Monday, June 11, 2018

Legal Loopholes and Voting Paradoxes: A Theory



Nick Freeman is a well-known British lawyer. He rose to fame in the 1990s when he successfully defended a number of celebrity clients from dangerous driving prosecutions. He was particularly popular among footballers. His clients included Paul Ince, David Beckham and, perhaps most famously, Alex Ferguson. The case with Ferguson was notorious because of its somewhat scatalogical fact-pattern, and because Ferguson was the most high-profile football manager in the world at the time.

Ferguson was summonsed for speeding along the hard-shoulder of a clogged motorway. His excuse was that he desperately needed to use the bathroom due to an upset stomach he had been nursing from the previous day. He was stopped by the police and charged with an offence. He was in a tricky predicament since he already had a number of penalty points on his licence and being found guilty once more would put him off the road for a number of months.

Enter Freeman. Freeman knew that it was illegal to drive on the hard shoulder of a motorway, unless there was a medical emergency that justified doing so. Now, having a dodgy tummy might not be top of the list of justifying medical emergencies, and we might not look favourably on Ferguson if he set off on his journey knowing that there was a risk that this emergency might arise. But Freeman’s genius, such as it is, lay in arguing that Ferguson’s impending diarrhoea was indeed a justifying medical emergency and that Ferguson was not to be blamed for its sudden onset when he was stuck in the traffic jam. Freeman presented his case with such vigour that he eventually succeeded in getting Ferguson off.

This is typical of Freeman’s modus operandi. He uses an encyclopaedic knowledge of road traffic offences and criminal procedure to find obscure, relatively untested, arguments that benefit his clients. In other words, he finds ‘loopholes’ in the law. Indeed, so successful is he in doing this that he has been christened ‘Mr Loophole’ by the British tabloid press, a moniker he eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, took on for himself. His 2012 book The Art of the Loophole is a guidebook for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

I’m not overly interested in Freeman and his practice, but I am interested in the general phenomenon of legal loopholes and why they arise. Anyone who has studied the law will know that they are pervasive and that the working life of the lawyer is often taken up in trying to find loopholes that work in favour of their clients. But the concept of a loophole is not well-defined, nor the reason for their persistence well-understood. Furthermore, the ethics of exploiting loopholes is hotly contested among lawyers and academics. I doubt I can resolve all those issues in this blogpost, but what I can do is share a theory of loopholes that has been defended by Leo Katz. I find Katz’s theory very interesting. It’s quite complex, relying as it does on an analogy between legal loopholes and voting paradoxes, but once you understand how it works it is quite illuminating. I hope to show why in what follows.


1. What is a Legal Loophole?
A legal loophole is one of those “you know when you see it” phenomena. It’s difficult to offer a precise definition. If I were to try, I would say that a loophole is some vagueness or ambiguity in a rule, or conflict between two legal rules, that can be used to benefit someone in a seemingly perverse or counterintuitive way (in a way that violates the ‘spirit’ if not the ‘letter’ of the law). But this definition is problematic since it seems quite value-laden. It seems to presuppose that exploiting a loophole is unethical since it involves using the law to perverse ends. But oftentimes people who make use of loopholes don’t see it that way. They often think they are using the law to a legitimate end. Take the Alex Ferguson case as an example. You could argue — and I’m sure he and Nick Freeman would argue — that he was making a perfectly legitimate use of the medical exemption rule.

This value-ladenness is something that Katz tries to avoid in his theory of loopholes. As we will see below, he thinks that loopholes are inherent to the logical structure of legal doctrines. Specifically, he claims that they emerge from the fact that legal doctrines try to balance occasionally conflicting principles (e.g. people should obey the rules of the road; there should be some leeway for medical emergencies). He argues that they do not arise simply from a mismatch between the law’s purpose/rationale and its linguistic formulation. It’ll be easier to understand this if we have some working examples. Katz uses about half a dozen in his analysis. I will focus on just three:

Asset Protection: James is a well-to-do doctor who has made a number of misguided business investments. He fears that he will have to declare personal bankruptcy, which will mean that the majority of his personal assets can be seized and sold off by his creditors. However, there is a legal rule stating that certain types of asset are ‘exempt’ from personal bankruptcy rules and cannot be seized by creditors. These are assets that are deemed essential/necessary to life and include things like a family home, pension and insurance. James knows this so he uses his remaining wealth to purchase these exempt assets. This last-minute flurry of purchases triggers his bankruptcy, but he doesn’t mind as his assets are protected.

Contrived Self Defence: Samson’s wife and children were brutally assaulted in a home invasion by three armed robbers. Samson vows revenge. He tracks the three armed robbers and confronts them late at night in a park. They do not know who he is but he provokes them into attacking him with seemingly lethal force. Samson then fights back and ends up fatally wounding one of the attackers, while the other two flee. Samson’s lawyer successfully argues at trial that his client acted in self-defence. (Something akin to this happens in the Death Wish movies from the 1970s)

Political Asylum: Ivan has emigrated to the United States. He wants to be granted an immigrant visa as soon as possible. He could go through the ordinary channels but has been told that these are slow and he is unlikely to succeed. Someone tells him that the fastest route is to be granted political asylum, but this requires proof that one is a political refugee. Upon learning this, Ivan quickly uploads a series of videos to Youtube in which he is critical of the political leadership in his home country. The videos go viral. It is widely known that people who have made similar statements in the past have been executed or assassinated by the regime. Ivan uses this to fast track his immigration visa.

Each of these cases involves someone using legal rules to their advantage, but in a way that doesn’t quite sit right with us. They are classic examples of loophole exploitation. They are, of course, highly stylised and simplified. Lawyers will no doubt be quick to point out that legal systems have additional rules and qualifications that address these scenarios. This is indeed true. Courts and legislatures frequently try to prevent people abusing the law by adding new laws. For example, they might add an extra qualification to the rule about political asylum to state that the reason for seeking political asylum have to arise before you land in the country in which you are seeking aslyum, and/or that they have to come from a sincere political conviction. But qualifications like this are often themselves subject to further loophole exploitation, and it can be difficult to implement them successfully. So there is often a continuous arms race between the law-makers and the would-be exploiters. The deeper question is why does this keep happening?



2. The Voting Analogy
The answer, according to Katz, is that legal doctrines are subject to the same kinds of ‘paradoxes’ as voting systems. It’s long been known that voting systems are subject to all kinds of perverse and counterintuitive manipulations. A ‘voting system’ can be defined as any system that tries to aggregate individual preferences over options into a collective or group preference over the same option set. Suppose three friends have to choose between one of two activities to perform for the weekend: fishing or skydiving. They decide to vote. Each expresses their preference for fishing or skydiving and they go with whatever the majority preference happens to be. That’s a classic voting system in action.

But once you go beyond the confines a simple majority vote on two options, you run into lots of problems. How you structure the voting system — Is it broken down into ‘rounds’? Do people vote on one preference or do they rank their preferences? — can make a big difference to the group outcome, often in ways that seem counterintuitive or perverse. Consider the following example, taken directly from Katz’s book:


Law School: Not too long ago, a certain law school had a problem with professors not marking their exam scripts on time. This meant that students weren’t getting their results on time and it was feared that it would have a knock-on impact on their ability to graduate. A group within the law school decided to do something about it. They introduced a proposal for a €100-a-day fine to be imposed on any professor who failed to submit their marks on time. A vote was to be taken on the proposal at the next faculty meeting. From informal conversations, it seemed that least two-thirds of the faculty approved the fine, but there was one individual — the worst procrastinator in the group — who was resolutely opposed to it. Before the meeting, he talked to everybody and realised that there were three equally-sized coalitions/groups in the faculty:

Radicals: Wanted to impose a €1000-a-day fine, but would be satisfied with a €100-a-day fine.
Moderates: Wanted to impose a €100-a-day fine but would be opposed to anything higher (i.e. would prefer the status quo to what the Radicals wanted most)
Conservatives: Didn’t want to impose any fine, but felt that if a fine was to be imposed then the fine should be really high, i.e. at least €1000-a-day, in order to be maximally effective.

The opposer organised the preference rankings of the groups into the table below.
 

He then realised that there was a way in which he could block the introduction of the €100 fine. Using a procedural rule in the Law School’s by-laws, he proposed a vote first be taken on amending the proposal to raise the fine from €100 to €1000 and then that a vote be taken on whether or not to introduce the fine. The rest of the school agreed. On the first vote, the Radicals and Conservatives formed a two-thirds majority and approved the increased amount in the proposal. On the second vote, the Moderates and Conservatives forms a two-thirds majority and rejected the introduction of the fine. The opposer got his way.

This is an example of a very famous voting paradox, first identified by the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century. If we label the three options facing the law faculty, we can begin to see the paradox more clearly. Call the introduction of a €100 fine ‘option A’; call the introduction of a €1000 fine ‘option B’; and call the status quo (i.e. no fine) ‘option C’. An ordinary ‘rule’ or ‘axiom’ of individual decision-making is that our preferences should be transitive, i.e. they should form a logically consistent hierarchy. If we prefer A to C and B to A then we should also, by logical inference, prefer B to C. If we turned around and said that we preferred C to B, then there would be something odd or inconsistent about our preferences. They would be intransitive. And yet this is exactly what is happening in the case of the Law School. Each individual has a logically consistent preference hierarchy, but the group as a whole does not. The group preferences are intransitive. We can see from the breakdown of the faculty preferences in the table above that there are (different) majority coalitions that prefer both A to C, B to A and C to B. It is this group intransitivity that can be exploited by our wily resolute opposer. He can manipulate the voting procedure so as to introduce a seemingly irrelevant third option (the €1000 fine) into the agenda and thereby unseat the majority coalition that favoured introducing the €100 fine.

Of course, this paradox arises from the vagaries of the particular voting system adopted by the Law School. You might think that another voting system would not be vulnerable to this problem. This is true, but only up to a point. There is another famous theorem from voting theory — Arrow’s impossibility theorem — which shows that any democratic voting system we might hope to create will be vulnerable to one or more paradoxes of this sort. The only voting system that completely avoids paradoxes is a dictatorship (where the preferences of one individual dictate the group preference), which of course is not really a voting system, except in some strict logical sense. You might like to know more about Arrow’s theorem. If so, I’d recommend reading Amartya Sen’s recent explanation of it, or indeed Katz’s simplified presentation of it in his book. I won’t go into it here because it is too complex and, in any event, I don’t think it is strictly necessary. If you understand the paradox that arises in the Law School example then you have pretty much everything you need to understand Katz’s theory of loopholes.


3. How Voting Paradoxes Explain Legal Loopholes
Katz’s theory claims that legal loopholes arise for the same reason that voting paradoxes arise. To accept Katz’s theory you need to accept three propositions. I’ll go through each of them in some detail.

Proposition One: Multi-criterial decision-making systems are like voting systems.

This is the critical first step in the argument. It requires some unpacking. Recall the earlier definition of a voting system: it is something that aggregates the preference rankings of individuals into a group preference ranking. How is that like a multi-criterial decision-making system? Well, first, think in more detail about a multi-criterial decision. Suppose you have to decide whether to take up a new job or stick with your old job. How would you make that decision? If you are like me, then you would use multiple criteria to help you decide. You would focus on the salary offer, the likely working conditions, the commuting time, the work-life balance made possible by the job, and so on. Each of these criteria can be used to rank the options before you. The salary criterion might rank the new job above the old job; the work-life balance criterion might rank the old job above the new job; and so on. Once you have established the ranking orders for each criterion, you’ll have to aggregate them together into a single choice. This is directly analogous to what happens in a voting system. The criteria are like voters: they each have their own preference ranking. The decision is like the group preference: it is what emerges from the amalgamation and aggregation of the individual preference rankings.

Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. We often assign different weights to different criteria whereas in democratic voting systems we usually stick to a one-person-one-vote principle (though weighting is common in voting systems more generally). Furthermore, as Katz notes, decision-making criteria aren’t strategic whereas voters (sometimes) are. In other words, criteria don’t change their preference ranking in order to manipulate the final decision. But voters often do this because they anticipate and pre-empt the voting behaviour of others. Nevertheless these disanalogies don’t upset the argument that much. Indeed, Arrow himself developed a multi-criterial decision-making version of his impossibility theorem around the same time that he came up with the voting version. So the connection between the two phenomena has long been recognised.

This brings us to the second proposition:

Proposition 2: Legal rules/doctrines are like multicriterial decision-making systems.

This means that individual legal rules or doctrines often try to aggregate multiple decision-making criteria. Specifically, they try to aggregate different ethical criteria or policy criteria. Consider some of the rules/doctrines from the examples given earlier in this post. The self-defence rule, for example, has a number of elements to it. It entitles you to use lethal force to repel a seemingly lethal attack, but there are usually limitations to its use. The force has to be proportionate/necessary. We don’t want people killing each other willy-nilly. If less force could be used to repel the attack, or if you could avoid the attack completely by retreating, we usually prefer it if you do so. At the same time, we recognise that people have a right to defend their own rights: to stand their ground and protect themselves if someone else is brutally attacking them. The self-defence rule has to balance these two ethical principles. It has to allow people the right to defend themselves (and therefore respect the ‘rights principle’) and it has to make sure people don’t abuse this right by applying excessive/disproportionate punishment (and therefore respect the ‘proportionality principle’). Something similar is true in the case of the Asset Protection example given above. The relevant legal doctrine has to balance the right for creditors to be repaid what they are owed against the right/desirability of not depriving people of assets that are essential to their well-being. These principles can, on occasion, rank different actions in different ways. The job of the legal rule/doctrine is to help us to aggregate the rankings together and come up with the correct legal decision.

We now have everything we need to complete Katz’s argument:

Proposition 3: Because legal rules/doctrines are like multicriterial decision-making systems, and because multicriterial decision-making systems are like voting systems, they are vulnerable to the same kinds of paradoxes or perverse manipulations. These are what we call ‘legal loopholes’.

How do we get from the first two propositions to this? The gist of the argument is simply that multi-criterial decision-making systems are vulnerable to the same kinds of manipulative acts as voting systems. Go back to the earlier example of the Law School Vote. We saw there how one resolute procrastinator was able to defy the majority preference for some kind of fine to be introduced by manipulating the agenda of the vote. He did this by introducing a seemingly irrelevant third alternative (the €1000 a day fine) into the voting system. We should, of course, be cautious about how we use the term ‘irrelevant’ in this context. The term is adopted from decision theory and does not necessarily track with ordinary usage. In one sense, the introduction of the €1000-a-day option is very relevant: some people prefer it to the €100 a day option. But in another sense it is irrelevant: if group preferences were transitive, you wouldn’t expect its introduction to alter the relative ranking of the €100 a day fine and the status quo. And yet it does. By manipulating the agenda of the vote, the resolute procrastinator can ensure that it makes an absolutely critical difference. It flips the relative ranking of those two options, allowing the status quo to win out. Katz argues that this really shows that seemingly ‘irrelevant’ alternatives are actually much more relevant than initially suspected.

The question is whether something similar can happen with legal doctrines. Katz argues that it does. Sometimes, if we can introduce a seemingly irrelevant alternative into the picture, they can alter the decision. The self defence doctrine is a good illustration of this. In some cases of self defence, you don’t have the opportunity to safely retreat from the lethal attack. In these cases, you basically have two options, either you stay and be killed by your attacker; or you stay and fight back, killing your attacker. According to the law, both options are equally acceptable (i.e. both are legally permissible) from your perspective (what the attacker is doing to you may be legally impermissible but that is a separate question). Another way of putting it is that in this case, the proportionality principle and the rights principle point to the same legal evaluation. In other self-defence cases, you may have, in addition to the option of staying and being killed and staying and killing, the option of reasonable retreat. In these cases, the legal evaluation of the options is very different. Suddenly, the once legally permissible option of staying and killing your attacker might seem legally impermissible. Why didn’t you retreat when you had the chance? Katz argues that what is happening in this case is that the principles underlying the self defence doctrine rank the options differently: the rights principle says that standing your ground is permissible; the proportionality principle does not. We need to break the deadlock between them — to aggregate the different rankings into a legal decision — and so we (or, rather, most jurisdictions) allow the proportionality principle to win the day when the option of reasonable retreat is on the table.



The claim is that this is directly analogous to what happens in a voting system. Someone who wants to use the law to suit their purposes can manipulate contexts so that certain options are on the table (or not) and thus take advantage of the different rankings assigned to those options by the different underlying doctrines. That is what Samson is doing in the contrived self-defence case: by confronting his attackers in a park late at night he is taking reasonable retreat off the table. That is what James is doing in the asset protection case: by purchasing the exempt assets he is taking the option of seizing his assets and selling them off less reasonable. And that is what Ivan is doing in the political asylum case: by making his videos and speaking out against the regime in his home country, he is taking the option of returning to his home country and living an unmolested life off the table.

Clever lawyers can help individuals manipulate the agenda of legal decision-making in similar ways by advising them on how to limit or open up new options, or by providing evidence to support claims to the effect that certain options were or were not available to them.What’s more, following Arrow’s insights into voting, it would seem to follow that loophole exploitation of this sort is inevitable if the law is trying to aggregate different ethical/policy criteria. You can never completely eliminate loopholes from the law; they are inherent to the logic of legal decision-making.


4. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this post. To briefly recap, loopholes are common and persistent phenomena in the law. The job of the lawyer is often conceived in terms of exploiting loopholes on behalf of their clients. I’ve been outlining Leo Katz’s theory of legal loopholes. This theory argues that legal loopholes are directly analogous to voting paradoxes. Just as voting paradoxes arise when we try to aggregate individual preference rankings into a group preference ranking; so too do legal loopholes arise when we try to aggregate the rankings assigned by different underlying ethical or policy principles into a single legal evaluation.

I like Katz’s theory because it draws an interesting connection between two seemingly disparate areas of social life (voting and legal decision-making). Intertheoretic unification of this sort is usually thought to be a virtue. That said, I am also drawn to it because it is quite elaborate and theoretically sophisticated. But neither of these things are necessarily virtues. One could argue that Katz’s theory is too clever by half and that a much simpler explanation of loopholes is possible. Also, I certainly haven’t tested to see whether it explains every putative case of a legal loophole. Indeed, I would worry that in the end it may not explain loopholes so much as redefine them (maybe in part because loopholes are not particularly well-defined in the first place).

Alas, I’ll have to leave those issues unresolved. I offer Katz’s theory for your consideration and leave you to play around with the details. If you would like to learn more, I would recommend reading Katz’s full explanation of his theory. It fleshes out the analogy between legal decision-making and voting in far more detail than I provided here.




Monday, June 4, 2018

Episode #39 - Re-engineering Humanity with Frischmann and Selinger

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In this episode I talk to Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger about their book Re-engineering Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Brett and Evan are both former guests on the podcast. Brett is a Professor of Law, Business and Economics at Villanova University and Evan is Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Their book looks at how modern techno-social engineering is affecting humanity. We have a long-ranging conversation about the main arguments and ideas from the book. The book features lots of interesting thought experiments and provocative claims. I recommend checking it out. I highlight of this conversation for me was our discussion of the 'Free Will Wager' and how it pertains to debates about technology and social engineering.

You can listen to the episode below or download it here. You can also subscribe on Stitcher and iTunes (the RSS feed is here).


Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:33 - What is techno-social engineering?
  • 7:55 - Is techno-social engineering turning us into simple machines?
  • 14:11 - Digital contracting as an example of techno-social engineering
  • 22:17 - The three important ingredients of modern techno-social engineering
  • 29:17 - The Digital Tragedy of the Commons
  • 34:09 - Must we wait for a Leviathan to save us?
  • 44:03 - The Free Will Wager
  • 55:00 - The problem of Engineered Determinism
  • 1:00:03 - What does it mean to be self-determined?
  • 1:12:03 - Solving the problem? The freedom to be off

Relevant Links



Friday, May 18, 2018

Recent Media on the Ethics of Sex Tech

Image via Jonathan Rolande


I've done some recent media on the topics of sex and technology. Unsurprisingly, most of it focuses on the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications but there is some other stuff in there too. You might be interested in listening, watching or reading:

  • Episode 66: Robot Sex and AI Love - Future Fossils Podcast: This was an interview I did with Mike Garfield for his podcast. The interview was conducted around about the time the book came out back in October 2017. The recorded version was released in March 2018. This was one of my favourite interviews about the book. It covered a lot of ground that hasn't been covered in other interviews. You can subscribe to Mike's podcast here.

  • Robot Sex, Virtual Futures Salon: This was a conversation I had with the inimitable Kate Devlin (one of the world's leading experts on sex tech). This was a fun conversation, with a good audience Q and A that includes a (very mild) 'confrontation' with members of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Virtual Futures put on some excellent events and I recommend checking them out if you happen to be in London.


Future of Sex have also recently done some good summaries of my work on virtual sexual assault and consent apps.





Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Why You Should Hate Your Job and The Case Against Work



I recently published two short articles critiquing the work ethic and the modern workplace. You might be interested in reading them. Details, along with the first paragraph or so, below:


  • 'Why you should hate your job', Institute of Arts and Ideas, News - "Do you like your job? Maybe you do, but I think you should reevaluate. At the very least, I think you should be uncomfortable with the fact that you live in a system that compels you to have a job, particularly if that job is neither necessary for your own well-being nor the well-being of others...continue reading

  • 'The Case Against Work', The Philosophers Magazine - "I have spent most of my working life as an academic. One thing I have noticed in the course of my career is the dysfunctional relationship that academics have with their work. Many academics are notorious overworkers. They spend evenings and weekends researching their next papers and preparing for classes. Claims of sixty to eighty hour working weeks are not uncommon, particularly in the early phases of a career, as they try to escape precarious, short-term contracts and establish a name for themselves..." 

You'll have to subscribe to the Philosopher's Magazine to read the second one, but I highly recommend doing so if you have an interest in philosophy. I have a digital subscription myself and enjoy reading the magazine. (Update: this is no longer true. The essay has now been made freely available as a sample. I still recommend subscribing though!).





Friday, May 11, 2018

Is it Too Soon? The Ethics of Recovery from Grief





(Series Index)


It is now just over three weeks since my sister died. The ordinary patterns of life are beginning to resume. Deadlines loom, meetings have been scheduled, and the obligations of work are making themselves felt once more. I’m not sure how I feel about this. At times, I find it easy to reinsert myself into old habits and routines, to become absorbed by what I am doing, to forget about what happened. But this doesn’t last long. The smallest thing can trigger a cascade of memories and then I am back to where I was, feeling guilty for having lost myself in the mundane details of life. It feels like it shouldn’t be so easy to get back to reality, that I should linger on what happened just a little longer.

This raises an obvious and important question in the ethics of grief recovery. Is there a certain mourning period that should be observed following the death of a loved one? If you get back on your feet too quickly, does that say something negative about the relationship you had with the person who died (or about you)? To be more pointed: if I can re-immerse myself in my work a mere three weeks after my sister’s death, does that mean there is something wrong with me or something deficient in the relationship I had with her?

There is a philosophical literature offering answers to these questions, but from what I have read the majority of it does not deal with the ethics of recovering from a sibling’s death. Indeed, I haven’t found anything that deals directly with this issue. Instead, the majority of the literature deals with the ethics of recovery from the death of a spouse or intimate partner. What’s more, when they discuss that topic, they seem to have one scenario in mind: how soon is too soon when it comes to starting an intimate relationship with another person?

Analysing the ethical norms that should apply to that scenario is certainly of value, but it is hardly the only scenario worthy of consideration, and it is obviously somewhat distinct from the scenario that I am facing. I suspect that different norms apply to different relationships and this is likely to affect the ethics of recovery across those different relationship types. So what I propose to do in this post is to consider various arguments pertaining to the ethics of grief recovery in the spousal (or intimate partner) context first and then consider how those arguments might apply to other contexts, with a particular focus on the sibling context and my own experiences.

I’ll be using an article by Ryan and Erica Preston-Roedder as my guide through this topic. Their article offers a nice definition of what it means to recover from grief:

Grief Recovery: the return to one’s emotional and functional baseline following a bereavement.

Baselines are important here. If you were miserable and apathetic before somebody died, you cannot expect to become joyous and full of energy after their death (though that could happen). Recovery is about the return to some semblance of normality. Or, as I prefer to put it, to the ‘new normal’.

The Presten-Roedder’s article defends the claim that quick recovery from grief in the aftermath of a intimate partner’s death is not necessarily regrettable or problematic. They defend this position in the negative: i.e. by criticising arguments for the alternative point of view. There are three such arguments discussed in their paper and I will go through them one-by-one.


1. The ‘You Didn’t Care’ Argument
The first argument is not discussed at any length. It is briefly introduced and dismissed in order to distinguish it from more compelling arguments. Nevertheless, the argument expresses a familiar concern that arises in the case of grief recovery. If someone appears to recover very quickly from the death of a spouse — perhaps by dating someone new with a few months and maybe even marrying them — we might be inclined to question how sincere they were in their relationship with the deceased. We might be inclined to accuse them of not really caring for (or loving) the deceased.

Let’s set this argument out more explicitly, adopting a template that will be followed for all the subsequent arguments. I’ll use the shorthand ’S’ to refer to the surviving spouse/intimate partner and ‘D’ to refer to the deceased partner:


  • (1) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests (provides evidence for) the view that S did not care for/love D.

  • (2) If S did not care for/love D, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.

  • (3) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.


Let me just say something about the structure of this argument. The Presten-Roedders do not set out any of the arguments discussed in their paper in formal or semi-formal terms. I’m doing so in order to more clearly expose the logic that underlies them. This means I could be getting things wrong. I’m pretty confident that premise (1) reflects the logic of the objection. The idea is that we can infer something about S’s attitude toward D from S’s quick recovery. I’m less confident that premise (2) reflects the logic of the objection. Clearly, the idea is that we can pass judgment on the quality of the relationship between S and D from our assessment of S’s attitude toward D, but I think there may also be some attempt to make inferences about S’s character more generally (i.e. beyond the particular relationship they had with D). I’ll leave that out of the discussion here, but I think it hovers in the background of all of these arguments.

Assuming I have the structure of the argument more-or-less right, we can ask the question: is the argument a good one? I don’t think so. For starters, I would raise a worry about the epistemic grounding for the argument. I think we should be careful about inferring too much from limited observations of someone’s outward behaviour. In particular, I think we should be careful about inferring that someone has recovered from grief from, say, the fact that they started a new relationship. Someone who appears to have recovered quickly may not, in fact, have recovered all that well. Indeed, the very attempt to seek solace in a new relationship could be a reflection of some underlying psychological/emotional turmoil. This may bubble to the surface in time.

But suppose this is not the case. Suppose they have genuinely ‘recovered’ (in the sense defined above) from their grief. Is the argument credible then? No, for at least two reasons, both of which have been articulated by Dan Moller. First, there is good evidence to suggest that humans are generally psychologically resilient in the aftermath of a bereavement. Many people recover from their spouse’s deaths within 2-3 months and most within 6 months. This resiliency seems to be hardwired into us, probably for good evolutionary reasons. It would be expecting to much of people to go against these deep-rooted norms of behaviour. Second, and more importantly, the mere fact of recovery says nothing about the quality of the love/care between S and D while D was alive. To make judgments about that, we need to consider how S behaved and felt toward D while D was still alive. S could have been the most loving, caring and supportive person imaginable while D was alive. That doesn’t change simply because S recovers quickly.

All that said, it should be noted that quick recovery is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that S didn’t care about D when they were alive. It may not justify us in making claims about a deficiency in the prior relationship; but it might trigger an inquiry into that relationship. If I saw someone recover very quickly from the death of their spouse, I think I might be a little suspicious about how much they cared and might ask further questions. Still, I accept that any judgment I reached could not be grounded in the fact of quick recovery; it would have to grounded in facts about how S and D interacted during D’s lifetime.

The intuition underlying the ‘you didn’t care’-argument clearly ports over to other bereavement contexts. Recovering quickly from the death of a child, friend, or sibling cannot, by itself, warrant a judgment to the effect that the relationship between the survivor and the deceased was deficient, but it could trigger an inquiry into the quality of the relationship. This is something I have had to confront in relation to my own experiences of grief recovery. My ability to re-immerse myself in the details of everyday life has made me suspicious of the quality of the relationship I had with my sister when she was alive. While I believe that I did care about her, I do worry that I didn’t always show this to be true in my behaviour toward her. Her bubbly and effervescent personality often clashed with my more introverted and insular personality. I often resisted her desire to talk to me, putting off calling or emailing her back until either she forgot or I finally mustered the energy to do so. I was also, sometimes, quite sarcastic and dismissive. I always justified this behaviour on the grounds that I could make it up to her later on — that there would be time enough to set things right — but that was a mistake. Her illness and sudden death meant that I never got the chance. I did send her a long email shortly before she died in which I apologised to her for my past behaviour, and in which I told her how much she meant to me. She told me not to worry about it and that she never held my taciturn nature against me. This was a step in the right direction, and may have partially healed the rift, but since I am a self-confessed behaviourist when it comes to the ethics of interpersonal relationships, I have to believe that there was something deficient about the relationship I had with her.

Still, none of these self-judgments is grounded in the fact that I may have recovered quickly from her death; they are all grounded in what happened when she was still alive. Indeed, if anything this inquiry into the past, and the sense of guilt (or regret) that it dislodges, is probably something that will block quick recovery from grief. So I agree with Moller (and the Presten-Roedders) that the ‘you didn’t care’ argument is not particularly strong. It does, however, point the way to a more interesting argument.


2. The Argument from Importance
The more interesting argument is the argument from importance. This is the one that Dan Moller endorses in his work on grief and recovery. The idea is straightforward: if S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests that D was not important to S. Again, this allows us to make judgments about the deficiency of S and D’s relationship. A lot hinges on how we define ‘importance’. Moller identifies two key elements to it:

Significant Difference: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would have made a significant difference to S’s life, i.e. D would have been crucial to S achieving a high degree of functioning/flourishing in their life.

Irreplaceability: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would not be easily fungible or replaceable, i.e. another person would not be able to play the same role in S’s life with equal effect.

You might be able to see where this is going. Having identified these two sub-components to importance, Moller goes on to argue that the fact of quick recovery provides evidence for the claim that D did not satisfy either of these conditions in S’s life. This would seem to be particularly true if S quickly enters into another intimate relationship in a short space of time:



  • (4) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that D was not important to S, i.e. that (a) D did not make a significant difference to S’s life and (b) D was not irreplaceable.

  • (5) If D was not important to S, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.

  • (6) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.


What are we to make of this? I think Moller’s characterisation of what it means for one person to be important to another is intuitively appealing, particularly when it comes to intimate partner relationships. If you share a life with someone, your daily routines and habits will come to rely upon them. If they die, there will be considerable disruption to those routines. It thus seems obvious that it should take some time to readjust.


I’ve quoted this passage before in this series but I will do so again because I think it captures this idea so well. It is from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and it describes how disrupted his life was after his wife (‘H’) died:

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac. 
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

But, of course, Moller isn’t simply arguing that in a good relationship S’s habits and routines should come to depend on D. He is saying that the dependency is something that actively contributes to S’s flourishing and well-being. Again, that does seems like a plausible claim. If the spousal relationship is a good one, then S and D should make a significant difference to one another’s flourishing. Their lives should be better together than they would be apart.

In addition to this, Moller’s claim that a loved one should be (or should at least approximate) irreplaceability seems intuitively appealing too. An intimate partner should not be like a smartphone: something that can be readily traded for an equally good (or better) make and model. There should be something unique and special about them that makes the transition to a new relationship difficult.

All of which means that Moller feels secure in concluding that quick recovery is, indeed, regrettable and that it would be preferable if S went through a long process of recovery. This doesn’t mean that S should ‘fake’ their emotions or feelings. The argument is not about the social performance of grief. It is about what a morally virtuous person, who was in a meaningful and morally valuable relationship, should feel after their partner has died.

I expressed some concerns in a previous post about the impact of standards or norms like this on the life of grieving person. I won’t repeat those concerns here. Instead, I’ll turn to the Preston-Roedder’s critique of this argument. Although they agree that Moller’s characterisation of importance has some intuitive appeal, they argue that there are other ways of understanding importance that are not undermined by a quick recovery and that are consistent with the view that S and D had a good relationship.

First, they argue that Moller is wrong to think about ‘significant difference’ solely in terms of functionality and flourishing. While it could, of course, be true that D made a significant difference to S’s flourishing, the mere fact that they did not would not necessarily cause us to lament the relationship between them. Indeed, excessive dependency on another might itself be a sign of something problematic or deficient in a relationship. You shouldn’t have to rely too heavily on another person for your happiness and well-being, and indeed it can be destructive if you do. What if the other person can’t cope with the demands that you place on them? What if they buckle under the pressure?

An alternative way to think about ‘significant difference’ is in terms of the impact that the other person makes on your practical identity. Did they change your conception of yourslef? Did they change your values, commitments and beliefs? This is an idea I explored in an earlier post in this series when I looked at Michael Cholbi’s argument in favour of the goodness of grief. In that post, I considered his claim that one of the reasons why grief is so painful is because it affects our identity-constituting relationships. A deceased partner may have made a significant difference to someone’s identity, without necessarily making a difference to their functioning/flourishing. A quick recovery from their death does not imply that they didn’t make this difference. The surviving spouse could still carry with them the values and commitments that D helped to shape. This would undercut Moller’s argument.

Second, the Presten-Roedders argue that there are at least two different ways to think about ‘irreplaceability’:

Instrumental irreplaceability: D was an irreplaceable means to certain ends for S, e.g. security, sexual intimacy, financial support, co-parenting/childcare (and so on).

Intrinsic irreplaceability: D was valued by S for their ‘distinctive particularity’, i.e. for the whole, unique bundle of characteristics that they had.

Moller’s argument seems fixated on instrumental irreplaceability. He thinks that there is something problematic in the fact that S quickly found another intimate partner who could perform the same roles/functions in their life as D once did. But the Presten-Roedders argue that instrumental replaceability is neither surprising nor problematic. It is, after all, commonplace for people to form relationships, break-up, and find new partners who can perform similar (if not perfectly identical) roles in their lives. There is nothing to lament in this. Indeed, it seems obviously wrong to suppose that the main value of our intimate partners lies in the fact that they performed certain functions for us. That could be part of the picture, for sure, but not the most important part. Intrinsic irreplaceability is the more important idea. A good relationship is characterised by a situation in which S loves D for who they are as a person, not for the things they can do for S. To put it more philosophically, it is characterised by a situation in which S loves D in D’s distinctive particularity. The fact that S quickly recovers from D’s death, perhaps by finding another partner, does not imply that D was not loved in their distinctive particularity (though, as with the ‘You didn’t care’-argument, quick recovery is not inconsistent with that possibility).

I agree with the Presten-Roedders’s take on the argument from importance. Assuming they are being fair in how they present it, Moller’s argument does seem to be far too wedded to an instrumentalist/functionalist view of what it takes for S and D to be in a good intimate relationship. But how does the argument apply outside of intimate relationships? Can it be applied to sibling relationships or parent-child relationships? I think it can. To state the obvious, siblings, parents and children are ‘important’. They definitely play a role in shaping our practical identities and I would hope that we value them primarily for who they are, not because of any particular function or role they play in our lives. I feel, pretty strongly, that this was true of my relationship with my sister. She played an important role in shaping my practical identity, particularly during my school years when she used to help me with my maths homework and explain difficult scientific concepts to me. I don’t think I would have the interests I now do without her influence. Furthermore, I would never even think about ‘replacing’ her in my life. She was a unique, once-off. She could only be valued in her distinctive particularity.

There is something interesting in this. I mentioned earlier that I found aspects of Moller’s argument intuitively appealing. That’s because, even though he may be too wedded to the instrumentalist view of importance, he is not wrong in thinking that spouses and intimate partners play important instrumental roles in our lives, that some of their value lies in how well they perform those roles. The same would seem to be true of parents, particularly when we are very young and in need of security, love and care. It would be foolish to think that these functional roles are not part of the picture. But it is interesting to me that Moller’s version of the argument is much less appealing in the case of children and siblings. I would find it very odd to conceive of the importance of children and siblings in terms of some instrumental role they play in our lives. Indeed, I think the predominant normative view of those relationships (at least nowadays) goes against any such instrumentalist interpretation. It’s only because intimate partner relationships and parental relationships blend aspects of the instrumental and intrinsic that Moller’s argument gets any purchase at all. The more distinctive and common features of all close relationships are their intrinsic merits.


3. The Argument from Abandonment
The final argument against quick recovery is the argument from abandonment. This is an argument that the Presten-Roedders formulate themselves, claiming that it is implicit in the literature on grief, albeit not properly articulated to date. The gist of the argument is this: if S recovers quickly from the death of D, it suggests that S has abandoned D, and this is bad because good relationships are characterised by solidarity between S and D.

The Presten-Roedders give a more detailed characterisation of what they mean by ‘solidarity’ in relationships:

Solidarity Principle: A good relationship is characterised by solidarity between S and D, where solidarity can take one of four forms:
(i) Taking on and sharing in one another’s projects.
(ii) Harbouring certain hopes for one another and having certain kinds of faith in one another.
(iii) Celebrating one another’s successes and sharing in one another’s suffering/misfortune (i.e. having great empathy for one another)
(iv) Being present with one another, both physically and in thought.

As best I can tell, although these forms of solidarity might be expressed in a particularly strong form in intimate relationships, they are not unique to such relationships. They apply much more generally. The claim the Presten-Roedders make is that a quick recovery from grief suggests a loss of, at least some of, these forms of solidarity. In particular, they suggest that quick recovery might indicate a failure by S to share in D’s suffering/misfortune (death being the ultimate misfortune), and a failure to remain present (in thought) with D. To put it more formally:


  • (7) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that S no longer stands in solidarity with D, i.e. has stopped sharing in D’s misfortune and is failing to be present (in thought) with D.

  • (8) If S does not stand in solidarity with D, then there was (is?) something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.

  • (9) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.


The metaphysics of this argument are puzzling to me. I’ve indicated my puzzlement by adding the bracketed ‘is?’ to premise (8). I’m not sure to which temporal frame this argument is supposed to apply. The solidarity principle makes sense while someone is alive, but it makes no sense when someone is dead. At least, it makes no sense to me, given my secular, non-religious views. When a person is dead, they no longer exist. From that point onwards, there is no one with whom one can fail to stand in solidarity. No one to be abandoned. This is what I believe to be true about my sister. She was here once; she is here no longer. I could share in her misfortunes when she was alive; I could be present with her when she was alive; I can do neither of these things now that she is dead.

And yet…

…even though the metaphysics of the argument are puzzling, I admit that it has a powerful emotional pull. My sense of guilt about returning to life is, I think, partly grounded in the sense that it would be wrong to abandon my sister so quickly, to just forget about what happened to her and move on. As I mentioned in the intro, I have this sense that I should linger with her for a while longer. I know this sounds irrational. I know that I will never really ‘forget’ her. She may not be foremost in my mind at all times, but the memories will always be there, ready to be accessed (or triggered) when the time is right. I also know that I cannot ‘linger’ with her anymore. I can only linger with my memories of her. These are fantasies, simulacra, not the real thing. But I am still drawn to them.

Besides these metaphysical worries, the argument has some other problems. The Presten-Roedders argue that quick recovery is not inconsistent with continued solidarity with the deceased. They break this counter-argument down into two parts, each one focusing on a different aspect of what it means to recover from grief. First, they consider what it means to recover to one’s emotional baseline. Assuming you weren’t perpetually sad and depressed before the bereavement, emotional recovery will consist in returning to some semblance of emotional neutrality, maybe even happiness. Does this return to neutrality and occasional happiness indicate a loss of solidarity? Can solidarity only be manifested in continued sadness? This seems implausible.

As the Presten-Roedder’s point out, those who recover quickly from their grief may simply be expressing or manifesting emotional solidarity in a different way. They may be avoiding painful memories associated with D’s death and focusing instead on happy and joyful memories. They could be just as emotionally invested in the deceased as the person who is sad and depressed, perhaps even more so. Indeed, the person who is continuously sad and depressed may engage in avoidant behaviours, stopping themselves from remembering too much about the deceased for fear that it will foment another cascade of tears.

They then turn to functional recovery. It is common to suppose that the person who spends all day wallowing in bed, thinking relentlessly about the deceased and the life they could (should?) have lived, is showing the utmost solidarity with the deceased. They are definitely ‘present’ with them (at least in thought). Their inability to return to work, or to have any get up and go, are indicative of this. But, again, this is not the only way to manifest solidarity. Indeed, the Presten-Roedders argue that there may actually be better ways to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased had projects that they left unfinished, or causes/charities that they supported. Continuing those projects and supporting those causes would be one way to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased was deeply invested in the career and flourishing of the survivor and would want to see that success continue. Continuing with one’s work and trying one’s best to succeed might manifest solidarity (though that seems suspiciously self-serving). Alternatively, the survivor could launch into a new project that commemorates the deceased, thereby recovering functionality, but in a way that clearly remains present with the deceased.

I find these suggestions reassuring (metaphysically suspect though they may be). I certainly don’t want to abandon my sister and get on with my life; but I don’t want to marinate in feelings of guilt and betrayal either. I would like to think that there are ways to express and manifest solidarity with her without staying in a depressed, sub-normal state. My sister had many projects and causes that she supported in her lifetime, and she was deeply interested in the work that I did, always reading my latest work and listening to my podcast appearances. Continuing with these projects and supporting those causes could be my way to show solidarity. Furthermore, as you may have suspected, I think it might be possible to view this series of blog posts (now nearly 20,000 words long) as some attempt at continued solidarity that involves returning to my usual routines of reading and writing.

But note how each of these suggestions doesn’t quite deal with the dilemma I introduced at the start of this post: the need to return to the obligations of life as they were was before the death. The Presten-Roedders’s suggestions involve restructuring or reorganising your life, perhaps even to the extent of pursuing new projects, in order to maintain solidarity with the deceased. This isn’t particularly helpful when you are being asked to continue with work projects that pre-dated the deceased’s death — that are callbacks to the time before. This is the dilemma I now face. The demands of work continue to pile up, and I continue to procrastinate on all but the most pressing of them (ironically one of the character traits I shared with my sister). I’m not quite ready to go back to the world as it once was. Whenever I do, I find myself drawn back to my memories of her and the sense of betrayal and abandonment this return entails.

Of course, I am being naive. I can never ‘go back’. Things will be different from now on. Maybe that is the key insight here: there is no real ‘recovery’ from grief. You cannot be restored to how you once were. You must rebuild and reconstitute yourself to accommodate the new reality. That can happen quickly, but it has to happen if the relationship with deceased was a morally significant one. If it didn’t, if you just continued as things were, then there probably would be something deficient about the relationship you had with the deceased.




Coping with Grief: Series Index



Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Grief is central to the human experience. To find evidence of this you need look no further than our earliest literary works. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which is shattered by the latter’s death about halfway through the narrative. Gilgamesh cannot stop grieving for his lost friend. He enters a phase of denial, seeking out the secret to immortality and eventually coming up empty-handed. Grief is also central to The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is Achilles’s grief (and rage) at the death of his friend Patroclus that results in the poem’s most consequential fight — the fight between Achilles and Hector — and it is the recognition of shared grief between Achilles and Priam (father of Hector) that lies at the heart of the poem’s most poignant scene.

I’ve long been aware of the centrality of grief to human life, but until recently had limited personal experience of it. That all changed on the 16th April 2018. That was the day that my sister (Sarah) died. She was only 43 years old. She had been a living, breathing person just hours before her death, laughing and joking with her family, and singing in the kitchen for her young son. She had been seriously ill, but not expected to die for some time. For her to be so suddenly wiped from our lives was hard to take. In the aftermath of her death, I experienced a range of emotions. Initially, guilt and shame were predominant. I regretted things I had said to her, beat myself up for phone calls and emails I had failed to return, and wished I had spent more time in her company. Subsequently, these feelings of guilt and shame were replaced by feelings of gratitude — gratitude for having known her, and for the kind, generous person that she was. There were some tears, though not as many as I expected. Mainly, her death served to reinforce beliefs that I have long held: that much of what we value in life is fragile; that death is inevitable; that we should prepare ourselves for its inevitability; that the universe is fundamentally morally indifferent; but that there is much good in life too.

As you might imagine, Sarah’s death has prompted a degree of soul-searching and reflection. Since I have a tendency to intellectualise everything, I have turned to the philosophical literature on grief for guidance on how best to navigate the troubled waters of bereavement. I have read a lot. I want to share some of what I have learned over a series of posts. I want to focus on three topics in particular, dedicating one post to each. Some of these will be quite long. I apologise for that in advance. I’ve been working through my own thoughts through the process of writing.







Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Badness of Grief: A Moderate Defence of the Stoic View




(Series Index)

We can think about grief in different ways. The most obvious might be to think of it as a psychological phenomenon. When we do this we should avoid the mistake of thinking that grief is some singular psychological state. It is not. It is, rather, a complex concatenation of them. It is characterised by depression or sadness, but also by anger, guilt, shame, longing and so on. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularised the ‘five-stage’ model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which captures this ‘complex process’ idea, though her particular model has been widely rejected. Most people do not experience grief in this linear sequence.

We can also think about grief as a social phenomenon. There are many complex rituals and protocols associated with grief. If you have recently experienced a bereavement, you will be struck by the number of expectations that will be foisted upon you. You will be expected to behave and act in a particular way. People will expect you to be sad, heartbroken, unable to face the day. They will be surprised, perhaps even judgmental, if you do not cry. In some societies, the rituals are very carefully prescribed: there are specific mourning periods that must be observed and clothes that must be worn. The social expectations of grief are frustrating — at least in my experience — as they can induce a sense of anxiety or guilt if you fail to live up to them. Why can’t I cry? Why can’t I feel sad? Is there something wrong with me?

This mental anguish again prompts the question: is grief worth it? If it causes so much pain and anxiety, would we better off without it? I considered the case for grief in a previous post. In this post, I want to consider the case against it. This case rejects the social expectations of grief and encourages us to reevaluate our psychological reactions to death. It is often associated with the ancient philosophical tradition of Stoicism. One of Seneca’s letters to his friend Lucilius (letter 63) famously counsels against grief and highlights its destructive potential. But similar views can be found in other ancient traditions. In his article ‘Neither Bereavement or Grief’, Yao-ming Tsal defends the Buddhist tradition of ‘not-grief’ as being a healthier and more adaptive response to the death of a loved one. And in her discussion of grief in the Zhuangzi (the key text of the Daoist tradition) Amy Olberding notes that several of the sages depicted in the text, along with Zhuangzi himself, seemed to warn against grief.

For want of a better name, let’s call this the ‘anti-grief’ view. It can be characterised in the following manner:

Anti-grief: Grief is, on balance, a bad thing; it is maladaptive and, ultimately, destructive; it would be better if we could minimise the extent to which we experience it in our lives.

Since it has an ancient pedigree, and has attracted different people, living in different geographical and cultural regions, you might think that the anti-grief view must have something going for it. But it faces stiff and obvious opposition. To many, it seems inhuman and cold. If you do not grieve the loss of a close friend or relative, then you must not have really loved them in the first place:

Inhumanity Critique: A person who minimised the experience of grief would not live a full human life; they would not truly experience the joys of attachment and intimacy that are integral to a well-lived life.

The Inhumanity Critique has considerable appeal. And if you would like to read a longer defence of it, I would suggest reading my earlier analysis of the arguments from Michael Cholbi and Amy Olberding. But in the remainder of this post, I want to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief stance. I do so partly because think there is much to be said in its favour and partly because I think the Inhumanity Critique can be deflected. Indeed, I believe that the defenders of grief and its opponents can, to a considerable extent, be accused of talking past each other. There is much more common ground between their positions than might be first thought.

To illustrate this thesis, I want to consider four arguments in favour of the anti-grief view.


1. Argument One: Proponents of the Anti-Grief View are not Inhuman
This first argument will seem a little weak, but it warms us up for the more serious arguments that are to come. It is simply that, contrary to what their opponents claim, many of the famous defenders of the anti-grief position were not cold, robotic and inhuman in their behaviour. They were often compassionate, generous and kindly. They did not argue that we should avoid all friendships and attachments. They often cultivated and nurtured such relationships themselves. Seneca had many close friends — it would be hard to make sense of his letters to Lucilius if you thought they were the product of someone who did not care about others. The same goes for Zhuangzi.

Furthermore, they did not argue for the total eradication of grief. They merely argued for its moderation. They suggested that we allow ourselves to experience the ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’ forms of grief, but warned against getting too carried away by our own emotions and their social performance. Seneca was very clear about this:

I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all — and yet I am convinced that it is better that way. But who will ever be granted that strength of character, unless he be a man already lifted far out of fortune’s reach?….When one has lost a friend, one’s eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but not lamentation…Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it. 
(Seneca, Letter 63)

I will say more about the excesses of grief below. For now, I just want to emphasise the important and subtle point that I think Seneca is making here. He is saying that we should expect to experience some grief — that it is natural and that we lack the ability to completely eliminate it — but we must be careful not to wallow in it; to ‘parade it’ for the benefit of others and ourselves; to prove how much we care. This advice resonates with me. In the aftermath of my sister’s death I certainly felt the temptation to perform my grief for others. There is something soothing about being the object of other’s pity, and to feel pity for oneself. I think it is important to avoid this.

This is taking us away, slightly, from the original point. That point is simply that proponents of the anti-grief view are not the inhuman monsters they are sometimes accused of being. Seneca says some things which, when taken out of context, can seem inhuman (such as arguing that Lucilius should replace his dead friend Flaccus with another fried as soon as possible). But in the overall context of the letter, he is not completely against grief. He says that he himself experienced sorrow when his friend Annaeus Serenus died. In this he was similar to Zhuangzi who, as Amy Olberding points out, also experienced grief after his wife died.

The critic could argue that these examples prove nothing. They just show that Seneca and Zhuangzi were inconsistent in their behaviour. We don’t care about that. It’s their philosophy that is being criticised, not their behaviour. We know that humans often fail to live up to their stated principles. The critic might even go further and argue that Seneca and Zhuangzi’s behaviour demonstrates the impossibility of their position: it is simply not possible for humans not to experience grief. They are hoists on their own petard.

But I think a more charitable interpretation is in order. The very fact that neither Seneca nor Zhuangzi seemed to be the inhuman monster you might expect them to be suggests that they did not intend for their position to be the cold, unemotional caricature that it is often presented as being. They were arguing for something more subtle and sophisticated. The three remaining arguments might help to reveal what that was.


2. Argument Two: Deeper Attunement to the Metaphysics of Reality
The second argument is the one that interests me the most. It claims that proponents of the anti-grief view are trying to foster within us a deeper attunement to the metaphysics of reality. They think that this deeper attunement will enable us to feel more at home in the world, and less vulnerable to negative emotions like fear and anxiety. I use the unfamiliar word ‘attunement’ deliberately. I think this really gets to the heart of what Stoicism, Daoism and Buddhism were all about. Their advice about attitudes to death and grief were grounded in more fundamental* beliefs about the nature of reality. But they didn’t want us to accept those propositions on a merely intellectual level; they wanted us to incorporate them into our daily habits and routines. This is what I try to capture by using the word ‘attunement’. The argument for attunement takes some unpacking so I will try to develop it slowly.

One thing that is noticeable about many memoirs of grief is how they frequently share the sense that the death of a loved one was a ‘rupture’ in the ordinary structure of reality. One of my favourite explorations of this is Joan Didion’s discussion in the The Year of Magical Thinking, a book written in the year after her husband died from a heart attack. They were having dinner at the time. In an ordinary moment, her life changed dramatically. She observes how people commonly draw attention to how normal everything was in the lead-up to tragedies of this sort, and how troubling the ordinariness of it seems to be when it comes to accepting what happened:

It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I realize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames… “He was on his way home from work — happy, successful, healthy — then gone”, I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966, I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. 
(Didion 2005, 4)

Again, this resonates with me. My own reflections on my sister’s death dwell on the ordinariness of it all. It was an ordinary day in March when I learned she was first admitted to hospital. It had been an ordinary Sunday evening when I got the call that she had died. Hours before her death I was told that she was laughing and singing with her family in her kitchen. Going through her ordinary routine. Although she had been diagnosed with a serious illness, there was nothing to suggest that the rupture in the fabric of existence would come so quickly.

And yet, when you think about it, this sense that death comes ‘out of the ordinary’ is very odd. Death is everywhere. We all know that we will die, that illness and death can strike at any time. News broadcasts are filled with families that have been struck by sudden (and not so sudden) tragedy. Their grief is ‘paraded’ for our entertainment. We live in a world of constant change and chaos. The odds are against us all. Why should we assume that we, or our families and friends, will be spared?
We need to capture this oddness more precisely because it points the way to what the Stoics (et al) are trying to do. Michael Cholbi provides some help in his article ‘Finding the Good in Grief”, which I covered in more detail in a previous post. Cholbi notes that we take an awful lot for granted in our everyday lives, particularly our relationships with others, even though we ‘know’ it is all contingent:

For much of our lives, our outlook on the world operates on autopilot. We go about our daily business, pursuing our goals, trying our best to live well, and so on. We develop habits that reflect …our practical identities [i.e. what we care about and value]. These habits easily become entrenched and normalized, and when they do, we can lose sight of how our practical identities assume a stable normal environment in which to act upon them. Of course, we know that much in our everyday environment is contingent. We ‘know’, for example, that our homes can be felled by earthquakes or other disasters, that our professional lives depend on institutions and practice that can totter, that our bodies may betray us via injury or disease.
(Cholbi 2017) 

The use of the inverted commas around the word ‘know’ is suggestive. Cholbi is saying that we know these things at an intellectual level, but not on a practical level. On a practical level, we are attuned to a social world that we assume to be stable and consistent. That assumption may be adaptive in some contexts — I’m sure some evolutionary theorists could argue that animals that assume stability do better than those that do not — but it can be counter-productive in others. In the case of death and bereavement, it rests on a delusion, an assumption of immortality and existential robustness that is not warranted. It is one of the reasons why the death of a loved one can be so shocking and upsetting.

I think this is one of the key insights of the anti-grief proponents. They are cautioning us against being attuned to the facade of stability in our ‘ordinary’ everyday lives. They are urging us to become more attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality. That reality is one in which organisms come into being and pass out of being on a regular basis, in which change is a constant, and in which death is an inevitability. We need to stop being deluded by the mirage of the social world; we need to take a wider perspective. This is exactly what Zhuangzi did to overcome the grief he experienced after his wife died:

When she first died, do you suppose that I was able not to feel the loss? I peered back into her beginnings; there was a time before there was a life. Not only was there no life, there was a time before there was a shape. Not only was there no shape, there was a time before there was energy. Mingled together in the amorphous, something altered, and there was the energy; by the alteration in the energy there was the shape, by the alteration of the shape there was the life. Now once more, she has gone over to death. 
(Taken from Olberding 2007, 341)

There is some pretty fancy metaphysics going on in this passage, which you may or may not accept, but the basic point is simple enough: his wife’s death “evidenced in microcosm the macrocosmic processes by which the world is governed” (Olberding 2007, 342). Her death was not some major disruption of the ordinary world. It did not fall like a plane from a clear blue sky. It was just nature taking its course. When he became attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality, the grief subsided a little bit. I have tried to illustrate what I think is going on here in the following diagram.




I have only used one example to illustrate this attunement argument, but I think it is relatively easy to see evidence of it in other anti-grief traditions. Buddhist metaphysics, for instance, famously rejects the existence of the self and holds that the concepts and categories that we apply to the world are illusions (you can, of course, find similar ideas in Western philosophies). Yao-ming Tsal, in his article on Buddhist approaches to grief, argues that acceptance of these metaphysical truth will enable us to become detached from grief and bereavement — to experience what he calls ‘not-grief’.

Whether we can actually become attuned to the deeper reality, and cast off the illusions of the social world, is, I think, up for debate. It would be a hard slog, if nothing else and recent studies suggest that devout Buddhists experience great anxiety in the face of death despite their acceptance of the not-self doctrine (the study did not look at grief). Nonetheless, I think there is something to what the anti-grief proponents are arguing. We are too complacent about the stability of the everyday world, and we tend to avoid confronting the reality of mortality. I think we would be well-advised to take more cognisance of it in our daily habits. I would rather confront the truth than live with an illusion.


3. Argument Three: Preventing the Excesses of Grief

The third argument is more practical and ethical in its orientation. It returns us to one of the problems alluded to in the first argument: that grief can be dangerous if taken to excess. This might seem obvious enough — the negative emotions associated with grief could be harmful to our psyches if allowed to fester. If, as Seneca noted, we start to parade our grief and wallow in self-pity, our grief will become self-destructive. We will become slaves to it, trapped in a cycle, unable to accept the reality of what has happened.

This is something that is central to Joan Didion’s narrative of her own grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. The ‘magical thinking’ referred to in the title is her inability to come to terms with her husband’s death and her belief that he was going to come back:

Of course, I knew that John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and my brother and to Quintana’s [her daughter’s] husband…Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That’s why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking. 
(Didion 2005, 33)

Shortly after this she describes how for months after her husband’s death she was incapable of rationality:

…I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts and wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. 
(Didion 2005, 35)

So there is an element of self-care to the anti-grief position advocated by Seneca (et al). They are warning us not to become so beholden to grief that we are trapped in avoidant, delusional thinking.

But there is more to it than that. The anti-grief position is not just about self-care; it is also about the care of others. This is something that Paul Scherz emphasises in his discussion of grief in both Stoic and early Christian traditions. He claims that one of the key arguments underlying the Stoic anti-grief view is that grief, when excessive, blocks us from discharging our duties to others. To appreciate the argument in its entirety we need to make a distinction between two forms of grief:

Anticpatory Grief: The grief that precedes the death of a loved one, usually when you learn that they are sick and dying.

Retrospective Grief: The grief that arises after the death of a loved one.

Both forms of grief take us out of the present moment. Anticipatory grief gets us to focus on the future — to the point in time when the loved one will no longer be with us; retrospective grief gets us to focus on the past — to the time when they were still alive. The anguish and pain associated with both forms of thinking often leads to avoidant coping behaviours, such as the denialism evidenced in Didion’s memoir. The net result is that we are taken out of the present and its ethical demands on our character. We live in a desired past or imaginary future. We ignore what needs to be done in the here and now.

This has some particularly problematic consequences. In the case of anticipatory grief, our fixation on the future, and how painful it may be, can cause us to withdraw from the person who is dying. It is just too painful for us to visit them while they are sick, to help them when they are most in need of our support. So we hide away. This retreat from the ethical demands of care is commonplace. Friends of mine who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses often remark on the fact that being sick drives people away. People who you once thought were friends suddenly adopt a stance of radio silence. You will not hear from them again unless you become well. It is also something, to my shame, that I felt when I first learned of my sister’s illness. I held off on speaking to her for a few days because unable to confront the reality of what was happening. My anticipatory grief prevented me from confronting the demands of the present.

A similar phenomenon can arise in the case of retrospective grief, only in that case it is not your duties to the deceased that you fail to discharge but, rather, your duties to everyone else who relies upon you. Again, this is something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Promises I made to others have not been lived up to. I find it hard to motivate myself to care about those who are still alive when she is gone. The anti-grief view is trying to prevent this absence from the present from becoming pathological.

There is one final element to this. In addition to facilitating self-care and care for others, the anti-grief view is defended by its proponents on the grounds that it is more respectful to the dead. Those who are prone to excessive grief may be unable to truly celebrate and cherish the memories of the deceased. The memories will be too painful for them to enjoy. The anti-grief view is intended to remove that impediment to joy. This is something Seneca emphasises in his letter to Lucilius:

Let us see to it that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us. Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain…Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still. 
(Seneca Letter 63)

The latter part of this quote is describing the Stoic practice of negative visualisation — of always preparing oneself for the worst — which is is done in the belief that it will enable you to be grateful for what you have and once had. You don’t have to accept this practice to accept the bigger point: that we should cherish and enjoy the memories of those who are dead. This is something I find myself doing with my sister’s death. She was a happy and warm person. My memories of her, for the most part, share that character. When I think of her, it is most often with a feeling of joy and gratitude, not sadness or pain. We all die. She died sooner than most. People may perceive that death to be a tragedy; but the life she lived before that was not and should not be remembered as such.


4. Argument Four: Freeing us from the Social Expectations of Grief
The final argument is about the negative social expectations/demands of grief. I shall be brief with this one since it is not the strongest of the four and I described it in the introduction already. As I noted then, there are many social norms around grief. You don’t just feel grief; you perform it for others. Those others have demands and expectations. Some of the social norms are comforting: standard mourning rituals (funerals, wakes) provide structure and certainty in the immediate aftermath of a death — one less decision to worry about.

But there are at least three problems with the social norms of grief. First, as Seneca noted in one of the passages quoted above, we may get too caught up in the social performance of grief. This may kick-start a feedback cycle in which the negative manifestations of grief are reinforced and habitualised. Second, our actual feelings of grief may not align with the social expectations of grief, which as I pointed out in the introduction can add a layer of anxiety or guilt to the proceedings. Third, the social norms may be uncertain, confusing, or in conflict with one another. Martha Nussbaum makes this point when she describes her own experiences of grief following the death of her mother:

Human beings experience emotions in ways that are shaped both by individual history and by social norms. My own grief was shaped not only by my attachment to my mother, but also by norms about the proper way to mourn the loss of a parent. These norms, as I experienced them through my own inclinations, were unclear and to some extent inconsistent…One is supposed to allow oneself to “cry big” at times, but then American mores of self-help also demand that one get on with one’s work, one’s physical exercise, one’s commitments to others, not making a big fuss. 
(Nussbaum 2000, 140)

This seems very true to my experience. It can be frustrating to not know what is expected of you, or to be subject to competing demands. It can make you more reluctant to seek support from others. While it is reassuring to have friends and family check in on you following a bereavement, you sometimes get odd sense that they are judging you as they do so. Is this person dealing with the grief in the right way? Are they recovering properly (whatever that might mean)? This can make their presence less comforting. Admittedly, this is more of a problem with loose acquaintances or casual friends: I don’t worry about the judgments of those with whom I am very close. And perhaps the uncertainty is a product of modernity? Maybe in traditional societies, where we have clearer norms and rituals, the problem goes away? But since even the ancients were offering one another advice on how best to grieve, I doubt that this is true.

The anti-grief view, of course, doesn’t completely eliminate the problems associated with the social norms of grief. Indeed, if taken too far, it may simply replace one set of social expectations with another. But in its original intention it tries to ease the anxiety one might face in relation to those social expectations, and to prevent them from reinforcing a negative spiral of emotions. It says that we should allow ourselves to experience natural or instinctual grief, but not be too worried about the social performance. This seems like sound advice to me.


5. Conclusion
To briefly recap, I have tried to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief view. This view holds that although some grief is acceptable, it can be maladaptive and it is best to moderate its negative effects. This is sometimes viewed as inhuman advice on the grounds that it encourages callous emotional detachment, but I have argued that this is not the case. Proponents of the anti-grief view were not callous and emotionally detached in their actual behaviour, which suggests that their position was more subtle than the caricature allows. They were encouraging us to become more deeply attuned to the metaphysics of reality (which necessarily involve death, destruction and change) and less deluded by the facade of stability in our everyday lives. They were also trying to provide ways to avoid the negative excesses of grief, discharge our duties to those who are still alive, and reduce the burden of social expectation that is associated with it.

I want to sign off by returning to something I said in the introduction. I previously wrote about the goodness of grief, looking at arguments claiming that grief was an integral part of the well-lived life. I do not think there is much distance between that view and the one examined in this post. To a large extent, proponents of the respective positions are simply talking past each other. Those who see good in grief are unlikely to deny its negative excesses; and defenders of the anti-grief view clearly see some value in it. There is a middle ground on which they can both meet.

* I have to be careful here. I don’t mean more fundamental in the sense that these beliefs were more strongly held. I just mean that the beliefs pertain to the fundamental structure of reality.