’ to indicate Jones goes to the aid of his neighbors and Jones notifies them that he is coming and using ‘-->’ to indicate some sort of conditional connective, we might try to represent these four sentences as:
2a. G --> ON
3a. O(~G --> ~N)
But, as Chisholm pointed out, this will never do. For 1a and 2a seem to entail ON, and 3a and 4a seem to entail O~N. In other words, when so formulated, the sentences entail a serious conflict of obligation. They entail both that Jones ought to tell his neighbors that he is coming and that Jones ought not to tell them that he is coming (if you assume that O~N entails ~ON, then you can derive an outright contradiction from the sentences under this formalization). Chisholm went to discuss other possible ways of displaying the logical form of sentences (1)-(4). None of these satisfactorily captured the ideas intended by the original sentences, since none of them preserved the consistency and independence of the originals.
I had been fascinated by this puzzle for quite a while. I thought about it for several years on and off. Eventually I wrote some papers in which I defended an informal system of deontic logic that had the capacity to express those sentences in a form that would preserve and clarify their logical structure.
The semantics for this theory involved certain assumptions: that there are possible worlds; that these worlds can be ranked for some relevant sort of value; that worlds are accessible to agents at times; that obligation statements must be relativized to times. I maintained that our fundamental obligation as of a time is to behave as we do in the best of the worlds then accessible to us. Using ‘s’ to indicate a person, ‘t’ a time, and ‘p’ a state of affairs, I expressed by saying ‘MOs,t,p’. I also maintained that a statement of conditional obligation (‘MOs,t,p/q’) should be understood to mean that p occurs in all the best q-worlds accessible to S as of t. I proposed that the Chisholm sentences should be understood in this way:
I claimed that this way of expressing the Chisholm sentences preserves their logical relations and adequately expresses their meaning.
Interesting. Did this stuff appear anywhere?
My ideas about the logical form of obligation sentences were eventually published in my Doing the Best We Can: An Essay in Informal Deontic Logic. The book also contained my ideas about the Kantian distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives; the concept of prima facie duty; and interactions between individual obligations and the obligations of groups. That book was my first serious work in moral philosophy. Unfortunately, it was published in a fairly obscure place and received very little notice. The current price is $219.00. I guess a few people read it (or parts of it) but it fell largely “dead born from the presses”. It is currently ranked around 5,000,000 on Amazon and is rarely cited. I am still very proud of that book, though its failure in the marketplace of ideas is a source of considerable disappointment.
Perhaps this interview will renew interest in it! What else was going on in your life at the time?
Sometime during the ‘80s, a personal problem eclipsed everything. After experiencing some horrendous headaches, our daughter Lindsay was finally diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgeons at Children’s Hospital in Boston felt that it would be too dangerous to try to remove it. So she underwent a lot of radiation. The radiation did not have any effect on the tumor. Eventually, they gave it up and encouraged us to take her home to die. That was unacceptable. Lois and I insisted. We said that if the surgeons at Children’s Hospital would not do the surgery, we would find someone else who would agree to do it. Eventually the surgeons relented. Amazingly, the surgery was entirely successful. After a long recuperation, Lindsay was pretty much back to normal.
But then a few years later she came down with leukemia – presumably a result of the long course of fruitless radiation. Then, in December of 1987, she died. She was sixteen years old at the time of her death. As any parent would be, I was shocked and dismayed. For a long time I found it difficult to think about anything other than her death.
I’m sorry. How on earth did you start doing philosophy again?
Gradually my thoughts began to turn in the direction of some philosophical questions about death. I read some of the relevant literature. I began to see that many philosophers think that death cannot harm the one who dies. The old Epicurean argument is well known: death cannot harm you while you still live, for it has not yet come. Death cannot harm you after you have died, since at such times you no longer exist and cannot suffer any harms. Therefore, death cannot harm you at any time. This line of thinking seemed to me to be preposterous. I took it to be perfectly obvious that Lindsay’s premature death was a grievous harm to her.
I began to think more about the harm of early death. I came to the conclusion that death is bad for the one who dies to the extent that the death deprives that person of the goods she would have enjoyed if she had not then died. I imagined that if Lindsay had not died when she did at age sixteen, she might have had a long and happy life. Her death was a great harm to her, I thought, precisely because it deprived her of this good life. I tried to imagine the value for her of the life she actually lived, with death occurring at age sixteen. I tried to imagine the value for her of the life she would have lived if she had not died at age sixteen. (I assumed that the relevant life would be a life in which she doesn’t have a brain tumor, and doesn’t undergo extensive surgery and radiation; I assumed that it would be a life in which she enjoys pretty good health for seventy-five or eighty years.) It seemed reasonable to me to say that the evil of her death for her is equal to the difference between the value for her of her actual life and the value for her of the life she would have had if she had not then died.
I became obsessed with questions about the evil of death. I was unable to think about any other philosophical topic. Accordingly, I put together a graduate seminar on the evil of death in 1989 or 1990. Many friends participated and gave me wonderful comments and suggestions. As a result of encouragement from these friends, I wrote a paper in which I defended my idea about the harm of death. That paper was “Some Puzzles about the Evil of Death”, which was published in The Philosophical Review in 1991. Several friends encouraged me to go further, and work up a whole book on the topic. I accepted the idea and wrote Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death, which was published by Oxford University Press in New York in 1992. (I give a slightly more detailed account of the personal background for the book in the Preface. I also give thanks to many of the friends, colleagues, and students who gave me support and encouragement during that dark time.)
So, after doing all of this work on death, how did you get into the well-being stuff?
After the publication of Confrontations I received quite a few invitations to give talks at other departments and at various conferences. Lots of interesting questions were raised at those talks, but one in particular seemed to keep coming up. Critics would point out that my account of the evil of death makes essential use of the concept of welfare, or well-being, or the value of a life for the person who lives it. The critics wanted me to explain precisely how I intend to determine the value for a person of his or her life. This is apparently equivalent to the question about individual welfare, or “well-being”. So I was facing the question: what makes a person’s life go well for her?
I had been attracted to some vague form of hedonism for a long time. I began to reflect more carefully on how best to formulate my view. I noticed the distinction between understanding pleasure to be, on the one hand, some sort of “feeling” or sensation, and understanding it to be a propositional attitude. I thought that sensory hedonism is hopeless as a theory of personal welfare. It seemed to me that a person could have a life of high welfare even if he rarely felt any pleasurable sensations. On the other hand, it seemed to me that a form of attitudinal hedonism would be much more promising. Such a view would take the basic units of positive welfare to be instances in which someone “takes pleasure in” some state of affairs. I defended this idea in “The Good Life: A Defense of Attitudinal Hedonism.”
How is welfare related to ethics, you think?
If we assume that an individual’s welfare is fundamentally a matter of the net extent to which she takes pleasure in things, and we also assume that morally right acts are ones that maximize the welfare of all affected parties, we end up with hedonistic form of act utilitarianism. I was attracted to a view of that sort.
However, going all the way back to the time of Confrontations, I had been troubled by a family of objections to utilitarianism. These were the objections deriving from the notion (in Rawls’s words) that utilitarianism “does not take seriously the distinction between persons”. I understand the problem to be this: so long as the total amount of utility enjoyed by a group is the same, it makes no difference which members of the group get the utility. If there are good people and bad people in the group, then (so long as the totals are held constant) the outcome in which the good ones get the pleasure and the bad ones get the pain is just as good as the outcome in which the good ones get the pain and the bad ones get the pleasure. This seemed to me to be a very serious problem.
I had long been intrigued by the idea that an improved form of utilitarianism could be developed if we adjusted the value of each unit of utility to reflect the extent to which the recipient of that unit deserved it. Assuming that a good person deserves pleasure and not pain, a unit of pleasure enjoyed by such a person would have a greater desert adjusted value. Assuming that a bad person does not deserve pleasure, a unit of pleasure enjoyed by such a person would have a lower desert adjusted value. Making use of this idea, I developed and defended desert-adjusted utilitarianism. I misleadingly said that my idea was to “adjust utility for justice”. Actually, the idea was to adjust utility for desert. I proposed a couple of different versions of this idea in a couple of papers: “Adjusting Utility for Justice,” and “Justice, Desert, and the Repugnant Conclusion.”
Does your research on stuff like this influence your teaching and vice versa?
When I first started thinking about desert-adjusted utilitarianism, I failed to appreciate an important distinction. That is the distinction between (a) a theory in normative ethics about morally right action that is intended to be sensitive to matters of justice, and (b) a theory in political philosophy that is intended to give an account of distributive justice in a country. Some students at UMass were interested in the latter question and asked if we could have a graduate seminar on distributive justice. Since I thought I had already been working on it, I agreed. Accordingly, a seminar on distributive justice was held in the spring of 1994. As I recall, one of the most active participants in that seminar was Owen McLeod.
As I tried to prepare for meetings of the seminar, I often found that I was unable to understand the essay or chapter that I had assigned. I often found it impossible to figure out what the author was trying to say, or how the argument was supposed to go. I often mentioned this to Owen, and I was frequently amazed by his remarkable capacity grasp and explain work that I found utterly impenetrable. Owen’s insight went even further. When I tried to organize the papers we were reading into natural groups, I often found myself baffled. I simply could not see enough of the “big picture” to see any larger pattern into which the various ideas would fit. It simply seemed to me to be a big jumble of unconnected and largely incoherent work. But Owen was able to help me to see how it all fit together. He could formulate a fairly abstract general principle and then, by appeal to passages in the work that I could not decipher, he could show that philosophers A, B, and C were trying to show that the principle was true, but that philosophers D, E, and F were all trying to show that the principle was false. Again I was amazed. Owen’s insight seemed to me to be astonishing.
With Owen’s help, the justice seminar went well. I had a lot of ideas – some of them seemed worthy of follow-up. I found myself attracted to a “desertist” theory of justice. This would be a theory according to which the level of distributive justice in a country would be determined by the extent to which citizens were receiving the goods that they deserved. Accordingly, the theory would be a direct competitor to an egalitarian theory according to which there is perfect justice if everyone has the same level of welfare. It would also be a competitor to a Rawlsian view according to which there is perfect justice if the welfare level of the worst off citizens is maximally enhanced. It would also be a competitor to the Sufficientist theory according to which there is perfect justice if every citizen has at least enough welfare. I sketched and hinted at the theory in a couple of places, but it needed further thought.
Subsequently, Owen asked me to direct his dissertation. He wanted to work on theories of desert. I was honored and delighted. But at the same time I felt that it would have made more sense for our roles to be reversed. I thought that maybe I should write the dissertation and he should direct. After all, as I saw it, he was a master of the relevant material and I was barely struggling to keep up. The dissertation turned out to be a real gem – one of the most impressive I had ever directed.
Are you still in touch?
After Owen left UMass for a job at Yale, our friendship continued. We frequently discussed desert, and justice, and welfare and other topics of mutual interest. We also engaged in some fairly extensive carpentry projects, as for example on one occasion when he helped me build a woodshed in which I could store my firewood. On another occasion he devoted a week or so to helping me build a floor in a previously open space in my barn. We also traveled together to Cambridge where each of us was presenting a talk at a conference on justice and desert that had been organized by Serena Olsaretti.
What do you think of the psychological research on well-being?
One day, perhaps in 2004, entirely out of the blue, I received an email from Dale Miller, who was then the book review editor of Utilitas. Dale wanted to know if I would be interested in reviewing the Kahneman, Diener, and Schwarz anthology Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Although virtually every article in the book touched on a well-known philosophical question about welfare, none of the contributors was a philosopher. There were painfully few references to anything written by a philosopher. My immediate reaction was to write back to Dale and to tell him “Thanks, but no thanks”. But I happened to notice a quotation attached at the bottom of his email. I read the quotation:
“And, though quibbling about self-interest and motives, and objects of desire, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is but a poor employment for a grown man, it certainly hurts the health less than hard drinking, and is immeasurably more humane than cock-fighting.” -T.B. Macaulay
I had never seen that before; I thought it was tremendously amusing. So I reconsidered Dale’s invitation. I wrote back and said I would take a look at the Well-Being book. After looking at the book, I decided that I would accept the invitation to review it for Utilitas. The book contains a large collection of papers on happiness and welfare. The papers were written by psychologists, economists, sociologists and others. Many of the topics discussed in the book intersect with philosophical topics about happiness and welfare – topics about which I had been interested for many years. Subsequently, I gave some talks on some things I found especially interesting in the book. Then I decided to offer a graduate seminar on happiness. After the seminar, I worked up other papers. And in the end I decided that I would like to try my hand at writing a book about happiness, well-being, and interactions between psychological and philosophical research on happiness. The result of that decision was What is This Thing Called Happiness?, and it was also published in 2010 by OUP.
One main theme of that book is that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of happiness. I claimed that this confusion generates trouble when psychologists and others develop empirical tests to measure the amount of happiness in some country, or in some group of people. I claimed that many of the tests currently being used in fact do not measure anything that deserved to be called ‘happiness’. They measured some other thing that might at best be loosely associated with happiness. I hoped that the arguments I presented on this topic would provoke a lot of interest among psychologists. I also hoped that my proposed hedonistic theory of happiness would create a stir among philosophers. But I was wrong on both counts.
Really? Was the book poorly received?
The book went entirely under the radar in psychology journals. No one wanted to review it. I wrote to some of the psychologists whose views I discussed in the book, but received only a few dismissive and seemingly hostile replies. I suspect that they thought I was just an amateur trying to invade their turf. There were a few nice reviews in some philosophy journals, and a very amusing long article in a Greek newsmagazine. But the book quickly faded away. Another disappointment. I vowed never to write another book.
In light of the disappointment due to the apparent failure of the happiness book, and also in light of my advancing age and declining health, I began to think it might be time for me to retire. I felt somewhat adrift. I discussed this with some graduate students. Several of them said that they had heard about a seminar on justice that I had offered years earlier. They expressed the hope that I would offer it again before I retired.
I thought about this suggestion. I found it somewhat enticing. I recalled how enjoyable the earlier seminar had been. I also recalled that I once had felt that I might have something useful to say about justice. I also recalled that I had a complete set of lecture notes left over from the earlier seminar; I imagined that I could easily construct new presentations based on the old lectures. I felt that it would be pretty easy to put together a new version of the seminar; so I agreed and the seminar was scheduled for the spring of 2012.
Sounds stimulating! Did the students reinvigorate your research?
The students in the new seminar seemed to be very excited about the topics we discussed. They raised all sorts of penetrating questions. They were especially tough on me when I began – near the end of the semester – to present my own desertist theory of distributive justice. As a result of their objections, it became clear to me that my earlier presentations were confused and superficial. I had failed to develop the foundations of the desertist theory that I meant to defend. The current students insisted on more.
I recall a series of emails from one of these students – Casey Knight. I had claimed that distributive justice obtains in a country if citizens receive certain benefits according to their desert of those benefits. I vaguely sketched what these benefits might be, and I asserted that these are the ones that bear on distributive justice. Casey found my discussion unacceptable. He insisted that I would have to present some clear and persuasive rationale for my notion that these are the deserts that are relevant to political economic justice. And he also insisted that I would have to defend my claim that citizens deserve these things from their country. Casey never looked for a job in philosophy. His father has been a deep-sea fisherman up in Alaska for many years. Casey used to work with him periodically. After finishing his dissertation, Casey moved back to Alaska and now has a boat of his own and is a full time fisherman.
It sounds like the student became the teacher, pardon the cliché.
I was moved and impressed by all this prodding and protesting. I recognized that my previous discussions were confused and superficial. I set to work to develop clearer and more detailed and more defensible answers. By the end of the semester, I felt that I had made real progress. I felt that I now had a much clearer and far more defensible desertist theory of justice. It was significantly different from the desertist theory I had proposed in 1994.
Were you still planning on retiring?
Years earlier I had met Sam Conti, who was then the Dean of the Graduate School. I was tremendously impressed by him. He seemed to me to be the ideal of what a university administrator should be. Many others around campus shared my view and when he retired, UMass established the Samuel I. Conti Faculty Research Fellowships in his honor. A winner of one of these fellowships would get a full year off from teaching at full pay, plus a little bonus. An additional benefit of a Conti Fellowship would be relevant in the case of an elderly applicant such as myself: winners were not required to return to teaching in the year following the year in which they held the fellowship. They could just retire. My department had nominated me for this fellowship several times in the past, and I had been told that my nominations were very strong – but I was always a bridesmaid and never the bride. I was uneasy about another rejection. I hated the thought of another depressing failure right at the moment of retirement. But since no other member of my department was prepared to be our nominee, I decided to take the risk involved in allowing myself to be nominated for a Conti Fellowship; I knew that if I were lucky enough to win, I could simply delay retirement by a year and then quit.
In order for my nomination to go forward, I had to fill out a form. I had to describe the project that I would pursue during the year of my fellowship. But I had no project. So I decided to make something up. I wrote up a project description according to which if I were to win the fellowship, I would devote the year to writing a book in which I presented, explained, and defended my new desertist theory of justice. I went so far as to include a tentative table of contents for the book. I assumed that if I were to win the fellowship, I could start with the presentations that I had worked up for the recent version of the justice seminar, and then rewrite them so as to make them constitute chapters for a book.
I was amazed and delighted when, a few months later, I received the news that I had won the fellowship. I was so excited that I promptly set to work seeing if I could actually produce something like the book I had promised. I worked obsessively on that project for many months. I discussed my progress with Owen, and he gave me encouragement. He said that he thought it would turn out to be a valuable book, and that I should keep plugging away. I think he knew that if the book were ever published, it would not be widely read. I would be defending a desertist theory of justice; ever since Rawls attacked desertism in A Theory of Justice, views of that sort have fallen very far out of favor. Only a small handful of people had anything nice to say about desertism. Owen tried to convince me that it would still be a good idea for me to cap off my career with the writing of this book, even if it were to be another failure in the marketplace.
After a long period of work, I wrote to Peter Momtchiloff (the philosophy editor at OUP) and told him that I had nearly completed a new book about distributive justice. He was very encouraging. He invited me to send him the manuscript as soon as I felt it was ready. And then, perhaps a bit prematurely, I did send the book to him. After a bit of static from a referee, I received some wonderful and tremendously encouraging referee reports. Peter assured me that a contract would soon be prepared. Then, not long after that I received the contract and subsequently sent in the final draft of the manuscript. At the time of submission, no one other than the OUP referees had seen the book. I had not published any papers summarizing my views. I had given only a few talks in which I described the ideas that form the core of the argument. As a result, when the book comes out, it will probably seem very strange to those who have been working in the field for many years. I suspect that they will react as the psychologists reacted when my happiness book came out. “Who is this guy? What makes him think he can invade our turf without ever paying his dues? Why should we pay any attention to this book?” I suspect that there will be few reviews and not much commentary. Probably it will fare no better than the happiness book, and will fall “dead born from the presses”. But this time (if I am still alive) I won’t care what they think. I think it’s a pretty good book and I am glad that Owen and Peter and other friends encouraged me to complete it. Now, perhaps, I am done.
Is there a pattern to the projects you’ve chosen to work on?
When I look back at the projects I pursued during my career, a certain pattern becomes evident. In several cases I was drawn to an idea, or a theory, that had been declared dead. In each case, when I looked at the death certificate, it seemed to me that the victim deserved to be resuscitated. I devoted myself to this project of bringing the dead back to life.
This happened first in the case of act utilitarianism. I started thinking seriously about act utilitarianism in connection with my teaching of Phil 160 – Introduction to Ethics. I worked up lectures in which I presented and explained what I took to be the main objections. In each case, it seemed to me that it would be possible to revise the formulation of act utilitarianism so as to overcome the objection. This revised formulation was presented in Doing the Best We Can and a bunch of papers. I thought, and continue to think, that a form of act utilitarianism is the most attractive theory in the normative ethics of behavior. Unfortunately for me, most of my colleagues think that it would have been better to allow it to remain dead.
The second instance in which I engaged in zombie philosophy concerns hedonism as a theory of welfare. In the course of my teaching obligations, I had to discuss theories of welfare. I was drawn to hedonism, but I recognized that it was open to a variety of objections. Like Act Utilitarianism, it had been declared dead. I thought, however, that most of the objections could easily be avoided by some modest adjustments. I advocated, first of all, a move to attitudinal hedonism instead of sensory hedonism. I also felt that the value for a person of an episode of pleasure should be enhanced or mitigated in light of the extent to which the agent deserved to take pleasure in the object involved. I described those adjustments in a series of papers and in my Pleasure and the Good Life. In this instance as well, many of my colleagues felt that I was wasting my time. Again, they evidently thought that it would be better to allow the dead to rest in peace.
The third instance in which I engaged in zombie philosophy concerns desertism as a theory of justice. When I became interested in theories of justice, everyone seemed in awe of Rawls. They thought that he had utterly demolished desertism in his A Theory of Justice. When I looked closely at the passages in which his arguments appeared, I was amazed. The arguments seemed to me to be very confused, utterly unpersuasive, and easily answered. Of course, before the arguments could be discussed coherently, it would be necessary to work up a suitable form of desertism to serve as the object of criticism. In my forthcoming Distributive Justice: Getting What We Deserve from Our Country I formulate what I take to be a suitable form of desertism and I show that when understood in this way, the theory is untouched by the Rawlsian objections. I suspect that my colleagues will react to this line of argument in pretty much the same way that they reacted to my arguments concerning act utilitarianism and hedonism. They will say that it would have been wiser to allow desertism to remain in its grave.
You put off retiring for a while. When did you decide it was the right time?
Many of my closest colleagues in the department were gone. Sleigh, Gettier, Chappell, Aune and others had retired. Heidelberger, Robison, and Matthews had died. Jubien and Skow had moved away. So instead of being the youngest member of the department surrounded by older and wiser friends I discovered that I was the oldest member of the department surrounded by new and younger colleagues. It seemed to me that many of the newer students had philosophical interests and perspectives that were not entirely in tune with mine. Joe Levine (at that time Head of Philosophy) came around one day and asked if I was planning to retire. At first I was unsure, but as time passed the idea seemed more attractive.
Did your colleagues throw you a retirement party?
Joe asked how I felt about the idea of having a retirement party. I said that I was opposed. Many of my friends would not be able to attend; many of my old students were working at jobs in distant places; and anyway, I had recently given a Distinguished Faculty Lecture to which quite a few old friends and students had come. In connection with that lecture there had been a wonderful banquet complete with speeches of the sort one might expect at a retirement party (or a memorial service). It was not clear to me that there would be any point in having another somewhat similar party.
What made you change your mind?
My old friend and former student Ned Markosian began to encourage me to reconsider. We had lots of long phone conversations and email exchanges in which Ned told me that quite a few of my former students and old friends were very enthusiastic about attending a retirement party. Ned mentioned Chris Heathwood, Ish Haji, Ben Bradley, Kris McDaniel, Ted Sider and others. Ned also said that he would be willing to organize the whole thing. Ned and Joe had already discussed financing; it would be no problem. Finally I agreed. The plans were developed. A date was selected. There would be a program of philosophy talks during a day in October, followed by a reception and a banquet at night. The program for the philosophy talks can be seen here.
The conference was very well attended. A fairly large room in the Campus Center had been reserved and it was filled up, with some standing at the back. The papers and comments were all given by people whose dissertations I had directed. Jean-Paul Vessel presented an amusing and animated talk in which he claimed that with certain adjustments for "moral standing" my theory of desert adjusted act utilitarianism provides the best framework for thinking about moral obligations concerning animals. It generated a lot of animated discussion. Kristian Olsen (who had just a few weeks earlier set off for his new job at the University of New Hampshire) presented a paper about the idea that an act has moral worth iff it is done from the motive of duty; or (in the modern variant) iff it is done for the reason that makes it morally right. Ish Haji and Michael Zimmerman presented papers concerning the concept of moral responsibility. There was lively, intelligent, perceptive commentary and criticism after each paper. It was a first rate, day-long conference followed by a pleasant reception at which many photos were taken.
In the evening there was a wonderful banquet. Among the guests where people who came from Australia, Scotland, western Canada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Alabama, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Michigan. Among these were many former students whose dissertations I had directed; quite a few former students whose dissertations I did not direct; some current and former colleagues; several current students. At the beginning as the first course of the dinner was being served, Judi DeCew introduced a series of speakers. Each one told a funny, heart-felt story of his or her dealings with me (in some cases, many years ago). Phil Bricker, Brad Skow, Richard Feldman, Chris Heathwood, Kristian Olsen, Michael Zimmerman, and many other came forward to speak. Then we had dinner. Then there were more such talks. David Benfield talked about his adventures in London where – as my purchasing agent -- he located a Velocette Venom Veeline Clubman motorcycle for me. My daughter Elizabeth talked about how the department seemed to her when she was a child (Ted Sider and Ned Markosian figured prominently in her memories). Erik Wielenberg, Ben Bradley, Julie Petty, Elinor Mason, Alex Sarch, Justin Klocksiem, and maybe a few others stepped up to the front of the room and gave their speeches. Several of these speeches were totally over the top hyperbolic rants in which people extolled all my many alleged virtues and quirks of character. Many of them went out of their way to assert that they have had very satisfying careers and that it is all due to my prompt replies to their emails. Alex Sarch had put together a booklet containing a lot of nasty comments I made in the margins of dissertation chapters. Alex read some of the funniest of those and presented the booklet to me.
Then I gave my speech in which I tried to thank all these dear friends, colleagues, and students and by then it was very late and so we had our dessert and then the banquet was over. Then people came up to me with their smartphones and took quite a lot of pictures of me with them. I suspect that there were tears in my eyes as I said goodbye to these people who have meant so much to me during my long tenure at UMass.
It was – at least for me -- a thrilling event. A wonderful way to end my 46 year career at UMass.
What would you say was the high point of your career?
Hard to say. Maybe a new high point every time one of my students passes the final oral exam for the PhD. I have directed about 35 dissertations. Just about every student of mine who sought a job in philosophy managed to land one. Most of them are now tenured professors or department heads or deans. They have published a remarkable number of good books and articles. You can see a list of these people in my CV, which is also posted on my website.
What do you do in your spare time nowadays?
I try to build furniture that looks something like pieces that were made in rural New England in the late 1700s. I live in an antique house that requires an enormous amount of maintenance and repair. You can see some pictures of the house here. I try to do most of the work on the house myself. I formerly cut all my own firewood; now I merely split and stack and restack all the firewood. (We have eight fireplaces in the house; three woodstoves. We still freeze in cold weather.)
In retirement, will you still be doing philosophy?
I agreed to write a paper on the naturalistic fallacy for a proposed collection. I also agreed to teach a seminar in the spring of 2016. I am still directing a couple of dissertations. I hope to see those to completion and to help the authors land good jobs in philosophy. And I am now engaged in checking the proofs for my new book. So it is not entirely clear that my career has actually ended.
Great place for us to stop, Fred. Thanks for your time. It’s been fun!