Saturday, February 04, 2017

Douglass on Free Speech

Why, what is the matter with us? Are we going to palliate and excuse a palpable and flagrant outrage on the right of speech, by implying that only a particular description of persons should exercise that right? Are we, at such a time, when a great principle has been struck down, to quench the moral indignation which the deed excites, by casting reflections upon those on whose persons the outrage has been committed? After all the arguments for liberty to which Boston has listened for more than a quarter of a century, has she yet to learn that the time to assert a right is the time when the right itself is called in question, and that the men of all others to assert it are the men to whom the right has been denied?

Frederick Douglass, A Plea for Free Speech in Boston

I Trod the Shining Sea

The Moon-Path
by Archibald Lampman

The full, clear moon uprose and spread
Her cold, pale splendor o'er the sea;
A light-strewn path that seemed to lead
Outward into eternity.
Between the darkness and the gleam
An old-world spell encompassed me:
Methought that in a godlike dream I trod upon the sea.

And lo! upon that glimmering road,
In shining companies unfurled,
The trains of many a primal god,
The monsters of the elder world;
Strange creatures that, with silver wings,
Scarce touched the ocean's thronging floor,
The phantoms of old tales, and things
Whose shapes are known no more.

Giants and demi-gods who once
Were dwellers of the earth and sea,
And they who from Deucalion's stones,
Rose men without an infancy;
Beings on whose majestic lids
Time's solemn secrets seemed to dwell,
Tritons and pale-limbed Nereids,
And forms of heaven and hell.

Some who were heroes long of yore,
When the great world was hale and young;
And some whose marble lips yet pour
The murmur of an antique tongue;
Sad queens, whose names are like soft moans,
Whose griefs were written up in gold;
And some who on their silver thrones
Were goddesses of old.

As if I had been dead indeed,
And come into some after-land,
I saw them pass me, and take heed,
And touch me with each mighty hand;
And evermore a murmurous stream,
So beautiful they seemed to me,
Not less than in a godlike dream
I trod the shining sea.

Upholding the Rule of Law

Paul Gowder has an interesting article out, The Trump Threat to the Rule of Law and the Constitution. There are some very good points in it -- e.g., the recognition that upholding the rule of law requires cultivating widespread trust in one another, the maintenance of reliable coordinating institutions, and free and credible elections. Gowder on the first of these, social trust, is quite excellent.

Other points are perhaps more disputable -- his "all-too-plausible" account of how Trump could became a tyrant strikes me as quite doubtful, for instance, since it requires a Trump administration acting far more coherently than we currently have reason to expect it could, arguably overestimates the ability of Trump supporters to organize on command, and simply fails to consider the sheer inertia that has to be overcome to move the U.S. federal government apparatus to consistent action, as well as the inertia of a population of over 300 million. An American coup is far more likely to arise out of opportunistic use of an unrest that spreads first at the bottom than from any actions initiated from the top.

And there are other points that are simply bad framing -- as Alyssa Rosenberg has noted, for instance, you should not confuse resistance with ordinary civic responsibilities. Gowder violates this commonsensical principle throughout.

But actually I want to focus on one thing:

Similarly, we must aggressively use the institutions of liberal democracy that we do control to sanction antisocial behavior. Jurisdictions controlled by opponents of Trump must make the investigation and punishment of hate-crimes, alt-right harassment, and similar behaviors a top priority—those who would engage in violence, or criminal activity that is a precursor to violence (stalking, hacking, doxxing, etc.) against opponents of the regime must instantly learn that they cannot act with impunity, and those who might otherwise be intimidated by the prospect of these acts need to learn that they will be protected.

I have no idea what Gowder was thinking in writing this atrocious paragraph. This is not how one protects and upholds the rule of law; "aggressively" using institutions that you "control" in order to "sanction" behavior is the very opposite of rule of law.

(1) In a genuine rule-of-law regime, punishments by institutions must occur (i) according to consistent principles that are part of the institutions themselves and that (ii) have been legally established so that (iii) they are the responsibility of the whole of society rather than particular factions in it. Gowder's description violates all three of these -- it makes the punishments in question depend on the will to exercise power rather than on stable principles built into the institutions, it makes them decided upon by the initiative of the individuals in "control" of the institutions rather than by legal process, and it makes it explicitly a matter of one faction taking action against other factions. This is atrocious. It is a recipe for escalation of political violence rather than preservation of rule of law. No rational person wanting to uphold the rule of law says, "We need to use the public institutions we control to punish people who are threats." It does not matter what the threats are, or how good the intentions are; it is a usurpation of power and the replacement of rule of law with the agenda of a faction.

(2) You should never use public institutions aggressively to punish people. Punishing people is a very serious matter, one that must be done cautiously and according to a proper form and process that provides the person who might be punished with multiple forms of protection. This is not something that can be done "aggressively". One might as well talk about aggressively going through a detailed safety checklist.

(3) Punitive institutions in a liberal democracy are not to be used for agendas, but instead should act in consistent ways for the common good of the whole, according to their specific mandate. If you are talking about someone using public institutions in order to punish people, you are already on the wrong track. In the same way, if there is any sense in which a faction controls an institution that does not boil down to "they happen to perform the official roles that are to be performed in much the same way regardless of who is performing them", you are talking about institutions that have already been corrupted. To be sure, there is always some wiggle room for different priorities and for judgment calls, but if the internal and intrinsic behavior of an institution significantly changes depending on who happens to be running it, this is already a sign of corruption, since the behavior should primarily be governed by the law. Rule of law requires that impartial and objective law be reflected by impartiality and objectivity in the functioning of the institutions of the society.

(4) The one-sidedness of Gowder's characterization is also a bit chilling. The institutions of a liberal democracy are there to protect everyone. If you are upholding the rule of law, then they should not only be used to protect opponents of the regime from violence but also supporters of the regime from violence. It should be entirely a matter of indifference whether you personally support or oppose the regime: the protections should be the same because they are the shared protections of everybody. Anything else turns rule of law into a war of one faction against another.

There is nothing less conducive to social trust than talking up the importance of it in an article in which you simultaneously advocate the use of public institutions that you 'control' to punish people aggressively. I have noticed this self-defeating pattern in other Trump opponents -- talk up some principle of liberal society and then pass immediately into saying something so utterly illiberal and inconsistent with it as to be truly astounding. (I have noticed this a number of times in how people talk about the civil service, for instance, as well as in how people talk about street violence for political ends.) Obviously this is not helpful for anything; indeed, it is an inconsistency dangerous to everyone.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Dashed Off III

With this I have gone entirely through the notebook I finished on September 25, 2015.

heuristics vs methodized prejudices

the natural education of the languor of youth

the Holy Spirit rolling like the vapor off the wine,
the bouquet of the glory of the Passion of the Vine

saint patronage as moral heuristic; as pedagogical method

For something to be a rule of thumb there must be a more rigorous standard with which it can be compared for appropriateness. (Merely making up rules does not make a rule of thumb, which must in some way get us 'close enough' to true, or be able to do so at least in principle, for some identifiable practical purpose.)

sour grapes as 'postjudice'
(evaluation based on it in some sense having 'already been decided for you', in the way in which prejudice as evaluation is based on in some sense having already decided it oneself, independently of the particulars of the case)

networks of instrumentality relations among people (note that markets are obvious examples, although not the only kinds)

All the discussion of confirmation and disconfirmation in philosophy of science turns out to be a discussion of analogy-breaking and analogy-strengthening between models/theories and experimental indications.

(1) analogy between experiment and theory/model
(2) analogy between experiments
(3) analogy between theories/models (needs ordinary language as intermediary)

A rule of thumb is something easy that provides a solution appropriate for practical purposes to a common kind of problem.

timeless structures undergoing temporal change (music)
the potential-actual structure of music

ought not (metaphysical) > ought not (physical)
- one perhaps can include ought nots of health among the latter
- it complicates the question of the ought not (ethical)
- Note that in Malebranche there is a completely general theory of ought nots (met, phys, eth) -- although as a Cartesian he perhaps does not have well developed ought not (phys). But relations of perfection can certainly handle them all.

miracle arguments // finetuning arguments
(especially noticeable with preternatural miracles)

"The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine." Waugh

violent and natural motions of reason (one could perhaps also make sense of neutral motion)

the obligatory & the official

axiology : spectator :: teleology : agent

The notion of scientific progress is the overlay of the idea of final cause on the material of scientific works.

(1) scientific progress requires final cause
(2) so scientific inquiry requires final cause
(3) so cognition requires final cause
(4) so at least some life requires final cause
(5) so at least some physical systems require final cause

the argument for scientific progress resting on Christian principles (Jaki) as a fine-tuning argument

The point of the Eucharist is to remember Christ, not (except part of that) the Last Supper.

intercession & occasional causation

'historical' vs 'tropological' readings of Box and Diamond
(related to necessary truths being normative in practical contexts)
This raises the question of whether there are allegorical and analogical senses. If historical is alethic, allegorical would seem to be doxastic. Allegory : belief :: anagogy : tending, so the anagogical would be the practical counterpart of the doxastic: presupposition (to be assumed) and posited goal (to be done) might perhaps be relevant here.
must be, to be achieved, to be assumed, must do
the necessary, the needed, the given, the normative
nec > giv > norm > need

the role of refreshiment of spirit in moral life (allowing oneself periods in which one need not worry about serious moral issues)

the passions as moneychangers in the Temple, making it a den of thieves

the dangers of developing a habit of complaint

True theological conclusions are spiritual formations to which one aspires as one aspires to beauty or virtue.

"Regulating the external is the means of nurturing what is within." Zhuxi

By grace the self is subdued and we are returned to liturgy.

liturgy as heavenly order in measured display

All sacrifice presupposes some kind of presence to that to which the sacrifice is made; and the nature of the presence affects the nature of the sacrifice.

Traditions, even degenerate ones, are always walls against certain kinds of abuse of power.

Accumulating bureaucracy is a sign that there is nothing forcing action, or very little.

subalternation of goods

Fidelity in marriage requires loving not merely the spouse but also loving the love of the spouse.

transitivity of equilibrium
conservation of energy
progression of entropy
minimum of inaction

There are different ways of not being fooled by something.

obligation-networks and sympathy-networks in society and the problem of their appropriate inter-functioning and intermeshing

interactional locking between languages/dialects (through geographical proximity, through common media, through extensive trade)

In confirmation we are conformed to Christ as full of grace and truth.

inborn luminous virtue (Great Learning) // agent intellect

The root established, the Way blossoms; and the root is filial piety toward God and fraternal respect toward Christ in our fellow Christians.

compliance facilitation as a basic principle of good administrative design (it is remarkable how often it is violated)
- this is linked to the engineering principle of repair facilitation

empires and the conversion of military power into economic power

Legality is a form of permissibility.

reiterative redundancy vs variant redundancy

common good and the authority to receive authority

rituals of unity
debts of sentiment
abstract obligations
mutual interests

It is a bad habit to say 'gratuitous' when you mean 'undeserved' or 'without reason'.

In practical matters, a perpetually indulged taste for novelties, uncompensated for by circumspection, inevitably leads you to being bogged down somewhere. There is no reason to think that the same in matters of intellectual inquiry are any different.

factors in philosophical stability over time
(1) philosophical diversity
(2) proportion of population with active investment in philosophical system
(3) prior history of philosophical change
(4) system dominance

The failure to distinguish kinds of evidence is a weakness of Bayesian accounts of evidence.

Advocacy is too often confession gone wrong.

plot convenience // merely verbal argument

the gift of receiving (e.g., parents regularly give their children the gift of receiving gifts from them)

Neither remission fo sins nor deification can be properly understood except in light of the other.

practical wisdom & means simplification

proof simplification // means simplification

perspectival mereology // dynamic mereology (the difference is whether change is by space or by time)

To use traditions as sources of easy answers is always a way of subordinating traditions to other ends.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit in baptism and in confirmation unify us as the Father and the Son are united, to the exent that we can be unified in the likeness of that unity.

order, unity, and manifestation as aspects of mission
beauty & mission

rhetoric and poetics as missions of reason

the motherhood of charity // the motherhood of the Church
(the link is the motherhood of Christ upon the Cross)

'Friendship' is said in many ways, according to the many ways, literal and figurative, that people may dwell together.

Charity is itself a virtue while natural friendship is not because the mutuality of friendship is possessed in the very possessing of charity within oneself; whereas natural friendship cannot provide such a guarantee, since the natural friend is not properly within us. In other words, the with-dwelling of charity, unlike that of natural friendship, is an indwelling. Cp. 1 Jn 4

Charity does not merely give us a new end; it gives us new means.

S is part of P [-S+P]
S is part of R [-S+R]
Therefore S is part of P and R. [-S+<+P+R>]
Therefore P overlaps R. [+P+R]

'I promise' as 'I oblige myself to give' (in the anon text On Significant Words)

tenses in mereological propositions
A was part of B -- A may be presently existing or past or both, but B must be at least in the past
A will be part of B -- A may be presently or futurely existing or both, but B must be at least in future
A is part of B -- A and B must both be at least presently existing
-- Think about how this works on the perspectival // dynamic analogy

overlap conversion only works in present tense

size (comparative) as a matter of what can be part of what

vestment // sign
index : mere covering :: symbol : fashion statement
(What would correspond to icon? Costume, perhaps? But that seems strong. Uniforms seems symbols as well.)

When a philosopher says 'at time t' think it through instead as 'with respect to a measurement by a given change'.

Causal reasoning is necessary for humor in order to distinguish humorous incongruities from mere discrepancies.

words of institution : Annunciation (Incarnation) :: epiclesis : Baptism

archaeology as a natural history of civilization

Scientific physics does not replace folk physics, although it may (and does) modify it; the two do not perform the same functions in intellectual life. Even physicists still use folk physics when (e.g.) interacting with apparatus.

exemplarity, contact, efficacy

One should not denigrate quiet fidelity simply for not being enthusiastic excitement.

Aim at good is always the final causation for any kind of obligation or law.

Love is that whereby knowledge and understanding pervades and permeates our lives.

The minister is part of the signification of the sacrament.

Virtues require a regime of friendship within which to thrive in full bloom.

Arguments from evil based on the concept of gratuitous evil necessarily make assumptions about explanation as at least a necessary condition for applying the notion of gratuitous evil at all.

Rowe's df of gratuitous evil: instance of suffering that omnipotent omniscience could prevent without the loss of greater good or permission of at least equally bad evil.
- Since omnipotent omniscience can guarantee responsive goods of arbitrary greatness of goodness, the class of gratuitous evils in this sense is empty: for any evil, God can guarantee a good depending in some way on that evil that is as great as you please. (The Incarnation and theosis from it shows this in a clear light.)
- As Alan Rhoda notes, it is odd to confine the df to suffering.

Rhoda's preliminary df.: An instance of evil that omnipotent omniscience could prevent in such a way as to make the world better.
- The obvious problem with this is: better in what way? Are we considering the evil alone (all evils would be gratuitious then)? Or with responsive goods that omnipotent omniscience could guarantee? The introduction of 'the world' is a degeneration from Rowe's df, not an improvement.

Socrates' first city // Adam Smith's system of natural liberty

The unity of truth is not the unity of a set or class.

Sets, as united diversities, presuppose transcendental unity.

Bodily integrity has a hierarchical structure, being itself an ordering of goods.

bodily integrity & the harmony of body and reason

While there are definite boundaries both kosher and Sabbath law are more concerned with thinking through reasons than with particular results.

rhetorica & the quasi-material causes of actual human reasoning

Where do you find holiness in this world? In the repentance of the penitent.

the integrity, the clarity, and the proportion of the sacrament

Calvin on virginity as a gift (commentary on 1 Cor 7)

invisible church views that are based on secret grace
invisible church views taking it as a forensic fusion

integral ecology // temperance

Christian Rosetti & the construction of poems out of suggestions

ministerial cause: that which takes the place of another in order to execute an actin

microfauna as instrumental causes

edaphiology and the soil as an instrumental cause

double effect in theodicy
just war criteria and theodicy

Nothing is called rational except that which has truth for its end or that which conforms with what has truth as its end.

seek good / avoid bad structures in the quasi-integral virtues of the cardinal virtues

thesis -> suggest possible contradictory position that might be taken -> aporetic development of arguments for and against each side -> resolution -> new thesis

Symbolic gestures are useful only for solving problems of symbolic communication.

remotion & palaetiology

faith : beliefs :: hope : plans :: charity : desires

To talk of 'last resort' presupposes that there is a natural division and ordering of possibilities.

Pain and pleasure are not simple impressions or simple experiences.

Maritain's Sixth Way and its corresponding external world argument

Civilizations are based on the keeping and using of records.

sensation as inferential shortcut

Frodi's mill as emblem of technology in general

Box : constitutional/organic law
True: statutory law
Diamond: allowed by constitutional law
(note that Box implied Diamond but Box and True are trickier to relate. Should constitutional law be treated as a case of statutory law?)

religions as establishing environmental niches for philosophical systems

conjunctive, disjunctive, and sequential lists
trees as sequential lists with disjunctive sublists
There is a general issue with how to distinguish kinds of lists.

All of S except P is part of Q
Therefore some of S is part of Q

dispositions as signs (disposition as signification)

Belief tends naturally to witness.

"The mind that is not baffled is not employed." Wendell Berry

"Christianity is the only front which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism." Chesterton

chastity as school of the gift of the person (under the influence of charity)
"Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self."

We sometimes cannot do for money what we can do for free because monetary gain (or similar) can introduce conflicts of interest.

A thesis: Every Platonic myth is concerned with the distinction between being and seeming. (Certainly true of Atlantis, Cave, Sun, Divided Line, Theuth, Er, Judgment. Look at Chariot, which is at least not an obvious case.)

Sacramental analogies are constrained by
(1) divine revelation
(2) relation of sacrament to sacrament
(3) other analogies

Any adequate account of fiction will need to have connections to an adequate account of dreaming.

Any textual reconstruction is always partly a philosophical endeavor.

Socratic method as the natural method for uncovering assumptions

A significant amount of engineering is an exercise in defining.

As a primitive in mereology, overlap has the advantage of being easily n-ary for n greater than 2. But parthood can also be such for parts within parts. Both admit of reduction, e.g., Oxyz to Oxy, but the asymmetry of parthood requires care.

etiquette as a means of living in society given that there will be terrible people

the artist as the curator for the Muse

knowing the lessons of history & anticipating the lessons of the future

parallels arising through
(1) interpretation
(2) coincidence
(3) convergence (structural)
(4) causation (influence)
-- identifying convergence and causation requires counterfactual reasoning.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Spend Thy Store

A Candlemas Dialogue
By Christina Rossetti

'Love brought Me down: and cannot love make thee
Carol for joy to Me?
Hear cheerful robin carol from his tree,
Who owes not half to Me
I won for thee.'

'Yea, Lord, I hear his carol's wordless voice;
And well may he rejoice
Who hath not heard of death's discordant noise.
So might I too rejoice
With such a voice.'

'True, thou hast compassed death: but hast not thou
The tree of life's own bough?
Am I not Life and Resurrection now?
My Cross, balm-bearing bough
For such as thou.'

'Ah me, Thy Cross! – but that seems far away;
Thy Cradle-song to-day
I too would raise and worship Thee and pray:
Not empty, Lord, to-day
Send me away.'

'If thou wilt not go empty, spend thy store;
And I will give thee more,
Yea, make thee ten times richer than before.
Give more and give yet more
Out of thy store.'

'Because Thou givest me Thyself, I will
Thy blessed word fulfil,
Give with both hands, and hoard by giving still:
Thy pleasure to fulfil,
And work Thy Will.'

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Five Books

A colleague asked a number of faculty what answer they might give to a request for five books of philosophy an educated person should read. There are a number of possibilities, but I thought I'd put my attempt to pin down one of them here.


My first-shot recommendations for the five philosophical works an educated person should have read:

Plato, Gorgias
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

My thinking is that all of these are texts
(1) of considerable actual historical influence 
(2) that are more or less universally accessible to those willing to put in the effort
(3) that do not require extraordinary assistance for most people to read, as long as they put in the time and effort
(4) that model how to do philosophy in a way that can be fairly easy to follow for most careful readers
(5) and that touch on topics of more or less universal interest

The trade-offs are interesting in something like this. I think a number of the big works in philosophy tend to be next door to incomprehensible even to most intelligent people without considerable help or a lot of preparation, while some of the most accessible works are marginal historically; and I think some works that are obvious candidates if you are teaching Intro are not necessarily great candidates if we are considering educated people who are interested in learning what it's about on their own time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

One-Sided Wars

An interesting passage from Mary Beard's SPQR:

There were two particularly significant conflicts in Italy in this period. First was the so-called Latin War, fought against Rome's Latin neighbours between 341 and 338 BCE. Shortly after followed the 'Samnite Wars'....Both of these 'wars' are rather artificial constructions, isolating two enemies and giving their names to the much more widespread, endemic fighting of the period, from a decidedly Romano-centric point of view (no Samnite ever fought a 'Samnite War').
[Mary Beard, SPQR, Liveright (NY: 2015) p. 158]

We tend to think of wars as having a sort of symmetry of sides, but it's certainly not always the case. I suppose the best example from our time is the 'War on Terror', which is certainly a form of warring, and from the American side as a fairly unified thing. Yet from the other side it is pretty clearly a lot of small distinct wars against enemies who do not always regard each other as being on the same side of any conflict at all and whose notion of 'the war' is inevitably going to be more narrow than to Americans, to whom the near-constant warring over the past decades starts to blur all together. We had some recent casualties in Yemen; I am quite sure most Americans could give no coherent answer as to why we are conducting military raids in Yemen. Nobody really wants it, but it's like the whole affair just runs on autopilot and who knows whom we'll be bombing next, or for what reason, or if we will even know about it until afterward. It comes across as mostly all the same from this end; but it wouldn't always seem even related from the other side.

JCC Threats

If you are able, you might consider donating to your local Jewish Community Center. This month, JCCs across the country have had to deal with three waves of bomb threats, the latest occurring today. Given the nature of the threats, it's pretty clearly a general campaign of harassment, almost certainly by a single group. JCC's tend to provide a lot of services to the community and do a great deal of fundraising for charitable causes, so this affects everyone, even beyond fact that harassment of community organizations is utterly unacceptable.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ethical Critique of Government

I haven't said much about the flurry of presidential memoranda and occasional executive orders (there is a difference, despite the fact that they are constantly reported as if they were the same), in part because getting accurate information about what is going on with them has been even more difficult than usual. If there has ever been a time that has made clear the truth that a serious reasoner should take news as notification and not as information -- as a signpost or flag saying, "These things might be worth looking at", rather than as a source for drawing conclusions -- this time is it. Shortly after people started talking about the executive order on entry into the US (which, annoyingly, doesn't seem to have received an EO number yet), practically everything that I saw being said about it turned out to be wrong within a matter of hours. Nothing is more dangerous to critical thought under such circumstances than relying on rumor rather than on evidence actually in possession.

When evaluating government actions ethically, there are basically three layers that need to be kept distinct and yet which all need to be considered. The first layer is the internal ethics of government operations, the ethics that must be maintained for it to function properly in the first place. This is what usually gets called 'government ethics' -- it deals with impartiality, conflict of interest, transparency, and so forth, and, as I've noted before, the first and most basic principle is that all actions of an agency of government must have an appropriate and specific ground of authority. This kind of ethics can get very tedious, and it only takes one so far, but it is the fundamental defense against government corruption. When violation of principles at this level becomes widespread, the cancer is sometimes untreatable, because all the mechanisms for treating it are themselves becoming compromised; a government that at least upholds these principles can be brought back to health, whatever the politicians do.

To give an example of what one must not do, take Mark Alfano's recommendations. He says people should save alt- and rogue- government Twitter handles on the following grounds:

Here is why you need to follow them: the Trump administration has issued gag orders to many government agencies that are meant to supply citizens with the truth. Officially, they are now meant to clear everything they say to media, on social media, etc. with the administration.


This is utterly absurd in a number of ways.

(1) The Twitter handles in question are almost certainly fake and very certainly unverifiable.

(2) This is in fact normal; it is standard transition protocol for government agencies to restrict non-essential communications where the new administration has not established or reaffirmed policy on communication. Moreover, all government agencies always have to clear what they say to media, on social media, with the administration, either directly or by complying with an administration policy. A government agency in the executive branch cannot do anything except insofar as it is required to meet statutory ends and is in compliance with guidelines for means deriving from the Office of the President. Again, the basic principle is that government action must be justified by a proper ground of authority.

The rationale here is straightforward: government agencies in the executive branch are basically proxies of the Office of the President, formed by, and operating in accordance with, Congressional statute. They have no legitimate existence outside this. A civil service in which operation outside these bounds is common is a civil service that is corrupt and operating inconsistently with its very reason for existence.

(3) As noted above, the Twitter handles are almost certainly fake; no serious civil servant would be likely to indulge in such an action, because any such action is inconsistent with the civil service itself. It is illegal -- and immoral, for obvious ethical reasons -- to represent yourself as a government agency when you do not have the authority to do so, and civil servants are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution and the law, and thus to recognize that all executive authority is invested in the Office of the President, and thus to comply with anything that the President sees fit to impose, as long as it is consistent with the Constitution and the law. A civil service that does not do this is self-subverting and destroys the entire ethical structure of the organization.

Alfano's argument, seeing a stark contrast between "resistance" and "obedience", is essentially that somehow government agencies -- and thus civil servants in them -- are independent of Constitutional authority. The civil service is the primary, although not the only, bulwark against the corruption of the government itself; it is not a panacea, but maintaining its ethical integrity is one of the most important things if you want to place limits on how far corruption can go. Alfano, however, is treating as ethically acceptable the violation of the most basic principles sustaining that ethical integrity. This is absurd, though; if you see a crack in the dam, you don't help the situation by blowing extra holes in it.

Ironically, despite Alfano's attempt to suggest otherwise, this is not something that has been done by the Trump administration so far. Very notably, and whatever else one might say, thus far admirably, every action has been explicitly linked to a specific and appropriate ground of authority -- in particular, already existing statutory law or Obama administration precedent. Not all of the actions may survive closer scrutiny -- the laws or precedents themselves might not turn out to be acceptable, or the particular extension might have particular problems not implied simply by the laws or precedents themselves -- but nothing has been done in violation of the internal ethics of government operation. For instance, the executive order on entry into the US is entirely legal, because Congress has given the President an extraordinary amount of authority to make decisions on immigration. There are, to be sure, questions about particular actions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (in their manner of complying are they also complying with other statutory and constitutional obligations?). There are also signs that the order may have been pushed through without time for a thorough review by the Office of Legal Counsel beforehand (which would violate no requirement but is certainly unwise) and that the implementation was flawed due to a failure to properly prepare the relevant agencies.

The latter is a serious issue that is a common problem with executive orders. People tend to think that when a law is passed, or an executive order is assigned, that it is somehow already in effect as if by magic; but in reality it has to propagate through an immense government machinery with an immense amount of inertia, filled with ordinary people who have to figure out how they are supposed to put it into effect. Sudden turns of policy, as this certainly was, are recipes for grinding gears and broken parts and complete breakdowns at crucial points. Unfortunately, this is very common with executive orders. It happens with laws, as well, but there are several buffers reducing the problem there, including the Office of the President itself, which is able to take the pressure off of the agencies by making decisions as to the best way to implement the law. Executive orders, all too often, make the false assumption that everyone down the line can make the right call on how to comply.

Whatever may be said, however, it is clearly illegitimate to try to save ethics in government by subverting the means for government to be ethical in its operations.

But all of this is only at the first level of ethics of governance. The broader, and more difficult, and yet more important level is what might be called political ethics, and it concerns ends as much as means. The handling of legal permanent residents -- green card holders -- obviously raised some serious problems. Strictly speaking, since they are not citizens, they do not have the same presumptions in their favor as citizens, but in practice Americans expect that legal permanent residents will be treated well. Good treatment of legal permanent residents is a protection for citizens. And this seems clearly to have been operative here. In extending the order to legal permanent residents, the administration made the same error that has occasionally been made when governments attempt to make it difficult for people disagreeing with government policy to have a livelihood: often people, even in agreement with the general policy, don't look at this and say, "Justice is being done," they look at it and say, "Just a step or two more and they could do the same to me." Complying with a rudimentary fairness based on its citizenry's long-term foreseeable self-interest is a low bar for a government to reach, but it is sometimes not reached, as seems to have been the case here. People have different views about how to handle immigration and reception of refugees; but it's a standard expectation across very different views that you should try to treat people fairly, whatever you end up doing, and nobody regards the government springing things on people suddenly as a fair form of governance in any other area of life.

But all of this is in some sense outside the major portion of the dispute, which is about the ethical question of whether the President's power should extend so far in the first place. What we are getting with President Trump is not Trump seizing power for the Presidency; it is Trump using power the Presidency has had, often for a long time. This is unfortunately, I think, lost in much of the 'resistance' talk among opponents of the current administration. When someone is 'resisting', as a matter of ethics it matters quite considerable what, precisely, is being resisted; and if you say that you are resisting Trump, you have in some sense already lost the path. Resisting Trump is a personal animus; resisting the Trump administration a political obstruction; but if your resistance is really grounded in ethical considerations, what you are resisting has to be ethical, and not subordinate the ethical to something else. An ethically grounded resistance is one that resists not the fact that Trump is doing something but that anyone in the Office of the President can do it at all. And the reasonable approach to such problems is to work to set in place statutes that make it so no one can.

That's only two layers. The third, and most important, is social. If we may allow for some oversimplification, the first layer is primarily about the means of government; the second layer is about the appropriate ends of government action and the fit of means to those ends; but the third layer is about how we as citizens and human beings relate to government, and how it is related to us. The most fundamental ethical critique of government is self-critique, and the most fundamental rebuke of corruption in government is incorrupt behavior in its citizens. Every ethical problem in government that is not simply a case of confusion or individual poor judgment is an outgrowth of a broader ethical problem in society; if society had certain norms in place, and upheld them, that particular ethical problem would never have arisen at all. A large-scale ethical problem in government always reflects some failing or defect in the combined actions by which its citizenry create, maintain, and develop common good; the corruption is always rooted more deeply than just government operations or politics. And such problems are always difficult to uproot, because doing so requires working with your fellow citizens to live a better way, which is something that occurs well upstream of any government actions. Perhaps that sounds sappy, but the fact of the matter is, if ethical critique does not ultimately reach this point, it is incomplete, and you are only running around treating symptoms of a much larger disease.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fortnightly Book, January 29

Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.

When John Steinbeck was a boy, his favorite book was the Caxton edition of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The book gave him a lifelong passion for King Arthur and his knights, so it is unsurprising that he had a continuing interest in the legends in all their shapes and forms. But he found that what he thought was most needed, did not seem to exist at all: a work that captured the charm of Malory for the present age. There have been various adaptations in various stages of irony; but these are really all just comments on our time. There have been various pageantries or extravagances; but these by their very nature put a distance between the viewer and the viewed. What Steinbeck wanted was something that reworked Malory to show it not as a comment on our own age, nor as a costume drama, but as a universal story. In the late 1950s he began on precisely such a project. He would never finish it. It's difficult to say why, but a stroke and recovery from it seems to have broken his momentum, and at some point he set it aside to work on his novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. The critics found that novel a disappointment, and when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, it was followed by nonstop critical attacks and mockery. He did not write any more fiction after that, and one of the casualties seems to have been his Arthur cycle. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights breaks off with the death of chivalry in the tale of Lancelot, with Lancelot, at the height of his reputation, weeping at the loss of his honor over Guinevere. It would be published posthumously in 1976 -- to that polite critical approval that is worse than disparagement, the kind that regards a work as being of no interest of itself, but only for the light it sheds on the author. There has been some movement in the past few years, though, to reconsider the work.

It is, in any case, perhaps appropriate to a work that more than anything expresses Steinbeck's view that the noblest causes are sometimes the ones that will inevitably fail.

There are a number of different versions of La Morte d'Arthur, but the one that has been most often taken as the standard through the years has been Caxton's original publication. In the 1930s, however, a discovery was made of a manuscript of the work that bears a number of very different features from that which Caxton actually printed; this, known as the Winchester Manuscript, is usually thought to be either the original or a copy closer to the original, and was probably the manuscript that Caxton gave himself rather free hand to revise as he was printing it. It is also the version on which Steinbeck based his work. The work is not a slavish rendering; Steinbeck held that presenting the legend to twentieth-century sensibilities required reworking how the story was presented, a reworking that is sometimes quite thorough. But it is intended to be very faithful to the essentials of that story, and is based on Steinbeck's having steeped himself in the study of all things Malorian.