Better Story, Harder Philosophy

x-posted from Leiter Reports.

When I started driving home to Poughkeepsie from Hershey, PA after a two-day trip for what ended up being Episode 1, I said to my assistant, “Am I taking the side of a bunch of corrupt millionaires against a group of poor orphans?” Sometimes the implications of your philosophical views end up surprising you.

Producing a program that is both story-driven and philosophy has been a lot like doing a Fitch-style proof in intro logic. You can work backwards from the conclusion, or forward from the premises. This season I often found the philosophy first, and sought out a story whose conflict is the philosophical issue I wanted to talk about. But in the episodes, I usually run the story first and philosophy second. This was the case with Episode 1, on the case of the Hershey fortune and the possibility of posthumous harm. I had for years puzzled over the question of how testation and the right to control posthumous wealth could be justified. I wanted to find that one legal or historical case that would bring out all of the philosophical questions behind this issue. I went through many different legal cases involving conditional bequests, charitable trusts, and dynasty trusts, and settled on the Hershey story.

Seeking stories after you know what philosophy you want to present is harder than coming to a story that just invites philosophy (Rachel Dolezal and racial ontology, or my Episode 4 story on Larycia Hawkins).  Human stories are not neatly packaged like philosophical thought experiments. They have nuance and complexity precisely of the kind philosophers like to abstract away from to make arguments. I went into the episode wanting to find a story where the state’s enforcement of dead-hand control led to a kind of absurdity that almost any impartial observer, no matter the political or philosophical leanings, would say, “well, okay, that’s unjust.” I thought I found it with the Hershey story, but in reality, the story kept getting more and more complicated, and it started departing from the nice neat little example I wanted to use to make the case for my philosophical thesis. The Board of Managers of the Hershey trust have essentially been trying to evade the laws requiring them to abide by Hershey’s wishes, while the Orphan Army (the episode explains who they are) have been fighting the state to uphold the original Milton Hershey deed. I was trying to argue against the justifiability of perpetual posthumous control of wealth, placing me in alliance with the millionaires spending money on golf courses and against the orphans who just wanted to serve more orphans! That’s my example of injustice? But, then, if you heard the episode, there was yet another turn to the story. How to manage the philosophy in the presence of an out of control story?

From this experience, I learned that what you lose in tidiness you gain elsewhere, as long as you’re up to the challenge of confronting rather than asking your audience to abstract away from the complexity. Complexity in story can be valuable in making a listener desire to think longer and harder about the connection between the the turns of the story and the philosophy, and just desire to know how to resolve the philosophical issue. The intro books on documentary audio production look a lot like rules for intro-writing rules: make sure there is signposting. But just like in print, if there is too much signposting and hand-holding, your reader can lose the valuable experience of making the connections on their own, and wanting to work toward the conclusion. Maybe this can be more valuable in terms of outreach than the outright assertions of connections and clarity of sign-posting we’re used to in analytic philosophy, at least if the form of outreach is bridging narrative storytelling with philosophy.

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