The Harvey Specter Inquiry

I’m a big fan of the USA Network series “Suits”, and it served as the spark for an inquiry I recently embarked on.

The series revolves around a character named Harvey Specter, a senior partner at Pearson Hardman: a major law firm in New York. Harvey is good at what he does – and he knows it. He’s cocky, quick-witted, and unashamedly self-interested.

(Here’s some of his best moments, if you’re not familiar with the show.)

Since the first episode, I’ve felt that the character of Harvey Specter had certain important character traits that I lacked. Inspired by a recent breakup and the critical self-reflection that tends to follow such things, I decided to finally explore my intuition about the character of Harvey Specter. My plan was to flesh out the underlying logic behind his basic character traits, then evaluate the normative force behind this “logic”: is it worth modelling myself after this character in some respect?

The Harvey Specter Inquiry: A Normative Character Analysis

I began by gathering examples of what seemed to be his most admirable qualities. I did this by watching the first few episodes of Suits while taking notes on Harvey’s actions in particular situations. Here are some the things I observed:

1.) Frequently says “And just so we’re clear…”

2.) Objected to Jessica’s demands that he interview Harvard graduates to be his assistant, claiming that the firm doesn’t need “another suit with a rod up his ass”

3.) During a somewhat awkward conversation with someone he’s normally close with, he looked them in the eyes and said flatly, “Something’s going on, and I want to know what it is.”

4.) When he caught Mike Ross under the influence of drugs – which he explicitly told him never to do again – he said sternly, “You’re high. Get out.”

5.) When presented with an insulting settlement offer, he immediately ended the meeting.

Once these examples were gathered, the next logical questions was: “What are these examples of? – What principles are at play here?” Here are the explanations I gave:

1.) Wants to be understood clearly.

2.) Is unafraid to confront his superiors when he disagrees with their demands.

3.) Doesn’t want to tiptoe around elephants in the room; wants to bring everything out into the open.

4.) Does not tolerate being disrespected.

5.) Does not tolerate being treated unjustly.

I proceeded to drill down even deeper and ask what these principles have in common.

To start, Harvey’s economy of language is remarkable. He uses extremely direct language because he wants to be understood. Why?

First, notice that all of Harvey’s actions seem to be rooted in the belief that he is right (which is bolstered by the fact that he almost always is right.) Thus, he’s not afraid of being understood or of potential confrontations because he knows he has the truth on his side.

However, he also has a distinct critical tone in his voice when speaking with virtually everyone, including his boss, Jessica. Why does he exclusively use this tone, rather than occasionally using another tone?

This goes back to the previous point: Harvey knows that he is right. Thus, if he finds himself speaking with someone that does not share his views, they must be wrong.

Harvey’s purpose in social situations is thus a corrective one – the other person has made a mistake that Harvey must point out and then rectify, all while passing judgment on the person for making the mistake in the first place. The degree of the critical tone depends on the degree of the error made.

Harvey Specter is a man of justice. His primary aim is to be right – to have a positive orientation to reality – in both thought and action. He is unapologetically assertive with others because he has a standard of value independent of their opinions. His attitude is summed up best in the following quote:

Never lose Self-respect, or be too familiar with oneself. Let your own right feeling be the true standard of your rectitude, and owe more to the strictness of your own self-judgment than to all external sanctions. Leave off anything unseemly more from regard for your own self-respect than from fear of external authority. Pay regard to that and there is no need of Seneca’s imaginary tutor.

-Baltasar Gracian, “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”

In other words, the courtroom is not the only place where Harvey answers to a judge.

Still, there seems to be tension between this kind of disposition and the obviously-correct principle that one should generally try to not be a dick. This also seems to be a disposition that is at odds with epistemic humility and expanding one’s knowledge. So although we have fleshed out the benefits of being like Harvey Specter, it nonetheless remains an open question whether these benefits unavoidably come with certain costs, and whether they are worth those costs.