Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

On moral philosophy and moral comedy – Harry Frankfurt on The Daily Show

As Jon Stewart wraps up his 16 year stint on The Daily Show this week, I can’t help recalling fondly the time I escorted one of his unlikelier guests—the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt—to an appearance. It was 2005, and Harry, an emeritus professor at Princeton, and I, a brand new publicist, had been caught off guard by early interest in his philosophical treatise, On Bullshit. The book, apparently unencumbered by its unprintable title, would go on to become an international phenomenon, spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it would peak at number one. The Daily Show was one of the first major venues to take interest in the book, which started its meteoric rise as a quirky, unassuming title from our mid-list. We’d expected it might raise a few academic eyebrows, but were unprepared for the journalistic outpourings from all corners. “This book will change your life”, wrote Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, seeming to mean it. Bullshit’s time had come.

On BSComedy Central’s invitation was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was one thing to watch, baffled, as the book reviews piled up, quite another to send Harry into the glare of the mainstream media. Jon was, after all, formidable in his way, and Harry, for all his facility with the ironic and profound, was not particularly well-versed in comedic pop culture. His inquiry was as serious as it was sincere, and he was reluctant to “bullshit” about the topic he had so carefully treated. Our visit to The Daily Show marked my first time in a green room of any sort, and I spent most of it holding my breath. Harry was wonderfully refreshing to work with—thoughtful, modest, and genuinely surprised, at 76, that his work had generated interest outside of philosophy journals. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting him into.

If we were at all intimidated about the encounter to come, we needn’t have been. Jon paid us a backstage visit before the show, and conducted a class act interview that was charming, incisive, and thoughtful. Above all, I remember that Jon was respectful, parsing, between laughs, the distinguishing characteristics of bullshit, and the way it corrodes the truth. Harry was graceful and wry, the book became an overnight sensation, and the rest is history.

Harry, now the author of the new book On Inequality, has in the years since his own interview, commented on Stewart’s remarkable effectiveness and impact on people, including his famously successful on-air critique of Crossfire:

Stewart and Frankfurt parted ways as two very different figures nonetheless dedicated to raising the level of discourse: Frankfurt the renowned scholar who dared to qualify bullshit, and Stewart the journalist who made it his life’s mission to illuminate, lampoon it, and ultimately demand more of its propagators. I count myself fortunate to have crossed paths with them both.

–Debra Liese

On This Day – Galileo forced to cede to Church

k10498On June 22, 1633, the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei to renounce his view that the Earth rotates around the Sun. By doing so, he avoided death and was instead placed on house arrest. The Church opposed the heliocentric model, proposed by Copernicus a century before, because it directly contradicted biblical passages that assumed a geocentric system.

In Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton, Hilary Gatti argues that the early modern period laid the foundations of our modern ideas of liberty, justice, and democracy. The “Galileo affair” is one example of this process that she highlights. Gatti argues that this moment in history has become “the historical pivot around which one of the most heated discussions of our time is developing—that is, how far religious doctrine can, if at all, determine the inquiries of the scientists and the ways in which they are accepted by society and taught in its academies and schools” (104). We see this debate continuing in our own time surrounding the study of the Theory of Evolution in schools.

To learn more about how events surrounding Galileo, Machiavelli, Milton, and others contributed to our modern ideas of liberty, check out Gatti’s book. You can read the introduction online.

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

A Mere Philosopher?

The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena CanalesOn the 6th of April, 1922, two men met at the Société française de philosophie to discuss relativity and the nature of time. One was the winner of the previous year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein, renowned for a series of extraordinary innovations in scientific theory. The other was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales recounts the events of that meeting, and traces the public controversy that unfolded over the years that followed. Bergson was perceived to have lost the debate and, more generally, philosophy to have lost the authority to speak on matters of science.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of that loss is that it is hard to imagine an equivalent meeting today, the great physicist and the great philosopher debating as equals. While the physical sciences enjoy unprecedented prestige and funding on university campuses, many philosophy departments face cutbacks. Yet less than a century ago, Henri Bergson enjoyed enormous celebrity. His lecture at Columbia University in 1913 resulted in the first traffic jam ever seen on Broadway. His work was translated into multiple languages, influencing not only his fellow philosophers but also artists and writers (Willa Cather named one of her characters after Bergson). His writings on evolutionary theory earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Students were crowded out of his classes at the Collège de France by the curious public.

The young Bergson showed promise in mathematics, but chose instead to study humanities at the École Normale. His disappointed math teacher commented “you could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher” — a harbinger of later developments? Einstein and his supporters attacked Bergson’s understanding of relativity and asserted that philosophy had no part to play in grasping the nature of time. Bergson countered that, on the contrary, it was he who had been misunderstood, but to no avail: the Einstein/Bergson debate set the tone for a debate on the relationship between philosophy and the sciences that continues to this day. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Philosophy Now, biologist Lewis Wolpert dismissed philosophy as “irrelevant” to science. In this, do we hear an echo of Einstein’s claim that time can be understood either psychologically or physically, but not philosophically?

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.

Spotlight on…Philosophers and Mystics

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie

A Short Life of Kierkegaard
by Walter Lowrie

The nineteenth century was a period of extraordinary advances in science and engineering that seemed to bring the dream of a comprehensive understanding of the physical world within reach. Yet it was also the century that gave us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, three writers whose work expressed the subjective dimension of life, analyzed the role of human choice and will, and rejected a purely rationalist vision of existence.

To residents of Copenhagen in the first half of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard was a familiar sight, his striking figure daily walking the streets of the town. But few, if any, would have known that he was the author of several volumes of philosophy and theology – his early works were published under a series of unlikely pseudonyms, including Johannes de Silentio and Hilarius Bookbinder. Despite the oddness of his pen-names, Kierkegaard was deeply in earnest, and occupied his last years with an extended critique of the Church of Denmark in a series of pamphlets. His arguments that faith is rooted in an act of individual choice, not church ritual, and that state involvement corrupted the church, were highly influential, and his reputation grew rapidly after his early death in 1855. W. Lowrie’s A Short Life of Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work by one of his first English translators. For those willing to make a leap of faith and tackle Kierkegaard’s life in greater detail, Joakim Garff’s magisterial Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is the definitive work.

As the subtitle of Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist suggests, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion were far removed from those of Kierkegaard. He derided Christian ethics as “slave morality” and proclaimed the need for the individual to overcome their social, cultural and moral context through the force of will. His radical ideas and poetic, allusive style were unsuccessful in his lifetime – he printed a mere forty copies of the fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra – but his influence has grown enormously in the century following his death, as much among writers and artists as philosophers.

Nietzsche eventually succumbed to insanity and lived the last years of his life in the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who edited his remaining manuscripts for publication after his death. It is often argued that she introduced an anti-semitic and nationalist slant that later made Nietzsche’s thought more appealing to the Nazis. However, were it not for similar efforts by Max Brod, none of Franz Kafka’s novels would have survived. On his deathbed, Kafka asked Brod to destroy his manuscripts and diaries, but convinced of Kafka’s genius, Brod instead chose to preserve them and edit them for publication. A perfectionist, Kafka could not bring himself to finish any of the novels, but even in their incomplete forms, the Trial and the Castle stand as undisputed classics. Reiner Stach’s monumental biography (Kafka: The Decisive Years, and Kafka: The Years of Insight) paints an astonishingly detailed picture of a deeply introspective writer and his life in Prague at the turn of the century.

A few words on the “Bullshit Centenary”

k7929[1]We are all familiar with Princeton University Press’s famous publication On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy. Well, the history of the word “bullshit” goes far back in time, but perhaps not as far as one might think…

One hundred years ago a young immigrant poet submitted his poem “The Triumph of Bullshit” for publication in a London avant‑garde magazine. The editor’s letter explaining his rejection of the work makes clear he decided to “stick to my naif determination to have no ‘Words ending in -Uck, -Unt and –Ugger’.” Probably the word “bullshit” was imported from the poet’s native US; but so far no one has found “bullshit” in print as a single word before 1915.

Source: The Guardian, “TS Eliot: the poet who conquered the world, 50 years on,”

How do we reconcile this young subversive poet with the “po-faced ‘Pope of Russell Square’ (as the older Eliot came to be nicknamed)” who is widely respected as one of the finest poet of the 20th century? What else do we owe to TS Eliot? Read more here:

New Philosophy Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new philosophy catalog!

Of particular interest is Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works. Our democracy today is fraught with political campaigns, lobbyists, liberal media, and Fox News, all using language to influence the way we think and reason about public issues. Even so, many of us believe that propaganda and manipulation aren’t problems for us—not in the way they were for the totalitarian societies of the mid-twentieth century. In How Propaganda Works, Stanley demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid. He examines how propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy—particularly the ideals of democratic deliberation and equality—and how it has damaged democracies of the past.

Also be sure to note Carlos Fraenkel’s Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World. This book is part intellectual travelogue, part plea for integrating philosophy into our personal and public life. Philosophical toolkit in tow, Fraenkel invites readers on a tour around the world as he meets students at Palestinian and Indonesian universities, lapsed Hasidic Jews in New York, teenagers from poor neighborhoods in Brazil, and the descendants of Iroquois warriors in Canada. They turn to Plato and Aristotle, al-Ghazālī and Maimonides, Spinoza and Nietzsche for help to tackle big questions: Does God exist? Is piety worth it? Can violence be justified? What is social justice and how can we get there? Who should rule? And how shall we deal with the legacy of colonialism? Fraenkel shows how useful the tools of philosophy can be—particularly in places fraught with conflict—to clarify such questions and explore answers to them.

And don’t miss out on Seana Valentine Shiffrin’s Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law. To understand one another as individuals and to fulfill the moral duties that require such understanding, we must communicate with each other. We must also maintain protected channels that render reliable communication possible, a demand that, Shiffrin argues, yields a prohibition against lying and requires protection for free speech. This book makes a distinctive philosophical argument for the wrong of the lie and provides an original account of its difference from the wrong of deception.

More of our leading titles in philosophy can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

If you’re heading to the annual American Philosophical Association meeting in Philadelphia, PA December 27th-30th, come visit us at the Princeton booth. See you there!

Cowardice: A Brief History, the song

Walsh_CowardiceCowardice: A Brief History explores a subject that is as important as it has been overlooked. The book shows that over the course of modern western history, the idea of cowardice has faded–a welcome trend because the fear of being judged cowardly has led to much recklessness and violence. Yet when this trend goes too far, when cowardice is dismissed as an absurd or irrelevant idea, we lose an essential part of our ethical vocabulary. So while the book condemns specious and harmful invocations of cowardice, it also argues that a rigorous and nuanced conception of cowardice–one that condemns failures of duty born of excessive fear, to give a quick definition–is worth keeping.

The book focuses on the archetypal home of cowardice, the battlefield. Sometimes I felt like I was in a battle (mostly with myself) in writing it. It took me a long time–almost twenty years--to finish. But the last part of the book escapes from war to explore cowardice in everyday life, in religion and crime and in love (another kind of battlefield). As I was writing this part I was actually able to have some fun–even to the point that I wrote lyrics and sent them to the amazing Chandler Travis who put them to music and recorded a demo you can listen to here. We titled the tune… “Cowardice: A Brief History.”

This is probably the only scholarly book to have its own eponymous song released with it. This is probably the only song that alludes to The Temptations and the Russian General Georgy Zhukov (1896-1974) in the same verse. And this is probably not the sort of thing a writer should do if he wants to maintain any sense of dignity, gravitas, etc.

But one of the things Cowardice advocates is not giving in to the cowardice of fearing excessively what people might think. The book argues that fear of cowardice can–sometimes–actually be useful in battling against other fears, more useful even than the aspiration to courage. The existence of the book itself is a modest example of this usefulness. It didn’t require me to be courageous, but once I decided that it was my duty to write it, to start a conversation that would not take place without a book called Cowardice, the fear of being cowardly helped me finish it.

This is a guest post by Chris Walsh, associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

Cowardice: A Brief History  

Chris Walsh


Throwback Thursday #TBT: Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980)

Throwback Thursday: Week 2

Aune, Kant's Theory of Morals

Hello again, everybody! Welcome to our second installment of Throwback Thursday (#TBT). This week’s #TBT goes to Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980), another wonderful book brought back by the graces of the Princeton Legacy Library.

A brief description, for your viewing (and reading) pleasure:

Written for the general reader and the student of moral philosophy, this book provides a clear and unified treatment of Kant’s theory of morals. Bruce Aune takes into account all of Kant’s principal writings on morality and presents them in a contemporary idiom.

We hope you’re enjoying these soundbites – leave word in comments section below if there are any books you’d like to see featured in future #TBTs. Until next Thursday!