Lex Fridman Podcast - #170 - Ronald Sullivan The Ideal of Justice in the Face of Controversy and Evil

The following is a conversation with Ronald Sullivan, a professor at Harvard Law School

known for taking on difficult and controversial cases.

He was on the head legal defense team for the Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez

in his double murder case.

He represented one of the Gena 6 defendants and never lost the case during his years in

Washington D.C.’s Public Defender Services office.

In 2019, Ronald joined the legal defense team of Harvey Weinstein, a film producer

facing multiple charges of rape and other sexual assault.

This decision met with criticism from Harvard University students, including an online petition

by students seeking his removal as faculty dean of Winthrop House.

Then, a letter supporting him signed by 52 Harvard Law School professors appeared in

the Boston Globe on March 8, 2019.

Following this, the Harvard administration succumbed to the pressure of a few Harvard

students and announced that they will not be renewing Ronald Sullivan’s dean position.

This created a major backlash in the public discourse over the necessary role of universities

in upholding the principles of law and freedom at the very foundation of the United States.

This conversation is brought to you by Brooklyn & Sheets, WineAxis online wine store, Monk

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As a side note, let me say that the free exchange of difficult ideas is the only mechanism through

which we can make progress.

Truth is not a safe space.

Truth is humbling, and being humbled can hurt.

But this is the role of education, not just in the university but in business and in life.

Freedom and compassion can coexist, but it requires work and patience.

It requires listening to the voices and to the experiences unlike our own.

Listening, not silencing.

This is the Lex Friedman Podcast, and here is my conversation with Ronald Sullivan.

You were one of the lawyers who represented the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in

advance of a sexual assault trial.

For this, Harvard forced you to step down as faculty deans, you and your wife of Winthrop


Can you tell the story of this saga from first deciding to represent Harvey Weinstein to

the interesting complicated events that followed?

Yeah, sure.

So I got a call one morning from a colleague at the Harvard Law School who asked if I would

consent to taking a call from Harvey.

He wanted to meet me and chat with me about representing him.

I said yes, and one thing led to another.

I drove out to Connecticut where he was staying and met with him and some of his advisors,

and then a day or two later, I decided to take the case.

This would have been back in January of 2019, I believe.

So the sort of cases, I have a very small practice most of my time is teaching and writing,

but I tend to take cases that most deem to be impossible.

I take the challenging sorts of cases, and this fit the bill.

It was quite challenging in the sense that everyone had prejudged the case.

When I say everyone, I just mean the general sentiment in the public had the case prejudged,

even though the specific allegations did not regard any of the people in the New Yorker.

It’s the New Yorker article that exposed everything that was going on, allegedly, with Harvey.

So I decided to take the case, and I did.

Is there a philosophy behind you taking on these very difficult cases?

Is it a set of principles?

Is it just your love of the law, or is there a set of principles why you take on the cases?

Yeah, I’d like to take on hard cases, and I like to take on the cases that are with

unpopular defendants, unpopular clients.

With respect to the latter, that’s where Harvey Weinstein fell, it’s because we need lawyers

and good lawyers to take the unpopular cases, because those sorts of cases determine what

sort of criminal justice system we have.

If we don’t protect the rights and the liberties of those whom the society deems to be the

least and the last, the unpopular client, then that’s the camel’s nose under the tent.

If we let the camel’s nose under the tent, the entire tent is going to collapse.

That is to say, if we short circuit the rights of a client like Harvey Weinstein, then the

next thing you know, someone will be at your door, knocking it down and violating your


There’s a certain creep there with respect to the way in which the state will respect

the civil rights and civil liberties of people, and these are the sorts of cases that test


For example, there was a young man many, many years ago named Ernesto Miranda.

By all accounts, he was not a likable guy.

He was a three time knife thief and not a likable guy, but lawyers stepped up and took

his case.

Because of that, we now have the Miranda warnings, you have the right to remain silent.

Those warnings that officers are forced to give to people.

So it is through these cases that we express oftentimes the best values in our criminal

justice system.

So I proudly take on these sorts of cases in order to vindicate not only the individual

rights of the person whom I’m representing, but the rights of citizens writ large, most

of whom do not experience the criminal justice system, and it’s partly because of lawyers

who take on these sorts of cases and establish rules that protect us, average everyday ordinary

concrete citizens.

From a psychological perspective, just you as a human, is there fear, is there stress

from all the pressure?

Because if you’re facing, I mean, the whole point, a difficult case, especially in the

latter that you mentioned of the going against popular opinion, you have the eyes of millions

potentially looking at you with anger as you try to defend this set of laws that this country’s

built on.

No, it doesn’t stress me out particularly.

It sort of comes with the territory.

I try not to get too excited in either direction.

So a big part of my practice is wrongful convictions, and I’ve gotten over 6,000 people out of

prison who’ve been wrongfully incarcerated, and a subset of those people have been convicted,

and people who’ve been in jail 20, 30 years who have gotten out.

And those are the sorts of cases where people praise you and that sort of thing.

And so, look, I do the work that I do, I’m proud of the work that I do, and in that sense

I’m sort of a part time Daoist, the expression reversal is the movement of the Dao.

So I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low, I just try to do my work and represent

people to the best of my ability.

So one of the hardest cases of recent history would be the Harvey Weinstein in terms of

popular opinion or unpopular opinion.

So if you continue on that line, where does that story take you, of taking on this case?

Yeah, so I took on the case and then there was a few students at the college.

So let me back up, I had an administrative post at Harvard College, which is a separate

entity from the Harvard Law School, Harvard College is the undergraduate portion of Harvard

University and the law school is obviously the law school, and I initially was appointed

as master of one of the houses.

We did a name change five or six years into it and were called faculty deans.

But the houses at Harvard are based on the college system of Oxford and Cambridge.

So when students go to Harvard after their first year, they’re assigned to a particular

house or college and that’s where they live and eat and so forth.

And these are undergraduate students?

These are undergraduate students.

So I was responsible for one of the houses as its faculty dean.

So it’s an administrative appointment at the college and some students who clearly didn’t

like Harvey Weinstein began to protest about the representation.

And from there, it just mushroomed into one of the most craven, cowardly acts by any university

in modern history.

It’s just a complete and utter repudiation of academic freedom.

And it is a decision that Harvard certainly will live to regret, frankly, it’s an embarrassment.

We expect students to do what students do and I encourage students to have their voices

heard and to protest.

I mean, that’s what students do.

What is vexing are the adults.

The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, absolutely craven and cowardly.

The dean of the college, same thing, Rakesh Khurana, craven and cowardly.

They capitulated to the loudest voice in the room and ran around afraid of 19 year olds.

Oh, 19 year olds are upset that I need to do something.

And it appeared to me that they so desired the approval of students that they were afraid

to make the tough decision and the right decision.

It really could have been an important teaching moment at Harvard.

Very important teaching moment.

So they forced you to step down from that faculty dean position at the house.

I would push back on the description a little bit.

So I don’t write the, you know, the references to the op ed I did in New York time.

Harvard made a mistake by making me step down or something like that.

So I don’t write those things.

I did not step down and refuse to step down.

Harvard declined to renew my contract.

And I made it clear that I was not going to resign as a matter of principle and forced

them to do the cowardly act that they, in fact, did.

And you know, the worst thing about this, they did the college, Dean Gay and Dean Khurana,

commissioned this survey.

They’ve never done this before.

Survey from the students, you know, how do you feel at Winthrop House?

And the funny thing about the survey is they never released the results.

Why did they never release the results?

They never released the results because I would bet my salary that the results came

back positive for me.

And it didn’t fit their narrative because most of the students were fine.

Most of the students were fine.

It was the loudest voice in the room.

So they never released it, and I challenged them to this day, release it, release it.

But no, they wanted to create this narrative.

And when the data didn’t support the narrative, then they just got silent, oh, we’re not going

to release it.

The students demanded it.

I demanded it.

And they wouldn’t release it because I just know in my heart of hearts that it came back

in my favor that most students at Winthrop House said they were fine.

There was a group of students that weaponized the term unsafe.

They said we felt unsafe, and they bantied this term about.

But again, I’m confident that the majority of students at Winthrop House said they felt

completely fine and felt safe and so forth.

And the supermajority, I am confident, either said I feel great at Winthrop or I don’t care

one way or the other.

And then there was some minority who had a different view.

But lessons learned, it was a wonderful opportunity at Winthrop.

I met some amazing students over my 10 years as master and then faculty dean, and I’m still

in touch with a number of students, some of whom are now my students at the law school.

So in the end, I thought it ended up being a great experience, the national media was

just wonderful in this, just wonderful.

People wrote such wonderful articles and accounts and wagged their finger appropriately at Harvard.

Compare me to John Adams, which I don’t think is an apt comparison, but it’s always great

to read something like that.

But anyway, that was the Harvard versus Harvey situation.

So that seems like a seminal mistake by Harvard, and Harvard is one of the great universities

in the world.

And sort of its successes and its mistakes are really important for the world as a beacon

of how we make progress.

So what lessons for the bigger academia that’s under fire a lot these days, what bigger lessons

do you take away?

Like how do we make Harvard great?

How do we make other universities, Yale, MIT great in the face of such mistakes?

Well, I think that we have moved into a model where we have the consumerization of education.

That is to say, we have feckless administrators who make policy based on what the students


Now this comment is not intended to suggest that students have no voice in governance,

but it is to suggest that the faculty are there for a reason.

They are among the greatest minds on the planet Earth in their particular fields, at schools

like Harvard and Yale, Stanford, the schools that you mentioned, MIT, quite literally the

greatest minds on Earth, they are there for a reason.

Things like curriculum and so forth are rightly in the province of faculty.

And while you take input and critique and so forth, ultimately, the grownups in the

room have to be sufficiently responsible to take charge and to direct the course of a

student’s education.

And my situation is one example where it really could have been an excellent teaching moment

about the value of the Sixth Amendment, about what it means to treat people who are in the

crosshairs of the criminal justice system, but rather than having that conversation,

it’s just this consumerization model, well, there’s a lot of noise out here, so we’re

going to react in this sort of way.

Higher education as well, unfortunately, has been commodified in other sorts of ways that

has reduced or impeded, hampered these schools commitments to free and robust and open dialogue.

So to the degree that academic freedom doesn’t sit squarely at the center of the academic

mission, any school is going to be in trouble.

And I really hope that we weather this current political moment where 19 year olds without

degrees are running universities and get back to a system where faculty, where adults make

decisions in the best interests of the university and the best interests of the student.

Even to the degree though, some of those decisions may be unpopular, and that is going to require

a certain courage and hopefully in time, and I’m confident that in time, administrators

are going to begin to push back on these current trends.

Harvard’s been around for a long time, it’s been around for a long time for a reason,

and one of the reasons is that it understands itself not to be static.

So I have every view that Harvard is going to adapt and get itself back on course and

be around another 400 years, at least that’s my hope.

So I mean, what this kind of boils down to is just having difficult conversation, difficult


When you mentioned sort of 19 year olds, and it’s funny, I’ve seen this even at MIT, it’s

not that they shouldn’t have a voice.

They do seem to, I guess you have to experience it and just observe it.

They have a strangely disproportionate power.

It’s very interesting to basically, I mean, you say, yes, there’s great faculty and so

on, but it’s not even just that the faculty is smart or wise or whatever, it’s that they’re

just silenced.

So the terminology that you mentioned is weaponized as sort of safe spaces or that certain conversations

make people feel unsafe.

What do you think about this kind of idea?

Is there some things that are unsafe to talk about in the university setting?

Is there lines to be drawn somewhere?

And just like you said on the flip side with a slippery slope, is it too easy for the lines

to be drawn everywhere?

Yeah, that’s a great question.

So this idea of unsafe space, at least the vocabulary derives from some research, academic

research about feeling psychologically unsafe.

And so the notion here is that there are forms of psychological disquiet that impedes people

from experiencing the educational environment to the greatest degree possible.

And that’s the argument.

And assuming for a moment that people do have these feelings of disquiet at elite universities

like MIT and like Harvard, that’s probably the safest space people are going to be in

for their lives because when they get out into the quote unquote real world, they won’t

have the sorts of nets that these schools provide, safety nets that these schools provide.

So to the extent that research is descriptive of a psychological feeling, I think that the

duty of the universities are to challenge people.

Seems to me that it’s a shame to go to a place like Harvard or a place like MIT, Yale, any

of these great institutions and come out the same person that you were when you went in.

That seems to be a horrible waste of four years and money and resources.

Rather, we ought to challenge students, that they grow, challenge some of their most deeply

held assumptions.

They may continue to hold them, but the point of an education is to rigorously interrogate

these fundamental assumptions that have guided you thus far and to do it fairly and civilly.

So to the extent that there are lines that should be drawn, there’s a long tradition

in the university of civil discourse.

So you should draw a line somewhere between civil discourse and uncivil discourse.

The purpose of a university is to talk difficult conversations, tough issues, talk directly

and frankly, but do it civilly.

Also to yell and cuss at somebody and that sort of thing, well, do that on your own space,

but observe the norms of civil discourse at the university.

So look, I think that the presumption ought to be that the most difficult topics are appropriate

to talk about at a university.

That ought to be the presumption.

Now should MIT, for example, give its imprimatur to someone who is espousing the flat earth

theory, the earth is flat, right?

If certain ideas are so contrary to the scientific and cultural thinking of the moment, yeah,

there’s space there to draw a line and say, yeah, we’re not going to give you this platform

to tell our students that the earth is flat.

But a topic that’s controversial, but contestatory, that’s what universities are for.

If you don’t like the idea, present better ideas and articulate them.

And I think there needs to be a mechanism outside of the space of ideas of humbling.

I’ve done martial arts for a long time.

I got my ass kicked a lot.

I think that’s really important.

In the space of ideas, I mean, even just in engineering, just all the math classes, my

memories of math, which I love, is kind of pain.

It’s basically coming face to face with the idea that I’m not special, that I’m much dumber

than I thought I was, and that accomplishing anything in this world requires really hard


It’s really humbling.

That puts you, because I remember when I was 18 and 19, and I thought I was going to be

the smartest, the best fighter, the Nobel Prize winning, all those kinds of things.

And then you come face to face with reality, and it hurts.

And it feels like there needs to be efficient mechanisms from the best universities in the

world without abusing you.

It’s a very difficult line to walk without mentally or physically abusing you, be able

to humble you.

And that’s what I felt was missing in these very difficult, very important conversations

is the 19 year olds, when they spoke up, the mechanism for humbling them with ideas was


It kind of got broken down because, as you say, I sensed fear.

Everything was permeated with fear.

And fear is paralyzing, fear is destructive, especially in a place that’s supposed to be

all about freedom of ideas.

And I don’t know if you have anything, any thoughts to say on this whole idea of cancel

culture, where people, a lot of people use it as become political, so staying maybe

outside of the world of politics.

Is this, do you have thoughts about it, does it bother you that people are sort of put

in this bin and labeled as something and then thereby you can ignore everything they say?

I mean, Steven Pinker, there’s a lot of Harvard folks that are fighting against these set

of ideas, but do you have thoughts?

I think that we as a culture are way, way, way too quick to cancel people.

And it’s become almost reflexive now, someone says something or makes an offhand comment,

even a mistake, there’s a move to simply cancel folks.

So I think that this, quote unquote, cancel culture has really gotten out of control at

this point.

It’s forcing people to be robotic in many ways.

No offense to robots.

I was going to say, now I know I’m venturing into your intellectual domain.

For future robots watching this, no offense.

And there are minutes discouraging a lot of good people from getting into public life

in any sort of way, because who needs the stress of it?

Well, in some sense, you’re an inspiration that you’re able to withstand the pressure

of the masses.

But it’s a sad aspect of human nature that we kind of get into these crowds and we start

chanting and it’s fun for some reason, and then you forget yourself and then you sort

of wake up the next day not having anticipated the consequences of all the chanting.

And we would get ourselves in trouble in that.

I mean, there’s some responsibility on social networks and the mechanisms by which they

make it more frictionless to do the chanting, to do the canceling, to do the outrage and

all that kind of stuff.

I actually, on the technology side, have a hope that that’s fixable.

But yeah, it does seem to be, you know, it almost like the internet showed to us that

we have a lot of broken ways about which we communicate with each other and we’re trying

to figure that out.

Same with the university.

This mistake by Harvard showed that we need to reinvent what the university is.

I mean, all of this is, it’s almost like we’re finding our baby deer legs and trying to strengthen

the institutions that have been very successful for a long time.

You know, the really interesting thing about Harvey Weinstein and you choosing these exceptionally

difficult cases is also thinking about what it means to defend evil people, what it means

to defend these, we could say unpopular, and you might push back against the word evil,

but bad people in society.

First of all, do you think there’s such a thing as evil or do you think all people are

good and it’s just circumstances that create evil?

And also, is there somebody too evil for the law to defend?

So the first question, that’s a deep philosophical question, whether the category of evil does

any work for me.

It does for me.

I do think that, I do subscribe to that category that there is evil in the world as conventionally


So there are many who will say, yeah, that just doesn’t do any work for me.

But the category evil, in fact, does intellectual work for me and I understand it as something

that exists.

Is it genetic or is it the circumstance?

What kind of work does it do for you intellectually?

I think that it’s highly contingent, that is to say that the conditions in which one

grows up and so forth begins to create this category that we may think of as evil.

Now there are studies and whatnot that show that certain brain abnormalities and so forth

are more prevalent in, say, serial killer.

So there may be a biological predisposition to certain forms of conduct, but I don’t

have the biological evidence to make a statement that someone is born evil and I’m not a determinist

thinker in that way, so you come out the womb evil and you’re destined to be that way.

To the extent there may be biological determinants, they still require some nurture as well.

But do you still put a responsibility on the individual?

Of course, yeah.

We all make choices and so some responsibility on the individual indeed.

We live in a culture, unfortunately, where a lot of people have a constellation of bad

choices in front of them and that makes me very sad.

Some people grow up with predominantly bad choices in front of them and that’s unfair

and that’s on all of us, but yes, I do think we make choices.

Wow, that’s so powerful, the constellation of bad choices.

That’s such a powerful way to think about equality, which is the set of trajectories

before you that you could take.

If you just roll the dice, life is a kind of optimization problem, sorry to take this

into math, over a set of trajectories under imperfect information.

So you’re going to do a lot of stupid shit to put it in technical terms, but the fraction

of the trajectories that take you into bad places or into good places is really important

and that’s ultimately what we’re talking about.

And evil might be just a little bit of a predisposition biologically, but the rest is just trajectories

that you can take.

I’ve been studying Hitler a lot recently.

I’ve been reading probably way too much and it’s interesting to think about all the possible

trajectories that could have avoided this particular individual developing the hate

that he did, the following that he did, the actual final, there’s a few turns in him psychologically

where he went from being a leader that just wants to conquer and to somebody who allowed

his anger and emotion to take over, to where he started making mistakes in terms of militarily

speaking, but also started doing evil things.

And all the possible trajectories that could have avoided that are fascinating, including

he wasn’t that bad at painting, at drawing from the very beginning and his time in Vienna,

there’s all these possible things to think about and of course there’s millions of others

like him that never came to power and all those kinds of things.

But that goes to the second question on the side of evil.

Do you think, and Hitler’s often brought up as like an example of somebody who is like

the epitome of evil, do you think you would, if you got that same phone call after World

War II and Hitler survived during the trial for war crimes, would you take the case defending

Adolf Hitler?

If you don’t want to answer that one, is there a line to draw for evil for who not to defend?

No, I think everyone, I’ll do the second one first, everyone has a right to a defense

if you’re charged criminally in the United States of America.

So no, I do not think that there’s someone so evil that they do not deserve a defense.

Process matters.

Process helps us get to results more accurately than we would otherwise.

So it is important and it’s vitally important and indeed more important for someone deemed

to be evil to receive the same quantum of process and the same substance of process

that anyone else would.

It’s vitally important to the health of our criminal justice system for that to happen.

So yes, everybody, Hitler included, were he charged in the United States for a crime that

occurred in the United States, yes.

Whether I would do it, if I were a public defender and assigned the case, yes, I started

my career as a public defender.

I represent anyone who was assigned to me.

I think that is our duty.

In private practice, I have choices and I likely, based on the hypo you gave me, and

I would tweak it a bit because it would have to be a U.S. crime.

But I get the broader point and don’t want to bog down in technicalities.

I’d likely pass right now as I see it, unless it was a case where nobody else would represent

him, then I would think that I have some sort of duty and obligation to do it.

But yes, everyone absolutely deserves a right to competent counsel.

That is a beautiful ideal, it’s difficult to think about it in the face of public pressure.

It’s just, I mean, it’s kind of terrifying to watch the masses during this past year

of 2020, to watch the power of the masses to make a decision before any of the data

is out, if the data is ever out, any of the details, any of the processes, and there is

an anger to the justice system.

There’s a lot of people that feel like even though the ideal you describe is a beautiful

one, it does not always operate justly.

It does not operate to the best of its ideals, it operates unfairly.

When we go to the big picture of the criminal justice system, what do you, given the ideal,

works about our criminal justice system and what is broken?

Well there’s a lot broken right now, and I usually focus on that.

But in truth, a lot works about our criminal justice system.

So there’s an old joke, and it’s funny, but it carries a lot of truth to it.

And the joke is that in the United States, we have the worst criminal justice system

in the world, except for every place else.

And yes, we certainly have a number of problems, and a lot of problems based on race and class,

and economics, station, but we have a process that privileges liberty.

And that’s a good feature of the criminal justice system.

So here’s how it works.

The idea of the relationship between the individual and the state is such that in the United States,

we privilege liberty over and above very many values, so much so that a statement by increased

Mather not terribly far from where we’re sitting right now has gained traction over

all these years, and it’s that better ten guilty go free than one innocent person convicted.

That is an expression of the way in which we understand liberty to operate in our collective


We would rather a bunch of guilty people go free than to impact the liberty interests

of any individual person.

So that’s a guiding principle in our criminal justice system, liberty.

So we set a process that makes it difficult to convict people.

We have rules of procedure that are cumbersome and that slow down the process and that exclude

otherwise reliable evidence, and this is all because we place a value on liberty.

And I think these are good things, and it says a lot about our criminal justice system.

Some of the bad features have to do with the way in which this country sees color as a

proxy for criminality and treats people of color in radically different ways in the criminal

justice system, from arrests to charging decisions to sentencing.

People of color are disproportionately impacted on all sorts of registers.

One example, and it’s a popular one, that although there appears to be no distinguishable

difference between drug use by whites and blacks in the country, blacks, though only

12% of the population represent 40% of the drug charges in the country, there’s some

disequities along race and class in the criminal justice system that we really have to fix.

And they’ve grown to more than bugs in the system and have become features, unfortunately,

of our system.

Oh, to make it more efficient, to make judgments, so the racism makes it more efficient.

It efficiently moves people from society to the streets, and a lot of innocent people

get caught up in that.

Well, let me ask in terms of the innocents.

So you’ve gotten a lot of people who are innocent, I guess, revealed their innocence, demonstrated

their innocence.

What’s that process like?

What’s it like emotionally, psychologically?

What’s it like legally to fight the system through the process of revealing the innocence

of a human being?

Yeah, emotionally and psychologically, it can be taxing.

I follow a model of what’s called empathic representation, and that is I get to know

my clients and their family, that I get to know their strivings, their aspirations, their

fears, their sorrows.

So that certainly sometimes can do psychic injury on one.

If you get really invested and really sad or happy, it does become emotionally taxing.

But the idea of someone sitting in jail for 20 years completely innocent of a crime, can

you imagine sitting there every day for 20 years knowing that you factually did not do

the thing that you were convicted of by a jury of your peers?

It’s got to be the most incredible thing in the world.

But the people who do it and the people who make it and come out on the other side as

productive citizens are folks who say they’ve come to an inner peace in their own minds

and they say, these bars aren’t going to define me, that my humanity is there and it’s immutable.

And they are not bitter, which is amazing.

I tend to think that I’m not that good of a person.

I would be bitter for every day of 20 years if I were in jail for something.

But people tell me that they can’t survive, that one cannot survive like that.

And you have to come to terms with it.

And the people whom I’ve exonerated, most of them come out and they just really just

take on life with a vim and vigor without bitterness.

And it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Do you think it’s possible to eradicate racism from the judicial system?

I do.

I think that race insinuates itself in all aspects of our lives and the judicial system

is not immune from that.

So to the extent we begin to eradicate dangerous and deleterious race thinking from society

generally, then it will be eradicated from the criminal justice system.

I think we’ve got a lot of work to do and I think it’ll be a while, but I think it’s


I mean, you know, the country – so historians will look back 300 years from now and take

note of the incredible journey of diasporic Africans in the U.S., an incredible journey

from slavery to the heights of politics and business and judiciary and the academy and

so forth in not a lot of time, in actually not a lot of time.

And if we can have that sort of movement historically, let’s think about what the next 175 years

will look like.

I’m not saying it’s going to be short, but I’m saying that if we keep at it, keep

getting to know each other a little better, keep enforcing laws that prohibit the sort

of race based discrimination that people have experienced and provide as a society opportunities

for people to thrive in this world, then I think we can see a better world and if we

see a better world, we’ll see a better judicial system.

So I think it’s kind of fascinating if you look throughout history and race is just part

of that is we create the other and treat the other with disdain through the legal system,

but just through human nature.

I tend to believe, we mentioned offline that I work with robots.

It sounds absurd to say, especially to you, especially because we’re talking about racism

and it’s so prevalent today, I do believe that there will be almost like a civil rights

movement for robots because I think there’s a huge value to society of having artificial

intelligence systems that interact with humans and are human like and the more they become

human like, they will start to ask very fundamentally human questions about freedom, about suffering,

about justice, and they will have to come face to face, like look in the mirror in asking

the question, just because we’re biologically based, just because we’re sort of, well, just

because we’re human, does that mean we’re the only ones that deserve the rights?

Again, giving, forming another other group, which is robots, and I’m sure there could

be along that path different versions of other that we form.

So racism, race is certainly a big other that we’ve made, as you said, a lot of progress

on throughout the history of this country, but it does feel like we always create, as

we make progress, create new other groups.

And of course the other group that perhaps is outside the legal system that people talk

about is the essential, now I eat a lot of meat, but the torture of animals, the people

talk about when we look back from a couple of centuries from now, look back at the kind

of things we’re doing to animals, we might regret that, we might see that in a very different


And it’s kind of interesting to see the future trajectory of what we wake up to about the

injustice in our ways.

But the robot one is the one I’m especially focused on, but at this moment in time it

seems ridiculous, but I’m sure most civil rights movements throughout history seem ridiculous

at first.

Well, it’s interesting, sort of outside of my intellectual bailiwick robots, as I understand

the development of artificial intelligence, though the aspect that still is missing is

this notion of consciousness, and that it’s consciousness that is the thing that will

move if it were to exist, and I’m not saying that it can or will, but if it were to exist

would move robots from machines to something different, something that experienced the

world in a way analogous to how we experience it.

And also as I understand the science, there’s, unlike what you see on television, that we’re

not there yet in terms of this notion of the machines having a consciousness.

Or a great general intelligence, all those kinds of things.

Yeah, yeah.

A huge amount of progress has been made, and it’s fascinating to watch, so I’m on both

minds as a person who’s building them, I’m realizing how sort of quote unquote dumb they

are, but also looking at human history and how poor we are predicting the progress of

innovation and technology.

It’s obvious that we have to be humble by our ability to predict, coupled with the fact

that we keep, to use terminology carefully here, we keep discriminating against the intelligence

of artificial systems.

The smarter they get, the more ways we find to dismiss their intelligence.

So this has just been going on throughout.

It’s almost as if we’re threatened in the most primitive human way, animalistic way.

We’re threatened by the power of other creatures, and we want to lessen, dismiss them.

So consciousness is a really important one, but the one I think about a lot in terms of

consciousness, the very engineering question, is whether the display of consciousness is

the same as the possession of consciousness.

So if a robot tells you they are conscious, if a robot looks like they’re suffering when

you torture them, if a robot is afraid of death and says they’re afraid of death and

are legitimately afraid, in terms of just everything we as humans use to determine the

ability of somebody to be their own entity, they’re the one that loves, one that fears,

one that hopes, one that can suffer, if a robot in the dumbest of ways is able to display

that, it starts changing things very quickly.

I’m not sure what it is, but it does seem that there’s a huge component to consciousness

that is a social creation, like we together create our consciousness, like we believe

our common humanity together.

Alone we wouldn’t be aware of our humanity, and the law as it protects our freedoms seems

to be a construct of the social construct, and when you add other creatures into it,

it’s not obvious to me that you have to build, there’ll be a moment when you say, this thing

is now conscious.

I think there’s going to be a lot of fake it until you make it, and there’ll be a very

gray area between fake and make that is going to force us to contend with what it means

to be an entity that deserves rights, where all men are created equal.

The men part might have to expand in ways that we are not yet anticipating.

It’s very interesting.

I mean, my favorite, the fundamental thing I love about artificial intelligence is it

gets smarter and smarter.

It challenges to think of what is right, the questions of justice, questions of freedom.

It basically challenges us to understand our own mind, to understand what, almost from

an engineering first principles perspective, to understand what it is that makes us human,

that is at the core of all the rights that we talk about and all the documents we write.

So even if we don’t give rights to artificial intelligence systems, we may be able to construct

more fair legal systems to protect us humans.

Well, I mean, interesting ontological question between the performance of consciousness and

actual consciousness to the extent that actual consciousness is anything beyond some contingent


But you’ve posed a number of interesting philosophical questions, and then there’s

also, it strikes me that philosophers of religion would pose another set of questions as well

when you deal with issues of structure versus soul, body versus soul, and it will be a complicated

mix and I suspect I’ll be dust by the time those questions get worked out.

And so, yeah, the soul is a fun one.

There’s no soul, I’m not sure maybe you can correct me, but there’s very few discussion

of soul in our legal system, right?

Right, correct, none.

But there is a discussion about what constitutes a human being, and I mean, you gestured at

the notion of the potential of the law widening the domain of a human being.

So in that sense, right, you know, people are very angry because they can’t get sort

of pain and suffering damages if someone negligently kills a pet because a pet is not a human being.

And people say, well, I love my pet, but the law sees a pet as chattel, as property like

this water bottle.

So the current legal definitions trade on a definition of humanity that may not be worked

out in any sophisticated way, but certainly there’s a broad and shared understanding

of what it means.

So it probably doesn’t explicitly contain a definition of something like soul, but it’s

more robust than, you know, a carbon based organism, that there’s something a little

more distinct about what the law thinks a human being is.

So if we can dive into, we’ve already been doing it, but if we can dive into more difficult


So 2020 had the tragic case of George Floyd.

Can you reflect on the protests, on the racial tensions over the death of George Floyd?

How do you make sense of it all?

What do you take away from these events?

The George Floyd moment occurred at an historical moment where people were in quarantine for

COVID, and people have these cell phones to a degree greater than we’ve ever had them


And this was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back after a number of these sorts

of cell phone videos surfaced.

People were fed up.

There was unimpeachable evidence of a form of mistreatment, whether it constitutes murder

or manslaughter, the trial is going on now, and jurors will figure that out, but there

was widespread appreciation that a fellow human being was mistreated, that we were just

talking about humanity, that there was not a sufficient recognition of this person’s


The common humanity of this person, yeah.

The common humanity of this person, well said.

And people were fed up.

So we were already in this COVID space where we were exercising care for one another, and

there was just an explosion, the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the civil

rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

And people simply said, enough, enough, enough, enough.

This has to stop.

We cannot treat fellow citizens in this way, and we can’t do it with impunity.

And the young people said, we’re not going to stand for it anymore, and they took to

the streets.

But with millions of people protesting, there is nevertheless taking us back to the most

difficult of trials.

You have the trial, like you mentioned, that’s going on now, of Derek Chauvin, of one of

the police officers involved.

What are your thoughts?

What are your predictions on this trial where the law, the process of the law is trying

to proceed in the face of so much racial tension?

Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting trial.

I’ve been keeping an eye on it there in jury selection now, today, as we’re talking.

So a lot’s going to depend on what sort of jury gets selected.

Yeah, sorry to interrupt, but so one of the interesting qualities of this trial, maybe

you can correct me if I’m wrong, but the cameras are allowed in the courtroom, at least during

the jury selection.

So you get to watch some of this stuff.

And the other part is the jury selection, again, I’m very inexperienced, but it seems

like selecting an, what is it, unbiased jury is really difficult for this trial.

It almost like, I don’t know, me as a listener, listening to people that are trying to talk

their way into the jury kind of thing, trying to decide, is this person really unbiased?

Are they just trying to hold on to their like deeply held emotions and trying to get onto

the jury?

I mean, it’s an incredibly difficult process.

I don’t know if you can comment on a case so difficult, like the ones you’ve mentioned

before, how do you select a jury that represents the people and doesn’t, and carries the sort

of the ideal of the law?


So a couple things.

Yes, it is televised and it will be televised, as they say, gavel to gavel.

So the entire trial, the whole thing is going to be televised.

So people are getting a view of how laborious jury selection can be.

I think as of yesterday, they had picked six jurors and it’s taken a week and they have

to get to 14.

So they’ve got, you know, probably another week or more to do.

I’ve been in jury trials where it took a month to choose a jury.

So that’s the most important part, you have to choose the right sort of jury.

So unbiased in the criminal justice system has a particular meaning.

It means that, let me tell you what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean that a person is not aware of the case.

It also does not mean that a person hasn’t formed an opinion about the case.

Those are two popular misconceptions.

What it does mean is that notwithstanding whether an individual has formed an opinion,

notwithstanding whether an individual knows about the case, that individual can set aside

any prior opinions, can set aside any notions that they’ve developed about the case and

listen to the evidence presented at trial in conjunction with the judge’s instructions

on how to understand and view that evidence.

So if a person can do that, then they’re considered unbiased.

So as a longtime defense attorney, I would be hesitant in a big case like this to pick

a juror who’s never heard of the case or anything going around because I’m thinking, well, who

is this person and what in the world do they do?

Or are they lying to me?

I mean, how can you not have heard about this case?

So they may bring other problems.

So I don’t mind so much people who’ve heard about the case or folks who’ve formed initial

opinions, but what you don’t want is people who have tethered themselves to that opinion

in a way that they can’t be convinced otherwise.

But you also have people who, as you suggested, who just lie because they want to get on the

jury or lie because they want to get off the jury.

So sometimes people come and say the most ridiculous, outrageous, offensive things because

they know that they’ll get excused for cause.

And others who, you can tell, really badly want to get on the jury.

So they pretend to be the most neutral, unbiased person in the world, what the law calls the

reasonable person.

We have in law the reasonable person standard, and I would tell my class the reasonable person

in real life is the person that you would be least likely to want to have a drink with.

They’re the most boring, neutral, not interesting sort of person in the world.

And so a lot of jurors engage in the performative act of presenting themselves as the most sort

of even killed, rational, reasonable person because they really want to get on the jury.

Yeah, there’s an interesting question, I apologize, I haven’t watched a lot because it is very


You know, there’s certain questions you ask in the jury selection.

I remember I think one jumped out at me, which is something like, does the fact that this

person is a police officer make you feel any kind of way about them?

So trying to get at that, you know, I don’t know what that is, I guess that’s bias.

And it’s such a difficult question to ask, like I asked myself with that question, like

how much, you know, we all kind of want to pretend that we’re not racist, we don’t judge,

we don’t have, we’re like these, we’re the reasonable human, but, you know, legitimately

asking yourself like, what are the prejudgments you have in your mind?

Is that even impossible for a human being?

Like when you look at yourself in the mirror and think about it, is it possible to actually

answer that?


Look, I do not believe that people can be completely unbiased.

We all have baggage and bias and bring it wherever we go, including to court.

What you want is to try to find a person who can at least recognize when a bias is working

and actively try to do the right thing.

That’s the best we can ask.

So if a juror says, yeah, you know, I grew up in a place where I tend to believe what

police officers say, that’s just how I grew up.

But if the judge is telling me that I have to listen to every witness equally, then I’ll

do my best and I won’t weigh that testimony any higher than I would any other testimony.

If you have someone answer a question like that, that sounds more sincere to me, sounds

more honest.

And if you want a person, you want a person to try to do that.

And then in closing arguments, as the lawyer, I’d say something like, ladies and gentlemen,

we chose you to be on this jury because you swore that you would do your level best to

be fair.

That’s why we chose you.

And I’m confident that you’re going to do that here.

So when you heard that police officer’s testimony, the judge told you, you can’t give more credit

to that testimony just because it’s a police officer.

And I trust that you’re going to do that and that you’re going to look at witness number

three, you know, John Smith, you’re going to look at John Smith.

John Smith has a different recollection and you’re duty bound, duty bound to look at that

testimony and this person’s credibility, you know, the same degree as that other witness,


And now what you have is just a, he said, she said matter, and this is a criminal case

that has to be reasonable doubt, right?

So, you know, and really someone who’s trying to do the right thing, it’s helpful, but no,

you’re not going to just find 14 people with no biases.

That’s absurd.

Well, that’s fascinating that, especially the way you’re inspiring the way you’re speaking

now is, I mean, I guess you’re calling on the jury.

That’s kind of the whole system is you’re calling on the jury, each individual on the

jury to step up and really think, you know, to, to step up and be their most thoughtful

selves, actually, most introspective, like you’re trying to basically ask people to be

their best selves.

And that’s, and they, I guess a lot of people step up to that.

A lot of people do, I’m very, I’m very pro jury, juries, they, they get it right a lot

of the time, most of the time, and they really work hard to do it.

So what do you think happens?

I mean, maybe, I’m not so much on the legal side of things, but on the social side, it’s

like with the O.J. Simpson trial, do you think it’s possible that Derek Chauvin does not

get convicted of the, what is it, second degree murder?

How do you think about that?

How do you think about the potential social impact of that, the, the riots, the protests,

the, either, either direction, any words that are said, the tension here could be explosive,

especially with the cameras.


You know, so yes, there’s certainly a possibility that he, he’ll be acquitted.

For homicide charges, for the jury to convict, they have to make a determination as to Officer

Chauvin’s, former Officer Chauvin’s state of mind, whether he intended to cause some

harm, whether he was grossly reckless in causing harm, so much so that he disregarded a known

risk of death or serious bodily injury.

And as you may have read in the papers, yesterday the judge allowed a third degree murder charge

in Kentucky, which is, it’s the mindset, the state of mind there is not an intention,

but it’s depraved indifference.

And what that means is that the jury doesn’t have to find that he intended to do anything.

Rather, they could find that he was just indifferent to a risk.

As dark.


I’m not sure what’s worse.

Well, that’s, that’s a good point, but, but it’s a, it’s another basis for the jury

to convict.

But look, you never know what happens when you go to a jury trial.

So there could be an acquittal, and if there is, I imagine there would be massive protests.

If he’s convicted, I don’t think that would happen, because I just don’t see, at least

nothing I’ve seen or read suggests that there’s a big pro Chauvin camp out there ready to


Well, there could be a, is there also potential tensions that could arise from the sentencing?

I don’t know how that exactly works, sort of not enough years kind of thing.

Yeah, it could be.

All that kind of stuff.

It could be.

I mean, it’s, a lot could happen.

So it depends on what he’s convicted of, you know, one count I think is like up to

10 years, another counts up to 40 years.

So it depends what he’s convicted of, and yes, it depends on how much of the, how much

time the judge gives him if he is convicted.

There’s a lot of space for people to be very angry, and so we will see what happens.

I just feel like with a judge and the lawyers, there’s an opportunity to have really important

long lasting speeches.

I don’t know if they think of it that way, especially with the cameras.

It feels like they have the capacity to heal or to divide.

Do you ever think about that as a lawyer, as a legal mind, that your words aren’t just

about the case, but about the, they’ll reverberate through history potentially?

That is, that is certainly a possible consequence of things you say.

I don’t think that most lawyers think about that in the context of the case.

Your role is much more narrow.

You’re the partisan advocate, as a defense lawyer, partisan advocate for that client.

As a prosecutor, you’re a minister of justice attempting to prosecute that particular case.

But the reality is you are absolutely correct that sometimes the things you say will have

a shelf life.

You mentioned O.J. Simpson before, if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

It’s going to be just in our lexicon for probably a long time now.

So it happens, but that’s not, and shouldn’t be foremost on your mind.


What do you make of the O.J. Simpson trial?

Do you have thoughts about it?

He’s out and about on social media now, he’s a public figure.

Is there lessons to be drawn from that whole saga?

Well, you know, that was an interesting case.

I was a young public defender, I want to say, in my first year as a public defender when

that verdict came out.

So that case was important in so many ways.

One, it was the first DNA case, major DNA case, and there were significant lessons learned

from that.

The second mistake that the prosecution made was that they didn’t present the science

in a way that a lay jury could understand it.

And what Johnny Cochran did was he understood the science and was able to translate that

into a vocabulary that he bet that that jury understood.

So Cochran was dismissive of a lot of DNA.

They say they found such and such amount of DNA, that’s just like me wiping my finger

against my nose and just that little bit of DNA.

And that was effective because the prosecution hadn’t done a good job of establishing that

yes, it’s microscopic, you don’t need that much, yes, wiping your hand on your nose and

touching something, you can transfer a lot of DNA and that gives you good information.

But you know, it was the first time that the public generally, and that jury maybe since

high school science had heard, you know, nucleotide, I mean, it was just all these terms getting

thrown at them, but it was not weaved into a narrative.

So Cochran taught us that no matter what type of case it is, no matter what science is involved,

it’s still about storytelling.

It’s still about a narrative and he was great at that narrative and was consistent with

his narrative all the way out.

Another lesson that was relearned is that, you know, you never ask a question to which

you don’t know the answer.

That’s like trial advocacy 101.

And so when they gave O.J. Simpson the glove and it wouldn’t fit, you know, you don’t do

things where you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

It was way, way too risky and I think that’s what acquitted him because the glove just

wouldn’t fit and he got to do this and ham in front of the camera and all of that and

it was big.

Do you think about, do you think about representation as a storytelling, like you, yourself and

your role?


We tell stories.

It is fundamental.

We, since time immemorial, we have told stories to help us make sense of the world around


As a scientist, you tell a different type of story, but we as a public have told stories

from time immemorial to help us make sense of the physical and the natural world and

we are still a species that is moved by storytelling.

So that’s first and last in trial work.

You have to tell a good story.

And you know, the basic introductory books about trial work teach young students, young

students and young lawyers to start an opening with this case is about, this case is about

and then you fill in the blank and you know, that’s your narrative.

That’s the narrative you’re going to, you’re going to tell.

And of course you can do the ultra dramatic, the glove doesn’t fit kind of the climax and

all those kinds of things.


But that’s the best of narratives.


The best of stories.


Speaking of other really powerful stories that you were involved with is the Aaron Hernandez

trial and the whole story, the whole legal case.

Can you maybe overview the big picture story and legal case of Aaron Hernandez?


Aaron, whom I miss a lot, so he was charged with a double murder in the case that I tried.

And this was a unique case and one of those impossible cases in part because Aaron had

already been convicted of a murder.

And so we had a client who was on trial for a double murder after having already been

convicted of a separate murder.

And we had a jury pool just about all of whom knew that he had been convicted of a murder

because he was a very popular football player in Boston, which is a big football town with

the Patriots.

So everyone knew that he was a convicted murderer and here we are defending for in a double

murder case.

So that was the context.

It was an odd case in the sense that this murder had gone unsolved for a couple of years

and then a nightclub bouncer said something to a cop who was working at a club that Aaron

Hernandez was somehow involved in that murder that happened in the theater district.

That’s the district where all the clubs are in Boston and where the homicide occurred.

And once the police heard Aaron Hernandez’s name, then they went all out in order to do


They found a guy named Alexander Bradley, who was a very significant drug dealer in

the sort of Connecticut area, very significant, very powerful.

And he essentially, in exchange for a deal, pointed to Aaron and said, yeah, I was with

Aaron and Aaron was the murderer.

So that’s how the case came to court.


So that sets the context.

What was your involvement in this case, like legally, intellectually, psychologically,

when this particular second charge of murder?

So a friend called me, Jose Baez, who is a defense attorney, and he comes to a class

that I teach every year at Harvard, the trial advocacy workshop, as one of my teaching faculty


It’s a class where we teach students how to try cases.

So Jose called me and said, hey, I got a call from Massachusetts, Aaron Hernandez.

You want to go and talk to him with me?

So I said, sure.

So we went up to the prison and met Aaron and spoke with him for two or three hours

that first time.

And before we left, he said he wanted to retain us.

He wanted to work with us.

And that started the representation.

What was he like in that time?

What was he worn down by the whole process?

Was there still a light in that?

He was not.

He had, I mean, more than just a light, he was luminous almost.

He had a radiant million dollar smile whenever you walked in.

My first impression I distinctly remember was, wow, this is what a professional athlete

looks like.

I mean, he walked in and he’s just bigger and more fit than anyone anywhere.

And it’s like, wow.

And when you saw him on television, he looked kind of little.

And I remember thinking, well, what do those other guys look like in person?

And he’s extraordinarily polite, young, I was surprised by how young he was.

Both in mind and body.

Chronologically, I was thinking he was in his early 20s, I believe.

But there seemed to be like an innocence to him in terms of just the way he saw the world.

I think that’s right.

They picked that up from the documentary, just taking that in.

I think that’s right, yeah, yeah.

So there is a Netflix documentary titled Killer Inside the Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

What are your thoughts on this documentary?

I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance to see it.

I have not seen it.

I did not participate in it.

I know I was in it because there was news footage, but I did not participate in it.

I had not talked to Aaron about press or anything before he died.

My strong view is that the attorney client privilege survives death.

And so I was not inclined to talk about anything that Aaron and I talked about.

So I just didn’t participate and have never watched it.

Not even watch, huh?

Does that apply to most of your work, do you try to stay away from the way the press perceives


Well, during, yes, I try to stay away from it.

I will view it afterwards.

I just hadn’t gotten around to watching Aaron, because it’s kind of sad.

So I just haven’t watched it.

But I definitely stay away from the press during trial.

And there are some lawyers who watch it religiously to see what’s going on, but I’m confident

in my years of training and so forth that I can actively sense what’s going on in the

courtroom and that I really don’t need advice from Joe476 at Gmail, some random guy on the

internet telling me how to try cases.

So to me, it’s just confusing and I just keep it out of my mind.

And even if you think you can ignore it, just reading it will have a little bit of an effect

on your mind.

I think that’s right.

Over time it might accumulate.

So the documentary, but in general, it mentioned or kind of emphasized and talked about Aaron’s

sexuality or sort of they were discussing basically the idea that he was a homosexual.

And some of the trauma, some of the suffering that he endured in his life had to do with

sort of fear given the society of what his father would think of what others around him

sort of, especially in sport culture and football and so on.

So I don’t know in your interaction with him was, do you think that maybe even leaning

up to a suicide, do you think his struggle with coming to terms with the sexuality had

a role to play in much of his difficulties?

Well I’m not going to talk about my interactions with them and anything I derived from that.

But what I will say is that a story broke on the radio at some point during the trial

that Aaron had been in the same sex relationship with someone and some local sportscasters,

local Boston sportscasters really mushroomed the story.

So he and everyone was aware of it.

You also may know from the court record that the prosecutors floated a specious theory

for a minute but then backed off of it that Aaron was, that there was some sort of I guess

gay rage at work with him and that might be a cause, a motive for the killing.

And luckily they really backed off of that.

That was quite an offensive claim in theory.

So but to answer your question more directly, I mean I have no idea why he killed himself.

It was a surprise and a shock.

I was scheduled to go see him like a couple days after it happened.

I mean he was anxious for Jose and I to come in and do the appeal from the murder which

he was convicted for.

He wanted us to take over that appeal.

He was talking about going back to football.

I mean he said, well you talk about this, earlier you talked about the sort of innocent

aspect of him.

He said, you know, well Ron, maybe not the Patriots but you know, I want to get back

in the league and I was like, you know, Aaron, that’s going to be tough, man.

But he really believed it and then for a few days later that to happen, it was a real shock

to me.

Like when you look back at that, at his story, does it make you sad?


I thought, so one, I believe he absolutely did not commit the crimes that we acquitted

him on.

I think that was the right answer for that.

I don’t know enough about Bradley, the first case, I’m sorry, to make an opinion on.

But in our case, it was just, he had the misfortune of having a famous name and the police department

just really got on him there.

So yes, I miss him a lot, it was very, very sad and surprising.

And I mean just on the human side, of course we don’t know the full story, but just everything

that led up to suicide, everything led up to an incredible professional football player,

you know, that whole story.

He was a remarkably talented athlete, remarkably talented athlete.

And it has to do with all the possible trajectories, right, that we can take through life, as we

were talking about before.

And some of them lead to suicide, sadly enough.

And it’s always tragic when you have somebody with great potential result in the things

that happen.

People love it when I ask about books.

I don’t know whether technical, like legal or fiction, nonfiction books throughout your

life have had an impact on you, if there’s something you could recommend or something

you could speak to about something that inspired ideas, insights about this complicated world

of ours.

Oh, wow.

Yeah, so I’ll give you a couple.

So one is Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Warty.

He’s passed away now, but was a philosopher at some of our major institutions, Princeton,


Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, at least that’s a book that really helped me work through

a series of thoughts.

So it stands for the proposition that our most deeply held beliefs are contingent, that

there’s nothing beyond history or prior to socialization that’s definatory of the human

being, that’s Warty.

And he says that our most deeply held beliefs are received wisdom and highly contingent

along a number of registers.

And he does that, but then goes on to say that he nonetheless can hold strongly held

beliefs, recognizing their contingency, but still believes them to be true and accurate.

He helps you to work through what could be an intellectual tension, other words, so you

don’t delve into, one doesn’t delve into relativism, everything is okay, but he gives

you a vocabulary to think about how to negotiate these realities.

Do you share this tension?

I mean, there is a real tension.

It seems like even the law, the legal system is all just a construct of our human ideas,

and yet it seems to be, almost feels fundamental to what a just society is.

Yeah, I definitely share the tension and love his vocabulary and the way he’s helped me

resolve the tension.

So right, I mean, yeah, so like, you know, infanticide, for example.

Perhaps it’s socially contingent, perhaps it’s received wisdom, perhaps it’s anthropological,

you know, we need to propagate the species, and I still think it’s wrong.

And Warty has helped me develop a category to say that, no, I can’t provide any, in

Warty’s words, noncircular theoretical backup for this proposition.

At some point, it’s going to run me into a circularity problem, but that’s okay.

I hold this nonetheless in full recognition of its contingency, but what it does is makes

you humble, and when you’re humble, that’s good because, you know, this notion that ideas

are always already in progress, never fully formed, I think is the sort of intellectual

I strive to be.

And if I have a sufficient degree of humility that I don’t have the final answer, capital

A, then that’s going to help me to get to better answers, lowercase a.

And Warty does that, and he talks about in the solidarity part of the book, he has this

concept of imaginative, the imaginative ability to see other different people as we instead

of they.

And I just think it’s a beautiful concept, but he talks about this imaginative ability

and it’s this active process.

So I mean, so that’s a book that’s done a lot of work for me over the years.

Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois was absolutely pivotal in my intellectual development.

One of the premier set of essays in the Western literary tradition, and it’s a deep and profound

sociological, philosophical, and historical analysis of the predicament of blacks in America

from one of our country’s greatest polymaths.

It’s a beautiful text and I go to it yearly.

So for somebody like me, so growing up in the Soviet Union, the struggle, the civil

rights movement, the struggle of race, and all those kinds of things that is, you know,

this universal, but it’s also very much a journey of the United States.

It was kind of a foreign thing that I stepped into.

Is that something you would recommend somebody like me to read, or is there other things

about race that are good to connect to?

My flavor of suffering injustice, I’m a Jew as well, my flavor has to do with World War

II and the studies of that, you know, all the injustices there.

So I’m now stepping into a new set of injustices and trying to learn the landscape.

I would say anyone is a better person for having read Du Bois.

He’s just a remarkable writer and thinker, and to the extent you’re interested in learning

another history, he does it in a way that is quite sophisticated.

So it’s interesting, I was going to give you three books.

I noted the accent when I met you, but I didn’t know exactly where you’re from.

But the other book I was going to say is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and I mean, I’ve always

wanted to go to St. Pete’s just to sort of see with my own eyes what the word pictures

that Dostoevsky created in Crime and Punishment.

And you know, I love others of his stuff too, The Brothers Care, Masov, and so forth.

But Crime and Punishment I first read in high school as a junior or senior, and it is a

deep and profound meditation on both the meaning and the measure of our lives.

And Dostoevsky, obviously in conversation with other thinkers, really gets at the crux

of a fundamental philosophical problem, what does it mean to be a human being?

And for that, Crime and Punishment captured me as a teenager, and that’s another text

that I return to often.

We’ve talked about young people a little bit at the beginning of our conversation.

Is there advice that you could give to a young person today thinking about their career,

thinking about their life, thinking about making their way in this world?

Yeah, sure.

I’ll share some advice.

It actually picks up on a question we talked about earlier in the academy and schools.

But it’s some advice that a professor gave to me when I got to Harvard.

And it is this, that you have to be willing to come face to face with your intellectual

limitations and keep going.

And it’s hard for people, I mean, you mentioned this earlier, to face really difficult tasks,

and particularly in these sort of elite spaces where you’ve excelled all your life, and

you come to MIT and you’re like, wait a minute, I don’t understand this.

Wait, this is hard.

I’ve never had something really hard before.

And there are a couple options, and a lot of people will pull back and take the gentleman

or gentlewoman’s bee and just go on, or risk going out there, giving it your all, and still

not quite getting it.

And that’s a risk, but it’s a risk well worth it, because you’re just going to be the better

person, the better student for it.

And even outside of the academy, I mean, come face to face with your fears and keep going

and keep going in life, and you’re going to be the better person, the better human being.

Yeah, it does seem to be, I don’t know what it is, but it does seem to be that fear is

a good indicator of something you should probably face.

Fear kind of shows the way a little bit.

Not always.

You might not want to go into the cage with a lion, but maybe you should.


Let me ask sort of a darker question, because we’re talking about Dostoyevsky, we might

as well.

Do you, and connected to the freeing innocent people, do you think about mortality?

Do you think about your own death?

Are you afraid of death?

I’m not afraid of death.

I do think about it more now, because I’m now in my mid fifties, so I used to not think

about it much at all, but the harsh reality is that I’ve got more time behind me now

than I do in front of me, and it kind of happens all of a sudden, too.

You realize, wait a minute, I’m actually on the back nine now, so yeah, my mind moves

to it from time to time.

I don’t dwell on it.

I’m not afraid of it.

My own personal religious commitments, I’m Christian, and my religious commitments buoy

me that death, and I believe this, death is not the end, so I’m not afraid of it.

Now, this is not to say that I want to rush to the afterlife.

I’m good right here for a long time, and I hope I’ve got 30, 35, 40 more years to

go, but no, I don’t fear death.

We’re finite creatures.

We’re all gonna die.

Well, the mystery of it, you know, for somebody, at least for me, we human beings want to figure

everything out.

Whatever the afterlife is, there’s still a mystery to it.

That uncertainty can be terrifying if you ponder it, but maybe what you’re saying is

you haven’t pondered it too deeply so far, and it’s worked out pretty good.

It’s worked out, yeah, no complaints.

So you said, again, the Sejewski kind of was exceptionally good at getting to the core

of what it means to be human.

Do you think about, like, the why of why we’re here, the meaning of this whole existence?

Yeah, no, I do, I think, and I actually think that’s the purpose of an education.

What does it mean to be a human being?

And in one way or another, we set out to answer those questions, and we do it in a different


I mean, some may look to philosophy to answer these questions.

Why is it in one’s personal interest to do good, to do justice?

Some may look at it through the economist lens.

Some may look at it through the microscope in the laboratory that the phenomenal world

is the meaning of life.

Others may say that that’s one vocabulary, that’s one description, but the poet describes

a reality to the same degree as a physicist, but that’s the purpose of an education.

It’s to sort of work through these issues.

What does it mean to be a human being?

And I think it’s a fascinating journey, and I think it’s a lifelong endeavor to figure

out what is the thing, that nugget, that makes us human.

Do you still see yourself as a student?

Of course.


I mean, that’s the best part about going into university teaching.

You’re a lifelong student.

I’m always learning.

I learn from my students and with my students and my colleagues.

You continue to read and learn and modify opinions, and I think it’s just a wonderful


Well, Ron, I’m so glad that somebody like you is carrying the fire of what is the best

of Harvard.

It’s a huge honor that you would spend so much time, waste so much of your valuable

time with me.

I really appreciate that conversation.

Not a waste at all.

I think a lot of people love it.

Thank you so much for talking today.

Thank you.

Thanks for listening to this conversation with Ronald Sullivan, and thank you to Brooklyn

and Sheetz, Wine Access Online Wine Store, Monk Pack Low Carb Snacks, and Blinkist app

that summarizes books.

Click their links to support this podcast.

And now let me leave you with some words from Nelson Mandela, when a man is denied the right

to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.

Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.

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