I have often found philosophy frustrating at best. I’m a pretty concrete thinker, so when questions get too vague or nonsensical to me, I shake my head in annoyance and check out. But when I saw Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids (2022) on NPR’s latest list, I figured this might be the kind of philosophy book I can tolerate. And, on the whole, I think I did tolerate this one. In fact, I was even occasionally inspired to see how we can use philosophy as a guide in how we see the world and how we should act in it. I did listen to this as an audiobook, and it was read well by the author.
Hershovitz is a philosopher and a law professor, and he likes to talk shop with his two young boys. Now, this book isn’t for children, but he uses the conversations with his children to illustrate a number of philosophical principles. He even has some data to back up the fact that children are natural philosophers because their innocence and naivete allow them more creative, out-of-the-box thinking. His stories about his children are entertaining, and his presentation of philosophy was generally interesting. However, because he hits on numerous topics, it definitely feels like more of a general survey than really diving deep.
Now, I was required to take some kind of philosophy course in college. So, I was familiar with Hershowitz’s first topic: the trolley problem and Utilitarianism. Hershowitz discusses a number of variations of whether turning a runaway trolley so that it will run over one person instead of the five its heading for is ethical. But then he compares it with five desperately ill people at the hospital. Would it be ethical to kill one healthy person who comes in and use his organs to save the other five? Most people would say no, and I agree. But I would argue that it is not even utilitarian to save those five people. There’s a lot to be said for the happiness in safety and stability. Sure, you can kill that one person and save those five, but you would also create a situation where no one feels safe going to a hospital or getting medical care. In the end, that would cause a lot more pain and misery than the death of those five sick people.
Another topic I found interesting was Hershovitz’s take on vengeance. I generally don’t like the idea of vengeance, but he argued that you could use it for deterrence. Also, he discussed how we view compensation when a wrong has been done to us. Let’s say you are negligent and cause someone’s arm to be cut off. You or the courts would be willing to compensate them for their pain and suffering. But that compensation is usually much, much lower than what you would pay to avoid having that same injury done to yourself.
It did seem for part of the book that Hershovitz was simply discussing some of his liberal ideas. Since I’m generally a fan of liberal ideas that was fine, but I didn’t really feel like he was adequately proving his points with philosophy. I also didn’t love his swearing chapter, although it was entertaining enough.
Finally, near the end we got to Zeno’s paradox, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes me throw my hands up at philosophy. Hershovitz explained that if you’re reaching out to touch someone, you’ll go halfway, then you’ll go halfway of what’s left, and halfway of what’s left of that, forever.–which means that you’ll never get to your destination? Maybe I’m too dense to figure out the importance of this, but are you kidding me? Just go the whole way. Or go halfway, and then the second half. You’ve already done the first half, so how hard can it be? Why are we wasting our time on this? People make it to their destination all the time, so what kind of practical application does this have?
It’s good for a philosophy book. 3.5 stars.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.