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Q&A with Scott Hershovitz, Professor of Law and Philosophy, Author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids

Kids are natural philosophers. Let's encourage them and learn from them

Scott Hershovitz is the Thomas G. and Mabel Long Professor of Law and a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. He also directs Michigan’s Law and Ethics Program. He is the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids.

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Annie: You’ve written a book, which just came out in paperback, called Nasty, Brutish, and Short, which is largely about your children Rex and Hank, and the way that they are quite philosophical, asking lots of deeply philosophical questions. The book argues not just that “children are really philosophical, and we ought to encourage that in them,” but also that we can learn from kids and the way they’re philosophical.

That being said, let’s start with the provocative title. What – and, more directly in your book, who – is “nasty, brutish, and short”?

Scott Hershovitz: That’s from a quote by the 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was wondering what the world would be if there were no government at all. He’d lived through the English Civil War when there was a breakdown of social order. He came to the view that without any government whatsoever, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That phrase has long been part of my teaching. When I first had the idea to write about my kids (and kids generally), it popped into my head. These characters, these kids, are nasty, brutish, and short.

Of course, they’re also cute and kind. But part of the early phase of the book is thinking about punishment and revenge and authority and the ways in which kids need to be socialized to live around other human beings and to take responsibility for their actions. In that context, I do think the description is apt, that most kids are at times nasty, brutish, and short.

My kids saw the book before it was published, and I asked the younger one, Hank, “Are you nasty and brutish?” And he said, “I can be nasty, but I’m not British.” So, he endorsed it like halfway.

Parenting in an Era Where “Everybody’s Entitled to Their Opinions”

Annie: A big point in your book is the broad societal theme around the idea that “everybody’s entitled to their opinions.” This is something that you address head on with your kids. I’d love to hear what your thoughts on that are. To what degree is someone entitled to their own opinion?

Scott Hershovitz: I say in the book that Americans have this line, “We’re entitled to our opinions.” But that’s not the way we run our house. My kids know that if you have an opinion, you have to be prepared to defend it. And if you can’t defend it, then you shouldn’t have that opinion. You should be withholding judgment. You should be trying to learn more.

We implement that in a variety of ways. If you make an assertion, you might be asked for evidence, or for a “Why should we think that?”, or you might be offered a counterargument.

When our kids were really little, I played this game with them. I can’t remember where I learned it, but it was called “Counterfactual.” It was like, “I’m going to say something false, and I want you to find the things in the world that prove me false.” When dealing with a little kid, it could be something really low level. Everything in this room is green, and they’re going to prove you false by finding something that’s not green. Then, you can build up to more complicated things, but you’re honing this ability to provide evidence and provide arguments.

One of my favorite illustrations of this in the book is when we went out one night for tacos, and Hank wanted a soda. He wanted a Fanta, and we said, no soda. At some point, he declared, “I have a right to decide what to drink.”

“Why do you have that right?”

“I don’t know, I just do.”

And I said, “No, that doesn’t work. You can’t just say it. You have to have reasons for thinking that other people should recognize you as having that right.”

He did come up with arguments. His first argument was that we as parents have the right to decide what to drink, so he should have the right to decide what he would drink, an argument from equality. His second argument was that if it was up to us to decide we would choose things that he didn’t want, an argument from self-knowledge that he could satisfy his preferences better than we could.

I thought, these were bad arguments. We’re differently situated. The argument from equality is no good. And we’re not trying to satisfy his preferences. We’re trying to satisfy ….

Annie: … other things that you don’t know you have a preference for yet, like being healthy.

Scott Hershovitz: Exactly. But again, it’s just to get in this habit of being prepared to mount a case for what you think. If you persuade us, that’s great. And I shouldn’t make it sound like our kids never persuaded us on anything.

Annie: Can you describe the example in the book where Rex or Hank did persuade you?

Scott Hershovitz: The kids wanted a dog. There were PowerPoint presentations that were made. The path of persuasion there went through my wife. She was persuaded, and then I was persuaded because she was persuaded. But the kids made a good case. As part of a persuasive writing requirement for Rex in school, he made his case for a dog. And now we have a dog, a sweet golden doodle named Bailey.

Annie: How do you think society would change if we took what was happening in your interactions with your kids, where they have to be able to defend their opinions and you (as the listener) have to be open-minded, and we were able to implement that in a real way across society?

Scott Hershovitz: I think there are huge benefits to be realized on a long-term scale on a few different fronts. One is, as you can see, there are a lot of people who have trouble assessing evidence or interacting with others and having exchanges of ideas where they’re open to being persuaded. That’s one of the skills that’s cultivated through the study of philosophy.

Another skill that you can cultivate, especially when you do it with little kids, is just in norms of good conversations and good deliberations. We take time to listen to each other and we ask questions to understand each other. We look for ways in which we might need to adjust our views based on what someone else has said. Then, we offer our perspective.

One of the things that’s been fun for me in connection with this book is appearing at events. Sometimes I’ll show up and I’ll talk to adults, but sometimes I’ll show up and I’ll talk to kids, and I bring picture books. The Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University has this part of their website called Teaching Children Philosophy, where they have a collection of picture books that most people own. They just pick the most popular ones. They created teaching modules where they identify philosophical issues that are raised by these books and provide you with conversation starters and questions for kids.

My favorite book to read with little kids is called The Library Lion. In a weird way, it’s about the philosophy of law. A lion shows up at what looks like the New York Public Library, and everyone’s very flustered by this. The librarian says, “Is he breaking any rules?” They say, “No, he is not breaking any rules.” “Well, if he’s not breaking any rules, then he can stay.”

I won’t spoil it for you if you ever pick up a copy of The Library Lion. But he ends up breaking a rule by being loud, so he banishes himself. He knows that he’s broken the rule but, in fact, he was helping someone when he broke the rule.  He roared to get someone’s attention to help someone that had been injured. That book sparks this really great conversation among kids. What are rules for and why are they important? When is it okay to break rules? The kids have so many thoughts and so many ideas and so many questions. I think if we had these conversations and sustained their curiosity, but also taught them how to talk to each other civilly across disagreements, our culture could be in a better place.

The Philosophical Insights of Children

Annie: I think that what’s so nice is that children are much more willing to question and to poke holes, because they’re not coming in with the same priors. They don’t have the same status quo. They’re always just wondering why.

Scott Hershovitz: The thing I love about doing philosophy with kids, and I think in some ways makes kids better philosophers than adults, is that they don’t know what the standard explanations of things are. As you say, they’re just curious and they’re trying to figure things out. So, they question things that grownups take for granted and sometimes in ways that are really revealing.

The first philosopher that was onto the thought that kids were not just philosophical, but were actually philosophers in a real way, was this guy named Gareth Matthews. He went out and collected stories of philosophical conversations that kids had with their parents, and he also went into schools and did philosophy with kids.

He would tell this story of a little boy named Ian, whose family had another family over for dinner. At the end of the evening, the kids were going to watch TV. There were three kids in the other family and just Ian in his. They decided more kids wanted to watch this one show, so that’s what they watched, but it meant that Ian missed his favorite TV show (in the era where you couldn’t just record it).

When Ian’s family left, Ian asked his mother, “Why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one person to be selfish?” I love that question because as a grownup, you think, “We vote. More people want to do this. Only one person wants to do that.” It feels like it’s an obvious way of making a decision. And Ian is inviting you to stop and think, “Wait a minute, is that obvious?”

If it’s just that we’re each expressing a preference, does the fact that more of us want to do one thing make it in some way better for us to do that thing? It’s a real challenge to the way economists think about the world. Ian is saying, “Tell me why I should care about preference satisfaction,” but he’s also challenging democracy. Why should I care about voting? Again, maybe you think you have answers to these questions, but it’s great to have a kid make you stop and think about them.

Annie: I have four children, so this was something that I had to deal with all the time. As a parent, I had to put structure. As an example, each child got to choose one dinner every week, and then I had to apportion their television time. A democracy doesn’t work very well in that case because one, the youngest in particular, is going to end up never getting what they want. Or one person has particular preferences for food, and they’re never going to get what they want.

Scott Hershovitz: What you were doing was saying, “Within our house, I want to show equal respect.” One way of doing that might have been to have a vote, but if it was always going to come out against the younger kid, that’s a way of not showing that child respect. You hit on a different strategy of, we take turns. Each person controls a decision for one night, and that’s a way of being equal in this space. It’s great.

Annie: When we think about the great philosophers, Kant and Hume and Hobbes and Rousseau and so forth, we view them as having special insight into the kinds of questions that you’re supposed to ask of the world.

A point you make in the book is, actually, that’s not true. You write about children exploring the same kinds of questions as the great philosophers. Maybe, once you’re an adult (who is not a philosopher), you drop it because this is the way things are done and we have a standard explanation, or you succumb to giving up on your curiosity. But kids don’t do that. It might even the be the reverse, that the great philosophers are taking up these questions that naturally come to children. Can you talk about this idea that children are naturally repeating the great philosophical questions of history?

Scott Hershovitz: One thing I do throughout the book is show instances where kids recreate ancient philosophical arguments. I tell this story of a dinner with Rex when he was four years old, and he says, “I wonder if I’m dreaming my entire life.” We associate this with Descartes, but the idea goes all the way back to ancient Daoist philosophy. People have been taking that as a springboard to thinking about the nature of knowledge for thousands of years.

Once, I tried to engage my younger son Hank in a conversation about whether God really exists. He said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” When I asked, “Why not?”, he said, “Because God will get mad if he exists.” He had a kind of proto version of what we call Pascal’s wager, after the French philosopher and mathematician who thought you should believe in God because it’s in your interest to believe in God.

Gareth Matthews, who I mentioned before, got interested in kids as philosophers when his four-year-old daughter recreated the cosmological argument for the existence of God, but for her, it wasn’t actually the existence of God. Their cat, Fluffy, got fleas. She asked, “Where did our cat get fleas?” Matthew said, “He must have gotten it from some other cat.” And she said, “Well, where did that cat get fleas?” He said, “They must have come from some other cat.” She said, “That can’t go on and on forever, dad. The only thing that goes on and on forever is numbers.”

She raised this question of the first flea, which was structurally the same as Aquinas’s argument for the existence of God: Every event has a cause, so the cause of this event was that event and so on going back, but it can’t go back forever. There had to be some first cause. Aquinas said, “That’s God.”

Matthews was blown away by it, because he knew a little bit of developmental psychology, and he knew that according to [the developmental psychologist] Piaget, his daughter should have been a very concrete, literal thinker who is not capable of abstract thought, but she had this extraordinarily insightful abstract thought.

Part of what I want to say is, look, it’s not just that they ask good questions with their naivete. They also reason about things in startlingly clever ways. If you engage them, you’ll see that there’s a timelessness about these questions.

I give one more example of Rex recreating an ancient argument about the size of the universe that we credit to this guy named Archytas, who was a contemporary of Plato’s. But I bet that Archytas wasn’t the first person to think of it because my seven-year-old thought of it. There was a seven-year-old looking up at the stars thousands of years ago, and trying to imagine how big the universe was who probably had the same set of thoughts.

Annie: What was Rex’s argument about the size of the universe?

Scott Hershovitz: I picked him up one day from school. He was in second grade and we’re walking home, and I asked him, “What happened in school?” He said, “Oh, nothing. But I figured out that the universe is infinite.” And I was like, “I don’t know, but scientists disagree about that. Something can get really, really big but still be finite.” He said, “No, it has to be infinite.” I asked why, and he said, “Imagine you take a spaceship all the way to the end of the universe. You’re right there at the end, and then you punch.” He punched his fist forward and said, “It has to go somewhere.” I said, “What if it just stopped?”

He answered, “Then there’s something stopping it, so you weren’t really at the end yet.” Archytas had this same kind of argument. He imagined someone standing at the end of the universe and extending his staff. Lucretius, the Roman poet, came up with the same argument hundreds of years later. He imagined being at the edge of the universe and throwing a javelin and it’s got to go somewhere. Even Isaac Newton thought this was a good argument.

Now, we know that it’s not because we’ve got a more complicated picture of physics. I got out a balloon and showed him the balloon is a finite space, but without any edges. If an ant walks on the surface of a balloon, eventually it gets back where it started. And it’s possible the universe works like that. It’s finite but has no edge.

In any event, this little seven-year-old, in the power of his own mind, recreated this argument from Archytas and Lucretius and Newton. Part of what I want to say, especially to parents or grandparents or teachers, anybody who interacts with kids, is they’re much smarter than we give them credit for. There’s a lot they don’t know about the world yet, but they think really creatively with the tools that they’ve got, and it’s fun to engage them about it.

Annie: Is it possible that maybe the great philosophers are people who just remembered what they were thinking as children?

Scott Hershovitz: I’ll give you two lines in that regard. One is, there’s a guy named David Hills, who teaches at Stanford. He’s very famous for this line: “Philosophy is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”

I think that’s an apt description of professional philosophy. If you look at a professional philosophy journal, you see a lot of rigorous enumerated arguments, long complicated treatises, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The questions that occur naturally to everyone and can be really discussed and engaged by everyone.

The other thing that what you said made me think of is, I have a colleague, Bill Miller, who’s the world’s leading expert on revenge cultures and Icelandic blood feuds. Bill sometimes describes his career by saying, “I got stuck with the interests of an adolescent boy and just found a career that let me keep working on them.”

I think, I happened to get stuck with questions a five-year-old has about the world, like “Why should I have to do what you say?”, and found a career that let me keep thinking about them.

Annie: That certainly fits with the idea that we should all be more childlike. We shouldn’t just leave it to the Kants and the Humes and the Hobbeses and the Platos to carry on with the philosophical discussions that every single child is having. We should remember that curiosity that we had as children. We should remember the way we were trying to figure out the way the world works and what it means to be moral, and why do I have to do things? Why the world is the way that it is, that every child is naturally curious about. And we shouldn’t lose that curiosity as adults.

Exploring Authority

Annie: Let’s go back to Hobbes because I his work offers an interesting way to explore authority as it relates to parents and kids and a broader society. How do we think about authority and what we can and cannot do? What rules are we supposed to adhere to? What can we rebel against?

One of the things that I used to say to my children was, “This family is not a democracy.” Of course, my kids complained to me which sparked conversations about different forms of government and authority.

What did Hobbes argue about the role of government in the citizen’s life?

Scott Hershovitz: Hobbes had a kind of peculiar view, and I write about this toward the end of the chapter on authority. Hobbes thought that life without any government at all, as we said, would be really awful. It would be a war of every man against every man. He thought that peace was possible only through all of us ceding our rights to something like an absolute monarch. He thought that if the sovereign didn’t have absolute power, then there would be constant conflicts over what power that person had, like what he’d lived through with the English Civil War.

I think history has borne out that Hobbes is wrong in his view that we cannot have stable, peaceful governments where we don’t have an absolute monarch. Maybe it’s actually the reverse, that absolute power leads to more problems than constitutional government as we know it.

But I had the same conversations with my kids that you had with yours, and a repeated strategy in the book is, let’s start small. Let’s start with the question of why a kid might have to listen to what I say as their parent and see if you, as a parent, can defend parental authority. Then, maybe, it’s not just my kids that I have authority over. I have a boss that has authority over me. What could we say about authority in the workplace? Then, build up to a picture of government rather than starting with those big, difficult questions.

Annie: So, let’s start small, because children do question this all the time. It was the reason why I would have to say, “It’s not a democracy.” What the conversations would have with your children about parental authority? How much could they push back on you and what did they have to accept within the family?

Scott Hershovitz: Philosophers think about this in different ways. My supervisor when I was a grad student was a character named Joseph Raz, who’s maybe the most influential thinker about authority over the last 50 or maybe even 100 years. Raz’s thought was that we’re obligated to obey authorities. Following their orders is going to help us do better than we do on their own.

That picture in some ways fits parental authority. As an example, there’s a reason to tell your kid they have to wear shoes when they don’t want to. They don’t know their feet may get injured, or they might not be allowed to go into the restaurant that you’re going to. They don’t have an appreciation of all these facts and consequences. You know better than they do.

But I think that my authority as a parent is not just because I know better. It’s also because I have a responsibility for my kids to help them make their way through the world and to prepare them to be the kinds of adults that can make good decisions on their own. It’s hard to do that job if I don’t have the right to set limits or to set requirements for them. I think the right I have to boss them around is an adjunct of the responsibility that I have for them.

Annie: We know that children are endless question askers. They endlessly question the boundaries. “How much can I push the boundaries? How much authority is Scott, my dad, going to actually exert over me? At what point do you as a parent say, “I’m done. I hear you. Nevertheless, this is not a democracy”?

Scott Hershovitz: I think it is very contextual. The chapter on authority begins with what felt like an endless series of conflicts every morning over whether Rex would wear his shoes. He just did not like wearing shoes, so we’re in a constant tug of war over it.

Sometimes, as I say, “You just have to shoe the kid.” Maybe even I’ve got to exert physical force to get shoes on his feet so I can leave him at daycare so I can go to work. Some moments in parenting are like that. Then, there are other moments where you can have a conversation and you can say, “Here’s why I’m making the decision,” or “Tell me why you disagree” and be open to persuasion. I think that it’s partly picking your battles.

I have arguments with my dean, and sometimes he’s open to hearing my reasons and open to changing his mind. And sometimes he just says to me, “Look, I’ve spent enough time on this issue and this is the decision I’ve made for now.” You’re not going to do very well in life if you don’t understand that sometimes somebody else has the right to make a decision. I think communicating that, saying, “This is not democracy. This is what we’re doing for now,” and we could have a calm conversation about it later on. That’s an important life lesson.

Annie: I had a shoe issue in a different way, which was one of my children really liked to wear different shoes. She wanted to wear two pairs, one on the right foot and one on the left foot. I was horrified by it. I said, “No, you have to wear the same shoes. on both feet” When she asked why, I couldn’t actually come up with a good justification why her shoes had to match.

Scott Hershovitz: Didn’t you worry about whether they were the same height?

Annie: I wasn’t worried about any danger. It wasn’t like she was wearing Mary Janes on one foot and a flip-flop on the other. They were similar but different. “I want this sneaker on this foot, and this sneaker on the other foot.”

The other thing is that she really didn’t like her clothes to match. She would wear this weird pattern on her legs and then a weird pattern on her top, and this is how she liked to be. Initially I tried to impose order on the situation, but when we discussed it, again, I had no defense. I mean, apart from, I’ll be embarrassed if my child is mismatched and maybe people will think I’m a bad parent, which I decided was a very bad reason for enforcing that on my child. So I let her choose her clothes and shoes as long as she was fully clothed in appropriate dress for the weather. Then, obviously, if we were going to a wedding or something formal, I now had a reason, which is respect for the other people.

Scott Hershovitz: Exactly. I think that that’s an illustration of exactly the attitude a parent needs to have, which is if you are going to engage in these conversations with your kids, you have to be open-minded yourself. You may be the person that doesn’t have good reasons. They may be the person with the better argument. I think there’s a lot to be said for saying yes when it turns out that there’s not a lot at stake, and this is important to them.

But on the flip side of that, we have this argument sometimes with Hank, who really does not like to wear a shirt with a collar. Almost every day of your life, that’s fine. But then there are places where we go, where our dress sends a signal that we take this event seriously and we value what’s happening here. I’m going to tie the tie around my neck and tighten it even though it’s uncomfortable. And you’re going to put on a shirt with a collar because these are the clothes that send the right social signal.

Annie: We’ve had very deep discussions in my family about table manners, for that reason. I ended up in a place that was pragmatic. Eating with good table manners shows respect to the person that you’re eating with. It’s a matter of respect for me, and I expect you to show respect to me. But what I’ve said to them is also, “Whether you think that the rules about table manners are arbitrary or not, it’s a necessary part of being successful in society.

Scott Hershovitz: The place in the book where these issues come out is in a chapter on language, the first part of which is about bad language, swear words. The second part is about slurs.

Annie: We had lots of conversations about swearing, because I swear all the time. We had a rule that when you’re around your teachers, when you’re around other people, not within the house, that swearing just isn’t okay, because the teachers are going to get mad at you. Let’s just be pragmatic about that.

But in the house, to me, it’s about the intent of what you’re saying. Swearing is fine if it’s not directed in a nasty way at another person. Saying something nasty directed at another person can potentially be worse than swearing. You can say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at your outfit,’ in a certain ton and that can be so much hurtful than saying, “Ah, fuck it. I couldn’t get my homework done.” I tried to always talk about intent. I didn’t want anything directed at another human that was meant to hurt. Often that didn’t contain swear words, so if you were just swearing, I didn’t care.

Scott Hershovitz: We worked out pretty much the same rules with our kids. You may not swear in a way that’s disrespectful to a person or a place. Beyond that, part of what I have fun with in the chapter is all this psychology about the benefits of swearing. Swearing makes it easier to tolerate pain. And not just physical pain, but social pain and exclusion. It’s an interesting question why we’re wired up in a way that makes these taboo words this pressure-release valve. But then also it’s important socially to be an adept swearer. Just think about the social circumstances in which swearing helps make you a member of the club ….

Annie: It’s a part of code switching.

Scott Hershovitz: Yes. I want my kids not just to be able to swear, but to swear well.

Annie: In the conversations with my kids, I made the distinction, as I know you do in the book, about there being some words that you just don’t say, because they’re such horrible slurs.

Scott Hershovitz: Again, wanting to start with these small issues that crop up in every family’s life, and then switch to these bigger, more political issues. The chapter starts with talking about swearing. It ends with talking about slurs because, as you say, I think there are words that we just ought not to say, regardless of our intention, because of the histories they’re associated with, because of the ideologies and ways of thinking about the world that they invoke. As part of a parenting strategy, you can replicate the same conversation structure with your kids. What is it okay to say, and when? Then, why are these other words in a different category?

Annie: What are you hopes for the book?

Scott Hershovitz: I have twin hopes for the book. One is that I’ll get you to see the kids in your life differently and to appreciate this amazing thing about them. And by “amazing,” I’m talking about all kids, not just mine. Your kid is having thoughts, every bit is profound, and asking questions, every bit as challenging. It’s just a matter of taking the time and making the space to hear what they’re saying and engage them and think through its significance.

My other hope is that I’d like to recapture adults’ curiosity and wonder for talking to kids when you’re thinking on their own. What are the things that you used to be puzzled about that you stopped thinking about, just because of the practicalities of everyday life? Maybe it would be fun to revisit that. As you said, be a little bit more childlike.

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