Thus the vagueness in what the term âeducationâ is perceived to indi-
cate and the long-standing, habitual acceptance of the necessity and
benevolence of public schooling combine to give the impression of uni-
versal support for education. But that impression is only apparent.
Another objection to my argument is that, regardless of whatever mer-
its it might have, no self-respecting society should contemplate abolishing
public schooling because of the disastrous effects this would have on the
poor. Public schooling gives the poor a chance; without it, only the chil-
dren of the rich would get an education, and we would thereby condemn
the poor to remain a permanent underclass. Hence we must make an
exception to the normal rules of justice in this case.
I argued in chapter 3 that one should not make an exception to the
rules of justice for politicians or agents of the state, an argument I would
apply here as well. But a number of other responses to this objection
also present themselves, including disputing that such bad consequences
would in fact ensue from the abolition of public schooling. Before con-
sidering them, however, let me make two points about this objection.
First, I believe it underestimates the resourcefulness of poor people. This
argument assumes, rather condescendingly I think, that if they do not
get an expensive state-designed education, they will be âuneducatedâ;
and if someone does not provide an education for them, they will not be
able to get it for themselves. But poor people, like everyone else, have
37 For rehearsals of this history, see the work already cited of Coulson, Richman, Rochester,
Rothbard, West, and Zimmerman. For Deweyâ™s own statements of his views, see his essays
âWhat Is Freedom?,â âEthical Principles Underlying Education,â âProgressive Education
and the Science of Education,â âAmerican Education and Culture,â and âThe School
and Society,â all contained in the edited collection John Dewey on Education.
Applying the Principles
strong natural incentives to procure the means requisite to their ends,38
and I would suggest that they are at least as capable of doing this as
your average local school board member or âeducation schoolâ gradu-
ate. Remember too that going, for example, to a fancy university is not the
best educational route for everyoneâ”far from it. Some would be much
better served by trade schools, vocational schools, or apprenticeships. As
with paths to happiness, no single path of education is appropriate for
everyone. The right path for any given individual, poor or not, can be
determined only by exercising his own (or his parentsâ™ own) judgment
based on local knowledge of his situation. State agents, who will not have
this knowledge, are thus better advised, once again, to mind their own
A second response to this objection draws strictly on the analogi-
cal argument I have made above. The objection posits this disanalogy
between the cases of religion and schooling: whatever may be the case
with religion, schooling is simply too important to be left to the vagaries
of the market, where class antagonisms, âold boyâ networks, exploitation
of the disadvantaged, crass self-interest, or other vices are the order of the
day. The state is thus justiď¬ed, on grounds of what might be called âsocial
justice,â if not plain old regular justice, in intervening in educational
matters and correcting the inconsistencies, instabilities, or inequities to
which markets and private enterprise lead.39
But there is no real disanalogy here after all, because supporters of reli-
gion can make precisely the same claims on behalf of religion: they too
can argue that holding correct religious beliefs is simply too important to
be left to the hurly-burly of the market and must therefore be guaranteed
by the state. For what argument would block the religion-statistâ™s claim
that would not simultaneously block the education-statistâ™s claim? Not the
argument that everyone supports education but not religion, for the rea-
sons already discussed. Moreover, the education-statistâ™s conď¬dence that
he is correct in his estimation of the importance of education, whereas the
religion-statist is incorrect in his estimation of the importance of religion,
is also insufď¬cient: besides suffering from a lack of supporting evidence,
such a claim would be just as hotly contested by the religion-statist as the
reversed claim would be by the education-statist.
38 For evidence of this, see Westâ™s âEconomic Analysis, Positive and Normativeâ and
Education and the State, chap. 17.
39 See âEdisonâ™s Discovery,â Wall Street Journal Online, August 25, 2004.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 229
the empirical question
Let us not shrink, however, from the empirical issue broached in the
objection. Would the abolition of government education in fact help
or hinder the poor in their attempts to escape poverty? Another way of
putting the objection is to claim that the private sector would simply not
be up to the task of educating the entire populace. Sometimes this is
alleged to be because its resources are too meager, other times because
it is so shot through with moral or religious or other prejudice that the
disfavored classes, whatever they are, would simply be left out in the cold.
We must confess to a certain amount of speculation hereâ”though no
more than is ever involved in economic forecasting (and, by the way,
that holds true for the person pressing this speculative objection too).
Instead, we must rely on whatever suggestive historical evidence there is.
Is there evidence that can give us conď¬dence in predicting what would
happen if the state stopped subsidizing and regulating education, and
took all the hundreds of billions of dollars it currently takes out of the
private sector to spend on this enterprise annually and instead returned
it to the people from whom it takes it? Thankfully, yesâ”and a mountain
of it. There is actual evidence, actual experience, actual data out there
that address this worryâ”and it all supports the expectation that the private
sector would serve the needs of everyone, including especially the poor, better than
the government education establishment does now. Indeed, the evidence on
this point is so strong that this is perhaps the single best argument for
abolishing government education.
I do not list all the evidence here: that would be impossible, since there
is so much (I do, however, list several sources of more information in the
bibliography at the end of the chapter). Most of the evidence crystallizes
in support of four main contentions: (1) public schooling has historically
gotten progressively worse despite real increases in funding; (2) public
schooling does a worse job than does private schooling, even though the
latter typically has only about half the funding; (3) it is precisely among
the poorest students where public schooling is at its worst; and (4) pri-
vate enterprise and market-based economies have historically beneď¬ted
all income classes, including in particular the poor, and thus would be
expected to perform equally well in this case as well. I have already given
some evidence of the ď¬rst claim, so I do not repeat it here; and the fourth
claim I defended at length in chapter 5. That leaves us with the second
and third claims.
Applying the Principles
a controlled experiment
Ideally, what one would want is a controlled experiment to test these
hypotheses. Suppose, for example, we could take a public school district
made up principally of poor students whose facilities and academic per-
formances were typically subpar, and over a substantial length of time,
say a decade or so, give them all the funding the administrators deemed
necessary and all the local control and oversight they wished to make the
school into whatever they wanted. If we could give them everything the
local educators desired in terms of teachers, facilities, books, whatever,
and let them put all that money and all their creativity to work, then the
results would be telling indeed. Then we could see just how much of poor
public schoolsâ™ performance is due to factors outside their controlâ”such
as chronically underfunded budgetsâ”and how much of it is actually due
to the incompetence that critics allege. Would that not be an illuminating
Well, we need not dream. The claim that public schoolsâ™ woes are due
to lack of money or hamstringing policies was dramatically disproved by
the twelve-year experiment conducted in the Kansas City, Missouri, school
district by federal judge Russell Clark.40 In 1985 Judge Clark found that
the Kansas City school district was abysmally bad, and because it was
populated by mostly black students, he ruled that it violated the âequal
protectionâ clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States
Constitution. He therefore ordered that the state of Missouri immediately
begin massive subsidization of the Kansas City schools. He asked the local
school district ofď¬cials what they wanted, telling them to âdreamâ and
not let money be an object, and then he ordered that the state provide
funding for everything they wanted.
The results were magniď¬cent. Over the next twelve years, the state
gave the Kansas City district some $2 billion over and above their locally
realized funds. What did these princely sums buy? First and foremost
it allowed the school district to spend upwards of $11,700 per pupil,
which is more money per pupil in adjusted dollars than what any of the
other largest 280 school districts in America spent. It got the Kansas
City district a dramatic 40 percent increase in teachersâ™ salaries, ď¬fteen
40 The following facts are again widely available. One excellent study is Ciottiâ™s âMoney and
School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment.â See also
Coulson, Market Education, chap. 6; Hollingsworthâ™s âJudge Ends Kansas City Desegre-
gation Caseâ; the Wall Street Journalâ˜s âJayhawk Judgmentâ; and Wildavskyâ™s âKansas City
Schools Learn the Hard Wayâ
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 231
new schools, ď¬fty-six âmagnetâ schools, and facilities that included, as
one reporter summarized it, âan Olympic-sized swimming pool with an
underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics
lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with
simultaneous translation capability, and ď¬eld trips to Mexico and Senegal.
The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major
school district.â41 The new $32 million Central High School boasted the
very latest technology and computer equipment; even its athletic teams
enjoyed all the latest equipment. Its fencing team, for example, was now
coached by the former head of the Soviet Unionâ™s Olympic fencing team.
You might be wondering what the educational results were amid all
this magniď¬cence. The truth is almost too much to bear: there was no
improvement in the studentsâ™ reading or math scores, the gap between
white studentsâ™ achievement in other districts and black studentsâ™ achieve-
ment in this district did not close and in some cases actually increased, and
the drop-out rate actually rose to 60 percent. Defenders of the government
education establishment had at the beginning of Judge Clarkâ™s project
hailed it as a controlled experiment that would ď¬nally prove once and
for all that, contrary to their criticsâ™ claim that money is not the problem,
money was in fact the central problem and that once that problem was
solved everything else would fall into place. When, however, in 1997 even
Judge Clark realized that the experiment had been a complete failure,
he took himself off the caseâ”but not before having saddled Missouri
with the huge monetary cost and the not insubstantial social cost associ-
ated with the disruptions and divisions his mandates introduced into the
What general conclusion does this case license? Several, I believe, but
the one that is relevant here is that money is not the problem with public
schools. If money could save them, it certainly would have done so in this
riotous orgy of spending.42
41 Ciotti, âMoney and School Performance,â p. 1.
42 There is a great deal of evidence supporting the general claim that more money alone
is not the answer, and some evidence even suggesting a negative relationship between
increased state funding and student performance. For some examples, see Childs and
Shakeshaftâ™s âA Meta-Analysis of Research on the Relationship of Educational Expendi-
tures and Student Achievementâ; Coulson, Market Education, chap. 6; and Hanuschekâ™s
âThe Economics of Schoolingâ and âImpact of Differential Expenditures on School Per-
formance.â See also Gary Orď¬eldâ™s 1994 Harvard University Study, which concludes by
saying, âJust putting money into schools is not likely to produce beneď¬tsâ; and Mary
Jordanâ™s âStudy Finds Separate Still Unequalâ”Extra Money Not Seen to Aid Segregated
Applying the Principles
are private schools really any better?
One often hears the claim that private schools do a better job than pub-
lic schools, and one often hears in response that private schools have
advantages that public schools do notâ”for example, that private schools
can expel troublemakers, that they do not have to deal with âspecial
needsâ children, and that they have more money. False on all counts. Pri-
vate schools do indeed outperform government schools on virtually every
measure, but they do so despite enormous handicaps that the government
schools do not face. Why? There is a greater level of the crucial parental
involvement in private schools, even among poor parents, than there is
in government schools; private schools create a greater feeling of shared
enterprise and community than government schools, again even among
the poor parents and children; and teachers in private schools tend to
have better morale than those in government schools, despite being
paid on average only 65 percent what their government school peers get
Consider for a moment the single largest private schooling enterprise
in the United States, that conducted under the aegis of the Roman
Catholic church. Catholic private schools average only one-tenth the
bureaucrats and administrators that their government school counter-
parts have when controlled for the number of students in their care, and
yet Catholic school students signiď¬cantly outperform their government
school counterparts on standardized tests. Again, why? Studies indicate it
is because students in Catholic schools spend more of their in-school time
on academic subjects than do government school students; they average,
in fact, approximately 25 percent more time on subjects such as foreign
languages, mathematics, and science. When controlled for family back-
ground, ethnicity, and overall economic status, the Catholic school kids
simply trounce the government school kids, especially for underprivileged
It is furthermore an exaggeration to claim that Catholic schools are
far more restrictive in admissions or expel far more students than govern-
ment schools. Nationwide, Catholic schools accept on average 88 percent
of those who apply, only one-third of them maintain waiting lists, and
43 See Coulson, Market Education, chap. 8, and Westâ™s Education and the State, chap. 17.
44 See Sowell, Inside American Education, chap. 1. For a competing view that I ď¬nd quite
unpersuasive, see Sarah and Christopher Lubienskiâ™s âA New Look at Public and Private
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 233
they suspend or dismiss only a small handful of students per year. This is
a difference, but it does not account for the full discrepanciesâ”especially
when it is revealed that many public schools artiď¬cially inď¬‚ate their stu-
dentsâ™ scores by omitting from the data pools precisely the scores their
âspecial needsâ and âtroubledâ students make. Many Catholic schools on
the contrary take it as part of their moral mission to minister to the poor
and troubled of their communities, and studies indicate, consistent with
this stated mission, that they routinely give scholarships and subsidies to
poor students and take extraordinary measures to help troubled ones.
Other studies indicate that poor and troubled or âat-riskâ students are
more likely to drop out, start taking or dealing drugs, join gangs, have
teenage and unwed pregnancies, and engage in criminal activity if they
go to government schools than if they go to Catholic schoolsâ”even the
Catholic schools that are in exactly the same neighborhoods, sometimes
just down the block.45
To dispel another pernicious myth: it turns out that government
schools are on average signiď¬cantly more racially segregated than
Catholic or other private schools.46
The ď¬nal fact, and perhaps the coup de grace: private schools cost
on average only half as much as government schools: $3,116 per stu-
dent for the former as compared with $6,653 per student for the lat-
ter in 1994 dollars.47 Even taking into account the subsidies that some
private schools get from their associated congregations and the dona-
tions they get from their alumni, private schools still cost only 60 to
65 percent of what the government schools cost. Thus the facts just will
not go away: private schooling outperforms government schooling, it
does so at a lower cost, and it does so, incredibly, despite the existence
of a nationwide government-enforced monopoly against which it must
45 See the American Enterpriseâ™s group of articles under the title âRace, Broken Schools, and
Afď¬rmative Actionâ; Bolickâ™s âA Lot More to Learnâ; Chiraâ™s âWhere Children Learn
How to Learn: Inner City Pupils in Catholic Schoolsâ; Davidsonâ™s âPrivate Schools for
Black Pupils Are Flourishingâ; Hill et al.â™s High Schools with Character; Putka, âEduca-
tion Reformers Have New Respect for Catholic Schoolsâ; Sowellâ™s âBlack Educationâ
and Inside American Education, chap. 1; Steersâ™s âThe Catholic Schoolsâ™ Black Studentsâ;
and âUrban Minorities Beneď¬t Most from Catholic Schools,â in the University of Chicago
46 See Colemanâ™s Equality and Achievement in Education and Greeneâ™s âIntegration Where It
47 Coulson, Market Education, p. 277.
Applying the Principles
public goods and bads
A ď¬nal defense of government schooling holds it to be what economists
call a âpublic good,â or something that provides beneď¬ts to others without
requiring or being able to require those other beneď¬ciaries to pay for it.
Typical examples of âpublic goodsâ are clean air and national defense. In
both cases, once the good in question has been producedâ”once there
is clean air or a national defenseâ”it is difď¬cult to prevent everyone from
beneď¬ting from it, even those who did not contribute to or pay for it, and
one personâ™s enjoyment of it does not measurably diminish the ability of
others to enjoy it as well. Given this deď¬nition you can probably imagine
lots of other potential âpublic goods.â Perhaps this book is one: even if you
paid for your copy, I cannot prevent you from photocopying it or lending
it to your friend. The argument as it applies here is that public schooling
counts as a â˜public goodâ™ and therefore the government is justiď¬ed in
making everyone pay, just as it makes everyone pay for environmental
regulations and cleanups and for national defense. Now, people argue
about what actually count as public goods, but let us skip over that debate
here and focus instead on the case of government schooling.
So: how does government schooling count as a public good? It would
seem, ď¬rst of all, that whatever its beneď¬ts are, they are concentrated
in the students themselves. They themselves are the ones, after all, who
stand to make more money in the future and lead more fulď¬lling lives if
they become educated. Moreover, if you want to exclude someone from
enjoying the beneď¬ts of government schooling who does not pay for
it, the easy solution is either not to let him in or to make him pay for
it. Thus government schooling seems to be rather one of those kinds of
goods that can easily and appropriately be paid for by its users, and hence
not a âpublic goodâ at all. Government schooling defenders dispute this
claim, however. They argue that everyone beneď¬ts from public school-
ing, whether they themselves go there or have children who go there or
not. Why? Because, they argue, government schooling provides things
we all beneď¬t from: an educated electorate, citizens prepared to delib-
erate democratically, a shared cultural heritage.48 The argument is that
whether you realize it or not you beneď¬t if your neighbors are and have
these things, and that means that even if you enjoy no direct beneď¬t from
government schools you do nevertheless indirectly beneď¬t. The defenders
conclude that therefore the government may âaskââ”that is, forceâ”you
48 For presentations of each of these claims, see Tyackâ™s Seeking Common Ground.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 235
to pay for government schools regardless of whether you or your children
Yet this argument fails in numerous ways. Begin with the fallaciously
inferred conclusion. The argument assumes that it follows from the fact
that if you beneď¬t from X, then others may (1) forcibly manage X in
your life and (2) force you to pay for X (and their management of it).
But those conclusions do not follow. Grant that exercising is good for
me. Does it follow that you may appoint yourself my Exercise Adminis-
trator, develop an exercise regimen for me, and then force me to pay
both for you and your regimen, whether I abide by it or not? Does it
follow that the state may do these things? Or grant that marriage would
be good for me (as empirical evidence does indeed suggest, especially
for men50 ), and then ask the same questions. One could make the argu-
ment that each of us beneď¬ts from any number of things others provide:
perhaps everyone is better off because of the existence of philosophy pro-
fessors, or people carrying concealed weapons, or Southern Baptist min-
isters, or Good Samaritans, or children playing in the park next to your
ofď¬ce, and so on. Again, does that mean you should be made to pay these
One is reminded here again of Platoâ™s justiď¬cation for the scheme
of compulsory education laid out in his Republic, the goal of which was
to control all the nonphilosophers and give them correctâ”though not
necessarily trueâ”beliefs. Plato dubbed these politically expedient teach-
ings ânoble falsehoods.â He thought that the philosophers would have
to tell them to everyone else in his ideal city in order to make sure that
all the dimmer souls appreciated and docilely accepted the place in the
community assigned to them by their ânobleâ leaders.51 So you and I
would be told myths, stories, and legends designed to habituate us to
believe in, among other things, the necessity and goodness of our lead-
ersâ™ control of our lives. One detects a whiff of the noble falsehood odor,
I think, in the âpublic goodsâ argument for government schooling. Like
some in the education establishment, Plato might himself have had only
the best of intentionsâ”perhaps he really did believe in something called
the Good that only select humans, the âphilosophers,â could apprehend,
thereby justifying their rule over the rest of us and the necessity of our
49 For a classic defense of this position, see Friedmanâ™s Capitalism and Freedom, chap. 6. For
a rebuttal, see Westâ™s Education and the State, chaps. 3â“7.
50 See, for one recent example, the BBCâ™s âBeing Single â˜Worse than Smoking,â™â
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2195609.stm (accessed December 14, 2005).
51 Republic, bk. 3.
Applying the Principles
unquestioning obedience. But the practical upshot of arguments like
these is to put manifestly mortal and imperfect human beings into posi-
tions of considerable power over others, while providing them a meretri-
cious rationalization of their lordly rule.
Is that not what this âpublic goodsâ argument does? Am I not, after all,
the one who should judge whether I beneď¬t from the existence of gov-
ernment schooling? What if I do not believe I do? What indeed if I believe
that government schools train pupils in a dangerous and poisonous mix
of ignorance, amorality, and high self-esteem? What if I therefore judge
that government schooling is in fact a public bad, one that I pay for in
more ways than one? Should the enormous costs associated with prisons
and policing be added into the equation, for example? There are people
who believe precisely these things, and as we have seen they have reason
to do so.52 By what justiď¬cation, then, do we ignore their beliefs and force
them to pay nonetheless? Because we believe in government schooling?
Then let us pay for it, and allow those who wish to opt out do soâ”and
let us do the honest thing and let them take their money (and their chil-
dren) with them. One cannot respect the personhood of another by any
other course of action.
But what of the worst-case scenario, the poorest of the poor, who would
simply have no option for themselves or their children? Let us ď¬rst of
all not forget that these are precisely the people who are already failed
the worst by the current system.53 We must not compare the scenario I
propose against an imaginary and ideally perfect system; we must rather
compare actually available alternatives. Since the world is imperfect, some
children will be disserved under any scenario. The question, then, is not
which scenario is most perfect in its hypothetical description, but, rather,
which of the actually practicable scenarios will do the best to minimize
the failures and maximize the successes. And here, I suggest, the evidence
One ď¬nal point. Is it impolite to point out that you fail in your moral
duty to the poor if you charge the state with taking care of it for youâ”and
that, on the contrary, you can fulď¬ll your duty only by making a personal
effort to help those who need it? If there are children who need help with
their schooling, then help them! Find them, ď¬gure out what help they
need, and do your best to give it to them. Do not take the inadequate, if
52 See, for example, Rogge and Goodrichâ™s âEducation in a Free Society.â
53 See above, nn. 36â“46 for evidence. For a recent, albeit indirect, illustration of this point,
see Levitt and Dubnerâ™s Freakonomics, chap. 3.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 237
easy, route of endorsing a political apparatus that forces others to attend
to your moral responsibilities for you.
private vices, public veneers of virtue
We should not forget that, just as for centuries kings, priests, and Parlia-
ments have known that controlling both the state and the religion was
the key to controlling people, compulsory government schooling was
explicitly introduced for exactly the same reason: control. Exhibit A is
Platoâ™s recommendation that societyâ™s leaders use ânoble falsehoodsâ to
keep us ignorant and unwashed masses in line. Similarly, modern public
schooling has its roots in sixteenth-century attempts by Protestant church
leaders who wanted to forcibly train people in correct religious beliefs. As
historians such as Andrew Coulson, Sheldon Richman, Edwin G. West,
and Jonathan Zimmerman have shown, controlling people for correct
religious, moral, or political beliefs and behavior has continued to be the
driving, frequently explicit motivation behind public school advocacy.
Now, some might agree that it is a good idea to mold children in accor-
dance with correct religious, moral, or political beliefs, and hence they
might be sympathetic to this motivation behind government schooling.
But that no more establishes the acceptability of the practice than would
the widespread acceptance of the kingâ™s ofď¬cial religion among those
who already happen to subscribe to it. And of course it does not address
the numerous other objections raised in this chapter to state intervention
I close this chapter by sharing a personal observation based on my
own experience with people defending government education against
the objections I raise in this chapter. They often fall into three groups.
First, there are those who are simply unaware of the actual facts of how
public schools perform, which policies they pursue, how much money
they waste, and so on. Their position instead merely reď¬‚ects the decades
of public cheerleading about the goodness and necessity of government
schools. The next group contains those people whose support for pub-
lic schools is the product of a political or moral ideology, and as such is
impervious to facts or argument. In this they are like religious believers
who could not even in principle be dissuaded. The third and ď¬nal group
is those who are themselves part of the government education establish-
ment or who beneď¬t from it in some way. This group includes the teachers,
administrators, counselors, advisers, secretaries, administrative assistants,
executive assistants, and school board members; the contractors, vendors,
Applying the Principles
groundskeepers, and maintenance personnel; the politicians who take
donations from teachersâ™ unions or have spouses or other family mem-
bers who are otherwise employed somehow in government education;
the leaders of the teachersâ™ unions who take their salaries from those
unions; the police and other security guards, the metal-detector manu-
facturers, the doctors and nurses who administer all those psychoactive
drugs and the pharmaceutical companies who supply them; the politi-
cally sensitive textbook manufacturers and their hundred-million-dollar
state-wide government school contracts; the public school graduates who
cannot bring themselves to think ill of their own school or of the training
they themselves received; and so on. There are no doubt other groups I
have forgotten. When you add them up, that is quite a lot of peopleâ”
and it goes some way, does it not, toward explaining why it is so difď¬cult
for so many people even to consider major change in the government
The opinion of anyone who belongs to any of these categories, how-
ever, should be viewed with a measure of skepticism. I invite you to review
your own experience in this regard or to take notice when the subject
comes up in the future of who is making what argument. Perhaps you
too will begin to wonder exactly what the publicâ™s considerable faith and
credit in the government schooling system actually rest on.
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Inclusion and Exclusion
A number of issues that currently occupy a large place in discussions about
ethics, particularly discussions about âpracticalâ or âappliedâ ethics, are
rendered signiď¬cantly less prickly and intractable if we apply the concepts
and tools developed in Part I of this book. Thus if we keep in mind
the central principles of what it means to be a person, what judgment is,
and what are matters of justice and what are matters of other virtues, I
think we shall ď¬nd we can navigate many new and unfamiliar waters with
conď¬dence. Let us then take up a few of these vexed issues and see, based
on the tools we have, what we can make of them. In this chapter the focus
is a few of the ways human beings include or exclude others.
watch your language
Let us begin with an issue that, if judged by the number of people who
address it in one way or another, is of great general concern: gender-
speciď¬c, or gender-exclusive, language. Worry about things like whether
writers use a âgeneric â˜heâ™ â relies on the fallacy that words determine
reality, rather than the other way around. If I refer to you as the chairman
of my department, I am not asserting that you are a chair, or a man, or
some combination: I am asserting that you are the head or leader or
director of my department. Your sex is not implicated in the term, any
more than whether you are a piece of furniture is. Similarly with mailman,
foreman, policeman, ď¬reman, and so on.1 If this were not so, then chairperson
1 One venerable source supporting my position is Strunk and Whiteâ™s The Elements of Style,
pp. 60â“1. For an alternative view, see Warrenâ™s âGuidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Lan-
Applying the Principles
would be no improvement, since the word âpersonâ contains the word
âson,â which is male after all.
Yet those who a few decades ago began to call attention to these words
as words and to decry some of their uses offered theories about their
origins that conď¬‚ict with my claim. Their theories typically hold that
such terms are reď¬‚ective of the historically patriarchal organization of
most human societiesâ”that is, of (unjustiď¬able) male dominance. It is
because they believe such language to be symbolic or reď¬‚ective, or per-
haps partly constitutive, of this larger unjust social order that they believe
it is important enough to address squarely and publicly, and to work to
My own laymanâ™s suspicion is that the terms at issue arose rather as a
joint product of (1) the fact that most of the posts in question have histor-
ically been held by men and (2) the fact that âmanâ is shorter, and thus
easier to afď¬x and say, than, for example, âperson.â It must be admitted,
however, that most speculations about word origins are little more than
guesswork, since the historical beginnings of wordsâ”noble and useful
efforts like that of the Oxford English Dictionary notwithstandingâ”remain
mostly shrouded in mystery. That is why there are so many competing
accounts of word origins. Go to any good bookstore and you will ď¬nd lots
of books offering rival accounts of the origins of words and phrases. Thus
most of this species of learning falls into what the eighteenth-century Scot-
tish philosopher Dugald Stewart called âconjectural historyâ: not what was
the case, since we do not know for sure, but, rather, what might have been
the case, based on patchy circumstantial evidence and what seem to us
plausible conjectures. Claims, for example, that Homer was really two,
or ten, or indeď¬nitely many persons, and that Shakespeare was really
the nobleman Edward de Vere, are of this type.3 They are utterly otiose,
of course, since the reasons we read Homer and Shakespeare ultimately
have nothing to do with such questions, even if they are of some curiosity.
In any case, the explanation that the language reformers offer simply
canâ™t be correct, since it rests on a now-exploded theory of language.
2 See, for example, Vetterling-Bragginâ™s Sexist Language. For discussion, see Pinkerâ™s chapter
âThe Language Mavensâ in his The Language Instinct and the articles contained in the âFree
Speechâ section of Hugh LaFolletteâ™s edited collection, Ethics in Practice. For exploration
of some of the political issues involved, see Bernsteinâ™s You Canâ™t Say That!, Sunsteinâ™s
Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech and Why Societies Need Dissent, and Levyâ™s âLiteracy,
Language Rights, and the Modern State.â
3 For a discussion of the theories about Homer, see Bernard Knoxâ™s âIntroductionâ to
Robert Faglesâ™s translation of the Iliad; for an argument that Shakespeare was not Shake-
speare, see Joseph Sobranâ™s Alias Shakespeare.
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 245
Indeed, it gets the truth of the matter exactly backward. People do not
ď¬rst decide what kind of language they want to have, then create one,
and then apply it to their experiences and use it to understand or manip-
ulate the world. On the contrary: they ď¬rst have the experiences, and
they then develop language to try to communicate their experiences. A
word such as mailman, for example, would not have ď¬rst been deliberately
inventedâ”as part of, say, a larger effort to keep women in their placeâ”
and then intentionally used to induce men to become carriers of mail
and women not to. It would rather have developed with the quite local-
ized intention of naming, understanding, and communicating a familiar
experience. That is how words get made, change, develop, accumulate
new meanings, then fade away and dieâ”as reď¬‚ections of peopleâ™s experi-
ences and as functions of their desires and their attempts to satisfy those
desires.4 Words do not, in other words, have Platonic essences that are
eternally ď¬xed and thus objective in some transcendent fashion, able to
be deduced by a priori analysis or apprehended in a ď¬‚ash of insight. Like
the rules of etiquette, they are earthly, mortal affairs, driven by actual
human experience in the actual world.
The important point is that words do not create reality: they reď¬‚ect it,
or they reď¬‚ect at least our attempts at understanding it. A word such
as woozy, for example, is an instance of our commonplace experience
of being unable to quite characterize something we nonetheless know.
You probably know immediately what woozy means, but I bet you would
have a hard time explaining it. There are lots of similar terms in English
(love is a notorious one), as there are in every language. A diverting
and instructive exercise is locating them and trying to give them proper
Socratic deď¬nitions; if you are ambitious, you might also try deď¬ning
them in or translating them into other languages. But since you will
never arrive at a deď¬nition that would satisfy Socrates, this is ultimately a
futile activityâ”except, of course, insofar as you ď¬nd the attempt amusing.
Words such as woozy and love are evidence of the primacy of experience
to words: we ď¬rst have an experience, and we then try to understand it and
describe it. Of course we do not try to name or describe every experience
we have, but the more frequently we have an experience or the more
common it is, the more likely we are to try to identify and name it.5 Words
are thus not out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and loosed,
4 See Kellerâ™s On Language Change, Jespersenâ™s Growth and Structure of the English Language,
and Pinkerâ™s The Language Instinct.
5 Adam Smith saw this already in the eighteenth century: see his short essay, âConsiderations
Concerning the First Formation of Languages.â For discussion of Smithâ™s project, see my
âAdam Smithâ™s First Market: The Development of Language.â
Applying the Principles
fully developed with prefashioned meaning and armed with swords to slay
miscreants who misuse them.6 They are instead the results of our fallible
attempts to understand our world as we experience it and our desire to
communicate our experiences as we perceive them.
Thus the reformers base their injunctions on the false theory that
language works the other way around. Since language is a reď¬‚ection of
peopleâ™s attempted understanding of their experiences in the world, it is
getting the cart before the horse to try policing it with moral reproach.
One should instead try to get people to experience or understand things
differently. But those are far tougher nuts to crack. The strength and
durability of peopleâ™s habits are formidable, especially when based on
common experience. I set myself no light task if, for example, I want
you to think just as easily of a man as of a woman when I say âconsider
a nursery school teacher.â But it is sometimes possible: witness the vir-
tual disappearance in America of the honoriď¬c Miss. But the difď¬culty of
changing peopleâ™s usage of a handful of terms is itself an indication of the
reformersâ™ false theory: since the words were a reď¬‚ection of peopleâ™s expe-
rience, the mandate to change long-standing habitual usage could make
headway only when it became accompanied by a threat to something peo-
ple hold dear. It was thus not until the reformers succeeded in making
people feel socially backward or chauvinistic that their efforts began to
take hold. But you see that peopleâ™s experience had to be changed before
their language would follow suit. Trying to go in the opposite direction
is like thinking you can talk birds out of ď¬‚ying on the theory that birds
developed wings because they wanted to ď¬‚y.
Should one, then, disobey the directive to use terms like chairperson,
police ofď¬cer, service personnel (instead of soldiers), foreperson or forewoman,
spokesperson or spokeswoman, and so on? Let me be deď¬nite: yes and no.
Start with ânoâ: use these terms if you like. If they serve an end of
yoursâ”perhaps ď¬tting in with the times or current fashion, indicating
your enlightenment, signaling your solidarity with oppressed peoples, or
smashing patriarchy or âthe manââ”then by all means, go ahead. I cer-
tainly would not presume to tell you that it is morally wrong to use them,
since I do not think it is morally wrong to use them. I will admit to some
puzzlement that more women do not object to the apparent implication
6 Thinking otherwise can lead to the dilemma Rousseau posed in his 1754 Discourse on the
Origins of Inequality, a dilemma Rousseau thought inescapable, namely, that generalization
is possible only if we already possess general words, but it is possible to possess general
words only if one already possesses the power to generalize.
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 247
that they are oppressed by, and thus must be protected from, words like
chairman, but that is beside the point here. If stopping the use of such
words is important to you, then I encourage you to stop using them, and
even to try by your example to get other people to stop using them as
well. That indeed is how the marketplace of human life works. And if
recent history is any indication, many people respond well to shaming
about their language and are willing to comply with such exhortations.7
On the other hand, I confess I do ď¬nd most of the suggested neologisms
manifestly unsightly. I am one of those curmudgeonly English speakers
who thinks that the language is, or can be, beautiful. In the hands of a
masterâ”a David Hume, for example, a Keats, or an Albert Jay Nockâ”
its power and beauty surpass just about every other language going. For
that reason I view using a word like forewoman as an absolute abomina-
tion. Quite regardless of its alleged gender speciď¬cation, the word is just
damned uglyâ”as almost all words invented for political purposes must
be. Perhaps in time we shall grow accustomed to hearing words like that
and their ugliness will fade, in the way that much contemporary âperfor-
mance artâ just does not shock us any more. Perhaps. I fear for civilization
when forewoman does not offend English speakersâ™ tastes, but that might
just be my own aesthetic stubbornness. For what it is worth I note that I
am also quite repulsed at much modern architecture, which often strikes
me as an attempt to realize some bizarre, other-worldly ideal, come hell
or high water, and at the same time to inconvenience and menace actual
people as much as possible.8
Putting aesthetic matters to one side, however, introducing these neol-
ogisms into your writing can also have the disastrous consequence of
diverting your readerâ™s attention away from your subject and to you the
writer, or to this âfeministâ issue itselfâ”which, unless you are writing an
autobiography, an article on the use of âthe generic â˜he,â™ â or feminist cri-
tiques of language, is irrelevant to your purpose. When one comes across
âhe or sheâ or âs/he,â one is immediately transported to any number
7 Steven Pinker argues, however, that people often just transfer the negative connotation to
the newly preferred terms. An example he cites is âthe replacement of formerly unexcep-
tionable terms by new ones: Negro by black by African American, Spanish-American by Hispanic
by Latino,â and so on; he continues: âLinguists are familiar with this phenomenon, which
may be called the euphemism treadmill. People invent new words for emotionally charged
referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must
be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so onâ (The Blank Slate, p. 212;
emphasis in original).
8 Consider, for example, the work of Le Corbusier, or, to recur to an example from an
earlier chapter, the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.
Applying the Principles
of thoughts, perhaps good, perhaps bad, but probably none connected
with your thesis. And then your hold on the reader is lost. Whatever else
you have to say, your novel usage itself, as well as speculations about your
motives for having done so, are now present in the readerâ™s thoughts.
Losing your readerâ™s attention defeats the whole purpose, even if you
manage to avoid causing the reader to develop a general suspicion of
What I suggest is that the issue of which word or phrase or term to
use for something is more a matter of conformity to common usage and
good taste than of moral injunction. There are plenty of areas that require
moral condemnation and contempt, and Lord knows human beings need
constant reminding about things like minding their own business, keep-
ing their hands to themselves, and keeping their promises. But though
moral condemnation can be a powerful tool if used skillfully, it is, like
spanking a child, a volatile and potentially unwieldy instrument: it works
only when used sparingly and judiciously, in just the right situation, and
in reference to just the right objects. It is easily overplayed, whereupon
all its real effectiveness vanishes, however much apparent compliance it
commands in the moment. Hence it should be husbanded jealously and
brought out only when good sense indicates it has a chance of success.
And that will almost never be the case in word usage.
Despite, then, the earnestness and no doubt quite commendable, if
misguided, intentions of the reformers, they are in the end atwitter about
a thing of little importance. We all want people to have a world full of
opportunities, we all condemn and execrate the summary closing of doors
to certain kinds of people, we all regret whenever a person is denied a
chance he deserves because of some truly irrelevant fact about himâ”
in all this we are all wholeheartedly in union with the reformers. But
language is at best a symptom of the problems they want to address,
at worst entirely irrelevant; and in any case it is probably impossible to
render it completely consistent with our political ideals. It may be a bitter
pill to swallow, but I think we must accept and keep ever before our minds
Kantâ™s maxim that perfection cannot be fashioned out of so crooked a
timber as humanity.9 So let it go. Save your moral indignation for those
few cases where it can matter. When you resolve to do so, you will ď¬nd
yourself relieved of a burden, and the world will not be the worse for it.
Indeed, since you will be the better for it, the world might marginally proď¬t
9 In his 1784 essay âIdea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.â
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 249
what was the point?
If Iâ™m right that the use, or nonuse, of âgender-speciď¬câ language is not
worth the attention currently paid to it, why did I spend so long talking
about it? Thatâ™s a fair question. The ď¬rst answer is because there are others
who take it quite seriously, and it has for many become a âmoralizedâ
issue, rather than, as I suggest it should be, an issue of taste or prudence.
Smoking was at one time considered by almost everybody to be a matter of
individual preference, or perhaps of prudence given health concerns, but
not any longer. Increasingly many people now view the choice to smoke
or not as a moral choice, and they stand ready to condemn morally those
who make the wrong choiceâ”even, depending on where you live, to put
you in jail for it.10 Similarly with âgender-speciď¬câ language. People are
not, as far as I know, prepared yet to put people in jail for using it, but it
has nevertheless become something that will incur moral condemnation;
and there are academic journals, newspapers, magazines, and publishing
houses that will not accept manuscripts that use such language, regardless
of any other merits the manuscript might possess.
But the other main reason this issue was worth discussing is that it
points toward a larger argument of this book, namely, that social orders
are, or tend to be, reď¬‚ective of peopleâ™s actual experiences and their
attempts to realize their ends based on their unique local knowledge of
their situations. That was one argument I marshaled in Part I in defense of
limited government: since no third-party interposer will be in possession
of this â˜local knowledge,â™ third-party interposition in otherwise ânaturalâ
social orders is generally a bad idea. Language is an example of a relatively
orderly but unplanned social order: it arises to serve peopleâ™s local ends,
and it will change over time as their ends change and as they ď¬nd newer,
better ways to effect those ends with language. Because language, like
other unplanned or unintentionalâ”or âspontaneousâ11 â”social orders
10 As I write, measures prohibiting smoking in public and even some private venues are
either being enacted or contemplated in, among other places, England, Ireland, Cali-
fornia, and Maryland.
11 Friedrich Hayek has made the term âspontaneous orderâ the standard appellation for
such social orders; see, for example, his Constitution of Liberty, chap. 10. There is now a
large and growing literature from a number of disciplines exploring the implications
of âspontaneous orderâ explanations of social orders. For a few recent discussions from
various disciplinary perspectives, see Infantinoâ™s Ignorance and Liberty, Lalâ™s Unintended
Consequences, Ottesonâ™s Adam Smithâ™s Marketplace of Life, Skyrmsâ™s The Stag Hunt and the
Evolution of Social Structure, Sober and Wilsonâ™s Unto Others, and Youngâ™s Individual Strategy
and Social Structure.
Applying the Principles
bears this relation to peopleâ™s attempts to satisfy their ends, it too is an
area of social life that third parties should for the most part leave alone.
Or perhaps somewhat better put, it is something third parties should not
get their moral backs up about.
Sexual harassment is a far more vexing matter than deciding which pro-
nouns to use, and it should be treated accordingly. The ď¬rst step is to dis-
tinguish between sexual harassment and sexual assault. The latter clearly
falls within the scope of breaches of justice, properly so-called, and thus
justiď¬ably invokes prevention and punishment, coercive if necessary. But
sexual harassment is a different animal, and it therefore requires a differ-
ent treatment. Perhaps we should begin with this question: What exactly
is sexual harassment? It may turn out to be difď¬cult, even impossible, to
deď¬ne it once and for all, but people who write codes of conduct to pro-
hibit it or ď¬le lawsuits to punish alleged instances of it typically include as
examples things like sexually explicit jokes, sexually demeaning remarks,
and comments that take notice of a personâ™s sex and that at least some
people ď¬nd offensive. My university deď¬nes âharassmentâ not atypically
as âunwelcome conduct, whether verbal, physical, or visual, that is based
upon a personâ™s protected status, such as sex, color, race, ancestry, reli-
gion, national origin, age, physical or mental disability, citizenship status,
or other protected statusâ; it further stipulates that it âwill not tolerate
harassing conduct that affects tangible job or education beneď¬ts, that
interferes unreasonably with an individualâ™s work or academic perfor-
mance, or that creates an intimidating, hostile, demeaning, or offensive
working or learning environment.â12
Whew! That covers a lot of territory. Indeed, taking this deď¬nition at
its letter would seem to prohibit a substantial portion of normal human
social interaction. For example, I have colleagues who put articles, comic
strips, spoofs, bumper stickers, and so on outside the doors of their ofď¬ces
that lambast, sometimes in a rather pointed fashion, people whose politi-
cal or religious positions differ from their own. Does that create an âintim-
idating, hostile, demeaning, or offensive working or learning environ-
mentâ for those students and professors who are the intended targets?
12 This is from the âGeneral Employment Practicesâ in my universityâ™s Staff Handbook,
http://hr.ua.edu/empl rel/staff handbook/#harass. See also its âSexual Harassment
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 251
Remember that the word or in the deď¬nition means that it counts as
âharassmentâ if any one of the listed adjectives applies, not necessarily
all of them. Thus it seems it would not take much for this deď¬nition
to get away from us altogether. And I shall not pause here to regale the
reader with any of the seemingly endless cases in which universities across
America that have similar policies about harassment have enforced them
with an almost comic zealotry against certain kinds of âharassment,â but
have remained utterly inactive in the face of obvious instances of differ-
ent kinds of âharassment.â There have been, and continue to be, so many
such instances that whole cottage industries have arisen to document and
publicize them13 â”yet despite the embarrassing exposure of duplicity,
university administrators continue their double-standard enforcement.
Whatever else this shows, the deď¬nition of âharassmentâ at work seems
not fully adequate.
It might also be added that in restricting certain kinds of âverbal con-
duct,â even for the purpose of creating or maintaining âcivilityâ or âcivil
discourse,â these policies are in fact restricting the liberty of speech;
and that is something, it would seem, that we should be wary of. The
eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson put the argu-
ment this way:
But if a vigorous policy, applied to enslave, not to restrain from crimes, has an
actual tendency to corrupt the manners, and to extinguish the spirit of nations;
if its severities be applied to terminate the agitations of a free people, not to
remedy their corruptions; if forms be often applauded as salutary, because they
tend merely to silence the voice of mankind, or to be condemned as pernicious,
because they allow this voice to be heard; we may expect that many of the boasted
improvements of civil society, will be mere devices to lay the political spirit at rest,
and will chain up the active virtues more than the restless disorders of men. (Essay
on the History of Civil Society, p. 210)
Perhaps we can ď¬ll out our picture of what counts as sexual harassment
by asking what is not included in it. Here again examples are illustrative.
Fondling, groping, grasping, or otherwise physically handling a person
do not count. These kinds of activity are, if wanted, not harassment of
any kind; and if unwanted, then they count as assault, not harassment.
It is important to see that assault is not just a bad case of harassment.
Assault involves a breach of conduct that puts it into a different category
13 Perhaps the best recent work on this topic is Kors and Silverglateâ™s The Shadow University.
Of the numerous other treatments, one might also consult Adamsâ™s Welcome to the Ivory
Tower of Babel and Shapiroâ™s Brainwashed.
Applying the Principles
from harassment, even if one can imagine some cases that are on the
margin between the two. As a rule of thumb, if you have laid your hands
on another and attempted thereby to get that person to do something
he did not want to do, you are probably guilty of assault; if you did not
put your hands on anyone, then your actions can probably count only as
But what about hugging someone, or putting oneâ™s arm around
another, or perhaps saying âYou look nice todayâ while smiling in a way
that admits of more than one interpretation? What about telling a sex-
ually oriented joke that some people ď¬nd offensive but others do not?
What about talking business in the locker room, to which members of
the opposite sex, whichever it is, do not have access? What about using
sexual language that pretty much everyone would ď¬nd offensive, but in a
private e-mail that a co-worker, who was not its intended recipient, espied
over the writerâ™s shoulder and took offense at? Let me be deď¬nite again:
it depends. Whether cases like these count as harassment, even on the
somewhat expansive deď¬nitions some want to give it, simply cannot be
determined a priori or without familiarity with the local facts of the par-
ticular case in question. There is no ď¬nite set of rules that will infallibly
capture when a statement or action should count as harassment and when
not. We will need to know more than what was said or done: we also need
to know who was involved, what their relationships to one another were,
and what the circumstances were. And these facts are not trivial. That they
decisively determine the character of the incident is clear upon reď¬‚ec-
tion. An example makes the point. Consider how differently the use of
the word nigger should be taken in the contexts of (1) reading Huckleberry
Finn, (2) listening to contemporary hip-hop music, or (3) listening to a
speaker at a white supremicistsâ™ rally.
The ď¬rst problem, then, with sexual harassment codes and laws is that
they are blunt instruments that cannot be sensitive to the subtleties of
context that determine the character of social interaction. The expansive
and vague deď¬nition of âharassmentâ used by my university reď¬‚ects this
problem. For example, what on earth would count, or not count, as âvisual
conductâ? What is needed instead is judgment, the skill that is honed by
repeated application, testing, and correction against reality, and based
on local knowledge of the situation. Because sexual harassment, unlike
sexual assault, does not involve doing another positive harm or bodily
injury, it counts as vicious but not unjust. And as I have argued, what counts
as vice, as well as what counts as virtue, is a pragmatic and particular affair
that can be adjudicated only on a case-by-case basis by people of good
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 253
judgment. Since justice, by contrast, pertains only to a few, deď¬nite things,
its few rules can be speciď¬ed with relative precision and applied relatively
straightforwardlyâ”though even here good judgment is still required.
Other virtues and vices, by contrast, cover a far larger range of possible
human action, and hence rules here will be far more limited in their
usefulness and local judgment will play a far larger role.
The upshot, then, I suggest, is that we should get rid of ofď¬cial, written
harassment codes. Instead, we should for the most part leave these matters
to the discretion of the individuals involved. They are the ones with the
relevant local knowledge necessary to know whether a remark or gesture
was, given the context, appropriate or not, objectionable or not, deserving
of condemnation or not. Here again third parties usually do not have
the requisite contextual knowledge and thus are generally not in a good
position to make accurate judgments. The prudent thing to do, therefore,
seems to be to let individuals sort out such matters themselves. That is
also, I should add as a bonus, the proper thing to do, inasmuch as it shows
a respect for the personhood of everyone concerned and seems entailed
by the General Liberty principleâ”which, as argued in chapter 5, would
include freedom of speech.
If ofď¬cial rules or laws are inappropriate to settling allegations of sexual
harassment, and instead we should leave the matter to the judgment of the
individuals involved, have we left victims of sexual harassment to hang out
to dry by allowing them little hope of relief? Have we in effect consigned
them to simply suffer? No. It is luckily the case, ď¬rst of all, that this area
where law and punishment by the state or other ofď¬cial agencies are
inappropriate is also an area in which, to repeat, people are not done real
or â˜positiveâ™ harm. This is no coincidence. However offended a person
might be at anotherâ™s remark, such offense is of a different species from
being physically assaulted or robbed; similarly, however vicious it might
be to refuse to hire an applicant on account of the applicantâ™s sex, an
applicant is not, except in extraordinary cases, legally or morally entitled
to the job. So a co-workerâ™s caddish remarks can reveal his low character,
just as an employerâ™s sexually based decisions can reveal his own low,
not to mention imprudent, character; and the auditor or applicant can
be disappointed, disaffected, or otherwise justiď¬ably displeased. But in
neither case can there be claimed an injury to life, to liberty, to possession,
or to what is due from the promises or contracts of others.
Applying the Principles
The other consideration that is apposite here is that the target of sexual
harassment has a powerful, and often decisive, defense: his voice. There
is nothing preventing a person who is offended at someoneâ™s remarks or
jokes, or who does not want to be touched in this or any other way, or who
is being treated in an unwanted way because of his sex, from speaking
up and saying so. And there is nothing preventing a third party who is
privy to the exchange from speaking up in the personâ™s defense. Again I
suggest that this is an area in which what I have called social power can be
quite effective. I would wager that that co-worker would smarten up fast
if matter-of-factly told something like âI donâ™t think thatâ™s funny.â And if
the market forces of losing out on competent workers do not ruin him,
the sexually discriminating employer will almost always respond to the
public voicing of oneâ™s recognition and disapproval of what he is doing.
But perhaps one fears that this underestimates the difď¬cult and uncom-
fortable position in which sexual harassment can put a person. Let us
consider two cases. In the ď¬rst case suppose that a womanâ™s co-worker
greets her every day with a lewd remark or sexual innuendo. She dislikes
and is made uncomfortable by these remarks. What should she do? Given
the argument so far, it seems her ď¬rst step should be to tell him that she
dislikes his remarks and ask him to please stop itâ”and she should make
sure she does this in a way that no one, not even the cad in question, can
misinterpret what she says as âreally saying â˜I like it.â™ â Suppose he persists
nonethelessâ”what then? Before answering this question, it should be
pointed out that the number and proportion of people who would make
daily lewd comments must be low, but the number and proportion who
would continue to make them after having been informed in no uncertain
terms that they were unwanted, disliked, and perceived to be improper
must be very small. I make this point not to suggest that when it does
happen it is unimportant or trivial, but simply to register the concern
that we must be careful not to focus only on a small number of hard cases
and draw inferences from them to cover all the other cases from which
they are exceptions. As we have seen before, that can be a serious mistake
because it can lead to judgments or policies that are inappropriate or
even do violence to all the other cases.
With that caution in mind, let us continue with our line of questioning:
what should the woman do if she ď¬nds herself in one of the rare cases
when her co-worker persists in his rudeness or lewdness? It seems that
if the situation warrants it, the next step is to go to her boss (or, if
it is her boss who is the cad in question, go to his boss) and make
her complaint, demanding that he put a stop to the behavior. There
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 255
should be no reason why she should not do this, and it would seem a
rather patronizing underestimation to suggest that women are not capa-
ble of taking this step. In all but the most extraordinary cases nothing
more should be required. The caddish co-worker might now be angry
toward the woman, or think she has overreacted, but if his boss tells
him to stop, he will. How can I be so sure about this? Well, I canâ™t be
completely sure, but what I do contend is that the âdesire for mutual
sympathy of sentiments,â as Adam Smith calls it14 â”or what we might
describe as the nearly universal desire to have others agree with our
sentimentsâ”is a central, powerful motivation factor in human life.15 This
is not just peer pressure: it is also that our happiness partly depends
on comfortable, reafď¬rming relationships with others, and that feeling
socially isolated is unpleasant and almost everyone wishes to avoid it.
I return to this below, but for now let me suggest that this desire for
mutual sympathy of sentiments is stronger than often realized, and that
the threat of its absenceâ”as when it becomes clear that no one but you
thinks your joke is funnyâ”is a surprisingly powerful incentive to change
But let us not rest here: let us push to the hardest case, however
unlikely, that the co-worker is such a thorough blackguard that his lewd
behavior still continues. Perhaps the boss (and his boss?) are complicit
as well. What then? A different but similarly serious case is one in which
a workerâ™s boss makes it clear that he wants sexual favors in return for
continued employment or advancement. Suppose, furthermore, to make
the case more pointed, if still more unlikely, that the boss has arranged
things so that if the worker talks to anyone elseâ”like the bossâ™s own boss,
for exampleâ”he will somehow get off scot-free and she will suffer bad
consequences. What then?
At this ď¬nal iteration in both these cases the woman employee in ques-
tion has still another option, which would at this stage seem the wisest
thing to do in any case: quit. These are places that have proved manifestly
unwelcome to and unsuitable for her, and even if someone this late in
the game should come in and try to end the behavior, the atmosphere is
probably so poisoned as to make it unsalvageable for her. Quitting is a big
step to take, and we should not trivialize the disruption it can cause in a
14 In his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp.13â“16 and passim.
15 This fact has been reconď¬rmed in a number of recent studies. See, for example, Brownâ™s
Human Universals, Pinkerâ™s The Blank Slate, Ridleyâ™s The Origins of Virtue, and Wrightâ™s The
Applying the Principles
personâ™s life. But it can also be a blessingâ”and in extreme cases like what
we are contemplating, it might well be that the employee in question
would ď¬nd far better opportunities elsewhere. It must be added, how-
ever, that life is full of disruptions. The best-laid schemes, one might say,
oâ™ mice anâ™ men gang aft agley. There are and always will be people who
do not behave the way one would like, who do not speak the way one
would like, whose low thoughts, actions, or sentiments offend oneâ™s sen-
sibilities. Part of becoming emotionally and morally mature is learning
to cope with such people, learning to deal with such disruptions, and not
letting them unduly affect the rest of oneâ™s life. If you ď¬nd yourself faced
with an exceptionally obstinate cur who lacks the normal sensitivities to
social pressures and incentives, then it seems the prudent thing to do is
quit the situation, move on, ply your skills and services elsewhere, and
entertain no regrets. Life is too short, and there are too many important
things that require oneâ™s attention, to squander oneâ™s energies worrying
about such mean and base people.
Of course, it is also true, on the other side, that the rest of us can
reasonably expect you to use your judgment and common sense. If you are
a woman and you decide to take a job as the only female in the stevedoring
companyâ™s dockyard ofď¬ce, do not be surprised if you are subject to or
overhear salty, colorful, or sexually oriented language. If you feign shock
and offense in this kind of situation, people will be suspicious of you
on the reasonable grounds that you should have known what you were
getting into. Yet even in a situation like this, standing up for yourself
with conď¬dence and insistence just once might do the trick: you may
well gain a respect from them, and perhaps even ingratiate yourself in
such a way that will awaken their latent chivalry. Who knows? Before
long you may have them dofď¬ng their hats when they come into your
presence, addressing you as âmaâ™am,â and themselves chastising any of
their uninitiated brethren who display coarse manners around you. It
is no secret to most women that this so-called weaker sex can, when it
chooses, wield an almost occult power over men. Many men may not be
conscious of its inď¬‚uence, but it is the rare man indeed who is immune
A ď¬nal point. It is neither sexist nor insensitive, nor is it unjustly âblam-
ing the victim,â to point out that a woman should not pretend that she
can act or dress any way she pleases in any circumstances without any
regard for what might happen. This is simple common sense. Do not
act or dress in suggestive ways if you do not intend to make suggestions.
If you are assaulted or raped, of course the assailant or rapist must be
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 257
held responsible for his actions. But both prudence and good judgment
recommend that you take precautions and not put yourself in situations
where things like this are likely. Steven Pinker argues:
The suggestion that women in dangerous situations be mindful of reactions they
may be eliciting or signals they may inadvertently be sending is just common sense,
and itâ™s hard to believe any grownup would think otherwiseâ”unless she has been
indoctrinated by the standard rape-prevention programs that tell women that
âsexual assault is not an act of sexual gratiď¬cationâ and that âappearance and
attractiveness are not relevant.â16
Camille Paglia makes a similar argument, though more bluntly:
For a decade, feminists have drilled their disciples to say, âRape is a crime of
violence but not sex.â This sugar-coated Shirley Temple nonsense has exposed
young women to disaster. Misled by feminism, they do not expect rape from the
nice boys from good homes who sit next to them in class. . . .
These girls say, âWell, I should be able to get drunk at a fraternity party and
go upstairs to a guyâ™s room without anything happening.â And I say, âOh, really?
And when you drive your car to New York City, do you leave your keys on the
hood?â My point is that if your car is stolen after you do something like that, yes,
the police should pursue the thief and he should be punished. But at the same
time, the policeâ”and Iâ”have the right to say to you, âYou stupid idiot, what the
hell were you thinking?â
I mean, wake up to reality.17
One more citation on this point, this one from Wendy McElroy:
The fact that women are vulnerable to attack means we cannot have it all. We
cannot walk at night across an unlit campus or down a back alley, without incurring
real danger. These are things that every woman should be able to do, but âshouldsâ
belong in a utopian world. They belong in a world where you drop your wallet
in a crowd and have it returned, complete with credit cards and cash. A world in
which unlocked Porsches are parked in the inner city. And children can be left
unattended in the park. This is not the reality that confronts and conď¬nes us.18
We must keep in mind that we are dealing here with human beings, not
hyper-rational robots who will respond immediatelyâ”and ârationallyââ”
to oneâ™s words or wishes exactly as one would like them to. If you behave
or talk or dress in a way that leads others to develop natural or obvious
expectations, they do not bear sole responsibility for those expectations:
you share some of it too. Like other animals, human beings have natures
16 In his The Blank Slate, p. 369.
17 In her Sex, Art, and American Culture, pp. 51 and 57.
18 In her Sexual Correctness, p. 33.
Applying the Principles
that come complete with instincts, drives, and desires. Itâ™s true that human
beings also have the ability, as I have been at pains to argue, to redirect,
channel, diminish, sometimes even thwart altogether some of these nat-
ural inclinations, and that good judgment, and good character, requires
they often do so; but, as I have also been at pains to argue, that takes
a lot of work, and one would be displaying awfully bad judgment sim-
ply to assume that all human beings are perfect masters of their desires.
Human rationality is sometimes a rather slender reed with which to hope
to stem a tide of powerful desire. Indeed, David Hume went so far as
to claim, âReason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.â19
It reminds one of the politicians and military commanders who were
shockedâ”shocked!â”when they found out that stationing female per-
sonnel on previously all-male submarines and aircraft carriers resulted
in a high incidence of pregnancy.20 How is that possible, the politicians
and commanders asked with feigned incomprehension, when they were
all under strict orders to refrain from any fraternization? And then they
bring serious charges and punishments against the personnel in ques-
tion! Is it impertinent to ask them, well, what did you expect?
I conclude, then, that the donnybrooks over sexual harassment, and
especially over the speech and behavior codes that have been written in
light of it, are mostly needless and misplaced. Remember too that such
policies can be abused just as easily as they can be used: a person can
deliberately defy the spirit, but not the letter, of such policies if he has a
mind to, and then use the policy itself to defend his actions. (âSee, here
is the list of â˜harassmentâ™ activities, and what I did is not included among
them. It doesnâ™t say anything about playing that kind of music out a dorm
window over the quad. . . . â) Given the counts against them, then, what I
recommend is an end to these kinds of policies, an abolition of any laws
about them, and a vacating of any lawsuits brought in regard to them.
Remove them, in other words, from the realm of legal and state action, a
realm that is ill-equipped to deal with them in any case. The claim is not,
then, that such activities are not wrong, only that the state is the wrong
vehicle for addressing them.
Instead of seeking legal and state measures, button yourself up and
set your social power to work. If you suffer, or observe, what you think
19 In his Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 3, sec. 3, p. 415.
20 See, for example, âMarine Had Baby on Ship in War Zone,â Washington Times, June
11, 2003, http:/ /www.washtimes.com/national/20030611-120105-9326r.htm (accessed
December 15, 2005).
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 259
is objectionable conduct, tell the offender that you will not stand for it.
Encourage a person suffering it who does not have your fortitude to stand
up and be counted. Adam Ferguson expressed the point nicely:
If forms of proceeding, written statutes, or other constituents of law, cease to
be enforced by the very spirit from which they arose; they serve only to cover,
not to restrain, the iniquities of power: they are possibly respected even by the
corrupt magistrate, when they favour his purpose; but they are contemned or
evaded, when they stand in his way: And the inď¬‚uence of laws, where they have
any real effect in the preservation of liberty, is not any magic power descending
from shelves that are loaded with books, but is, in reality, the inď¬‚uence of men
resolved to be free; of men who, having adjusted in writing the terms on which
they are to live with the state, and with their fellow-subjects, are determined, by
their vigilance and spirit. (Essay on the History of Civil Society, p. 249)
Such individual action, provoked as it is by local knowledge of individ-
ual cases, will be far more sensitive to nuance and detail than third-party
legal attempts to regulate social conduct from afar. If you object that
social power will not always be successful, and that hence some bigots,
scoundrels, and curs will get away with it, well, you are surely right about
that. But then again nothing will ever be completely successful, and that
includes state or legal action. Given, however, (1) the ď¬‚exible, peculiarly
adapted, and on-the-spot dynamics of social power, (2) the nearly univer-
sal desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments, and (3) the way individual
actions can give rise to habits and then principles of behavior, we can pre-
dict that individual responses will ultimately have more inď¬‚uence than
the people calling for ofď¬cial legal remedies suppose.
discrimination and afď¬rmative action
To the related question of whether it should be legal to discriminate on
the basis of sex, or any of the other bases listed in my universityâ™s deď¬nition
of harassment, the answer is clearly: yes. No one has a right to a particular
job, a fact that can be seen immediately once it is realized that a right to
a job entails a right to someone elseâ™s propertyâ”and that is a violation
of justice, of each personâ™s legitimate claim to be left unmolested in
his person and possession. Similarly, no one has a right to anybody elseâ™s
friendship, acquaintanceship, or even politeness. If someone is assaulting
you, that is one thing; if someone just does not want to eat lunch with
you, or go to the mall with you, or invite you to his birthday party, or
play on your softball team, or go to your churchâ”well, in all these cases
he may be acting rudely or insensitively or inconsiderately, but he has
Applying the Principles
committed no injustice and hence is within his rights under the General
Liberty principle. Just as you are when you routinely do not eat lunch with
some people, go to some peopleâ™s churches, and so on. And remember
that like everyone else you too do all of these things, even if you are not
always aware of it or do not do it maliciously.
You will have noticed that I did not argue that people should be hired,
students should be admitted, and so on, solely on the basis of merit. Merit
is important, of course. Indeed, it should be emphasized that not only
is there such a thing as merit, but it is also far more important to recog-
nize and reward it than an increasing number of people today profess
to believe. The trend to depreciate merit is an alarming one because
progress in civilization largely depends on merit. I have said that in order
for judgment to get better it is necessary that its achievements receive
reward and its failures receive their appropriate consequences. An anal-
ogous point obtains with respect to merit: if we do not reward it, or ifâ”as
is today often the case in public schools, for exampleâ”we reward every-
one whether they demonstrate merit or not, we will get increasingly less
of it. It is hard, after all, to be good at something. It takes practice, dis-
cipline, and perseverance in the face of failure; and to be really good,
to be at the top of the game, what is almost always required is years of
practice, discipline, and perseverance in the face of failure. Given nat-
ural human laziness, however, most of us are simply not going to be
inclined to put out this enormous effort unless there is the possibility
of reward commensurate with what we manage to accomplish (and even
then most of us still wonâ™t do it). Since the progress of civilization rests on
the shoulders of people who accomplish things, by depreciating merit we
effectively diminish the vigor and vitality of this progress. And the long-
term consequence of that is, in the words of Rabelais, a terrible thing to
Hence encouragement of, recognition of, and reward for merit are
all of vital importance. But at the same time merit is not the only thing.
For example, when a university academic department hires, decisions
must ď¬rst be made about what specialties to look for. Those decisions
are typically not made by arguing that one specialty is more meritori-
ous than another; they are made rather on a range of factors, including
what specialties are already represented well in the department, what
specialties would best serve the studentsâ™ and departmentâ™s needs, and
21 For discussion of this point, see Barzunâ™s From Dawn to Decadence, Landesâ™s The Wealth and
Poverty of Nations, and Murrayâ™s Human Accomplishment.
Moral Hobgoblins: Inclusion and Exclusion 261
so on. When it comes down to selecting among the candidates that meet
the initial screening criteria, then a department may be hard-nosed in
looking principally for merit. Even here, however, when there are twenty
or thirty excellent candidates roughly equal in meritâ”and that is not
uncommonâ”they may consider things like collegiality or friendliness,
which again are not strictly merit. That means therefore that although
the decision process is based largely on merit, it is not based solely on
merit. But that is all right; there is nothing wrong with making decisions
in this way. If a philosophy department is searching for a person whose
specialty is, say, philosophy of religion, that may mean that exceptionally
qualiď¬edâ”even, possibly, better-qualiď¬edâ”applicants whose specialty is,
say, ancient Greek philosophy will be overlooked. It would be true in such
a case that the ancient Greek specialist was discriminated against, but it
was without malice, and in any case the department would have done no
â˜positive harmâ™â”remember that merely refraining from giving someone
a good is not the same as taking his good away from him. So although the
ancient Greek specialist might be justiď¬ably disappointed, he can have
no legitimate grounds for complaint.
Now one complication this example raises is what to do about public
schools or other entities that receive some portion of their funding from
the state: may they discriminate on the basis of any of the âprotected
statusesâ listed in my universityâ™s harassment policy? Here we leave the
realm of what people should be allowed to do morally, and enter the
realm of what they are in fact allowed to do legally. By introducing
the state into the mix, we necessarily inject its political processesâ”with
all the cumbersome baggage that accompanies themâ”into the decisions.
I shall have nothing to say here about whether this or that kind of dis-
crimination is legal or not according to the United States Constitution,
to the Fourteenth Amendment, or to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and so
on. In my view most discussions of these topics miss the point. Although
it may well be that hiring professors at a state-funded university requires
discriminating or not on the basis of any number of criteria as speciď¬ed