Scott Hershovitz, UGA Philosophy alumnus, University of Michigan professor of law and philosophy, former US Department of Justice litigator, and former clerk for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, gave an online talk on “RBG, Taylor Swift, & Me: A Life in Law & Philosophy” before a UGA audience on October 27. Hershovitz shared details of his journey from philosophy, to a career in law, and back to academia where he writes and teaches about core philosophical questions of law, authority, justice, and the relationship between law and morality.
Hershovitz has a particular interest in the practical applications of philosophical thought and is lately focused on writing for audiences beyond the academic. He is currently working on a book entitled Nasty, Brutish, and Short: A Philosopher’s Field Notes on His Children, and his recent work focusing on forgiveness and resentment was instigated by a statement by pop music icon Taylor Swift rejecting the concept of “forgive and forget.”
“I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what she said and it got me thinking about the philosophy I’ve been teaching and writing about,” explains Hershovitz. “There is often a point where things have been bad and they’ve always been bad and they’re not getting any better—you shouldn’t forgive, you should just become indifferent and move on.” The discussion led to an explication of how the law and the courts serve as a societal tool for righting wrongs and standing in for idealized notions of forgiveness. “There’s more to these institutions, it’s about holding people accountable…what’s permissible conduct and what’s not,” he says. “Tort suits can call upon your community to join you in the view that you were mistreated and that something impermissible happened.”
The talk proceeded to focus on the notion of overcoming resentment, “Resentment is rational and warranted as way of protesting demeaning messages. Sometimes your very self-respect depends on you resenting, but if you get locked-in to your resentment it becomes all-consuming and self-destructive.” Hershovitz sees the law as a means for overcoming such self-destructive resentment noting that, “The first and best way to deal with it is for the other person to realize that they were wrong, to offer you that recognition to apologize, and to give reason to release that resentment, but it’s also important to have other institutions in society to whom you can appeal for assistance in these serious cases that can give you reasons to release the resentment. You don’t have to resent anymore because your community came together to acknowledge the wrong.”
While Hershovitz asserts that his academic background in philosophy was “just about the best possible preparation for being a lawyer,” as a professional philosopher he often draws upon his experience as a clerk and litigator to provide real-world examples of philosophical questions. “Questions of philosophy have real practical consequences, the real world is much more rich and interesting than even the philosophers can dream up.”
He recalls his time clerking for Justice Ginsburg as “In some ways the best job I ever had and also a job I’d never want to do again. Justice Ginsburg was one of most inspiring people I’ve ever interacted with, but the work was fast-paced, high-stakes, and all-consuming,” he says, recalling work schedules that often ran twelve to fourteen hours per day and six or seven days a week. “I want to be the kind of person who has a flexible schedule and is engaged with my family,” he explains, noting his satisfaction with life in academia. “I get to decide what questions I think are interesting and what I want to spend time on…. I take joy in things my students think and accomplish in the world.”