I first encountered David Dick in person at the Society for Business Ethics meeting in Boston in 2019. He looked dapper in his characteristic black suit and black t-shirt, and in Q&A he traded witticisms effortlessly with the outgoing Society president. He was charming and had an almost daunting social presence. I remember thinking how wonderful it must be to be in this man’s circle.
So I count myself as lucky that Dave and I became friends during the pandemic. We met once a week on zoom to talk about social ontology and the ethics of money, but also life in general. Our meetings were meetings at first, and then an excuse to talk and to laugh. We had call backs that ran for months and in jokes that only an equally close reader of Simmel would ever understand. One of these running jokes was that Dave insisted that I should send him a therapy bill each week, because I always seemed to be trying to trace some view of his about money back to a metaethical commitment he’d defended in his thesis. But really our meetings were therapy for me. During the pandemic, I struggled to stay optimistic about human nature, and to be motivated to continue doing philosophy. I might have given up that struggle if it were not for the kindness and wit and enthusiasm I saw modeled every week by David.
One of the outcomes of our regular meetings was a joint project on social ontology that we were very much still working on at the time of his death. We first presented this work in August this year, at a meeting of the International Social Ontology Society (ISOS) in Vienna. One of Dave’s philosophical virtues was that he focused on articulating ideas in as simple a way as possible. I’d put together a handout that had multiple pages and complicated definitions. He diplomatically returned to me with a single page handout shorn of superfluous detail, setting out just the three main ideas of the piece as clearly as possible. I see this elegance in his published work, as well as his evocative way with words. (To wit: I’m pretty sure I recall him describing the experience of watching Hamilton as “being like a Greek watching a play about the gods, but also like finding out one of the minor X-Men has the most wondrous backstory.”)
Our presentation went well, but the time we spent together exploring Vienna was glorious. Dave confessed that Vienna, or Wien as it’s spelled everywhere in the city, brought an adolescent sense of humor in him. He reveled in the fact that you could buy could sausage from sidewalk vendors after midnight. We went to dinner with others from the conference and I marveled at how selflessly he conducted himself in conversation with others, always focusing attention on them and not himself–though everyone could tell that he was the best storyteller at the table. At a dinner where I had his company all to myself, I heard some of those stories–stories about the father he loved so much; about his experience of Utah’s Mormon community; of getting married at Banff as poor grad students, with the legal minimum number of people and stealing in to the gazebo to avoid paying the fee–each story equally joyous about life.
I remember Dave being very excited about what the year ahead would bring. He wanted to return to ISOS when it met in Stockholm. He was very excited about spending time in ancestral territory in Scotland. He wanted to teach an undergraduate course on philosophical images of heaven. He told me some of his ideas about the latter. He was particularly curious about whether there would be any ethical constraints in a place in which there were apparently no material constraints. He wondered: what he would most like to do in heaven would be to meet Queen, but what if Queen didn’t want to meet him? (Yesterday, his dear friend Tim gave the only appropriate rejoinder: Freddie Mercury would be lucky to hang out with him.)
These plans were put on hold in early October when Dave heard that his mother was ill. Dave had not seen much of her during the pandemic, since he was so cautious about traveling before it was safe for her that he do so. But he immediately left for Utah. I could see the stress in his messages. We were supposed to meet again in New Orleans in early November to present our paper. Dave canceled at the last minute, saying that he was simply too busy. I presented our work on 4 November and texted him to tell him that things had went well, but really because he was so clearly missed by others at the conference. He responded with a text I’ll never forget: “everything is sort of on fire right now,” he said, “and I can’t keep up.” I can actually imagine Dave saying these words, it’s the sort of thing he might say, mirthfully. Yet this also sounded so unlike him. I had a terrible feeling about it that I couldn’t shake for a while. Looking back, it was obviously because I knew that Dave was such a consummate gentleman that he would never have even suggested that there was reason for someone else to worry about him. At the time I suggested some things I might do to help, but kind as ever, Dave declined help: “everything is moving so fast here I probably won’t have time to talk [sic] you up on it but thank you so much.” Perhaps you can imagine how much I regret that I did not do more than sending him a fucking text message. It was the last I spoke to him.
Dave had been due to join Graham Hubbs and myself and some others at a dinner in New Orleans on one of those days. That night we explained that Dave wouldn’t be able to make it, and one of our guests asked about him. I recall Graham saying “Dave is probably the nicest person in philosophy.” Amen. Never a truer word has been said about someone. Our discipline, like other academic disciplines, can feel exclusionary, belittling, exploitative, and pointless. But you’d never feel any of those things around Dave. He was exactly the kind of person we need around here.
When I heard the news on Sunday I refused to believe it. It’s still only dawning on me how much I will miss him. I grieve for his friends and family, his colleagues and students, who will feel his absence even more keenly. The profession has lost out on his genius and warmth. And I grieve for myself because there were so many more things we still had to discuss, and so many more of his stories I wanted to hear.