Gideon Rosen Interview

Editor’s Note: The Tory sat down with Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, to discuss his academic work and the 2016 presidential election.  The views expressed herein are those of the respective speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tory.  A transcript of the interview follows, edited for clarity and length.


Tory—What can you tell us about your career and your work in general?

Rosen—Most philosophers are generalists; they work in more than one area at a time. I am an exaggerated case of that. I started off working philosophy of mathematics and connected areas of metaphysics and epistemology. So the question that I worked on at first was, what is mathematics about? What is the subject matter of mathematics, and how do we know anything about it? That’s not a technical question within mathematics; it’s a question about mathematics. And the problem gets going because, when you’re doing pure mathematics, you’re saying things like, “There are infinitely many prime numbers. There’s a prime number between 5 and 10,” and so on.  Now I ask you, tell me about those numbers. Where are they?  What do they look like?  How much do they weigh?  How did you detect them?   Those are the questions that got me going for my dissertation and so on.

At a certain point in my career I recognized that, especially for the purposes of undergraduate teaching, there’s a limit to how curious undergraduates are about these incredibly abstract questions.  These questions about mathematics are questions that the mathematicians themselves aren’t particularly interested in.  They’re still important—those questions have been absolutely central to the history of philosophy—but the audience is limited.   So I decided that I would try to teach other things, starting with a course on the Free Will Problem. The Free Will Problem begins as a question in metaphysics about whether human actions are fundamentally different from other events.  Ordinary events are either caused by what happened before or they happen as a matter of random chance.  Human actions at least appear to be different. The naïve view about them is they’re not fully determined by what came before, but they’re not random occurrences either.   They appear to be this third thing: free actions, which are initiated by a person, by a source of agency, that isn’t part of the ordinary causal mix, but which contributes to the ordinary causal mix.  The question is whether that picture of human action makes any sense. This problem is also relevant to law and other practices which involve holding people responsible for what they do. So I decided I should learn something about the law, which I didn’t know anything about at all. (Unlike a lot of philosophers, I never thought about being a lawyer; it wasn’t on my list.)

The Mellon Foundation has mid-career fellowships for academics who have done one thing all their lives and want to do another thing. I got one of those fellowships and spent a year at New York University Law School, taking more or less the first-year curriculum. And that was really eye-opening. I got interested in philosophical questions about the law, but I also got interested in questions about law that aren’t especially philosophical.  So now I work sometimes on that stuff. I work centrally in moral philosophy on questions connected with moral responsibility.  And I still work in metaphysics and the areas I was talking about before.

Princeton Tory—When we spoke [a few days prior to this interview], you expressed a degree of ideological alignment with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  Would you elaborate on what about his policy proposals you find attractive, and about your political philosophy?

Gideon Rosen—I should say, first of all, that I’m not a professional political philosopher.   I’ve got opinions about politics, but I’m certainly not an expert.

Sanders has a conception of what justice amounts to and of what government can do to promote justice that I find congenial.  Justice requires, insofar as society can manage (given its resources) that everyone have access to the resources necessary for living a decent, dignified life. In a society like ours, that includes access to things like health insurance, a decent education, and the political process, because to live a dignified life in a democracy like ours is to have some access to the levers of power. Dignity also requires that, in certain respects, our prospects be roughly equal. It doesn’t require equality of wealth. So there’s no fundamental objection to bankers and hedge fund managers making much, much more than everyone else.   Still, when you have a rich society, justice does require that you do everything you can to eliminate poverty, because poverty is incompatible with living a fully flourishing human life.  

I think that Sanders is right in saying that one of the most fundamental flaws of current American democracy is that how much political power you have is directly connected to how much money you have. The narrow self-interest of people who are very rich differs from the interests of people who are not very rich.  The rich, unlike the rest of the country, have an interest in keeping the marginal tax rates low and keeping the government out of their financial business, and so on.   At the same time, the lawmakers and the regulative agencies have been captured by and are dependent on the very rich. That’s why every elected official in the U.S. government spends hours every week calling rich people and trying to persuade them to give them money. They do not call middle-class people or poor people.  As a result, they depend on them less, talk to them less, and are less responsive to their genuine interests. Sanders’ fundamental insight is that there is that kind of class struggle and profound political injustice built into any modern capitalist system. I think that Sanders’ polemic against the “millionaires and billionaires” is morally exactly right.  He’s focused his outrage in the right place.  It’s not outrage at mere material inequality. That’s not the problem.  The problem is the political inequality that results from material inequality.

Tory—The typical conservative response to Sanders is not so much focused on this particular issue of campaign finance and political access, but on other policy stances such as entitlement programs—one of which is free public college. Would you agree that it is a purpose of government to provide this?

Rosen—I think that there are some complicated trade-offs here.  In principle, yes, it is obviously the role of government to provide education for all of its citizens, for many reasons. It’s something citizens can’t do on their own; it’s also something private groups of citizens organizing to produce on their own, will supply to the rich and not to the rest.  So public education is an absolutely indispensable feature in any just democracy. How much of it does there need to be? The Sanders argument is that, while it used to be defensible to stop at high school, given the realities of the modern economy, the old arguments for public education through grade twelve are now compelling for free public education through college.  I think there are real costs of doing that, and not just monetary costs.  The university systems in Europe that did this by providing heavily subsidized or genuinely free college education to everyone who can make it are admirable in some ways, but the universities suffer in comparison to many state universities in the U.S. Classes are bigger, students’ connection to faculty is incredibly remote, and so on. It’s much more like a credential factory than a genuine set of educational institutions. So if the trade-off were between fully funded public education of that sort through college in the U.S. and the system we have now, I’d think there would be something to be said for tweaking our current system—making college more affordable in other ways rather than shifting to that kind of free-for-everyone public system.

Tory—Can you speak at all to the Trump phenomenon? What makes him so attractive to people, either on a philosophical level or just inon personal observations?

Rosen—Something that philosophy has known from the beginning is that people are not fully rational. There is a rational part of the soul—people have the capacity to be rational—but what moves most of us most of the time is a set of psychological mechanisms that are not responsive to reason. We are responsive to rhetoric and to other much more insidious forms of manipulation. American politics has been highly irrational since the beginning in many respects. Trump is an outlier given the relatively recent history of American politics, but the kind of Know-Nothingism that he represents crops up from time to time.  

The most striking thing about Trump, to me, is that he thinks he knows so much more than he actually knows. He doesn’t fully realize that on most of the questions that are relevant to government, there are experts who just know much more than he does.  There is an anti-intellectualist strand that runs through the history of American politics. It’s totally unsurprising that people don’t like being talked down to, condescended to, told they don’t know enough to govern themselves.  That can breed a kind of alienation from the governing class.  Trump exploits that sense of resentment by saying, “You know, I’m with you on that.  These guys are condescending.  And the fact is, they don’t know any better than you or I do.”  This anti-intellectualism is a response to something real.  There is a genuine tension between democracy and the idea that expert knowledge is required for running a complex enterprise, like the United States. One revolting feature of Trump’s campaign is his instinct to exploit the resentment that this tension generates to mobilize his base.

Tory—Are you working on any projects now in particular?  Where do you see your research going in the future?

Rosen—I have several projects. The main one is a large-scale project on the nature and limits of moral responsibility.  It’s not really about the Free Will Problem.  I think our wills are probably free enough for us to be responsible for what we do. Instead, this project is aimed at saying what moral responsibility is, what the conditions of moral responsibility are, and also at addressing an explanatory question: why are those conditions as they are?   

I’m especially interested in a special case of this question.  Suppose you do something harmful, fully aware of what you’re doing, and deeply concerned to do the right thing. But you don’t know that your act is wrong because your moral education has been distorted or impoverished in some way.   You can imagine cases like this: the ancient slaveholder in a society that takes for granted that it’s okay to have slaves.   He does horrible things, and he’s aware that he’s hurting people, forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, breaking up families, and so on, but he doesn’t know there’s anything wrong with this.  His mistake is not due to laziness or wishful thinking, but simply to have had a bad moral education.  Is he morally responsible for what he’s doing?  And if not, why not? That’s the kind of question I’m trying to answer in this large project.

Tory—How did you decide you wanted to pursue philosophy in an academic setting?

Rosen—At this point I’m a total philosophy geek.  I think about philosophy all the time.  I read philosophy all the time. But I didn’t know that I wanted to study philosophy until quite late in college.  I did a bunch of things before I did philosophy, things that I wasn’t particularly good at or suited to.  I was going to be some kind of scientist—my parents were scientists— but it wasn’t any good at that, really. Then I did French literary theory, the sort of thing that was popular in the 80s when I was in college.  That was abstract and sort of philosophical, but it wasn’t philosophy.  At a certain point I took a class in the philosophy of language and realized that that was what I had been blundering towards all along.

I think it’s useful for students to hear this sort of story.  Your intellectual interests can switch in ways that you can’t foresee in advance.  Some people have mature, well-defined interests early on. But you’re not locked in by your intellectual personality at 18 years old.  Anything can happen.

Tory—Thank you very much.

Rosen—It’s been a pleasure.

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