Human Nature: U-M prof Scott Hershovitz talks philosophy with his kids in the book "Nasty, Brutish, and Short"


A portrait of author Scott Hershovitz alongside his book cover for Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Author photo by Rex and Hank Hershovitz.

U-M professor Scott Hershovitz divulges conversations with his two young sons and connects those chats to philosophical concepts in his new book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids. Among the topics are swearing, sports, racism, and religion.

Hershovitz delves into both questions that his children raise and questions that he and his wife, Julie, face as parents. What makes the book so approachable is that the conversations are set in humous, relatable, day-to-day scenarios. For example, the subject of individual rights emerges when one of the children, Hank, takes ages to decide what to have for lunch after being offered a quesadilla or hamburger:

“I’ll have the burger,” he said, decades later.
“It’s already on the table,” Julie replied. Hank always chooses a burger if one’s available.
Hank was not happy with this development. He started to cry.
“What’s wrong, Hank?” I asked. “That was what you wanted.”
“Mommy didn’t let me decide,” he said.
“Sure she did. You said you wanted a burger and you have a burger.”
“No,” Hank said. “She predicted me.”
“Yeah, but she got it right.”
It’s still insulting,” Hank insisted. And his burger got cold while he wailed. 

Such an interchange touches on free will and punishment. Early on, Hershovitz reveals one reason why philosophical discussions with his children are so effective and revealing, which is that “they aren’t worried about seeming silly.” The kids’ lack of inhibition and Hershovitz’s engagement and willingness to take the kids’ concerns seriously open the door to thoughtful and funny exchanges.

The chapters cover many philosophical dilemmas, from reparations for injustices to truth as it relates to the Tooth Fairy. The “Mind” chapter wonders whether we are actually here and also showcases one of Hershovitz’s strengths in not taking something at face value but rather evaluating several possibilities with his children. Hershovitz thinks back to his own childhood: 

The problem we’re hitting here is the same one I discovered in kindergarten, when I realized that I didn’t know what red looked like to my mother. […] I wanted to know what it was like to be her, looking at something red. And I realized I had no way to find out.

One gains privacy from having their own individual mind, but it also presents challenges to understanding each other. 

Hershovitz not only probes philosophical dilemmas but also provides suggestions for how to have similar conversations with children and encourage them to engage thoughtfully. He recommends:

When a kid says something’s not fair, ask what fairness is. Or whether it’s your job to make things fair. Or whether she ever benefits from unfairness. You don’t have to have all the answers in mind to ask questions. Just see where the conversation goes.

Seeing where the conversation goes with children can be delightful, as Nasty, Brutish, and Short kindly reminds us. 

Hershovitz is director of the Law and Ethics Program and professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan. I spoke with him about Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Q: You are originally from Georgia. How did you come to live and work in Ann Arbor? 
A: We took a circuitous route. We lived in Oxford, New Haven, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. before we settled in Ann Arbor. We came for the University. The law school is one of the best in the world, and so is the philosophy department. Michigan is the perfect academic home, and we love Ann Arbor as a community for our family.

Q: Would you share how you decided to write about kids and philosophy?
A: From the times my kids were little, I noticed that they asked philosophical questions—and tried to answer them. And they were just philosophically interesting creatures. I started to incorporate stories about my kids into my teaching. If we were talking about the purposes of punishment, I’d begin my class with a story about one of my boys—some of their bad behavior—and then I’d ask my class how they thought we ought to respond. My class would come alive. Everyone likes talking about kids and the crazy things they do. And those conversations were a good launching point for thinking about the philosophy, or legal cases, that we’d read.

At some point, I realized that the same stories could be used to bring philosophy to a broader audience.

Q: Nasty, Brutish, and Short is your debut book. How did you go about writing it and deciding on which philosophical topics to include? 
A: My kids drove the agenda. I think some of the questions they had (i.e., Does God exist? Am I dreaming my entire life? Why do parents get to tell kids what to do?) occur to lots of kids. But some of the topics the book covers reflect their idiosyncratic interests or experiences (How big is the universe? When is it OK to take revenge?). 

I think all kids are philosophers. But not all kids ask the same questions. Part of the joy in talking to kids is discovering just what big ideas they’ve got.

Q: Has writing about philosophical conversations with children influenced your research, too? 
A: Yes, as I said a moment ago, my kids have shaped my teaching since they arrived on the scene. But they’ve had an impact on my research, too. There’s a chapter in the book on revenge and punishment. My kids got me interested in the question of how we should respond to wrongdoing—and thinking through why it seemed natural to them to take revenge helped me understand what purposes it might serve. 

Q: Your voice in the book is conversational, and you bring in a lot of humor. How did you strike this tone? 
A: That’s good to hear! My favorite philosopher to read is Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her work is more academic, but you feel like you’re having a conversation. Her personality shines through the page. I wanted my book to sound like a conversation with me. To achieve that, I read out loud a lot as I write. I’m trying to make sure it sounds like me.

Q: Was any one chapter more difficult to write than the others?  
A: The chapter on sex, gender, and sports was a challenge, mostly because I didn’t know what I’d think about some of the central questions it asks—like whether trans athletes should be eligible to participate in women’s sports—before I started writing. I read a lot of trans philosophy, and I read a lot about sex equality in sports. And I came to think that the answer is yes, when you work through the reasons that we have sports—and the reasons that we have men’s and women’s sports—it makes sense to welcome anyone who identifies as a woman into women’s sports. I learned a lot writing that chapter, and it’s one of my favorites in the book.

Q: The chapter called “Truth” brings up an interesting conundrum. Parents need to impart the truth to children while simultaneously making sure “not to create an echo chamber by teaching kids not to trust sources of information with which you might disagree.” Giving children the tools to evaluate information presents a challenge. How do you strike this balance of letting your kids explore ideas?
A: I try to keep an open mind about my kid’s views. But I make them defend their opinions. I ask them lots of questions—and make them make arguments. I want them to get in the habit of questioning their own ideas—wondering whether they might be wrong.

I also teach them to evaluate sources of information, especially when it comes to news. I want them to ask questions like: Is this person trying to inform me or outrage me? If they learn they’re wrong, do I trust that they would tell me? Do they correct mistakes or hide them? I don’t think I have to shield them from bad sources of information—that won’t work. But I do want them to be equipped to critically evaluate them.

Q: You make some suggestions about how people might engage with children on philosophy. Do you have any advice if a parent does not know much about philosophy?  
A: Yes! There’s a wonderful website called Teaching Children Philosophy, hosted by the Prindle Institute for Ethics. It has modules for many of the most common picture books. Each has a primer for parents on the philosophical questions that the book raises. And then it has questions you can ask your kids as a read. It’s a great way to make old books feel new and to spark deep conversations with your kids.

Q: What is on your nightstand to read? 
A: I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy alongside my kids, and I just adore it.

Q: What is next for you? 
A: I’m working on two books. 

My next book is aimed at an academic audience. It’s about law and some of the philosophical questions it raises: What is the rule of law? Are we obligated to obey the law? When and why? 

After I finish that, I’ll be writing another book for a wide audience. It will be similar to Nasty, Brutish, and Short, in that it will use personal stories as a springboard to philosophy. But it won’t be about kids. It’s going to address questions about life, death, and love.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.