Saturday, December 16, 2006

History Carnival XLV

The most recent edition of the History Carnival is up. I especially enjoyed Natalie Bennett's post on Kassia.

Pluralism in the Heavenly City

This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God. When we shall have reached that peace, this mortal life shall give place to one that is eternal, and our body shall be no more this animal body which by its corruption weighs down the soul, but a spiritual body feeling no want, and in all its members subjected to the will. In its pilgrim state the heavenly city possesses this peace by faith; and by this faith it lives righteously when it refers to the attainment of that peace every good action towards God and man; for the life of the city is a social life.

Augustine, City of God, Book XIX, chapter 17

Two Ways About It

I've been doing a little bit of (minor) reading about the controversial figure, Photios of Constantinople; it's an interesting thing to read about since it gives you a vivid sense of just how much 'competent' and 'tendentious' can go together in historical work on controversial figures. Photios, of course, is regarded as a saint by the Orthodox and a schismatic by the Catholics. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on him is fairly good; but you can tell straightforwardly that it's a Catholic account. An Orthodox account, for instance, would talk about Nicholas's failed attempt to restore the Sicilian Calabrian patrimonies, and insist that the papal legates found Photios to be legally elevated to the patriarchy, suggesting that Nicholas rejected the reasonable conclusions of the legates out of angry disappointment about the patrimonies. The disputes over whether Bulgaria fell within Roman or Byzantine jurisdiction would play a much larger role in the summary, as would the iconoclasm controversy -- which latter, although it's almost the whole point for the Orthodox, gets only a casual mention in the Catholic Encyclopedia article. In the Catholic summary, Photios is a member, indeed, a leader, of the extremist anti-Roman party; in an Orthodox summary, discussing exactly the same group of people, they would be called the moderates, the ones opposing the extremist pro-Roman party. It would be funny if it weren't so serious.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Carnival of Citizens Call for Submissions

This post, first published on November 28, will be kept at the top until December 15. For more recent posts, scroll down.

On December 17, Siris will host the second edition of the This edition will be a themed edition; the theme is:


Posts on just war theory or pacifism are especially welcome; however, any posts on topics relevant to war or peace will be seriously considered as candidates for the carnival. The posts may discuss these issues from any perspective, as long as they do so in a deliberative and reflective way. Topics submitted on other themes will be held over for the next, unthemed edition of the carnival.

The deadline for submissions is December 15. To submit, please read the easy-to-follow guidelines, and use the Blog Carnival Submission Form. Posts may be submitted in French, Spanish, or English, but non-English posts should contain a brief English summary of the post contents.

Advance public discussion; submit your post on topics relevant to the theme before the deadline! You can also help by publicizing this call for submissions on your own weblog.

I greatly look forward to reading your post. And yes, I do mean your post.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sigh and Sigh Again

Well, you have to hand it to A.C. Grayling, that when he sets out to embarrass himself and associate philosophy with all sorts of irrational arguments and unsubstantiated claims, he doesn't do it halfway. From his recent letter (scroll down a bit) to the London Review of Books, in response to Eagleton's review of Dawkins's The God Delusion:

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the 'condition of possibility' for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

Of course, this might have been a more devastating witticism were Grayling actually reading the passage very carefully. This is the section of Eagleton's review that Grayling is mocking:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or 'existent': in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

(1) Eagleton does not present it as his own view, but links the claims to a context, one that is explicitly mentioned in the first few words. In fact, in the very next paragraph he reiterates this.
(2) Eagleton, unlike Grayling (who is tripped up repeatedly by this, not only here but also elsewhere), recognizes that people use words in different ways, and that you have to be sensitive to different usages of terms. Note, for instance, the 'in one sense of that word'. And Eagleton is factually quite right: there are theologians who, while allowing that God exists, prefer to use the term 'existent' in a more restricted sense to mean that which has being from another, reserving 'being' or some other term for God (who does not have being from another). This is a purely verbal matter of convenience.

Grayling is right, though, that much of Eagleton's review indirectly explains why he objected to the attempts to block the honorary degree for Derrida: his protest then was that the people who were attempting to do so were lying about what they were criticizing -- that you could tell they had not read Derrida because they repeatedly said false things about what he said, and didn't care whether they were false as long as it stopped Derrida from being awarded the degree. And it must be admitted that his protest against Dawkins is very much the same: that Dawkins is spreading false claims about religionists in a way that shows that he doesn't care whether he has any rational basis for his claims or not, as long as it leads to the necessary conclusion.

Eagleton doesn't mention this one in particular, but one case that he might, that might clarify why Eagleton's point can't be airily dismissed in the way so many Dawkinsians seem to want to do. Dawkins, in order to dismiss the idea that the civil rights movement was religious in inspiration, simply says, without serious argument, that religion was completely incidental to Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight for civil rights, that although he happened to be a Christian, he got all his ideas from Gandhi, who was not. As some have noted, if you really want to play that game, you can say that Gandhi got his ideas from Tolstoy and Jesus. But what is really disturbing about Dawkins's claim is not that he made it, but the sheer disregard for evidence and reasoning it seems to evince. Historians studying Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, you apparently needn't bother with the Social Gospel movement, or Boston Personalism, or the religious themes in King's speeches and sermons; acording to Dawkins, they are all incidental. And he took his ideas from Gandhi, anyway! What sort of response is that to the idea that King's fight for civil rights was religiously inspired? Perhaps it was just a mistake, or a confusion, or he just got carried away with hyperbole and only meant to say that people exaggerate the religious inspiration of King's ideas, or he just didn't realize that we readers lack the telepathy to be able to see immediately the great argument he has for an apparently insupportable claim; but it looks a lot like the sort of response you make when you don't care what the evidence is or where reason actually leads. Again, on its own perhaps it's just a slip, or just a perhaps-overly-concise or misleading claim that Dawkins could really develop with greater seriousness than he does. What would really be damning is if he did this all the time. And that's what Eagleton is claiming -- that he does do this sort of thing over and over again.

And if he is, Eagleton is exactly right: it's a sign of someone who either does not know the actual evidence and arguments, or (more culpably) of someone who doesn't care what they are. In either case, he's an unfortunate distraction from the real issues. What has amazed me is that the most general response to Eagleton has not been to argue that Dawkins is in fact informed about the subject he is criticizing, so that his criticisms are genuinely devastating; rather, it has been to agree that Dawkins is badly informed about the subject, and then to come up with an excuse for why that's entirely OK, because the subject is not worth the time to make an effort to be informed about it. (One wonders, then, what would be the point of writing a book about it.) Grayling for instance, in the paragraph before the one above, claims that "when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises," somehow missing the fact that Eagleton's point is that Dawkins has misunderstood the premises, and the conclusions claimed to be derived from them, in the first place.

Farewell to the Baiji

I find this very sad.

In Chang Jiang the spirits danced,
white and gleaming, speaking softly;
in Jinsha dreams wandered free,
singing songs for the ages,
a double celebration under heaven.
No more; the human hand has conquered,
the Long River no longer knows them.
No more will our children sit
and, mesmerized, watch
the shy subtleties of their play.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


'Tis the season for bells and churches; and bells and churches immediately bring to mind one of the great musical arts -- change-ringing. It's certainly the noisiest of the musical arts, and one of the most purely mathematical.

Change-ringing is governed by the fundamental musical quirk of those huge church-bells in the church-tower: they have such a huge momentum, they aren't suitable for melodies. What you can do, when you have several bells, is ring them in different orders; and that's precisely what change-ringing is: the exemplification of a mathematical permutation by changes of bells. For instance, suppose you have a church with four bells. The bells are numbered from the highest-sounding bell (the treble) to the deepest-sounding bell (the tenor):

1 2 3 4

This particular order of bells is called ringing rounds. We can then change the rounds. And the series of numbers we list to keep track of the bells is the simple, straightforward musical notation of change-ringing. For instance:

1 2 3 4
2 1 4 3
2 4 1 3
4 2 3 1
4 3 2 1
3 4 1 2
3 1 4 2
1 3 2 4
1 2 3 4

Do you see a pattern in the bells? If you don't, pick a bell and trace out where in the order it is found. This type of pattern, which guarantees that you go from rounds to rounds without repeating a row, is called ringing according to method, or ringing by method (the particular method found above is usually called the Plain Hunt). And, obviously, the more bells you have, the more changes you have in method ringing. When you ring through 5040 changes, without break and without repeating a row, you have one peal. (The number is chosen because it's the number of total possible permutations -- called an 'extent' -- you have with seven bells.) A peal lasts several hours; a quarter peal lasts about forty minutes. From what I understand, there was once an extent on eight bells -- ringing all eight bells each change, without repeating, from round to round; it lasted twenty hours. Obviously there are many extents that have never been rung; an extent with sixteen bells would take well over a million years.

Although change-ringing is designed for tower bells, you can ring changes and peals on handbells, as well, and, from what I understand, change-ringers who work with tower bells usually practice their patterns on handbells (for the obvious reason that practicing with a tower full of very loud bells tends to annoy the neighbors).

Now, it may not seem likely that just ringing bells in different permutations would leave much room for creative composition, but there are so many different ways you can ring bells, and some of them sound so much better than others, that this isn't so. For instance, you can have any number of different bells, so there are terms used in the names of compositions that indicate the number of bells:

4 Minimus
5 Doubles
6 Minor
7 Triples
8 Major
9 Caters
10 Royal
11 Cinques
12 Maximus

(You may wonder why five bells gives you doubles and seven bells gives you triples; nine and eleven have names of the same sort, although it's not so obvious for nine. The reason is that it's the number of bells that can change position in the row at every change.) A plain course occurs when you just ring a pattern, but you can also, during the ringing, call on particular bells to make changes in the pattern. The rigid rules are still in place -- you still can't repeat rows, and you still ring from rounds to rounds. But not every pattern goes through the full extent of the bells you have; so you can add a variation or divergence from the plain course. This divergence from a plain course is called a touch; the commands for bells to change have different names depending on what is required. In addition, the patterns themselves can vary somewhat. I gave the Plain Hunt above, in which the bell continually 'hunts', i.e., goes straight from back to front or front to back; but you can add a Dodge. In the following pattern 3 is dodging with 5:

4 1 3 2 5
1 4 3 2 5
1 2 4 5 3
2 1 4 3 5
2 1 4 5 3
4 2 1 5 3

Further, many important changes have their own names. This is a hagdyke, for instance: 12563478.

The following websites are interesting resources for change-ringing:

* Thanks the North American Guild of Change-Ringers, you can hear and see some changes rung.
* You can also listen to change-ringing with handbells (some of it very beautiful) at this website.
* The Glossary at The Change Ringers Web Directory is the single most useful resource on the web for those who are lost when it comes to change-ringing terms.
* Minor Strikerz is designed for young ringers
* Want to do a little virtual change-ringing? Kees van den Doel's Bells Applet is a Java program you can use online to try out different methods. I recommend setting the controls to maximum irregularity (if you have a quick computer; if not, try more regularity -- use maximum regularity if you want to get the clearest sense of the ordering) and then toying with some of the others on the left-hand side (you can change tempo, mute bells). Then play with some of the right-hand controls.

For my part, I'd like someday to be able to ring a touch or two in person. Like most people, my acquaintance with change-ringing came through Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter mystery, The Nine Tailors (one of Sayers's all-time best, which is saying something). 'Nine tailors' is the pattern rung when a man in the parish has died; hence the expression, 'Nine tailors make a man'.

There are other musical arts related to bells, the most famous of which is that of the carillon; a carillon is an instrument involving (at least) 23 bells of a particular sort; it's a sort of bell-organ, so it admits of more melody. You can find out more about it through the Guild of Carilloneurs of North America, and there are a few samples of its music here and here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Three Poem Drafts and a Revision

The fourth is a (slight) revision of a poem I've already posted. With regard to the second, it should be said that I have never scribbled a napkin in a bar. That's what coffee shops are for.

Two Garments

The garment of peace fits ill these days,
but I wear it as best I can.
I think of it as a linen shield
against the ravage of man.

The garment of joy is soft on the skin
and wears like silk decadence;
but I keep it in store for a distant day
when the grip of time relents.


'Tis true he's not the greatest bard
to grace the human race;
his poems fail in all but line
that hangs in filler-space.
He has a certain fervor,
like a fever in the brain,
that substitutes for music;
thus all his lyrics strain.
And he preaches like a pastor
and lectures the live-long day;
I'd love to love his poems
but his words get in the way.
He is pompous one dull hour
with a flash of wit thrown in;
his taste is all the former,
which is the prosist's sin.
He likes a good conceit,
as conceited people do,
writ in vain and empty words
dressed up as a clerihew.
Homer is a mountain, Virgil is a road,
Emily's a flower, Milton is a spire,
I think that people tell it true
who say Dante is a choir;
but this poet is a napkin
scribbled in a dim-lit bar
before he passes out from wine
and the barkeep calls a car.

I Had a Love

I had a love,
  I gave her much;
she fled far, far away.
I was loved,
  she gave me much;
I left at break of day.

This world is sweet, its style nice,
but a crack runs through its grace;
we see the good, not looking twice,
and flee its strangeling face.


I grow sad when I think of wondrous skies
that have never been seen by human eyes
nor ever painted by artists' hands,
that mightily hang over times and lands
beyond where the reckoning mind can go;
sad when I look to the heavens and know
as another sunrise or sunset begins
that there are, uncaptured by the camera's lens,
such skies as this and even more fair,
for which no artist ever did care,
though it deserved to hang where the Masters are,
more lovely than all their works by far,
and deserved to be loved for a million years.
But, alas! in a moment it disappears,
to be seen never again by human eye.
I grow sad when I think of that vanishing sky.

Notes and Links

* An excellent essay on historiographic misunderstandings of preformationist terminology by Clara Pinto-Correia. The problem highlighted is an ongoing one in scientific pedagogy. Scientists move forward by climbing a ladder and then kicking it away when they are done; thus they become no better informed about the path that led to their current state than anyone else is, and, not being historians, start saying dubious things about it.

* Speaking of climbing a ladder then kicking it away, this article by Lippitt and Hutto is an interesting discussion of the concept of nonsense in Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. [link fixed --ed.]

* Sharon Howard recently had a post pointing to the weblog separated by a common language, which is really quite a fun little blog. For a good taste, see this post on moot points -- in American English, they are issues that are such that debating them is pointless, whereas in British English they are issues that are such that they are open to debate. The source of both is the same legal phenomenon, but by emphasizing different things about it, they end up with opposing meanings.

They are always more subtle, because of greater cross-fertilization, but you could do similar things with American English and Canadian English. You have the mundane things -- like napkin/serviette -- and the more esoteric things -- like the fact that what Canadians call Friulano cheese would usually in the U.S. be called Montasio cheese, because in Canada 'Montasio' can only be used for cheeses from the Montasio mountains of the Friuli region of Italy. And then there are little cultural differences that lead to differences -- some of them obvious, like toques, poutine, and butter tarts -- and some more subtle, like the much greater use of 'Cheers' as an email sign-off in Canada, or the fact that 'gallon' can mean many different measures in Canada, depending on the context.

* Some links on South Park and philosophy:

-> The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand, by Paul Cantor (highly recommended).
-> An interview at Reason with Stone and Parker, chiefly on various ways the show pushes boundaries. Religion comes up quite a bit.
-> Secrets of 'South Park' covers some of the same ground.

The first two are thanks to Clark's sidebar at "Mormon Metaphysics", while the third was sent around by Don Jr.

* Through a commenter on a post at Parableman I came across this critique (PDF) of Dawkins's The God Delusion, from a fairly conservative Christian perspective; it's quite handy, particularly the chart toward the beginning, in which the author outlines the book's major points and goes through them quickly. Not every theist will agree with every point made by the author; to take just one instance, while I think ontological arguments are question-begging, I don't think they are silly. Indeed, I think even implying that ontological arguments are silly is an affront to reason; if there's one thing the centuries have shown about the argument, it is that (1) objections that treat such arguments as silly are regularly shown to be silly themselves; (2) this kind of argument appeals most to very logical, rational people -- people like Leibniz and Godel -- and if there is a flaw in it, it is one that tempts rational people, not silly ones; (3) the most enduring objections to them, the ones that aren't shown to be silly, like those of the Thomists, are based on rather sophisticated views about how the mind works or about the sort of work arguments can do. A promising objection to an ontological argument will always shed important light on some field or other. As other examples, I don't think every point the author thinks irrelevant is necessarily quite so irrelevant as he thinks, although many are; and the claims about children and religious denomination are not widely accepted, although there is a hefty minority that does accept them. Like most Protestants he is about seventy years behind the majority of Catholic thought about Fatima, and so his discussion about that would not impress any but the most reactionary Catholics any more than Dawkins's discussion, which is equally out-of-date, and equally assumes that Catholics haven't thought and re-thought, discussed and argued, about the matter for the past half-century and more. So, again, not every point will find agreement with every theist, or even every Christian. But it does serve to give a sense of why many theists, even quite ordinary ones who don't deal in sophisticated forms of philosophy of religion, aren't likely to take the reasoning of the book very seriously -- it will read to them as a tissue of unsubstantiated claims, unoriginal objections, and irrelevant digressions.

* An interesting post about the recent Feast of the Immaculate Conception from an Islamic perspective at "God, Faith, and a Pen."


* I disagree with Ophelia Benson a lot. I agree with her a lot, too, but usually when I agree with her I disagree with her approach, or her view about what it implies or suggests, or something like that. But I agree wholly with these two recent posts on Christopher Hitchens's recent absurdity.

* The SEP article on Feminist History of Philosophy is well worth reading. I found the section on canon revision especially interesting. Since I am undeniably a canon revisionist, and since much (although not all) of that revisionism is involved in reclaiming women philosophers like Lady Mary Shepherd and Catherine Trotter Cockburn, I've always been interested in the relation between the work I do with women philosophers and feminist history of philosophy. As Witt notes, it's actually quite complicated. She points out that a major issue here is 'self-image'. I would go farther and say that it is a matter of justice: there are women with perfectly reasonable and sometimes brilliant things to say -- as reasonable and as brilliant as, say, Locke or Hume -- who have nonetheless been ignored, and it's difficult to find any reason for it beyond the fact that they were women. Moreover, given that some women philosophers -- like Lady Mary, for instance -- were attacked on precisely this point of being women, I think a vindication of them on purely rational grounds (even if no farther than showing that what they say is thoughtworthy) is very satisfying. We shouldn't listen to women philosophers to find a 'Woman's Voice', as if they all had the same voice; we should listen to women philosophers because they all had voices, and often said things worth hearing. On Shapiro's point about internal reasons, it's noteworthy that in some cases -- and Shepherd is again a good example -- the reasons are right there on the surface. There's an obvious plot: Shepherd's works are a detailed attack on Hume's theory of causation and Berkeley's idealism, in which she builds her own (very interesting) account of causation and the external world. (In fact, one of my ongoing projects at the moment is to look at the sequence Suarez-Malebranche-Hume-Shepherd on causation, where each person in the chain criticizes the causal views of the person situated immediately prior in the chain.) And Shapiro rightly notes that historical work in the philosophy of education can't ignore the fact that women -- Masham, Astell, and Wollstonecraft are especially noteworthy -- were major contributors to the discussion.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Several Kinds of Triumph

Today is the anniversary of Emily Dickinson's birth, and never content to celebrate only one thing when I can celebrate two, it seems fitting to put up one of her poems.

A triumph may be of several kinds.
There's triumph in the room
When that old imperator, Death,
By faith is overcome.

There's triumph of the finer mind
When truth, affronted long,
Advances calm to her supreme,
Her God her only throng.

A triumph when temptation’s bribe
Is slowly handed back,
One eye upon the heaven renounced
And one upon the rack.

Severer triumph, by himself
Experienced, who can pass
Acquitted from that naked bar,
Jehovah's countenance!

In fact, let's put up another.

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met at night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Joy in the Light of His Majesty

Put off, O Jerusalem, the garment of thy mourning, and affliction:
and put on the beauty, and honour of that everlasting glory
which thou hast from God.

God will clothe thee with the double garment of justice,
and will set a crown on thy head of everlasting honour.
For God will shew his brightness in thee,
to every one under heaven.
For thy name shall be named to thee by God for ever:
the peace of justice, and honour of piety.

Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high:
and look about towards the east,
and behold thy children gathered together
from the rising to the setting sun,
by the word of the Holy One
rejoicing in the remembrance of God.

For they went out from thee on foot, led by the enemies:
but the Lord will bring them to thee
exalted with honour as children of the kingdom.
For God hath appointed to bring down every high mountain,
and the everlasting rocks,
and to fill up the valleys to make them even with the ground:
that Israel may walk diligently to the honour of God.
Moreover the woods, and every sweet-smelling tree
have overshadowed Israel by the commandment of God.
For God will bring Israel with joy in the light of his majesty,
with mercy, and justice, that cometh from him

Baruch 5:1-9

Cockburn on the Obliger Argument

It may be helpful to take a moment to summarize the somewhat scattered thought so far. One of the things I'm interested in doing is looking at Catherine Cockburn's defense of the 'abstract theory of morals' (to use Hume's phrase) against what I've called moral positivism -- the position that morality, in the strictest and most proper sense, consists in the will of a superior. One of her more interesting opponents on this topic is William Warburton, who has a rather sophisticated divine command theory. Because of this he denies that atheists can, in the strict and proper sense, be moral; Cockburn argues against this claim. Understanding Warburton's divine command theory is useful for understanding Cockburn's argument.

To give the gist of Warburton's argument we need to distinguish between moral motivation and moral obligation. Warburton suggests a 'threefold cord' of moral motivation -- three types of incentives for acting morally.

(1) Moral Sense: We have a natural taste, capable of refinement, for moral action, and a natural distaste, also capable of refinement, for immoral action. We are charmed by morality, repulsed by immorality, at least to some extent, even setting aside any reasoning about consequences.
(2) Perception of Essential Differences: We have the capacity to reason about the differences between, say, malevolent actions and benevolent actions, and can see that one is as a rule more appropriate to a given situation; we are also able to see that, at least in the long run, for the most part, all other things being equal, etc., virtue has good consequences, vice has bad consequences.
(3) The Will of a Superior: We are obligated by moral authority.

Warburton thinks all of these are necessary for a complete moral life. The moral sense serves as the most general basis; it is something that both theists and atheists have, since it is a sort of human instinct. By reasoning upon the differences in the natures of acts, we can improve upon the moral sense by showing that it is not capricious but, at least roughly, captures the seeds of general moral rules. And this far, too, an atheist who reasons well might go. However, Warburton argues that reason shows another step to be required for a properly moral life, namely, obligation; and this requires a moral governor. It's obligation that Warburton thinks is morality in the strict and proper sense; we can call the having of any of the threads of the threefold cord 'morality in a broad sense'.

Thus it's important to be clear about what Warburton is claiming when he says that atheists cannot be moral. Obviously, atheists can be moral in a broad sense: they have the moral sense, and they can reason about consequences. Thus, Warburton concedes a rather robust moral life to the reasonable atheist. What he denies is that the atheist can consistently hold that there is any such thing as moral obligation. The atheist, just like the theist, can volunteer for virtue's army; but he can't say he was drafted, nor can he say that there's anything more to his volunteering than taste and calculation. The primary argument for this is what I have called the Obliger Argument. Obligation implies an obliger; we cannot, properly speaking, obligate ourselves; the atheist, as atheist, recognizes no moral obliger; so he can recognize no moral obligation.

Clearly, an atheist wanting to reject this argument would need to do one of three possible things:

(1) Argue that obligation is not a genuinely legitimate part of morality;
(2) Argue that there are obligations without obligers;
(3) Argue that we can, in fact, obligate ourselves.

Cockburn is not interested in the atheist's response as such. She does, however, want to reject the claim that morality properly consists in the will of a superior authority rather than in the perception of moral differences, and so is interested in the problem for this reason.

Her opening gambit is to deny the basic premise of the Obliger Argument, that obligation implies an obliger, at least in the sense the argument requires:

To this I answer, that in the common acceptation of the word, obligation implies only a perception of some ground or reason, upon which it is founded, but not necessarily a superior will. When we say a man is under an obligation to be grateful to a benefactor, we mean, that the relation interceding between them requires it of him; and so that he is obliged to do to others, as he would have them do to him, implies an equity in the thing, that brings him under such obligation.

In other words, Warburton's phenomenology of obligation is not quite right: we say that we are obligated to do something when we have identified a reason that requires it of us.

Her second move is to look at the sense in which we can say that reason is our obliger. Warburton had argued that if we say that reason obligates us, we are in effect making a person a self-obliger. To this Cockburn replies:

Very true, but it is just the same, whatever principle we suppose morality to be originally founded on; a free-agent must be always the immediate obliger of himself: Whether he judges, that the will of the superior is to be the only rule of his actions; or that he ought to act conformably to the necessary relations, and essential differences of things, or to his consciousness of right and wrong; or that a prospect of rewards and punishments should solely influence his actions; in either case it is equally the perception and judgment of the mind, or his reason, that obliges him to act accordingly; and this is so far from being an absurdity, that it is essential to moral choice and free agency.

We can, in other words, distinguish the obligation as such, from the immediate application of the obligation to oneself; and in the latter sense we are all, indeed, the immediate obligers of ourselves. This is true on any account of obligation whatsoever. But does our being self-obligers mean that we are able to dissolve at will any 'obligation' we choose to impose on ourselves? If that's the case, Warburton is right: this is not a real obligation at all. So Cockburn's third step is not surprising, since she argues that the sense in which we obligate ourselves does not mean that we can relinquish the obligation. While there is a sense in which we are self-obligers, the ground of obligation is our rational recognition of the essential differences between (say) murder and benevolence; it's only in voluntary contracts that the obliger and obligated can dissolve the obligation at will.

This, then, is Cockburn's basic response to the Obliger Argument. The weak point in all this, I think, is the first step: obligation is, indeed, in common acceptation a requirement following from a reason, but it's also equally clear that not all requirements following from reason are moral obligations, and that not even all very good reasons impose requirements. Warburton, remember, effectively distinguishes between moral motivations and moral obligations. This is a legitimate distinction, and the strength of Warburton's position is the difficulty in moving from 'good reasons to be moral' to 'obligated to be moral'. As Cockburn suggests, the distance between the two is not so great as Warburton likes to think, but that's not enough to show that it is traversable without appeal to the will of a superior. That would require, I think, a more systematic account of obligation than Cockburn generally gives. However, setting aside this weakness, the basic line of argument seems to me to be a powerful one. Warburton too easily conflates original obligation and immediate obligation, and this already takes him halfway to his moral positivism.

All quotations from Cockburn are from Catherine Trotter Cockburn, Philosophical Writings. Patricia Sheridan, ed. Broadview Press [Petersborough, ON: 2006] 140-141.

Darwin's Dog

Darwin, Descent of Man, Chapter 3:

The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences, is perhaps illustrated by a little fact which I once noticed: my dog, a full-grown and very sensible animal, was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and that no stranger had a right to be on his territory.