Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sankt Catharina mit dem Radl

Today is the Feast of Queen Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Great Martyr, patron saint of philosophers. The most famous hymn associated with the day, by none other than Adam of St. Victor:

Vox sonora nostri chori,
Nostro sonet Conditori,
Qui disponit omnia,
Per quem dimicat imbellis,
Per quem datur et puellis
De viris victoria;

Per quem plebs Alexandrina
Faeminae non feminina
Stupuit ingenia,
Quum beata Catharina
Doctos vinceret doctrina,
Ferrum patientia.

Florem teneri decoris,
Lectionis et laboris
Attrivere studia :
Nam perlegit disciplinas
Saeculares et divinas
In adolescentia.

Vas electum, vas virtutum,
Reputavit sicut lutum
Bona transitoria,
Et reduxit in contemptum
Patris opes et parentum
Larga patrimonia.

Vasis oleum includens,
Virgo sapiens et prudens
Sponso pergit obvia,
Ut, adventus ejus hora,
Praeparata, sine mora
Intret ad convivia.

Sistitur imperatori,
Cupiens pro Christo mori;
Cujus in prsesentia
Quinquagiuta sapientes
Mutos reddit et silentes
Virginis facundia.

Had I the time, I'd take up the old medieval tradition of delivering an encomium on Aristotle on this day; but I don't, so I leave it to you.

I hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving; I'll be out of town, but should be back Sunday.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mill on Inexpediency and Wrongness

Mill distinguishes expediency and right & wrong: they are two different departments of the art of life that is based on the principle of utility. But how, one might ask, does this distinction work? When you have determined that an act is not conducive to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, what more do you have to add to distinguish whether it is morally wrong or simply inexpedient policy? The answer would seem to be desert. As Mill says in Utilitarianism, Chapter V:

For the truth is, that the idea of penal sanction, which is the essence of law, enters not only into the conception of injustice, but into that of any kind of wrong. We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is a part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfil it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. Unless we think that it may be exacted from him, we do not call it his duty.

So what distinguishes morality from expediency (or, indeed, worthiness, since Mill goes on to add that -- I just noticed that this parallels the System of Logic division) on Mill's view is that morality is doubly supported by utility: there is the support that comes from recognizing that the action or rule is conducive to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and there is the higher-order support that comes from recognizing that it is conducive to the greatest happiness for the greatest number to attach sanction to it. In a sense we can say that utility governs every sort of 'ought' and 'should'; but there are many kinds of 'ought' and 'should'. I ought not take the 1L bus to get home; this is a practical judgment, and thus a rough judgment of utility. It is even a fairly good judgment of utility, because as a rule I shouldn't take the 1L to get home. But this is not a moral 'should'; and on Mill's view the difference is that it would not be conducive to the greatest happiness for the greatest number for anyone to regard failure to conform to this judgment as punishment-worthy. It is, on the contrary, entirely conducive to the greatest utility for us to consider deviation from the judgment 'I should not murder' as punishment-worthy.

This is related, I think, to two key features of Mill's utilitarianism, features that might at first glance seem to be in tension: (1) the fact that it places such immense emphasis on the importance and (relative) inviolability of good moral rules; and (2) the fact that it has so much tolerance for nonmaximizing, particularly in the forms of practical approximation, rules of thumb, and toleration of bad judgment. On Mill's view, if you have determined by utilitarian analysis that X is the best alternative, it does not immediately follow that it's wrong to do something other than X. To get that judgment we have to engage in a higher-order utilitarian analysis of whether we should regard failure to do X as deserving of punishment. If we don't have that, we've merely determined that it's better for me to do X than not; but simply having determined that doesn't tell us much about right and wrong, any more than I have learned anything about right and wrong from learning that it is better for me to take the 1M than the 1L to get home. If I take the 1L instead, that is not the best way to go, but I can still do something to bring me around to where I need to be; nothing of fundamental importance to society hangs on my being efficient or inefficient, competent or incompetent, on a matter like using the bus system to get home, despite the fact that one is better at getting me to my destination than the other. Similarly, if A is more conducive to the greatest happiness for the greatest number than B, it doesn't follow that I must do A; it could well be that B, although not as good as A, is good enough, and that in both ways I can work toward the greatest good for the greatest number, although in one way more efficiently than in the other, and perhaps in one way get a better result than in the other. For it to be the case that I must do A, I must show that the pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number cannot tolerate my doing anything other than A. Not everything conducive to the greatest good for the greatest number is equally conducive to it; some are slightly conducive to it, and these are expedient, but some are such that without them the effectiveness of my pursuit of utility goes almost to nil, or even worse, my pursuit becomes actively destructive of our ability to pursue utility, and these are obligatory.

Thus it is that on Mill's system moral rules, to the extent that they are more or less good judgments of utility, override almost every other utilitarian consideration; they are multiply protected. In order even to show that it would be better not to follow a moral rule in a given case, I would have to show both that in that case it would be contrary to utility to consider violation of the rule as deserving of punishment and that following the rule is more conducive to utility than the opposite in that particular case. If I only do the latter, I haven't undone the moral rule: the moral rule is still supported by its utility-derived sanction. If I only do the former, the moral rule is no longer obligatory, but it is still the better thing to do. And this, mind you, is just in showing that it would be better not to follow the rule in that particular case; even if I did both of these, it would still be permissible to follow the moral rule. To make it so that it is not permissible to follow a moral rule in a given case, I would have to show that utilitarian considerations require that following the moral rule in that particularly case be deserving of punishment. The circumstances under which well-established moral rules would not swamp all rival considerations would have to be very peculiar. It seems clear that such cases can indeed arise on Mill's view; moral principles presumably get refined by our discovery of new circumstances of this kind, which then leads us to modify the formulation of the principle so that it properly covers even these circumstances. But for the most refined versions of the most well-founded principles, one can in any ordinary circumstance regard them as virtually iron-clad.

Thus we find that by giving an account of how both morality and expediency can both follow as distinct departments from utility that Mill can both insist upon the immense and (for most practical purposes) total superiority of morality over considerations of policy and tolerate a great deal of deviation from the ideal pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And both of these, I would suggest, are actually very important to Mill's project of building a liberal society, since such a society requires recognizing the supremacy of considerations of justice over considerations of mere policy but also requires allowing a great deal of deviation from perfection. That makes it an interesting account, since one might have thought (and people did think, since Mill has to deal with arguments that are based on each) that both of these would give the Millian utilitarian some trouble. The moral positivism of making morality to be based on sanction, resulting in what is basically a secularized divine command theory, is not something appeals to me; but I find it interesting how Mill manages to handle so much with such a simple account of such a simple distinction.

Notes and Links

* Chad Orzel puts his blade into the view that the many-worlds interpretation in physics has moral implications. That's one of my pet peeves from the philosophical side, too. A very serious problem in scientific popularization is the fact that people analogize scientific theory -- and I do mean people, since you will find professional scientists doing it, too, although they generally are more restrained because they understand more of the theory. Quantum mechanics, because it is so difficult to understand, is going to give us philosophical absurdities for a long time to come, through no fault of its own, because people will draw conclusions from it, not based on the science, but on a vague sense of how the claims of quantum mechanics when converted into colloquial language seem analogous to something else entirely.

* Rachel Motte has been blogging Plato at "The Evangelical Outpost":
Plato Blogging: The Phaedo
Who Killed Shatner?

* You may or may not know that Ted Turner was a classics major in college. What is interesting is that he continued to be so despite the fact that his father was horrified by the idea and berated him for it (PDF). Wow.(ht)

* Follow along with Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. (ht)

* It has been a while since I've given a link to Rebecca Stark's Theological Term of the Week series, which has grown splendidly. I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is perhaps no better place on the web than Rebecca Writes for getting the basics of Calvinist theology.

* Stephen Matheson has begun a series critiquing Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny

* Ben Witherington discusses my favorite book of the Bible: The Rhetorical Character of Hebrews.

* John Wilkins at "Evolving Thoughts" has some interesting comments on my recent post on incantatory appeals to truth, and how this might relate to science. In doing so he seems to have landed himself in a debate about scientific realism and anti-realism!

* David Mazella at "The Long Eighteenth" also considers a recent post here, namely, the one on history of philosophy, networks, and problems; in particularly, he considers possible analogies between HoP and literary or cultural studies

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Quas Primas

This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.

From Quas Primas; on this day the Feast of Christ the King in the year of our Lord 2008.

Children's Classics

Jody Bottum has an essay at First Things on children's classics. I find much of the argument mystifying, a sign that Bottum and I have very different tastes and standards in this area. (It is an interesting question, though, why, of all the many Robinsonades, The Swiss Family Robinson has done so well. And I think in this regard it has benefited from the fact that it was not written to be published, and therefore was not written to fit any expectations about what it should involve. Jules Verne, a much better writer in general than Wyss, wrote several Robinsonades; despite his ingenuity, they pale in comparison, because The Swiss Family Robinson is not just a Robinsonade: it subtly combines realism with sheer fantasy. Verne writes his Robinsonades to underline the engineering ability of the human mind; but Wyss's family finds a way to use sea turtles as boat motors. In Verne you get people who overcome a real wilderness. You get the idea of what Wyss's wilderness is from the fact that the family is greeted to the island by penguins and flamingoes, and this is one of the least improbable conjunctions in the book.)

Bottum argues that we are living in a golden age of children's literature:

J.K. Rowling’s success doesn’t just give us a recent series to add as an incidental to the received canon. It also gives us a chance to rewrite the entire list of classic children’s books we’re all supposed to know—for Rowling makes visible the fact that we are actually living now in a golden age of children’s ­literature.

This strikes me as a immensely improbable. There are certainly some good, readable works around; but in the majority of cases it is difficult to say whether this is because they are good works or because they fit our tastes well. A golden age for children's literature is measured by its classics -- and a classic is something that can be read over and over again, even while the tastes of society change. Our era is good at producing books sufficiently to people's taste that they can be read over and over again; but whether they can survive changes in taste is another question. Whether we are really producing any children's classics is a question that will only be settled for sure long after any of us are dead. But the odds are rather considerably against us to begin with, and our ships of the line exhibit failings that may eventually founder them: Rowling is fun, but much of the fun has to do with her playing on features of contemporary life that may change; Pullman is striking, but he has a taste for moral themes whose appeal may well require a very peculiar sort of culture, one very much like ours; Lemony Snicket is clever, but the cleverness, like Rowling's fun, plays on features of our life and culture. Of course we find ourselves charming, and there have been some excellent writers to display ourselves to ourselves in the most charming lights. But whether or not we produce any real children's classics will depend heavily on whether other people can find us charming. It is not so very clear that they will.