Saturday, May 11, 2013

John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr. Moto


Opening Passage

It had not taken Wilson Hitchings long to realize that the firm of Hitchings Brothers had its definite place in the commercial aristocracy of the East, and that China had retained a respect for mercantile tradition which had disappeared from the Occidental world. There were still traditions of sailing days and of the pre-treaty days in the transactions of teh Shanghai branch of Hitchings Brothers The position of its office upon the Bund was enough to show it. The brass plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS was polished each morning by tje office coolies so that it glittered golden against the gray stone facade. Near by where the venerable plates of JARDINE MATHESON and of the HONG KONG AND SHANGHAI BANK. The plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS had the same remote dignity, the same integrity, the same imperviousness to time--which was not unnatural. That plate had been made when a branch of Hitchings Brothers , under the control of Wilson's great-grandfather from Salem, had moved up to Shanghai form the factories of Canton during the epoch when the place was little more than a swampy China-coast fishing town.

Summary: In 1931, after a considerable period of interfering in the politics of Manchuria, the Japanese invaded it and began a program of prying it entirely away from the Chinese government and assimilating it to the Empire. To this end, they re-formed it into Manzhuguo, or Manchukuo, the Manchu State, which it officially proclaimed and recognized in 1932. The Japanese installed Pu-Yi, of the Imperial line, as Head of State, and later backed him as Emperor of Manzhudiguo, the Great Manchurian Empire. The government was effectively run by the Japanese with Manchu figureheads putting a public face on Japanese vice-ministers who actually determined all policy. For several years after the invasion, there was strong popular resistance to Japanese involvement, with local Chinese forming fighting bands; this resistance was put down quite brutally by the Japanese.

Looking at it from the outside, the West had immense difficulty understanding what was going on in the region. In general there was opposite to this formation of an obvious Japanese puppet state, but this was more a matter of principle than anything. It looked to many in the outside world like the new Manchu state was bursting with progress. In a sense it was: Japanese efficiency combined with Manchurian resources were a potent industrial combination, and it became the major industrial center of the area. There were Japanese atrocities throughout the region, but outside of that area there was very little knowledge of them, and when there was, it was a dim sense of things that could not fully grasp the sheer scope on which the Japanese were operating. Likewise, the entire economic activity of the region, burgeoning though it was, was pressed wholly into the service of Japanese interests; the extent to which this was the case was also not widely known outside the region.

The events of our story occur right in the middle of this confusing period. Think Fast, Mr. Moto was serialized and then published in 1936. Much of the crisis is created by the attempt of a Chinese war profiteer, Chang Lo-Shih, is working with Russian agents to launder money and funnel it to the anti-Japanese resistance in Manchukuo. Mr. Moto, who, as is typical of a Mr. Moto story, has his split existence as the primary character who only shows up as if he were a secondary character, is out to stop this.

The basic means by which Chang Lo-Shih and his colleagues are engaging in their money-laundering operation involves, directly and indirectly, the Hitchings Brothers Bank, which is the reason Wilson Hitchings, youngest member of the family, crosses paths with Mr. Moto. Hitchings, of course, plays the obvious role of the Western mediator, the (in reality) secondary character in the structural role of primary character who serves as Western proxy to serve as a connector to Mr. Moto. Naturally, there needs to be a female love interest, in this case the fiery Eva Hitchings (a fourth cousin, if I have the family tree right) who is a thorn in the side of the family, having survived (when the Hitchings family had refused to provide much needed help) by turning an old family property in Honolulu, Hitchings Plantation, into a gambling house, and then keeping it that way just out of spite for the Hitchings family. Needless to say, it annoys the respectable Hitchingses to no end to have their name associated with a disreputable gambling house. Wilson is sent to try to solve this problem, as well as to determine whether the manager of the Honolulu Branch of Hitchings Brothers, Mr. Wilkie, is slacking off.

And that's pretty much the entire set-up of the story; everything follows directly from that. Mr. Moto, with ruthless (but very polite) efficiency, achieves his goals -- he is the greatest fictional secret agent prior to James Bond, so you can count on that, regardless -- but the interesting thing is always the way he does it.

Favorite Passage

When his servant had gone, he picked up a book to read;--a translation by Gilbert Murray of Euripides' "Medea." He began reading the play, purely for conscientious reasons, and because he had brought he volume with him, hoping sometime to read it; but when he reached Medea's first speech to the women of Corinth, the words began to hold him. The bitterness and the anger of that woman, whom he had always considered a pleasant girl in Hawthorne's "Tanglewood Tales," and Euripides' own knowledge of the depth of a woman's mind, filled him with reluctant wonder. There was the conviction of universal tragedy in the bitterness of Medea. Was it possible, he wondered, that all women possessed this latent bitterness? It had certainly not been manifest in his own relations with the girls he had met at home. They had been nice girls, happy girls, and their mothers had been contented and poised. Then, much as he deplored the conduct of Jason, in that it differed rather strongly from his own personal standards, it occurred to him that there was much in Jason which was universal also, and there was too much of Jason's psychology which he could understand. The Hitchingses had always been looking for the Golden Fleece. There was something of the spirit of Jason in all the Hitchingses--the same restiveness--the same relentlessness.

Vaguely, and inaccurately, he could identify himself with those pages of Euripides. Somewhere in the night sounds outside his room, the Greek chorus was singing a noiseless, mysterious song that was ringing in the background of his thoughts.... (pp. 24-25)

If the story had completely fulfilled the latent promise of this early passage, it would have been one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Recommendation: The basic story devices were probably more impressive in the 1930s than they would be today, but this is partly because they have been copied from this as one of the sources. The story nonetheless holds up fairly well, and Mr. Moto's deft handling of clueless Westerners and cunning (but outmatched) Orientals is as charming as ever. This is probably one of the better Mr. Moto books for light reading, although I have not read Right You Are, Mr. Moto, which is usually considered the best work in the series. It reads a lot like a stereotypical Golden Age movie, and this was certainly deliberate; all the characters, even the villains, have a likable quality to them, and it has an innocence about the matter, and a distance from the policies of expansionist Japan, that other Mr. Moto books can't always afford to have. Recommended for light reading; everyone should know Mr. Moto, and this is a good introduction to him.

Quotations from John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, Berkley Publishing Corporation (New York: 1963).

Aquinas for May XI

Oportet eum, qui ex his vult lucrari pecuniam, esse expertum quae eorum sint maxime cara, et in quibus locis; quia alia istorum in aliis regionibus abundant; ut scilicet emat in loco ubi abundant, et vendat in loco ubi sunt cara.

"It's needful for one who wishes to increase wealth, to be knowledgeable of those things that are most precious, and in what place; because some things abound in some regions and others in others. Thus it follows that he must buy in the place where they abound, and sell in the place where they are precious."

Sententia libri Politicorum lib. 1 lect. 9 n. 3

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tracks Across the Sill

Rain Poem
by Elizabeth Coatsworth

The rain was like a little mouse,
Quiet, small, and gray,
It pattered all around the house
And then it went away.
It did not come, I understand,
Indoors at all, until,
It found an open window and
Left tracks across the sill.

Aquinas for May X

Quia homo naturaliter est animal sociale, utpote qui indiget ad suam vitam multis, quae sibi ipse solus praeparare non potest; consequens est, quod homo naturaliter sit pars alicuius multitudinis, per quam praestetur sibi auxilium ad bene vivendum.

"Because man is naturally a social animal, seeing that he needs many things for his life that he himself alone is not able to prepare, it follows that man is naturally a part of some multitude, through which he receives help for living well."

Sententia libri Ethicorum lib. 1 lect. 1 n. 4

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Newbery Medal Winners

Today I was reading a poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth (which will be posted tomorrow). Coatsworth is most famous for her exquisite children's book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. The Cat Who Went to Heaven is one of those children's books, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that seems to mark a sharp difference between good taste in reading and not; I discovered not long ago, to my bafflement, that there are people who despise the book -- too much Buddhism, and not a sufficiently candy-coated ending, I guess. In any case, anyone who doesn't like the book has no literary taste and can be ignored.

It led me to think about Newbery Medal winners, though, since the book won the 1931 Newbery Medal. So that demands a booklist. There are a few I can't quite remember if I've read or not.

Newbery Medal Winners

List from here

Have read
Have not read, but have heard of
Have on my shelves **

2013: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (HarperCollins Children's Books)
2012: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Farrar Straus Giroux)
2011: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books)
2010: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books)
2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Dave McKean (HarperCollins)
2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick)
2007: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, illus. by Matt Phelan (Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson)
2006: Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins)
2005: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster)
2004: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press)
2003: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi (Hyperion Books for Children)
2002: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park(Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin)
2001: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (Dial)
2000: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Delacorte)
1999: Holes by Louis Sachar (Frances Foster)
1998: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Scholastic)
1997: The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg (Jean Karl/Atheneum)
1996: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman (Clarion)
1995: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (HarperCollins)
1994: The Giver by Lois Lowry(Houghton)
1993: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (Jackson/Orchard)
1992: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Atheneum)
1991: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (Little, Brown)
1990: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Houghton)
1989: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman (Harper)
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (Clarion)
1987: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow)
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (Harper)
1985: The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Greenwillow) **
1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (Morrow)
1983: Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt (Atheneum)
1982: A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard (Harcourt)
1981: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (Crowell)
1980: A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos (Scribner)
1979: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (Dutton) **
1978: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Crowell)
1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Dial)
1976: The Grey King by Susan Cooper (McElderry/Atheneum)
1975: M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton (Macmillan)
1974: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (Bradbury)
1973: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (Harper)
1972: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien (Atheneum)
1971: Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars (Viking)
1970: Sounder by William H. Armstrong (Harper)
1969: The High King by Lloyd Alexander (Holt)
1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum)
1967: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt (Follett)
1966: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino (Farrar)
1965: Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (Atheneum)
1964: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville (Harper)
1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Farrar) **
1962: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton)
1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (Houghton)
1960: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (Crowell)
1959: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton)
1958: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith (Crowell)
1957: Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen (Harcourt)
1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (Houghton)
1955: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong (Harper)
1954: ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (Crowell)
1953: Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark (Viking)
1952: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (Harcourt)
1951: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates (Dutton)
1950: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (Doubleday)
1949: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (Rand McNally)
1948: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois (Viking)
1947: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (Viking)
1946: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (Lippincott)
1945: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (Viking)
1944: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Houghton) (I think I've read it)
1943: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (Viking)
1942: The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds (Dodd)
1941: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (Macmillan)
1940: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty (Viking)
1939: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (Rinehart)
1938: The White Stag by Kate Seredy (Viking)
1937: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer (Viking)
1936: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (Macmillan)
1935: Dobry by Monica Shannon (Viking)
1934: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs (Little, Brown)
1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis (Winston)
1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer (Longmans)
1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (Macmillan) **
1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field (Macmillan)
1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (Macmillan) **
1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (Dutton)
1927: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James (Scribner)
1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman (Dutton)
1925: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger (Doubleday)
1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes (Little, Brown)
1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Stokes)
1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (Liveright)

Aquinas for May IX

Baptismus est principium spiritualis vitae, et ianua sacramentorum. Eucharistia vero est quasi consummatio spiritualis vitae, et omnium sacramentorum finis.

"Baptism is the source of spiritual life, and the gate of the sacraments. Eucharist in truth is as it were the consummation of spiritual life and the point of all the sacraments."

Summa Theologiae pars 3 q. 73 art. 3

Is That His Cloud?

Ascension Day
by Christina Rossetti

"A Cloud received Him out of their sight."

When Christ went up to Heaven the Apostles stayed
Gazing at Heaven with souls and wills on fire,
Their hearts on flight along the track He made,
Winged by desire.

Their silence spake: "Lord, why not follow Thee?
Home is not home without Thy Blessed Face,
Life is not life. Remember, Lord, and see,
Look back, embrace.

"Earth is one desert waste of banishment,
Life is one long-drawn anguish of decay.
Where Thou wert wont to go we also went:
Why not today?"

Nevertheless a cloud cut off their gaze:
They tarry to build up Jerusalem,
Watching for Him, while thro' the appointed days
He watches them.

They do His Will, and doing it rejoice,
Patiently glad to spend and to be spent:
Still He speaks to them, still they hear His Voice
And are content.

For as a cloud received Him from their sight,
So with a cloud will He return ere long:
Therefore they stand on guard by day, by night,
Strenuous and strong.

They do, they dare, they beyond seven times seven
Forgive, they cry God's mighty word aloud:
Yet sometimes haply lift tired eyes to Heaven--
"Is that His cloud?"

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Beautified, Replenished, Comforted, Still Gazing

Ascension Eve
by Christina Rossetti

O Lord Almighty, Who hast formed us weak,
With us whom Thou hast formed deal fatherly;
Be found of us whom Thou hast deigned to seek,
Be found that we the more may seek for Thee;
Lord, speak and grant us ears to hear Thee speak;
Lord, come to us and grant us eyes to see;
Lord, make us meek, for Thou Thyself art meek;
Lord, Thou art Love, fill us with charity.
O Thou the Life of living and of dead,
Who givest more the more Thyself hast given,
Suffice us as Thy saints Thou hast sufficed;
That beautified, replenished, comforted,
Still gazing off from earth and up at heaven
We may pursue Thy steps, Lord Jesus Christ.

Aquinas for May VIII

Manifestum est quod secundum legem divinam homo inducitur ut ordinem rationis servet in omnibus quae in eius usum venire possunt.

"It is clear that by divine law man is led to observe the order of reason in all things that can come to his use."

Summa Contra Gentiles lib.3 c. 128

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Organisms in Your Truth Table

I've been reading up on cellular automata, which is an interesting field: lots of genuinely worthwhile work combined with lots of enthusiasm outrunning evidence. It's a field where one gets claims like this, about the most famous cellular automaton, Conway's Game of Life (quoted from here, which is a good resource for understanding what cellular automata are):

Upon observing the seemingly unlimited complexity and variety of Life's evolving patterns, it becomes almost impossible to refrain from imagining, along with Conway, that, were the game really to be played on an infinite lattice, there must surely arise true living ‘life-forms’, perhaps themselves evolving into more complex, possibly sentient, ‘organisms’. (Ilachisnki 2001, p. 133)

This makes for fun science fiction, but vague sense of analogy doesn't really get very far, and that's all that's really working here. Cellular automata are nothing more than truth tables linked in series and networks -- usually a single truth table, applied to initial conditions, and then repeatedly re-applied to the results of previous applications. This is very obvious when it comes to what Wolfram calls 'elementary cellular automata'; the rules for these are just three-place truth tables, and the standard 'icon' for each rule is just its truth-table represented as a fragmentary cellular automaton. Thus Rule 110, whose Wolfram icon you can see here, is just the truth table:


The same is true of Conway's Game of Life, although in that case the truth table is a nine-place truth table (one place for each neighboring square, and for the central square at time t-1), so it would be quite large, and I won't put it here.

Conway's rules, simple as they are, are actually just descriptions of this monster truth table. They boil down to:

(1) Whenever [center] takes false, and there are exactly three neighbors that take true, the string is true; else the string is false.
(2) Whenever [center] takes true, and there are two or three neighbors that take true, the string is true; else the string is false.

Now, to be sure, it's a little more complicated than this, since the reiteration of the truth table requires that there by some underlying set of rules that defines how the results of applying the truth table are related to each other. That is, there are implicit rules that define what counts as the new center, and what its neighbors are, and each neighbor is itself a center whose next phase is determined by a truth table (the same truth table, usually, and certainly in Wolfram's elementary automata or Life), with well-defined numbers. In cellular automata these rules are just the underlying principle of the matrix itself, the 'board' for Life, for instance. We could easily change what counts as a 'neighbor' to a square by changing these implicit rules, showing that they are actually quite important, and that the full rule-set for Conway's Game of Life is actually somewhat more extensive than people usually let on. But these implicit rules defining centrality and neighborhood are just the rules for applying the truth tables. I actually wish I could lay out the rules clearly, but this is where I crash into the limits of my mathematical education.

So what we are actually seeing is just the graphic representation of truth tables applied in particular ways to initial conditions, and however much the squares in Life may look like little critters, all Ilachinski's claim boils down to is the claim that if you reiterate truth tables enough according to the implicit rules of Life, starting with the right kind of initial conditions, you will eventually at some point get a result that describes the same logical structure as some kind of animal or even intelligent behavior, if features of that behavior are mapped to truth values. This is pretty trivial. (If we don't read the quotes in Ilachinski's claim as scare quotes, then the suggestion, namely, that the single truth table in Life, applied according to the specific rules governing centrality and neighborhood, suffices for a complete description of some kind of organism, and particularly a sentient organism, is something that we have absolutely no reason to believe, and that no number of little cartoon figures -- which is what the graphic representations are, precisely defined cartoon figures -- could possibly give us reason to believe.)

Cellular automata are still quite fun, though, even if we don't indulge in science fiction.

Aquinas for May VII

Sicut humanae animae est quidam habitus naturalis quo principia speculativarum scientiarum cognoscit, quem vocamus intellectum principiorum; ita etiam in ea est quidam habitus naturalis primorum principiorum operabilium, quae sunt universalia principia iuris naturalis; qui quidem habitus ad synderesim pertinet.

"Just as there is a natural habitude in the human soul by which it knows the principles of the speculative sciences, which we call understanding of principles, so also there is in it a natural habitude for the first principles of do-able things, which are the universal principles of natural law; which habitude pertains to synderesis."

De veritate q. 16 art. 1

Monday, May 06, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Natural Law Theory IIIc

Part IIIb

IIIc. Particular Precepts as Not Known

The recognition that people do not perfectly know the natural law has been an important part of natural law theory from the beginning, and almost any major discussion of it spends some time talking about why people deviate from it. From everything we have discussed so far, it is clear that (1) the first precepts of natural law are the first principles of practical reason insofar as they concern common good; (2) the natural law is common to all human beings. It does not, however, follow from this that natural law theory is committed to the claim that everyone has equal knowledge of the precepts of natural law. People can fail to recognize somethings as belonging to natural law.

In a sense, we shouldn't be surprised by this anyway. The first principles of logic are common to all human beings, too, but nobody thinks that this implies that people have a perfect understanding of logical principles and their implications, nor does anyone think that it follows that people will be perfectly logical. However, we should expect this variation to an even greater extent in the case of natural law, for several reasons.

(1) Practical matters depend heavily on circumstantial details. Theoretical discussions can abstract from details fairly easily, but when we are discussing practical matters, the details will often matter. Subtly different details in our circumstances will sometimes require very different rational responses. You and I could be in apparently similar situations, judge differently, and both be judging correctly given some small but significant difference in detail between our situations. It does not follow, of course, that all differences are significant in this way, but some can be. The more general we are, the less of a problem this is, but staying at a purely general level in practical judgment is not a very practical procedure. We need to get to particular conclusions, and these can be very circumstance-dependent.

(2) Conclusions are harder to know than principles. By definition, a conclusion is something arrived at by reasoning, and reasoning often takes work. Extensive chains of reasoning can be difficult to follow and increases the possibility of error, which will sometimes require special steps to avoid. This, of course, is true in general, and not a purely practical matter, but, especially given the detail-oriented character of practical reasoning, this is one reason why so much practical judgment is by "eyeballing" or estimation. In practice we often don't reason out whether things are right or wrong so much as see whether things look at first glance like they fit our general template of right or wrong, whether they "sound right", because this saves time and effort.

(3) Bias and prejudice are especially likely to affect practical reasoning. Biases and prejudices can certain affect speculative reasoning, but this is nothing in comparison with what they sometimes do in practical matters. As Aquinas notes (ST 2-1.94.4), our reasoning in these cases can be thrown off by "passion, or bad custom, or bad disposition of nature". Strong attachments or revulsions can affect our practical assessments; education and the behaviors of people around us can affect them; and character traits can certainly affect them. Thus it is not surprising that people can come to the wrong conclusions when these are involved and are in some way inappropriate. In any of these ways people can fail to know the more intricate precepts of natural law. It's clear enough, too, that this fits our experience: practical matters about which people get very emotional, or which involve questions of whether or not to throw off well-established customs, or in which people can easily be motivated by various sorts of excesses or deficiencies of character, are often very contentious.

These three are mentioned by Aquinas. It's an interesting question whether they are exhaustive. Given their generality they perhaps can be considered so, as categories; but it does seem clear that there are common specific patterns of error. For instance, people often confuse private good with common good and vice versa. This directly affects natural law, because the principles of practical reason are only law to the extent they concern common good -- for instance, our common good as existing, living, reasoning beings. This is why practical understanding of, say, painting, is not itself part of natural law (although governed by it at least indirectly): the goods we deal with in painting this or that are not goods shared in common in the way we all share in common the good of people striving to be rational, trying to live in peace with each other, respecting property at least to some reasonable extent, educating their children and generally working to leave the next generation better off, being allowed to defend themselves in moderate ways, doing the kind of work required to sustain the human race, etc. It's equally a sort of practical reasoning, and is based on the same principles; but the practical rules of painting are not based on those principles as law. It's not difficult to recognize, however, that people are constantly slipping back and forth between practical reasoning concerning their own (or someone else's) private good and some kind of common good. All three of the above factors are certainly involved in this. Circumstantial details can matter in drawing the line between private and common good. When we're dealing with borderline cases, it can be difficult to be precise enough about what common goods we're considering to handle them solely in light of common good. (There is no doubt that people often estimate what common good must be based on what benefits themselves. Indeed, this is often an entirely reasonable thing to do, when people have a sufficiently enlightened and informed understanding of their own interests.) But even more than this, biases and prejudices are constantly leading us to favor our own good over what is good for everyone, often in subtle ways that we do not notice unless we are really looking. This kind of error, while perhaps traceable to the three categories mentioned above, appears to be a hybrid of them all.

The really worrisome part is the fact that vice can interfere with our practical judgment. There's a sense in which every vice is self-justifying: by being a stable disposition of character inclining for or against something, it inevitably affects our judgment, and begins setting up a sort of anti-prudence. (Historically this 'anti-prudence', which varies depending on the vice, is called a 'daughter vice'.) This is one of the reasons why natural law theorists have historically put immense emphasis on the importance of (1) careful and deliberation cultivation of prudence, (2) formation of conscience, (3) well-ordered positive laws, and, in Christian versions, (4) divine grace.

As I said before, the causes of deviation from natural law are quite important to natural law theory, and in practice most of what natural law theorists do is not deduce conclusions from first principles but work backwards by looking at what conclusions show signs of being vice-friendly. There are advantages and disadvantages to this way of proceeding. One disadvantage is that it never actually gets you beyond probable arguments and presumptive reasoning. Another disadvantage is that it can lead to a failure to take some special circumstance into account. On the other hand, the difficulty of rigorous argument in practical matters should not be underestimated, and no matter how apparently rigorous your deductions, you will at some point have to consider very seriously the possible sources of error in your reasoning. In reality, serious discussion of natural law requires careful consideration from both ends: both an attempt to apply general principles rigorously and an attempt to pin down any particular sources of error. In some cases this is not difficult at all, but there will always be cases where it will be extraordinarily difficult. But one of the key features of natural law theory is its insistence that inquiry into ethical matters is fundamentally a rational inquiry in which the entire human race is involved, and that this inquiry is not a free-for-all but actually capable of rational progress.

Having discussed the particular precepts of natural law, we can now move on to the last major element of natural law theory, namely, its connection to positive law, which we will do in a future post.

Part IV

Aquinas for May VI

Sicut homo suam primam perfectionem, scilicet animam, acquirit ex actione Dei; ita et ultimam suam perfectionem, quae est perfecta hominis felicitas, immediate habet a Deo, et in ipso quiescit: quod quidem ex hoc patet quod naturale hominis desiderium in ullo alio quietari potest, nisi in solo Deo.

"Just as man acquires his first completion, which is the soul, from the action of God, so also he has his ultimate completion, which is complete human happiness, immediately from God, and in Him rests: which indeed is clear from this, that human desire is naturally able to rest in nothing else except God alone."

De virtutibus, q. 1 art. 10

Notable Links

* Ed Feser responds to Hart's response to his reponse to Hart's criticism of natural law.

* E. J. Hutchinson discusses Ambrosiaster on natural law. Ambrosiaster is an anonymous fourth-century commentator, whose scriptural commentaries are widely recognized as exceptionally good. For a long time his works were attribute to St. Ambrose, hence the scholarly nickname for him, Ambrosiaster, which he has been given since the seventeenth century.

* David Corfield has a fascinating discussion of modal logic at "n-category cafe"

* Diederik Stapel and scientific fraud. Stapel manipulated or made up data in over fifty different papers over at least a ten year period, and his fraud contaminated at least ten Ph.D. dissertations which were based in part on new 'experiments' by him. Of course, the damage is even greater than that; Stapel was a major researcher, and his papers were widely cited.

And yet as part of a graduate seminar he taught on research ethics, Stapel would ask his students to dig back into their own research and look for things that might have been unethical. “They got back with terrible lapses­,” he told me. “No informed consent, no debriefing of subjects, then of course in data analysis, looking only at some data and not all the data.” He didn’t see the same problems in his own work, he said, because there were no real data to contend with.

We are a long ways from the day in which a Faraday could choose scientific research over trades because scientific research was ethically unimpeachable. If there aren't serious reforms to handle this kind of problem, we will reach a point where the damage is completely irreparable.

* Further discussion of Kretzmer's just war paper.

* fas, ius, and lex

* The Wireworld computer. Wireworld is a Turing complete cellular automaton

* "A Clerk of Oxford" discusses a late medieval poem from the Vernon Manuscript.

* An interesting Smithsonian article on quantitative urbanism"

* May 5 was the bicentennary of Kierkegaard's birth

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Aquinas for May V

Id quod potest virtus inferior, potest et superior; non tamen eodem modo, sed excellentiori. Unde easdem res quas sensus percipit materialiter et singulariter, intellectus immaterialiter et universaliter cognoscit.

"That which a lesser power can do, a greater can also do; not in the same way, but more excellently. Thus those things that the senses perceive materially and singularly, the understanding knows immaterially and universally."

De anima art 20 ad s.c. 3