Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Twenty Years Ago

12-5-87 I had an interesting discussion with my LSAT students during the break. They’re budding lawyers, so I asked them about the anti-lawyer sentiment in this country. In particular, I asked them why doctors, but not lawyers, are held in high esteem. “Remember the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, when lawyers who flew in to represent victims were described as ‘vultures’?”, I asked. “What about the doctors? I’m sure dozens or hundreds of doctors flew in, but I didn’t hear a word about them taking advantage of another’s misery or misfortune.” One student tried to explain the difference. Lawyers, he said, create winners and losers. One party recovers damages; the other party pays. But doctors create only winners. Healing someone does not require that another person become ill. This sounds good, but on further reflection it rests on a false assumption. The assumption is that the “loser” in a lawsuit is being treated unjustly. If one person has stolen money from another, one should be a loser, and we would not think poorly of lawyers for rectifying things. So the distinction rests on justice. The claim must be that lawyers create losers who don’t deserve to lose. Once we make this assumption explicit, the difference evaporates. I still don’t know why lawyers, but not doctors, are treated with such scorn.

This year’s Heisman Trophy winner is Tim Brown of Notre Dame. I’m disappointed with the selection, not because Brown is unworthy (he’s a good football player), but because Notre Dame is a publicity machine. Brown was touted as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner before the season even began. Notre Dame is an independent university, so it plays teams from many different conferences. It’s also the foremost Catholic university in the United States. These combine to give it lots of television exposure, and this exposure works to the advantage of its athletes. Several Notre Dame players have won this award over the past quarter century. Terry Mallory, for instance, who has Catholic roots but is not religious, loves the Fighting Irish. Growing up, I had a friend (Rick Venturino) who worshipped Notre Dame. It’s every Catholic kid’s dream to play football or basketball in South Bend, Indiana. So I resent this popularity. Brown was in the right place at the right time. In my opinion, there were better players in the nation this year, such as Don McPherson of Syracuse, who led his team to an unbeaten season.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

I see that the “Bush lied” meme is alive and well.

Addendum: Have you ever noticed how many words there are in English for deception? Here is a partial list:

meretriciousness (falsely alluring, like a harlot)

We are hard-wired both to deceive and to detect deception, just as we are hard-wired both to cheat and to detect cheating.


The United States Mint has been releasing five state quarters a year since 1999. The final five—Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii—will be released in 2008. Each state’s quarter is minted in two places: Denver and Philadelphia. So, for example, there is a Delaware 1999D and a Delaware 1999P. When all the quarters are released, there will be 100. I, a longtime numismatist, have 52 so far. Betcha don’t have that many. Betcha Megan doesn’t have even 10.

Addendum: Here is the folder I have.


They may as well give the Detroit Tigers the 2008 World Series trophy. Read this and weep, Yankee and Red Sox fans.


The following passages are from Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1977):

A rockfall occurs, catching the first of a group of potholers who are making their way out of a cave, in which water is rising rapidly. The man caught in the rocks is not seriously injured and may expect to be rescued in a day or two by search parties. Those behind him, however, will be drowned in a few hours by the rising water unless they make a passage through the fallen rocks. They can do so, but only by blasting the rocks away with the explosives they have with them, which will cause the death of the man caught in the rocks. (page 177)

A sizable group of people are trapped in an excavation by the collapse of the one passage leading out of it. However, there is a shaft for a periscope, which they can ascend by ladder to within six feet of the earth’s surface. At this point the periscope goes through to the surface in an airtight steel pipe. Water is rising in the excavation, and they will all be drowned before they are rescued, unless they can rapidly break through the six feet of earth between the top of the periscope shaft and the surface. They can do so only by blasting it with explosives left in the excavation. However, if they do, as they can see through the periscope, they will blow up a small party of picnickers, who are lunching by the periscope’s “eye.” Signals through the periscope are not understood, and its shaft is too strongly built to be dismantled in time for them to call through its pipe to give warning. (page 179)

Is there a principle that would justify blasting in case 1 but not in case 2? If so, what is it?


Isn’t Peg sweet? Now if only we could pry her away from Rudy Giuliani.

The North Sea Trail

One of my colleagues sent a link to this. If I’m going to walk or ride 3,000 miles, it’ll be on the Lewis and Clark trail, thank you.


Paul Krugman* writes for
The New York Times; I write for
The Wall Street Journal

* “Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults” (Daniel Okrent, “13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did,” The New York Times, 22 May 2005).


How many of you know Latin? I wish someone had made me learn Latin (and piano) when I was a child. I ended up taking four years of French (three in high school and one in college), but that’s no substitute for learning the original Romance language. When I got to law school, I was overwhelmed (like most other students) by the profusion of Latin terminology, and later, when I began studying philosophy in earnest, I learned that Latin looms large there as well. Latin lives! See here for an op-ed column and several letters about the teaching of Latin. Res ipsa loquitur.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Supporters of President Bush credit his stubborn resistance to the use of human embryos for stem cell research with being the impetus that led scientists to discover how to transform skin cells into stem cells (“Behind the Stem Cell Breakthrough,” editorial, Dec. 1). Those who champion this president’s actions should recall President Lincoln telling a colleague that calling a donkey’s tail a leg does not make the donkey have five legs.

Any citizen with a family member or a friend suffering a degenerative illness understands that President Bush has provided nothing to stem cell research but impediments. Perhaps this new science will allow humankind to circumvent the backward notions of this president.

James E. Chenitz
South Orange, N.J., Dec. 1, 2007

Note from KBJ: “Backward” = not progressive.

Best of the Web Today


Hall of Fame?

Gary Carter. (For an explanation of this feature, see here.)

Gregory S. Kavka (1947-1994) on Human Nature

A theory of human nature is a descriptive theory that ascribes certain general properties or features to human beings. Therefore, it may err by including features that people do not possess (e.g., perfect wisdom and perfect benevolence) or by not taking into account features that people do possess. But a theory of human nature need not include all features that most people possess—this would yield a long and relatively useless list. In fact, the theory must select a certain subset of these features, but which subset? An initial proposal is that as a theory of human nature it must select properties that are possessed by all (or nearly all) human beings. The combination of features selected must be possessed by humans alone, or else we would have a theory of the nature of a wider class of beings. Also, the properties in question must be very difficult or impossible to alter by changing the natural or social environment, or else they cannot plausibly be attributed to our natures. In sum, a theory of human nature picks out those features that are unalterably possessed by (nearly) all human beings and are together possessed by them alone.

(Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986], 29-30 [italics in original; footnote omitted])

A Year Ago


The Logic of Torture

Aw, shucks.

Addendum: I wrote the torture essay in one hour.

Addendum 2: I just discovered that there are comments on my column. See here. For the record, I took no position on either (1) the moral permissibility of torture or (2) whether the law should allow torture. Nor did I “espouse” relativism. The first respondent should learn how to read.