Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chesterton for March X

The conception of a patron saint had carried from the Middle Ages one very unique and as yet unreplaced idea. It was the idea of variation without antagonism. The Seven Champions of Christendom were multiplied by seventy times seven in the patrons of towns, trades and social types; but the very idea that they were all saints excluded the possibility of ultimate rivalry in the fact that they were all patrons.

Source: A Short History of England

Shepherd on Beginning to Exist

This isn't really meant to stand alone, but I've been meaning for a while to post something on Lady Mary Shepherd's account of how we know the external world as well as Whewell's account of science. Both of those I'll probably have time to do in the next few days, but for the former, since Shepherd's account depends on her prior account of causation, I wanted to post a brief post laying out, in rough and summary form, her primary argument for a key claim, so I can refer back to it in the post to come.

To be proved: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

1. Beginning to exist is the introduction of a difference. (premise)

2. The introduction of a difference is an action. (premise)

3. An action is an exercised capability that belongs to the nature of an existing thing. (premise)

4. An existing thing cannot be a thing that does not yet exist. (premise)

5. What has a beginning to its existence did not yet exist before a difference was introduced. (premise)

6. The beginning to exist of what begins to exist is not the action of what has a beginning to its existence, but rather the action of an existing thing distinct from it. (from (1)-(5) combined)

7. Therefore everything that has a beginning to its existence does so as the action of something that exists and is not itself. (from (6) directly)

And (7) is equivalent to what was to be proved. Shepherd regards (1)-(5) as all necessary truths; anyone who denies them simply doesn't understand what an action is, or what we mean when we say something begins to exist.

In actuality, different routes are possible, and we find such different routes in Shepherd's discussions. But they are all similar in recognizing that nothing begins to exist unless a difference is introduced, that the introduction of a difference is an action, and that actual actions cannot be the actions of something that is itself not actual.

It's this line of thought that leads Shepherd to reject unequivocally the claim that cause and effect is simply a regularity or invariable succession, and especially to reject Hume's claim that we infer causes wholly on the basis of custom and not reasoning.

Partition of Cares

But it is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into states, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread. It is by this partition of cares, descending in gradation from general to particular, that the mass of human affairs may be best managed, for the good and prosperity of all.

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography. In this passage Jefferson is discussing the danger of judges trying to increase their jurisdiction, and the consequent pooling of power into a few hands. It's this streak of Jeffersonianism, incidentally, that makes so many conservatively inclined American Catholics sympathetic with it, since this is a Jeffersonian version of what Catholics call subsidiarity. Joshua P. Hochschild has an interesting paper discussing subsidiarity in precisely this light. It's also the reason for the very different turns discussions of subsidiarity tend to take in Europe and in America; Americans are faced with Jeffersonian issues and worries in direct ways that Europeans are not.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Scorn Not the Sonnet

Scorn not the Sonnet
by William Wordsworth

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

I actually had to look up who Camöens was supposed to be; it turns out to be an Anglicization of the last name of Luís Vaz de Camões, the great Portuguese poet who wrote The Lusiads, and I had indeed heard of him -- The Lusiads is the great Portuguese national epic. He wrote sonnets, too, of course, and had an extraordinary influence on the Portuguese language.

Chesterton for March IX

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

Source: A Short History of England

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Chesterton for March VIII

A paradox is a fantastic thing that is said once: a fashion is a more fantastic thing that is said a sufficient number of times.

Source: The Crimes of England

Calm Regard

What is commonly, in a popular sense, called reason, and is so much recommended in moral discourses, is nothing but a general and a calm passion, which takes a comprehensive and distant view of its object, and actuates the will, without exciting any sensible emotion. A man, we say, is diligent in his profession from reason; that is, from a calm desire of riches and a fortune. A man adheres to justice from reason; that is, from a calm regard to a character with himself and others.

Hume, A Dissertation on the Passions, Section V. This is very important for understanding Hume's view that reason only serves the passions: part of what makes the view plausible on his account is that much that other people attribute to reason he attributes to the passions: calm passions are a sort of emotional fixing on a general view of the situation, rather than simply a knee-jerk reaction, and thus influence action by a steady and constant pressure.


Today is the feast of St. John of God, founder of the Order of the Brothers Hospitallers (not to be confused with the Knights Hospitaller); in Italian they are often known as do-good-Brothers. João Cidade was a Portuguese soldier, very devout, who went into a state of shock when listening to a sermon by St. John of Avila; he acted so oddly that he was put in an insane asylum, although he soon recovered after visits from John of Avila, who became his mentor. The experience brought forcefully home to him the extraordinary need there was for people to take good care of the sick poor. He founded a hospital in Granada, Spain, which became famous for the excellence of its care, and established a religious order devoted to hospital-work, the Brothers Hospitallers; in addition to the three solemn religious vows, they take a fourth vow to serve the sick for the rest of their lives. There are many hospitals throughout the world associated with them; and they also run the world's busiest pharmacy, the Farmacia Vaticana.

John of God is patron saint of hospitals, the dying, and the sick. He's also patron saint of firefighters, since one of the most famous stories about him is how, when the Granada Hospital caught fire, he, heedless of the flames, rushed in and saved all the patients.

Brooklyn Museum - St. John of God - Pedro Nolasco y Lara - overall

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Chesterton for March VII

The materialism of things is on the face of things; it does not require any science to find it out. A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything.

Source: All Things Considered


Yesterday was the anniversary of William Whewell's death; he died on March 6, 1866. I was going to put up a post, but didn't have time; I'll probably have more on Whewell later this week. In the meantime you can refresh your memory of his remarkable man by reading Thony Christie's post from a while back. The Victorian wit, Sydney Smith, is said to have said of him that science was his forte and omniscience was his foible; and as a quip about Whewell, that's hard to beat.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Chesterton for March VI

Bad government, like good government, is a spiritual thing. Even the tyrant never rules by force alone; but mostly by fairy tales.

Source: Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays

Nothing Has Moral Status

Ethicists seem to have started talking extensively about moral status at some point in the mid-eighties; although there were precursors in the seventies, the widespread framing of ethical problems in terms of moral status was not common, if it existed at all, prior to then -- people would use the term loosely and colloquially before that time, but not as if it were a recognized technical term. And one of the things that one notices if you review the things that have been said about it is that, if we take it as if it were a technical term, or a quasi-technical term, it is incoherent; not only do different ethicists not mean the same thing by it (it is common whenever discussing it simply to stipulate what one means by it), even key accounts of moral status by notable ethicists of moral status are not coherent with themselves. At times it is so expansive that 'having moral status' means merely 'being able to be considered as part of moral reasoning'; at other times it is so restrictive that it deals with only a tiny slice of moral life. And not only is it incoherent, it is otiose: it contributes nothing to the discussion that could not be handled simply by being more specific and less equivocal, both of which are good qualities to have in discussion of ethics, anyway.

Nothing has moral status in a technical sense because moral status, as found in technical discussions, is a fictional, incoherent, and useless concept. I keep telling this to people and they keep looking at me like I'm crazy. But I am far from the only person to say something like this, even if most people tend to soften the claim a bit. Benjamin Sachs had a really good paper on this in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly last year; I think it's one of the single best meta- papers on ethical inquiry that's been published recently. It is available online:

The Status of Moral Status (PDF)

It really should be read by anyone who talks about ethical issues, and no one should be allowed to use the phrase moral status as a key part of their discussion without expressly addressing the issues raised in Sachs's paper. It is also, I should say, eminently readable. You don't have to agree with every part of it to recognize it as a beautiful paper.

Ah, Sweet Song of Tyranny

Eric Holder helpfully explains why it's legal for the President to order American citizens killed without a trial:

Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

Technically true, or at least arguable, but, you know, most of us mere citizens think that when the government is deliberately setting out to kill a citizen, there's a hefty amount that's due in that process. Don't worry, though; Holder also gives us the ethical principles under which it is done:

The principle of necessity requires that the target have definite military value. The principle of distinction requires that only lawful targets – such as combatants, civilians directly participating in hostilities, and military objectives – may be targeted intentionally. Under the principle of proportionality, the anticipated collateral damage must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Finally, the principle of humanity requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.

Because, of course, when the American government is killing American citizens without trial, our primary concern is that it do so without unnecessary suffering, and with only minimal collateral damage. The first two principles are, of course, completely useless as well, as is also Holder's claim elsewhere in the speech that the process should have "robust oversight" by Congress, since so far the Obama administration's idea of 'due process' and 'robust oversight' has amounted to nothing more than notifying Congress that an American citizen has been added to the kill list as a target of "definite military value".

And sure, Americans don't have sympathies with American citizens going around killing their own; but that's part of the point: if you wait to protest assassination -- and despite Holder's claim that this is a tendentious term, it is in fact what everyone would oridinarily call it -- until they've started killing people like Cicero, the Republic is in reality already long dead. The basic principles of American governance put all burden of proof here on our elected officials: they need to show that they are defending the rights of the people, which, remarkably, include rights to things like life and liberty. They shouldn't be getting the benefit of the doubt, and they certainly shouldn't be so gauche as to pretend they have a right to the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, March 05, 2012

In Time

I picked up the movie In Time at the Redbox yesterday; I remember seeing a preview at some point, but seem to have missed it in theaters. Some thoughts:

* This movie was bubblegum, but it was much, much better than I expected. And a lot of it was just that it did what so many Hollywood movies don't do these days: it took an interesting idea, stuck with it, and didn't ruin it. The writing does a lot here, I think; it doesn't go crazy, and it Chekhovs things fairly nicely, so that, for instance, you can look back and see that the whole trouble started when the mother gave her son thirty minutes for lunch (time is the currency). Dialogue is here and there heavy-handed, but nothing unbearable.

And they play the Bonnie and Clyde thing quite well.

* Timberlake is the weakest member of the cast here, but he actually does very nicely. If he has to do really intense emotion in a single scene, he's a bit shaky, but give him a stretch of time and he can really nail a mood. Also, he's good at conveying the ambiguities of this character, who has both a generous heart and a ruthless will, and does it well enough that it's not Justin Timberlake: The Movie. You actually see the character.

* It turns out that a world in which almost everyone is in their mid-twenties is remarkably creepy. Having so many people look roughly the same age is unsettling, even when not getting into the weird-looking interactions among people.

Also, it turns out, surprisingly, that mid-twenties-ish is really not the best age to stop aging at, even if you are a Pretty Young Thing. Here you have a cast just brimming with Pretty Young Things, and having so many of them together really brings out how not-yet-mature most people look at that age. One Pretty Young Thing in mid-twenties may be beautiful; a whole crowd of them is a collection of people who may have good skin but who haven't completely outgrown all their teenagerish awkwardness.

Also, very unsurprisingly, Hollywood's idea of what everyone would look like if our aging stopped at twenty-five is not really what people would like if our aging stopped at twenty-five. (The lead actress, Amanda Seyfried, is the only major actor in the entire movie who is actually twenty-five.) And I think back to what I would look like if I, with my boyish face and slight frame, had stopped aging at twenty-five, and, holy moly, I really don't know how I could live looking like an awkward seventeen-year-old for the rest of my life.

* For a movie full of Pretty Young Things, it was remarkably restrained. There is no sex. There is one glimpse-here-glimpse-there nude bathing scene, and one lead-actress-in-her-underwear scene. (Interestingly, the nude bathing scene was not gratuitous, since it fit the story at that stage perfectly, while the underwear scene was absurdly gratuitous.) There's some swearing but not much. There's violence and some gore, but it's not front and center. There are some pretty special effects, but most of them are background, and the special effect that is really effective, and done quite well, is just the countdown clock on the arm. All this goes along with not ruining it.

* I think they were a little sloppy with the math on occasion. But it doesn't kill the story, really, because the precise numbers are not for the most part a big issue.

* The movie did very poorly with critics; but none of the negative reviews I've seen have actually made much sense. The biggest complaint was that it devolved into a chase film, which is odd because it's not a chase film but a Robin-Hood film. The actual amount of chasing is quite limited, and is mostly to underscore the fact the never-stop character of the Timekeeper and to give a sense of being on the run. One review complained that it didn't do much with the interesting moral quandaries raised, but there were no moral quandaries raised -- this is a morally stark movie, involving a radical injustice, no quandary about it.

One thing I did think they could have done better with, and perhaps this gets into something like moral quandary territory, is the fact that what Will and Sylvia are doing really will cause a massive breakdown in everything, anarchy and bloody revolution; this needed to be recognized (by more than the villains), in order to underscore the point that it is worth it even so.

As a movie, I wouldn't call it stunning, but it's quite watchable.

Chesterton for March V

Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.

Source: Heretics

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Chesterton for March IV

In the matter of fundamental human rights, nothing can be above Man, except God.

Source: Eugenics and Other Evils

Care Bear Virtue Ethics

American Greetings Corporation, Inc., is one of the world's biggest greeting card companies, and the biggest if we consider only publicly traded companies -- only Hallmark is larger, and it is privately owned. They've been in existence since 1906, and did pretty well for much of their history, but in 1977, they introduced what was originally called Project I, a series of characters based on a character called Strawberry Shortcake, and followed this up in 1982 with the debut of what had originally been called Project II, a series of characters called the Care Bears. Both of these lines of characters became extraordinarily popular in the toy-conscious 80s. Of the two projects, the Care Bears have weathered somewhat better than Strawberry Shortcake.

Originally there were ten bears:

Tenderheart Bear
Friend Bear
Cheer Bear
Grumpy Bear
Bedtime Bear
Wish Bear
Birthday Bear
Funshine Bear
Good Luck Bear
Love-A-Lot Bear

Many more were eventually added: first the family of Baby Hugs, Baby Tugs, and Grams Bear. Then there was teh extraordinarily successful The Care Bears Movie in 1985, at the time the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film ever, which added Secret Bear and in which a new line of characters was begun with the Care Bear Cousins. That was the height of the craze; they continued to be successful, but no other venture in the line ever did as well.

Whenever I teach virtue ethics, I tell my students that one can see the strengths of virtue ethics in the Care Bears -- as well as the things usually criticized. For the Care Bears are virtue ethicists. Each Care Bear, and later each Care Bear cousin, reflects an aspect of the virtuous life, or of institutions or practices that contribute to, or have to be negotiated in, virtuous life. Tenderheart Bear represents sympathy, Friend Bear friendship, Cheer Bear good cheer, Grumpy Bear commiseration, Funshine Bear goodnatured play, Love-A-Lot Bear love, Champ Bear sportsmanship; we get things more indirectly with Bedtime Bear, as Care-A-Lot's night watchbear, makes sure people get a good night's sleep so that they can do good things during the day, Wish Bear helps people work towards making wishes come true, Good Luck Bear helps people take advantage of opportunities, Secret Bear looks after secrets among friends (hence the close link to Friend Bear), etc. The virtues are all related to the kinds of sentiments people express by greeting cards and they are heavily directed to the lives of children, in which birthdays and bedtimes (for instance) are major things and not knowing how to deal with someone who is grumpy, or feeling grumpy oneself, can really seem like it ruins your life. But it's all virtue related. A lot of it comes from the fact that greeting cards get their entire raison d'etre from the importance of communication, and particularly communication of feelings, for maintaining good human relationships.

I always go on to say in class that the Care Bears, like all good virtue ethicists, are cute, cuddly, and preachy; unlike most virtue ethicists, however, they drive cloud cars and shoot rainbows out of symbols on their tummy. That's a highly classified level of virtue technology even Aristotle never managed to discover.

In any case, I keep using the Care Bears as an example because I find that it sticks, and actually works. The Care Bears are an extremely simplified picture of virtue ethics, the sort that can be fit into a greeting card. But while American Greetings may have merely designed the Care Bears to sell greeting cards, people don't buy greeting cards to make American Greetings money; they buy greeting cards because they facilitate good communication, good wishes, and sociable interaction, and because the Care Bears are tailored to appeal to people looking for something that answers to these qualities, the highly simplified virtue ethics of the Care Bears is a genuine virtue ethics. These are not things made up by American Greetings; they are things that really are highly valued in human society and that is why American Greetings makes greeting cards for them. And precisely because they are cutesy and child-oriented and greeting-card simple, the Care Bears are a really good toy model of how virtue ethics works. The greeting card / children's merchandise aspect can still distort things. It's much more significant, and unfortunate, than one might think that in the most recent incarnation the de facto leader and spokesperson for the Care Bears is no longer Tenderheart but Cheer; with Tenderheart as the organizer of the group, the first emphasis was always on the importance of sympathy with others, regardless of the situation, but Cheer as the organizer of the group puts the first emphasis on the importance of feeling good. It seems small, but it makes a pretty big difference. But virtue ethics in general also has to deal with potential distortions of the culture around it, and with the complexity that arises from the fact that different virtues differently emphasized can put a very different texture on the moral life.

The Care Bears, because they are so feeling-oriented, are more Humean than Aristotelian; as in Hume, everything is about socially appropriate cultivation of sentiments, and, as in Hume, it's a picture of the moral life in which nice manners is a big part of morality. Not at all the most important part (for either Hume or the Care Bears), but it is arguably the part of morality we all have to deal with most often. Most of moral life, thankfully, does not consist of trolley problems or making decisions about world hunger; most of our time in the moral life is concerned with things like being gentle, cheering people up, working to get things done that have to be done, being fair about this or that, respecting other people's property, helping others out, and so on. An Aristotelian virtue ethics would have a place for these, but an Aristotelian approach would subordinate sentiment to reason and while there is no question that manners are actually quite important for Aristotle, this priority of reason tends to lead Aristotelians after him to treat manners as a secondary matter -- important in its own way, but almost a side issue in the context of the whole of moral life, a decoration or flourish. The Care Bears are very definitely in the Humean line of virtue ethics.

There is a feature, however, that they share with Aristotle as much as with Hume, and another feature that they arguably share with Aristotle more than with Hume. The first feature is that all of moral life has to start with what we have: with the actual feelings we feel, not some hypothetical about what we should feel, with our judgments about the situation, and with the social practices in which we are involved. If you feel grumpy you can't, Stoic-like, cut it away. On these accounts, virtue does not lie in pretending that you aren't grumpy, nor even necessarily in trying to "fix" yourself; rather, knowing what to do about the feeling is knowing what to do with it. Wishes won't wash the dishes, but human beings wish: ethics has to accept that fact. Good luck can't be counted on, but human beings hope for the improbable: ethics has to accept that fact. We have to deal with ourselves as we are, and we have to deal with other people as they are. This is a point that has unfotunately been somewhat de-emphasized by the disappearance of Tenderheart and the leadership of Cheer: sympathizing with people means starting where they are, wherever that might be, whereas trying to cheer them up risks the danger of putting you in a position where you are always trying to fix things. But even in the new iteration, Grumpy Bear still holds down the fort on this point: no matter what kind of life you lead, no matter what you do, you will never, ever live a life in which grumpiness is not an issue, and you just have to start with that. If you try to build an ethics that tells you not ever to be grumpy, you are trying to build an ethics that tells you not to be human. If you try to act as if nobody else should ever be grumpy, as if everyone who's down needs to be cheered up directly, you will end up making many situations worse. Virtue lies in what good can consistently be done even given that grumpiness, your own or that of others, is a fact of life and often, in fact, in finding constructive ways to turn that very feeling into good deeds.

The second feature, the emphasis on which is somewhat more Aristotelian than Humean, is that there's a lot of work involved in the moral life. We are always having to do something, just like the Care Bears are always having to do something. They never stop. There's always something new, and, because of dramatic necessity, the storylines in the television shows and movies have repeatedly ended up showing that things can sometimes get absolutely overwhelming. They have to hold on, and they have to keep going, and they have to work together, and sometimes it's almost impossible but they have to try anyway. And while Hume doesn't deny that this can be the case, it is the sort of thing that occupies a much larger place in an Aristotelian account of virtues than in a Humean account.

Of course, trying to live one's life in terms of Care Bear virtue ethics would be problematic in many ways. For one thing, it's obviously very incomplete, and could only be adequate for someone who has a very limited life. If you are a very young child, it's a salutary thing, but for adults there is something problematic and even disturbing about living the sort of moral life that can fit into the platitudes on greeting cards. There's something two-dimensional about that. (Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I know such people.) Toy models are not real guides. Real virtue ethics, whether Aristotelian or Humean or any other kind, must be much more massive and complicated. But precisely because it is massive, the toy model can be useful sometimes for pointing out what's going on in the real thing. That's probably why students find it useful when trying to understand Aristotle.