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Transcription by Maria Araújo. Brilliant work; thank you! Episode post here.

Toby Buckle:
Well, are you interviewing me, or am I interviewing you? Let’s just start. Matt—you’ve been doing this way longer than me, right now. This is, what, your fifth, sixth year podcasting?

Matt Teichman:
Longer than that. I’ve been recording episodes of my podcast for about 10 years, and we launched nine years ago.

Toby Buckle:
That’s amazing. So I’ve listened to quite a bit of yours. I don’t think I’ve ever got your origin story. Who’s the Joker to your Batman, as it were? How did you get started in this? What was the impetus?

Matt Teichman:
Hmm. The impetus was that I was listening to a lot of podcasts and radio programs that inspired me. Peter Adamson didn’t have the History of Philosophy podcast yet at the time, but he appeared frequently on the BBC program In Our Time, and a lot of the episodes he did on Avicenna were hugely helpful to me as I was just beginning my graduate study of philosophy. I thought it was amazing that you could sit in the shower—which you would be doing anyway—and learn all this cool stuff without it taking extra time. Time was the one thing I didn’t have. But I found secret extra time tucked away here and there in which I could learn stuff, and I wanted to be able to provide that experience for other people too.

Toby Buckle:
Mine’s washing the dishes.

Matt Teichman:
Right. Washing the dishes: another great example!

Toby Buckle:
That is a key podcasting time.

Matt Teichman:
You’re never going to get out of having to wash the dishes, even if you have a dishwasher.

Toby Buckle:
No.

Matt Teichman:
And you can learn for free, in the sense that it doesn’t take time.

Toby Buckle:
Right. And also generally doesn’t cost money. So you must have got in before the, sort of, so-called quote unquote ‘podcast boom’. I still feel like by the time I started, this was such a thing, and everybody had a podcast. It wasn’t such a novel thing to do anymore. You must have got in before this had really been mainstreamed.

Matt Teichman:
Yeah. I kind of feel like, in a way, it still isn’t mainstream, in the sense that there are so many people you meet on the street who have no idea what a podcast even is. But I guess it is mainstream, in the sense that there are a number of podcast companies now that are paying people full-time salaries with benefits; and they’re economically sustainable. I don’t think that was really true when I started, in general. Another thing that’s different now is that a lot of podcasts are distributed and marketed through a podcast network.

Toby Buckle:
Hmm.

Matt Teichman:
I don’t think there were any podcast networks when I started. At least, they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. A lot of people now think that in order to even get any listeners, you have to be on a network—which I think is probably not true. But that is something that people are now saying, and they weren’t saying it 10 years ago.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah—I’ll say that that one isn’t true. I just did the standard thing: ‘get it up on iTunes, SoundCloud and get a Twitter feed’ and whatever, and I found listeners without getting any sponsorship, or network, or anything like that.

Matt Teichman:
Totally. I had you in mind as a counterexample when I said that.

Toby Buckle:
I don’t know how prolific I am, but we get a few. So let’s start here: what do we think we’re doing when we do public philosophy? Because we just had a conversation before coming on air, where we disavowed the understanding that most people have of this, as bringing the elite learning of scholars to the masses. Neither of us saw ourselves as doing that. If someone could say, ‘You know what I get from the Elucidations podcast? It’s X.’ What would X be?

Matt Teichman:
Wow. So the actual answers that you get to this question might be different from what I intended, but—I think there’s a real need for philosophy, and that it’s really useful. I think both of those things. And you can feel the need for philosophy in the popularity, for example, of self-help books.

Toby Buckle:
Yes.

Matt Teichman:
There are people who need to have a broader—more general, more principled—understanding of what the heck they’re doing here. And that need is going to get expressed somehow or other, regardless of whether we call it philosophy—regardless of whether we brand it in that way. I think that the stuff that happens in philosophy departments is great for that; it’s great for helping you live a fuller, more productive, and better life. That’s certainly the motivation for me: to get a lot of these ideas and arguments that are trapped in the ivory tower of the university out there, so that other people beyond the privileged students that get to attend those universities can actually make use of them.

Toby Buckle:
That’s really interesting. And I think—just to pick up on something you said—there’s clearly a need that people have to be listening to and to be engaged in sustained discussions about what it is to be moral, what it is to be a person, what a meaningful, authentic life is—that they get from all sorts of places. So we talked before about the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. And one side of that is: people are just frustrated with a certain sort of liberal—sometimes validly, sometimes not. But I think another big part of it is just the format those conversations come in. They’re long form, they’re engaged, they’re sustained. Now you can debate whether you agree with those people or not—and I have my critiques—but they’re clearly serving a need, and one that philosophy is actually quite well placed to cash out on.

You can go back to Plato: this idea that the truest, highest, most meaningful life is in dialogue. You can talk about the Marxist idea of the dialectic, the interpenetration of opposing truths. You can talk about something like John Stuart Mill’s classically liberal idea of human development and perfection. But, in all of philosophy, there’s this fundamental theme: that our deepest needs are served by these sorts of conversations, by this trying to work it out, trying to move forward. And it’s clearly something people crave. That truth has been confirmed to me so much in engaging with long form podcasting.

Matt Teichman:
Yeah. I basically completely agree with everything you just said. You mentioned the Intellectual Dark Web, so-called.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah.

Matt Teichman:
This sounds kind of condescending, and I don’t mean it in a condescending way—but I think it’s a symptom of precisely this need. There’s a craving for sustained, deep, reflective, principled thinking about the major issues, whether they be moral, whether they be theoretical, whether they be scientific. And I think that’s exactly what philosophers do. If you don’t want to call that philosophy—if you want to just give it a different label and still do the exact same thing—that’s fine with me. The important thing is that we do it.

Toby Buckle:
And again, this is not an endorsement of all of the views of the Intellectual Dark Web—though maybe we can get into that. But I think people clearly do have that need. I’ll add one more element to that, which I’ve made very central in my podcast—beacuse of course, I’m coming at this from a very different place, both in terms of me and where I’m coming from.

I’m not an academic—I finished my MA almost eight or nine years ago, now—and I’ve spent my time in political activism, political campaigning, doing all sorts of social justice issue causes, over the last eight years or so. And there’s something that I do in my podcast, which is almost like an unmasking function. My slogan for my podcast is: don’t trust the world to be right. Trying to question, from first principles: are the moral intuitions that we have correct? Are they universal throughout all of human history? Do all people—and we talked about this, earlier—desire all things? And then also challenging people on where they think morality comes from in the first place.

So a lot of what my podcast has been doing is telling counter-narratives about how the stories we tell ourselves about what’s meaningful and desirable, what’s ultimately true, what our ultimate foundations are—are oftentimes completely wrong. Feel free to take me up on either end of that.

Matt Teichman:
Oh yeah, absolutely. What you just said reminds me of a lot of people who were influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault—that the story you tell yourself about why you believe what you believe is sometimes accurate, but it’s not necessarily accurate. And sometimes there are ulterior motives that you might not even fully know about at work there, that need to be unpacked.

Toby Buckle:
I think there’s a tendency to get lost in it. So with Foucault, people are so impressed with the insight (which is obviously true) that our fundamental values, and the categories and concepts through which we process social reality, are the result of historical causes—and yes, historical oppression—which we have no control over.

You can get lost in that analysis and never get back out again. I think I would take a more grounded view than Foucault, in that I would say: there are categories and concepts that we, as people living in an affluent country in the West, have today, that are fairly unique to us. Our understanding of the individual, our understanding of freedom, of rationality. But that doesn’t mean we just collapse into a hopeless relativistic swamp, where all views are completely equal and we’ll never find our way out of these power dynamics. I think there are different traditions; I think there are different understandings within the traditions. And even if they’re ultimately flawed, I think you can compare them, contrast them, make meaningful statements on who you think is getting it right.

Matt Teichman:
One really simple point that I like to try to make to myself, when I’m in the midst of thinking along these lines, is that you can note that you came to believe something for totally random, accidental reasons. Maybe it was written on a slip of paper that happened to be on the ground in front of you, and you just stumbled across it. You can note that, and you can marvel at the chance and randomness behind your coming to believe that. But that’s completely independent of whether or not the thing you believe is correct. It’s not less correct because you came to believe it that way; and it’s not more correct because you came to believe it that way. Whether it’s correct is just a separate issue. The thing that makes it correct or incorrect is whether it’s supported by evidence.

The nickname that academics sometimes give to the idea—that a story about how you came to believe something can affect whether it’s true or not—they sometimes call that the ‘genetic fallacy’. And certainly, before I studied philosophy, when I was in some other disciplines, there was a little bit less concern about falling into the genetic fallacy. It’s always good to be on your guard about that.

Toby Buckle:
Let me take you up on both ends of that. So, there are two questions there. One is the idea of: the truth of the statement is independent of how that statement came to be generated. That seems correct. I do take the view that there is such a thing as moral and ethical truth, and I think we can talk about it reasonably objectively. So I’ve defended on my podcast a sort of morally consequentialist view that starts with the fact of consciousness. We know we exist, and we know we have perceptions and feelings about the world—because we perceive and feel them. And you can map forward from there, making distinctions between the different types of them: more desirable and less desirable.

With that said, that method of cashing out particular moral and political claims obviously isn’t how most people are doing it most of the time, and have done it most of the time, throughout political history. We assess things in much broader terms of: ‘Are people free? is this fair?’ with these big, vague, diaphanous, poorly defined concepts. That’s how we make sense of our social and political reality. And the value, to me, of showing that those things arise through historical circumstances, is not so much to show that they’re false—but to show how divergent those claims are, across different societies and across different timelines.

This may be somewhere where we differ. To me, the value is to show how unique our morality is, and how it really is one point amongst an almost infinite sea of possible ways of understanding the world—some of which are not only counterintuitive to us, but barely intelligible. As ours, presumably, would be, if we could go back and see what Plato would have thought about what we think.

Matt Teichman:
So Jesse Prinz, in his book, The Emotional Construction of Morals, has a take on what the significance of investigation into the history of ideas is. How your culture came to hand down the values it came to hand down to you, and all that stuff. And basically, my take on what he says is: that it’s not that understanding how historically contingent or accidental your system of values is affects whether you should have that system of values. But what it should do is: it should jolt you into being a little more awake, and a little more critical about it, a little more self-aware, so that it ceases to be self-evident. He wants to dislodge that sense that the values you were inculcated into from a young age are just obviously the default. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but it’s not obvious—we should be critical about it. And so, research into the history of ideas gets you to claw your way back to that critical distance on the ideology you inherited from your culture—because the presumption, otherwise, is that it’s just self-evidently true.

Toby Buckle:
Let me give a general thought, and then try and make this a bit more specific, if this seems like a very big pie-in-the-sky sort of conversation. So the thought I’ll give is a paraphrase of Mill, in On Liberty, where he says: if you think back to other peoples, other cultures throughout history, they have values and commitments that seem to you not only wrong, but absurd. You will appear the same way to future generations. If you’re just saying, ‘Well, it’s intuitive to me that we need to do X’, then you’re trusting the world around you to be right—and you’re trusting the world around you to be right without good justification for doing so.

Let’s make it a bit more specific. So, there’s a view I’ve been very critical of—which is just a pure neo-liberal, libertarian conception of the economy, the state, the social structure—which would run something like this. People are rationally self-interested; given that they’re rationally self-interested, there’s a particular way of optimizing that, which is a free market system; and anything that deviates from that is necessarily going to have poor consequences, because you can’t change the fundamental axioms of human nature—which is rational, egotistic, maximizing, and so on. And that seems quite intuitive. You know, the idea that: I want to sell you this thing; you want to give me this much money for it; we exchange; what could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, every single one of the categories that that rests on is historically contingent and historically unique—which isn’t to say that they’re false. But the claim that people are individualistic, rational maximizers is an empirical claim that’s empirically false. The idea of the individual—at least as a value, as a construct, as a way of breaking down society—this is a bourgeoisie notion that barely predates the Enlightenment. Which is, again, not to say it’s false. The idea of individual freedom as an aspirational social goal was something that began in ancient Greece, and has been quite unique to certain cultures since then. And the way we understand the social structure as rationally intelligible, much less individual actions as guided by it—again—is the result of particular historical processes. So when someone says: libertarianism must be true because of these fixed constants of human nature, they’re actually just making a claim about human nature that’s historically false. If you want to justify that view of the world, you have to come up with something more fundamental.

Matt Teichman:
Hmm. It strikes me that a couple of the things in what you just described are clearly historically specific. We can probably trace them back to some time in the general range of the Enlightenment. What exactly would that be? Maybe it’s the picture of people as individual atoms—like, the basic unit of society is an individual person. Maybe there’s such a thing as society, maybe there isn’t; it’s something or other that emerges out of the activity of a whole bunch of individuals. But the thing that’s fundamental and real here are the individuals. Society is a by-product; it’s only there because of the individuals.

So this idea of ‘the individual person striving to be as free and self-interest-maximizing as possible’ is the basic thing, and everything else we come across that’s not that, is to be defined in terms of that: that part seems to me to be fairly specific to the Enlightenment. But some of the bigger ideas, I’m not so sure. For example, the idea that people are rational seems to be just as operative in ancient Greek philosophy as it is now. That part—depending on exactly what your definition of ‘rational’ is—we might have to get into that—I think that one’s a lot harder to empirically falsify or verify. At the very least, it’s intuitively plausible that people have the ability to reason, and they often do. And that intuition does go back, way further than Enlightenment.

Toby Buckle:
Let’s take up the one of reason. And if we’re going to look at ancient Greece, I think a good preamble to that is: you really can’t study the ancient world without anachronism. It’s not just like translating a foreign language and finding the equivalent word. We have to take concepts that we don’t have and translate them into concepts that we do have. So often, we read a line in Plato or Aristotle about human beings being rational. That word, you said, doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it does to us. So, to take Plato, for example: his form of rationality is about us matching up our internal psychological compositions to some sort of ideal form. To him, rationality is having a certain ordered components of the soul—it’s a psychological process. I don’t think what the moderns mean by rationality is anywhere near that. They’re talking about external observable truths, in some sense. So, yes—you can find concepts that are analogous. But what it would be like to be in Plato’s head—much less what it would be like to be in the head of the guy on the street in Athens—phenomenologically, how they would experience the social world, I think, would be radically different to us, in a way that we don’t fully appreciate.

Matt Teichman:
I certainly agree that there’s always a danger of anachronism when you’re interpreting historical figures. And that danger gets bigger and bigger, by an order of magnitude, the farther back you go—because the more of their way of life we’ve forgotten about. I also think it’s possible to go too far with that worry, so that it becomes a crippling pessimism about ever getting anywhere in understanding prior cultures. It’s a healthy impulse to try to understand ancient Greek thinkers in their context; to do our best learning the language. But of course, we’re not ever going to be fluent in it anymore, because it’s dead language, etc.

There are lots of people in professional philosophy who are working really hard at that, trying to pin down exactly what were the historical, political circumstances that led people to be interested in such-and-such, at such-and-such time. And you can read, in detail, about educated guesses; e.g. ‘yeah, you know, they didn’t really mean the same thing by freedom’, or ‘they didn’t really mean the same thing by self-interest’, etc. Of course, there are these issues with translating the term: as best we can make out, the Greek term is such-and-such, and it had this connotation, which the English word doesn’t have. I think it’s really valuable to do all that work; and it’s also important not to misrepresent the views of old, dead, influential people, and pretend they’re just the same as us. And it’s maybe even worse to pretend that we’re the improved version—that we’re, like, the version 2.0, you know, minus some mistakes.

At the same time, I also think that there’s no way that these texts would speak to us in the way that they do, if we couldn’t basically understand what was happening in them. So it may be that Plato had a different theory about what explains our ability to be rational, and what being rational consists in. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Plato and I wouldn’t be able to look at the same concrete example of some behavior, and make out the difference between irrational and rational behavior. If that wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t be able to read the Meno dialogue and be able to have a clue why Socrates objects here and raises this issue there. There’s a real reason that the back-and-forth between Socrates and his interlocutors feels as intuitive to us as it does. And it seems to me that the only possible explanation for that is that we share some sense of what good evidence for something versus bad evidence for something is, and what a counter-intuitive position is. There’s got to be some common ground there—otherwise, it would just seem like gibberish to us.

Toby Buckle:
Great. So one point about anachronism, and then one point about the disjuncture between different ages. So, yes—I say it’s impossible to study the ancient world without anachronism. I’m kind of channeling Dale Martin—who’s a really brilliant New Testament scholar, who I just had on my podcast—there are better and worse anachronisms. You can get closer or further away with a particular concept. Just to take the example—yeah, there’s probably an example of behavior that both you and Plato could agree on is rational or irrational. But there’s also, probably, examples of behavior or argument where you would differ in your interpretation of its rationality. I just want to add one more element: it’s both that words and languages change and that the categories and concepts we attach to different words change quite radically. But it’s also—and this might be more fundamental—that the relative salience, and value, and importance, of particular concepts changes radically.

So with individualism, for example, it’s not so much that they have no idea—‘oh my God, there are different people’—we’ve always had that awareness. But how central that is to your political worldview has changed quite a lot. I’ll add just one more example to that, which—and this is the clearest—is the centrality of the value of freedom. It’s not that there wasn’t a distinction—in any society that’s held slaves, you have a distinction between slave people and free people. But prior to ancient Greece, the idea of being a free person would be something like, we would think of, being a not-homeless person. It’s a category—it’s a category that makes sense to us. But we would never say that the goal of our society is to be ‘non-homeless’. We would never say that the goal of our lives, our highest aspiration, is to be non-homeless.

In the same way, if you look at the word freedom in the Old Testament, in Mesopotamian societies, in preliterate societies—it’s a descriptor; it’s like being non-homeless. And then, when you get Greece, Rome, even early Christianity, it both takes on new meanings—beyond not being a slave, it takes on meanings of autonomy, of collective decision-making, that it didn’t have before. But it also goes from being a completely peripheral value in that person’s worldview, to absolutely central—and in some ways, constitutive of the entire thing. And then, there’s other values—something like honor, arete, virtue—which go from being arguably absolutely central to more marginal. So that’s the other layer I’d add, when I think how we need to think about how radically different different ideas and value systems are.

Matt Teichman:
Right. One question I always have about this type of discussion is: how much is really changing, from period to period? Is it just the stuff we happen to emphasize, all the while caring about basically the same thing? Or have we actually changed what we fundamentally care about? I think it’s certainly at least an open question whether what we fundamentally actually care about is changing.

It seems to me that it could be the case that across a lot of these different variations in what people prioritize, what they make central—maybe some cultures make the individual’s ability to pursue happiness central; maybe in other cultures they make following some sort of religious commandment central; that’s the foundation of all morality, and they try to explain anything else in terms of that—I think it could be the case that across a lot of this different variation, ultimately, what people care about—in terms of, ‘What kind of world do I want to live in?’ and ‘What kind of people do I want to fraternize with?‘—all of that could still be constant. And all of this other stuff could basically just be opinions about how we get there. You know, that’s a difficult judgment call to make, and there’s not really any good information or evidence. So of course, whenever you have not particularly good information or evidence, you’re going to see a wide spectrum of opinion. It’s at least not self-evident to me that a huge change in the way people talk about what they value reflects a real change, deep down, in what they’re actually valuing.

Toby Buckle:
Great. Yeah; it’s not a self-evident claim. This isn’t a truth you can arrive to at the armchair. It’s a historical, and in some ways, it’s an empirical claim. Or rather—it’s an inference from empirical evidence. I think we’d have to cash out what you mean when you say all people value the same things. That seems to me either true, but so general that it kind of doesn’t track to anything, or falsifiable, in that there will be counterexamples.

Matt Teichman:
Here, I think it’s very difficult to give a substantial, non-empty characterization of what people all value. But it’s way easier than that to give a characterization of what people universally (or almost universally) think is bad, or don’t value. One example people sometimes drop, on these lines, is that—at least in every culture that I’ve heard of—there has been some kind of prohibition on rape and murder. There have been at least two kinds of very serious crime, and those two are always on the list. Now, that doesn’t really tell us too much about the system of values underpinning it. But I also think that the idea that there’s such a thing as murder, for example, that there’s such a thing as killing a person—and, in general, you shouldn’t do it, and if you do do it, you’d better have a darn good reason—that has a fair amount of substance to it already. That’s not nothing, in terms of having meaningful content.

It’s not that hard to find really clear-cut cases of something that anybody would think is a good thing or anybody would think is a bad thing, at least if you look at concrete examples. It’s hard for me to imagine a culture in which everybody thinks the best thing you can possibly do all day is be rude; in which everybody thinks that the best way to live your life is to demean other people. Now, of course, we’re going to disagree on what counts as demeaning, what counts as murder. What falls under those categories is going to be a matter that we dispute, perhaps. But that we have these categories in the first place, indicates, to me, a non-trivial amount of common ground—that there are these things we’re all looking for. We might have different views about what actually fits this mold, but we have the mold.

Toby Buckle:
Let me give you a few counterexamples.

Matt Teichman:
Yeah.

Toby Buckle:
Once you get into how different the definitions can be, you get to the point where the definitions are so broad that you wonder what you’re drawing at, and what the point would be. So, just to take rape and murder. Both of these are obviously invalidated by the existence of slave societies. So in almost all slave societies, particularly slave societies before slavery had a strong economic basis, the main purposes of slavery was sexual and honorific. You had slaves to have extra wives, extra children, extra sexual partners. And that was a process that, by anyone’s definition, including theirs, would be rape. In the same way, slaves exist to enhance your honor, in terms of abusing them, and degrading them for your own honor—up to, and including, killing them and sacrificing them.

Now, then you might say: ‘Well, murder is always understood as the killing of another member within the community’. And, in some ways, slaves are seen as outside the community. But even then, you can think of examples where it is considered not just permissible but quite necessary for a man to defend his honor by killing another man who’s offended it. In certain circumstances, even through to early modern times, the idea of defending your honor by killing someone else—a member of the community, maybe even a valued or respected member of the community—can not only be permissible and legal, but seen as desirable and necessary. That, if we’re in a preliterate society—I talked with Orlando Patterson; I’m channeling him on a lot of this; about the Tupinambá, a cannibalistic tribe in Northeast Brazil—if you were to hurt my feelings, in even as simple a way as refusing food when you entered my home, it would be wholly normative for me to kill you there. And then, you could redefine the definition of murder again. But I think once you took into account all of these different examples, you’d end up with a definition that was so loose, that you’d wonder what the real purpose of it was.

Matt Teichman:
Okay. These are nice examples. The last one, I think, in particular, is the biggest challenge. That really runs counter to what you and I are familiar with.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah, we’re hopefully not going to resolve this argument that way.

Matt Teichman:
That’s right. I really should have thanked you for that coffee. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Matt Teichman:
So I guess what I would say about—maybe we’ll come back to the last example. But what I would say about most of the examples is that those all strike me as examples of disagreeing about what counts as a murder. Whether this particular thing here is a murder, rather than disagreements about whether murder is good or bad. We’re not agreeing about what the murders are—and disagreeing about, ‘Oh, they’re great’, versus ‘No, they’re bad’. We’re agreeing that murders, whatever they are, they’re bad—but disagreeing about whether these things here are murders.

Just to throw another example into the mix—because this is a familiar one, where there is a maybe little more push-and-shove of debate. You mentioned killing somebody over honor, and I think most of us, at least in contemporary America, think that’s ridiculous—you shouldn’t do that. But what about the death penalty? I happen to be opposed to the death penalty, but I recognize that many people I live with aren’t. Take me and take somebody in Texas. I would probably consider somebody—even somebody guilty of a horrible crime—getting the electric chair to be a kind of murder, because I don’t believe that the state should do that. But somebody who supports the death penalty would think that’s what should happen to this person: they did something bad, and they should suffer the consequences. I don’t think that I and this supporter of the death penalty are disagreeing about whether murder is bad. I think we’re disagreeing about what counts as murder.

Toby Buckle:
Okay. So let’s take the death penalty as an interesting case. Because that could be used to elucidate another type of fundamental moral divide—namely, what is your meta-ethical starting point? The divide I see with the death penalty is between different versions of morality. On the one hand, you could have a retributive justification for the death penalty—that, yes, this is killing, but it’s deserved because that person killed. ‘Do unto others’, right? What’s it called—lex talionis, the idea of proportional retribution. I generally wouldn’t be sympathetic to that, though I know it’s one a lot of people are familiar with.

Another justification for the death penalty could be preventative. It sets an example, and deters future murders. Now—I don’t think, empirically, that is the case. If it were, I’d actually be sympathetic to that argument. But there, I would run into a fundamental disagreement with most liberals, and certainly, on a philosophical basis, with most Kantians or deontologists. They would say you’re using people as means, but not an end. So a Kantian might be fine with preventative killing in the case of, say, taking down a school shooter—if there was no other way to stop his rampage. But they wouldn’t be okay with the idea of preventative killing of a murderer to prevent future murders. And my view, actually, is: I don’t really see the distinction. I think it’s comparatively unimportant—but that’s the fundamental moral divide that just comes from different starting points.

And you can say, ‘Well, killing the school shooter wouldn’t be murder. That’s because he’s in the commission of a crime, and it’s a defensive, preventative killing.’ Or you could say, ‘Killing the guilty criminal might not be murder, because it would either be retributive, or it would be for deterrence.’ In which case you can hang on to the idea that murder is universally viewed as bad. But only by just changing your definition every time a counterexample occurs—in which case it’s true enough, but tautological.

Matt Teichman:
I think what you’ve just laid out is the way to go. That’s the way to set up the challenge, and it’s a nice challenge. Ultimately, I think what I would argue about this particular case is that you can have a pretty wide-reaching definition of murder that’s still not tautological—that’s not just true by definition. And I don’t know exactly what it would be—I haven’t written a paper on this—but, you know, something roughly on the lines of: normally, you shouldn’t kill anybody, but there can be some circumstances in which that general default is overridden, and you have to. But if you kill somebody, not in one of those extraordinary circumstances where the default is overridden, then you’ve done something wrong. So the default is: don’t kill people. And if you do kill people, it has to be in special circumstances.

Something, roughly, with that kind of shape is how I would describe the general prohibition on murder. There’s a difference between justified killing of people, and unjustified killing of people. And the default is: don’t do it. It has to be special for you to do it. And, I think, that’s not just tautological. It’s very open-ended—in what we count as the circumstances which you get to do it, and the circumstances in which you don’t get to do it. But I think it’s not nothing at all. I think it is a real belief about how people are supposed to behave towards each other. By default, don’t kill each other.

Toby Buckle:
Okay. But then I wonder how far that gets off the ground from being tautological. Because for one thing—let’s say, the claim is that everyone on earth holds the view that the default is not killing people, and killing people requires some extra justification or permission. Well, the idea of extra justification, or ‘permissible’, is so elastic that it could—and historically has—mapped pretty much anything, from a justifiable killing of a school shooter, to—somewhere deep in our ancestry—there was someone who thought murdering an infant was a good way to control the weather. That feels to me that it maps to anything—I’m not sure what analytic use it would have.

And then, the second point is: you might say, ‘Well, but I’m still retaining the argument that the default is not killing.’ I think this is one of these things like the freedom to and freedom from distinction—that seems salient, but I’m not sure how action-guiding it is, and I’m not sure how operative it is in any individual psychology, in any moment. So if you’re in a culture way back when, and you’re encountering a hostile tribe, the default is to kill them. You might say, ‘Oh, well, no, the default is not to kill unless they’re a hostile tribe.’ But if you ask the person on the ground what’s the default here, they would probably say to kill. You could interpret it in that way, but again, then you’re left with something so big and so vague, I’m not sure what the analytic use is.

Which brings you to the backup question: I don’t think either one of us is asserting these things simply because this is a dispassionate—our dispassionate—empirical reading of history. I think we’re asserting them because both of them speak to some need we have about how we view human morality and human community, that is important for us to articulate. So it seems important for me to articulate the idea that human values, and our rules by which we live, are constructed—because that gives me optimism that they can be changed. If the free market system seems unfair, we can redesign it, because we can redesign human nature.

And—I’ll try to finish, so you get time to come back at the end—but that seems important to me for this reason: we, as Americans, look at places like China, or Cuba, or the Soviet Union, where they have said, ‘We are not only going to have a new type of institutional order, we’re going to have a new type of human being.’ And we go, ‘That’s crazy. You can’t change human nature.’ We changed human nature. The liberals who started America changed human nature. The way we view the world today, and the way we interact with each other, is because we are part of their social experiment—that was done by design and with malice aforethought.

That’s an incredible thought—both in terms of our historical contingency, but also it means that we can design future people. And that is a political precept I want to hang onto. We can redesign even the most basic axioms of our morality. Now—on the other hand, it seems that people want to say, ‘There is something fundamentally true and constant about human morality’. I would ask: ‘What is it that leads you to want to hang onto that? Is the claim that this is genetic? Or is it more the claim that there are rules governing social behavior that are rationally discoverable, and are discovered by all people?

Matt Teichman:
Cool. The first thing I want to say in response is that I agree with all of that. I’m very much under the influence of a school of thought that’s sometimes called process philosophy. Henri Bergson is one figure associated this movement; Alfred North Whitehead is another. And I’m very much inclined to agree that human nature is changeable, and does change. Well—although it’s true that physiologically, homo sapiens have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred thousands of years—it’s just a fact that so much of what makes human life the way it is is cultural training. Every time you do something, that lays down a neural pathway in your brain, making you slightly better at that thing you just did. So the random stuff that we happen to be doing right now is going to give us different habits, skills, and proclivities, than we would have had if we had grown up doing other things.

That overall perspective is one I’m 100% on board with. Maybe the reason I have been emphasizing the sense in which people across what seemed to be huge cultural gaps agree is ultimately political—in the way that you just described. I think we are living in a moment, especially in America, where differences between people are being not just overemphasized, but, in many cases, just manufactured, for purposes having nothing to do with any valuable political aim, but for crass commercial purposes: to generate more clicks. Given that the pendulum, in my estimation, has swung way too far in the direction of pretending like people who live in Alabama are, like, a different species than people who live in New York. I really want to push back against that, because right now, that’s the way that the pendulum seems to have swung. Despite the fact that I completely agree with you—about human nature being malleable in that way—I want to emphasize the more slowly changing part of human nature, because I don’t like the way these supposed differences between people are being manufactured for purposes other than to make us all live happier lives together.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah. I think, again, that can fit in with what I’m saying, because if you take the broad genealogy of how belief systems have developed, then the person who lives in Alabama and the person who lives in New York—as polar opposite as they can seem to us today—are the two tiniest splinters going off on a twig of the tree that is the genealogy of human thought. These are the tiniest variations of what it is to believe in a good person, and what it is to believe what a good society is—by the standards of what people have believed historically. And, indeed, in some areas around the world today—in that there’s still a central authority of the individual; there’s still the idea of freedom, of liberation, of not being dominated, which are historically contingent and unique ideas. They mean slightly different things to the person in New York than they do in Alabama. But, yeah. I actually think a broad scope of the reading of human history, in some ways, could answer that—in viewing how weird and distinctive and, in some ways, strange and problematic and off our ways of viewing the world are, and how much we have in common. As opposed to people who lived in the Ancient Near East, or something like that.

Matt Teichman:
I think this is echoing exactly what you just said, but one thing that popped into my head is: there are all kinds of different attitudes you might have towards the diversity of human culture and human moral systems. One is to be surprised at how much variation there is, and then walk away pessimistic about bridges between them ever being built. And another takeaway moral you might have is just to marvel at the diversity out there, in the same way that you might travel to a tropical climate and marvel at this new kind of ecosystem you’ve never seen before.

Toby Buckle:
Hm.

Matt Teichman:
Anyway, that’s something that occurred to me while you were just making your point.

Toby Buckle:
One thing my old advisor, Michael Freeden—who was on my podcast recently—used to say is the following. Where you are, in terms of your moral intuitions is: imagine you’re looking at a big map of the countryside, with all of the different contour lines, and towns, and settlements, and hills. Where you are, and what’s morally intuitive to you, is the tiniest point on that map. And what you view of the world is just the tiniest circle around it. It’s worth understanding what the rest of that map has to offer, because, for one, there might be a point to stand on the map that’s actually better; but two, even if you want to hold down to where you’re at, it’s still just really cool and really fun to understand everything else that’s going on on that map. Because, like you said, it’s just interesting, even if you don’t end up moving where you are, to have a sense of the vast context of time, the context of space, the context of human diversity—both culturally and ideologically, and religiously. That’s just a valuable thing to have in your head, for its own sake.

Matt Teichman:
Absolutely. And if we want to continue with the spatial metaphor, there’s no such thing as just a point, period. There’s a point in a space. And what’s a space? A space is a bunch of other points, with an ordering on them that is based on certain laws—different laws, depending on what kind of space it is. Looking elsewhere and seeing what the other possible positions in it are, is always—just in the nature of what a space is—a way of better understanding the point that you occupy.

Toby Buckle:
Yes. And of course, if we really want to get into it—when we’re talking about the possible concept space of political belief systems, we’re talking about a vast, multidimensional space. It’s not just a left-right axis—it’s how we understand different concepts, and the relative salience of each concept. Not only that, but the epistemological understandings of the world. It’s vast, and it’s impossible to even conceptualize. So I used the metaphor of a two-dimensional map, but I don’t believe that you can map possible political opinions down to two dimensions. But like you’re saying, it does give you a better sense of your own, and where you stand, and why you stand there, certainly.

Matt Teichman:
Well, I think what we’ve just done now is give a more roundabout answer to your earlier question, as to why we do podcasts.

Toby Buckle:
Ha. Yeah. Something valuable in just chewing something out. If people are listening to my podcast, and want to follow you, where should they go?

Matt Teichman:
I’m going to recommend two ways. One is to just google Elucidations, and it’ll be the first thing that comes up. If you don’t like googling things, you can go to our blog, which is at lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/elucidations 1. For people who are listening to Elucidations now and want to know how to check out the Political Philosophy Podcast, where should they go?

Toby Buckle:
Yeah. You can, again, just google us. Our website is politicalphilosophypodcast.com—all one word, spelled how you’d think it would be spelled. And yeah, we’re on most of the major things—we’re on iTunes, SoundCloud, and you can follow us on Facebook, and Twitter. And the links to all of that are on the website politicalphilosophypodcast.com. So just check that out.

Matt Teichman:
All right, rock on! That was a lot of fun. Thank you.

Toby Buckle:
Yeah. Thanks, man.

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1. Editor’s note: that’s the old blog. As of 2021, you should go to our blog at [return]