Saturday, November 25, 2006

Saint Catherine of the Wheel

In the liturgical calendar, today is one of my favorite feast days of the year, the Feast of Queen St. Catherine, Virgin and Great Martyr of Alexandria, patron saint of philosophers (and students and young women). As the Orthodox might say,

Let us praise the most auspicious bride of Christ, the divine Katherine, protectress of Sinai, our aid and our help. For, she brilliantly silenced the eloquence of the impious by the sword of the spirit, and now, crowned as a martyr, she asks great mercy for all.

My first year of blogging I celebrated with a St. Catherine's Day Pageant. And here's a version of the poem I wrote to celebrate the occasion:

The Triumph of St. Catherine

Behold the worldy-wise bent down,
the brilliance of the earthly minds,
the best of all the men who know,
all brought to shame, refuted all,
all answered with the purest truth
and conquered by a woman's word!

The vestige of the Spirit's power,
its print upon the sands of time,
is here, the maid, the queen who knows,
who overcomes the present age,
the darkness in high places!

They seek to break, the rack they bring,
to torture truth to fit their whims;
the rack she breaks. She overcomes!
God bless Queen Catherine, Spirit-wise!

They seek to burn, to turn to ash,
to make as nothing Gospel truth;
they set the virgin on the wood
and light the flame - she does not burn.
The flames can only purify,
but in God's love she is most pure.
God bless Maid Catherine, Spirit-wise!

Behold the godless Caesar's host
of answer-men and scholars wise,
all wordly men who serve the gods
of lucre, politics, and death,
bent down and puzzled by this truth:
The maiden, Church-like in her faith,
cannot be broken, cannot burn!

They bring the sword to pierce her soul,
it enters in her tender side
and blood flows out as with Christ -
she is a witness in her death,
she mimics Him in sacrifice,
a martyr true attesting truth.
The blood by which she lives flows out,
and she is born amid the pangs
of Christ who births us on the Cross
into His everlasting life!

All are silent, overcome,
uncertain what they saw that day:
the truth could not be made to break,
the truth could not be made to burn,
and blood itself, from stigma pierced,
seemed to witness to God's truth.

The vestige of the Spirit's power,
its print upon these changing sands,
is here, the maid, the queen who knows,
who overcomes the present age,
the darkness in the highest places!
She has the martyr's palm in hand -
God bless Saint Catherine, Spirit-wise!


There has been some discussion in the blogosphere of Pinker's recent essay on faith and reason in the Harvard Crimson. In the course of the discussion he says:

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for "Astronomy and Astrology" or "Psychology and Parapsychology." It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

I find the attempt to claim that 'faith' means 'believing something without good reasons to do so' very peculiar. As Alan Rhoda notes, it's not our colloquial sense of the term; it's not the way the term is used as a technical or quasi-technical term in theology. Aquinas considers faith to be the disposition to believe, understand as thinking with assent that is firm but not certain; e.g., we don't know what some good authority tells us is true, but we believe it because they are a good authority. Indeed, Aquinas explicitly insists that there are reasons for belief; they are the reasons inducing us to believe rather than merely suspect or opine. Many people, like Martin Luther, consider faith to be a sort of trust; and they would deny that it is baseless trust. Luther, for instance, explicitly tells us that we must first know of the mercy of God on good report, and that it is based on good reasons, namely, divine promises. Calvin says that having faith is having a constant assurance or complete confidence; in his metaphors, it is 'planting one's foot' or resting on a sure foundation. Nothing in any of this about believing without good reason. From what I understand of Islam, faith (iman) is usually taken to mean something like 'internal affirmation or acceptance of the claims of a good authority'; perfect iman is unreserved affirmation or acceptance of divine authority. And none of this seems particularly surprising or difficult to find out. So this whole trope -- faith is believing without good reasons -- seems odd. But I've come across it many times recently. What are the reasons for it? Or is this just another form of thinking by way of unexamined cliché?

(Incidentally, even setting this aside, Pinker slips up in the above argument by eliding the distinction between "ways of knowing" and things we are "knowledgeable about". Are we talking about ways of knowing, or are we talking about the objects of knowledge? The two can't be treated the same. Much better than this, his second argument, are his first and third arguments, which don't fall into this confusion. Since I don't have access to the report itself, which doesn't seem to be online yet, I don't know if the report has the same confusion.)

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Rigid Wise and Pyles o' Caff

I have been greatly amused by a recent dust-up at ScienceBlogs, and some of satellite weblogs, over the proper way to approach public education over evolution; Mike Dunford gives a summary of it with reasonable commentary, and John Lynch tries to remind people of common ground. As some have noted, this sort of argument really doesn't get anyone anywhere. It seems to me that some people on both sides would really do well to remember that, as it is with the Rigid Righteous, so it is with the Rigid Wise; and those congratulating themselves on their own superior rationality might be benefitted by reflecting a bit on Burns's "Address to the Unco Guid":

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.
Solomon.--Eccles. ch. vii. verse 16

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heap├Ęd happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences--
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What makes the mighty differ?
Discount what scant occassion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave)
Your better art o' hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop,
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o' baith to sail,
It maks a unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th' external consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination--
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human;
One point must still be greatly dark,--
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

I know by experience that the poetic rendition of the Preacher's sage saying is always worth repeating a few times whenever a quarrel arises; we always need to be reminded not to slight our fellow creatures for things that we consider to be "pyles o' caff" and "fits o' daffin'".

Thursday, November 23, 2006

An Ecosystem Game

A little game I came across, to play with the TTLB Ecosystem:

Date Game Was Played: 23 November 2006

Ecosystem Rank (at that time): 4406 (Flappy Bird)

Blogs in the Top Fifty Places of My Category that I Have Read (at least occasionally):

The Blog Ten Places Higher: 4396 - Photon Courier

The Blog Ten Places Lower: 4416 - One Child Left Behind

Blogs Within Twenty Places (Higher or Lower) that I Have Read (at least occasionally):
Geeky Mom

The Blog One Hundred Places Higher (if any): 4306 - No Oil for Pacifists

The Blog One Hundred Places Lower: 4506 - TKS on National Review Online

The Blog One Thousand Places Higher (if any): 3406 - Patriot's Corner

The Blog One Thousand Places Lower: 5406 - Ian's Messy Desk

Slifkin on ID

Rabbi Natan Slifkin recently had a good op-ed on the Intelligent Design Movement in the Jersualem Post. The article is behind a subscription wall, although you can read the abstract for free. The final paragraph of the essay encapsulates nicely a problem I had with the theistic enthusiasm for the movement from the very beginning:

Either God is everywhere or He is nowhere. But He is certainly not limiting His appearance in the universe to the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting system.

Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi, is the director of Zoo Torah, which is devoted to educating people both about the animal kingdom and the Jewish attitude toward it. I regularly get emails about Slifkin's essays, and I've always enjoyed reading them; there are several available on the site.

'We ought in all things to give thanks....'

Since November 23rd this year is both American Thanksgiving and the feast of Clement of Rome, this passage from First Clement (ch. 38) seems very fitting:

So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each man be subject unto his neighbour, according as also he was appointed with his special grace. Let not the strong neglect the weak; and let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich minister aid to the poor; and let the poor give thanks to God, because He hath given him one through whom his wants may be supplied. Let the wise display his wisdom, not in words, but in good works. He that is lowly in mind, let him not bear testimony to himself, but leave testimony to be borne to him by his neighbour. He that is pure in the flesh, let him be so, and not boast, knowing that it is Another who bestoweth his continence upon him. Let us consider, brethren, of what matter we were made ; who and what manner of beings we were, when we came into the world; from what a sepulchre and what darkness He that moulded and created us brought us into His world, having prepared His benefits aforehand ere ever we were born.

Seeing therefore that we have all these things from Him, we ought in all things to give thanks to Him, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Today Anglicans have a sort of feast-day for C.S. Lewis, who died on this day in 1963. So it seems fitting to post a passage from him. This is from one of his classic essays, "Bulverism" (of which, alas, we only have part in full, and the rest in notes taken down at a meeting of the Socratic Club where the paper was read), which can be found in God in the Dock.

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it "Bulverism." Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father - who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third - "Oh, you say that because you are a man." "At that moment," E. Bulver assures us, "there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall." That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Religious Tackiness

As some of you may know, there has been a big controversy over an IRS investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California; Rev. George Regas preached a sermon there on October 31, 2004 that has been accused of violating the requirements for maintaining nonprofit tax exemption, and, in particular, of endorsing a particular political candidate. The LA Times recently published the sermon. I can see why people thought it was a clear endorsement of Kerry, or at least a clear condemnation of Bush; I can also see why one would think it isn't. I incline to the latter view.

Reading it over, what strikes me most is that Jesus sounds an awful lot like a middle- or upper-class Episcopalian. I was once in Patzcuaro, in Michoacan, Mexico. Patzcuaro has a beautiful and important Basilica, la Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, the Basilica of Our Lady of Health. And, as often happens around important churches, a sort of bazaar had grown up selling all sorts of tacky religious wares -- insipid prayer cards, plastic glow-in-the-dark rosaries, rather silly-looking figurines. I bet a lot of people who visit that church are put off by the tackiness, and deplore it as a contrast to the church itself. They wouldn't put it this way, but what puts them off is the tackiness of the religious poor -- cheap, badly executed knock-offs of religious paintings, rosaries made out of the same materials you use to make stupid novelty items that are bought at your local dollar store, mass-produced figurines and refrigerator magnets. What they forget is that there are other sorts of religious tackiness, and most of the visitors indulge in religious tackiness themselves; it's just not obviously the same, because it is the religious tackiness of the bourgeois, and it is a mark of us bourgeois that we almost never see how tacky we sometimes are. The picture of Jesus in the sermon is like a picture on a prayer card in a bourgeois bazaar. In it's own way it's a Jesus bobblehead.

But the thing of it is: the judgment that something is tacky is not a spiritual evaluation. Tackiness is a fault of no religious significance. The spirit that makes the little ongoing market outside the Basilica thrive is the same spirit that decks Nuestra Señora in the bright and festive gown and train of blessing. It is the same spirit that attends the Basilica not as a tourist attraction but as an act of devotion. And so it is here, as well. And this is an important thing to keep in mind. For as I look out at the common criticisms of the 'Religious Right' by the 'Religious Left', and of the 'Religious Left' by the 'Religious Right', I am struck by how many of those criticisms are just elaborate ways of saying something that's usually not explicitly said but clearly meant, that those people over there -- whether we call them Right or Left -- are being tacky.

And they certainly are. And it's certainly irrelevant to everything important that we are doing. It most certainly is not a substantive criticism.

Three Poem Drafts

Before the Storm

I took a walk before the storm,
feeling the electric charge in the air,
while the dark clouds glowered above,
grumbling like old Presbyterians.
Here and there the lightning flashed;
moonlight-bright, it pierced the eyes,
enchanting them with sudden lunacy.


Would that I were written in ink purpureal and gold,
a book crafted for the ages, imperial and bold;
but I fear it's not to be. The simple black and white
flash across the page, are gone in a day and night,
evermore forgotten, remembered nevermore,
save as a line in a catalog behind a library door.


In the windy east the moon will wax,
the wheel of time is turning;
in the south, the subtle south,
a fuller moon is burning;
in the west, where wanes the moon,
all things wisely flow;
in the north, where moon is new,
the mountains all things know.

A willow wand the sunrise spring
remembers and recalls;
the summer noon in all its light
upon the dagger falls;
a chalice filled with sunset dreams
in autumn pours out fate;
and on a winter midnight pure
the salt of ages waits.

Life around my spirit rings;
raise your voice and gladly sing!
Sing, O maidens of the world!
sing, O mothers wise!
Sing, O widows wise and bold!
The world is in your eyes!

Sing, O winds that blow and breathe,
sing O flame that sparks and seethes,
sing, O waters filled with worth,
sing, O pillars of the earth!

Nature is a circle round
for which no border can be found;
mark the center, measure fair:
everything will be found there.
The central point of what may be
is every creature living free,
and every power great and bold,
and every element deep and old.
And every center has four ways
to mark the field in which it plays:
east, and south, and west, and north,
from the center each goes forth,
and everything, wherever it be
may its truest homeland see
by calling forth a hallowed place,
by living in a sacred space.

Cloud of Unknowing

But now thou askest me and sayest, "How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?" and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: "I wot not."

For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for thing that befalleth.

Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 6


With this ranking tool you can find out how far you are from the blogging A-list.

C-List Blogger

Not bad for what is effectively just a publically accessible notebook for my thoughts.

[Ht: PZ Myers, an A-lister who rebels against the pink. And the A.]

Monday, November 20, 2006

Government Neutrality and the Good Life II

In the previous post I summarized Murphy's recent arguments on a weak Devlin-type argument against the principle of government neutrality. It presented two basic reasons to think that principles of government neutrality are problematic, which I'd summarize in the following ways:

(1) A liberal or free society is one that, at least in part, recognizes basic rights. It's not possible to treat all our possible rights as equal; we have to select and choose, and, even if only for practical purposes, it is necessary to privilege some over others. This set of privileged basic rights is not something that can be delivered from on high; it's something that the free society must work out together over time. However, to do so we need to be able to argue and reason about the relative merits of these rights, and it appears we cannot do so without appeal to what makes life good, meaningful, etc. And this is as much as to concede that the state cannot be neutral on the good life. To take a stand in favor of basic rights is to take a stand on the good life; and in a free society that's exactly what we want and need our government to do: take a stand in favor of basic rights.

(2) Our sense of the rightness or goodness of our nation's laws seems to depend in part on regard for certain virtues and repugnance to certain vices. Thus, we tend to think repentant criminals should be treated more leniently than unrepentant ones, and that criminals who committed the crime in a way suggesting malice should be more severely punished than criminals who committed much the same crime but without the malice. It would appear, then, that law cannot be blind to personal character, even if it turns out that character (as it seems it does) that personal character is only one of many, many things that must be considered in the making and applying of laws.

I think both of these arguments are quite right; they might need development in places, but they seem to me to be on the right track. The state cannot ignore the problem of the good life; and it cannot be blind to personal character. The problem with legal moralism, I take it, is its failure to make an adequate distinction between means and ends. To regard our government as being invested with any sort of authority, we have to regard it as having some sort of moral right to exercise the authority, or, at least, we have to regard it as not being in irreparable violation of the moral conditions for that authority. This means that moral considerations are at the very heart of government life. And since the government of a free society does not exist independently of the people, the sort of moral considerations that are relevant to the existence of government are those that enable society to continue and that make it possible for people to act morally. To put it in other terms: there are real moral ends that government must subserve. These moral ends -- things like justice, domestic tranquillity, and more -- cannot be ignored; and when we ask why they can't be ignored, our primary response will always have to be that they are at least the rudiments of the good life. Where legal moralism goes astray is not making a distinction between these ends and purported means to them. One might try to argue that the government should be conservative about slavery in a slave-based society because that favors the national object of domestic tranquillity; that at least would be an argument (short-sighted, since there are even stronger arguments from domestic tranquillity in the other direction; but, at least, worth addressing and, if sincere, worth addressing civilly). But if someone tried to argue that the government should be conservative about slavery because a lot of people think slavery is OK, that would hardly be worth taking seriously. Similarly, even if you think it completely wrong-headed, based on inadequate grasp of facts or inadequate understanding of moral ends and what counts as a family, you can see how a sincere argument that gay marriage should be illegal because the preservation of the family is a moral end of society might be worth the trouble of a careful response. An argument that gay marriage should be illegal because a lot of people think homosexuality is wrong seems, on the other hand, to be missing the point of government completely. Even in a democratic society, perhaps especially in a democratic society, not every commonly held belief can be given the force of law, because that would not subserve the moral ends in view of which we regard governments as having the right, or at least permission, to act authoritatively. To put it in other terms: legal moralism just as quickly runs afoul of basic rights as government neutrality, and perhaps more obviously. To adapt the phrase made famous by Devlin, the rights of 'the man on the Clapham bus' have to be preserved -- whichever man he may be, and regardless the beliefs of the other men on the Clapham bus.

Legal moralism, then, considered as the view that there is no area of morality into which the state may not (under at least some circumstances) enter, still needs to be rejected; and one way to characterize this need to reject it is that it requires a state that concerns itself with morality in society but is itself wholly amoral. Once we concede the existence of basic rights -- even if we do not always agree on everything about them, and even if each society chooses different things to privilege as basic rights -- the state clearly is barred from certain areas of morality. If people have the right to speak freely in ways that don't directly endanger others, the government cannot enter the area of morality of speech (where the speech in question doesn't directly endanger others). If people have the basic right to have their homes preserved inviolate whenever warrants are not issued and reasonable procedures are not followed, the state cannot enter the area of morality in the home when the matter does not practically admit of warrants and reasonable procedures. There are areas of morality the state cannot enter; and in every free society there will be such areas, even if the precise boundaries of those areas shift a bit from society to society.

At the same time, however, government neutrality is impossible: not only does the government of a free society have to take some stand on the good life, its very authority for the people -- surely a key element of government in a free society -- depends crucially on its doing so. One of things that perhaps makes the principle plausible is our tendency to think of a 'conception of the good life' as a unified thing. But it never is, except at a very abstract level. Of course, today and tomorrow there are certain very general features that are necessary for the good life -- being unoppressed, not oppressing others, being relatively safe, doing something to make the lives of others better -- but the specific form that these features take will vary incredibly according to what I'm actually doing. Further, the values or ends exemplified by the good life are a very diverse multitude; I may have a great life if certain of these values or ends are considered, but this might require qualification in light of other values or ends. And since the good life with which the government is concerned is not its own, but that of the people, and, what is more, not that of any one person but of (at least ideally) all the people, it seems clear that the government's contribution to the good life will necessarily be piecemeal and that the government will not and cannot be the only contributing factor to any of these ends. When this is recognized, much of the implausibility of a government concerned with the good life disappears: it's a government that encourages the health, prosperity, and virtue of its citizens, but does so in a way that recognizes that it is not omnicompetent, that it cannot give the citizens the good life but only facilitate their having it, that it cannot even do that except in ways that don't infringe their rights (for the obvious reason that you can't facilitate the good life by eliminating key elements of it).

And that, perhaps, is not an unrecognizable ideal.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Government Neutrality and the Good Life I

I have been thinking for a while about what I want to write for the first edition of the Carnival of the Citizens. On the one hand, there are about a jillion topics one could write about, and on the other, they are all complicated, and writing about them in a spirit of reflection and deliberation requires navigating some of the complexity.

The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association regularly publishes addresses given by the Presidents of its three divisions; and one of those in the most recent issue was Jeffrie G. Murphy's "Legal Moralism and Retribution Revisited." The address will also appear in the inaugural edition of the journal Criminal Law and Philosophy. So I thought I'd summarize part of the argument of the article, and use that as a springboard for my own thoughts about society and the common good.

The article tells the story of Murphy's intellectual journey on the subject of punishment, and starts in the mid-sixties with the then-dominant debates in philosophy of law: the debate over legal moralism, and the arguments over the degree to which accounts of punishment based on the notion of retribution were consistent with accounts of punishment based on consequentialism. I'll be setting the latter aside in order to focus on the former.

The debate over legal moralism had at its core the dispute between Lord Patrick Devlin and Herbert Hart over the role that coercion could play in society. In his lecture, "The Enforcement of Morals," later expanded into the 1965 book of the same name, Devlin criticized what is often called the harm principle, a key liberal idea going back to John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The harm principle, roughly stated, is:

A society is not justified in coercing any of its members unless it does so to prevent clear harm (violation of rights) to others.

Devlin argued that, on the contrary, it was legitimate to use criminal law to enforce the norms and morals of society. A society is united by its values, Devlin argued, and those who violate some of these fundamental values -- e.g., through certain forms of private sexual conduct -- are undermining society in a way analogous to treason. The analogy to treason, Murphy notes, was one of the weak points of Devlin's argument; Hart famously replied that the claim that private acts of consensual sodomy undermine society was on par evidentially with the claim that homosexuality causes earthquakes. (For further on this debate, see the SEP article on The Limits of Law.)

However, Murphy wants to point out that Devlin's argument, if we express it more cautiously and carefully, does carry some force. When people argue, for instance, that this or that sexual freedom erodes the nuclear family, they may be incorrect, but it's not a silly idea; it merits a careful weighing of the evidence to see if it is, indeed, so. (It does identify what at least arguably is a harm to society; it's more amorphous than that found in the harm principle, but it's no more so than (say) some environmental harms than we have come to accept as meriting the sanction of law.) At the very least, the harm principle alone doesn't give us a clear reason why the law should never be concerned with such a thing.

One of the problems with Mill's harm principle, Murphy notes, is that it doesn't take the trouble to assess the social and individual importance of the particular kinds of liberty involved. Mill himself recognized that not all liberties are equal; but this does not register in the harm principle itself. How important is one form of liberty (say, sexual liberty) compared to another (say, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure)? If a liberty is relatively important, it's obvious that the state should show it is protecting rights; if it's not, one might well ask why it's so important to show that harm is involved. (Perhaps an example might make this clearer: A national park is established, and rules, with the force of coercion, are established in order to keep it intact. What harm, what violation of rights, are these rules preventing? It's not a very obvious, or very strong, or very direct harm, although I think we could agree that preserving a national park for future generations is a good thing. But because the liberties that are curtailed or limited are relatively unimportant, most people think it is worthwhile, given what you get out of it.).

How would one go about defending the harm principle against an attack like this? Mill's original defense of the principle was utilitarian. However, the problem with this is that it is very vulnerable to the type of argument Devlin runs, which is also in its own way utilitarian -- Devlin just identifies different sorts of consequences as the relevant ones. So philosophers have attempted to find a principle or set of principles that yields the harm principle (or something reasonably close to it) without falling victim to this problem. A very common approach is to try to tie the harm principle to some principle of government neutrality; the idea behind this being that the government, out of respect for its citizens, should not take a stand on the nature of the good life, or, at least, not enforce a particular view of the good life. It should remain neutral.

Murphy argues, however, that a Devlin-inspired argument can show that this line of argument appears to be inconsistent with two other values that are commonly held by liberals: what he calls fundamental rights constitutionalism and character retributivism in criminal sentencing.

One of the features that we all tend to associate with a liberal society are bedrock rights that are woven into the constitutional framework of the government. Now, there are a lot of different possible rights. However, we always privilege some possible rights over others (e.g., by actually writing them into law or a charter of rights and freedoms). And the reasoning we tend to use in privileging some possible rights over others is that these privileged rights serve to promote some basic human good, helping people to live lives that are meaningful and worthwhile. Murphy gives the example of Justice Kennedy's argument for sexual liberty in the Lawrence v. Texas decision. The natural way to understand the argument is to see it as an argument that intimate sexual relations are a possible part of the core of a meaningful human life, one graced with respect and autonomy. This contrasts with, say, the right to have jet skis; which is a liberty we tend to think derivative and recreational rather than fundamental. If this line of reasoning is to be accepted -- and it is difficult to imagine how we could go without the distinction between fundamental and derivative rights, however fuzzy it may sometimes be -- this is an argument against any principle of government neutrality.

A further problem arises with the problem of the role of character in sentencing. We often want to reduce the sentences of criminals who show genuine remorse and repentance; or, at the very least, we want to be able to take them into account when determining such matters. It's clear, however, that this introduces a matter of purely personal virtue and vice into law. The remorse and repentance of the criminal generally doesn't contribute much to society at large; it's a good, but it's not what we would usually call a public good. But once we let the door open for considerations of personal virtue and vice, it's difficult to find a principled way to stop. If nothing else, the person who wishes the law to take into account things like malice, repentance, lack of remorse, or anything like it, can't treat "Criminal law should not consider matters of personal virtue and vice" as a general principle, because such a person has conceded that some matters of personal virtue and vice should be considered in criminal law. What is more, they have conceded that people sometimes should be punished in cases where there is no victim and no rights violated -- for a purely victimless point of morality -- because they have admitted that an unrepentant criminal may be treated more harshly merely because of his lack of repentance than a repentant criminal. And if that's the case, both the principle of state neutrality and the harm principle seem to be out.

That's the part of Murphy's argument I wanted to summarize; I'll continue in another post with my own rough thoughts.

Links and Memoranda

Stephen Grabhill has a short but good article on Natural Law and the Protestant Moral Tradition. I especially recommend it because it mentions Reformed scholasticism, which people, Reformed and otherwise, have a surprising tendency to forget completely about. (Ht: CADRE)

Don't forget to submit something to the Carnival of Citizens. You should see something from me for this carnival in a day or two. The deadline for the general carnival is November 23.

Don't forget that the nominations are still open for the Cliopatria Awards. If you've come across any good history-related writing in the blogosphere over the past year, be sure to note it in the relevant category.

The 2006 Weblog Award nominations are open as well.

The I

There is a very interesting New Yorker article on Descartes by Anthony Gottlieb. I found this pasage especially interesting:

But is Grayling’s spy theory any more fanciful than the late Pope’s account? In "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (1994), John Paul II says that, for Descartes, "only that which corresponds to human thought makes sense. The objective truth of this thought is not as important as the fact that something exists in human consciousness." Later, in "Memory and Identity," published in 2005, John Paul II argues further that the philosophical revolution brought about by Descartes downgraded God and put the mind of man in his place: "according to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness."In other words, Descartes inaugurated a shift to a view of the world in which the "I" is the foundation of everything, and a selfish monstrosity rules.

Given that Descartes did not mince his words when attacking his critics—the writings of one French mathematician were "impertinent, ridiculous and despicable"; the rector of the University of Utrecht was "stupid," "malicious," and "incompetent"; the work of Pierre Fermat, the greatest mathematician of his time, was "shit"—one wonders what he would have said about John Paul II. For Descartes repeatedly makes it clear that his own existence (and, indeed, that of the whole world) depends on God, not the other way around. Those who suspect Descartes of rampant subjectivism have confused the style of his reasoning with its substance. Descartes cast his philosophical inquiries in an autobiographical style. He looked within himself. But there was nothing subjective about what he found.

Which is right about Descartes. I think Gottlieb is not quite catching JPII's perspective, though. Karol Wojtyla was a phenomenologist, and read Descartes in that light; more specifically, he read him in light of the major philosophical problem to exercise the great phenomenologists who gathered around Husserl: objectivity and realism. Read phenomenologically -- which is easy to do -- Descartes does look like Wojtyla claimed. There are good reasons not to read him this way, of course; but it's hardly fanciful, and certainly not as fanciful as Grayling's spy theory.

Disgust as a Moral Emotion II

Ophelia Benson responded in the comments to my recent post on disgust as a moral emotion. One of my responses to her comments got a bit too long. I recommend you read the comment to which I am responding. To sum it up briefly, we are discussing what role, if any, disgust can have as an initiator; and Benson suggested that it could do so as a source of hypotheses. My comment follows:


I do agree that it can be a source of hypotheses. The problem with this view taken as complete, however, is that it seems to eliminate entirely any serious moral role for disgust. As you note, hypotheses can come from anywhere. But if disgust is nothing but a source of hypotheses, not different from any other source, then there is no moral role to disgust at all; it is abstracted too much from any moral action. It has no more a serious moral role than any other source of hypotheses (e.g., random guessing).

A parallel might help. I see arguments like yours quite a bit from the anti-feminist crowd with regard to anger and indignation as moral emotions. The click of anger and indignation at mistreatment (of oneself or others) is allowed a place as an idea-generator, divorced from the action itself by the medium of general rules -- by creation of hypotheses, more or less, although I don't know of anyone who has put it quite that way -- and this is supposed to contrast with the more visceral place it has occasionally had in feminist consciousness-raising. The problem there, as here, is that it is simply a moral form of Cartesian dualism. A sharper division is made between passions and actions than can be seriously entertained. In fact, any passion is itself a reason for action; the only question is whether it is adequate for it given every other consideration that has to be in play. Reasons for action, after all, are defeasible; to that extent you're quite right that we shouldn't trust disgust alone, because we need to look out for defeating reasons for action. But that allows disgust to have a rather robust role as an initiator, just as anger and indignation can have a rather robust role as an initiator.

When feminists try to show you just how infuriating some aspect of society is, they aren't saying, "We have a hypothesis that this is a bad thing that should be tested." They are saying that, if we aren't ignoring some hidden factor that needs to be brought to the fore, the fury induced is itself consciousness of something wrong. When, for instance, you try to convince people that a particular option is disgusting by describing it a certain way, you aren't saying, "Hey, look here, I have a hypothesis, test it out and get back to me"; rather, the message you are conveying is, "Look, this is the sort of thing that should be shunned or avoided, and I think you can see that directly if you look at it in this light." And this, I think, is often the right sort of message to convey. Of course, it's quite reasonable to bring further reasons, and sometimes it would be unreasonable not to do so; but once you've conveyed that it strikes (at least some) people as disgusting, you've, by the very act of doing so, conveyed a reason for avoiding it, if possible. The qualifications ('if possible'), of course, are necessary; but they presuppose that passions like disgust are reason-giving.

I think the way to handle deviant disgust, as with the inter-racial marriage case, is not to pretend that socio-moral disgust is not a reason to act, but to insist vehemently on all the many and strong countervailing reasons. In other words, when someone exhibits disgust at the idea of interracial marriage the best route is not to deny generally that disgust is a defeasible reason, but to insist on its defeasibility and actual defeat in this sort of case by pointing out opposing and defeating reasons. Some of these defeaters are found in disgust at other relevant things (e.g., at the treatment interracial married couples sometimes get); others in other emotional responses; yet others in reasoning about our moral consistency. To borrow terms from Hume, we handle faulty emotional responses by giving people a more 'general point of view' through the 'intercourse of sentiments'. The fault arises from not having a sufficiently well-rounded perspective on the situation, from focusing too narrowly on certain aspects relevant to their own interests, while ignoring others. So, for instance, bigots zoom in on their emotional response to one particular feature of the situation, overlooking other features, the standpoints of other people, which would serve to moderate, refine, redirect, or completely change their response (depending on what, exactly, they are ignoring).

We can look at it from the other side, too. Suppose one of the spouses in an interracial marriage is confronted with an 'anti-miscegenationist' mouthing off vilely and feels a sharp response of disgust, revulsion, and anger. My suggestion is that those things are themselves, and on their own, reasons to act -- the fact that it inspires these emotions is, and should be, capable of legitimately grounding action. The question is not whether the spouse has reason to act; he or she obviously does, and no further reasoning about that is required, except to the extent the person in question has reason to think his or her emotional responses faulty in general (e.g., a mental health problem). The question is whether there is any reason for self-restraint, and it is this that calls for deliberation and reason. Someone who rejects the anti-miscegenationist's views vehemently on disgust alone is not being unreasonable at all, unless it can be shown that they've been negligent, overlooking or refusing to see some good reason not to act so immediately on their disgust. It would seem rather absurd, already responding to the vileness of the anti-miscegenationist with disgust, anger, and the like, to say to oneself, "OK, these feelings suggest the hypothesis that these vile insinuations and insults are wrong and perhaps worthy of punishment; we can test this out and get a peer review, to make sure, and then proceed to deciding our proper course of action." Of course, we might do this in more leisurely moments when we are engaging in general moral self-maintenance and improvement. But that can't be all of it, because it doesn't do justice to practical reasoning, nor to the role disgust and other emotions are capable of playing as defeasible reasons for action.