Friday, April 17, 2009

A Society of Partisan Hacks

An interesting discussion at FiveThirtyEight:

A good example comes from the research of Larry Bartels. He analyzed a 1988 survey that asked “Would you say that compared to 1980, inflation has gotten better, stayed about the same, or gotten worse?” Amazingly, over half of the self-identified strong Democrats in the survey said that inflation had gotten worse and only 8% thought it had gotten much better, even though the actual inflation rate dropped from 13% to 4% during Reagan’s eight years in office. Republicans were similarly biased about the Clinton-era economy: in 1996, a majority of Republicans thought that the budget deficit had increased. This partisan filter was also evident after the Democrats’ retaking of Congress in 2006. Research by Alan Gerber and Greg Huber shows that Democrats became much more optimistic, and Republicans more pessimistic, about the national economy.

Views about foreign policy manifest a similar bias. For example, from 1965 through 1968, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to support the Vietnam War, but starting in 1969, it was the Republicans who were (slightly) more hawkish.

Could such biases be a product of the relatively mild economic conditions of the past twenty years? Early returns from 2008 and 2009 suggest that partisan biases still operate. According to Gallup Poll data from just before the November election, 20% of Republicans and 8% of Democrats were “satisfied with the way things were going in the United States.” Immediately after Obama’s inauguration, the parties flipflopped: 18% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans expressed satisfaction. That gap has only grown. In February polls, 20% of Democrats but only 10% of Republicans expressed satisfaction.

Can Nemesis Be Virtuous?

An interesting instance of Thomas Aquinas explicitly refusing to follow Aristotle:

Thirdly, one may grieve over another's good [aliquis tristatur de bono alterius], because he who happens to have that good is unworthy of it. Such sorrow as this cannot be occasioned by virtuous goods, which make a man righteous, but, as the Philosopher states, is about riches, and those things which can accrue to the worthy and the unworthy; and he calls this sorrow nemesis, saying that it belongs to good morals [pertinet ad bonos mores]. But he says this because he considered temporal goods in themselves, in so far as they may seem great to those who look not to eternal goods: whereas, according to the teaching of faith, temporal goods that accrue to those who are unworthy, are so disposed according to God's just ordinance [ex iusta Dei ordinatione disponuntur], either for the correction of those men, or for their condemnation, [vel ad eorum correctionem vel ad eorum damnationem] and such goods are as nothing in comparison with the goods to come, which are prepared for good men. Wherefore sorrow of this kind is forbidden in Holy Writ.

Summa Theologiae II-II.36.2. The idea seems to be that Aristotle would be right in thinking that nemesis belongs ad bonos mores, if he had a correct conception of human good; he was misled by appearances. This would be consistent with what seems to have been the standard view, found in Boethius, for instance, that while temporal goods like money may accrue by chance in the hands of the unworthy, in the bigger picture of divine providence one finds that this very fact is the beginning of either a punishment that either corrects or destroys the unworthy. As Boethius paradoxically puts it, all fortune, whatever it may be, is good fortune to the just and bad fortune to the unjust. On such a view nemesis is always out of place because the facts that would be required for it to be good never in fact obtain. But in light of other things St. Thomas says one might also read it as saying that while nemesis is a passion everyone experiences, on its own it is defective in such a way that Christians are required not to indulge in it but rein it in by the virtue of mercy (misericordia), which looks at matters in light of divine things. Perhaps there is a distinction of sense that would clarify matters; it may well be that 'nemesis', like 'pity', can refer to different things depending on whether we are talking about the intellectual or sensitive appetite.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Noted Notables, Linked Linkables

* Sally Haslanger, "But Mom, Crop-Tops are Cute!": Social Knowledge, Social Structure, and Ideology Critique (PDF)
Rachel Evans, The Rationality and Femininity of Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen

* Turretinfan discusses Turretin on middle knowledge: Part I, Part II, Part III. Basic Summaries: Part I, Part II, Part III. There are more coming. I'll try to put them up as they come online.
ADDED LATER: Part IV. Summary of Part IV. Part V. Summary of Part V. Part VI. Summary of Part VI.

* Mr. Weathervane has become Christian again. Joy among the angels and all that, but Wilson, like the winds of God, moves hither and thither and every which way. My prayers are that he'll be settling down for a bit.

* This has been going around the blogs recently, and rightly so: Susan Boyle shows the world what real singing talent is. It's quite a nice story, actually. Boyle, a church-going Catholic, apparently used to sing in the church choir, but had mostly stopped singing after her mother died a couple of years ago. But when she had a chance to go on television, she decided that she'd go ahead and do it as a sort of tribute to her mother, who had been a fan of the show. She is an example not merely of talent, impressive though her talents may be, but true grace.

* A short story I haven't yet had a chance to read, but certainly will: John Farrell, A Circle of Cypresses.

* Diana Schaub discusses Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

* Eliezer Yudkowski considers the question of why 'rationalist' forums tend to tilt heavily male. Of course, any outsider would suggest immediately that perhaps it's because intelligent women generally are more rational than the sort of people who participate in such forums; but to his credit, Yudkowski at least recognizes that possibility, even if it is never really faced squarely in the comments. One obvious problem with both OB & LW is that, setting aside a few people who are clearly in it partly to improve themselves, it's a collection of people with obvious biases and prejudices that they are (apparently) not bothering to examine, who are telling other people that they are biased and prejudiced, or at least, who enjoy talking about how biased and prejudiced other people are. Posts like this, where someone raises the question of whether the people involved might themselves have some sort of problematic bias or prejudice that they haven't adequately examined, are rare. It's nice, though, that they aren't nonexistent; it means there's hope for them after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Three Poem Drafts


You say that happiness is pleasure,
days and nights of momentary joy;
your life is a deck of playing cards,
randomly shuffled, randomly dealt.
My life is the game, playing all cards,
winning or losing with a new-dealt hand,
and even if all of my cards are low,
there is joy in every ventured deal.
Which of us is happy, he whose hand
dictates his success, delight, and joy,
or he whose joy plays every hand?

Luis Amanecer

Luis Amanecer walked home one day;
the sun was shining and white clouds
littered a pale blue sky;
the grass, a verdant fire, played
with little daisies and some yellow flower
Luis could not have named.
It was half past four and he carried
a heavy cardboard box, filled
with trinkets slaves at desks collect.
His shirt, somewhat disheveled, gleamed;
his tie, a banner in a holiday parade,
flapped wildly in the wind.
It is a good day to be drunk, he thought
as he passed a little liquor store.
He went inside to get some scotch
and saw the woman at the counter,
flame-haired with bright green eyes,
looking somewhat bored, like a flower
that somehow had been planted by the wind
on some bare and craggy hill.
"Hello," she said. "It is a lovely day."
She had no ring; Luis looked down
at his own soft and ringless hands
and thought that, if it must be, today
was as good a day as any to be fired.
"Hello," he said in a rush of courage,
"My name is Luis León Amanecer."

You and I Have Never Touched

You and I have never touched
but our shadows have entangled;
the brushing of shade against my shade
was like the touch of angels.

You and I have never kissed
but we kiss the same spring wind;
Zephyr's kiss on my mouth begins
and on your lips now ends.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Not Always Actions Show the Man

In vain the sage, with retrospective eye,
Would from the apparent what conclude the why,
Infer the motive from the deed, and show,
That what we chanced was what we meant to do.
Behold! if fortune or a mistress frowns,
Some plunge in business, others shave their crowns:
To ease the soul of one oppressive weight,
This quits an empire, that embroils a state:
The same adust complexion has impelled
Charles to the convent, Philip to the field.
Not always actions show the man: we find
Who does a kindness, is not therefore kind;
Perhaps prosperity becalmed his breast,
Perhaps the wind just shifted from the east:
Not therefore humble he who seeks retreat,
Pride guides his steps, and bids him shun the great:
Who combats bravely is not therefore brave,
He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave:
Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise,
His pride in reasoning, not in acting lies.

Alexander Pope, Moral Essays, in Four Epistles Addressed to Several Persons, Epistle I.

The Escapable Thing

Thomas Aquinas once said 'Ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur - integritas consonantia claritas' and, although it is easy to form the integritas [and] to find the consonantia, the claritas is the escapable thing, the spark within the beauty that diffuses it with life and power, the motivating force of 'genius.' Perhaps it is the one excuse for beauty.

George Grant to Maude Grant (Letter 51), George Grant: Selected Letters, Christian, ed. U Toronto P (Toronto: 1996) p. 83.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Presuppositionalism and Bias

I'm not a fan of presuppositionalism; but this mangles it a bit:

Presuppositionalism (in some forms) hangs on the problem of induction. We cannot ultimately justify any of our beliefs without first making some assumptions, otherwise we end in solipsism. Christianity, then, justifies itself not on evidence, but on internal consistency. It is ok for an argument to be ultimately circular, because all arguments are ultimately circular. Christianity alone maintains perfect worldview consistency when examined through this lens, and is therefore correct.

Presuppositionalism is pretty generally based on the universality of bias, not the problem of induction; the problem of induction is not sufficiently extensive enough to ground the sort of argument presuppositionalists want to make. Van Til (although pretty much alone among presuppositionalists) does regard all arguments as circular; this is an adaptation of a point by Mill. However, presuppositionalists do not generally regard worldviews, even Christianity, as self-justifying (and, indeed, it is fairly common for presuppositionalists to argue that the most that can be established for any worldview is relatively greater probability); rather, one can say they focus on worldview self-defeat, and are only primarily concerned with internal consistency in a sense of internal consistency that would include transcendental arguments. That is, after all, why it is called 'presuppositionalism': its focus is on the consistency of the presuppositions we use in interpreting facts. The presuppositionalist denies that any of these presuppositions are 'neutral'; our biases are instead built into the interpretation of facts from the get-go, and to handle this systematic error, we are forced to root out bad presuppositions on the fly. This cannot be done by evidence alone; a sufficiently resourceful and ingenious interlocutor can re-interpret small collections of facts that (on your interpretive assumptions) are disconfirming according to his own interpretive assumptions, in light of which they would not be disconfirming -- since evidence is made to conform to assumptions used in interpreting them rather than vice versa, simply throwing evidence at an assumption is not going to do anything. The way we manage it is by pinning down the nature of our presuppositions and tracing out their ramifications to see if and when, in interpreting the massive volume of facts we have to use them to interpret, they (1) contradict each other; or (2) lead inexorably to skeptical breakdown; or (3) leave massive lacuna that make it impossible to defend important rational activities, like scientific inquiry or logical reasoning, from skeptical attack. That is the presuppositionalist theory, in any case; presuppositionalist practice is often less than optimal even on its own theoretical terms.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ethical Cartesianism

In general I tend to dislike arguments in which the phrases 'moral status' or 'moral significance' occur; such stilted, jargonish, roundabout phrases are usually a tip-off that we are about to be subjected to a truly dimwitted argument, glossed over with a phrase that, because pedantic, looks precise while it is really, because unspecific, imprecise and full of equivocation. Even fairly sophisticated attempts to use such concepts quickly begin to break down, and the arguments that founder on it are truly legion. This is especially true when it is used in debates over abortion.
Independently of any problems with the term itself, we should be careful of descriptions of pro-life positions that use the phrase 'moral status'; it tends to be much more popular among pro-choicers describing pro-life views than among pro-lifers describing their own views, which should raise red flags.

But I thought Richard's post, Pro-Life, Pro-Zombie?, was somewhat interesting, despite using 'moral status' as the linchpin; possibly, depending on what precisely was meant by the term, it could be reworked without it.

Many pro-lifers hold that an individual has moral status in virtue of its biological kind (being "human") rather than its particular cognitive qualities (being a self-aware "person"). But then, our counterparts in the zombie world are presumably still biologically human. They're physically identical to us, after all, and biology supervenes on physics. As far as biologists are concerned, they are "individual human lives" the same as you and me. So the bio-focused pro-lifer would seem committed to the view that non-conscious zombies have moral status. But that's absurd. (At least, it's absurd to think that they have anything like the kind of moral importance that conscious people do. Maybe complex physical structures can have a kind of value, like ant colonies, or New Zealand's pancake rocks. But I assume the pro-lifer wants to make a stronger claim than that embryos have the value of ants and rocks.)

I think it's a bit obscure here why non-conscious philosophical zombies would lack 'moral status' (however that may be glossed, or perhaps precisely because it is unclear how it should be glossed here). And this is perhaps what struck me as interesting about the argument, because it really is a revival of Cartesian animal-machine arguments in ethics, on new ground. And that is interesting in itself. (I also think Richard underestimates how much, in this day and age, many pro-lifers would be glad even to achieve agreement with some pro-choicers that embryos at least have some kind of value independently of their usefulness to someone.)