Saturday, September 30, 2017

With Truth, with Virtue, Live

The Hour-Glass
by John Quincy Adams

Alas! how swift the moments fly!
How flash the years along!
Scarce here, yet gone already by,
The burden of a song.
See childhood, youth, and manhood pass,
And age, with furrowed brow;
Time was—Time shall be—drain the glass
But where in Time is now?

Time is the measure but of change;
No present hour is found;
The past, the future, fill the range
Of Time's unceasing round.
Where, then, is now? In realms above,
With God's atoning Lamb,
In regions of eternal love,
Where sits enthroned I AM.

Then, pilgrim, let thy joys and tears
On Time no longer lean;
But henceforth all thy hopes and fears
From earth's affections wean:
To God let votive accents rise;
With truth, with virtue, live;
So all the bliss that Time denies
Eternity shall give.

The Thunderer

Today is the feast of St. Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, better known as St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church. An ascetic who apparently only became a priest because he was forced to by his bishop, Paulinus II of Antioch, he spent time in Constantinople with St. Gregory of Nazianzen before going with Paulinus to a synod in Rome under Pope St. Damasus I. His brilliance was recognized immediately, and Damasus arranged for him to stay at Rome. There he got along quite well with women and no one else; as he encouraged women to become ascetics, the Romans became quite hostile to him. It doubtless did not help that he was frank, caustic, and abrasive. He was eventually forced to return to Antioch, at which point he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt. He spent the last, long phase of his life in a cave near Bethlehem, a small community of ascetics gathering around him, and died September 30, 420.

From his famous Helmeted Introduction to the Book of Kings:

While these things may be so, I implore you, reader, that you might not consider my work a rebuke of the ancients. Each one offers to the Tabernacle of God what he is able. Some offer gold and silver and precious stones; others, linen and purple, scarlet and blue. It will go well with us, if we offer the skins and hair of goats. For the Apostle still judges our more contemptible parts more necessary. From which both the whole of the beauty of the Tabernacle and each individual kind, a distinction of the present and future Church, is covered with skins and goat-hair coverings, and the heat of the sun and the harmful rain are kept off by those things which are of lesser value. Therefore, first read my Samuel and Kings; mine, I say, mine. For whatever we have learned and know by often translating and carefully correcting is ours. And when you come to understand what you did not know before, either consider me a translator, if you are grateful, or a paraphraser, if ungrateful, although I am truly not at all aware of anything of the Hebrew to have been changed by me....

But I also ask you, handmaidens of Christ, who have anointed the head of your reclining Lord with the most precious myrrh of faith, who have in no way sought the Savior in the tomb, for whom Christ has now ascended to the Father, that you might oppose the shields of your prayers against the barking dogs which rage against me with rabid mouth and go around the city, and in it they are considered educated if slandering others. I, knowing my humility, will always remember these sentences: "I will guard my ways, so I will not offend with my tongue; I have placed a guard on my mouth, while the sinner stands against me; I was mute, and humiliated, and silent because of good things."

Dion, "The Thunderer". The lyrics are from a poem by Phyllis McGinley. Jerome was indeed no "plaster sort of saint", but he gave people's minds a "godly leaven", and by his very existence shows that "it takes all kinds to make a Heaven."

Friday, September 29, 2017

Three New Poem Drafts


There is no emptiness in space;
the solar winds there play and sport,
and dust is blowing in the deep,
and light is speeding through the dark.
Though evil seems a gaping threat,
look! The good, spread however thin,
is stretched from world to world like wire,
is spread throughout the Milky Way
and far beyond, so spinning stars
will never spin alone.

Quiet Morning

The sleepy world in darkness slumbers now,
the quiet doze before the rising dawn,
a peace that knows no troubled sigh nor doubt:
the world in shadow, dream its only law.
A seeping light begins to gild the clouds
like joy as it infuses idle thoughts.
The blossoms all with dewy crystal crowned
are waved by breeze that tumbles on the lawn
as birds are throwing off a raucous sound.
The early-waking heart is touched by awe,
to glory vowed.

Rabbit in the Yard

The rabbit in the yard has tucked its paws
where grass is shaded, fresh, and minty cool;
the wind across its fur a finger draws
as dreams beneath long ears begin to pool.
What visions curl like mists in rabbit minds?
Are they in motion, leaping on the trail?
Of verdure sweet to taste, and chewy rind?
Of shift of whisker, twitch of fluffy tail?
A secret of the rabbit it shall be,
though towers crumble and the cities fall --
a noise is heard, the rabbit leaps to flee
and bounds across the lawn, beneath the wall.
But shade like tide moves in and out with time;
the rabbit will return with dreams sublime.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sweet to Me is Shipwreck on this Sea

The Infinite
by Giacomo Leopardi
tr. by Frederick Townsend

This lonely hill to me was ever dear,
This hedge, which shuts from view so large a part
Of the remote horizon. As I sit
And gaze, absorbed, I in my thought conceive
The boundless spaces that beyond it range,
The silence supernatural, and rest
Profound; and for a moment I am calm.
And as I listen to the wind, that through
These trees is murmuring, its plaintive voice
I with that infinite compare;
And things eternal I recall, and all
The seasons dead, and this, that round me lives,
And utters its complaint. Thus wandering
My thought in this immensity is drowned;
And sweet to me is shipwreck on this sea.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Evening Note for Wednesday, September 27

Thought for the Evening: Indispensability Arguments for Causal Reasoning

Bertrand Russell, in his essay, "On the Notion of Cause" (found in Mysticism and Logic), famously argued that the notion of cause did not occur in advanced sciences, since it was not found as a term or relation in any of the best theories -- the role people attribute to causes is really taken by mathematical formulas. Russell himself would later pull back from this, and it has not generally been accepted; most philosophers of science today would, I think, regard it as false, although it perhaps depends to some degree on what one considers to count as causation. In any case, it has not fully died, either; I have occasionally run across people, including philosophers and physicists, making something like this claim. It is a sign of the fundamental problem that has plagued thinking about scientific inquiry for much of the past century and a half, namely, the obsession with theory. But the distinctive strengths of what we call scientific inquiry have never been found in theorizing; experimentation, broadly considered, and the reasoning based on it, is quite ineliminable. And here is the thing: there is no completely non-causal account of experimentation. We have no non-causal account of perception; we have no non-causal account of most kinds of measurement; we have no account of scientific inquiry in which experiments are not treated as effects of causes, namely, scientists; and, over and over, if you look at the reasoning used in experiments in order to draw conclusions from them, it is causal. There aren't even any semi-plausible-if-you-make-certain-assumptions rivals available; nobody has ever come up with any.

Suppose we take a simple experiment like this. A body is suspended from an arm of a properly constructed balance, with weights on the other arm in sufficient amount to balance out the body. We put another body some distance away and then electrify both bodies. If we see the body move, we add weights until it is back in balance, and take note of the weights we've added as a measurement. Even setting aside the fact that the very set-up of the experiment is entirely in causal terms (a balance we've constructed, a body we've suspended, a body we've placed, bodies we have electrified, weights we've added, measurements we've noted down), and even setting aside the fact that making sense of seeing the body move requires taking our visual experiences to be caused by the bodies in some way, to make sense of the measurements for the purpose of drawing the conclusion, we have to take the movement of the body on the balance as an effect of the other body, when they are both electrified. What could one conceivably do in order to strip out all this causal reasoning and replace it by noncausal reasoning, while keeping the conclusions about force completely intact? And the answer is that literally no one has any idea.

Thus just as some people want to run indispensability arguments for certain things in mathematics, based on the fact that you can't do science without them, so too one can run indispensability arguments for causal notions, on the same ground. Indeed, some of them are even easier to get off the ground, and come with less baggage than the indispensability arguments for mathematics, since there are at least simple scientific experiments you can do and reason about causally without having to bring in any mathematics at all.

Thus one could argue:

(A1) If something is indispensable for understanding our best experimental work and deriving theory-relevant conclusions from it, this is a good reason to accept it.
(A2) At least some causal notions are indispensable for understanding experiments, because (for instance) 'experiment' itself seems to be a causal notion, experiments use devices that can only be understood causally, we cannot draw conclusions from some experiments without causal reasoning.
(A3) Therefore we have good reason to accept causal notions.

Or we could argue instead:

(B1) Causal discourse is very effective as the language of experimentation.
(B2) There must be a reason for this success.
(B3) The simplest and most plausible reason is that at least much of this causal discourse is at least roughly true.
(B4) For causal discourse to be at least roughly true, some causal notions must be identifying something real.

Or we could argue:

(C1) In describing experiments so as to draw conclusions from them, scientists must operate on the assumption of the viability of at least some causal reasoning.
(C2) If we are justified in drawing conclusions this way, we must be justified in accepting causal reasoning.
(C3) To be justified in accepting causal reasoning, we must regard at least some causal notions as true.

Or we could argue:

(D1) There are genuinely causal explanations of experimental phenomena.
(D2) Some of these are our best explanations.
(D3) The best explanation for why they are the best is that they are at least approximately true.
(D4) For genuinely causal explanations to be at least approximately true, some causal notions must be identifying something real.

No doubt there are others one could use.

Various Links of Interest

* Giovanni Giorgini, Radical Plato: John Stuart Mill, George Grote, and the Revival of Plato in Nineteenth-Century England.

* Roger Scruton, As the left surges back, Marxism's bloody legacy is covered up

* Susan James, Mary Wollstonecraft's Conception of Rights

* Benjamin Schwarz, The New Elite's Silly Virtue-Signaling Consumption, a review of Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's The Sum of Small Things:

The cultural “products” that Currid-Halkett highlights as holding particular prestige for the educated elite—HBO dramas, TED Talks, podcasts, documentary films—are consistent with the gestural (one might say lazy) nature of elite intellectual activity. Consuming these products (or even reading Paul Krugman’s column) is entirely different from, say, wrestling with a thorny passage in the Book of Job or Das Kapital. Listening to a podcast or watching a TED Talk certainly exhibits and enhances cultural capital, but those are merely acts of passive consumption, rather than of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. Thus, for instance, Christian Lander has recognized the complacent and intellectually and politically stultifying character of so many undertakings that members of the elite tout as broadening: They “like feeling smart without doing work—two hours in a [movie] theater is easier than ten hours with a book.”

* Eleanor Parker, Stop teaching our children lazy anti-Catholic myths

* Robert Gooding-Williams, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Christopher Smeenk and George Ellis, Philosophy of Cosmology, and Erika Rummel, Desiderius Erasmus, at the SEP

* Pictures from Prime Numbers: The Trinity Hall Prime

Currently Reading

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising
Edith Stein, Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities
John of St. Thomas, Introduction to the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas
Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Volume I

A Sweeter Grace than Youth

Autumn Sonnet to My Mother
by Laurence Gifford Holland

And comest thou to claim the dues of years
The tribute of the leaves—the debt of tears;
And comest thou again, old hallowed friend
Bound by the past, yet beckoning to the end,
Bound by the ties of life's serenest hours,
Bound by the sweet remembrance of dead flowers,
Once more to chant thy dirge, so old, so true,
Of little done, and fewer left to do!
Ah! comest thou indeed! So swift—so soon,
Tinged with the golden flush of summer's noon:
Yet on one brow thy deepening rays bestow
A sweeter grace than youth: a brighter glow,
Born of our first affection's holy dawn,
Points to a home by autumn nearer drawn.

From the fresh Spring of hope we wake to know
That love hath had another year to flow;
Yet should we sigh to find said Time unfold
The wasted moments, when our hearts seemed cold
Nay! for though Autumn comes again, 'twill rear
The seed of deeper love—too deep to blossom here.
November, 1873.

Strictly speaking, a caudate sonnet (consisting of a sonnet proper plus a coda). It's relatively unusual to find a caudate sonnet that's not satirical, though.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Goff on Taxation and Theft

Philip Goff has an absurd argument against the (often absurd) claim that taxation is theft at Aeon. Having first distinguished between legal and moral theft, he says:

If we wanted to say that tax is legal theft, then we would have to argue that people have a legal claim to their pre-tax income, and hence that the government commits legal theft when it takes the pre-tax income of its citizens. This idea can be quickly dismissed. Clearly if Ms Jones is legally obliged to pay a certain amount of tax on her gross income, then she is not legally entitled to keep all her pre-tax income. It follows logically that the state does not commit legal theft when it enforces the payment of this tax.

This is obvious nonsense. If by 'legally obliged' we mean that when a legitimate and licit proclamation of a legislature purports to obligate you to pay something, you are obligated to pay it, then Goff's response begs the question, even assuming that we are only talking about legal theft. There can be illegitimate and illicit laws, e.g., unconstitutional ones, and if someone is going around saying that taxation is legal theft, obviously they are denying that they are legally obliged to pay anything by any kind of legitimate and licit law. Nobody is claiming that if a tax law is legitimate and licit, taxation is theft; they are claiming that enforcing or executing the law in question is theft. Further, the very way Goff chooses to state the issue establishes that people have at last a default legal claim to their pre-tax income: if Ms Jones is legally obliged to pay a certain amount of tax on HER gross income (which is why she is obligated and not someone else, since it would be most unfortunate to be obligated to pay the tax on someone else's gross income), it must have some kind of legal status of being hers to begin with. Thus she has some kind of legal claim on it, depending on the exact legal status -- and since Goff hasn't examined that legal status, he has no way of saying whether the claim is relevant or not. So the gross income is legally hers in some way, and the only question then (if we are sticking with legal theft) is whether, granted that it is legally hers, there is any legitimate and licit law that can require her to pay a certain amount of it in tax. This is the very question at hand, and one that Goff begs.

There are many, many reasons not to take ordinary taxation, at least, to be legal theft; but it's a bad sign that, having argued against the easiest target, he has failed so badly.

So Goff moves on to the moral question. He starts out badly again by saying that gross or pre-tax income "is the money the market delivers to you". This is obviously not true; gross income is usually what the employer with whom you have a contract delivers to you. 'The market' does not deliver money to you; your employer is not 'the market'. 'The market' is what we call the system of exchange constituted by your employer, you, other employees, etc. It is an abstraction of your market-activity interacting other people's market-activity. One could let it slide as a figure of speech, if it weren't for the fact that the abstract character of the term clearly does work throughout Goff's argument. He goes on, in fact, to use it immediately to object to the argument that we are morally entitled to our gross income because we, having worked for it, deserve it. To this he says:

This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society.

The question, again, is not what the abstraction 'the market' does, because 'the market' is just a label for what we do in matters of exchange. So what we are really concerned with is usually something like this: You have an employer, of some kind, with whom you have a contract, of some kind. This employer has some money. There is at this point no legal or moral question that it is the employer's money; everybody, including the law and the employee, recognizes it as the employer's money. Under this contract, you are to do some work for the employer, and, also because of that contract, your doing that work obligates your employer to give you part of your employer's money. This money is your gross income, since this can all be done prior to any consideration of tax. So if it was morally and legally the employer's money, and it was the employer's moral and legal obligation under contract to give it to you; and if the employer did not give it to you, that would have involved violations of moral and legal obligations, how does your work not entitle you to that money? That is the question Goff jumps around -- he keeps denying that the rights involved are the kind his opponents think, but he never actually gives us a coherent (or any substantive) account of what rights actually are involved.

Goff's answer also makes a common error with regard to desert. In matters of talk about desert and merit, it has long been known that in some such talk the assumption is that the desert or merit is condign, and in some the assumption is that it is congruous. If something is deserved condignly, it is the reward required in strict justice simply by the action in and of itself. If something is deserved congruously, this means that one deserves it by equity rather than strict justice, because the action occupies a certain role or function in a conventional system of exchange. Thus, no one condignly deserves a trophy for running fact; in a running contest in which the prize is a trophy, one may nonetheless deserve it congruously by running fast enough. Congruous desert can be heavily dependent on liberality and generosity, but it can also be highly constrained by justice. Likewise here: contracts are constrained by expectations of fairness and mutual benefit, the employee condignly deserves to be given fair exchange in transaction, and the citizens condignly deserve to have their rights respected by the government. Whether they are getting the wages they congruously deserve with respect to the common good, however, is a distinct question. They should not be conflated.

This does not in itself salvage the desert argument from every objection, because the obvious next question is what is involved in deserving it -- if (as is not an uncommon view) the state is one part of it, the state may well have some kind of claim that can affect the nature of the desert, which could possibly give wiggle-room for taxes. But Goff's objection fails completely.

Goff goes on to recognize that another objection is that you are entitled to the gross income, and he is at least sensible enough to recognize that a major issue here is whether property has priority over property law, or vice versa. If property rights are purely legal, he is right that there are problems for one who would argue that taxation is theft, although he doesn't give a very good reason for thinking this, in part because he assumes the bad reasoning he has already given. But let's set this aside, since the most serious line of argument would be based on natural property rights. Goff argues that two things are required for this approach:

It requires accepting the general libertarian commitment to property being natural and not dependent on human laws or conventions. And it also requires denying the Left-wing libertarian claim that each of us has an equal moral claim on the resources of the natural world.

The first claim is not strictly correct, since to say that the right relevant to property is natural is not the same as saying that property is natural; one may have a natural moral claim with regard to things that are dependent on human laws or conventions, so that, for instance, we might say we have a natural right to just treatment by the law, even though treatment by the law, and indeed the law itself, is dependent on human laws and conventions. Thus the second is the key issue. With respect to the second, he goes on (rightly) to note that the usual right-libertarian approaches to the second leave open some perplexing questions, then says:

According to Right-wing libertarianism, the market distribution of wealth is morally significant because it is the distribution that respects the voluntary choices people have made with the property to which they have a natural right. But this is the case only if the market is perfectly free, ie if the state has no influence on the distribution of wealth. Yet there are very few countries in the world in which this is the case. In almost every country, there is a certain amount of taxation, at least to pay for roads and infrastructure, if not for education and healthcare. But even the smallest such state intervention entails that the market distribution of wealth no longer reflects the free choices of citizens, and hence by the lights of Right-wing libertarianism the citizens of these countries have no moral claim on their pre-tax income.

This is again a very bad argument. For right-libertarians, moral claims on property and income are not dependent on claims about the market distribution of wealth; the details differ somewhat from version to version, but the moral claims on property and income depend on labor and contractual exchange. What the right-libertarian thinks is not that government interference somehow negates the rights of labor and contract, but that it is interfering with the results of these rights, which would, without such interference, work things out in a more-or-less (i.e., to the extent possible given accidents and the like) morally fair distribution based on the supply and demand of labor and on contract negotiations. Right-libertarians are not people like Goff who think that claims to property and income depend on distribution, even a good distribution, at all; they are people who think that claims to property and income depend on work and personal interactions. The government has not replaced personal interactions; it is (on the hypothesis) involving itself in them in ways it has no right; the right-libertarian thinks that a result of this maldistribution; if rights were respected properly, over time the maldistribution would disappear. It is a bizarre argument to 'refute' right-libertarians by assuming that their view of distribution is that of progressive liberals. Thus the wrongness of Goff's conclusions:

In theory, Right-wing libertarianism does entail that people have a moral claim on their pre-tax income, and hence that taxation is theft, but only in hypothetical societies where there is zero or minimal state interference in the economy. In states in which the government intervenes in the economy through taxation – ie, in almost every developed state – market transactions are tainted and so are morally void.

But this is just blatantly false on any recognizable right-libertarian view; on such views, the government doesn't have any ability to make market transactions morally void, because the moral legitimacy of the transactions themselves depends on personal interaction. If the high school bully takes your lawnmowing money and then gives it to his grandmother to buy a movie ticket with, the moral problem is with a bully going around taking people's money, not with his grandmother's buying a movie ticket, and the fact that the bully is a bully doesn't mean that the grandmother's transaction is "morally void". Depending on the issues, and how, exactly our legal system handles issues of coercive takings, it is conceivable that there might be a legal problem with the transaction; but morally, the grandmother has the money, she herself did nothing wrong in getting it, nobody thinks she might have, the entire deal between her and the movie theater is an honest exchange, and there's nothing tainted about the transaction itself, any more than if the bully stole the money, then lost it on the sidewalk where the grandmother found it and thriftily picked it up and spent it. Now, this certainly raises questions. But it doesn't come near to making all market transactions "tainted" and "morally void".

None of this, of course, supports the notion that taxation is theft, and it is certainly the case that in passing Goff does raise genuine problems for it. But the particular ground on which he is trying to build the argument, the claim that when an employer pays you, you have no moral claim to the money prior to taxes, is a nonstarter. For one thing, as noted above, even to formulate the position coherently requires already recognizing some kind of moral claim to pre-income tax -- it's quite clearly the case that the government is not taxing Jane's employer but Jane, and it is taxing her for income that's hers and not someone else's. It is easily recognizable that people can cut fair deals where there is no government regulation or taxation at all, and that people have the right and moral authority make contracts for their benefit and the benefit of others, simply in themselves. So the right-libertarian is going to say that while honest dealings don't require any special justification, any intervention of the government into this must be justified; that, in fact, where the government is not protecting Jane from fraud or violence, or others from Jane's fraud or violence, it has no right or moral authority to intervene, especially against consent; and that when it does in the form of taxes, it is violating the rights of the parties involved.

We can see part of the problem if we look at the matter in terms of labor rights. If we set up a system in which people worked for employers, but employers paid the government rather than the worker (which by Goff's account would be perfectly just), and then the worker was paid whatever the government thought appropriate, this would be widely regarded as a violation of the rights of workers to pay: workers have a right to pay, even if the government has a right to taxes. But on Goff's account there can't be a labor right to pay: you don't have any moral or legal claim to your pre-tax income, so if the government taxes 100% of it, it hasn't violated your rights. And this is exactly how right-libertarians would tend to regard Goff's proposal: as an attack on the rights of workers. Similarly, Goff seems completely oblivious to the ways in which governments have historically used taxation as a tool of oppression, even though any right-libertarian would continually be thinking of these things. And this seems to be the fundamental problem: Goff treats his opponents as inconsistent upholders of his own view of how society should work, not as what they are, people who would naturally see his view as a defense of totalitarian oppression, and therefore he seems not to have any idea of how they actually see things. He thinks he is arguing for justice; he has no idea how to interpret accurately people who see him as arguing for injustice.

There are broader issues. Goff notes that "Almost all politicians and voters start from the assumption that each citizen has some kind of moral claim on her gross income." He has done other articles (much less bad) on the subject, and he always ends up saying something like this. He wants to say it is incoherent -- he certainly hasn't done this, since he never considers the possibility of defeasible moral claims, and his arguments involve several equivocations or at least controvertible assumptions. But the fact of that matter is that this very concession is a problem: it means that our social norms presuppose it, that our laws are expected to uphold it, that citizens elect officials expecting to uphold it, that politicians expect it to be understood when making laws, that, in short, the societies we have are societies in which it is posited to be true, and that our ways of doing things depend on this assumption, and that is is so even if it in practice must be taken as a rough-and-dirty, defeasible claim. Thus what is Goff actually describing when he says one has no moral claim to gross income? Not the way income works in the society we actually have.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Clifford's Island Agitators

If Clifford's sea captain example is problematic, this raises the question of whether his other major example, that of the island agitators, suffers similar problems. Clifford says:

There was once an island in which some of the inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither the doctrine of original sin nor that of eternal punishment. A suspicion got abroad that the professors of this religion had made use of unfair means to get their doctrines taught to children. They were accused of wresting the laws of their country in such a way as to remove children from the care of their natural and legal guardians; and even of stealing them away and keeping them concealed from their friends and relations. A certain number of men formed themselves into a society for the purpose of agitating the public about this matter. They published grave accusations against individual citizens of the highest position and character, and did all in their power to injure these citizens in their exercise of their professions. So great was the noise they made, that a Commission was appointed to investigate the facts; but after the Commission had carefully inquired into all the evidence that could be got, it appeared that the accused were innocent. Not only had they been accused of insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their innocence was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a fair inquiry. After these disclosures the inhabitants of that country looked upon the members of the agitating society, not only as persons whose judgment was to be distrusted, but also as no longer to be counted honourable men. For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them. Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.

The introduction of the Commission means that this case does not suffer from the problem the sea captain case had with its failure to make actual evidence central to the scenario; while we do not know the evidence (on either side), we have evidence of evidence, and the question of evidence ends up being central to the case. So there's certainly an improvement. The mention of original sin and eternal punishment probably indicates that Clifford is thinking of the actual treatment of the so-called Rational Dissenters, or similar groups, in England. If we look at the timeline, we get:

(1) A suspicion gets abroad that these people are (legally or illegally) taking children from their families in order to indoctrinate them.
(2) Some islanders form a society to agitate about the matter.
(3) The society actively accuses and tries to injure the livelihoods and reputations of the people in question.
(4) A commission is appointed to inquire into the matter.
(5) The commission concludes: "Not only had they been accused of insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their innocence was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a fair inquiry."
(6) The inhabitants conclude that the members of the society are not only to be distrusted but not to be counted as honorable.

The moral failure of the society in question arises in leaping to action ahead of inquiry, in (2)-(3), which is confirmed by the commission's judgment that if they had inquired, the evidence that they were wrong was easily available. Indeed, all of (4)-(6) is not more than confirmation of what can be determined by stage (3). This is why Clifford is surely right that it would not, ethically speaking, be much different if the Commission had happened to vindicate their conclusion but not their inquiry.

The obvious question (which Clifford recognizes) is why this situation should be characterized as "no right to believe" rather than "no right to act". Consider, for example, the following timeline of a different scenario:

(1) A suspicion gets abroad that the religious are taking children from their families in order to indoctrinate them.
(2) Some islanders, believing the suspicion, form a society to agitate for a commission to investigate the matter, and do nothing else but try to get a commission set up.
(3) A commission is appointed to inquire into the matter.

If the belief were really the linchpin of moral judgment here, one would expect these islanders, too, to be condemned as having "no right to believe". But this is certainly not what most people would say. Most people would not condemn these agitators at all. What really draws condemnation from the actual case is trying to destroy people socially; it's this that people would be most likely to say they had no right to do. One can ignore the common reaction, of course, although Clifford's own view of morality was that it gets its general authority from being an internalization of tribal agency (in the form of actions that help the tribe survive), so I don't think he himself could dismiss the question of what the actual tribal response would be. But we can perhaps give him a little wiggle-room here, since there are cases in which people do have a real "no right to believe" response -- for instance, if I believed you were a pathological liar on no real grounds, you would likely be indignant, and many responses to prejudice are at least sufficiently like "no right to believe" responses that we can grant that he is not seriously distorting things. But it's noticeable that you can massively affect the kind of moral judgment people would usually be expected to make without changing the belief, or how it was obtained, at all.

When Clifford addresses the question of why it should be "no right to believe" rather than "no right to act", however, he makes what I think is a fatal mistake. After conceding that it's right that, even given the belief, we have some power of choice, he says:

But this being premised as necessary, it becomes clear that it is not sufficient, and that our previous judgment is required to supplement it. For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.

He then says a bit later:

And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows.

Let us concede for the moment that if you condemn acting in a certain way, you condemn believing in such a way that tends to lead you to act in that way. Most people would think this, like most of what we find in Clifford's essay, is exaggerated, but granting it doesn't really help Clifford at all. Likewise, most people would regard "no one man's belief is in any case a private matter" as an obvious exaggeration, as well. Clifford himself takes it quite seriously; since Clifford doesn't believe there are any self-regarding virtues, he can only get the strong moral conclusion he wants to draw about all beliefs by insisting that all beliefs are relevant to other-regarding virtues, and thus that every belief whatsoever is of moral significance for our social relations. But we can concede it for the moment, as well, because it also doesn't avoid the major problem.

The major problem is this. In order to avoid the objection that the ethical analysis should be "no right to act" rather than "no right to believe", Clifford has responded by saying that every belief has at least an indirect effect on action, and thus the condemnation of the action gives one the ground for condemning the belief. But the conclusion he wishes to draw on this basis is that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, and he cannot get it. Because the conclusion that follows is that beliefs are to be condemned not on how they were reached, but that they are to be condemned on the basis of the wrongness of the actions to which they tend. The principle this argument supports is that it is always wrong to believe things that tend toward doing morally bad things or having morally bad habits. This is not the same principle as Clifford's principle at all. This is a particularly serious problem given Clifford's own conception of morality as based on tribal survival, since there is no reason whatsoever to think that literally every kind of belief without evidence is dangerous for the tribe. I suspect this is why Clifford ends up emphasizing the importance of not getting into the habit of believing without evidence; although, of course, one can have develop more sophisticated habits than that. But even if we try to substitute some other morality, there is no serious candidate for ethics that takes believing only with sufficient evidence as so important that it overrides every other moral consideration; and given that, the question will always be, "Why don't some of these higher moral considerations sometimes allow or even require belief in advance of the evidence?" We get no answer on this ground from Clifford himself, despite his high-toned, exaggeratedly moralistic preaching. Ironically, he argues for his principle not on the basis of sufficient evidence but on the insufficiently supported ground that it is bad for society if we don't accept it. (This is, incidentally, part of why James argues against him the way he does in The Will to Believe; and it is the entire reason that Ward takes the approach he does against Clifford in The Reasonable Basis of Certitude.) It's notable, in any case, that in at least one case in the essay he slides between talking about believing on "unworthy reasons" and believing on "insufficient evidence", as if they were the same thing; his argument commits him to thinking they are, despite the fact that this is never established.

Thus Clifford's island agitators example is in some ways a better case than the sea captain scenario, but it also makes clear an overall problem with the way Clifford attempts to establish his principle, by raising even more forcefully and obvious the objection that our moral judgments seem concerned with the actions rather than the beliefs.

Value-Apprehension and Attitude

The apprehending of a value and the attitude appropriate to it mutually require one another, and while the required attitude is not being experienced, the value isn't being apprehended completely vividly. So in a certain way it's correct to say that love is based upon the apprehended value of the beloved person, but on the other hand, the worth of a person is fully and completely accessible only to the lover.

She adds a footnote:

Consider the parallel with religious experience. "In trust we experience a community which in itself is the highest knowledge of that which we trust." Theodor Haering, Der christliche Glaube: Dogmatik (Stuttgart: Verlag der Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1912, p. 160).

[Edith Stein, "Individual and Community", Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, Baseheart & Sawicki, trs. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2000), p. 213.]

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Fortnightly Books, September 24

All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.

I have a large number of papers to grade heading my way over the next weeks, so an easier read seems to be called for when it comes to the next fortnightly book(s). So I will be doing Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence, which are five short books:

Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark Is Rising
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree

Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965; the rest in the 1970s. While I've read them all, this is the first time to read straight through the series, rather than here and there, so we'll see if that draws out anything new.

Julia Ecklar, "The Dark is Rising". I'm not sure I quite like some of the artistic choices here, but it handily pulls together the rhyming prophecies that structure the books.

Alexandre Dumas (and Auguste Maquet), The Three Musketeers


Opening Passage:

On the first Monday of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, birthplace of the author of the Roman de la Rose, seemed to be in as great a turmoil as if the Huguenots had come to turn it into a second La Rochelle. A number of townmen, seeing women running in the direction of the main street and hearing children shouting on doorsteps, hastened to put on their breatsplates, and, steadying their rather uncertain self-assurance with a musket or a halberd, made their way toward the inn, the Hötellerie du Franc Meunier, in front of which a noisy, dense, and curious through was growing larger by the minute. (p. 1)

Summary: The opening of the book, of course, is famous: D'Artagnan, a Gascon hoping to make his fortune and be a musketeer, comes to Paris and happens to get challenged to duels by Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the King's musketeers; their attempt to duel gets interrupted by some of Cardinal Richilieu's guards, who attempt to arrest them. Together, they fight the Cardinal's guards, and, of course, inevitably become the closest of friends, and work together to try to help make each other's fortunes. And indeed, much of the charm of the book is in its depiction of male friendship; there is a reason why the phrase most remembered from the book is "one for all and all for one". The kind of loyalty in which you have your buddy's back regardless of the scrapes he gets you into -- as when d'Artagnan has to deal with the fact that a drunk and depressed Athos gambled away not only the horse d'Artagnan had given him, but d'Artagnan's horse, as well -- is admirable in itself.

Re-reading this after such a long time, a number of things jumped out at me, all of which I think contribute to the excellence of the work. The servants had a much more important part to play in the story than I had remember; rather than being background, as they usually would have been, they end up being important secondary characters in their own right. I had forgotten how the opposition between d'Artagnan and the man from Meung ended; a surprising end, but suitable for a book that puts so much emphasis on friendship between men. The work also unfolds very nicely -- it gets bigger and bigger as the tale goes on, and all very smoothly.

The humor, of course, is a major part of the work. I remember it being somewhat humorous, but in fact it is hilariously funny; entire stretches are joke after joke. What is more, they are jokes on our heroes themselves, some absurdity about them or their handling of a situation into which they have stumbled. They are well balanced, however -- they never descend merely into farce. This also is a strength. Because we laugh about the four friends, we see their faults, and they are often miles wide, but as it is never just a farce, they stand out as truly heroic nonetheless.

Milady, of course, also makes her contribution by being one of the great villains of literature. I had remembered the Felton episode as a rather minor one, almost a digression, but reading it this time around I see that it is actually essential. Up to that point we had only brief glimpses of Milady and her evil. We knew she was treacherous, murderous, manipulative. With the Felton episode, however, we get a sustained look at her, and learn that all of this understates the case. She is not a mere murderess and liar; she is a destroyer of souls. And because we have seen it firsthand, looked a little bit insider her head and seen her ruin a good man, we can accept the history of her wickedness that gradually unfolds from there, we can accept the sense of danger that the heroes have: we know it must be true, because we have seen her in action. What is more, as I noted, the book's stage is an ever-expanding one. But how do you get bigger than war between England and France? It is Milady who makes it possible, for with her we get a battle not of swords but of souls, and one that is, if not exactly between Heaven and Hell, or Good and Evil, yet nonetheless between good, if flawed, heroes and a villain who has no qualms about endangering the salvation of someone's soul if it will serve her petty and vindictive ends. There is no bigger stage for human life, and no background that could do more to bring into bright relief a story of friendship.

Favorite Passage:

His Eminence was standing, leaning against the fireplace, with at able between him and d'Artagnan.

"Monsieur d'Artagnan, you've been arrested on my order."

"So I was told, Monseigneur."

"Do you know why?"

"No, Monseigneur, because there's only one thing I could have been arrested for, and you don't yet know about it." (pp. 538-539)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.