Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Octavius of Minucius Felix

My previous comment about intimations of design arguments reminds me of the beautiful little work by Minucius Felix, called Octavius , which really should be more widely known. It is beyond the shadow of a doubt the best written of all the second-century Christian apologetic works. Snippets from Chapters 17 and 18:

For what can possibly be so manifest, so confessed, and so evident, when you lift your eyes up to heaven, and look into the things which are below and around, than that there is some Deity of most excellent intelligence, by whom all nature is inspired, is moved, is nourished, is governed? Behold the heaven itself, how broadly it is expanded, how rapidly it is whirled around, either as it is distinguished in the night by its stars, or as it is lightened in the day by the sun, and you will know at once how the marvellous and divine balance of the Supreme Governor is engaged therein. Look also on the year, how it is made by the circuit of the sun; and look on the month, how the moon drives it around in her increase, her decline, and decay.....Wherefore should I speak of the multiform protection provided by animated creatures against one another?--some armed with horns, some hedged with teeth, and shod with claws, and barbed with stings, or with freedom obtained by swiftness of feet, or by the capacity of soaring furnished by wings? The very beauty of our own figure especially confesses God to be its artificer: our upright stature, our uplooking countenance, our eyes placed at the top, as it were, for outlook; and all the rest of our senses as if arranged in a citadel.

It would be a long matter to go through particular instances. There is no member in man which is not calculated both for the sake of necessity and of ornament; and what is more wonderful still, all have the same form, but each has certain lineaments modified, and thus we are each found to be unlike to one another, while we all appear to be like in general. What is the reason of our being born? what means the desire of begetting? Is it not given by God, and that the breasts should become full of milk as the offspring grows to maturity, and that the tender progeny should grow up by the nourishment afforded by the abundance of the milky moisture? Neither does God have care alone for the universe as a whole, but also for its parts....Now if, on entering any house, you should behold everything refined, well arranged, and adorned, assuredly you would believe that a master presided over it, and that he himself was much better than all those excellent things. So in this house of the world, when you look upon the heaven and the earth, its providence, its ordering, its law, believe that there is a Lord and Parent of the universe far more glorious than the stars themselves, and the parts of the whole world.

Looking over the translation again (it's been quite a while) requires me to modify my previous comment somewhat. I had said that these intimations of design arguments "are put forward as presupposing that we've already proven that there is an intelligent cause, and are used to argue that this intelligent cause is involved in the operation of the world"; this is true of some such arguments, but I was thinking largely of design considerations in the scholastics. In Minucius Felix, however, the argument certainly is an argument to an intelligent artisan; in the sentence just prior to the one I note, he shows that he has in his sights the Epicurean position that the world is constituted entirely by the chance meetings of atoms. I hadn't really been thinking of that; but of course in the earliest versions this would be the bugbear in view. It's providence (the involvement of the deity in the basic operation of the world), however, that's in question here; the dialogue is between a pagan who believes that all things, even the gods, are explained by chance conjunctions of atoms, and a Christian who believes that on the contrary it is divine providence that explains the conjunctions of atoms.

One of the things, by the way, that makes the Octavius so good is that the pagan position is put forward in a very fair way; the occasional odd arguments were standard pagan arguments against the Christians, as can be seen from other cases. Here is Caecilius the pagan talking about the Christians:

The lonely and miserable nationality of the Jews worshipped one God, and one peculiar to itself; but they worshipped him openly, with temples, with altars, with victims, and with ceremonies; and he has so little force or power, that he is enslaved, with his own special nation, to the Roman deities. But the Christians, moreover, what wonders, what monstrosities do they feign!--that he who is their God, whom they can neither show nor behold, inquires diligently into the character of all, the acts of all, and, in fine, into their words and secret thoughts; that he runs about everywhere, and is everywhere present: they make him out to be troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive, since he is present at everything that is done, wanders in and out in all places, although, being occupied with the whole, he cannot give attention to particulars, nor can he be sufficient for the whole while he is busied with particulars.

The description, "they make him out to be troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive, since he is present at everything that is done" is delightful; I can't help but find it genuinely funny, because, of course, there is a sense in which Christians believe exactly that: troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive. The response to it is fairly obvious, and Octavius makes it; but the way it's put forward is a nice touch.

Moral Endowments

ACPQ arrived today, and it looks a lot more interesting than most of the recent issues have been. I'll probably have a few posts on various issues brought up by it. Currently I'm reading "Kant and Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given" by Jason J. Howard. A nice passage:

In the Metaphysics of Morals Kant states that conscience, moral feeling, love of human beings, and respect for oneself are "moral endowments" (moralische Beschaffenheiten) that serve as the foundations for the possibility of moral obligation in general. These moral endowments are not the result of social interaction, but are subjective preconditions that allow the subject to feel the force of the moral law, providing the receptivity to duty that is needed in order to be genuinely ethical. Kant surmises that these endowments arise as a direct result of the mind's awareness of the moral law--as a state arising from the effect the supremacy of the moral law has upon human consciousness--without which we would be "morally dead." Of these four moral endowments, conscience stands out as the most immediate expression of our moral heritage, compelling us to confront our self-image as rational free beings and take responsibility for our action. Moreover, unlike the other endowments, conscience is more than just a feeling, although it admittedly appears in this guise, for it adjudicates to what extent we have lived up to the moral law or fallen short of it. It is percisely this power of conscience to intervene, through either guilt or admonition, which places it in a position altogether different from that of the other moral endowments.

J. Howard, "Kant and the Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly vol. 78 no. 4 (Fall 2004): 613-614.

UPDATE: I came across this interesting and related article on conscience (damîr) and Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Knowing by oneself, knowing with the other.

Friday, April 08, 2005


Most but not all are theological in nature:

* Foolish and Slow at "Blogging Pastors"

* Understanding Genesis 2:15 at "Ralph the Sacred River"

* Messiah: The Talmud on Messianic Prophecy at "CADRE Comments"

* "The Logical Meme" discusses the philosophical thought of Karol Wojtyla.

* Dominican Iconography at "Cnytr". How to turn a generic picture of a Dominican into just about any Dominican saint you can imagine. The Aquinas icon is particularly useful; have a nice day.

* The discussion on personhood continues. See Soulless Materialism at "Philosophy, etc." and Person as an Analogous Term at "Vomit the Lukewarm". I've enjoyed this discussion, by the way; the primary reason for this weblog is to work out my thoughts more clearly, and this discussion has forced me to do so. [UPDATE: Also see Ghost in the Machine at "North Western Winds".][UPDATE 2: Chris responds at "Mixing Memory" to my last response in Higher Brain Death and Personhood Revisited.]

* "Vomit the Lukewarm" also has an argument that certainty presupposes a divine mind in The First Certain Things.

* An interesting editorial on science and ethics in Nature (reflecting on scientific work in Nazi Germany), called Uncomfortable Truths. (hat-tip: 3 Quarks Daily)

* An interesting discussion at Pharyngula sparked by an editorial in Science called "Twilight for the Englightenment?" This sentence from the editorial gives me a headache, though:

We owe this tradition [of acceptance of skepticism and of confidence in science] in part to the birth of the Scottish Enlightenment of the early 18th century, when the practice of executing religious heretics ended, to be gradually replaced by a developing conviction that substituted faith in experiment for reliance on inherited dogma.

So the practice of executing heretics was replaced by a conviction that substituted faith in experiment for reliance on inherited dogma; that's a lot of substitution going on, and I'm not seeing any clear historical line of causality here. In what way were they replacing the execution of religious heretics with a developing conviction? And where are the rationalists and the French in all this? And why would one think the Scottish Enlightenment didn't rely on inherited dogma (since Hume is only an ambiguous representative of the movement)? And was the Scottish Enlightenment really so important (even as a partial cause) to growing faith in experiment? Yes, I know; I quibble. But as I said, the discussion is interesting. One thing that really worries me about the premise of the editorial, though: one can argue that the popularity of design arguments are an Enlightenment product. The favored arguments of the Middle Ages were mostly causal arguments that have a different structure than any modern design argument; even Aquinas's Fifth Way, which is sometimes incorrectly treated as a design argument, is not a design argument, but an argument about the structure of causality itself. Most of the intimations of design arguments prior to the Renaissance are not put forward as arguments that there is an intelligent designer. They are put forward as presupposing that we've already proven or are assuming that there is an intelligent cause; they are then used to argue that this intelligent cause is involved in the operation of the world. [UPDATE: See here for a partial qualification of this last claim.] Design arguments were made popular, I think, by Newton (that it was Newton who made it popular is possibly one of the reasons why Hume's criticism of design arguments is so ambiguous -- Hume considers himself a Newtonian in a broad sense), and this was extended in the English-speaking world by Paley. (But this is certainly not the whole story; there have to be many different threads of thought constituting this historical path. Hume himself may be in part responsible, to the extent that his criticism may have produced counter-responses that otherwise would not have been developed.) The period we tend to describe as "the Enlightenment" produced and developed a lot of things, some of them very admirable, and some of them, like the concept of total war (i.e., the idea that war is not between governments but between nations), not admirable at all. Perhaps what needs to be done is to distinguish between "Enlightenment" taken as a historical label, and "Enlightenment" as an ideal, which was advocated by a handful of intellectuals in this period (the most notable and influential being Kant). But the latter possibly has much more to do with intellectual independence than with faith in experiment.

UPDATE: * John Paul II, Authority, and the Left at "In Medias Res"

* The Ways Christians Can Influence Others at "Rebecca Writes"

Boswell's English Day

Reading Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 [Pottle, ed. McGraw-Hill (Toronto: 1950)] I came across this interesting passage:

WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER. The enemies of the people of England who would have them considered in the worst light represent them as selfish, beef-eaters, and cruel. In this view I resolved today to be a true-born Old Englishman. I went into the City to Dolly's Steak-house in Paternoster Row and swallowed my dinner by myself to fulfill the charge of selfishness; I had a large fat beef-steak to fulfil the charge of beef-eating; and I went at five o'clock to the Royal Cockpit in St. James's Park and saw cock-fighting for about five hours to fulfill the charge of cruelty.

A beefsteak-house is a most excellent place to dine at. Youc ome in there to a warm, comfortable, large room, where a number of people are sitting at a table. You take whatever place you find empty; call for what you like, which you get well and cleverly dressed. You may either chat or not as you like. Nobody minds you, and you pay very reasonably....

I then went to the Cockpit, which is a circular room in the middle of which the cocks fight. It is seated round with rows gradually rising. The pit and the seats are all covered with mat. The cocks, nicely cut and dressed and armed with silver heels, are set down and fight with amazing bitterness and resolution. Some of them were quickly dispatched. One pair fought three quarters of an hour. The uproar and noise of betting is prodigious. A great deal of money made a very quick circulation from hand to hand. There was a number of professed gamblers there. An old cunning dog whose face I had seen at Newmarket sat by me a while. I told him I knew nothing of the matter. "Sir," said he, "you have as good a chance as anybody."... I was shocked to see the distraction and anxiety of the betters. I was sorry for the poor cocks. I looked round to see if any of the spectators pitied them when mangled and torn in a most cruel manner, but I could not observe the smallest relenting sign in any countenance. I was therefore not ill pleased to see them endure mental torment. Thus did I complete my true English day, and came home pretty much fatigued and pretty much confounded at the strange turn of this people.

You can find a post on cockfighting at Early Modern Notes. (In fact, looking over the post, Sharon mentioned precisely this passage in Boswell.) It's interesting that Boswell, a Scot, considers cockfighting to be a purely English thing. One wonders if this is just due to the circles in which Boswell lived in Scotland, or if Boswell is right that it has to do with the 'strange turn' of the English. Scotland didn't outlaw cockfighting until 1895; one wonders if this is because the Scots were just slower to act, or if, as Boswell's passage suggests, it only became an issue for them much later than it did for the English, perhaps as an English import. It brings up all sorts of interesting questions.

If Boswell were to have an English Day now, what would he do? An American Day now? (I'm inclined to think the criticisms in the modern American case would be: selfishness, gluttony, and sloth. Boswell could have quite a vacation on those faults!)


I have recently been reading Thackeray's Vanity Fair (it's quite good--I regret not having picked it up before). Anyway, I jotted down these verses:


The sages say (a truth so clear)
that nothing lasts forever;
and handsome men shall not drawn near
but to pretty girls and clever.
Be as rigidly righteous as you can possibly dare,
your life will still be a show in the Vanity Fair,
for you shall escape it never.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Just a few slight thoughts on various distinctions that sometimes aren't made in disputes over public ethics.

There are two very different sorts of pro-life issues. The first is the inalienability of the right to life. The second is the governmental protection of it. This requires us to make some important distinctions between the way we treat euthanasia and the way we treat abortion.

Although it's not the only issue, the primary issue in cases of euthanasia is very often the inalienability of the right to life. Most euthanasia advocates put forward arguments that would require us to say that the right to life is alienable. That is, they hold positions that entail that we can alienate our right to life, or be presumed to have alienated our right to life, to someone else (friend, family, a doctor, the government). For those of us who believe that it is obvious that the right to life is not alienable, this is necessarily an utterly irrational move.

This can be contrasted with the case of abortion, in which inalienability is virtually never an issue. The primary line of pro-choice reasoning is not that the fetus has alienated its right to life (which would be utterly irrational, as well, and in a sense even more utterly irrational, since it cannot even be made to sound like it makes sense); the primary argument is the Roe argument that the government must be limited in what it can do with regard to the female body. In other words, while other arguments are often put forward, the real issue in the abortion debate is the limits of government. This is not an utterly irrational move; it is certainly true that government must be limited. The only question is whether the line of limitation is being drawn in the right place. Given this, one cannot treat euthanasia and abortion as parallel issues. The one is (in most of its forms, at least) simply perverse. The other, however, raises a genuine issue, even on the assumption that the pro-choice movement is wrong; ignoring this issue (and it is often ignored) opens a major vulnerability in many arguments for anti-abortion laws. This is why, despite being pro-life, I have much, much, much more sympathy for the pro-choice movement than for the euthanasia movement: the pro-choice movement has a real argument that needs to be taken seriously.

A different set of distinctions. We sometimes talk of a right to die with dignity. There are at least two ways to gloss this.

(1) A right to die (so as to preserve dignity)
(2) A right to preservation of dignity (even in dying, or especially in dying).

(2), I take it, is relatively uncontroversial. (1), however, is immensely controversial. Sometimes, however, people talk as if (2) implied (1); which is certainly not true without some controversial assumptions. (2) does, I think, sometimes (if some plausible conditions about impossibility of real treatment are met) bring us to the conclusion that the only thing we can genuinely do for a person is to sit vigil as they die, as many families do every day of the year. There is no shame in dying, and no shame in coming together with family so that a loved one will not die alone; indeed, if human dignity means anything, this is one of the most common ways in which human dignity is exhibited. But this is very different from acting to cause someone's death, as if death as such, rather than humanity in the face of it, were what gave one dignity in certain cases. The two need to be kept quite distinct, by people on both sides; something different underlies each.


* The newest Christian Carnival is up at "Proverbs Daily"

* A new carnival of interest: volume 1 of the Biblical Studies Carnival is up at "Ebla Logs" (Hat-tip: EMN)

*Siris will be hosting the second Poetry Carnival the weekend of April 15. The purpose of the Poetry Carnival is:

(1) to help to make visible to the general blogosphere the work of poets in our midst.
(2) to foster an increased appreciation for poetry.
(3) most importantly, to expose various poets to each other’s work, which will serve to create a creative community intent on always improving itself.

Please send all entries for the second Poetry Carnival to branem2[at] (with a @ for the [at], of course), with the following information:

Title of Blog:
URI of Blog:
Title of Poem (or just the first line or a number):
Permalink URI of the Poem:
Number of Lines:
Key Line or lines (1-4) to excerpt:

So if you have posted any poems of your own devising since the last Poetry Carnival (January 24), send them my way. Even if you aren't the poetry-writing type, if you've posted on poets and/or poems that you feel should be more widely appreciated, send those to me, also. The deadline is midnight (Eastern Standard Time) April 15 (although if you're a little late, there's no harm done).

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

More Seriously

A philosopher once asked Rabban Gamaliel: Your law says [Deut. iv. 24]: "For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, yea, a watchful God"; why is it that he is so watchful with regard to the worshipper and not to the idol? Said Raban Gamaliel: I will answer your question by a metaphor: Suppose a king's son names his dog with the father's name and swears, whenever he does, by the life of this dog; the father, once informed about this, will he get angry at his son or at the dog? Naturally enough, at the son.

Thereupon said the philosopher: You call the idol dog, which is not feasible, since the idol has loftier gifts. You ask which are these? Why, once a conflagration consumed all our city, and the idol temple remained intact. Answered R. Gamaliel: I shall use again a metaphor: A province once revolted against the king; against whom do you suppose he used his weapons, against the living or against the dead? Naturally enough, against the former.

Said the philosopher: You style our gods dogs and dead; well, then, when they really are so worthless why does not God annihilate them altogether? Yea, he would surely do it, was the reply, were they not of objects useful to the preservation of the world, such as are the sun, moon, stars, planets, mountains and valleys, for it reads [Zeph. i. 2, 3]: "I will remove utterly all things from off the face of the earth, saith the Lord. I will remove man and beast; I will remove the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks of the wicked." That is to say: The Lord wonders, shall I do this when the heathens worship man, too? I should have then to destroy the whole universe!

--Tract Abuda Zara, Chapter IV

The Ancient Question Answered

They further questioned: Why does the dog know his master, and the cat does not? and his [i.e., that of R. Elazar b. Zadok] answer was: It is certain that he who eats from what is left by a mouse is apt to have a poor memory, so much the more so the cat that himself consumes the mouse. They questioned again: Why do all these animals (i.e. dogs, cats, and the like) reign over the mice? and he answered: Because the mice are instinctively mischievous, since, says Rabha, they tear even garments; and R. Papa says: They gnaw through even the handle of a pick-ax.

--Babylonian Talmud (Tract Horioth, Chapter III)

So you only thought your cat was haughty; really, it's just that the cat doesn't remember you at all, and is too ashamed to admit it. Thus you should always beware of attributing pride to those around you.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Vox Apologia XII

Well, it turns out I singlehandedly constitute the content of the VoxAp carnival on the strengths and weaknesses of the ontological argument. I was hoping there would be at least one other entry. But I suppose the ontological argument is not big on the apologetics radar. There has been a bit of discussion here and there in the philosophical blogosphere recently. For instance, Clark at "Mormon Metaphysics" recently posted on Anselm and Marion, and "Fido the Yak" has a post on Gödel's ontological argument. Gödel's argument is a variant of the Leibnizian variant of the Cartesian family of ontological arguments, which I don't discuss in my post. "CADRE Comments" also recently discussed Anselm's ontological argument and Gaunilo's reply. This is a carnival that allows late submissions, so if you want to post and submit something on the argument from a point of view relevant to Christian apologetics, go ahead and do so. There's certainly lots that can be discussed - the Cartesian family of arguments, Thomistic and Kantian criticisms of the argument, Scotus's 'coloring' of the argument, Hartshorne's thesis that the ontological argument shows that either it is necessary that God exist or it is impossible that He exist (which, if true, would surely be relevant to apologetics), etc.

(By the way, this is a tangent, but "Verbum Ipsum" recently had a post on misunderstandings of Anselm's view of atonement; which are legion.)

The next Vox Apologia carnival is on the strengths and weaknesses of the cosmological argument; and, hang it all, all y'all Christian bloggers had better submit something so I can comment on it. The earliest date for submission is April 7; the deadline for making it into the original carnival is midnight, April 10.

The Minor Prophet

This looks to be an interesting website. The Minor Prophet (hat-tip: Rebecca Writes):

The Minor Prophet is a Web site for Christians, by Christians, at which you are invited to share the messages of God from the Scriptures.

The minor prophets had brief but powerful messages for their people. However, these chosen people of God were anything but minor. Overshadowed by the lengthier writings of the big-name Prophets – Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah – the minor prophets often fall behind the furniture of our Christian lives, only noticed when we are flipping through the Scriptures for inspiration on our way to other, clearer books.

Fact is, the Bible’s minor prophets should often be the first place we turn. For one thing, they’re short. You won’t find 55 chapters here. The minor prophets are, in effect, those small smoothies you buy from the store for a breakfast – not too much to drink, but packed with all the vitamins you need.

Second, the minor prophets bring God’s message into sharp focus: for those who do not bow their knees to God, sorrow and destruction wait; those who do bow to God are invited to receive faith and forgiveness through God’s promised Deliverer.

Warnings and comfort, discipline and devastation – the minor prophets, in their messages to God’s chosen people, lay out the welcome mat for the message of love and justice that the Lord Jesus Christ will preach a few hundred years later.

Love and the Rational Nature

Dan has a nice quote from Velleman's "Love as a Moral Emotion." It's a good article, making some excellent arguments. I always find claims that love makes us 'vulnerable' to the other rather dubious when taken as generalizations, though. It just sounds funny to my ear, like a badly written greeting card; it's not as if we're in any obvious sense less vulnerable to people we don't love, and it's not as if love doesn't sometimes make us more invulnerable than we would be otherwise, whatever defensiveness it may eliminate (I think we sometimes make ourselves more vulnerable through our attempts at self-protection, and become less so when we open up; just as people who are constantly worried about failing sometimes bring on their own failure by their obsessive concern with avoiding it). Perhaps there's just an odd sense of 'vulnerability' here I'm not in on. In any case, this is a digression from what I wanted to say, which was just to give another nice quotation from the article:

The idea that love is a response to the value of a person's rational nature will seem odd so long as 'rational nature' is interpreted as denoting the intellect. But rational nature is not the intellect, not even the practical intellect; it's a capacity of appreciation or valuation--a capacity to care about things in that reflective way which is distinctive of self-conscious creatures like us. Think of a person's rational nature as his core of reflective concern, and the idea of loving him for it will not longer seem odd.

J. David Velleman, "Love as a Moral Emotion," Ethics 109 (Jan 1999): 365-366.

I would only make one caveat to the above, namely, that this is only one thing that can legitimately be considered love; even love as a moral emotion. It's an important one, of course. I like it that someone gets the point about what talking about 'rational nature' really is -- the point that, for instance, led the scholastics to say things like "Man is a rational, and therefore social, animal" as if it were completely and utterly obvious that a rational nature is a social nature. But the sense of 'rational nature' that really is capable of the role it plays in ethics, politics, and the like, requires seeing the richness of what it involves. And Velleman's conclusion to the article, "love is...a moral education" (p. 374), is exactly the right one to draw.

A Puzzle about Seventeenth Century French

I do not see it is possible to find any other reason to prevent me from believing generally that bodies exist despite [contre] all the various sensations I have of them, sensations so consistent, so linked together, so well ordered, that it seems to me certain that God would be deceiving us if there were nothing in everything we see.

This (from Malebranche's Dialogues on Metaphysics, Dialogue VI, Jolley-Scott 99) seems a puzzling sentence. Usually contre in this context would mean exactly what Scott translated it to mean: despite, in spite of. It suggests opposition. But the two parts of the sentence make no sense if put into opposition; the first says that there doesn't seem to be anything to stop him from believing that God exists, and the second gives the reason for it. I feel like I'm missing something obvious here, but I can't see what. I'll be looking up the passage in the critical edition later this week, but given both the English translation in the Jolley-Scott and Rodis-Lewis's French text, the text certainly says 'contre', and there's probably nothing in the Oeuvres Complètes that will shed light on it. Is there some meaning of contre that I'm just stupidly unaware of?

UPDATE: Here's the Rodis-Lewis (the Oeuvres published by Gallimard; very handy little books!) ne vois pas qu'il soit possible d'en trouver quelque autre, pour m'empêcher de croire en générale qu'il y a des corps, contre tous les divers sentiments que j'en ai: sentiments tellement suivis, tellement enchaînés , si bien ordonnés, qu'il me parait comme certain que Dieu voudrait nous tromper, s'il n'y avait rien de tout ce que nous voyons.
(p. 772)

It occurs to me that one possibility is that there is just a misleading shift in the sentence; the 'despite' might well make sense if the 'diverse sensations' are intended to be the pool from which one would expect to find reasons not to believe in general that there are bodies. The next part of the sentence, then, isn't intended to be part of the 'despite' clause (the way JS takes it). Rather, the sense may be: "I don't see that we can find any other reason to prevent me from believing in general that bodies exist, despite all the different sorts of sensations [M. uses 'sentiment' and 'sensation' interchangeably, but prefers the former] we have of bodies. These sensations [in fact] are so consistent, so connected, so well-ordered, that it seems to me that God would be deceiving us if there were nothing to them." It's an clumsy transition, but the punctuation in the Rodis-Lewis makes it slightly less jarring than what we get in Scott's translation.

Memento Mori

* Meditation XVII by John Donne

* A Lesson Before Dying at "Cobb" (Hat-tip: Booker Rising)

* Learning from the Terry Schiavo Tragedy and Eating Disorder Info and Resources at ANAD

* John Paul II at "Viva Italia"

* To Love and Cherish at "The Upward Call" (Hat-tip: Rebecca Writes)

* Thoughts on End of Life at "The Doctor Is In". See also the post linked to in that post, Dancing with Death.

* Memento Mori -- a sermon by Spurgeon.

* "Over This, Your White Grave" -- a poem by Karol Wojtyla in 1939 on the death of his mother.

* Prayer of Peace

* Hymn of the Day at "connexions"

Monday, April 04, 2005

Personhood and Loci Communes

Chris gave an interesting response to my posts on personhood, and I would like to respond in turn.

As Chris notes, the dispute is not the sort of dispute that can be decided by empirical facts. In fact, it is a dispute over how we should regard the empirical facts (any empirical facts that might be put forward) in the first place. I would go further and point out that the dispute is not an ethical one either. When we have decided that X is a person, we have not provided an answer to the question of what our moral responsibilities to X may be. It is clear, for instance, that our moral responsibilities are not the same for every person we encounter; they vary from person to person, as they must if they are to keep the person in mind. It is also clear that when we have decided that X is not a person, we have not provided an answer to the question of what our moral responsibilities to X may be.

The reason personhood is a concept relevant to ethics is that, despite providing no answers of itself and on its own, it turns out to be immensely useful. Ethical questions are immensely difficult; to reason about them we need a way to set them in order. In a sense, this is true of every discipline. Every discipline has its topoi, its loci communes, concepts and maxims that help to simplify, to guide, to order. This is true of ethics, as well; but the loci communes are especially important in ethics, because ethics deals with so many contingent factors. Person, in the course of its historical existence in theological, metaphysical, and moral disputes, has gathered about itself a wide array of commonplaces that help us to simplify moral reasoning, diagnose moral situations, and put forward general guidelines. When new situations arise, we can take them as a template and modify them in the relevant ways.

If I understand the position elaborated by Chris aright, it is actually very similar to my own. On my view, while we call human beings 'organisms' and 'persons' for different reasons, all human organisms are persons. Caleb in one of the comments to one of my posts asked where I set the cut-off point, and the answer is this: I set it where the whole thing breaks down, where it simply becomes impossible to talk about this as human without equivocation. This is a strong view; its advantage is that it simplifies the background. With some exceptions, the view Chris articulates will cover much the same ground. I think this is required if the higher-brain death position is to avoid becoming a humunculus theory, in which the person is just part of an organism and never the organism itself.

It's a view that has considerable plausibility. But we need to look not merely at initial plausibility; we need to see how it affects our moral reasoning. After all, the primary reason that the issue of personhood is relevant to cases of higher-brain death in the first place is that the notion of a person has forensic qualities. It conjures up a topics, in the Aristotelian sense of the term: a set of concepts and principles that make argument of a certain sort possible. And so we can ask, "What does this view do to our topics for the relevant moral issues?" And the only answer I can see is that it annihilates them.

To be sure, it does not, strictly speaking, leave us with nothing. What the position does is give us a set whose members are all human organisms but not human persons. Our personal commonplaces must be set aside. And what we are left with is very murky. What we have in this case, understood in this way, are human beings (in a straightforward sense) that are alive (again, in a straightforward sense of the term) but are not persons. We have no topics for this. We do not know what our responsibilities to such a thing should be, any more than we know what our responsibilities to a manticore or chimera should be. Our personal commonplaces are set aside. We cannot apply our commonplaces about corpses, despite the oxymorons I've read (e.g., "animate corpses"); if we were dealing with corpses, properly speaking, no issues would arise, because the sort of questions we have to ask about those who have experienced higher-brain death cannot arise in the case of corpses. You do not fret about whether a corpse should die; if you can rationally do so, you are not dealing with a corpse. We cannot simply apply the commonplaces we use to guide moral reasoning about animals - first, because our present commonplaces in that area are minimal, to say the least, and don't bear much stretching; second, because they do not take into account the human factor; third, because they do not take into account the fact that this organism was a person. Each of these seems relevant; and even if they turn out not to be, this can't be assumed a priori. So there is only one thing that seems available to us: to go back through our entire moral reasoning about human beings and, bit by bit, pry apart those aspects of it that consider the human being qua human organism and those that consider the human being qua person.

In other words: this move does not, as it is, help us to understand what we should do, or are morally allowed to do, in the case of those who have undergone higher-brain death. It does not simplify; it complicates. It does not point the way to answers nearby; it requires us to say that there are no such answers - we have to go back to the beginning and work it through from scratch. This is one reason I don't understand the complacency of those who usually put forward this view (in one form or another). Their approach should result not in complacency but in a mad scramble: we are faced with an entire field, right here, right now, with regard to which we are morally in the dark. Everything is up in the air, and the morally conscientious person has to make a mad dash to think things out from the beginning.

I have seen no such recognition of the moral responsibility the position brings; the position is often put forward as if it answered the ethical questions, when in fact it merely introduces harder questions. But this additional set of complications might end up being worthwhile if we had reason to believe it were the way of moral progress. I see no reason to think that it is. Perhaps a constrasting example might help.

Some people have proposed that we need to expand our concept of personhood to include animals other than human beings. Now, this actually requires quite a considerable revision of massive areas of our moral reasoning. But these proponents have in their favor the fact that their way is a plausible line of moral progress. Obviously our personal topics does not apply straightforwardly to nonhuman animals; but there is no need for it to do so. Just as, when people stretched the concept of personhood so that it included God and angel and man, no one was committed to the view that each of these is a person in exactly the same way; so no one is committed on this view that animals are persons, as we understand the term now, in a straightforward way. What it does, however, is hold open to us the possibility that we can begin to be more morally responsible, more compassionate, more just, by starting to look at ways in which our personal commonplaces can be extended and adapted to the case of other animals. One is reminded of the early Franciscans - Francis and the birds, Anthony and the fishes. One is reminded of Buddhist ethics. And so forth. There is promise here. But I see none of this in the case of this qualification.

The higher-brain death view, then, appears to do no real rational work: it furthers no general principle, simplifies no process of reasoning, clarifies no actual situation. In fact, over a particular area it complicates and obscures everything. Overcoming this requires a type of rational inquiry in which most of its proponents show no interest whatsoever. It exhibits no marks that by taking it seriously we might become more just, more compassionate, or more responsible than we currently can be. In light of all this, I would need to see an excellent rational justification for it before I could in good conscience regard it as anything other than what it seems to me on the surface to be: rationally dubious and potentially dangerous gerrymandering. Such is my view, anyway.

The Pentangel Depaynt of Pure Golde Hwes

Another 'spiritual image':

Then they brought him his blaxon that was of brilliant gules
with the pentangle depicted in pure hue of gold.
By the baldric he caught it and about his neck cast it:
right well and worthily it went with the knight.
And why the pentangle is proper to that prince so noble
I intend now to tell you, though it may tarry my story.
It is a sign that Solomon once set on a time
to betoken Troth, as it is entitled to do;
for its is a figure that in it five points holdeth,
and each line overlaps and is linked with another,
and every way it is endless; and the English, I hear,
everywhere name it the Endless Knot.
So it suitss well this knight and his unsullied arms;
for ever faithful in five points, and five times under each,
Gawain as good was acknowledged and as gold refinéd,
devoid of every vie and with virtues adorned.
So there
the pentangle painted new
he on shield and coat did wear,
as one of word most true
and knight of bearing fair.

First faultless was he found in his five senses,
and enxt in his five fingers he failed at no time,
and firmly on the Five Wounds all his faith was set
that Christ received on the cross, as the Creeed tells us;
and wherever teh brave man into battle was come,
on this beyond all things was his earnest thought:
that ever from the Five Joys all his avlour he gained
that to Heaven's courteous Queen once came from her Child.
For which cause the knight had in comely wise
on the inner side of his shield her image depainted,
that when he cast his eyes thither his courage never failed.
The fifth five that was used, as I find, by this knight
was free-giving and friendliness first before all,
and chastity and chivalry ever changeless and straight,
and piety surpassing all points: these perfect five
were hasped upon him harder than on any man else.
Now these five series, in sooth, were fastened on this knight,
and each was knit with another and had no ending,
but were fixed at five points that failed not at all,
coincided in no line nor sundered either,
not ending in any angle anywyere, as I discover,
wherever the process was put in play or passed to an end.
Therefore on his shining shield was shaped now this knot,
royally with red gules upon red gold set:
this is the pure pentangle as people of learning
have taught.
Now Gawain in brave array
his lance at last hath caught.
He gave them all good day
for evermore as he thought.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien, tr. (George Allen & Unwin: 1990) 35-36.