Saturday, February 15, 2020

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts


Opening Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard:

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.

My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.

But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day. (p. 191)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

I was seven years old before I understood the meaning of "bad" and "good", because it was at that time I noticed carefully that my father married three wives as they were doing in those days, if it is not common nowadays. My mother was the last married among the rest and she only bore two sons but the rest bore only daughters. So by that the two wives who had only daughters hated my mother, brother and myself to excess as they believed that no doubt my brother and myself would be the rulers of our father's house and also all his properties after his death. My brother was eleven years old then and I myself was seven. So it was at this stage I quite understood the meaning of "bad" because of hatred and had not yet known the meaning of "good". (p. 17)

Summary: The narrator of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town is, as his opening passage suggests, the son of a rich man, who, being the sort of man to set people to work at what they are good at, hires a palm-wine tapster in order to support his son's talent at drinking palm-wine. Palm-wine is made from the sap of a palm or similar tree; you cut the flower and it oozes a very sweet white liquid. It ferments very quickly, turning into a mildly alcoholic beverage in about two hours. So the expert palm-wine tapster will tap the palms every day, early morning and afternoon, and in just a couple of hours there will be enough alcohol for a party. But, alas, one day tragedy strikes; sometimes you have to climb quite high to tap the palm, and the palm-wine tapster falls to his death. A search for other tapsters discovers that they just don't measure up; they can't tap enough to supply the son, much less entire parties. So there's only one thing to do: the palm-wine drinkard is going to have to set out to find the dead palm-wine tapster and bring him back. It will be a harrowing journey, in which the palm-wine drinkard, who starts boldly giving out his name as "Father of the gods who could do everything in this world" to the astonishment of everyone he meets, tangles with ghosts and monsters -- Death, Skull, tiny creatures of Wraith-Island, unknown creatures of Unreturnable-Heaven's Town, Red-People of the Red Town, the Invisible Pawn, the Hungry-Creatures, and more, until he finally finds the expert palm-wine tapster in the Deads' Town. It turns out that it's impractical to bring back the dead, but he will get a magic egg that makes palm-wine, which would solve things if only people weren't so greedy. Along the way he will also meet a woman who will become his wife. She had made the mistake of following a beautiful unknown man (one of the section headings is the salutary moral advice, "Don't follow unknown man's beauty") who, it turns out, had rented all his beautiful parts and was really just Skull; after he rescues her, she helps him get through all the trials of trying to bring someone back from the dead.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is, like The Palm-Wine Drinkard, a journey tale. A young boy is forced to flee into the Bush of Ghosts to avoid slavery; he doesn't know enough about good and bad to know just how evil things in the Bush of Ghosts can be. He will end up wandering the Bush of Ghosts for twenty-four years, although his travels once he enters seem to be somewhat disjointed in time. He will end up marrying ghosts twice -- again, not having learned enough about good and bad before entering, he does not understand that this is not something an earthly mortal should do. The first time is to a beautiful ghostess; they go to the church on the wedding day, but the wedding faces a hitch when it turns out the preacher is the Devil, and because he is a mortal, he can't wed the ghostess before he is baptized. Since he doesn't know enough about good and bad, he agrees to be baptized into the Devil's church, which he immediately regrets because the Devil baptizes with fire and boiling water. That marriage doesn't work out. He later marries a "Superlady" who rebelled against her family's evil and can do anything; they get along well enough for a while, but when their son is born half ghost and half mortal, doing everything half and half, it leads to irreconcilable differences and she throws him out. When he returns from the Bush of Ghosts he is caught by slavers again, but eventually finds his family. He keeps thinking he might go back to the Bush of Ghosts, though.

There are a great many suggestive ideas in both stories. One that I found particularly interesting, which is found in both, is that the reason there are ghosts or supernatural monsters is that any mortal can die but you have to go through training to be Dead.

Both works have a folktale-feel. Of the two tales, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is the more fun; the obsessiveness of the palm-wine drinkard's thirst does more to drive its story, the jokes and absurd juxtapositions are often hilarious, and there's a kind of biting realism to the portrayal of human motivations even in the midst of all of the surrealism of the towns of ghosts and of the Deads. I did find My Life in Bush of Ghosts quite interesting in a number of ways, though. The young boy flees from slavers into the Bush of Ghosts, but when he returns he runs right into slavers again. Time has passed, but nothing has changed. And I think the juxtaposition of slavery and the Bush of Ghosts is interesting, because the result is that the difference between the Bush of Ghosts and the realm of mortals is less than you might think. Every traveler knows that you don't risk the dangers and evils of the Bush of Ghosts, but slave-wars are exactly the kind of thing you find ghosts doing in the Bush of Ghosts. And when the wanderer returns, he fears nothing in the mortal world because, as he says, "it is in the Bush of Ghosts the 'fears', 'sorrows', 'difficulties' all kinds of the 'punishments' etc. start and there they end" (p. 174).

Favorite Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard, when the drinkard finds the tapster:

...He said that when he reached there, he spent two years in training and after that he had qualified as a full dead man, then he came to this Deads' Town and was living with deads and he said that he could not say what happened to him before he died in my town. But when he said so, I told him that he fell down from a palm-tree on a Sunday evening when he was tapping palm-wine and we buried him at the foot of the very palm-tree on which he fell.

Then he said that if that should be the case, he over-drank on that day. (p. 278)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

After some weeks he handed me to one of the principals of his schools as a new scholar, then I started to learn how to read and write. In the evening my cousin would be teaching me how to be acting as a dead man and within six months I had qualified as a full dead man. And again as I had a quick brain at that time, so I finished my schooling after a few years. Then I was sent without hesitation direct to the Deads' town as a student to learn how to judge cases , as police and also all the branches of the court works. having become expert in this field, then I returned and started the works.....(p. 152)

Recommendation: The Palm-Wine Drinkard is Highly Recommended and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is Recommended. I think both stories work better if you can find a stretch of time to read them; if you read them only a bit at a time, it is easy to get lost. It's the Bush of Ghosts, after all; everything is a little outside of normal.

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove Press (New York: 1994).

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Quick and the Dead

This past week was the 25th anniversary of the underrated Sam Raimi take on the Western, The Quick and the Dead, which I am old enough to say that I saw when it came out a quarter century ago. It did not do well at the box office; it was panned by the critics; but it is, as I say, an underrated film. So I rewatched it.

A female gunslinger (Sharon Stone), originally known only as The Lady although we later learn her name is Ellen, comes into the dusty border town of Redemption, which is ruled with a ruthless fist by the outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), who is hosting a single elimination quick-draw tournament. While the names for the tournament are being collected, Herod comes into the saloon, puts his name in, and threatens a preacher named Cort with hanging unless he enters the tournament. While Cort (Russell Crowe) is perched precariously on a chair, rope around his neck, as Herod shoots the legs of the chair, The Lady tries to enter the tournament. The whole saloon laughs (women can't shoot), and then, as the chair finally collapses under court, she shoots the rope until it breaks. So both The Lady and Cort are in the tournament, which Herod later turns into a match to the death.

It's often described as a spaghetti Western, but this is, I think, misleading. It certainly draws on spaghetti Western tropes, but it's as much a revision and subversion of the spaghetti Western as the spaghetti Western was of the original Western. One of the most notable ways in which it does this is by re-moralizing the tropes, to such an extent that it often borders on allegory. The Lady comes into town right before the Day of the Dead; the tyrant's name is Herod; the town only can live up to its name, Redemption, through a death and a resurrection; and, of course, the title is itself a Biblical phrase referring to the Last Judgment. The main characters, The Lady and Cort, are also primarily dealing with moral struggles. Herod is invincible because of his ruthless will and extraordinary skill; nobody can take him down without the desire, the force of will, and the skill. The Lady wants vengeance against Herod, so she has the desire to kill Herod, but has neither the force of will nor (despite her ability) the skill; Cort probably has the skill, but he is running away from his past, and thus has neither the desire nor the force of will. Only when these obstacles are overcome will Herod fall or law and order return to town.

Sharon Stone is excellent in this role (although she was apparently almost impossible to work with on set); it's scenery-chewing enough that it fits her usual work, but it also allows her occasional moments for subtler work than she is known for, particularly in her interactions with The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio). She fits a Clint Eastwood role quite well -- her gravel and grit is not as convincing, but it works well with her character's struggles, and she has the steely gaze down. She is also much, much better looking in an Old West outfit than Clint Eastwood. Herod is also one of Gene Hackman's best scenery-chewing roles; it's impossible to imagine anyone else filling Herod out so well.

The camera-work is also excellent -- you can find here pretty much every kind of camera trick you'd ever get in a Western, plus a few from Raimi's horror background, so that the film is always visually interesting. The use of natural lighting is sometimes stunning, and contributes to giving the whole film a surreal feel.

And the surrealism, sometimes subtle, sometimes more obvious, is a big part of what makes the film work. There is a sense of timelessness to everything, as if it were in fact all leading up to Judgment Day.

Steps Leading into the Sea

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun 'tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Ephesine Account of the Epiclesis

I've just finished reading Christiaan Kappes's The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, which was an interesting experience. The topic is definitely interesting if you like theology; the book is very well researched and uncovers new light on it; and parts of the argument are likewise quite intriguing. On the other hand, the book is poorly organized and at times just badly written. You get sentences like this, contrasting St. Mark of Ephesus's Byzantine account of the Eucharist with Torquemada's simplified Thomistic account:

For Mark, because the Master Jesus ordered Christians to pray for the Spirit, and because he ordered the apostles to "do this in memory of me," only confidence in the Master versus automatic causality of a human efficient cause changes the gifts through the Spirit. (p. 132)

Reading the whole book one can kinda-sorta get an idea of what Kappes must really be intending, but the sentence as it stands is gibberish. None of the accounts on the table -- Thomistic, Bonaventuran, Scotist, or Byzantine -- takes anything about the sacrament to be "automatic"; and one of the things they all agree on is that it is a divine gift. In the context of Thomistic instrumental causality, one might as well as say that poems are automatically created by pens when poets set them to paper; it's not just wrong, it makes no sense. But more seriously, Mark, of course, never commits to such an obvious absurdity as "confidence in the Master...changes the gifts through the Spirit". At no point will you find Mark saying that our confidence turns the bread and wine to body and blood, or anything like it; it is inconsistent with his account. And Mark's concern in the argument being described here is not confidence vs. automatic causality but something else entirely.

The essential issue, of course, is that the Latin view of the Eucharist is that the bread and wine become Body and Blood at the words of institution, the words Christ used at the Last Supper to institute the sacrament -- 'This is my body' and 'This is my blood', although some Latins took it to be a larger amount of the prayer in which these words are embedded. The Greek view is that they become Body and Blood after the words of institution at the epiclesis, which is the prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the offering. The divergence is quite natural, because it arises from the simplest reading of the prayers of the divine liturgy in each case. The Roman Canon at the time of the Council of Florence had no formal epiclesis, although some (the great Nicholas Cabasilas, for instance) had argued that one of its prayers, the Supplices te rogamus worked functionally as an epiclesis. But even if one takes Cabasilas to be right, after the words of institution, the most natural reading of all the prayers is that the Body and the Blood are already present. In the major Eastern liturgies, the epicleses are framed in terms that naturally suggest that the priest is praying in the epiclesis for the bread and wine to become the Body and the Blood, meaning that they still have not become the Eucharist in the proper sense. The difference leads to further differences; the natural implication of the Latin view is that only the words of the institution are required to have the Eucharist. The Greek view, on the other hand, does not naturally suggest the same about the epiclesis; the epiclesis is referring to things that have already been going on in the prayer of the divine liturgy, so it is natural to read it as the culmination, the final thing put into place to get the sacrament.

One of the really interesting things in the book is the view put forward by Mark of Ephesus on behalf of the Greeks at Florence. Kappes jumps around more than he should in explaining this absolutely central contribution, but it becomes clear what Mark's view is when you read Mark's Libellus, which Kappes provides in Appendix II. Both Mark and his opponent, Torquemada, agree that Christ's words are essential to the sacrament. But here is the fundamental difference: on Mark's view, the priest's statement of them is nothing but a commemoration. Christ's words, the very words on Holy Thursday, are essential to the sacrament. Christ's words have causal power to effect the sacrament, and without them there would be no sacrament. But we don't participate in the sacrament until the Holy Spirit is called down upon the altar and makes the elements the Body and the Blood. In preparation for this prayer, the priest remembers Christ's words. But the only thing the priest's commemoration of those words contributes is precisely that: commemoration. It is Christ's words that carry the power that makes the sacrament possible; in the epiclesis the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to actualize this power, and the Holy Spirit does.

One thing I find interesting is that this means that Mark's view has affinities with the Thomistic or instrumentalist view. Kappes repeatedly contrasts the Ephesine view with the Thomistic view, which is not surprising, since the major Latin opponent of it, Torquemada, accepted the Thomistic view. He also tends to associate the Ephesine view with a different view, the Scotist or occasionalist view. This is fashionable, but as Mark presents the view in the Libellus, the Ephesine view is actually intermediate between the instrumentalist and the occasionalist views.

On the occasionalist view at its simplest, there is a pact or promise between God and the Church; when the priest prays, God does what was promised. The priest's prayer is only an occasion for God's separate action of giving grace.

On the instrumentalist view found in Aquinas, however, God works through and in lesser causes, so that grace is given through and in these lesser causes, like a blacksmith uses a hammer to make something (to use Torquemada's analogy) or like a poet uses a pen to write poems (to use the Bañezian analogy that eventually became popular). The result of the blacksmith's use of the hammer goes beyond anything the hammer could do on its own, because it is the effect of the blacksmith, but it's not as if the hammer just does its own inadequate thing and then the blacksmith intervenes and makes the result; the blacksmith makes the result through the hammer. The most fundamental instance of this in the case of the grace is, on the Thomistic view, Christ's human nature, which is an instrument that is conjoined to the agent who uses it (like the hand of the blacksmith). The sacraments are extensions of this; they are separate instruments that are able to be instruments at all only because of their relation to the conjoined instrument (like the hammer in the hand of the blacksmith). All sacraments are actions of Christ, but in consecrating the Eucharist the priest serves as an instrument of Christ, so that when the priest says the words of institution, this is an act not merely of the priest (the hammer) but of Christ (the blacksmith). The priest says Christ's words like a pen writes a poet's words.

On the Ephesine view, as noted above, Christ's words on Holy Thursday have consecrating power; they are like God's commands at creation. Without them there would be no Eucharist; they make it possible. But this needs completion in the specific sense that there needs to be something that makes the sacrament here and now for us. The priest cooperates with the divine power of Christ's words by obeying the command to remember them and by performing the relevant blessings. But the change is effected by the Holy Spirit's descent on the altar when the priest prays for Him to do so. This view is much more robust than a strict occasionalist view; to say that Christ's human words have causal power in the sacrament is not occasionalism. It is indeed something an instrumentalist would say, not an occasionalist. The Ephesine view does not, however, give an instrumentalist account of the sacrament itself. The priest's words are not Christ's words; they're just a memorial of them.

From the evidence Kappes gathers in his book, it is very clear that the Latins were very confused by this, and whenever the Greeks talked about Christ's words, they seem generally to have taken it to mean Christ's words as said by the priest at Mass, not Christ's words centuries ago on Holy Thursday, to which Mark actually attributes real power. This seems to be why, for instance, they were utterly baffled at the Byzantine analogies to creation and the Annunciation; they kept thinking that the Byzantines meant that when the priest says 'This is my body' that we then have the Body but defectively until the epiclesis, whereas Mark, at least, meant that Christ's words on Holy Thursday, of which the priest reminds us, are what makes the Eucharist possible and the Holy Spirit descending at the epiclesis makes it actual.

For an instrumentalist, Christ has real power that is exercised in the sacrament but the priest is an instrument of this real power, so Christ's words said by the priest are instrumentally Christ's, through which He performs the sacrifice. This is not true in Mark's account; the words of institution are just a memorial, and the Holy Spirit's descent on the altar, while it is because of the priest's prayer, is not through the priest as instrument. It is this that makes Kappes and others tend to overassimilate Mark to the occasionalist view. In a sense we could say that Mark is instrumentalist about Christ's participation in the Eucharist and occasionalist about the priest's. If you only focus on the priest, he will look occasionalist; but it is impossible for an instrumentalist to focus only on the priest -- instruments, as instruments, only work as they do because of their principal agents. Both the Ephesine and the Thomistic view attribute real causal work in the sacrament to the same principal agent, Christ; but the Thomistic view takes this real causal work in the sacrament itself to be through the priest, who is a 'moved mover', so that the priest's actions are part of Christ's action, whereas the Ephesine view takes this real causal work to be something with which the priest cooperates non-instrumentally, by obeying the commands to commemorate and to pray for the Holy Spirit, while Christ and the Holy Spirit achieve the result by actions distinct from anything the priest himself does.


Christiaan Kappes, The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN: 2019).

For a convenient introduction to the basics of Thomistic instrumentalism (of which you will not get any clear picture in Kappes's book), see Reginald M. Lynch, O.P., The Cleansing of the Heart: The Sacraments as Instrumental Causes in the Thomistic Tradition, The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2017).

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning III (Mill)

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a complicated scholarly discussion of whether Mill's version of utilitarianism was an act utilitarianism or a rule utilitarianism. This is a dispute over the application of the greatest happiness principle. Act utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply the greatest happiness principle to each action. Rule utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply ordinary moral rules (like 'don't murder') to each action, and instead use the greatest happiness principle to decide what should be a moral rule. Mill says things that can be interpreted both ways. However, I will suggest that looking at the overall structure of Mill's ethics, as we find it displayed in his comments on the Art of Life, shows that the dispute is somewhat misguided. Mill doesn't think there is only one way to apply the greatest happiness principle.

Mill discusses the Art of Life in his A System of Logic. 'Art' here means something like a form of know-how; in art (in this sense) we propose an end to be attained based on general practical principles; we then drawn on science or theoretical study to determine what will attain that end; and finally we use this to make a rule that we will follow. The Art of Life is the most general kind of art, the know-how for living itself. It is not a unitary thing but has a structure. As he puts it (Book IV, Chapter XII),

These general premises, together with the principal conclusions which may be deduced from them, form (or rather might form) a body of doctrine, which is properly the Art of Life, in its three departments, Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Æsthetics; the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works. To this art (which, in the main, is unfortunately still to be created), all other arts are subordinate; since its principles are those which must determine whether the special aim of any particular art is worthy and desirable, and what is its place in the scale of desirable things. Every art is thus a joint result of laws of nature disclosed by science, and of the general principles of what has been called Teleology, or the Doctrine of Ends; which, borrowing the language of the German metaphysicians, may also be termed, not improperly, the principles of Practical Reason.

Needless to say, as a utilitarian Mill takes the primary general principle governing the Art of Life to be the principle of utility: "the general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the happiness of mankind, or rather, of all sentient beings".

The claim that the greatest happiness principle will be the most general principle of practical reason is significant, and involves a conception of how the principle applies that is different from that of many other utilitarians. Let's look at this by considering each department of the Art of Life in turn, to the extent that Mill's scattered and limited comments enable us to understand what he means. Each department covers a kind of goodness and badness.

(1) Aesthetics, which Mill also calls Taste. Mill says it is concerned with "the Beautiful or Noble". That Mill would think this way is not surprising, of course, given what we have already seen of the importance of poetry to Mill's intellectual life. In A System of Logic, Mill recognizes the possibility that people use the term 'beautiful' so broadly that, while 'beautiful' indicates something agreeable, they may mean several different things by it; but he doesn't think that this makes it impossible to use in a unified way, as long as you focus on the principal kinds of things that we can call beautiful. He himself uses the term explicitly to describe buildings and the colors of a kaleidoscope. 'Noble' he elsewhere takes to apply to " sentiment, expression, or demeanor" and he most often applies it to feelings, to character, or to "will and conduct". When we say that something is beautiful or noble, this is a way of saying that it is good or bad; as a utilitarian, the goodness or badness is a way of contributing to the general happiness. The more beautiful building is the one that contributes more to the overall happiness through admiration or contemplation; the more beautiful action is likewise the one that contributes more to overall happiness when people reflect on it. When someone's judgments about beauty or nobility approximate what actually contributes to overall happiness, we say that person has good taste; when they don't, we say that person has bad taste.

But this is very important: while bad taste involves a kind of badness, it is not morally bad to have bad taste. Merely violating the principle of utility is not itself morally wrong. In some sense bad, yes. Morally wrong, no. Someone who likes decorating in ways that are gaudy, tacky, and kitsch to the point of grotesqueness has very bad taste; they are, when they decorate, reducing overall happiness. But their decorating is not immoral.

(2) Policy or Prudence. (Mill doesn't give any precise definition of either, but 'policy' suggests decisions for a group or society, and Mill's uses of 'prudence' suggest decisions for oneself, so I assume that he has something like this in mind when picking these two terms for the second department of the Art of Life: it's one department, but we call it 'policy' when we are making decisions for society and 'prudence' when making decisions for ourselves.) Mill says that this department concerns "the Expedient", that is, roughly what we would ordinarily call the 'useful'. Understanding Mill's view of this department of the Art of Life is complicated by the fact that usually when Mill talks about expediency he is trying to head off the confusion between 'utility' in the utilitarian sense from popular notions that identify it with some degenerate or defective notion of usefulness for one's own purposes. But when we consider Mill's recognition of the Art of Life as being coextensive with practical reason, it becomes clear enough what he means. We often recognize plans and decisions as bad plans or bad decisions; some plans just don't 'make practical sense'. Since he is a utilitarian, this kind of badness has to be understood as a violation of the principle of utility. Indeed, Mill, like Bentham, thinks we clearly do apply the principle of utility naturally, by recognizing that, for instance, a plan for a vacation is a bad plan if it increases people's misery, or that a decision is a bad decision if it obviously reduces overall happiness. Someone who regularly makes decisions that make people less happy is someone who has bad judgment, who lacks good sense.

But it is very important to grasp that bad plans and decisions are not necessarily morally bad plans and decisions. It may be a bad idea to go into a situation poorly prepared, but not all such bad ideas lead us to make moral criticisms. It's not automatically wicked to plan or decide badly. Here, too, it's not necessarily morally wrong to violate the principle of utility.

This raises a puzzle. Policy or prudence concerns things like decisions and actions. But morality is also concerned with decisions and actions. So if applying the principle of utility to decisions or actions only gets us badness and goodness of policy, we need to do something else to get moral badness and goodness. What is more, moral judgments are generally recognized as more important judgments than policy judgments; moral considerations override other practical considerations. Thus whatever we add to get morality has to give moral judgments more weight than prudential or policy judgments. What could it be?

(3) Morality. Morality is concerned with "the Right"; elsewhere he frames it in terms of the closely related words, "Justice" and "Duty". Mill is quite clear that everything that is morally right is also expedient, and this is part of the key to understanding what is meant by these terms. When we are making moral judgments about a decision or an action, we judge whether it contributes to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, whether it is good policy; but we also make a further judgment: is this a kind of decision or action that is so important that either doing it or not doing it requires some kind of sanction. ('Sanction' can be either reward or punishment, but in this context usually means punishment.)

Punishment is an interesting issue for a utilitarian. The whole point of punishment is to make somebody unhappy. If I tell you, "I am punishing John by throwing him a big party," the only way you can make sense of this as a 'punishment' is if John really doesn't like big parties. To punish is to immiserate. But a utilitarian is supposed to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; how can they justify punishment? The only way is to argue that making this person less happy will actually lead to greater overall happiness. We punish murderers because a society in which murder is punished is happier than a society in which people can murder with impunity.

Mill's theory of sanctions is fairly sophisticated, and not easily summarized, but put crudely, he recognizes three major kinds of sanction, arising in one way or another from the combination of our inclinations to defend ourselves and to sympathize with others: sanctions of law, sanctions of public opinion, and sanctions of conscience. Sanctions of law generally involve physical coercion: being forced to give up something (fines), or being jailed, or being put to death. Sanctions of public opinion involve what Mill sometimes calls 'moral coercion': being shamed, shunned, boycotted, protested. Sanctions of conscience are guilt, shame, and the like, when you punish yourself for doing something; as Mill puts it (Utilitarianism, Chapter III), it is "a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility."

Morality arises through a double application of the greatest happiness principle to the action and to the possibility of sanction. For instance, if we apply the greatest happiness principle to murder, we discover that it is 'inexpedient', i.e., it is a bad idea, given the overall needs, interests, and desires of human beings -- it detracts greatly from any attempt to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But this only gets as far as Policy. To get Morality, we need to consider a further question. We are inclined to retaliate against murders by punishing them, often severely. If we do this, can this be justified by appeal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number? If so, then when we punish murder by law, we are establishing, entirely reasonable, a moral duty not to murder. The double application of the principle of utility and the stamp of the sanction both contribute to making moral judgments more serious than ordinary policy judgments.

The sanction-based feature of the department of Morality has bearing on a puzzle people occasionally have when reading another of Mill's works, On Liberty. In this work, which is devoted to arguing for the importance of freedom of speech, Mill elaborates a political philosophy that is usually called classical liberalism. The heart of Mill's classical liberalism is what is usually called the harm principle, which he elaborates in explaining the argument of the essay (Chapter I):

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Given Mill's influence on later generations, it's sometimes overlooked how much this baffled both utilitarians and liberals; Mill's version of liberalism, and his combination of it with his utilitarianism, seemed to many to be an incoherent mess. One notable liberal utilitarian, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote an entire book on the subject, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and Stephen's versions of both liberalism and utilitarianism were much more popular at the time than Mill's (and, indeed, despite Mill's influence, probably more typical of both ever since). The core problem is this. The principle of utility says that you should work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But the harm principle explicitly says that we cannot compel individuals to do anything by law or public opinion simply because it will increase happiness; the only justification it allows is prevention of harm to other people. How can you fit the two together? There seem to be cases in which the principle of utility would require you to compel people to do something to increase overall happiness but the harm principle would deny that you can.

Once we recognize how the Art of Life is structured, however, we can easily see that Mill has at least some answer to this. There are several points that could be made, but two are especially notable:

(1) In Mill's version of utilitarianism, following the principle of utility is not always required. It is always better, of course. Violating the principle of utility is always bad. But, as we have seen, Mill is quite clear that not every kind of badness is moral badness. Thus the principle of utility does not require us to do anything specific until we consider the matter of sanction. Nothing becomes obligatory before we add in the notion of justifiably punishing those who deviate from it. Which brings us to the next point.

(2) The harm principle given above is quite carefully formulated. You can't compel someone to do something against their will by law or public opinion, if they are not hurting anyone. But Mill recognizes at least one other kind of sanction: the sanction of conscience. Mill's point in the harm principle is that you can't use physical coercion (law) or moral coercion (public opinion) except to prevent harm to other people. But if someone is just harming himself, you can still recognize that as bad, even as morally bad, and you can still work to stop it -- just noncoercively. You can, as he says, remonstrate with him, or reason with him, or entreat him. You just can't use law and public opinion to force him, because their basis lies in defending ourselves from people who hurt others. The right way to handle someone who is hurting himself is to get him to see reason.

In any case, we can now see that asking whether Mill is an act utilitarian or a rule utilitarian misses the point; the question assumes that utilitarianism is much flatter and more monotonous than Mill's version of utilitarianism is. And we can now complete our utilitarianism table for Mill:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws
Millpleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity and quality(1) objects of experience (like art or good character);
(2) actions, decisions, and plans, whether individual or collective;
(3) rules with sanctions, whether from conscience, from public opinion, or from law

There are many other kinds of utilitarianism; not all utilitarians are classical utilitarians, and even among classical utilitarians it is not difficult to find those who will have different views from Bentham and Mill, especially with regard to columns (3) and (4). But Bentham and Mill give us enough to see how utilitarianism works; one can easily extrapolate to other kinds of utilitarianism. And knowing how utilitarianism works, one knows enough to have an idea about how non-utilitarian consequentialisms will work, which do not base the distinction between good and bad consequences on happiness (or, at least, not happiness alone), since the reasoning will often be similar in structure, even if the content is different.

Consequentialism is not the only approach to moral reasoning, however. This brings us to deontology, which we will begin to examine in a future post.

Something Under Construction

Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.

Flannery O'Connor, "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann," Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York: 1970) p. 226.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Animal Obligations

Human beings obviously understand a lot of their lives in terms of deontic ideas -- rules, laws, rights, obligations, duties. One way this deontic life manifests itself, which I think is not considered enough, is that we impose obligations on nonrational beings. This is interesting because I think we tend (for good reason) to associate deontic concepts with rationality; but the phenomenon of obligation creatures without reason is robust enough that any adequate theory of obligation will have to take it into account.

It's easiest to see this in the case of pets. We take a dog and we train it. What does training a dog involve? We often treat it as if it were purely a matter of training in the behaviorist sense: we organize the stimuli in such a way that the animal develops the stable response we want. But anyone who has had pets knows that this is not really how it works with pets. Yes, you reward and punish, but a dog doesn't just start responding with the appropriate behavior. For one thing, dogs, even when trained, often don't respond with the appropriate behavior; almost everyone who has long experience with dogs has had the experience of walking into a room and knowing immediately that the dog has done something they were trained not to do, even though you don't know exactly what it is. As we would usually put it, "The dog is acting like it's done something wrong."

When we train animals we ourselves conceptualize it as rules. And the relationship between the animal and the rule we formulate is very much like our relationship with rules we formulate when we train ourselves. We could perhaps say that the dog doesn't understand the rule we are imposing as a rule, but (1) we are indeed imposing a rule on the dog, even if the dog doesn't understand it; and (2) even if the dog isn't aware of the rule as a rule, the evidence of the dog's behavior is difficult to characterize in any other way than saying that in some way they are aware of the rule, even if not specifically as a rule.

Theorizing about rules, and about what rules should be, obviously requires the intellectual concept of a rule; formulating rules probably requires the concept or something like it; but following rules does not, and the training of pets, whether dogs or anything else, depends on this, because a significant portion of our ability to interact with pets is structured on our side by formulating rules for pets -- not for our interaction with pets (as we might formulate rules for how to interact with wild animals) but for pets, rules that we make specifically for pets to follow, that we train them to follow, that we expect them to follow, and that we punish them for not following or reward them for following. We don't expect them to grasp the underlying reasons, of course; we have no way to communicate those reasons to them. But we do communicate the rules, whatever our reasons for them may be, and we expect them to be aware of them.

It seems that there are only a couple of possibilities here, given that this is the way things appear to be:

(1) Pets do not in fact follow rules but only act as if they follow rules; that is, we cannot actually obligate animals, but we can train them so that they act as if we had. The primary issue here is the one noted above, namely, that when you interact with animals over these rules, their behavioral relationship to the rules does not seem all that different from our own behavioral relationship to rules that seem arbitrary and whose rationale we don't understand -- we might say that their as-if acting is really as if. If they aren't following the rules we impose, then whatever they are doing has to be at least part of what we do when we follow the rules.

(2) We do in fact extend obligations to, and create obligations for, pets, who do in fact follow the rules we establish, even if they are incapable of theorizing about it. They may not have our deontic rationality and they may not perceive our deontic reasons, but they in some way recognize them in the way one might recognize a rule whose rationale one does not understand.

Whichever way one goes, our deontic interactions with animals says something important about the nature of obligation in general. And also about our reason -- reason is such either as to extend obligations to nonrational beings or else to use our grasp of obligations as a guide for intelligibly reshaping the world beyond us.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Three Ideals

He who would tell a tale must look toward three ideals: to tell it well, to tell it beautifully, and to tell the truth.

The first is the Gift of God, the second is the Vision of Genius, but the third is the Reward of Honesty.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, Note from the Author.