T.M. Scanlon Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Human Rights: Conversation with T. M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity; Harvard University; February 20, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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If students were to watch this program, and they find the discussion of your own career interesting, how would you advise them to prepare for the future, either as a philosopher or as somebody who draws philosophy into their way of thinking, whatever that might be?

Studying political and constitutional history is a very good way to get a sense of the form that these questions have taken. They come more alive for people, often, not when they read them in the context of a philosophical theory but seeing how they played out in actual practice. If you read one of Anthony Lewis's books about the First Amendment, or about the rights of the accused, Gideon's Trumpet, that gets you a feeling of the way in which rights play out in actual historical context. The next step is to try to think about it in a more theoretical way, and at that point, it's probably better to read some philosophy, or better, get into a class where you can argue with people who argue about it philosophically so you can get some experience in doing it.

You emphasized at the beginning of our discussion your background in logic and math, learning to think about things other than what you want to think about.

Those were things I wanted to think about. That was kind of an indulgence, like Sudoku maybe, pure pleasure, thinking about whether you can find a proof of something. I think studying that sort of thing is great discipline. It's something some people enjoy, some people don't. It isn't essential for doing philosophy, although maybe it helps a bit, but a lot of people do philosophy who aren't drawn to those technical questions.

In terms of your lecture here on campus and your current research, are you working on the problem of blame?

Yes. It's embarrassing enough to be sitting next to somebody on an airplane and they ask you, "What do you do?," and you have to say you're a philosopher. It carries it to an extreme if they say, "What're you working on?" and you say, "Well, for the last couple of years I've been thinking about blame!" They really start edging away from you on the seat.

I partly got into this by thinking about questions of free will. Many people think that in order to be blamed for something we have to have done it freely. That raises a question. Are we really free in the relevant sense? That's a familiar and deep philosophical question. It seems to me, though, that in order to address that question you've got to first get an idea about what blame is. We don't think that in order for people properly to say that you're ugly or handsome, or that you have a nice singing voice. You've got to have freely chosen to have those merits, or demerits, as the case may be. Something particular about the kind of appraisal, that moral criticism or praise, seems to entail the condition that it's only appropriate if the person has control over whether they are like that or not. Why should that be true? That's the sort of question that leads you into asking what we're doing when we're doing this, and there are various candidate answers out there. I didn't find many of them very satisfactory, so I got interested in the question of thinking about what blame really amounted to. Then that led to a lot of thinking and changes of mind over a period of years.

I know we'll look forward to your book when it comes out, and people will watch the lecture, but in the meantime I want to thank you very much for being our guest today and giving a sense of philosophy. Let me show the book that we talked about, The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Harry. I enjoyed it.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation With History.

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