Saturday, July 04, 2009

Douglass on July 4, 1852

Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave's point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the profes sions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery--the great sin and shame of America! "I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;" I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

From Frederick Douglass's Independence Day Speech at Rochester

Campbell Against the American Revolution (repost)

A repost of a discussion from 2006, with some slight revisions.

Should the United States have seceded from the British Empire? There are, of course, two different questions being asked. The first is a moral or jurisprudential question: Was the status of the secession just, or at least reasonably justifiable at the time? The second is a utilitarian question: If we could judge the two timelines, would things have turned out better had the U.S. remained a part of the British Empire? I'm more interested here in the moral question. We have Jefferson's argument for its rightness, in the Declaration of Independence. But I thought it might be interesting to summarize an intelligent argument against its rightness, put forward by George Campbell. Campbell was one of the shining lights of the Scottish Enlightenment; his criticism of Hume in A Dissertation on Miracles and his work on rhetoric had a lasting influence on philosophy and on society. On December 12, 1776, which had been appointed a fast day for the rebellion in America, Campbell preached a sermon on the duty of allegiance, using the text, Meddle not with them who are given to change.

He opens by reflecting on national calamity, seeing it as a punishment for national vice: "National calamities we are taught to regard as the punishments of national vices, and as warnings to the people to bethink themselves and reform." The misery of a civil war, he argues, whether it be due to a usurpation of power on one side or a failure of obedience on the other, is an especially important occasion on which to reflect on our sins and reform. So Campbell calls for people on both sides of the Atlantic to take this attitude to the rebellion. War is an indicator of human failing and sinfulness; it is not merely a punishment, it is a natural effect of sin. The direct cause of every war is some sort of immorality on one side and "not seldom on both." Our response to war should be reflection, prayer, repentance for sins, reflection on the cause of the war, and the development of remedy for it. Not only this, but we must begin on this road as quickly as possible; because when people begin to go down an evil path, the farther they proceed, the more dfficult it is to stop them and set them on a better road.

With this as background, Campbell decides that, in order to make his own little contribution to the day set apart for this very purpose, he will try to show "the obligations which as men, as citizens, and as Christians, you lie under to give obedience to the powers which Providence has set over you, and not to meddle with them that are given to change; that is, to avoid giving your countenance or aid, either by speech or action, to the measures of those who would, on the slightest pretexts, subvert all established order, and throw everything into confusion."

Of course, in a sense he's preaching to the choir, and he fully recognizes this fact. The people he is addressing are, by and large, unlikely to have much sympathy with the rebellion. But Campbell points out that there are undoubtedly a few who might, and that it is easy for a few to grow into a many. Misrepresentations must be dealt with or they will spread discontent. Discontent tends to disaffection, disaffection tends to disloyalty, and disloyalty tends to revolution. It is better to prevent the malady than cure it after the fact. And, moreover, he wishes not merely to deal with the rebellion, but address its root causes by starting everyone on the small first steps toward reform. "Let us then, in the present great national contest, inquire impartially where the radical error lies; for that there is an error somewhere, is allowed on both sides." Campbell's inquiry proceeds by looking at two topics: the rights of magistrates and the grounds of the colonial war.

(1) Campbell begins the discussion of the rights of magistrates by reflecting on the dangers inherent in sudden and violent innovation of government. Good government contains within itself the means for legal and legitimate change. It is gradual, but gradual change, unlike sudden change, may be done constitutionally and with a view to the improvement of the whole society. In fact, everyone in power has a duty to engage in such reformation, "to exert the power which the constitution gives him, in such a way as will most promote the public welfare, correcting whatever is amiss, and improving whatever is found defective." But his primary concern in this question is how innovation is to be dealt with by the governed.

The general precept that the governed should follow is to obey those who govern. He admits that in cases of gross tyranny and oppression there may be exceptions; after all, most general rules admit of reasonable exceptions, so we should not assume that a general precept is exceptionless unless the nature of the case requires it. And in this case it is fairly clear that the nature of the case does not require it; there are exceptions every reasonable person would admit. We are obliged to obey and submit to government only because doing so is good for society; obedience is a means to common good. If government ever deteriorates to such an extent that civil war would be better for society than the continuation of the government, then (and only then, insists Campbell) could rebellion be lawful. It would have become an instance of self-defense; and self-defense is as legitimate for societies as for individuals. (Campbell, it should be noted -- and as he in good faith openly notes himself -- is going through all this trouble in order to disassociate the claim he is making from the doctrine of passive obedience. Passive obedience was a major issue in political philosophy in the eighteenth century. Berkeley, for instance, wrote an essay in favor of it; Hume wrote an essay against it. Berkeley's essay can be read here and Hume's essay can be read here.)

So the extent of the precept, that the people should obey their governors, is defined by the end or purpose of government, which is the public welfare. Note that the end here is that of the government itself, rather than everything the governors do in governing -- the precept is not that we should obey to the extent the measures put forward by the governors conduce to the good of society, but that we should obey to the extent that the governance of the governors in general tends to the good of society. While we shouldn't obey something morally wrong, throwing off obedience entirely merely because the governor errs or sins in governing is unreasonable. Most of the bad measures put forward by those who govern are nonetheless lesser evils than the total subversion of government would be. Even when the magistrate demands that we do something wrong as a part of the law, we are not always entitled to resist by force. When Christians were persecuted by the Roman empire, they did not resist by building armies to attack Rome; they resisted by affirming allegiance to Rome but refusing to obey laws they regarded as immoral. Even religion is not usually an adequate grounds for rebellion, although in rare cases it might be. Religious toleration, Campbell argues, is a natural right. Civil law is limited in authority by the impossible and the immoral; if you command a person to believe something he doesn't you ask the impossible, and if you command them to affirm something they do not believe, you ask the immoral. If violations of this right were sufficiently egregious, there would be call for active resistance -- both out of self-defence, and because such actions are detrimental to the good of the whole society, and not just a part, because they are self-subverting. The extraordinary circumstances would make the rebellion excusable. But it would be an exception to the general rule, a rule which we all must admit as a matter of reason.

Campbell goes on to note that the grounds for rebellion would not only have to be important and public; it would also have to be generally understood to be so. A handful don't have the right to drag the whole community into a war just because they think it needful. And if there is general and widespread doubt about the advisability of rebellion, safety requires that we stick to the general rule -- which is to submit to government. (Campbell further insists in a footnote that the right of the people to resist begins not with imagined wrongs but with real ones. The public is not infallible, anymore than sovereigns are. The necessity of the war must be real, and discernibly so.) He denies that the social contract provides any basis for an alternative conclusion:

I have not mentioned the original compact, one of the hackneyed topics of writers on politics. My reason is, I neither understand the word, as applied by those writers, nor know where to find the thing to which they refer. That there may have been politics founded in compact, I make no question; but the history of the world will satisfy every reasonable person, that in many more cases, perhaps thirty to one, states have arisen from causes widely different....As the matter stands, I consider it as one of those phrases which are very convenient for the professed disputant, because they are both indefinite and dark, and may be made to comprehend under them all the chimeras of his own imagination.

(Campbell's rejection of social contract thinking is fairly standard for the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume wrote an essay on that, too; he thinks it's as problematic as the theory of passive obedience.)

It is clear that rulers themselves can be the cause of rebellion; the rights and liberties of the people are as real and as much to be respected as the powers and prerogatives of the magistrate. So the question arises: What is the case in the colonial war? Is it due to misgovernment and tyranny? Has anything been done to justify violent revolt? Or might we say that "artful and ambitious men, both on their side of the water and on ours, had the address, for their own private ends, to mislead a people whom wealth and luxury have corrupted, and rendered prone to licentiousness and faction?"

Since he's only delivering a sermon and not writing a political treatise, he can't go into all the different details. He can, however, discuss what he thinks is 'the hinge' of the dispute: the right and authority of the government of Parliament to tax the American people. He points out that this authority is supported by custom; that this custom has always been considered constitutional; that the colonists, who had not yet discovered their "natural and unalienable right to pay no taxes, but such as have been imposed with their own consent" (as Campbell sarcastically calls it), submitted to these measures as part of their duty to government. The only real difference between then and now, Campbell says, is that they used to be poor and humble, and now were rich and arrogant. He points out that the colonial charters implicitly, and in one case explicitly, reserve Parliament the right of taxation. Everyone recognizes the right of Parliament to make laws for its colonies in other matters (e.g., criminal law). And he points out that Parliament had passed laws protecting the trade of the colonies even when it required restricting it on the other side of the Atlantic.

He then goes on to mock the claim (which we find in the Declaration of Independence) that it is self-evident that government should be by consent, noting that, despite the fact that something so supposedly self-evident has been undiscovered for so long, the people who make this claim never give any arguments for it, but only treat with contempt those who question it. Moreover, the claim is hardly intelligible -- what clear meaning can be given to 'consent' here that would not either be arbitrary or be inconsistent with government in general? The consent needed is obviously not actual and explicit; so it must be implicit and virtual. But any implicit and virtual consent would often be contrary to actual and explicit consent -- laws often are passed by duly elected and representative legislatures that are seriously disliked, even though everyone recognizes the prerogative of the legislatures to make them. So 'consent' here would be opposite to any actual consent. Campbell suggests that, because of this, talking about consent in this context can only be done with the purpose "to darken, to perplex, and to mislead."

The basis for all this "blundering," as Campbell calls it, is the confused and absurd notion that government can be compatible with limitless freedom. "The very basis of political union is partial sacrifice of liberty for protection." The notion is inimical to rule of law, or "legal government," as Campbell calls it. And it is inimical to free government, in which people are not only protected by law from arbitrary power, but are ruled by laws that tend to be conducive to justice and common good. Does the British constitution have safeguards to guarantee that, whatever its flaws, it is a free government? Campbell answers resoundingly that it does:

In regard to our own, That one of the essential branches of the legislature is elective, that its members must be men of such rank and fortune as give them a personal interest in preserving the constitution, and promoting the public good, that they are elected from all the different counties and boroughs in the island, by those who have a principal concern both in agriculture and in trade, that they are but temporary legislators, and may soon be changed, that the laws they make for others must affect themselves; these are the great bulwarks of BRITISH FREEDOM, as they afford the supreme council of the nation, the best opportunities of knowing, and the strongest motives for enacting, what is most beneficial, not to one part of the country, or to one class of the inhabitants, but to the whole.

He then argues that the principle that people should be self-legislating is obviously false if taken in a strong sense, because such a society would be anarchy; and if taken in a reasonable sense means no more than that people should acquiesce to the law for reasons of private and public good (in which case it is an absurdly misleading way to state it). He has a biting and important footnote to the published sermon in which he attacks the attempt to justify the rebellion by appeal to the natural equality and rights of men, in which he points out that the colonists keep slaves and mistreat Indians, and so really don't have the moral high ground here (and attacks Burke's intimation that they did). The footnote is worth quoting at some length.

It is indeed scarcely credible that any who entail slavery on their fellow-creatures, whom they buy and sell like cattle in the market (and some such, it is said, are in the congress) should have the absurd effrontery to adopt this language. If they really believe their own doctrine, what opinion must they entertain of themselves, who can haughtily trample on what they acknowledge to be the unalienable rights of mankind? Will they dare to elude this charge, by declaring that they do not consider negroes and Indians as of the human species? That they account them beasts, or rather worse, one would naturally infer from the treatment they too commonly give them. But I have not yet heard, that they openly profess this opinion. How well does their conduct verify what has been remarked with great justice of all those republican levellers, who raise a clamour about the natural equality of men, and their indefeasible rights; that they mean only to level all distinctions above them, and pull down their superiors, at the same time that they tyrannize over their inferiors, and widen, as much as possible, the distance between themselves and those below them.

Campbell allows that Americans are entitled to all the rights and privileges of British subjects; and that British subjects are entitled to be taxed only if they are represented in a broad sense. But he denies that they are entitled to be taxed only if they are represented in particular. The natural remedy for the woes the Americans imagine would be to allow them a few representatives in Parliament, and Campbell's OK with that. But, he says, they've always protested that possibility. It would be reasonable for them to want a modest fixed rate of taxation determined relative to the revenue produced by Great Britain. But they've protested that as well. What solution have they proposed themselves? Only total immunity, which is unreasonable.

Campbell's sermon concludes with the exhortation not to be angry at the people across the Atlantic, but to pity them. The unlearned masses who have been mired in this war by a few scheming men (on both sides of the water, Campbell still says) have ignorance as their excuse. Any guilt they might have is being expiated in the misery of war. Pretending to pursue liberty, they have turned away from it; they are wandering in the dark, without a clear destination. The people of Britain ought to pray that the God who calms the tempest will still the tumults of the people -- for their sake.

And that's Campbell's argument that the American rebellion was wrong: It was an attack on the principles of rule of law and free government, perpetrated by a selfish group of people out only for their own good and not that of society at large, justified by a dense veil of philosophical gobbledygook and the shockingly immoral presumption that you have the right to appeal to the natural equality and rights of men while enslaving your fellow man. It must be admitted that in a few places it has some bite.

You can read Campbell's sermon here.

Berkeley on America

America or The Muse's Refuge
A Prophecy

The Muse, disgusted at an Age and Clime,
Barren of every glorious Theme,
In distant Lands now waits a better Time,
Producing subjects worthy Fame:

In happy Climes, where from the genial Sun
And virgin Earth such Scenes ensue,
The Force of Art by Nature seems outdone,
And fancied Beauties by the true:

There shall be sung another golden Age,
The rise of Empire and of Arts,
The Good and Great inspiring epic Rage,
The wisest Heads and noblest Hearts.

Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heav'nly Flame did animate her Clay,
By future Poets shall be sung.

Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way;
The four first Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the Day;
Time's noblest Offspring is the last.

It was this poem, by the way, that led to a city in California being named after the Irish philosopher (albeit under an Anglicized pronunciation). Berkeley went to great lengths to gather together the resources for building a college in Bermuda for Native Americans. He even went across the Atlantic for it, although he never got to Bermuda, and crucial funds were never handed over to him. Instead he spent some time in New England, where he enriched the libraries of some backwoods colleges there called Harvard and Yale. When he left he also turned his farm over to Yale so that the rent from it could help support the tuition of three students in Greek and Latin.

Berkeley's poem is in a sense less about America -- which in the early eighteenth century was still more a matter of promise and hope than any definite greatness -- and more about the light of education; it was education, the possibility of the establishment of America as a "Muse's refuge," that struck him as being so full of potential.

'Weak Man' Arguments

About a year ago there was an article in Scientific American that claimed to identify a new fallacy, the weak man argument. I was not at all impressed with it at the time. But, of course, these things enter the mish-mash of popular philosophical folklore all the time, and here and there you find people uncritically accepting the article's claims about 'weak man' arguments as part of their notion of what critical thinking involves. I recently came across another mention of this, but this time with sensible things said about it:

However, I think there is utility in attacking a weak man argument when (1) the weak man argument is widely believed or distributed and (2) when there is an acknowledgment that the defeat of the weak man argument does not settle the larger question the argument was said to address.

Both of these points are right and admit of reasoned defense, so I thought I'd briefly say something about them.

Let's think about why philosophers always insist that people focus on the strongest rather than the weakest argument (even if they do not always comply with this themselves). The reason is that attacking a weak argument is not like finding the weak point on a chain -- break the weakest link and you break the whole chain. Rather, weak arguments are arguments that do the least real work. If you want to bring down a roof or a wall or a fortress, you can't do it by sapping the supports that aren't really supports; you have to find the load-bearing supports and bring down some of those. All a position needs is one thoroughly good argument; by criticizing the strongest argument and showing that it is not enough to support the position, you both remove the position's strongest support and, a fortiori, show that it is unlikely that anything else will support it either. But there are cases where you'll want to focus on criticizing the weaker arguments, anyway; for instance, if you think they are distracting people from more serious issues.

What norms govern such a case, determining whether it is a good move or a bad move? Not logical ones, at least primarily; demolishing a weak argument does nothing to undermine the position, and while a weak argument may have logical problems, very often the weakness will lie elsewhere -- e.g., false assumptions. Rather, the primary norms here are ethical. I've noted before that arguments have two aspects: their logical structure and their rhetorical presentation. When we are looking at weaker arguments rather than stronger ones, we are very far from considering crucial arguments for the conclusion, and thus very far from considering the conclusion in itself; our only concern is basic persuasion about the arguments themselves, and this is a rhetorical matter. But rhetorical matters, while they are not strictly bound to logical standards (since persuasion does not depend wholly on logical standards), are still governed by ethical standards. Thus the attacking of a weak man can be dishonest or imprudent, unjust or incompetent; it's not actually a fallacy, just one of the things you might be doing with an argument, but like any sort of action it can be done well or badly, rightly or wrongly.

We can therefore see the underlying basis for Steven Maloney's two suggestions.

(1) If an argument is widespread, it might indeed be reasonable to attack it rather than stronger arguments, if you are primarily concerned with eliminating that argument from the discussion (precisely because it is such a weak argument).

(2) But the weaker arguments are not load-bearing; that is, the positions for which they argue do not depend on them, and therefore attacking these weaker arguments does little to nothing to harm the position itself. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise, and therefore we can reasonably expect people who chose to attack the weaker arguments because they are more widespread to acknowledge the fact that they are weaker and that their criticisms of these arguments do nothing to address the larger question.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Two More Poem Drafts


He fell in love with a selkie-girl
by the shores of the waving sea
where the winds are trick and the moonbeams curl
in frenzied lunacy;
she danced on the wave with flawless grace
and she sang with the voice of a bird
but fairest of all were the eyes of her face,
which could rob Irish tongues of their words.
By the shores of the waving sea
lived the man with his selkie-wife
but neither steel nor love nor powers that be
can bind such a girl to that life;
for as sure as summer to autumn descends,
as sure as the lunatic raves,
as sure as the river to sea-tide wends,
so the selkie to the salt-drunken waves,
and love of a life to sorrow must fall,
leaving nothing but sadness and ache;
where breakers crash and seagulls call
the selkie-girls catch hearts to break.

Youth and Age

'Youth is wasted on the young'--
this is spoken as if truth,
but it is not true;
the young are wasted on their youth--
this holds a better clue
through mazy paths, and if we are bold
we will find an even better saying writ:
youth is only wasted on the old,
for the young do not yet remember it,
nor can they, as each day turns,
look back and learn from it,
its balms and burns.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Prince of Clouds

Charles Baudelaire

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traĆ®ner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.

You can find various translations of Baudelaire's "L'Albatros" here. What follows is not so much a translation as a 'take' on it in English.


Crewmen to idle time
capture great albatrosses
that glide over deep brine;
great sky-kings, now made awkward,
drag wings oar-like behind,
winged voyagers thus made weak,
once lovely, now ugly,
mocked as lame who once had flown!
The poet, prince of clouds,
rides the tempest, mocks bowmen,
but, banished to the mob,
his vast wings impede his walk.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Respect, Rational Scrutiny, and Circumstances

Peter Smith has a somewhat vague answer to a question about "respecting someone's beliefs":

And what if we think others are holding onto (say) religious or political beliefs that are dubious? Well, again the same applies: a stringent dose of scepticism is what is needed. (Which isn't to say that it is always appropriate or polite to try to administer it!) For if a belief doesn't stand up to vigorous rational scrutiny it really isn't worth having. So in fact the way to show respect for those we disagree with is indeed precisely to engage critically with their ideas and argue: which is, of course, how we learn to improve our own views. On the other hand -- and I take it that this is perhaps the thought behind the question -- the opinions of believers who try to insulate certain of their beliefs from such vigorous scrutiny, or who try to block open critical enquiry of their ideas, deserve no respect at all.

Whether this even makes sense depends very much on what is meant by "vigorous rational scrutiny" and "belief". If the first means "scrutiny showing that it is not arbitrary," which is not what we would usually mean by the phrase, and the second means "any sort of cognitive judgment in which something is definitely accepted," then it probably stands; a belief that doesn't stand up to vigorous rational scrutiny isn't worth having. Or to be more accurate, a belief that was not capable of standing up to scrutiny of this sort, whether the scrutiny was actually performed or not -- it would be absurd to demand actual scrutiny of every belief to see if it has such reasons, because then you would be demanding the impossible. You believe that your socks came from your sock drawer? What are your reasons for it? So you believe those are good reasons for it? What are your reasons for believing that those are good reasons for it? O, really; what are your reasons for believing that those reasons are good reasons for believing that the things you said were good reasons for believing that your socks came from your sock drawer really are? &c., &c.

So if we take "if a belief doesn't stand up to vigorous rational scrutiny it really isn't worth having" to mean something so weak and general, it's probably true. But we have lots of beliefs worth having that couldn't stand up to vigorous rational scrutiny if "vigorous rational scrutiny" meant something like a full-scale investigation involving "a stringent dose of scepticism", not because the beliefs themselves are bad, but because we would simply lack the resources for defending them against a "stringent dose of scepticism". How in the world could you ordinarily defend your belief that your socks came from your sock drawer from someone who was not willing to take anyone's word for it? That level of scrutiny for that sort of belief is itself absurd and irrational.

This sort of claim sounds good enough, and is almost certainly true in some meaning or other. But it depends very much on which meaning we take it to have. Likewise, the claim that "the way to show respect for those we disagree with is indeed precisely to engage critically with their ideas and argue" depends very much on the context and what is supposed to be involved in 'engaging critically with their ideas and arguing'. Someone who feels that he has to argue with everything he disagrees with until others agree with him is not respecting anyone; he is just acting like an idiot, and showing that he is more interested in his own beliefs than in the people around him. Sometimes the most respectful way to argue is simply to give your reasons for thinking otherwise, and leave it at that. Sometimes it's not reasonable or respectful to pursue an argument at all. The belief that a man was a decent and upright citizen may not withstand vigorous rational scrutiny; trying to argue his widow out of it at his funeral is hardly reasonable or respectful for all that. What counts as respect varies according to circumstances; this is true of any sort of respect. Likewise any sort of argument can be couched in insinuating or insulting terms that are not respectful, and even morally despicable, so how you go about arguing is important as well.

But in any case respect for those with whom one disagrees isn't precisely the same as respect for someone's beliefs, although the former may under certain conditions contribute to the latter. There are lots of reasons you might respect someone's belief even though you think it's wrong -- it might be very clever, very beautiful, very intelligent, very intriguing; even if probably wrong it still might in some way be worthy of serious and openminded inquiry; they might be an expert in the field, or very rational and reasonable people, and thus you would see their wrong opinion as nonetheless being one that has to be taken seriously because it's the sort of opinion rational and reasonable people are likely to have; etc. Indeed, you may respect someone's belief even when you don't respect them at all; we do it quite often, because the people we have difficulty respecting will certainly believe some things in common with ourselves. Most of us, I take it, regard our own beliefs as respectable; at least, the only time people ask whether they should respect someone's beliefs is when that someone disagrees with them.

But the question was a tricky one, particularly given how it was stated; I'm not sure precisely how I would have answered it myself. Smith was right to point out that it doesn't make much sense to see oneself as trying to "root out beliefs as much as possible". I would probably also have pointed out that, whatever may be the case for occasional contempt, regularly feeling contempt for people is neither reasonable nor morally healthy, regardless of what occasions it. And I would have pointed out that respecting someone and feeling respect for them are not the same thing; very often when you respect someone you aren't feeling anything distinctive at all, and sometimes you most definitely show respect for someone by doing so when they make it difficult to feel respect for them. And, of course, that respecting people and respecting beliefs are different things, however related they may be. It's difficult to find any fully adequate account of respect itself, however; and without that, we are still in dialectical mode whenever we talk about respecting beliefs.

Notes and Links

* There has been quite a bit of discussion about accommodationism and anti-accommodationism the past while. For those who haven't followed it, you can find it by way of Technorati. I'll summarize it so you are all caught up. With admittedly a few notable exceptions, the argument is between one group of self-righteous atheists and another group of self-righteous atheists, both preening themselves on their rationality, fiercely debating whether religious people should be treated like lunatics and fenced off or treated like idiot children and patronized. And that's about all of it, since the rest of it consists mostly of vague generalization, handwaving and sometimes logically inconsistent arguments, and agenda-driven claims without adequate evidence: tangible barbarie della riflessione. Debates between Boors and Prigs quickly cease to be of much intellectual interest and begin to take on the appearance of farce. Eventually one begins to realize that the whole thing might be moot, anyway; if the people implementing the policy are like the people debating, it's bound to be bungled regardless of what policy is chosen.

* Thony Christie has finally buckled to that fount of wisdom, peer pressure, and started his own blog. Christie is well known from the comments threads of various blogs around the blogosphere for leaving excellent comments on the history of science; so it's great to have him discussing these matters in a single place. Very much a blog to watch.

* Bora has a good post on the concept of a biological clock.

* Michael Liccione reflects on issues with petitionary prayer.

* I had intended several weeks ago to link to DarwinCatholic's The Vatican's Rifles, but somehow never did. It's about the M1868 Pontificio, the cartridge rifle manufcatured for the army of the Papal States prior to 1900.

* Arsen Darnay on philosophy and practicality (among other things):

In ordinary life people make distinctions between the practical and the philosophical. I hear people say: "Well, let’s not get too philosophical about that." This stance puts philosophy into an airy-fairy region of reality and suggests that it has no practical bearing, thus that it isn’t real. I note here that one does not encounter this attitude uniformly across the globe. It is the product of a culture. For a while, about fifteen years ago, I had frequent dealings with a number of Russian immigrants. These were ordinary people, not intellectuals. They tended to come alive precisely when "things got philosophical"; they valued that mode of thought; it stimulated them; they could and did participate.

* Kyle Cupp had a very good post on fatherhood recently.

* I didn't really say anything about Michael Jackson. I don't think he was a musical genius, but he certainly did know how to put on a show. And I can't help but link to what I think is the best music video ever made. It helps that I really like Vincent Price; and yes, despite Ron Rosenbaum's assessment otherwise, the song itself is quite good, although considered on its own not Jackson's best. And it's difficult to think of any other pop musician who could pull this sort of thing off. (I'm also mystified by Rosenbaum's challenge to name one post-Thriller song; the obvious response is "Smooth Criminal".)

* Sherry's Hundred Hymn List continues:

#76 I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
#75 Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It
#74 The Battle Hymn of the Republic
#73 Shout to the Lord

#74 is the first hymn on the list that was among my recommendations.

* Steven Hales with a quick guide to proving a negative.

* Christina Hoff Sommers responds to some of her critics. There are indeed a number of persistent myths running around feminist scholarship (this sort of thing is always a danger when philosophers deal with issues of immediate practical import); although, of course, there are criticisms of Sommers that focus on other aspects of her work besides her criticism of misused statistics.


* In the comments Vanna gives a link to what looks like an interesting documentary on Zen Buddhism.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I've always liked this passage from George Eliot (Middlemarch, Chapter 27):

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable.

Tollefsen on Hypocrisy

Christopher Tollefsen on hypocrisy:

But is hypocrisy really nothing more than the inability of persons to live up to their own moral code? No. Hypocrisy does not just involve disconnect between word and deed; it involves dissimulation, falsity in how one acts. The hypocrite does not merely make assertions he believes to be true about morality while failing to abide by them. He also makes false assertions, often by his deeds. He deceives others by creating the appearance of virtue while succumbing to vice.

Whitewashed tombs, as the saying goes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

As Blythe's a Bird in Spring

Gloomy, gloomy was the night,
And eerie was the way,
As fair Jenny in her green mantle
To Miles Cross she did gae.

At the mirk and midnight hour
She heard the bridles sing,
She was as glad at that
As any earthly thing.

First she let the black pass by,
And syne she let the brown,
But quickly she ran to the milk-white steed,
And pu'd the rider down.

Sae weel she minded what he did say,
And young Tam Lin did win,
Syne covered him wi her green mantle,
As blythe's a bird in spring.

From the Ballad of Tam Lin (Child 39A). I'm currently re-reading Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, a modern re-telling of the Tam Lin tale as a fantasy novel.

A Poem Re-Draft and a New Poem Draft


The birds are a-chirping, tweeting and twirping,
leaving their places, others' usurping,
bickering, quarrelling, with snicker and song,
their wings all a-flicker as their notes carry long.
As time measures beats and wind measures gusts,
the birds are a-bobble with a bobbing of thrust,
sailing and soaring with yearning and yaw,
snipping their prey with sharp beak and claw.

Shaded Isles

Alas, no more the morning light
will catch the eye and spark to sight
the verdant earth and azure blue
and every other rainbow hue
that vests the world and makes it bright,

alas, no more the morning light
will understanding's power fire
with vision and with heart's desire,
with waking thought and morning grace
as sunlight gladdens loving face;

instead the darkness, old and deep,
shall turn your eye and heart to sleep
and dreams no more shall haunt your brain,
nor tragic hopes, nor sorrow's pain,
but somewhere, lost in shaded isles,
your thought will stop and rest a while.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Open, Just and Honourable

Brett Holman notes that today is the 90th anniversary of the Covenant of the League of Nations. The prologue of the Covenant:


In order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security

by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war,
by the prescription of open, just and honourable relations between nations,
by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and
by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organised peoples with one another,

Agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations.

Parts of Speech

If you learned the parts of speech as I did in elementary school, you would list the following:


Reading William Lily's A Short Introduction of Grammar (for reasons too complex to get into here) I found that Lily, writing in the sixteenth century, also lists eight parts of speech, but his eight parts are slighly different:


Notice the vanishing adjective. This is because Lily regards adjectives as one kind of noun -- he divides nouns into two groups, substantives, which can stand alone, and adjectives, which cannot stand alone but must be joined to something. His notion of a pronoun is somewhat odd; of it he says only that it is "much like to a noun" and "is used in shewing and rehearsing." I'm not sure precisely what he had in mind with this last phrase, but it may have something to do with first, second, and third person. Verbs have mood and tense; he identifies six moods: indicative, imperative, optative, potential, subjunctive, and infinitive. Participles are both verbish and nounish without being completely either. Of course, Lily is thinking of Latin through all this; but he often goes back and forth in using English and Latin examples, and the same list is found in Alexander Adam's eighteenth-century The Rudiments of English and Latin Grammar as applying to both languages. And the same is found in Greenwood's The Royal English Grammar.

I suspect that the source of the standard list, given above, is Joseph Priestley, who, while sighing about the arbitrariness of choosing just eight, made some slight modification:

I shall adopt the usual distribution of words into eight classes, viz.

Nouns, Adjectives, Pronouns, Verbs, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Interjections.

I do this in compliance with the practice of most Grammarians; and because, if any number, in a thing so arbitrary, must be fixed upon, this seems to be as comprehensive and distinct as any. All the innovation I have made hath been to throw out the Participle, and fubstitute the Adjective, as more evidently a distinct part of speech.

[Joseph Priestley, The Rudiments of English (1772)]

An eighteenth century work, A Short Introduction to English Grammar, lists the following nine parts of speech:


John Brightland, however, decided to have just four:


Verbs are called affirmations instead because they all affirm something of something, which is logical enough: in effect, Brightland is making subject and predicate the foundation of his division. Prepositions are one kind of particle. Adverbs are another kind of particle; in fact, he regards them as collapsed prepositional phrases ('wisely' is just a one-word way of saying 'with wisdom'). Conjunctions are the third kind.