Monday, September 25, 2017

Clifford's Island Agitators

If Clifford's sea captain example is problematic, this raises the question of whether his other major example, that of the island agitators, suffers similar problems. Clifford says:

There was once an island in which some of the inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither the doctrine of original sin nor that of eternal punishment. A suspicion got abroad that the professors of this religion had made use of unfair means to get their doctrines taught to children. They were accused of wresting the laws of their country in such a way as to remove children from the care of their natural and legal guardians; and even of stealing them away and keeping them concealed from their friends and relations. A certain number of men formed themselves into a society for the purpose of agitating the public about this matter. They published grave accusations against individual citizens of the highest position and character, and did all in their power to injure these citizens in their exercise of their professions. So great was the noise they made, that a Commission was appointed to investigate the facts; but after the Commission had carefully inquired into all the evidence that could be got, it appeared that the accused were innocent. Not only had they been accused of insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their innocence was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a fair inquiry. After these disclosures the inhabitants of that country looked upon the members of the agitating society, not only as persons whose judgment was to be distrusted, but also as no longer to be counted honourable men. For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.

The introduction of the Commission means that this case does not suffer from the problem the sea captain case had with its failure to make actual evidence central to the scenario; while we do not know the evidence (on either side), we have evidence of evidence, and the question of evidence ends up being central to the case. So there's certainly an improvement. The mention of original sin and eternal punishment probably indicates that Clifford is thinking of the actual treatment of the so-called Rational Dissenters, or similar groups, in England. If we look at the timeline, we get:

(1) A suspicion gets abroad that these people are (legally or illegally) taking children from their families in order to indoctrinate them.
(2) Some islanders form a society to agitate about the matter.
(3) The society actively accuses and tries to injure the livelihoods and reputations of the people in question.
(4) A commission is appointed to inquire into the matter.
(5) The commission concludes: "Not only had they been accused of insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their innocence was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a fair inquiry."
(6) The inhabitants conclude that the members of the society are not only to be distrusted but not to be counted as honorable.

The moral failure of the society in question arises in leaping to action ahead of inquiry, in (2)-(3), which is confirmed by the commission's judgment that if they had inquired, the evidence that they were wrong was easily available. Indeed, all of (4)-(6) is not more than confirmation of what can be determined by stage (3). This is why Clifford is surely right that it would not, ethically speaking, be much different if the Commission had happened to vindicate their conclusion but not their inquiry.

The obvious question (which Clifford recognizes) is why this situation should be characterized as "no right to believe" rather than "no right to act". Consider, for example, the following timeline of a different scenario:

(1) A suspicion gets abroad that the religious are taking children from their families in order to indoctrinate them.
(2) Some islanders, believing the suspicion, form a society to agitate for a commission to investigate the matter, and do nothing else but try to get a commission set up.
(3) A commission is appointed to inquire into the matter.

If the belief were really the linchpin of moral judgment here, one would expect these islanders, too, to be condemned as having "no right to believe". But this is certainly not what most people would say. Most people would not condemn these agitators at all. What really draws condemnation from the actual case is trying to destroy people socially; it's this that people would be most likely to say they had no right to do. One can ignore the common reaction, of course, although Clifford's own view of morality was that it gets its general authority from being an internalization of tribal agency (in the form of actions that help the tribe survive), so I don't think he himself could dismiss the question of what the actual tribal response would be. But we can perhaps give him a little wiggle-room here, since there are cases in which people do have a real "no right to believe" response -- for instance, if I believed you were a pathological liar on no real grounds, you would likely be indignant, and many responses to prejudice are at least sufficiently like "no right to believe" responses that we can grant that he is not seriously distorting things. But it's noticeable that you can massively affect the kind of moral judgment people would usually be expected to make without changing the belief, or how it was obtained, at all.

When Clifford addresses the question of why it should be "no right to believe" rather than "no right to act", however, he makes what I think is a fatal mistake. After conceding that it's right that, even given the belief, we have some power of choice, he says:

But this being premised as necessary, it becomes clear that it is not sufficient, and that our previous judgment is required to supplement it. For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.

He then says a bit later:

And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows.


Let us concede for the moment that if you condemn acting in a certain way, you condemn believing in such a way that tends to lead you to act in that way. Most people would think this, like most of what we find in Clifford's essay, is exaggerated, but granting it doesn't really help Clifford at all. Likewise, most people would regard "no one man's belief is in any case a private matter" as an obvious exaggeration, as well. Clifford himself takes it quite seriously; since Clifford doesn't believe there are any self-regarding virtues, he can only get the strong moral conclusion he wants to draw about all beliefs by insisting that all beliefs are relevant to other-regarding virtues, and thus that every belief whatsoever is of moral significance for our social relations. But we can concede it for the moment, as well, because it also doesn't avoid the major problem.

The major problem is this. In order to avoid the objection that the ethical analysis should be "no right to act" rather than "no right to believe", Clifford has responded by saying that every belief has at least an indirect effect on action, and thus the condemnation of the action gives one the ground for condemning the belief. But the conclusion he wishes to draw on this basis is that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, and he cannot get it. Because the conclusion that follows is that beliefs are to be condemned not on how they were reached, but that they are to be condemned on the basis of the wrongness of the actions to which they tend. The principle this argument supports is that it is always wrong to believe things that tend toward doing morally bad things or having morally bad habits. This is not the same principle as Clifford's principle at all. This is a particularly serious problem given Clifford's own conception of morality as based on tribal survival, since there is no reason whatsoever to think that literally every kind of belief without evidence is dangerous for the tribe. I suspect this is why Clifford ends up emphasizing the importance of not getting into the habit of believing without evidence; although, of course, one can have develop more sophisticated habits than that. But even if we try to substitute some other morality, there is no serious candidate for ethics that takes believing only with sufficient evidence as so important that it overrides every other moral consideration; and given that, the question will always be, "Why don't some of these higher moral considerations sometimes allow or even require belief in advance of the evidence?" We get no answer on this ground from Clifford himself, despite his high-toned, exaggeratedly moralistic preaching. Ironically, he argues for his principle not on the basis of sufficient evidence but on the insufficiently supported ground that it is bad for society if we don't accept it. (This is, incidentally, part of why James argues against him the way he does in The Will to Believe; and it is the entire reason that Ward takes the approach he does against Clifford in The Reasonable Basis of Certitude.) It's notable, in any case, that in at least one case in the essay he slides between talking about believing on "unworthy reasons" and believing on "insufficient evidence", as if they were the same thing; his argument commits him to thinking they are, despite the fact that this is never established.

Thus Clifford's island agitators example is in some ways a better case than the sea captain scenario, but it also makes clear an overall problem with the way Clifford attempts to establish his principle, by raising even more forcefully and obvious the objection that our moral judgments seem concerned with the actions rather than the beliefs.

Value-Apprehension and Attitude

The apprehending of a value and the attitude appropriate to it mutually require one another, and while the required attitude is not being experienced, the value isn't being apprehended completely vividly. So in a certain way it's correct to say that love is based upon the apprehended value of the beloved person, but on the other hand, the worth of a person is fully and completely accessible only to the lover.

She adds a footnote:

Consider the parallel with religious experience. "In trust we experience a community which in itself is the highest knowledge of that which we trust." Theodor Haering, Der christliche Glaube: Dogmatik (Stuttgart: Verlag der Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1912, p. 160).

[Edith Stein, "Individual and Community", Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, Baseheart & Sawicki, trs. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2000), p. 213.]

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Fortnightly Books, September 24

All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.

I have a large number of papers to grade heading my way over the next weeks, so an easier read seems to be called for when it comes to the next fortnightly book(s). So I will be doing Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence, which are five short books:

Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark Is Rising
Greenwitch
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree

Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965; the rest in the 1970s. While I've read them all, this is the first time to read straight through the series, rather than here and there, so we'll see if that draws out anything new.



Julia Ecklar, "The Dark is Rising". I'm not sure I quite like some of the artistic choices here, but it handily pulls together the rhyming prophecies that structure the books.

Alexandre Dumas (and Auguste Maquet), The Three Musketeers

Introduction

Opening Passage:

On the first Monday of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, birthplace of the author of the Roman de la Rose, seemed to be in as great a turmoil as if the Huguenots had come to turn it into a second La Rochelle. A number of townmen, seeing women running in the direction of the main street and hearing children shouting on doorsteps, hastened to put on their breatsplates, and, steadying their rather uncertain self-assurance with a musket or a halberd, made their way toward the inn, the Hötellerie du Franc Meunier, in front of which a noisy, dense, and curious through was growing larger by the minute. (p. 1)

Summary: The opening of the book, of course, is famous: D'Artagnan, a Gascon hoping to make his fortune and be a musketeer, comes to Paris and happens to get challenged to duels by Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the King's musketeers; their attempt to duel gets interrupted by some of Cardinal Richilieu's guards, who attempt to arrest them. Together, they fight the Cardinal's guards, and, of course, inevitably become the closest of friends, and work together to try to help make each other's fortunes. And indeed, much of the charm of the book is in its depiction of male friendship; there is a reason why the phrase most remembered from the book is "one for all and all for one". The kind of loyalty in which you have your buddy's back regardless of the scrapes he gets you into -- as when d'Artagnan has to deal with the fact that a drunk and depressed Athos gambled away not only the horse d'Artagnan had given him, but d'Artagnan's horse, as well -- is admirable in itself.

Re-reading this after such a long time, a number of things jumped out at me, all of which I think contribute to the excellence of the work. The servants had a much more important part to play in the story than I had remember; rather than being background, as they usually would have been, they end up being important secondary characters in their own right. I had forgotten how the opposition between d'Artagnan and the man from Meung ended; a surprising end, but suitable for a book that puts so much emphasis on friendship between men. The work also unfolds very nicely -- it gets bigger and bigger as the tale goes on, and all very smoothly.

The humor, of course, is a major part of the work. I remember it being somewhat humorous, but in fact it is hilariously funny; entire stretches are joke after joke. What is more, they are jokes on our heroes themselves, some absurdity about them or their handling of a situation into which they have stumbled. They are well balanced, however -- they never descend merely into farce. This also is a strength. Because we laugh about the four friends, we see their faults, and they are often miles wide, but as it is never just a farce, they stand out as truly heroic nonetheless.

Milady, of course, also makes her contribution by being one of the great villains of literature. I had remembered the Felton episode as a rather minor one, almost a digression, but reading it this time around I see that it is actually essential. Up to that point we had only brief glimpses of Milady and her evil. We knew she was treacherous, murderous, manipulative. With the Felton episode, however, we get a sustained look at her, and learn that all of this understates the case. She is not a mere murderess and liar; she is a destroyer of souls. And because we have seen it firsthand, looked a little bit insider her head and seen her ruin a good man, we can accept the history of her wickedness that gradually unfolds from there, we can accept the sense of danger that the heroes have: we know it must be true, because we have seen her in action. What is more, as I noted, the book's stage is an ever-expanding one. But how do you get bigger than war between England and France? It is Milady who makes it possible, for with her we get a battle not of swords but of souls, and one that is, if not exactly between Heaven and Hell, or Good and Evil, yet nonetheless between good, if flawed, heroes and a villain who has no qualms about endangering the salvation of someone's soul if it will serve her petty and vindictive ends. There is no bigger stage for human life, and no background that could do more to bring into bright relief a story of friendship.

Favorite Passage:

His Eminence was standing, leaning against the fireplace, with at able between him and d'Artagnan.

"Monsieur d'Artagnan, you've been arrested on my order."

"So I was told, Monseigneur."

"Do you know why?"

"No, Monseigneur, because there's only one thing I could have been arrested for, and you don't yet know about it." (pp. 538-539)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Music on My Mind



Ngọc Lan, "Niệm Khúc Cuối". A very popular love song. Like a lot of older Vietnamese songs, it has a nice almost-French sound to it without sounding derivative.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Dashed Off XX

A sustained assault on Kant's philosophy of religion in this batch of dashed off notes.

if A:B::C:D
(1) B:A::D:C (invertendo)
(2) A:C::B:D (alternando)
(3) A:A-B::C:C-D (dividendo)
(4) A+B:B::C+D:D (componendo)
- (3) & (4) seem to require that the analogy operate within a classification

"The Spirit is the teacher; Scripture is the doctrine which He teaches us." Turretin

the marks that the teaching of the Church is divine
(1) origin
(2) duration
(3) instruments and amanuenses
(4) adjuncts (martyrs)
--
(5) the sublimity of its mysteries, holiness of its doctrine, and excellence of its examples
(6) style and beauty
(7) internal coherence
(8) end
(9) effects (the gates of hell cannot stand against it)
These marks do not shine out equally in everything the Church does, but considered corporately as a whole.
- This, of course, is taking Turretin on Scripture and applying it to the Church; and lest anyone cry foul at that, note that Turretin quite clearly takes the tradition conversion of the world argument about the Church and applies it to Scripture, and that there are signs he does this in other ways.

the Mencian shoots taken to the cosmic limit

the Syriac 'Book of Women': Judith, Tobit, Esther, Ruth

the gaze of contemplative love between spouses

The almost inevitable flaw in almost every neopagan movement is treating gods as something in which one may dabble.

"Crime is an exacting, inflexible master, against which no one can be strong unless he rebels completely." Manzoni

Some become Catholic from a drive for solidary integrity, some from luring holiness that calls to them, some (like myself) from a mind or will tending to universality, some by intervention of providence or from a direct call.

Who cannot care of the things of the past cannot be trusted with the things of the future.

"Truth is essentially coexistent with the gods, as light is coexistent with the Sun." Iamblichus

The life of Christ is the plot of holy liturgy.

awe as an act of faith

Even in mere bathing we do not merely put water on ourselves: we throw off worry, care, trouble; we make a break in time; we start anew.

our body's physical response to the sublime
- note that this is where the old terror theories come closest to getting things right

conserved quantities & necessity ab alio
conserved quantities // necessary truths // necessary goods (Chastek)

poem as perfect sensible speech (Baumgarten)
poetry as tending toward ideas that are clear and confused (the clarity is a unity of variety)

Christ's Session // Mary's Intercession

beauty of measure, beauty of kind, beauty of tendency

The papacy is not an indelible character but an office with a function, and its authority depends in part on the fulfillment of that function.

Conceptual clarification is a kind of unification.

Hayek's knowledge argument and imperial government

Analects 12:11 -- "Jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi."

xin & rectification of names (xin combines the person radical and the character for speech)

Good politics is in great measure about rational classification.

Notations encapsulate methods.

Every indelible character gives the capacity to act in some way in the person of Christ, but only the presbyterate and the episcopacy do so in precisely the way Christ is Head of the Church.

our capacity to recognize the sublime in nature as a sign of the union of mind and body

the oscillation of good philosophy between solitary reflection and collaboration

experimentalist, populist, and classicalist axes in language change

the nation as analogized panhellenizing

the major legitimate ends of money-making: support of self and family, productive effects that are needed, self-discipline, and almsgiving

"Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice." Chesterton

generalize, specialize, analogize, aporeticize

the Golden Rule and beautiful action

the importance of timeline-building in HoP
timeline + communication geography -> diffusion of ideas (contiguity and resemblance in tracing influences)

Kantian philosophy of religion is fundamentally anti-Incarnational.

By means of grace we become means of grace.

There is no way to advance from virtue to grace; there are ways to advance from grace to virtue.

Misperception of X is not a failure to perceive X. Likewise, miscommunication is not a failure to receive testimony.

truth-validating vs truth-suggesting cognitions

impressional, semiotic, and comparative aspects of perception

Faith comes by hearing because what is heard is analogous to what is believed.

"Mathematical truths, as soon as we realise them, are seen to be necessary, and we seem to have known them always." Pringle-Pattison

triputisamvit (Prabhakara Mimamsa): each cognition manifests subject, object, and itself

means of knowledge combining with things other than means of knowledge to function in new ways

signs as working like middle terms

Princess Elisabeth's famous set of objections is concerned more with the limits of Cartesian physics than with mind/body union.

(A) pervasion of sign and signified -- Box(s-o)
(B) presence of thing that is sign -- T(t-s)

We may practically employ the ideas of effects of grace by not erring in a certain way -- that is, it is not a matter of doing nothing but a matter of doing only what does not presuppose the adequacy of one's own power or independence of God. It is manifestly obvious that we may have practically employable negative rules of this sort. And we may cognize these effects theoretically by causation, remotion, and eminence, because it is illegitimate to restrict causal reasoning arbitrarily.

Every regulative principle implies constitutive principles.

One may simply adapt Kant's moral postulation of God's existence to a moral postulation of the occasional happening of miracles, i.e., one may argue that it is rational on basis of moral reason to hope that miracles will be done to make it possible to follow the moral law (either individually, or communally a la Cohen). It requires no more than recognizing that God has freedom as well as we, and that to postulate reconciliation of the moral and the physical, as Kant does, is as much to postulate that events can occur for moral reasons as well as physical. This suffices for at least a Babbage-style account of miracles.

The laws of virtue ground all juridical laws.

Kant's 'church' is literally a church without creeds, without hierarchy, without distinctiveness; it is a ghost of a church.

Fulfilling one's duties to oneself and others requires distinctive service to God, both to express symbolically the meaning of these duties and to communicate and even share this meaning with others.

As sons do not relate to their fathers in terms of pure moral duty, which is rather what one would expect of new servants, but instead do so on the basis of historical contingencies shared with their father, so a free, filial faith must be a historical faith.

If holy tradition is a 'leading-string', it is necessary yet; for compared to what we should be, we are not adults, but merely children, however quickly we have grown, and however much we preen ourselves on having grown.

Without shared profession and discipline, human beings inevitably begin to treat morality as purely subjective.

The phenomenon participates the noumenon.

the logic of sweepings clauses & analogy vs available classification

frozen accidents and spandrels in the history of philosophy

By 'information' people often mean nothing more than 'specification of effect'.

apostolic succession
(1) sacramental (of person)
(2) jurisdictional (of see)

similarity as indistinguishability at some level of precision

Chatterjees ordering of priority among the pramanas: perception, memory, nonperception, inference, comparison, testimony, postulation

Social justice means nothing unless it is justice with others.

that exemplar causation in the wide sense implies the existence of exemplar cuases in the strict sense (i.e. productive ideas)

Even for natural reason, standing in the stead of another in matters of virtue is a common thing; for instance, it is common in both good parenting and good marriage. It does, to be sure, require conditions, for parents do not answer for children or spouses for each other in every case; but it does occur.

Confucian five relations as cases of vicariousness

Need is sometimes insight, or the beginning of it, in the same sense that attention is.

Reason must always go further in understanding, or it betrays itself.

To do one's duty properly requires cultivation of an admiration for virtuous actions, especially when they go beyond duty.

miracles as models of artistic creation

artistic inspiration as intuitive schema for grace
the sense of something working through one in one's free act

Timaeus as an account of artisanship

A humanity pleasing to God must be an artistic, or at least productive, as well as ethical humanity.

the principles of mediation and vicariousness in artistic creation

All artistic creation is a surplus over merit.

Salvation cannot be merely moral; it must be sublime, exalting those who receive it.

The Election of Israel is a precondition for understanding the marks of the Church.

Modern Biblical scholarship has, through its history, been an investigation of hypotheses. Some of these have not been unreasonable; but the problem is that there are always more hypotheses.

the Shema as making a claim on moral disposition

(1) the nobility of many hermits, monks, and consecrated virgins
(2) the freedoms granted by celibacy, if given the right context
(3) the miracles of the saints as pedagogical
(4) the ecclesiastical hierarchy as a limit on despots
(5) the often political nature of schism
(6) the quasi-hieratic nature of the Byzantine empire and the ways this aspect helped to preserve it
(7) the constant attempt of secular powers to manipulate the Church for their own ends, e.g., the Avignon papacy
(8) the role of the papacy in negotiations of peace
(9) the benefits arising from the Church even despite the sins of its members

faith giving rise to productive, and not merely practical, works
faith-informed genius and taste

"Taste alone brings harmony into society, because it fosters harmony in the individual." Schiller

the subtle truths in the twilight of obscure ideas

festivity as an appropriate manifestation of hope

church buildings as mirrors of the whole circumambient world

"Once there is religion, it must necessarily also be social." Schleiermacher

'Spirituality without religion' is for disembodied spirits; the ghost of a religion, suitable for ghosts.

ritual as mediating intuition and conception

religion exponentiated
the divine image exponentiated

Intellectual consistency requires a purity of discipline academia does not easily accommodate.

One often finds that a single perhaps is implausible whereas a system of perhapses, at least given the right connection to some evidence, is quite plausible. A story often makes more sense to us than a fragment.

communicating the value of virtue without mere virtue-signaling (i.e., without trying to convince people that one has the virtue by a peacockish display)

Purely formal sciences are heavily dependent on analogical reasoning (for extension, consilience, etc.).

measurement as a method for classifying, where tehre are preestablished mathematical relationships within the scheme of classification
- measurements leading to classifications seem to work by specifying more general relations already in play

Thursday, September 21, 2017

'Encounter'

One of my pet peeves is people misusing the word 'encounter' in theological and religious contexts. 'Encounter' in English means one of two things:

(1) A casual meeting, usually brief and usually by chance
(2) A direct hostile interaction between disputants or enemy forces

If you are focused on 'encounter with Jesus', your standards are too low. What people mean when they such things is not 'encounter' but friendship or charity or love. If you mean that, say that.

The problem has become worse recently because Pope Francis likes to talk about encuentro and it gets translated by 'encounter', which in this context is a false cognate; the Pope uses the Spanish word to indicate deliberate acts of solidarity, which is not what the word 'encounter' describes (and by experience talking with people, I am very certain is not what is conveyed to most English speakers by that word, since they can tell from context that it is supposed to be more than a casual meeting but they have no idea what). Deliberate acts of solidarity. That is what the English translations should convey.

ADDED LATER: Incidentally, if you want to translate encuentro as literally as possible, 'finding' is infinitely better than 'encounter'. Not 'encounter with Jesus' -- finding Jesus. Not 'encounter with your neighbor' -- finding your neighbor. Better than that, 'going out and finding', both sides of which the Pope often explicitly emphasizes. Encuentro used of persons is still capable of being stronger and more active than 'finding', but the gap is far less, because 'finding' is a much stronger and more active word than 'encounter'.

Blackstone on Pursuit of Happiness

As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, "that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness." This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I, Part I, Section II.

Natural law theories can diverge from each other in a number of ways, and one of them is what they take to be the fundamental precept. Aquinas, of course, because he takes the fundamental precept to be to reasoning about obligation what the principle of noncontradiction is to theoretical reasoning, holds that it is "Good is to be done and sought, bad to be avoided" when it is applied to the common good of the human race. Suarez follows him in this, although I'm inclined to think he has a narrower understanding of it -- he qualifies it by saying that good should be understood as honestas and the bad as turpitude, which is maybe a way of saying with Aquinas that we get the precept when we apply the principle to common good in particular, but I'm not really sure. Scotus, if I don't misunderstand him, takes the first precept to be "God (as infinite good) is to be loved". Blackstone's "Man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness" is a very different one. It need not be said that all parties would in fact agree with all of these as truths; Aquinas holds that God should be loved, and Scotus that good is to be done and sought, and both that our true and substantial happiness is to be pursued. But recognizing these as true and recognizing them as law are different things (as Aquinas makes quite clear), and you get a rather different view depending on which of these you take as the root precept.

Reading this passage in context, it seems undeniable that Jefferson's use in the Declaration of Independence is ultimately from Blackstone. Jefferson himself does not seem to have liked Blackstone very much at all, but there are too many similarities to be accidental. It's sometimes said to have been an indirect influence; Jefferson is thought to have been influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was written up by George Mason. This influence is pretty obvious if you look at the first article of the Virginia Declaration. But I'm not sure this completely closes the lid; there are other echoes in the Declaration suggestive of Blackstone, so maybe it's not all through Mason. I don't know.

ADDED LATER: I should have also remarked on Blackstone's rejection of moral rationalism -- the "abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things". This is an approach to ethics that begins with Malebranche; Hume, complaining about it in the footnote for Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section III, Part II, calls it an "abstract theory of morals".

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Clifford's Sea Captain

In his Ethics of Belief, W. K. Clifford gives his famous example of the negligent sea captain:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

Clifford from this draws the conclusion that we would recognize the ship captain as responsible for the deaths of those who died and that, in particular, we would say that "the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

The example is often quoted or alluded to in discussions of the ethics of belief, due to Clifford; but always uncritically, I think. More careful reasoners should pause here, because Clifford's ethical analysis is just obviously bad. First, like everything in the essay, the condemnation is stated in an exaggerated manner; on most ethical theories we could not say "that he was verily guilty of the death of those men" without qualification. Negligent omission, even egregiously culpable negligent omission, does not work like deliberate commission, and does not interact with guilt in the same way. Further, Clifford is playing a rhetorical game in his parting shot at the sea captain; told that someone "got his insurance-money...and told no tales", we would usually take this to suggest that the matter was in fact more deliberate than the sea captain's actions are actually presented as being -- that, in fact, he was at least half-angling toward the insurance money to begin with, particularly given the prior emphasis on expense. But what Clifford needs for his argument is really a clean case -- someone believing badly without the additional unsavory suggestion of things like greed. He needs a sea captain who is, as he previously said, genuinely benevolent, and whose only flaw is this. Otherwise you get cross-interference that blunts the usefulness of the example for the purpose of showing that there are obligations of belief in particular, and not just obligations not to be greedy.

Worse, the ship captain's belief is simply irrelevant here. The sea captain's sincerity of belief does not help him, to be sure, but it is not because "he had no right to believe", but because the belief in question doesn't matter. We condemn the sea captain not because he believed badly; we condemn the sea captain because, given his doubts, he had responsibilities regardless. Likewise, this is why it doesn't matter whether his belief turns out to be right or not: not because he had no right to belief, but because his responsibilities didn't depend on that belief at all. His responsibilities are based on the warning-flags that had been raised; it didn't matter what he in fact believed about the ship.

What is more, if we look at the timeline here, we find that it is poorly suited for Clifford's ultimate point. The timeline is as follows:

(1) The shipowner is preparing to send the ship, knowing that it is old, flawed, and often in need of repair.
(2) He has doubts that the ship is not seaworthy.
(3) He thinks that perhaps he has an obligation to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted.
(4) He tries to talk himself out of this and tries to dismiss some of his worries.
(5) He comes to have a sincere and comfortable conviction that the vessel is seaworthy.
(6) He sends the ship off with light heart and benevolent wishes.

The first thing to note is that the sea captain starts out believing that he might have an obligation, and then actively tries to talk himself out of that until he succeeds at (5). This is important because his actual obligation as a sea captain begins at (2), at which point he still suspects there might be a problem. All that the rest of the case shows, as far as the ethics of it, is that (3)-(6) don't affect this obligation at all -- he still has the same obligation throughout. Further, the real problem with the sea captain's final belief is not that he fails to believe in accordance with the evidence; it is that, thinking he had an obligation, one he actually had, he deliberately tried to convince himself that he didn't. This is where the appearance of the case being one of 'ethics of belief' comes from; it is the unethical nature of the motivation on which he is trying to convince himself not to believe what he does. But this is not about the belief; this is about trying to give yourself a belief with a motivation that is already and independently unethical.

And if we needed another reason to be skeptical of this commonly repeated case, the case is poorly suited just in itself for showing that Clifford's principle (it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence) is true, because very little evidence is actually mentioned -- the ship is old, not all that well built, and has needed repairs before, and, on the other side, that she has gone safely through a lot of voyages and weathered a lot of storms. Everything else is just referred to as doubt and suspicion. Evidence doesn't play much of a role at all in our assessment of the moral situation -- indeed, once the sea captain has significant doubts, he already has at least some responsibility to double-check and take precautionary steps, even if he's nervously overreading the evidence and a more reasonable assessment of the ship would judge it to be just fine.

Thus the belief, as such, is irrelevant to the moral judgment; the evidence is not given much of a role in the scenario; and the ethical features of the scenario are not strongly tied to either. It's just a poor case.

A Moment's Monument

The Sonnet
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


A sonnet is a moment's monument, —
Memorial from the soul's eternity
To one dead, deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fullness reverent;
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul, — its converse to what Power 'tis due, —
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue,
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Neuroscience and the Microprocessor

A very interesting paper: Eric Jonas & Konrad Paul Kording, Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor? (PDF).

Neuroscience is held back by the fact that it is hard to evaluate if a conclusion is correct; the complexity of the systems under study and their experimental inaccessability make the assessment of algorithmic and data analytic technqiues challenging at best. We thus argue for testing approaches using known artifacts, where the correct interpretation is known. Here we present a microprocessor platform as one such test case. We find that many approaches in neuroscience, when used naïvely, fall short of producing a meaningful understanding.