Saturday, March 31, 2007

Two Poem Drafts


The din and doom of the battle-drum
is sounding out to war,
the roads and ways are marked with graves
of those who marched before,
and we are warned by pages worn
of waste and wounds to come;
but yet the page in the drawer is laid
at the doom of the battle-drum.


Some are called greatly for great things.
So was he, his share allotted by one who saw,
to serve the Glory, to bear the yoke,
to plough the fields of harvest.
Miracles went forth, he healed the sick,
the demons fled, he preached the word,
he heard the doctrines no book tells.
He kept the purse of a prophet-king.

And am I more than he? Can I
boast a higher calling? A greater hope?
Far less the simple peasant
than a noble of the King.

He bore the burden; it swiftly broke
the very bones and tendons; he fell headlong,
his blood upon the ground.
And can I bear a greater weight?
Is cock's crow so different from a kiss?
The blood runs cold with an icy thought,
that all manner of men betray;
that we all betray, and all fall down,
and receive our devil's wage.

-->And here's a redraft (added later):

Scream of the Rabbit

Child-like, it screamed; he ran,
past bush and tree he ran.
Three times it shrieked and a fourth,
heart-rending, chilling, desperate-making,
its terror tearing soul-strings.
Blooded, it lay caught; evil teeth,
iron teeth, spring-powered fangs,
ripped flesh, tore tendon,
drew life out on soft fur.
He opened the jaws; a thankful head
nuzzled his hand for the kindness
and died, life flowing out,
eye losing light. He wept.
Vision crept around him, grief-bidden,
laying bare each soul,
each trap-seized, iron-teeth-bitten,
with heartache like dying rabbits's screams,
life flowing out, death coming on,
nuzzling kind hands that help
before death comes. He wept,
calling the world its true name;
its true name is Golgotha.


In the Anglican calendar, today is the memorial for John Donne.

Holy Sonnet XII

Why are we by all creatures waited on?
Why do the prodigal elements supply
Life and food to me, being more pure than I,
Simpler and further from corruption?
Why brook'st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou, bull and boar, so sillily
Dissemble weakness, and by one man's stroke die,
Whose whole kind you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe's me, and worse than you;
You have not sinn'd, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue;
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tied,
For us, His creatures, and His foes, hath died.


Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died."

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see."

Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, "See how He loved him!"

But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"

So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

John 11:32-38 (NASB)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Jottings on Animal Rights

Lee has a post worth reading on animal rights. I agree that the 'no rights without duties' line of thought is wrong, but for very different reasons.

I accept that animals have rights, but I'm inclined to think that moral agency is a better candidate for rights-making than capacity for experience, because there clearly are rights that are due to someone because of their moral agency -- e.g., just desert -- and it's much less clear that anyone has rights due to capacity for experience. The reason for this, I think, is that rights are objects of justice: to secure a right is to follow an obligation of rendering something its due. There are dues that follow from moral agency; but it's much harder to argue that there are dues following from capacity to experience.

Animal rights, if they are to be grounded in anything, have to be grounded in something very like what human natural rights are grounded, because they can only be natural rights. Since non-rational animals are not moral agents, we can't be indebted to them out of what they morally deserve. But basic human rights are not desert-based rights, either. There do appear to be basic human rights based on moral agency that are not due to desert but due to common good: insofar as we are joined with others in a moral community through our rationality, we owe fellow members of that community certain things because the common good of a moral community establishes a certain sort of justice between its members.

So the moral agency theory is not wrong in the sense that it fails to identify a basis for rights; at most it's wrong in the sense that it is incomplete. And this, I think, is quite right; it is incomplete.

Rights are objects of justice; to protect a right is to conform to an obligation to render what is due to the possessor of the right. So the natural question, whenever we are looking at the basis of a right, is this: What sort of justice is involved?

Consider a basic human right, natural and unalienable, like the right to life. This is not a desert-based right; nor does it appear to be a right that we have in virtue of some common good. Perhaps some people may deserve that their lives be protected, or the common good may require that their lives be protected, but, if so, this would be redundant; in following our right-to-life obligations we do not need to refer ourselves either to the deserts of the individuals or the common good of the community to which they belong, but owe them something regardless of what they have done or whether it conduces to the good of the community.

It is very easy to express this using a civil theology. This is, in effect, what the U.S. Declaration of Independence does:

...they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...

The idea being, of course, that there is a sort of justice that obtains between men that has as its object 'endowments' of the Creator; that this justice is not in any way optional or dependent on their being part of a community; and that this justice authorizes them to establish guarantees that the obligations will be met, guarantees like governments and magistrates, which secure rights. In any Lockean view, however broad it may be, this justice is a derivative justice; there is a due to be rendered to men because there is a due to be rendered to God. (The precise nature of this derivation in Locke is a very heated issue in Locke scholarship; and, of course, a broadly Lockean view need not regard the derivation in the same light Locke himself does. But any broadly Lockean view, I suggest, will have some version of this derivation.) And there is no question that the account presented in the Declaration is a broadly Lockean view.

The advantages of a civil-theology view are its relative simplicity and clarity. But note that there is nothing in this civil theology view that rules out animal rights or supports the moral-agency-only view. If even some basic human rights (the ones that are pre-communal and pre-agency) are derivative rights that human beings have in virtue of God's having rights, we can't rule out derivative rights for non-human animals in virtue of God's having rights -- for God has rights whether we are thinking about humans or non-humans. God's having rights establishes a sort of justice between human beings; something is due to our fellow creatures precisely because they are fellow creatures and we owe God His due (which we render in part by rendering what is due to our fellow creatures). An illustration: if A and B are in debt to C, and C requires that A and B pay it back by helping each other in some way, their debt to A, plus the requirement for paying it, establishes a derivative debt to each other. And it is clear that we can only rule out animal rights if our due rendered to the Creator is such that there is no derivative 'due' to them established by our 'due' to our Creator. Indeed, we can't even rule out rights for inanimate objects if there can be some type of justice shown by practical reason to exist between us and them. If there is justice, there is an object of justice; and an object of justice is a right.

Without appeal to civil theology in the Lockean manner, it is possible to lay out a case for animal rights in terms of piety. Piety in general is a due-rendering based on some benefit received. Thus religious piety is a rendering of what is due to God as our benefactor; filial piety renders to parents what is due to them in virtue of the benefits received from them; these pieties have extended circles -- for instance, in filial piety there is a justice not just between ourselves and our parents, but a justice between ourselves and the family to which we are related through our parents. Thus our cousins have claims on thus -- weaker than the claims our parents do, but intimately related to those our parents do. To claim that animals, or even the natural world in general, have rights is, in fact, to claim that there is such a thing as natural piety: we render to animals (or to the world, or to what have you) something proportionate to the benefits we receive from them. And not only that, this piety can potentially have an extended circle as well. It is certainly clear that we are benefitted by non-human creatures; the natural question, then, is: "What demands of justice does this therefore establish with regard to them?"

It is along these two lines, I think, that we can establish the claim that animals have at least a weak form of right. They have rights in virtue of being good creatures of God, and in virtue of being our benefactors, in however weak a sense. The problem with basing animal rights on interests is that the only interests that can establish rights are just rights, so an interest-based account, if it is to work at all, simply reduces to a justice-based one.

UPDATE: Lee has a nice response with which I largely agree. I suppose I'm inclined to see interests (and things like the capacity for experience that support them) as having very little role to play in terms of obligations -- and therefore rights -- although they do have a very important role to play in moral taste, which is a different aspect of our moral life. Some things that don't violate rights or obligations are nonetheless in bad moral taste -- they're really not appropriate to a decent and civilized person; likewise, some things that aren't in bad taste morally may nonetheless be forbidden by some obligation, due to circumstances. So I think I'd concede that interests have a role to play in our moral relationship with animals, but deny that this role has much to do with rights; interests are relevant to a different aspect of our moral life.

More Notes

The conference went off splendidly, although I had some difficulty getting home due to a missed train (which led to a missed flight, which led to changing to get the last seat on the last flight out -- the next available flight being on Sunday; and I almost missed that flight because of insanely slow security at the Philadelphia airport -- when I managed to get to the gate they had shut the door and were paging me for the last time; but all's well that ends well). It was, in fact, simply excellent.

In the off chance that anyone reading this will be at the Pacific APA next week, and wants to meet up, I will be there Thursday and Friday for an interview.

Today is the memorial for St. John Climacus in the Eastern calendars (Maronite, Melkite, Eastern Orthodox, etc.). He is one of the most important of the Eastern saints. Unfortunately, his classic work of ascetic theology, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, does not appear to be online.

Next week, of course, is Holy Week. Maranatha.

Thought for the Day: It is not your job to make things go right, but only to do what is right.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Links and Notes

I'll be in Philadelphia Wednesday and Thursday attending a conference on Malebranche at Temple University. In the meantime, here are some interesting things for reading and linking.

* Miriam Burstein has a lovely list of Victorian religious novels that are readable.

* Mark Chu-Carroll is discussing intuitionistic logic at "Good Math, Bad Math." So far it includes a post on the basics and an introduction to Kripke models in preparation for looking at the Kripke model for intuitionistic logic. On a different subject, he had an enlightening post recently on the distinctions among parallel, concurrent, and distributed processing.

* Dale Tuggy has a post at "Trinities" on the difficulties and desiderata of labeling theories.

* At "Mixing Memory" Chris has an interesting post on recent work investigating how brain damage affects moral cognition (and the implications this might have).

* Thursday in the Anglican calendar is the memorial for John Keble. So take some time to browse some of Keble's works at Project Canterbury.

* I didn't really post anything for the Feast of the Annunciation, so here's last year's post.

On Epistemic Peers Again

The 'equal weight view' of peer disagreement appears to have a sort of rising popularity. At least, one sees it assumed quite often. This view is something along these lines:

If I and another person (let's call her Sally) are epistemic peers,
I should always give Sally's evaluation of the evidence equal weight to my own
(to the extent that we are epistemic peers).

I think this is pretty clearly false. As I've said before, it gets an apparent plausibility from thinking of cases of third parties evaluating in the dark -- i.e., if someone does not know anything (or anything significant) about the evaluations ore evidence beyond the fact that Sally and I are epistemic peers, they should give us equal weight in their evaluations, all other things being equal. But I myself have not just the fact that Sally and I are epistemic peers; I also have the evidence, my evaluation of it, and any checking I have done to make sure I have collected, organized, and evaluated the evidence properly. This is not irrelevant to my assessment. And so, as I have said before, I think it's clear that the disagreement of my epistemic peer serves as nothing more than a checking mechanism. The fact that my epistemic peer disagrees with me is significant, just as (when I am doing a calculation) my failure to come to exactly the same result as before is significant. But this is just a matter of checking, and is no different from any other form of checking, and so makes the epistemic peer just one checking mechanism out of any others I might be using. If I count out a wad of dollar bills, and then count it out again, and then count it out again, and get $50 twice and $49 once, the fact that I was equally competent and working with the same evidence in all three cases is not relevant to anything. Likewise, if I count it once and get $50, Sally counts it and gets $49, and then I check my work to get $50.

I think the proper view to take is what Adam Elga calls the 'proper reasons view', or at least some variation of it. On various forms of the proper reasons view, the fact of disagreement does not matter; what matters is which of you has actually evaluated the evidence correctly. Elga has an argument against such views (PDF), one that we can call the 'bootstrapping objection'. Suppose it were legitimate to give your views greater weight than those of your epistemic peers. Then it would follow that it's legitimate to bootstrap. You could make yourself an epistemic superior simply by noting cases of disagreement and taking it to be the case that the friend made most of the errors. This would obviously be absurd, so (the argument goes) the proper reasons view is absurd.

But the proper reasons view, as far as I can see, doesn't actually have this result. The result of the proper reasons view is not that I and Sally are not peers, but that (as it happened) Sally erred in a way that people of our epistemic abilities can err, and (as it happened) I did not. This sheds no light on whether I am a better evaluator than Sally. I could only legitimately account myself a superior if I had good reasons to think that, in fact, Sally was not as good as I was at evaluating this sort of evidence. (And even that, it should be said, means very little. Even if Sally is not as good as I am, or indeed even if her abilities are considerably less than mine, she still may be good enough to be a good checker of my results. So even if Sally and I are not epistemic peers, we can still have the same relationship we do if we are.) But the mere fact that Sally made a mistake -- or, in fact, many mistakes -- is irrelevant to this, if they are the sort of mistakes that can be made under normal conditions by people of such-and-such epistemic competence and ability. And ex hypothesi they have to be -- given that Sally and I are epistemic peers, Sally's mistakes are exactly the same sort of mistakes I could make. Even if Sally makes many such mistakes, it tells me nothing about her competence, or whether she is my equal; even a run of mistakes is nothing more than bad luck -- bad luck that I could just as easily have had, even though in fact I'm sure I didn't. Even persistent mistakes on the part of Sally are not relevant if the mistakes are of the sort possible to people of the same ability as myself. And indeed, it would make nonsense of the notion of 'epistemic peer' to say otherwise; how could I reasonably take the mistakes as evidence of inferiority if they're of the sort that are consistent with equality?

It's often overlooked that if two people are epistemic peers it follows that they can, in principle, make the same sort of mistakes; so the mere fact that one of them makes a mistake sheds no light on whether they are really peers or not, as long as the mistake is of the right sort. The very fact that they are epistemic peers implies that they have the same region of possible-mistakes-compatible-with-their-ability. So it is entirely consistent with their being epistemic peers that one should make a mistake falling within that region and the other not. The proper reasons view does not change this; and therefore you can't, in fact, bootstrap yourself to superiority by noting mistakes. They would have to be mistakes of the right sort -- and mistakes of the right sort would be genuine evidence that the classification of the other person as an epistemic peer is incorrect. (Again, this classification is not, in fact, a particularly important issue, given the role epistemic peers actually are able to have in inquiry.)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jottings on Academic Freedom

I recently came across this petition circulated by Academics for Academic Freedom:

'We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and

(2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.'

What strikes me about the petition is that the claim set forth in it appears to be blatantly false. These two principles are not the foundation of academic freedom; which is good because (2) is clearly wrong.

The foundations of academic freedom are the requirements of inquiry and the conditions of teaching. It is not unrestricted, precisely because it is founded on these things, and this, for instance, is why academic institutions need to have procedures for upholding ethical standards in inquiry. (It is, however, unrestricted in terms of result of inquiry: but this is very different from an unrestricted liberty, since it simply means that we should not make inquiry futile by demanding from the beginning that it have certain results.) Likewise, academics are not free to spout any old thing they please -- they have responsibilities as academics that must be fulfilled. One of these responsibilities is the responsibility to teach competently in such a way that students will have an education that is up to reasonable standards. If a teacher's speech or even behavior is such that it interferes with this end, the institution has every right to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal. The real constraint on academic institutions, it seems to me, arises from two things, an obligation with regard to inquiry and a strong prudential consideration with regard to teaching:

The straightforward obligation is the obligation not to interfere with the pursuit of truth, so long as that pursuit does not use unethical means.

As a matter of prudence it is necessary for the institution to give teachers and researchers a great deal of leeway and benefit of the doubt, and to provide clear procedural protections, in order not to create a suffocating environment that enervates the teachers and researchers and blunts their effectiveness.

Failure to uphold either of these principles is a severe fault. But at the same time academic institutions have an obligation to the students, namely, an obligation to provide a reasonably good education in an environment reasonably conducive to learning. And this obligation, it seems to me, requires us wholly to reject the second principle in the petition. Academic institutions have standards to uphold, and are empowered to uphold them, and rightly so. Academic freedom does not negate this; it merely holds the academic institutions themselves to very high standards with regard to how they uphold their standards. This is not a small thing; particularly since many academic institutions at least occasionally fail in this regard. But we must not argue for something more extreme than can be rationally supported.

It always bothers me, in fact, when academics argue for unrestricted academic freedom, because it is often an obvious attempt to argue that academics should be free of any intellectual responsibilities to others, which is something both absurd and frightening for an academic to claim. Academia is founded on the intellectual responsibilities we have as communities of inquirers, teachers, and students. The only thing that is unrestricted is the end, truth; and everything else in academia is restricted precisely in order to be subordinated to this end given the conditions and circumstances of the human mind. By all means let us support academic freedom; but let us not do so in terms that ignore what the purposes of academia are.


Now what we observe about the whole current culture of journalism and general discussion is that people do not know how to begin to think. Not only is their thinking at third and fourth hand, but it always starts about three-quarters of the way through the process. Men do not know where their own thoughts came from. They do not know what their own words imply. They come in at the end of every controversy and know nothing of where it began or what it is all about. They are constantly assuming certain absolutes, which, if correctly defined, would strike even themselves as being not absolutes but absurdities. To think thus is to be in a tangle; to go on thinking is to be in more and more of a tangle. And at the back of all there is always something understood; which is really something misunderstood.

From G. K. Chesterton, "Logic and Lawn Tennis," The Thing.

In Convertendo

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.