Friday, November 14, 2008

To Add to the List of People Who Deserve to Be Mocked on South Park

(1) Boston College, a Jesuit school, has recently gotten itself into considerable trouble with a merchandising deal. They seem to be surprised:

BC spokesman Jack Dunn said the school was “very selective” when it agreed to let Victoria’s Secret sell BC sweatshirts, sweatpants, T-shirts and flip-flops as part of the racy chain’s youth-oriented Pink line.

“We thought it was a tasteful line of clothing that college students wear,” he said.

He said the college had no knowledge of Eagles-emblazoned “short shorts” that were selling next to the hot-pink BC tank tops.

“We never authorized undergarments,” he said, though other colleges have their names printed on panties in the Pink collection.

(2) The American Humanist Association recently launched an ad campaign with a URL and the slogan, "Why believe in a god? Be good for goodness' sake." It's primarily just to help like-minded humanists get together over the holidays. There's nothing at all unreasonable about that, but some people just can't stop themselves when an opportunity to be pompous presents itself:

Edwords said the purpose isn't to argue that God doesn't exist or change minds about a deity, although "we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds."

By, of course, that tried-and-true method of planting seeds of "rational thought and critical thinking and questioning," advertisements.

(3) A taste of the lovely people we have on the Texas State Board of Education:

In a column posted on the Christian Worldview Network Web site, Dunbar wrote that a terrorist attack on America during the first six months of an Obama administration "will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny."

She also suggests Obama would seek to expand his power by declaring martial law throughout the country.

When asked to retract the statement, she replied that she didn't think there was anything retractable.

"This is the curse. Write."

If I were asked to identify the poem by Barrett Browning that I think is most powerful, I think it would be her "A Curse for a Nation," a condemnation of American slavery. It is long, but it is worth quoting in full:

A Curse for a Nation
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I heard an angel speak last night,
And he said 'Write!
Write a Nation's curse for me,
And send it over the Western Sea.'

I faltered, taking up the word:
'Not so, my lord!
If curses must be, choose another
To send thy curse against my brother.

'For I am bound by gratitude,
By love and blood,
To brothers of mine across the sea,
Who stretch out kindly hands to me.'

'Therefore,' the voice said, 'shalt thou write
My curse to-night.
From the summits of love a curse is driven,
As lightning is from the tops of heaven.'

'Not so,' I answered. 'Evermore
My heart is sore
For my own land's sins: for little feet
Of children bleeding along the street:

'For parked-up honors that gainsay
The right of way:
For almsgiving through a door that is
Not open enough for two friends to kiss:

'For love of freedom which abates
Beyond the Straits:
For patriot virtue starved to vice on
Self-praise, self-interest, and suspicion:

'For an oligarchic parliament,
And bribes well-meant.
What curse to another land assign,
When heavy-souled for the sins of mine?'

'Therefore,' the voice said, 'shalt thou write
My curse to-night.
Because thou hast strength to see and hate
A foul thing done within thy gate.'

'Not so,' I answered once again.
'To curse, choose men.
For I, a woman, have only known
How the heart melts and the tears run down.'

'Therefore,' the voice said, 'shalt thou write
My curse to-night.
Some women weep and curse, I say
(And no one marvels), night and day.

'And thou shalt take their part to-night,
Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and bitter, and good.'

So thus I wrote, and mourned indeed,
What all may read.
And thus, as was enjoined on me,
I send it over the Western Sea.


Because ye have broken your own chain
With the strain
Of brave men climbing a Nation's height,
Yet thence bear down with brand and thong
On souls of others, -- for this wrong
This is the curse. Write.

Because yourselves are standing straight
In the state
Of Freedom's foremost acolyte,
Yet keep calm footing all the time
On writhing bond-slaves, -- for this crime
This is the curse. Write.

Because ye prosper in God's name,
With a claim
To honor in the old world's sight,
Yet do the fiend's work perfectly
In strangling martyrs, -- for this lie
This is the curse. Write.

Ye shall watch while kings conspire
Round the people's smouldering fire,
And, warm for your part,
Shall never dare -- O shame!
To utter the thought into flame
Which burns at your heart.
This is the curse. Write.

Ye shall watch while nations strive
With the bloodhounds, die or survive,
Drop faint from their jaws,
Or throttle them backward to death;
And only under your breath
Shall favor the cause.
This is the curse. Write.

Ye shall watch while strong men draw
The nets of feudal law
To strangle the weak;
And, counting the sin for a sin,
Your soul shall be sadder within
Than the word ye shall speak.
This is the curse. Write.

When good men are praying erect
That Christ may avenge His elect
And deliver the earth,
The prayer in your ears, said low,
Shall sound like the tramp of a foe
That's driving you forth.
This is the curse. Write.

When wise men give you their praise,
They shall pause in the heat of the phrase,
As if carried too far.
When ye boast your own charters kept true,
Ye shall blush; for the thing which ye do
Derides what ye are.
This is the curse. Write.

When fools cast taunts at your gate,
Your scorn ye shall somewhat abate
As ye look o'er the wall;
For your conscience, tradition, and name
Explode with a deadlier blame
Than the worst of them all.
This is the curse. Write.

Go, wherever ill deeds shall be done,
Go, plant your flag in the sun
Beside the ill-doers!
And recoil from clenching the curse
Of God's witnessing Universe
With a curse of yours.
This is the curse. Write.

The part that strikes home most terribly, I think, is this one:
When wise men give you their praise,
They shall pause in the heat of the phrase,
As if carried too far.
When ye boast your own charters kept true,
Ye shall blush; for the thing which ye do
Derides what ye are.
This is the curse. Write.

Alas, I don't think slavery is the only sin in our nation's history that would merit this part of the curse; it's like it's a standing order, because it seems that there is always a thing that we do that derides what we are, that gives us cause to blush when we affirm the things that make us American.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ever-Receding Promise of Paperlessness

Will Richardson of "weblogg-ed" urges that we get off paper. (Hat-tip to Coturnix) I once thought of writing a science fiction story about a paperless society, in which it would be very clear that it was the result of the one cause we know can cause such a society: scarcity of paper. The reason why the ever-promised Paperless Society never comes about is that, while much technology we've developed can be used as substitutes for paper, all of it simultaneously facilitates the use of paper. They provide an endless source of things that can be easily and cheaply put onto paper; in their first infancy they began to drive a new kind of paper economy, in which (just as I can have, if I want, my own two-ton transportation device with gasoline engine) I, an ordinary Joe of limited means, can have my own little printing press. (Hence the popularity among academics.) It was naive of us to think that the source of a new kind of paper economy would suddenly reverse itself and eliminate paper from the scene. What computers really gave us is an encouragement to use paper, in a massive and promiscuous way. To be sure, they also gave us the bare ability not to use paper; but if the bare ability to do something were all it took to have it done, there would be a great many more people getting places without driving ridiculously inefficient SUVs. What will push through a paperless society will be something making it impossible, or at least extraordinarily difficult, to use paper; our technology doesn't do this and, what is more, part of its generally accepted value is precisely that it doesn't. And precisely because it doesn't, it powers not the reduction of paper use but an explosion of it. Computers don't substitute for paper; they give a reason to use hundreds of billions of pages more of it, contributing to the fact that our paper use has more than tripled in the past three decades. And there is, in fact, nothing to suggest that this will stop at any point in the near future, as long as paper is accessible.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I previously linked to a YouTube video with Ralph McInerny discussing Thomas and Aristotle. It turns out that there is a whole channel, with over 60 videos, of which it was a part. It's McInerny's International Catholic University project; he explains his intention for it here. There's lots of good things here, although most of it seems to be teasers for courses. For instance, the beginning of the course on Kierkegaard and Newman (by McInerny); Philosophy of Nature (by Wallace, best known for his historical work on Galileo's philosophical background); Moral Theology (by Romanus Cessario) and so forth. You can find the self-study courses for which these are the lectures at the 'Courses for Self-Study' link at the ICU link.

Richard on Common Use

Of course, he doesn't call it that; but it's more or less the same idea. To give an adequate account of how property fits into the scheme of moral life (or moral society) you have to start with the fact that it's not a primitive. What we really start with is a set of resources available for common use; obviously for a number of reasons we have to build some way of making sure that the resources get handled reasonably, but what it is that we do is the result not of the nature of things but of a combination of experience of human nature, rational rule-making, and imposition of sanction. As Richard says:

So step back, and try to imagine seeing things from an alien's anthropological perspective. The alien has all sorts of physical and psychological concepts, but no explicitly moral ideas such as 'rights'. All he does is observe what is the case; he makes no judgments about what ought to be. So when he visits Earth, what will he see?

Bob and Sally are stuck on a desert island, with a banana tree. Bob gets there first and claims it as his own -- maybe he mixes his labour with it a bit, waters and nourishes it, whatever you like. Later, Sally goes to eat a banana, and Bob stops her, pushes her back. Who aggressed against whom? From the value-neutral perspective of the alien, the answer can only possibly be that Bob was the one initiating force here.

Thus (as Hume puts it) justice, taken only in the sense that pertains to fair dealing with regard to property, is an artificial virtue, dependent wholly on human convention; it's not an arbitrary virtue, but it is an artificial one. And these conventions are revisable in light of the end they serve. As Richard puts it further down:

Anyone who truly takes liberty itself as a basic concept (rather than redefining it in terms of some other moral conception like property rights) must acknowledge that property rights can infringe on liberty. And once you make that step, the only sensible response is to assess the various institutional systems on offer, including those which render property subject to some degree of redistribution, and opt for the one that best promotes human flourishing (or whatever we think is ultimately good).

And so it would be even if some other idea than liberty is in the forefront (Richard, of course, is talking about libertarians).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rough Jottings on Mill's Utilitarianism

I've been having an interesting conversation with Richard Chappell about Millian utilitarianism; interesting and difficult, and I think a little frustrating for both of us. It has led me to consider something I had not thought of before. I had known beforehand that there was some gap between contemporary utilitarianism and Mill's utilitarianism; this is noticeable, I think, in the common charge that Mill wavers between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. There are tricky issues of interpretation here, but I think this wavering theory is demonstrably based on the false assumption that the only two options are act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Mill is obviously neither; there's obviously no word for it, but we could call it society-utilitarianism. Mill seems to see matters in terms of a structured flow from the principle of utility:

1. Principle of Utility
2. Liberalism (=the ideal utilitarian society, more or less)
3. Moral Maxims (=approximate judgments of utility suitable for particular areas of human life; also that which fits you for living in a liberal society; includes fundamental rights)
4. Social and Political Policies (principles of human administration, as he calls them; always overruled by moral maxims); at which level it's possible we should include extended individual practices, i.e., personal policies
5. Particular Acts

[There are tricky points of interpretation, as I said, but reading Utilitarianism in this light makes a huge amount of sense of the argument, so I think these largely affect only details. You can read Utilitarianism yourself to judge for yourself. And while you're at it, read the classic text on Mill's liberalism, On Liberty, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.] So Mill at times justifies acts, at times rules, on utilitarian principles; often they are not justified directly by utility at all but by their contribution to a liberal society, i.e., a society of free and happy people; and there is (if this interpretation is right) no inconsistency. For Mill the principle of utility is the principle of universal progress: it governs everything, and does so directly, but as we descend the list, the justifications get more and more complex and have to either enter more and more into details or make more and more background assumptions. Thus in descending from the principle of utility we get immediately into approximation for practical purposes.

Further, it is noteworthy that if Mill's utilitarianism is consistent it is completely invulnerable to self-effacement arguments that contemporary utilitarianisms often face; Mill's utilitarianism is not self-effacing, because any moral judgments just are utility judgments (to a degree of approximation, at least), and no one can argue that morality in general is self-effacing. Further, Mill can explain why it can be counterproductive to focus too much on the principle of utility itself in particular evaluations: namely, that it is very easy to misapply, because its application with precision can get very complicated very quickly. But experience has shown us lots and lots of moral maxims and good policies that provide sufficient utilitarian approximation to the strict principle of utility for most practical purposes; and, as Mill says, we can draw on not only our own experience, but the experience of those who have come before us, in traditional values and conventional morality. These are all improvable, but it means we start out with a powerful toolkit of practical guidelines for living in accordance with the principle of utility, and we can evaluate the tools in our toolkit more precisely as we find the need and occasion.

I had assumed, though, that the gap was still bridgeable. Certainly it looks like it might be bridged if you consider, for example, Hurka's perfectionism, which shares an immense amount with Mill's utilitarianism, and in at least some ways mediates between more typical contemporary forms of utilitarianism and Mill's own. But the discussion has led me to wonder whether the gap might be more like a sharp break. One might say that in general approach Mill is much, much more like Rawls than Singer, for all that Rawls is a critic, and Singer is an advocate, of contemporary utilitarianism, because Mill's utilitarianism opens out immediately into his liberalism, and Rawls and Mill share an immense amount on the side of liberalism. Since Mill's utilitarian is liberal, Mill has little patience for views, which he considers caricatures, in which utilitarianism doesn't care about distribution -- Mill reiterates, over and over, the importance of what he calls impartiality, and one soon realizes that this is in fact a principle governing distribution of benefits, one that he thinks is built into the principle of utility itself. Mill has a notion of public good that Rawls might possibly object to, but Mill is so concerned with the happiness of individuals that he comes very near Rawls in emphasizing the importance of individuals. Like Rawls, Mill thinks utilitarianisms that ignore quality of desire (or to be more accurate, quality of satisfaction of desire) are doomed to fail. Rawls is a deontologist, but Mill gives such an emphasis to moral rules that the major difference here is that Mill thinks that moral rules are merely extremely good approximations that converge on the principle of utility. And so forth and so on.

So could we say that (in the modern sense of the term) Mill's utilitarianism is no utilitarianism at all -- it's a liberalism? That seems drastic; but it does seem difficult to pin down similarities between Mill and contemporary utilitarians, beyond the fact that they use the word 'utility'. Is there another common ground, one that would put Mill more on the side of (to continue with the examples used above) Singer than on that of Rawls? An interesting question. I don't have the answer for it.

Or am I just going wrong somewhere in the interpretation?

Oranges and Lemons

The previous post reminded me of the old nursery rhyme, "Oranges and Lemons," best known for its appearance in Orwell's 1984. The St. Martin's in the original was St. Martin Orgar, which time has not been kind to; it has long been common practice to substitute St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which is named for St. Martin of Tours.

"Oranges and lemons", say the bells of St. Clement's
"You owe me five farthings", say the bells of St. Martin's
"When will you pay me?" say the bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich", say the bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?" say the bells of Stepney
"I do not know", says the great bell of Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

I especially like the line for the bell of Bow; it's very catchy. "The Great Bell of Bow" would make an excellent title for something.

St. Martin of Tours

Today is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a saint who used to be extraordinarily popular. He was a pagan in the Roman army who converted to Christianity; after his baptism (which, as with many Christians in the time occurred long after his conversion to Christianity) he came to the conclusion that as a soldier for Christ he should not be killing other men, but doing good for them. He still had obligations to the army, though, and so offered to go into battle nonetheless, unarmed. Fortunately, a sudden peace rendered the point moot and Martin was discharged from the army.

One of the famous stories of St. Martin is about his dealing with the Priscillianists. The Priscillianists were Gnostics and therefore heretics; they were sanctioned by the Emperor Maximus and the leader, Priscillian, but on trial. Martin went before the Emperor to persuade him that heresy should not be tried in secular courts, and to make Maximus promise not to allow the death sentence in the case. Priscillian was sentenced to death anyway. Martin returned to try to protect some of Priscillian's followers. (St. Martin wasn't the only Catholic to protest the treatment of the heretics; both Ambrose of Milan and Pope Damasus protested the action, and the bishop Ithacius, who had led the prosecution, found himself suddenly isolated, with the Gallicans breaking off communion with him and the Iberians eventually deposing him for stirring up the interference of the government in an ecclesiastical matter.)

The most famous legend about St. Martin, though, is the legend of the cloak. While a soldier at Amiens, about 20 years old or so, he met a poor beggar at the city gates; Martin had no money, but the man looked cold, so Martin cut off half of his cloak with his sword and gave it to the man. That night he had a dream of Jesus wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, "Here is the unbaptized Martin; he has clothed me." As Sulpicius Severus puts it:

The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth -- "Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me"), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received. After this vision the sainted man was not puffed up with human glory, but, acknowledging the goodness of God in what had been done, and being now of the age of twenty years, he hastened to receive baptism.

You can read more about St. Martin in Sulpicius Severus's Life of St. Martin.

UPDATE: Michael Gilleland gives us a Martinmas poem by John Clare.

UPDATE2: St. Martin of Tours and the Search for Holiness at "Ignatius Insight Scoop"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mill's Two Criteria of Good Government

A very nice passage from John Stuart Mill on how to evaluate a government and its policies (my emphases):

The first element of good government, therefore, being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves. The first question in respect to any political institutions is how far they tend to foster in the members of the community the various desirable qualities, moral and intellectual, or rather (following Bentham's more complete classification) moral, intellectual, and active. The government which does this the best has every likelihood of being the best in all other respects, since it is on these qualities, so far as they exist in the people, that all possibility of goodness in the practical operations of the government depends....

All government which aims at being good is an organization of some part of the good qualities existing in the individual members of the community for the conduct of its collective affairs. A representative constitution is a means of bringing the general standard of intelligence and honesty existing in the community, and the individual intellect and virtue of its wisest members, more directly to bear upon the government, and investing them with greater influence in it than they would have under any other mode of organization; though, under any, such influence as they do have is the source of all good that there is in the government, and the hindrance of every evil that there is not. The greater the amount of these good qualities which the institutions of a country succeed in organizing, and the better the mode of organization, the better will be the government.

We have now, therefore, obtained a foundation for a twofold division of the merit which any set of political institutions can possess. It consists partly of the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including under that phrase advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency, and partly of the degree of perfection with which they organize the moral, intellectual, and active worth already existing, so as to operate with the greatest effect on public affairs. A government is to be judged by its action upon men and by its action upon things; by what it makes of the citizens, and what it does with them; its tendency to improve or deteriorate the people themselves, and the goodness or badness of the work it performs for them, and by means of them. Government is at once a great influence acting on the human mind, and a set of organized arrangements for public business: in the first capacity its beneficial action is chiefly indirect, but not therefore less vital, while its mischievous action may be direct.

Considerations on Representative Government
, Chapter II

Notables and Linkables

* I have twice managed to find a good natural use of the word churrigueresque in the past week. It's one of those odd words that are much more useful than you think; regardless of the architectural technicalities, in colloquial usage what's churrigueresque is baroque beyond baroque, extravagantly exuberant, with an almost insane attention to detail: baroque raised to rococo raised to a whole new level.

* A very lovely site: Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory.

* There's some good discussion of HoP at "Just Thomism".

* Also relevant to HoP -- I've linked to it before, but if you're interested in the subject, you should read Knud Haakonssen's The Idea of Early Modern Philosophy (PDF). Haakonssen's essay is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject of early modern philosophy, and salutary for anyone interested in history of philosophy generally.

* Aristotle Writes to Gordon Brown at "Thinking Faith," the online journal of the British Jesuits. (ht)

* Terry Eagleton reviews Waugh's House of Wittgenstein. (ht)

* The Philosopher's Zone, ABC Radio National's excellent philosophy-themed talk radio show, has been on an economy streak recently. The most recent is on a topic that used to be a quite common philosophical topic but isn't so common anymore, namely, money.

* Wondering Aloud is a blog on teaching philosophy at the K-12 level. (ht)

* A page giving links to online notes, lectures, courses, tutorials, etc. devoted to logic. (ht)

* Life at the White House.

* I have recently been going through my LP collection -- all inherited -- because my sister gave me a USB turntable for my birthday in August, and what with moving and the like I have just now been able to set it up. It has been quite odd; I had an extraordinarily difficult time setting up the turntable, because I have never myself used a turntable in my life, and phrases like "zero grams of stylus pressure" convey nothing to my mind. And it turns out, again because they are all inherited, that I have a Barry Manilow collection that is considerably more extensive than I know what to do with. I've been slowly going through the ones I have, but, honestly, who can listen to that much Barry Manilow? Also, I seem to have four or five different versions of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." But it's a good way to hear good songs you don't often hear and therefore forget, like Simon & Garfunkel's Patterns.

Wait, Was that What We Were Voting for?

This is extraordinarily silly:

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, he'll not only become Commander in Chief. He'll also become the first ever Pastor in Chief.

We've never had a Pastor in Chief, but that's because we've never had a faith moment like this before. Spiritual hunger is everywhere. The fastest growing religious group in America is "spiritual but not religious," as people from all faith backgrounds strike out on their own in search of ultimate meaning. Spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra draw huge crowds and write multiple bestsellers. The megachurches are exploding. The internet offers millions of searchers new ways to find prayers, inspirational readings and rituals. Even The Washington Post has joined with its own entry, On Faith.

With a growing spiritual hunger also comes a need for a community of support and belonging. That's where President-elect Obama comes in. He already captured the sense of the times by making his campaign about faith and purpose, resisting the politicized debates about the teaching of evolution or the role of prayer in schools. In their place, Obama spoke of issues like overcoming fear of difference and finding common ground in the search for unity.

I'm a big fan of the United States of America, under any President, but if it's OK with everyone (and even if it's not OK with everyone) I think I'll be opting out of the United Church of America; I was participating in an election, not a faith moment.