What is your demon?

I don’t know, but perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’d never answer this question sincerely in public.


What is the most important part of your education?

The most? There are too many ways for parts of an education to be important identify “the most” important, but here are a few important ones: learning to read and to love reading, being bored and learning to find something interesting, nerd camp, 10th grade European history, Mr. Brunetti in 12th grade English class calling me on my bullshit, the time all the students in M.C. Dillon’s Nietzsche seminar went to his house in the woods for an overnight of dinner, drinks, and philosophical conversation, Abisi Sharakiya’s intimidating encouragement and invaluable support, T. M. Scanlon taking a chance on me and letting me come to Harvard for a year, the patient insightfulness of Henry Richardson (my advisor at Georgetown), and generally spending time with people smarter and more talented than me.


Which thinker has had the greatest influence on your life?

G.A. Cohen. For a while in college I was a pretty hardcore libertarian. I read Cohen’s arguments against Nozick, grappled with them, but ultimately they made me change my mind about some ideas with which I had very strongly identified, and had probably been dogmatic about. Going through that process taught me I’d be much happier, and a better thinker, if I had a different kind of relationship with my ideas---if I wasn’t so attached to them as to be worried about being shown to be mistaken.


What do you doubt most?

Again with “most”. Look, to any answer I give to the question of what I doubt the most we can add something that makes it even less believable. It’s like asking someone for the highest number they can think of; to any “n” you can always append “+ n”.  For example, I’m an atheist, so I doubt there’s a god. But is that what I doubt the most? I probably doubt more that there are two gods. And probably more than that, I doubt there are three gods, and so on. Well, perhaps not “and so on.” It may be more plausible that there are four or more gods, as there is a bit too much “this looks like the result of committee work” in the world. But you get the idea. More doubtable than “there’s three gods” is “there are three gods and they’re made of pizza,” or even “there are three gods and you’re reading this sentence.”


If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?

I think the risk of unintended consequences is high with answers to questions like this, so I’m tempted to start small. But that’s no fun. So I’d say: vastly improved understanding of how to keep our planet habitable, peaceful, and beautiful indefinitely, and the means to act on that understanding.


How do you view wealth?

Sort of like how Homer Simpson views alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. (Well, not all.)


What does it mean to be human?   

I take it this is not a question about biological taxonomy, as in “what does it mean to be fungal?” Rather, it’s a question that’s typically taken to be asking about a distinctly human aim or problem. Getting to the office on time is a distinctly human aim and flat tires are a distinctly human problem, but both of those lack the grandiosity expected of answers to this kind of question. But so would probably any answer plausibly true of any human-wide aim or problem. So rather let me talk about what it means to be human in terms of opportunities. Given biology and culture, to be human is to have a massive amount of opportunities other beings do not: opportunities to think, to create, to achieve, to appreciate, to act. The extent of these opportunities vary across time and place and other variables, of course, but still, they are there. Note that I’m not saying that being human means taking advantage of these opportunities, or even thinking about them. I’m not making any universal declarations about what people need to do. Rather, I’m just describing the seemingly distinctive situation we’re in.


What illusion do you suffer from? 

That I have more time than I do.


What would you never do, no matter the price?   

P & -P


If you could choose, what would you have for your last meal? 

A cure.


The question you’d most like to ask others?   

What’s something you think is beautiful, that you think many people would disagree with you about?


Your favourite word? 



What is your motto?   

Don’t let assholes turn you into an asshole.


What is a good death?   

I don’t see how we’re going to be able to answer this question—the answer to which seems to depend on some empirical information—until we develop the technology to bring people back from the dead who can report on their experiences.


What do people accuse you of?   

Some people accuse me of being infuriatingly charitable. I understand why they’d say that.


What is the meaning of life?

We should notice that “meaning” typically has a triadic structure: X means Y to Z, where X is some thing the meaning of which is in question, Y is what X means, and Z is the entity who takes X to mean Y. But what is it for X to mean Y to Z? It’s for Z to take Y to be what’s important about X. Suppose Ulysses sends Violet flowers. What does this mean? To Violet, it means that Ulysses cares about her. (To the florist, it may mean that the ad campaign to which Ulysses responded was worth it.) So when it comes to “meaning of life,” I think we should understand it as referring to what a person takes to be important about their own life.

There are a few things we should note about this. First, what a person takes to be important about their own life may vary from person to person. That’s not a problem. It might have been a problem if a person’s account of the meaning of (their) life was prescriptive for others. But that’s not going on here. If Sam says the meaning of his life is being a good soldier he is not saying that meaning of your life is or should be about being a good soldier. Second, though this account of the meaning of life is “subjective,” it doesn’t mean people can’t be mistaken about the meaning of their lives. They can be mistaken, since they might misidentify what they take to be important about their lives. We aren’t always transparent to ourselves. Third, meaning is not necessarily moralized. That is, for a person to identify what’s important to them about their life is not to thereby claim that it’s what they themselves should think is important, or that it is morally right for them to take it to be important. That’s a distinct issue.

Now you may be wondering what is the meaning of my life, to me. But it is past the deadline when these answers are due. Sorry. I thought I would have more time.


From the Wealth edition, available from our online store