There’s some bad advice going around!


Be careful what you wish for: Here at THE HOWLER, we used to complain about the silence of the philosophy professors.

Every faculty has “logicians,” we noted—and our so-called public discourse is riddled with elementary logical tangles! Why don’t the philosophy professors get involved, we incomparably asked.

Be careful what you wish for!

Yesterday, Sarah Conly penned an op-ed column in the New York Times. According to the Times, Conly is an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin!

We definitely don't have a problem with that! At first, in fact, we thought our advice had been taken. Soon, though, Conly was sharing a perspective on large sugary soda drinks—a perspective she had gleaned from the work of John Stuart Mill.

More to the point, Conly had gleaned her perspective from Mill’s little-known and so-called “harm principle.” As you know, Mill once said things like this:
CONLY (3/25/13): John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 that the only justifiable reason for interfering in someone’s freedom of action was to prevent harm to others. According to Mill’s “harm principle,” we should almost never stop people from behavior that affects only themselves, because people know best what they themselves want.

That “almost,” though, is important. It’s fair to stop us, Mill argued, when we are acting out of ignorance and doing something we’ll pretty definitely regret. You can stop someone from crossing a bridge that is broken, he said, because you can be sure no one wants to plummet into the river. Mill just didn’t think this would happen very often.

Mill was wrong about that, though. A lot of times we have a good idea of where we want to go, but a really terrible idea of how to get there...
Question: Did we really need John Stuart Mill to help us get clear on these points? We’re always surprised when we turn to the giants to clarify matters like this.

Frankly, we tend to be surprised when we turn to the giants at all. This brings us back to some shaky advice Chris Hayes, the liberal intellectual, dispensed to Ta-Nehisi Coates in January of this year.

Among the people we read on line, Coates has at least one massive advantage; he’s an original thinker. He came up in a non-standard way. He takes his own approach.

Until he encounters Hayes, that is! On January 28, Coates appeared on Up. The following day, he described some bad advice he received there:
COATES (1/29/13): After the show on Saturday, Chris Hayes was nice enough to set with me and talk social contract, a bit. We joked about how people so often throw the term "social contract" but often don't really know the ends and outs of it. And then Chris suggested the classics—Hobbes, Locke and Rosseau, with a little Scanlon sprinkled in.

So that's it...Dissertations have been written on this subject so I doubt I'll get the full extent of it. I'm going to basically start with Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. I might make it to Rawls, I'm not sure. But I'm opening the journey up. I can't go alone.
There's no question Chris was especially nice that day. Having said that, we’ll be totally honest:

We’ve never heard anyone joke about how people throw the term "social contract" around without really knowing the ins and outs of it! That said, we’re pretty sure the answer is not to waste your time reading Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and possibly even Rawls.

Too late! Inexplicably, Coates took Hayes’ advice—and now he’s reading Hobbes on-line! It’s painful to see an original thinker wasting his time this way.

What would Locke say about sugary drinks? Please don’t let this one be next!

Philosophically speaking: We strongly recommend Coates’ ongoing daily dispatches about his ongoing trip to France. Just click here, start reading!


  1. Quaker in a BasementMarch 26, 2013 at 5:32 PM

    Up next: Paper or plastic? What does Spinoza say?

  2. Wow. Thank you for recommending Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    I had never heard of him.

    Not to diminish Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, but Mr. Coates doesn't need a speck of advice from Chris Hayes (and that's not meant to diminish Hayes either).

  3. Conservative blogger James Taranto at the Wall St. Journal also criticized this column by Sarah Conly at

  4. I'm not sure what Bob expected a philosophy professor to do, except talk like a philosophy professor. Guys like Krugman, who can, and take the trouble to, write about their subjects in an accessible fashion, are rare birds. It's one of the reasons people like Conly are so easily strawmanned by the Limbaughs of the world. Limbaugh is an ignoramus, but he knows exactly how to communicate with people in ways they understand, and he's more than willing to do it. Conly has the urge to show off some, and she indulged it. It's part of the liberal disease, as well: many liberals have as an imperative, not to change things, but to demonstrate their brilliance, or at the least, marked superiority, to the world. So why not talk about philosophers few common people have heard of? You aren't talking to common folk, anyway. You might be talking to your tenure committee, or some book publisher, but not to common people. This piece wasn't about soft drinks and obesity and diabetes; this piece was about Conly.