Friday, 6 April 2007

Twenty Years Ago

4-6-87 Monday. I lectured on freedom this morning. That’s the first subject dealt with by [Joel] Feinberg in his book Social Philosophy [1973]. The hardest part was explaining the difference between constraint, the absence of which constitutes freedom, and inability (or disability), the absence of which constitutes power. The students kept trying to collapse the concepts. Finally we concluded that Feinberg has this in mind. There are some things that we, as human beings, are unable to do, for instance walk on the sun or fly like an eagle. These are inabilities. Within the class of things that we’re able to do, by nature, such as assault other humans, there are things that we’re constrained not to do. These are the things that Feinberg calls “unfreedoms.” So there are two kinds of incapacity: inability and constraint. Social philosophers are primarily concerned with the latter. All told, we had a nice discussion. I now understand Feinberg better.

Afterward, I ran into Jody Kraus in the hallway. We decided to go to the Student Union Building for coffee. There, we discussed [John] Rawls’s theory of justice, especially as it concerns rights. Jody made many interesting comments. Then I told him about the article I read on the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement. [Andrew Altman, “Legal Realism, Critical Legal Studies, and Dworkin,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 15 (summer 1986): 205-35.] Jody is going to the Yale Law School this fall. Many of the CLSers are at Harvard, which, in my opinion, is the better of the two schools. I told Jody, who didn’t know much about CLS, that the CLS attack on [Ronald] Dworkin is simply the realist attack on [H. L. A.] Hart all over again. Whereas the realists claimed that legal rules sometimes conflict, in which case Hart’s theory gives no guidance to judges, the CLSers claim that legal rules and principles sometimes conflict, in which case Dworkin’s theory gives no guidance to judges. Moreover, the CLSers (Duncan Kennedy, Roberto Unger, and Morton Horwitz of Harvard are examples) insist that legal doctrine is fundamentally incoherent, so they deny Dworkin’s claim that there is a “soundest theory of the law.” As a result, any judicial decision is bound to express a judge’s political or other preferences and not be based on rules and principles. This supports another CLS claim, that there is no clear dividing line between law and politics. Law just is politics. I’m still worried about the CLS movement.  Perhaps some day I’ll be a CLSer myself, but so far I’m not. I’m just trying to understand it. [I’ve never been a Critter.]

This afternoon, while rereading Charles Fried’s Contract as Promise [Charles Fried, Contract as Promise: A Theory of Contractual Obligation (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1981); I finished reading this book on 11 December 1982] on the balcony, I got a call from one of my students, Tuan N. Tuan is doing average-to-good work in the course, but apparently he isn’t satisfied with that. He asked me if [sic; should be “whether”] he could drop the course and receive a “W” (for “withdrew”) on his transcript. “Absolutely not,” I said. The nondiscretionary drop date has passed, so any drop at this point gives me discretion to award a grade of “E” to the student. “If you drop now,” I said, “I’ll give you an ‘E,’ not a ‘W.’” He then explained to me that he has a “high, very high GPA” (grade point average) and that even a “B” would be a problem for him. That made me mad. “Of course you have a high GPA,” I said; “anyone would if he or she kept dropping courses whenever there was danger of getting a ‘B.’” As you can see, I have little patience with students who are always looking for the main chance. They’re so caught up with their grade-point averages that they fail to see what’s really important. Personally, I never pulled strings like this. I chose my classes ahead of time and took what came. I see no reason why others shouldn’t do the same. In fact, if I had my way, there would be no such thing as a grade of “W.” Once the course starts, the students are committed to completing it as best they can.

As you can see, I’ve a bit of the disciplinarian in me. But it’s part of my job, and should be. Students typically lack self-discipline, and my job is to instill it. It’s also a reasoned sort of disciplinarianism. That’s why I object to graduate programs such as that at Oxford [University], where students are pretty much free to read and write anything they want. I prefer a structured program where certain thresholds of competence must be crossed and certain tests passed. I expect a lot from my students, but then, that’s what college is for. It should be a rigorous challenge. Tuan and students of his ilk give college students a bad name. Most tragic of all is that they are future leaders. It’s the “something for nothing” syndrome applied at the university level.

Fort Worth

Here is a New York Times story about my hometown.

The Double Standard

Progressives love to rail against President Bush. One of their most frequent complaints, made so often that it has lost its power to shock, is that the war in Iraq—“President Bush’s war,” they call it—is illegal. What they conveniently fail to do is make the case. Their reasoning seems to be as follows:

1. Anything I intensely dislike ought to be illegal.

2. I intensely dislike the war in Iraq.


3. The war in Iraq ought to be illegal (from 1 and 2).

4. Anything that ought to be illegal is illegal.


5. The war in Iraq is illegal (from 3 and 4).

Not very impressive reasoning, is it? Premises 1 and 4 are false. Progressives should train their attention on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, unlike President Bush, may actually have broken a law. See here.

Best of the Web Today



Will Nehs sent a link to this story about Fred Thompson. I want to learn more about him. I don’t think it’s too late for someone without name recognition to get into the 2008 presidential race. We’re still 19 months away from the election, after all. That’s plenty of time to make oneself known, raise money, &c.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

A company’s property rights must not trump an individual’s right to life and self-defense. The bills you describe in “Workers’ Safety and the Gun Lobby” (editorial, March 30) protect property owners and employers from liability, while giving employees a means for self-defense while in their employer’s public-access parking lot.

These bills do not allow employees to have firearms in their vehicles while in secured workplace parking lots or in a car owned or leased by their employer. Most important, they do not allow employees or anyone else to bring firearms into the workplace.

To suggest that the legislation will force companies to allow workers to carry guns in the office or keep guns in office drawers is wrong.

Daily commutes are getting longer. Some work the late shift and others incur multiple stops to run basic errands during all hours of the day. Employees should not have to give up their basic right of self-defense for a paycheck.

Chris W. Cox
Fairfax, Va., March 30, 2007
The writer is executive director, Institute for Legislative Action, National Rifle Association.

Ross Douthat on American Life

In forty-odd novels and an endless stream of short stories, Stephen King—the bard of Bangor, Maine—has given form and substance to almost every dark facet of contemporary American life: AIDS and abortion, rape and rock ’n’ roll, child abuse and the shadow of Vietnam, baseball and cocaine. There are happy marriages, divorces, and wife beatings; alien abductions and alcoholism; the death penalty and political assassinations; serial killers and cell phones; tabloid journalism and all the endless miseries of childhood. “You don’t achieve Stephen King’s sort of Vulcan mind-meld with America unless you are in intimate touch with the communal fantasies of the whole culture,” John Leonard once wrote—and sure enough, when the authorities in Paducah, Kentucky, searched the locker of the student who gunned down three of his high-school classmates in 1997, they found a copy of King’s 1977 school-shooting novel, Rage, written under his Richard Bachman pen name.

(Ross Douthat, “Stephen King’s American Apocalypse,” First Things [February 2007]: 14-9, at 15)

A Year Ago