My Saving the World Project, i.e., My Yale PhD Dissertation in Philosophy of Law (The Statics and Mechanics of Social Institutions) and How it came to Fruition

People have expressed a great deal of interest in my Yale PhD Dissertation in Philosophy of Law, which I refer to as my Saving the World Project, so I thought I would do a short blog post and corresponding YouTube video and chat about it a little bit.

I have always viewed my dissertation as a human and civil rights project. I was working in Miami Beach, FL, for a boutique hotel chain, when I turned 30 and experienced the typical existential crisis. I had been working in the boutique hotel industry for a number of years, for Andre Balazs, in LA and Miami, and I really enjoyed it. I found my family there. I was truly a broken soul when I walked into The Standard, Hollywood, looking for a job, because I had heard that Benicio del Toro was an investor there, and I was in love with him. I had abandoned the PhD Program in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley and moved to LA to become a movie star, as one does. I had recently quit my job working for a small, sham aerospace engineering company in the San Fernando Valley, when I started doing temp work in the hospitality industry. This experience, coupled with my love for Benicio del Toro, led me to The Standard Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip. I still consider the persons with whom I worked there as my family. But, I was living and working in Miami Beach, I turned 30, and I panicked. What was I doing with my life?

I decided to become an international human rights lawyer, as you do. I wanted to work specifically on women’s rights, and especially on women’s sexual and reproductive rights. So, I quit my job, drove cross country back to LA, and applied to law schools, while working a string of temp jobs. I ultimately decided upon Fordham Law School. I wanted to live in New York City, and Fordham has strong human and civil rights programs, because of their Jesuit tradition. I was thrilled with my experience at Fordham Law. I traveled the world, engaged in human rights work. I spent a summer in Rabat, Morocco with the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights, I interned with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, WI one summer, and I went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with the Human Rights Clinic to investigate Ethiopia’s non-judicial approach to constitutional review. Per Ethiopia’s latest constitution, constitutional interpretation is the exclusive province of the parliamentary body that represents the interests of the Peoples of Ethiopia. We wished to understand the substantive impact on individual human rights, regardless of the fact that they were beautifully enumerated in Ethiopia’s Constitution.

My trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with the Fordham Law School Human Rights Clinic was a turning point in my life. This is when I truly decided upon my PhD Dissertation topic and when I realized that I needed to get a PhD in the Philosophical Foundations of Law. We were interviewing Fasil Nahum, the then Senior Legal Advisor to then Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. Fasil Nahum is also one of the primary drafters of Ethiopia’s current Constitution. My conversation with Fasil Nahum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia changed the course of my life’s path.

I was questioning Fasil Nahum about how Ethiopia’s choice of having constitutional interpretation be solely within the powers of the parliamentary body that represents the interests of the Peoples and Nations of Ethiopia, while being denied the Judiciary, including the Supreme Court, might have a deleterious impact on individual human rights as enshrined and enumerated within Ethiopia’s Constitution. He seemingly became irritated with my line of questioning. Then, he said something that shocked me and changed my life.

He told me that social institutions can only ever be tyrannical. He told me that I have only to choose between tyranny of the minority, as he asserted we had done in the US, or tyranny of the majority, as they had done in Ethiopia, but tyranny is ineluctable. Tyranny is the only choice, he said. I was shocked. I was shocked that a man who had helped write a Constitution that governs the lives of some 80 million souls, comprising a diaspora of ethnic and religious and linguistic groups, a literal diaspora of Nations within a Nation State, would say that governments can only ever be tyrannical. It was at that point that I decided to pursue a PhD in the philosophical foundations of law. It was at that point that I decided to prove him wrong. I wanted to prove that tyranny isn’t an inevitable aspect of social institutions.

In 2008, of course, the bottom dropped out of the economy of the US, and the legal profession was hit hard. I graduated from Fordham Law in the spring of 2009. I was part of the graduating class of aspiring attorneys who were offered deferments. Many law firms offered deferments to the class of incoming attorneys to whom they had made employment commitments. They were offering partial salaries, if they would only go away to work for non profits and human and civil rights organizations for free. So, needless to say, this made life very difficult for the law students who had incurred enormous debt to go to law school to become human and civil rights attorneys and activists. None of us could find jobs. Why would you pay someone to do a job, when you can get someone to do it for free, or, at least, have someone else pay their salary?

I was one of the lucky ones. I won a human rights fellowship to go work anywhere in the world, for anyone whom I chose. I chose to go work with Ni Putes Ni Soumises in Paris, France. I chose Ni Putes Ni Soumises, because, while they are comprised predominantly of women from the ghettoized Muslim immigrant communities surrounding Paris and the other major cities in France, they are fiercely secular. The three pillars of their movement are gender equality, gender desegregation, and secularism, but the strict French version thereof. While I was in France I conducted a sociological study in the banlieues, or suburbs of Paris, in the projects, or cites, where the 2005 and 2007 riots had taken place. We interviewed women and girls, and disseminated surveys, in French and Arabic, on the subject of their access to their sexual and reproductive rights and healthcare. It was also a life changing experience. I also worked with Lubna Ahmed Al Hussein, the Sudanese women’s rights activist who had been sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing pants in Khartoum. She had fled the Sudan for France in a burqa, and was being hosted by Ni Putes Ni Soumises.

While I was in France, my baby brother Jacob committed suicide. This destroyed me. I was catatonic for a month. Before Jacob’s suicide, I was thinking very seriously about staying in France and making France my permanent home. But, the only thing I could think about was returning to the US to reconnect with my brother Aaron after Jacob’s death.

After I returned to the US, I began immediately to apply to terminal MA programs in Philosophy. I knew that I needed to get into a top PhD Program, and I knew that this would only be possible with an MA degree in Philosophy, since I didn’t have a background in philosophy, despite having a law degree. I ended up going to San Francisco State University.

I didn’t have the best experience at San Francisco State University (SFSU). They didn’t want me to pursue my Saving the World Project. But, I was pursuing additional education for the sole purpose of completing my project. It was a constant battle while I was there, but, fortunately, I was saved by Bas van Fraassen. He believed in me, and he believed in my work. Bas is something of a superstar in Philosophy. He is the reason, I am sure, that I got into Yale. I was terrified of not getting into a PhD Program, because I was a decidedly non traditional student with some decidedly idiosyncratic views. I applied to 30 programs. When I found out that I had been accepted to Yale off the waitlist, at the last possible moment, I curled up into a ball on the floor of my surrogate dads’ apartment in San Francisco and cried. The then Chair, Stephen Darwall, had had to wait outside a Dean’s office to get permission to make me the offer.

I had become obsessed with explaining how aggregations of quasi-rational individual human beings / agents construct their social institutions, including legal institutions, and why most people, most of the time act and speak and behave as if there were something akin to a real obligation to comply with both the social conventions of one’s social group and the law. I was obsessed with HLA Hart’s account of legal systems as unions of primary duty-imposing social rules of obligation and secondary power-conferring social rules of authority. I felt and feel strongly that Hart’s account of social rules are in line with David Lewis’ rational choice based, game theoretic account of social conventions. I felt that Hart was, as Lewis was, attempting to explain why most people most of the time act and speak and behave as if there were a real obligation to comply with both social conventions and the legal rules of one’s legal system.

I felt and still feel that both Hart and Lewis had made a crucial error. They had both backed themselves into a corner, wherein they were forced to give up dissent, plurality, and evolution, in order to obtain something closely akin to a real obligation to comply with the law and with the social conventions of one’s social group. But, I thought, and still think, that I have the solution. While there is no real obligation to comply with the social conventions of one’s social group, nor the law, I can explain why most people most of the time act and behave and speak as if there were such an obligation, and I can still have a theory of social institutions, including legal systems, that accounts for the way in which real, quasi-rational individual agents construct their social institutions, how they evolve and devolve over time, and how individuals and sub-groups pressure the evolution and devolution of their social institutions, as well as how they arise, and how they, eventually, collapse. I employ game theory, both competitive and cooperative, and I am working on an agent-based computational model and simulations.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts here, but I am basically constructing a new account of social institutions, based upon a new account of social conventions, that I intend as the basis for a non ideal Philosophy of Law and Language. But, the kicker is that, while I embarked on this project to prove Fasil Nahum wrong, I now believe that he is right. Oppression and propaganda, both positive and negative, are inherent aspects to the way in which quasi-rational individual agents construct their social institutions. Fasil Nahum was right. Tyranny is ineluctable.

But, I have not thrown up my hands. My Saving the World project is now an analysis of how we can minimize the oppression inherent to our social institutions. And, I think it a worthwhile endeavor. This is why I still consider my PhD Dissertation on the Philosophical Foundations of Law, the Statics and Mechanics of Social Institutions, a human and civil rights project.

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