A Man of Many Mentors

The Philosopher’s Stoned

In this regular column, Anthony seeks to capture the unique perspective of a different ANU philosopher each fortnight. In doing so, the column will act as a bridge between the School of Philosophy and the ANU student body.

At the front of a crowded Oxford University hall sits the young Seth Lazar. In front of him, lecturing, stands the eminent political philosopher, G A Cohen. After Cohen finishes his lecture, Lazar recalls making a ‘hackney postmodernist comment about the way Cohen had framed the lecture.’ Regardless, Cohen insisted in a ‘kind and politely decisive way’ that his argument remained ‘very clear.’ For Lazar, Cohen’s diplomatic response ‘left a huge impression.’ This process of influence would recur continuously.

At the summit of a tall set of stairs in the Coombs building resides Seth Lazar’s office. From this room, he heads the School of Philosophy. Yet he was not always destined for philosophy. Originally, Lazar had been intentionally pushed away from the subject by one of his secondary school teachers, Mr Alex Burnett, ‘who was a real mentor.’ When applying for university, Burnett lent Lazar an ‘incredibly dry philosophy book’. In response, Lazar opted to study English literature at Oxford University, focusing on poetry.

John Milton, the revered English poet, in a speech to parliament, famously defended freedom of speech against encroachment by the political elite. Towards the end of his undergraduate degree, Lazar came to the disconcerting realisation that his favourite poets, with the exception of Milton, ‘all had terrible politics.’ This was Lazar’s impetus for setting aside aesthetics and instead focusing on political questions. To do this, Lazar spent a year at Harvard University immersing himself in European Philosophy.

After leaving Harvard, and spending several months travelling, Seth Lazar found himself caught again amidst intense intellectual discourse at Oxford University. He was completing his MPhil in Political Theory. During this time, Lazar’s perspective was further refined by ‘great tutors’ who guided his focus towards Anglo-American philosophy. Afterwards, Lazar continued to Oxford’s Doctoral program. Henry Shue, one of the most influential moral and political philosophers of the last four decades, supervised Lazar and left a ‘tremendous imprint’ on his work by alerting him to global perspectives in philosophy. Evidently, all of Lazar’s mentors left a distinct mark on the approach he took to his work.

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Sitting on the wooden desk of a US military officer is Seth Lazar’s magnum opus, Sparing Civilians. In this book, Lazar draws on his influence from Shue, providing a range of arguments supporting the notion that there is a special distinction ‘between harming soldiers and harming civilians in war.’ That is, killing civilians is more unethical than killing soldiers. This might seem uncontroversial, but in recent years a number of moral philosophers have called this fundamental tenet of international law and morality into question. Lazar thought this trend need to be resisted since these arguments would ‘be read by individuals who will then go kill people.’

To reconsider these radical implications, Lazar’s argument aimed to ‘supplement and exceed’ what had previously been argued by philosophers about the ethics of war. That being said, the principal aim of the book was not to argue directly against those philosophers, but instead to show that they can still ‘argue in favour of something like current international law.’ Still, the book does not ‘completely vindicate’ the precise shape and structure of current international law. Evidently, Lazar’s unique perspective provides for distinct philosophical insight.

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At a police check-point in Nigeria, Lazar is having his documents overlooked by soldiers bearing guns. On this particular trip, Lazar crossed Africa overland – from Morocco to South Africa – completely by public transport. He visited, in order, a town beginning with every letter of the alphabet. His wife, Lu Barnham, later wrote a book about trip, called An African Alphabet: From Agadir to Zagazi. Many times Lazar ‘confronted power very directly.’ He hopes this has given him practical insight into philosophical questions concerning ‘the nature of arbitrary authority and individual freedom.’ Again, Lazar’s diverse life experiences have provided him with unique insight into philosophical questions.

Deontological ethical theories state that, under conditions of certainty, individuals have duties to always abide by. Conventional deontological ethics, however, does not often consider decision making under imperfect information. For example, say the deontological rule is that one can only kill in self-defence: is an individual permitted to kill if they are 90 percent sure another person is trying to kill them?

The Australian Research Council recently awarded the School of Philosophy a funding grant to explore such concerns. This is one of the freshest research projects being completed within the philosophy department. Along with Lazar, the project involves Alan Hájek, Frank Jackson, Philip Pettit, Katie Steele, and Lara Buchak. Lazar’s contribution to the project is to develop a deontological decision theory, as part of a prospective book titled Duty Under Doubt: Deontological Decision Making with Imperfect Information. In this way, Lazar is currently applying his unique perspective to different philosophical questions.

In November 2016, during the Republican presidential debates, Marco Rubio claimed that the world needs ‘more welders and less philosophers’. Despite Rubio’s ardent criticism, Lazar maintains that philosophy has ‘instrumental value’ in terms of earnings, whilst still being ‘incredibly interesting and fun’. Also, everyone benefits from studying philosophy by developing ‘analytical thinking, reasoning, argumentation and clarity of writing’. Though, if students remain in doubt, Lazar recommends they try interacting with philosophy through narrative-driven podcasts at hiphination.org.

Throughout his lifetime, many influences have guided Seth Lazar in different directions. While exploring the vast plains of philosophy, his numerous mentors, and varied life experiences, have provided him with a distinctive map. And now, as his endeavours shift directions, it is clear this unique insight will remain influential.