Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Superrepresentationality of the People

I've seen, in the past several months, a number of proposals that essentially would destroy American federalism if implemented. There seems to be an increasing boldness in insisting that everyone needs to have the same laws under one and only one government. This is, of course, a step toward totalitarianism, in the sense of removing one of the major structural impediments to it; precisely one of the consistent advantages of federalism is that it makes it very difficult to engage in total capture of the forces of the state. If the federal government gets too pushy, there is some leverage in the states; if the states get too pushy, there is some leverage in the federal government. And in practice I think even people making such proposals in fact regularly take advantage of this when they can. But in politics people are often in the grip of an abstract theory, and this leads to being attracted to speculations about what would happen under ideal circumstances rather than about what will actually deal with the real problems that must be faced in government. And under ideal circumstances, of course, many things that are wholly dangerous can seem quite nice; totalitarianism itself can seem initially attractive if you attribute to it the qualities it would have if it were implemented by virtuous angels with extraordinary skill. It is foolish; but it is perhaps unsurprising that people are occasionally dazzled by the brightness of their own abstract schemes.

However, here I would not like to rehearse the ordinary arguments for federalism -- that it is the organic structure of the United States, that it is part of the tradition carried forward from the Founders, that it is a bulwark against fascism, that it creates the sort of perpetual political laboratory required for genuine progress in the long run, etc. -- and suggest one that I have not seen people give but which I think is in fact even more important than the others. And this argument might be summarized in the following way: No single method of representation is adequate to representing people; to do so with perfect adequacy would indeed take an unimaginable variety of methods of representation, too many perhaps for us to handle in practice; but in practice, being as adequate as we can will still always require multiple methods of representation. Call this feature 'superrepresentationality', exceeding any given scheme for representing them, and we can express this argument even more succinctly by saying, In any society in which the state is good enough at representing people, the People will be recognized as superrepresentational. This is not a sufficient condition, of course, but it is a necessary one.

When we have people, they only become a People in politics by political representation in one form or another. A People represented only one way -- say, by a national popular vote -- is a flat and one-dimensional People, and participating in it can only be valuable for the good of the people contributing to it in a flat and one-dimensional way. Multiple methods of representation, however, add new dimensions to what it is to be a People, and thus become more useful for contributing to the good of the people participating in that People. How much more useful, of course, will depend on how well the interests of the people are actually represented. But representing the interests of the people well will require representing the people in multiple ways.

In the American scheme, of course, we have a primary kind of representation and a secondary kind; the secondary kind would be things like city councils or county sheriffs, which serve a genuine representational function, but are also entirely subordinate to some other kind of representation. Primary kinds of representation in the United States are state legislatures and governors and at the federal level, Congress, and the President. Because of this, 'We the People' are not governed wholly from D.C., but have distinguishable modes by which our interests show up in representation: as individuals forming the People of a state, as individuals forming the People of the United States, as Peoples of the states forming the People of the United States. These are not reducible to each other; our interests as Peoples of states, for instance, don't show up at all if you only considering us as individuals. Simply considered as individuals, people are largely interchangeable; as Peoples of states, they are very obviously not, and woe to Montanans if they are governed according to what benefits Californians.

Of course, nothing about this tells us how this superrepresentationality is best structured. The American system, of course, has undergone several changes, and will no doubt undergo more for as long as it lasts. Perhaps we have not yet found the most workable form of federalism, and perhaps there are ways of having superrepresentationality compared to which federalism is quite crude and primitive. But any government that does not incorporate it is inevitably a government inadequate for governing real people in the real world, and federalism is the way we currently know how to do.

Seal of All the Fathers

Today is the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church. From his commentary on John:

If our mind should be dead like Lazarus, then our material flesh and nobler soul must approach Christ with a confession, like Martha and Mary, and ask for his help. He will stand by us and command the hardness that lies upon our memory to be removed, and he will cry out with the loud voice of the trumpet of the gospel: "Come out of the distractions of the world!" He will loose the cords of our sin so that we can move vigorously toward virtue.

[Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Volume 1, IVP Academic (Downers Grove, IL: 2013), p. 95.]

Friday, June 26, 2020

Dashed Off XIV

category of habitus as concerned with instrumental medium

John of St. Thomas gives wall coverings as an example of habitus.

Extrinsic denomination is always with respect to something external that stands as if a form to the thing so denominated, so that the denominated thing is spoken of as if modified by it.

Nonprofit organizations tend toward imitating their funding sources.

A (specific, concrete) philosophical position can be characeterized not merely by its arguments but also by the problem-history it posits.

undesignable structures

The imagination bubbles.

Humility resides in our priorities and in the way we act on those priorities.

In the long run, a people without filial piety will preserve nothing.

To reason from the past/present to the future requires identifying a tendency of the past/present to the future (or else an impediment to such).

external form in the sense of vestment vs external form in the sense of exemplar
-- could molds be an overlap here? they are both exemplars and 'worn' by the molded?
pure exemplar | mold | clothing | covering
- perhaps between pure exemplar and mold another separate category for models? The difficulty is that it seems there have to be models on both sides of molds. Perhaps we need to distinguish two ways these can be related: extrinsicness of external form and extrinsicness of that by virtue of which is formed. Pure exemplars are most extrinsic but concern the least extrinsic aspects of that which is formed (the very nature).

Models imply pure exemplars.

containers and clocks as external forms

Faithful execution of laws is only possible according to moral standards of practical reason, taht is, natural law.

The faithful execution clause of the Constitution primarily gives the President authority to order the executive branch qua executive; it is a vast power, limited only by the need to apply and conform to law.

orders of grace
(1) hieratic
(2) iatric
(3) bematic
(4) gamic
(5) eucharistic

Anti-proselytism is the spiritual equivalent of anti-natalism.

The bodily resurrection establish that the body has a destiny of sanctity, that it is such that it needs to be prepared for glory.

"From reason are necessary things, according to reason are probable, above reason are marvelous, contrary to reason incredible." Hugh of St. Victor
"It was a greater good that there be good from good and from evil than from good alone."

spiritual medicine : unction :: spiritual food : eucharist

Aritifial intelligence, in the Turing Test sense, is just extreme characterization in the building of a story.

the psitherism of the years,
the wind like zithers through my tears

on some undisonant shore
where Ocean redounds with roar

other minds // other spaces // other times

the Church's moral right of integrity with respect to its doctrine

Humans evolved under incredible pressure to do philosophy, for reasons of prioritizing matters for enhancing survival, for reasons of social coherence and communication, and for reasons of the nature of human cognitive capabilities. To be sure, philosophical system is a distinct thing. But philosophizing is as natural to us, and as integral to our survival, as breathing and reproducing.

Damascene links icons to the medicinal character of the Church: we come into the pschon iatrion, and there the bloom of the painting draws the sight and delights like a meadow, introducing us gradually to the glory of God.

The ongoing implies the having-gone and the going-to-be.

rewilding (Perino, et al.)
(1) food chain complexity
(2) natural disturbances
(3) range and distribution

the three primary modes of lay theology: evangelistic, lectoral, catechetical

Every political revolution eventually fails; the question is whether it does so before or after revolutionaries get their fill.

purely hypothetical positions -- things that can be said but cannot be an actual position (e.g., the Gorgian 'Nothing exists', arguably solipsism, etc.)
-- these are analogous to conceptual art

"The notion of dignity is closely related to the idea of active striving." Nussbaum

accounts of petitionary prayer
(1) symbolic: representation of mind for moral, social, or practical reasons
(2) harmonizing: (e.g., Plotinus)
(3) participatory: (e.g., Pascal, Aquinas)
(4) persuasive

"The Church is an inn standing on the Bridge, to provide food and comfort of the travelers and pilgrims who pass by way of the doctrine of My truth, lest they should faint through weakness." Catherine of Siena

the consequentialist structure of vigilantism

use vs. mention of a fictional character

"Great indeed was the dignity of man's foundation, because it was made such that no good would suffice it except the highest." Hugh of St. Victor

S5 as a modal logic is most suitable for abstract objects.

The possibility of contingent concrete individuals depends on conditions, where those do not obtain, they are not possible. Thus ◇→□◇ fails for contingent concrete individuals.

"the critique of knowledge is part of metaphysics." Maritain

The common is found in and through individuals.

pro-philosophical and anti-philosophical ambiences

philosophical fragments in popular discourse

philosophy within common experience vs philosophy within constructed context (literary, legal, etc.) vs philosophy within a traditional context (religious, political, etc.)
-- there is, of course, some overlap among these.

To wonder is to begin a journey that ends only in the Beatific Vision.

It is a sign of stupidity to treat every clarification of what a thing is as if it were a reduction.

Prior probabilities do not exist independently of some understanding of the system.

The common experience is that color is in things but only insofar as it is *brought out* by the light.

"There is no weariness in the intelligible world." Plotinus
"Without the impulse to the One, no being would come to exist, nor, when already existing, would it persist."

mass, charge, etc., as kinds of causation

One of the difficulties of originalism is that the origin of law has many steps, and in interpretation the prior debate, the drafting, the promulgation, and the immediate reception all have relevance, even when they point in divergent directions.

Love is the source of all created being.

forms of logistic: carry, gather, ship
carry: pack, train
gather: forage, requisition, pillage
ship: depot line

Apology, like forgiveness, presupposes authority to do it.

Christian tourism : pilgrimage :: religious song : hymn

one: law of nature formulation :: holy : end in itself :: catholic : kingdom of ends
-- Kant, of course, denies anything that could correspond to apostolicity (nothing historical or traditional even in a broad sense).

Revolutions needs conspiracies; the status quo does not.

Empirical assertions already imply normative constraints in decision-making.

The content of an assertion may or may not be normative, but to assert it is itself a normative act, albeit a weak one (guidance rather than obligation).

"Every economic decision has consequences of a moral character and involves the demands of justice." Robert Sarah

The recognition of phenomena as phenomena requires that reason extend beyond the phenomena.

A form of life cannot be wholly explained in terms of subjective factors.

The need for the divine is found in human existence itself.

The Catholic Church has in some sense more truths at its core than other religions, but its primray superiority is not quantitative but qualitative, for truths it shares with other religions shine with new light and fullness in the united and mutually supporting form they have in the faith. It is also superior relationally, in the way it draws believers to God.

Nobody can cease to have jurisdiction by occult means uncertifiable by any definitive authority.

There is a dangerous tendency in certain forms of traditionalism to try to eliminate all tackiness. But the tacky is what people fall back on when the better is too expensive, or too hard to find, or beyond their abilities; it is the safety net that sustains when resources of one kind or another are thin.

Seeking truth without cultivating prudence is a common source of error.

"Each thing is many, whenever it is diffused and dispersed in extension through being unable to incline toward itself." Plotinus

In some ways it is easier to repent of that of which we are culpable than of that in which we are complicit.

"All investigation has to be thought of as being either of what something is, or of how it is qualified, or why it exists, or if it exists." Plotinus

Judicial judgment always involves turning to some standard.

citizen as voter : legislative :: citizen as juror : judicial :: citizen as ? : executive
- posse comitatis would be one part

hunter-gathering vs farming means of evangelization

Health care is a diverse group of very different things, not one thing.

Most anxiety in politics is hypochondriacal; and one of the fundamental problems in politics is discerning when it is not.

To be rational is to be a creature both of law and of gift.

exemplar: substance, quality
proper model: quantity, relation
mensurator: quanod, bui, positio
vestment: habitus

Reason by its nature legislates.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Battle of the Little Bighorn (Re-Post)

This is re-posted from 2018, with revisions.

On June 25-26, 1876, one of the most interesting battles on American soil took place: Little Bighorn. The actual character of the battle, which was spurred by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, is a bit complicated. It took place as part of a war between the Union and a loose confederation of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, the Black Hills War; the campaign itself was partly due to rising tensions created by the Sioux and Cheyenne pushing into Crow territory. Crow were traditional enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne, and the Crow, whose power had been dwindling for some time, allied with the United States in order not to lose Crow Country. Six of the soldiers in Custer's army were Crow scouts, and the area near where the Little Bighorn River runs is right in the middle of the Crow Reservation.

Custer's loss at Little Bighorn has been attributed to many different factors, but one idea, once common, we can reasonably eliminate: that it was because of some great folly or incompetence on Custer's part. George Armstrong Custer was a competent general, if somewhat self-aggrandizing, and an extraordinarily good cavalry commander; he understood the type of warfare in which he was involved, and he knew how to work with his Crow allies. The Sioux and Cheyenne defeated an experienced cavalry under a man who was one of the Union's very best cavalry commanders. As a clash between two rising empires, it could have gone either way. That it went so lopsidedly against Custer is, I think, due to the fact that he was outmatched, not because he was stupid, but because on his own he could not be a match for the best minds and warriors of the Sioux-Cheyenne alliance at its peak. One notes that the common theme of those trying to argue for Custer's folly is that he should have easily been able to beat primitive Indians. But we have only to look at men like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to recognize that these are the kind of men of whom great empires are made.

On June 5, 1876, there was a big Sun Dance held at Rosebud Creek. There Sitting Bull, widely regarded as a very holy man, is said to have had a vision of Union soldiers falling from the sky and a voice saying, "I give you these because they have no ears." This, as well as a good measure of diplomatic skill, allowed Sitting Bull, from a branch of the Sioux that was fairly insignificant at the time (the Hunkpapa) to pull together a tighter alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho than had been possible before. When Custer's scouts spotted the Sioux encampment from fourteen miles away, he was dealing with an Indian army that was far more cohesive and focused than he or anyone else had ever known, and one that was far larger than anyone could have expected. Some of Custer's scouts warned him that something strange was going on -- but they did not fully understand what was going on, themselves, and it is difficult to convey a new thing. Custer's primary concern was to prevent the large group from scattering; his plan was to swoop in quickly, take a large number of hostages, and use it to force concessions from the enemy with minimal bloodshed and minimal need for further battles. In most cases it would have been a very good plan, and similar plans had been highly effective before. But Sitting Bull had started something new. He did it not by issuing commands -- Sioux chieftains generally worked by being chief mediators and negotiators rather than by trying to impose their will -- but by giving a new clarity of goal.

I was at Little Bighorn National Battlefield last Monday, so I have a few pictures. The Little Bighorn River, in Crow Country:

We know that the soldiers had difficult digging trenches because of how dry the soil was, so it would not have been this green in 1876.

The first engagements of the 7th Cavalry were between A, G, M Companies under Major Reno and the Sioux; the idea was to do a lightning strike and then rejoin the rest of the companies under General Custer. Almost as soon as the battle began, however, it was clear that this would not work: the Sioux were not giving way, and Reno was not facing a small detachment but a major force. The Sioux were being organized by Chief Gall, a Hunkpapa associate of Sitting Bull, and an accomplished tactician. Gall had recognized almost immediately that Custer had to be engaging in a two-prong attack, and at every step of the way would anticipate how best to organize Sioux and Cheyenne fire.

Reno managed to get his troops to what is now known as Reno Hill, where they met up with Captain Benteen and Companies D, H, and K.

Benteen's men in the early morning of June 26 tried hastily to dig trenches to give cover to riflemen. With limited tools, they had to use whatever they had at hand, including mess plates and knives.

Indian marksmen fired at them from the ridges to their east:

As the time went on, the situation looked increasingly worse for Reno and Benteen. They were out of water in dry country, all the more frustrating because the river was right there, just out of reach because of Indian fire. In a desperate gamble, Benteen got volunteers on a probably-suicide mission to go to the river and bring back as much water as possible while others attempted to draw enemy fire; by a bare scrape of luck, they succeeded. Four of the riflemen and fifteen of the water carriers would later receive the Medal of Honor.

Captain Weir and Company D eventually managed to extricate themselves enough to rejoin Custer -- but too late. The details of what happened at Custer's Last Stand are obscure and confused, and have to be pieced together from conflicting reports, but repeated waves of Sioux and Cheyenne broke Companies L, I, and C, and some think that Crazy Horse led a flanking attack that resulted in Custer being irreparably surrounded. What is certain is that with Gall having locked down Reno and Benteen for so long, the Sioux and Cheyenne were able to go after Custer with full fury. Custer and others with him died on what has come to be known as Last Stand Hill:

A marker indicates more or less where he fell:

People were hastily buried days later; sometimes they were only identified much later. Custer was eventually reinterred at West Point, but the large number of dead led the War Department to turn the battlefield into Custer National Cemetery, which continued to operate until 1978. Authority over the battlefield was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior in the 1930s.

Increasing interest in the Sioux-Cheyenne side of the tale has led to more care being taken in marking and recording aspects of their fight. There is now a nicely done Indian memorial as well:

It's easier to track the places where Union soldiers fell than Sioux and Cheyenne soldiers, in part because the latter had the chance to remove their bodies rather than having to bury them hastily, but a few have been able to be identified, such as Closed Hand:

One of the few survivors of the Last Stand from the Union side was Curly (or Curley), a Crow Indian Scout, who reported the defeat of the 7th Cavalry. He went on to have a long life, and when he died in 1923 of pneumonia, he was buried at Custer National Cemetery:

The Sioux and Cheyenne had had an extraordinary victory, but in a sense their own success defeated them. Having won so resoundingly, they had no definite next move; warriors began drifting back home and the alliance lost its cohesion. Meanwhile, the shock of the defeat led the United States to send thousands of more soldiers.

The mighty Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877 at Red Cloud Reservation. He was treated well for a while, since he was something of a legend even among Union soldiers, but rumors constantly sprang up about his setting out to war again, and he was eventually arrested. In transport, he was stabbed in the back with a bayonet, supposedly for attempting to escape; there have always been questions about his death. Sitting Bull and his men soon had to flee to Canada, where lack of bison made it difficult to feed themselves. He eventually had a falling-out with Gall, who surrendered to the United States and was transported to the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull himself surrendered in 1881, and also transferred to Standing Rock, but as he was seen as a special threat, he and his band were kept separately from the other Hunkpapa for quite some time. To make ends meet, he got involved in Wild Westing, traveling around in Wild West shows, making a rather considerable amount of money, although he gave most of it away to those in need. He and Gall became involved in the Ghost Dance Movement and were shot in bungled confrontations. So passed giants among men.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Hans Christian Heg

Last night in Madison, Wisconsin, 'protesters' tore a statue of Hans Christian Heg off its pedestal and (apparently) didn't just do that but threw it in the lake. It has since been recovered, but Heg is a Norwegian American hero, and the Norwegian side of my family hales from the same area of Norway as he, so I thought I'd say something about it, make his name better known, as my token to his memory, so recently desecrated.

Heg was born in Lierbyen in Buskerud, Norway. His parents emigrated to the United States when he was about ten or eleven and settled in Muskego Settlement. At the age of twenty, he got caught up in the California Gold Rush, spending a couple of years prospecting gold before returning to Wisconsin to marry. He joined the Free Soil Party, which was a party devoted to preventing the expansion of slavery into the new territories, and the Republican party when it formed as the national anti-slavery party. He joined a Republican anti-slavery group, the Wide Awakes, who mostly marched in parades and the like, but in Wisconsin did quite a bit more; they forcibly ran slave catchers, who were trying to bring runaway slaves back to the South, out of the area. After Sherman Booth broke a slave out of jail and became a federal fugitive, Heg was the one who hid and sheltered him.

He was also a major in the 4th Wisconsin militia, and when the Civil War began, he was promoted and appointed colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, which was the regiment for Scandinavian immigrants, mostly from Norway. He and his regiment fought at the extremely bloody Battle of Perryville, which the Confederates won, although at sufficient cost that the Union was able to maintain its hold on Kentucky. His regiment had no fatalities despite the intensity of the fighting, but there were quite a few wounded, including Heg himself. He fought again at the Battle of Stones River, neer Murfreesboro, Tennessee, also an extremely bloody battle, with one of the highest casualty counts of the war. Because of his participation in that Union victory, Heg was put in charge of his own brigade, and fought at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. It was a disastrous battle for the Union, and one in which they suffered a very large number of casualties. It was here that Colonel Heg met his end due to a fatal gunshot wound (in the stomach, I believe; it took him nearly a day to die).

The statue in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol that was vandalized was one of the most famous works of the noted sculptor, Paul Fjelde, who was known for his freedom- and progress-themed works. It's probably his second most famous statue, after the bust of Lincoln that was donated to Norway and became the central symbol of anti-Nazi protests in Oslo.

Hans C Heg

Echoes of Truth, But Faintly Heard

The Platonic Triunity
by Aubrey De Vere

Say, whence that light which in the antient days--
Like earliest rays of the up-rising sun
That gleam upon some hoary-headed Alp
'Mid his benighted brothers eminent--
Settled on Plato's brow; and glorified
Older Pythagoras in the Memphian school?
To them the mystic Truth, was shadowed forth
Of triune Godhead--self-existing Goodness--
Eternal Mind--the universal Soul--
Mating with man and nature; like the sound
Of choral voices linked in harmony
Breathing upon the air melodious song!
Yes, though they knew not all, echoes of truth,
But faintly heard, came to them from afar:
Not from the northern Rhodopean, whence
The shout of heathen sacrifices sprang;
But from the sacred East--the cedarn slope
Of Lebanon, and Pisgah's hallowed height.
They were but men, humanly taught, and therefore
Erred in their teaching; for they could not give
Being to cold Abstractions, thought and will
To Attributes, to Definitions power.
From these we need no help. The Scriptures prove
(Rightly assigning their due force to words)
Facts vital to our faith and hopes; conveyed
With our baptismal dowry; and confirmed
By sacramental pledge in life and death.
They speak, and ask us to believe, a fact;
Nor labour to expound a mystery.
They teach (and who shall doubt the evidence?)
That Christ said, “Before Abraham was, I am!’”
“My Father and I are One!” and John declares,
“There are Three Witnesses in heaven—and These,
The Father, and the Word, and Holy Spirit,
These Three are One!”

Monday, June 22, 2020

The King's Good Servant, and God's First

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More, Martyr. From his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation:

When we feel ourselves too bold, let us remember our own feebleness, and when we feel ourselves too faint, let us remember Christ's strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ's painful agony, that he himself would for our comfort suffer before his passion, to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And let us ever call for his help, such as he himself may please to send us. And then need we never doubt but that he shall either keep us from the painful death, or else strengthen us in it so that he shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doth he much more for us than if he kept us from it. For God did more for poor Lazarus, in helping him patiently to die for hunger at the rich man's door, than if he had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton's dinner. So, though he be gracious to a man whom he delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doth he much more for a man if, through right painful death, he deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss. Whosoever shrinketh away from it by forsaking his faith, and falleth in the peril of everlasting fire, he shall be very sure to repent ere it be long after.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project
Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More

Obligation Creep and Rhetorical Effect

I was somewhat amused by this paragraph in Copp's and Dworkin's attempt to argue that we would have a moral obligation to take a vaccine for COVID-19 if it is discovered:

We start with the principle that a person is obligated to refrain from causing harm (or significant risk of harm) to others, and obligated to prevent harm to others, when the costs to the person are relatively small and the benefits great, unless the relevant others give their consent. In saying a person is obligated, we mean that unless the person has a reasonable excuse, or there are additional reasons that outweigh the obligation, the person is blameworthy for his conduct.

Ah, yes, "significant", "relatively", "relevant", "reasonable excuse", "additional reasons that outweigh" -- with this many levels of qualification, each of which involves some degree of judgment call, you are no longer dealing with any kind of obligation at all. This is particularly true given that they will immediately go on and note that this principle, already enervated by qualifications, will certainly need further qualifications and exceptions. I've talked before about obligation creep, as well as the overmoralization of arguments, and this is a good example of both. This many qualifications is a guarantee that you are really dealing with "more reasonable than not" rather than with "obligatory"; but, of course, if you admit that it is a matter of personal judgment, even if one that will usually go one way in reasonable people, you can't use that to try to push people into it. It's the rhetorical goal that's imposing the pressure to manufacture an obligation that the argument's very structure eliminates. And there are certainly more factors involved than purely moral ones; trust in doctors, in medical research, in medical supply chains, and the difficulty of informed about the safety and effectiveness of every vaccine, to name just four that come up when dealing with the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccination decisions obviously have a moral component, which may sometimes be significant, but mostly they are just practical safety decisions, like deciding whether it is worthwhile to buy extra insurance or to learn CPR. Philosophers, focusing on the moral components of the decision, tend to treat them as if they were the only important elements at all; and, of course, overmoralizing an argument also has its rhetorical use in trying to push people to do something.

Vaccination arguments are also encouraged along both of these paths by the tendency to exaggerate the agency of those who are not vaccinating. The worst offenders are the "they are literally killing people" arguments, but there are milder cases of the same disease. Copp and Dworkin say:

We think there are five different harms or risks of harm. First, non-vaccinators create a risk that they will transmit the disease to others if they get it. Second they actually do harm to these others if they get the disease and transmit it. Third, they are weakening the community’s protective herd immunity, even if only to a small degree, which increases the risk to everyone that the disease will spread in the population. Fourth, if herd immunity has been established by others, who have gone to the trouble of getting vaccinated, the non-vaccinators are free-loading. Finally, fifth, if the non-vaccinators have children and refuse to vaccinate them, then they are creating a risk to their children.

Non-vaccinators aren't creating a risk; the risk is the default, not something created by them. Instead, they are not reducing the risk. While it's true that they do harm if they get or transmit the disease, neither getting nor transmitting the disease is usually intentional; getting it is usually an accident and transmission most likely when you don't know you have it, or when you don't know that your safeguards from transmitting it have failed. Thus, despite the way Copp and Dworkin have stated it, this falls not under the "causing harm" but the more complicated "preventing harm to others" part of the principle. Non-vaccinators are not 'weakening herd immunity'; again, lack of herd immunity is the default, and therefore they are failing to contribute to building it up. We are almost all failing to contribute to some kind of herd immunity, because most of us have not had the hundreds of shots that would be required to vaccinate against all the major diseases that have vaccines. Whether someone is free-loading cannot be determined prior to determining that they already have the obligation, so it should not even be a consideration at this stage of the argument. And, again, the risk to the children is the default; non-vaccinators are not reducing it rather than creating it.

All of these (except the free-loading one, which, as I noted, is not even determinable at this stage of the argument) are things that can be morally serious. They are morally serious as a matter of negligence, not as a matter of direct causal action. Yet over and over again, non-vaccinators are treated as if they were directly causing things that they are not causing. Failing to take basic fire prevention steps is a very serious matter, but it is not arson, and someone who kept trying to treat it as arson would quite clearly be trying to pull a fast one for rhetorical effect. The reason is obvious: moral principles apply relatively straightforwardly to direct causation, but their application to non-preventions and failures of risk-reduction can get very tortuous and complicated. This overstating of agency, too, seems to be a reason for obligation creep and overmoralization of arguments. It attempts to cut the knot. But cutting the knot is not untying it, and trying to force through a conclusion causes problems down the line.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fortnightly Book, June 21

Reader, may these plain but honest words I write
brighten the long hours of your own dark night.

Nguyễn Du (1765-1820) was the ambassador from the Vietnamese court of the Emperor Gia Long to the much mightier empire of China. On a diplomatic mission, he seems to have picked up a somewhat trashy Chinese historical novel, Jīn Yún Qiào. That work seems almost universally to be regarded as mediocre at best, although popular in its day, but something about it seems to have struck Nguyễn Du at a deeper level, and he began writing a poem in Vietnamese based on the plot, which takes a standard girl-meets-boy romance story and completely upends it. His final result, like Shakespeare building on Italian novels, was an extraordinary achievement. The Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh, A New Cry from a Broken Heart, is the Vietnamese national epic; it is usually not known by its title, though, but simply descriptively, Truyện Kiều, The Story of Kiều.

I will be reading the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Timothy Allen. It's fairly colloquial in its approach, but seems at first glance to provide a good balance between capturing some of the original poetry and retaining the flow of the narrative. We'll see how it goes.

It is the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the midst of the Ming Dynasty. The realm in some ways runs smoothly, but is bedeviled by the corruption of officials and, in the southeastern provinces in which much of the story takes place, the predations of pirates and criminals. The family of the beautiful Vương Thúy Kiều faces complete economic disaster and may be jailed, so Kiều gives up her potential marriage with Kim Trọng, whom she loves, and instead marries Mã in exchange for his help for her family. Unfortunately Mã is a criminal, and Kiều will have to survive terrible things. The good do not always fare well in this world. But there is a power in the human heart to endure.