Saturday, April 17, 2021


* Amod Lele, Why philosophy needs history, at "Love of All Wisdom"

* Conor Friedersdorf has a very interesting interview with Ndona Muboyayi, who has been arguing against certain supposedly anti-racist curricula as severely counterproductive. Of course, this is a common problem, and one people often don't guard sufficiently against, namely, that, since certain ethical terms and ideas become popular, there always are going to be ethical scams that have the trappings but not the substance the trappings promise, and, indeed, sometimes a substance very opposed. Every good thing, sooner or later, is used as a cover for many things that are not good.

* Project Vox's summary page on Lady Mary Shepherd, which is quite a decent introduction to her work.

* Cabe Matthews, Seven Signs of Glory in the Gospel of John

* In 1991 in the Soviet Union, there was made a TV adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. It's actually quite interesting, although it's in a cinematic style that was popular in the Soviet Union, but hasn't ever really been popular in the United States, namely, it's essentially a filmed stageplay. It looks weird to anyone whose diet has been all American-style movies, but it does have the advantage of privileging visual storytelling over spectacle as such. The link goes to the Grauniad explanation, but the article has the YouTube links for the video. 

* Blake Smith, The Woke Meritocracy

* Ashawnta Jackson, Spectra: The poetry movement that was all a hoax

* Nafsika Athanassoulis, Mothering Virtues (PDF)

* Joshua P. Hochschild, A Treatise on Two Cities, reviews David Novak's Athens and Jerusalem.

* Lavine Andro Lao, The Nineteenth-Century Thomist from the Far East: Cardinal Zeferino González, OP (1831–1894). I've been wanting to do something with regard to translating Spanish-language philosophy texts this year, to keep myself in practice, and one of the options I've been considering has been to translate some of Cardinal González's rather extensive philosophical and theological corpus. We'll see if I ever get around to it, but he's an interesting figure.

* Justin E. H. Smith, Sweet Nothings, discusses proper names in different cultures

* Max Norman, The subversive philosophy of Simone Weil

* Peter Dockrill notes that there is recent new evidence that human tastebuds can distinguish ordinary water and heavy water; apparently the latter tastes sweeter. (There are trace amounts of heavy water in the water we drink; you should not, however, go around drinking heavy water in large quantities, because the body can't process it properly.)

* Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements, a classic book on basic machines, is online in an animated version (although not all of them are animated yet).

* Richard Marshall interviews Amy Kind on the imagination

* Oliver Traldi, Let's Talk About Free Speech

* John Wood, Jr., Reclaiming Nonviolence in the Age of Antiracism

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Ambassador, Part III

Part II

There is something about a meal which could have been your last but is not that is exceptionally delicious. I took my time eating, and then made my way back to the Imperial office, although after two attempts in which I got lost, I had to ask someone to lead me through the maze-like hallways.

My chief of staff in his green jacket looked at me warily as I entered. I looked at him long enough for him to get antsy, and then I said, "What did the previous ambassador do for accommodations?"

"There is a cabin behind the embassy, Ambassador."

"A cabin behind the cabin. That seems rather less than appropriate to represent Imperial dignity."

"The seat of government here in Syan moves so often that there is not much point in doing more. It is surprising, in fact, that it has remained in Amansaiva so long. It is a nice cabin, with a view of the lake."

"I have not noticed any embassy security."

"There is a guard posted at your residence at all times, and one posted at the embassy itself during the night. But the area is not heavily populated. And the state punishes severely any trespassing on embassy lands."

"Hmmm. I cannot imagine why anyone tolerated the embassy being so poorly secured."

"We don't keep much there, Ambassador; most things are here."

I looked around at the not-much-more-than-broom-closet of the office. "In a room to which the Matriarch has keys, and from which she could shut us out, with scarcely any exertion of force at all."

"We also are not given much of a budget, either, Ambassador."

"So I can see." I stared at him again. "Where are you from?"

"Diamond Lake, Ambassador."

"Hmmm," I said again. "I have a cousin near Diamond Lake."

"Have you been there yourself, Ambassador?"

"My cousin and I do not get along at all." He seemed to relax, as well he might, because, while Diamond Lake was a convincingly provincial region for this very unimpressive chief of staff, he was very certainly not from Diamond Lake, to which I had indeed been, and with whose accent I was quite familiar. Hating members of your family is no reason not visit them. Nobody has family because they like them, but honor demands that family receive their due. Anyone from a senatorial family or even the landed gentry would know that. So: uncouth accent, not from Diamond Lake although presumably knowing enough about Diamond Lake that he had thought it safe to give as his origin, employed in a diplomatic office but neither senatorial nor gentry.

Abruptly, I said, "Please arrange for my return to the embassy; I have had a long trip, and I want to get to sleep. Tomorrow I don't think I will come here unless the Matriarch specifically requests a meeting. What I would like to do is visit the village and perhaps the surrounding areas, to see what is here. I would need a guard assigned. Can you arrange this?"

"Gladly, Ambassador," he said, and he did indeed seem glad.

The chief of staff was not wrong about the cabin having a nice view and, as cabins go, it was spacious and well-provisioned. But I hardly paid attention to the view, running through a number of things in my head, over and over again. I talked to the guard on duty, a nice, if not very bright boy from a landed family near the Bay of Shells, but over and over the same things kept going through my mind

The embassy was clearly understaffed, and the security clearly inadequate. (The guard clearly agreed; he said that most of the guards were in the barracks on the other side of the lands. "It is good to see you, Ambassador; there has been so little to do.") Neither could be the case without the knowledge of my predecessor. Syan was a posting for the disgraced and the politically dangerous, but it had a standing diplomatic mission, and was of some importance. It is true that the constant moving of the seat of government meant that a proper embassy building could hardly be built. (It occurred to me in passing that this might well be a reason for the policy, to create a limitation on the reach of diplomatic missions.) But senatorial family and standing mission are not minor things; the previous ambassador could have demanded, and would have received, everything required to impress the locals. Instead he tucked himself up in the woods, with minimal staff and minimal security. He was hiding something.

And what he was hiding was clear enough. The staff were spies, and deliberately brought in by my predecessor. No one could get a diplomatic staff position without being from established family, senatorial or gentry; as the joke went, diplomatic postings were positions of trust, so the Empire needed hostages. If you hired people without families of good reputation, then their families' reputations could not be harmed by their failures. The staff had none of the breeding you would expect even from gentry; the contrast with the guard from the Bay of Shells could not have been more clear. Thus the minimal security, minimal staff; the guards were Imperial, but kept out of the way, and guards and staff would not have mixed much. 

Nor was there any doubt which was the power for which they were spies. They were not aristocrats, they did not think or act like aristocrats, they did not think or act like gentry interacting with aristocrats; and Diamond Lake is the province of the Empire that does the most trade with the Five Cities. When the Matriarch had said that the Empire was providing assistance to Republican spies, she was exactly right; we had in fact gutted our embassy to make it a Republican listening post. These nasty little republics, I thought, always one step away from iron-fisted dictatorships and utterly barbaric, infesting our outer branches like termites in soft wood. The worst thing was that we let them do it. The Matriarch had to be right about the mining lands, too; the Empire allowing this at all boggled the mind, but my predecessor had not been doing this wholly in secret, since the Second Consul had known at least the general outline of the plan. Territory is the only thing that could have tempted the Consuls, but mere territory would be inadequate; they would have to be nice lands indeed.

And then the Matriarch killed my predecessor, ripping off the bark so that the termites were vulnerable. I came along, and they were trying to play out the charade. At least for a while.

Two things bothered me about this. First, that the Second Consul had not told me more. I did not expect to be made privy to details to secret concessions, so I had not paid attention to his vagueness about them, but if I had been chosen by the Second Consul specifically to provide cover for spies in the embassy, I would have needed to know that in order to do it properly. Yet I was not told. Second, that the Imperial guard were kept so much out of the way. One reason you might do that is to reduce the chance that they might, without knowing it, say something in letters back home that might make someone suspicious. So I could not help but raise the question: Was my predecessor hiding something from the Empire as well as from Syan? Did he intend to defect? I could hardly imagine a man of his family would do so. Was he pocketing something? Had he cut a side deal with the Five Cities that he did not want know to the Senate? I needed to find out more information. But my staff were all spies, so I could not trust them with anything, and had to avoid making them suspicious. How to do that?

I slept that night with three weapons within arm's reach, if you can call worrying about how to get information from back home with occasional dozing 'sleeping'. But I need not have worried, as the problem solved itself the next day, in the form of a letter from my brother.

The letter was waiting for me at the embassy cabin-office when I walked to it in order to make sure proper arrangements were made for my going into the village. It was a nastily smarmy letter, full of fake politeness and several indirect but obvious jabs suggesting that it was my fault that I had been sent to Syan, and several veiled threats that I had better not make the family's position worse. I wish I could say that it made me unhappy to receive such a tasteless letter, but in reality it was exactly the sort of letter I would expect that ignorant, pompous, self-important jackass to send. I glanced it and needed do no more, but as my staff, including the chief of staff, was there, I pretended to read it through very slowly. Instead I was composing a return letter in my head.

Finally I had it. I dictated it to the secretary. It was very much what you would expect. "My dearest and most beloved brother," et cetera, et cetera, a long description of the view of the lake from the cabin, sprinkled throughout with our family code, then ended with a complaint about the accommodations and the sentences, "And my beloved brother, you would not believe the lack of civilization in this primitive backwater. There is nothing to do and they do not even seem to have books. Please send me a copy of the Aureate Histories, or at least the seventh volume, which I was reading before I left, as well as anything else you can think of that would make time more bearable among these worse-than-provincial barbarians." Then, "Your most affectioning and loving brother," et cetera, et cetera,

I had them summon an Imperial guard, whom I made courier, and off the letter went.

I headed out on my trip the village, two Imperial guards keeping me company, with a light heart. I was (probably) out of the pit. Now it was a race. But I was still at a disadvantage, behind and without any knowledge of how soon the finish line would appear. And, of course, I had to rely on my arrogant, pompous windbag of a brother to be competent for once in his life. But that is the good of family: even if they are nothing but jackasses, at least you have resources. That is a fundamental political truth.

to be continued

Three Poem Drafts

Pink Ladies

The shy spring
maidens bow,
blush, sink.

Their dew-gems
grace smiles
born of joy.

The cool wind
in the shade
bows as well.

The new dance
now begins
in the dawn.

Wood Nymph

Sweet nymph, you fly like fleeing fawn
that from the silence, scared, runs home,
that sees as monsters shadow-shapes
and, terrified, sets feet to trail.
But be not so!

My heart is full;
it does not roar with wrath but joy.
Rejoice with me, sweet nymph, in love;
I am no beast, no violent wolf,
though I with fierceness love your smile.

O let me love you, lady fair;
treeborn maiden, take my hand!

The Fall of Babylon

The dragons in their pleasant palaces now cry
with toll of bell;
the island-beasts shall howl in empty houses built in hell,
the satyrs dance in wildness in the the waste
where owls with mournful sigh
watch gusting winds make haste.
The desert-beasts shall sleep on wounded sand,
the doleful creatures prowl throughout the land;
no shepherd guards his flock,
no nomads tent and stock.
As cities of the plain, God-overthrown,
undwelt to farthest lineage, tribe, and line,
the glory of the kingdoms falls alone,
of habitation without sign,
the children of the city dashed on stone,
and Babylon is fallen: raise the cry.
The forepast monument in ruin falls,
gone courtyard, fountains, forum, market, halls.
Even mighty Babylon may die;
the dragons in their pleasant palaces now cry.

I recall a summer bright;
the day was clear and warm the sight,
and walked I through a thriving wood
where oaks in congregation stood.
In silence solemn stopped I, stood I, there,
as star looked down with friendly trust
upon the wind in fretful gust,
and breathed I echoes of the air.
Thence from the north, the west, the south,
a cry escapes the angel's mouth;
they myriad thousands to the edge of time,
where stands the city, sure, sublime,
have gone; but prophecy has found no home
beside the pillar, beneath high dome.
Eroding columns lose their load,
undone. The rabbit shall burrow down
to lonely halls of rabbit-town,
the thorns shall trellis every road,
the nettle through the garden creeps.
For here is Babylon the great,
for here the godless city sleeps,
the fair, the mighty, and the late.

In Babylon, its Chaldean virtue fair,
as on a salted sea shall stare
the traveler who knows no inn
and never shall a gypsy see
and finds no dwelling made for men
or pastors standing by a shielding tree;
the wild prowlers make their beds
where sorrow's creatures lay their heads
and, desolate the distant howlers mourn
as goats are leaping heedless on the green
and owls are nesting in the day unseen,
and palace-dragons cry forlorn.

Yes, yes, even Babylon may die;
no more a tender maiden's silken dress
shall your naked form caress.
The city wails,
its dwellers sigh,
as youth and splendor fails.
The gods of Babylon bow down,
no worship lift, no faith, and no renown,
none before the idle idols kneel
where wolves are howling and jackals steal.
How splendid, how splendid she once was in the night,
filled with song and feast and light!

The dragons in their pleasant palaces now cry,
in God-forsaken houses island-beast-things lie,
where owls the mouselings watch and chase,
where in empty places doleful creatures rest,
the satyrs dance through desolation's space
and bow where desert-creatures make unholy nest.
No shepherd and nomad band
leave footprints on the sand;
none dwell, none live, forever and for aye,
as when the cities of the plain were cast away;
Chaldean beauty knows no more its dreams,
and the many-godded godless city no longer casts its gleams,
for Babylon, great Babylon, may die;
the dragons in their pleasant palaces now cry.

Dashed Off VIII

This begins the notebook begun February 2020.

 Mary is "the theme of the prophets, the first of the apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers." (Palamas)

Understanding is the foundation of relevance.

It takes a lot of organization to sustain an anarchy.

"The interpretant is evidently the Divine Logos or word, and if our former guess that a Reference to an interpretant is Paternity be right, this would be the Son of God. The ground, being that partaking of which is requisite to any communication with the Symbol, corresponds in its function to the Holy Spirit." Peirce (CE: I, 503)

Charity makes us members of a superintelligible world, a mystery of mysteries.

sacrament as reditus
(epistrophe, reditus, reversio)

the exitus & reditus of doctrine (development as part of reditus)

socially significant acts → associated sign-acts
e.g., acts of compassion spawn sign-acts like ritual expression of compassion, get well cards, etc.
e.g., acts of thankfulness spawn sign-acts like thanking expressions, thank you notes, etc.
These sign-acts communicate the primary acts, serve as placeholders and abbreviations for them, and keep their social importance salient. They also create a danger for hypocritical (lying) use.
-- They also clarify to others ranges of expected responses, facilitating social interaction. (It is in part this that also incentivizes hypocritical use for the purposes of manipulation.)

relying on someone because
(1) you trust them
(2) you owe them
(3) you have a shared incentive with them
(4) you and they are under a stabilizing authority to compensate for failings and lapses
(5) it is unavoidable
(6) you trust someone who vouches for them
(7) you owe or share incentive with someone who needs you to rely on them
(8) it is a matter in which people can be generally rusted and there is no reason not to do so in this particular case

The Greek ekklesia could quite literally be translated as 'congress'.

the messianic equability

Citizenship is a form or modality of legal personhood.

If right and wrong were matters of consent or contract, every generation would have to be won over anew on everything to do with right and wrong.

When people say 'invisible church', substitute 'incorporation into the Church mentaliter'; when people say 'visible church', substitute 'incorporation into the Church corporaliter'.

Mentaliter incorporation and corporaliter incorporation are linked semiotically, expressively, morally, and jurally. They are not related by a polarity by a synergy.

function notation and the directionality of thinking
A danger of function notation is loss of the distinction between overlap and correlation.

interpretive argument ex contextu, ex parallelis locis

Teaching is both visible and invisible.

Liturgy is grace activating human potential for being and acting.

Tradition always involves creative choices about how to hand things down.

A living language requires links to music and dance.

pan-Celticism as an anti-imperial aesthetic

The rise of psychoanalysis was made possible because the educated classes were invested in having an excuse to ignore or change what they wanted to ignore or change.

Logical positivism largely worked by giving a nimbus of 'scientificness' to methods and means that were actually just based on redefinitions and logical fictions. This is not to say that logical positivists had no interesting ideas -- if you invest a lot into systems constructed according to these or those arbitrary desiderata, you learn a lot about particular kinds of logical systems, and some of their arguments are interesting for other reasons. But Kantianism (for instance) contributed infinitely ore to real scientific discovery and explanation than logical positivism ever did or even could have. A lot of logical positivism was just science fiction.

'Ecclesiology', 'soteriology', 'Mariology', etc., while convenient curricular devices, are only curricular devices; they are not intrinsic to the structure of theology.

The Church is one holy, catholic, and apostolic in its efficient cause, in its final cause, in its formal cause, and in its material cause.
"They will be made holy who observe holy things in holiness." Wis 6:10

(1) Each of the Notes of the Church has an intensive and an extensive aspect.
(2) Each of the Notes has a reflection of the other three -- e.g., not only is there unity proper, but an aspect of this that directly regards catholicity and an aspect that directly regards apostolicity.
(3) Each Note is found in each of the four causes of the Church.
(4) Each Note enfolds its apparent complement -- i.e., the One Church is expressed in diverse churches, the Catholic Church in the local, the Holy Church in the mundane, the Apostolic Church in the present cultural.

The utility of a proposal about things presupposes questions of what it would be for it to be true or false (at least broadly speaking); the optative depends on the assertive.

surrealism and the technique of startling juxtaposition within a unifying frame

Every sacrament is an act of tradition; the minister hands down to the recipient a gift given from Christ through the Apostles so as to preserve or continue it as gift. Thus for each we may identify (1) a personal relation of handing down, (2) a real gift, the sacrament proper, (3) a formal structure of continuation, and (4) an end, that it may be received for grace.

the pope as font of collegiality

In logic there are only morals.

Canon is an inevitably byproduct of teaching.

constancy, coherence, and readiness to appear as structuring experimentation

traditional identity // personal identity
commemorative accounts of t.i. // memory accounts of p.i.

Predestination is the exemplar ordering of the rational creature to union with God as its end; it works by vocation and magnification (justification) and its effects are grace and glory.

love → election → predestination

"predestination is the preparation for grace, while grace is the donation itself." Augutine (De Pred. 1.19)

Augustine (De pred 1.27): The Book of Wisdom should not be repudiated because it is part of the lectoral ministry of the Church.
Augustine (1.28): The Book of Wisdom should be preferred above all commentators because illustrious early commentators preferred it to themselves.

They who reject original sin out of hand underestimate the reality of human community.

The Lord's Prayer as the structure of perseverance (cp. Augustine on Cyprian on the prayer)

preaching as an instrument of predestination

The evidence of 'grammatical evidentiality' suggests that witness, report, inference are basic categories and that firsthand, secondhand, etc., as well as sensory modality, are all intuitively recognizable as evidentially relevant.

'very true' as modal operator
between Box and True; not very true implies not necessary; etc.

question as weakening imperative to precative

must be → should be → might be → may be/could be

mirativity as an aesthetic category
Descartes relates mirativity to novelty (nous le jugeons être nouveau, Passions 2.53; cp 2.72) and difference from expectation (ou fort différent de ce que nous connaissions aupararant, ou bien de ce que nous supposons qu'il devait être) and he takes it to lead naturally either to esteem or contempt (l'estime et le mépris, 2.54) according to the greatness (grandeur) or smallness (petitesse) of the object. When the mirative is ourselves, this esteem or contempt is pride or humility (2.54) and when itis a free cause veneration or disdain (2.55). All of these are distinct from any evaluation of good or bad (2.56).
L'admiration est une subite surprise de l'ame, qui fait qu'elle se porte à considérer avec attention les objets qui lui semblent rares et extraordinaires."(2.70)
Astonishment is excess of admiration that disrupts it so one does not learn more (2.73).
Admiration causes us to apprehend and retain in memory things of which we were previously ignorant (2.75); it disposes us to pursue knowledge but can impede it (2.76, 77, 78).
mirativity and disanology, disconstancy, discoherence, unreadiness to appear

Our sense of fairness is an aesthetic sense.

Socratic method is occasional by its very nature.

Note that Malebranche takes Jesus to be sole occasional cause of inner grace; others may solicit His action, and be an occasional cause of miracles (possibly for saints, definitely for angels).

murder simple ballads: from passion, from greed, from vengeance

kinds of drinking song
(1) vocative: "Jose Cuervo"
(2) narrative: "Lish Young Buy-a-Broom", "Friends in Low Places", "Bubbles in My Beer"
(3) plaintive: "Nancy Whiskey", "80 Proof Bottle of Tear-Stopper", "Margaritaville"
(4) defensive?
drink-focused vs effect-focused
df: "Nancy Whiskey", "I Like Beer", "99 Bottles of Beer", "Jose Cuervo"
ef: "Margaritaville" "Lish Young Buy-a-Broom"
songs about drink vs songs about being drunk
-- obv. one can't just include every song mentioning alcohol; some further specification is necessary

monuments of personal identity
(1) written documents
(2) souvenirs of events
(3) mundane physical appurtenances
(4) external testimonial

the body as organ of personal identity

Thursday, April 15, 2021


 It is, alas, an unfortunate feature of the times in which we live that the old barbarisms keep trying to sneak back in under the name of progress and ethics. I suppose it was inevitable; one thing that is absolutely certain is that at some point or another people are always going to try to convince others that evils are really such-and-such goods; nothing defends like ethics, and so nothing is so abused for defending wrongs as ethics. And, alas again, one of the barbarisms trying to sneak in is old-fashioned eugenics.

And thus we are brought to Veit, Anomaly, Singer, Agar, Minerva, and Fleischman's "Can 'Eugenics' Be Defended?" I will call the committee of authors, VASAMF. VASAMF want to argue that when people say that something is eugenics, it's a matter of semantics rather than ethics and policy. Of course, this is obviously going to be the game. Most people, in using the label 'eugenics', are in fact already making an implicit ethical argument about what is being so labeled; but VASAMF will try to sweep this way as nothing but a bit of verbal rhetoric, and then ask, "Where's the ethical argument?" As they put it:

To call a person a ‘eugenicist’ or deem a practice ‘eugenics’ is often accepted as a substitute for an argument. However, all human societies engage in a variety of practices that are both widely accepted and plainly eugenic. In the West, most pregnant women test for disorders such as Down syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. Many people choose to terminate pregnancies that are likely to result in a genetic disorder or disability. Incest is forbidden in most cultures and cousin marriage is illegal in many nations for transparently eugenic reasons: the children that result are more likely to suffer from a disorder or disability. Perhaps the most straightforwardly eugenic policy is the provision of genetic counselling among at-risk ethnic groups to prevent the birth of, for example, children with Tay-Sachs, sickle cell disease and thalassemia. 
The important conclusion is this: everyone who considers pre-natal testing justifiable, or who thinks women should be free to weigh genetic information in the selection of a spouse or a sperm donor is a eugenicist.

There's a neat sleight of hand here with the 'plainly'; despite the fact that VASAMF's opponents clearly are not using the term to indicate something "all human societies engage in", VASAMF claim that such practices are 'plainly' eugenic. But it is in fact essential to the argument here to determine whether they are eugenic in the sense being condemned. (In fact, many people would say that the pregnancy terminations are eugenics in the relevant sense, and nobody intends to say that selecting your spouse in part on the basis of whether they are generally health is eugenics in the relevant sense -- it's just not the sort of thing that's meant at all. Of course, you could try to argue that these are close enough. But to do that you would first have to determine what the opponents meant, not try to impose a meaning on them.)  But there is a more subtle sleight of hand before this, namely, in the assertion without argument that the use of the label 'eugenics' is "often accepted as a substitute for argument". A substitute for argument. But this is not at all so. It is a shorthand for a family of arguments. Unfortunately, this is a common error of philosophers in dealing with ethical matters of widespread public concern, namely, not grasping that many of the arguments are often found in highly abbreviated form.

If someone condemns you because, in their words, your advocacy of a certain thing is 'eugenics', this is in fact an argument. It's not an abstract classification; it's suggesting a conclusion on the basis of something. The implicit argument is that your advocacy is to be condemned because it is close enough to count (for at least practical purposes) as the kind of commonly condemned thing we call 'eugenics' to fall under the same condemnation. This may or may not be true, and, to be sure, it is not a rigorous proof. It is a defeasible argument, based on a default presumption that you avoid something very bad (the clear eugenics cases) by avoiding things of a certain kind of close similarity unless you have reason to think the similarity merely apparent, and it's the kind of argument in which we could be divided by different judgment calls over just how close is 'close enough'. But it is an argument.

In any case, VASAMF make an error that is at least broadly similar to one for which I criticized Nobis and Dudley quite harshly; what they need is for the cases to be similar in precisely the way that would be morally relevant, since we are talking about a morally relevant use of the term 'eugenics'. But the kinds of practices that they want to sweep under the same univocal label are very different, and they do nothing to determine if there might be reasonable grounds for separating them off from the kind of things that are condemned. To be sure, eugenics does include things that are very different, but all of the actions that they mention respond to genetic information very differently:

abortion of Down's babies, etc.
making incest and cousin marriage illegal
providing counseling to people whose pregnancies would involve a high risk of genetic problems
treating pre-natal testing as justifiable at all
weighing genetic information in determining a spouse or sperm donor

The first of these is often condemned as eugenics, and is in fact the sort of thing you might do if you were interested in eugenics, and historically has often been done for explicitly eugenic reasons; the second is exceedingly widespread, and contrary to the claim made, is commonly supported even by people who have hardly considered questions of genetics in their lives, on the basis of custom, religion, disgust at incest. Sure, one could advocate it for eugenic reasons, but it's far from the only justification on the table. The third and fourth need not be eugenic in intent at all -- you could do these things just so people can have information that they need to prepare, for instance. Again, you could do this for specifically eugenic further purposes; but informing yourself, or making sure others are informed, are not automatically the kinds of things most people would consider eugenics. The same is the case for the fifth.

All of these things might indeed be done for explicit eugenic reasons, and probably sometimes are; so the point is not that these couldn't be condemned for eugenics in particular cases. And in the first case, the abortion case, there are people who would argue that this is, in fact, eugenics, whether done explicitly for that purpose or not. But VASAMF are doing something very much like Nobis and Dudley's attempting to make a particular kind of action permissible (killing human beings in a given case) on the basis of a vague sense of similarity with cases supposed to be permissible. Nobody condemning something as 'eugenics' is using the word to indicate a similarity to any and every consideration of genetics in reproductive matters; it's similarities to certain specific cases that are widely condemned, on the points for which they are widely condemned. And you will have to look in context in order to determine what the primary reference point is -- what is it that is triggering this classification, and why?

But VASAMF are pretty clearly playing with words, as we can see in their argument, influenced by Philip Kitcher, that both trying to engage in eugenic actions and not trying to engage in eugenic actions are both equally eugenics, because they affect reproductive outcomes. At this rate, everything gets counted as 'eugenics', but we are in fact still where we were to begin with: people were condemning things for a reason -- they weren't randomly bringing up the word -- and all VASAMF have to offer is a bunch of verbal quibbling. The primary cleverness is to engage in all this unargued verbal tap-dancing while implying that their opponents are making purely verbal claims without argument.

The wrongness of eugenics, as a historical movement, was manifold; there was not just one single problem with it. Some things were egregiously evil, and are widely recognized as so, as the case with medical atrocities committed by Nazis or by American eugenicists against blacks or the disabled; others were less egregious, and in some cases not even necessarily wrong in themselves, but enabled much worse things, bringing society closer to atrocity under the guise of something less obviously wrong, or even something permissible but dangerous if you're not careful. When people condemn something as eugenics, they are sometimes not saying, "This falls under a strict definition of 'eugenics'" (or, for that matter, "This falls under VASAMF's super-hyper-extended definition of 'eugenics'"). Sometimes they are saying something more like, "This looks like the kind of thing that brings us closer to a society of eugenic-based atrocities". Sometimes they are saying something like, "What possible reason could there be for accepting this if not the kind of reasons that have ended so badly in the past?" Sometimes they are saying, "This seems to subvert the customs and safeguards we have been trying to keep in place to prevent eugenics-atrocities of the sort we have known in the past." VASAMF make a big deal about the importance of focusing on the ethics rather than the words, but this is precisely what they themselves do not do; they dismiss as mere words what are obviously and undeniably ethical concerns. No doubt there will be times when they are unfounded concerns -- e.g., people misunderstanding what is going on, or going on just a vague association in their own imaginations, both of which happen a lot in other cases -- but it's absurd to pretend that they aren't already focusing on the ethics.

The Ambassador, Part II

The capital of Syan is wherever the Matriarch is officially residing at a time, and Matriarchs change their official residence quite regularly. However odd it may seem to the Imperial mind, and however difficult it may make matters for foreign envoys, it is a custom to which the Matriarchs faithfully adhere -- in part, I imagine, because it reduces the resources available for plotting and scheming against them.

When I arrived in Syan, the Matriarch was summering at one of the old Matriarchal castles on Lake Ayssan, which meant that the official capital of Syan was a tiny village called Amansaiva that is apparently three hours away from anywhere. I spent the three hours, when I was not brooding darkly on the follies of my father and brother or wondering whether the Matriarch's preferred choice of death in my case would be poison or firing squad, reflecting on the mystery of how the Matriarch managed to maintain such an iron grip on everything while being so thoroughly inaccessible.

I had hardly eaten anything the whole day -- the only things sold at the stations along the way were saltwater pickles, nasty, foul things that taste as if you were washing your mouth in dirty seawater -- and so was already not in a good mood when we finally came to Amansaiva and found no one to meet me at the station there. No one was at the station at all, except a pickle vendor and an old fortune-teller woman mumbling and cackling to herself as she repeatedly laid out her cards. After asking both of them for information about transportation, I was forced to buy a saltwater pickle from the pickle vendor just to find that he was the transportation. Thus I, ambassador of the Empire, rode to the embassy on a pickle cart. The vendor was very talkative. Along the way I learned many not-entirely-fascinating, indeed many not-at-all-fascinating, facts about pickling.

The ride was much longer than I could have hoped, and the Imperial 'embassy' was just log cabin way up in the woods. In the front room of the cabin there was a desk piled with papers and a man who looked like he had been dozing a moment before. I glared at him. He looked blankly at me.

Finally, he said, in a dialect I could not quite place, "Can I help you?"

It would be inappropriate for me to relay my response. It is inexcusable for a man of the Empire to act with anger, but I had been forced into a position that would likely lead to my death and I had had a long trip, during which I had eaten practically nothing, and had the rotten smell of saltwater pickles hanging around me until I was nauseous, only to find, as the final insult, that my staff was apparently lazy and incompetent.

The man at the desk, once sorted out properly, informed me that the rest of the staff were at the castle, and would be there for much of the rest of the day; apparently there was an office set aside in the castle itself for them. So I asked for transportation to the castle.

"Transportation?" he said blankly.

Trying not to seethe, I carefully explained to him what transportation was.

"Yes, Ambassador," he said, "but everything we have is at the castle."

I asked for a map, which request he was fortunately competent enough to understand, and I began estimating how long it would take to walk to the castle, since walk I apparently must. Fortunately, it would certainly not take long; the cabin -- thinking of the ugly little building as an 'embassy' was going to take some time -- was relatively close to the castle along the nearest road, and I could certainly walk the distance in no more time than it had taken the pickle cart to carry me to the cabin.

"But surely you could wait until tomorrow," the man at the desk protested.

I frowned. "And waste daylight? What kind of Imperial citizen are you?" This silenced him completely, and I am afraid I could not entirely suppress the feeling of satisfaction at this.

So I walked to the castle. By the time I had arrived and gone through security, it was nearly sunset, and I had dust on my boots and mud splatters on my slacks, but I was there, and I set about straightway to find the Imperial office.

It was more like an Imperial broom closet, with barely enough room for a desk. Behind it sat a man in an inexpensive green jacket; he was talking to a man, just outside the door, in a very expensive blue jacket. They were both startled to see me. The man in the green jacket, a dark-haired, snub-nosed, pale-skinned character with an accent even more barbarous than that of the man at the embassy (what backwoods provincials do they stock these offices with, I wondered at this point), was my chief of staff. The other man was an ambassador from the Five Cities Republic.

"Delighted to meet you," he said cheerfully. "I was just offering my condolences on the passing of your predecessor. Excellent man, excellent man."

"Your kindness is much appreciated," I said. I then stood there and waited until he took the hint and, glancing at my chief of staff, took leave.

"Please arrange a meeting with the Matriarch at her earliest convenience," I told the chief of staff.

"It would probably be easier to get a meeting tomorrow...."

"I don't recall asking you to arrange it at your earliest convenience," I said curtly.

"But, Ambassador...."

I would likely have lost my temper again -- twice in one day, how embarrassing and inappropriate for a man of senatorial pedigree -- but we were interrupted at that moment by a messenger, who brought word that the Matriarch would like to see the Imperial ambassador at his earliest convenience.

I shot the chief of staff a triumphant look and said, "My earliest convience is now."

The messenger led me through the castle, which was dizzyingly maze-like, and we eventually came to the Matriarch's own office. I was announced, and then met the woman herself -- an almost mousy-looking woman, like someone's aunt, and not at all like you would expect an iron-fisted dictator to look.

She looked me up and down shrewdly, then, fixing me with a cool glance said, "Well, at least the Empire has sent me a pretty one this time."

This was very disconcerting, and I found myself somewhat tongue-tied. Before I could come up with some properly Imperial greeting, the Matriarch clapped her hands together once and said, "Your Excellency must have had a very long journey. Let us have dinner."

In general it is best to avoid having dinner with someone who poisoned your predecessor's meal. In general it is also best not to face off with a dangerous enemy when ravenously hungry. Normally the former political truth would heavily outweigh the latter, but as I considered the possibilities they were surprisingly evenly matched. I could not help but reflect that the Matriarch would probably have some difficulty explaining yet another ambassador dying from bad food.

"I would be honored to dine with you, Matriarch," I said. "May it be the first such dinner of many, for many years to come."

She smiled at that, a little too obviously insincerely, I thought. "Indeed," she said.

The small dining hall itself was quietly spartan, but this was offset by the lush paintings that hung on its walls. One of them caught the eye immediately. It was a snow scene with two figures. One, a man, lay dying on the ground. The other, standing, was a pale woman with fire-red hair blowing about her pale face like an aura of flame, looked right out of the painting at you with eyes of subtle green so skillfully painting that they seemed wet with tears and measurelessly lovely.

"I have heard of this painting in the Empire," I said. "It must be one of the most famous paintings ever made. One of the former Matriarchs, I take it?"

"Yes," said the Matriarch, indifferently, as she sat at the table. "I have never liked it myself, but if I were to order it destroyed, someone would surely smuggle it out instead. Even I have to avoid giving orders that are guaranteed to be disobeyed. Better to have it hang where no one ever sees it." She gestured at the table. "Please sit down. Go ahead and try the saltwater pickles, if you are hungry; they are splendid."

I was indeed hungry, but I politely declined the pickles. The steward brought the wine as I sat down.

"It seems to me," said the Matriarch, "that you have the look of a man with something to say."

"I do, Matriarch, but it is perhaps excessively bold of me to say it."

She merely inclined her head.

"I am a loyal son of the Empire, but I was chosen for this position by a political enemy of my family. To make the matter short, I am being set up, and I refuse to cooperate with it. I am certain by this point that there are spies on my staff and that my predecessor was involved in some sort of scheme; I suspect one that has something to do with the Republic of Five Cities." The meal was brought. It smelled heavenly.

The Matriarch's face was inscrutable. "You are bolder than I would have expected of an Empire-man. Truth is a dangerous weapon in this business, never to be given out without expectation of return, and despite your innocent, pretty-boy looks, you do not strike me as too naive to understand that. What do you wish from me?"

"I do not know what relationship you had with my predecessor, but I am wagering that your plans did not overlap. Our interests are perhaps more aligned. I will do nothing contrary to the interests of the Empire, but I think you and I can come to a more amicable arrangement. But I need to know what is going on, and I suspect that you know better than anyone."

While I began eating, she leaned back and looked at me through narrowed eyes a long while. Then she smiled. "You would make an excellent confidence artist."

"I never lie," I replied hotly.

"The best confidence men never need to lie," she said. She drank some wine, then said, "I do not know everything; your predecessor was many things, but not a fool, and my means of gathering information have necessarily been indirect. But this is what I know. A rumor has spread through the Five Cities that the army of Syan is in poor shape -- soldiers not being paid and regiments on the verge of revolt."

"Is that true?"

She smiled. "It is true that the rumor has spread. Because of it, the Republic is preparing an assault on Syan. The Empire is being bribed, and I believe your predecessor was being bribed, to provide certain logistical support; I am not privy to all the details, but I believe part of the deal is that once the Five Cities took over, the Empire would receive certain valuable mining lands near the border, without having to do any hard fighting to get them. It is a very Imperial scheme; ingenious of you Empire-boys to try to steal territory without fighting for it. I would not be at all surprised if it were an Imperial scheme from the start. I have also strongly suspected that the Imperial embassy has been providing assistance to Republican spies in one way or another, so your sense of things confirms my own. What I wish I knew was exactly when they intend to move....You do not seem to be very happy at the information."

Indeed, I had been trying not to swear out loud at it, although half of it I had already suspected. The Matriarch nodded.

"If you are thinking what I suspect, you are quite right: you were surely sent here as an expendable pawn. And while my reputation is partly the legend and mystique of the Matriarchs, it is not entirely empty. Once the Five Cities began to move, had any evidence at all turned up to confirm my suspicion of the Imperial sheltering of Republican spies, you would have been responsible for it, whether you knew about it or not, and your life would have been forfeit. It is useless to follow Imperial politics too closely, given that these days it mostly consists of posturing and bribery and attempts to wiggle out of hard military decisions, but I have heard a few things about your family and their troubles. I would be surprised if there weren't a plan to plant the evidence on you at just the right time, in the hope that I would take care of their problem for them. Were I them, I would also falsify evidence that you had, in fact, been the major player in the plan the entire time. But I don't know if the Empire is that brazen anymore. If I wanted to conquer the Empire by force, I could almost do it by sending in a brigade of old women with brooms and ladles to take the Senate hostage."

I flushed reflexively at the insult, but at that point I was also not in the mood to rise to the Empire's defense. "I suppose we have a common interest in finding out exactly when the Republic will move and what the spies are doing in preparation for it."

"Then it is done," said the Matriarch. "I will keep you informed about what I learn on that front, if you will keep me informed about what you learn about it. It is a small thing, but it is something."

I was still finishing my meal, but she, who had hardly touched her plate at all, rose to leave.

"I have two more questions, Matriarch," I said, "if it would not be too much trouble."

She gestured at me to continue.

"I seriously doubt that the Five Cities would act on a rumor alone; if they are acting on a rumor, there must have been confirming evidence. Did you start the rumor that the armies of Syan were in disarray?"

She smiled again and shrugged her shoulders. "Who can ever know how a rumor first starts?" she replied. "What is your second question?"

"It is a mere matter of curiosity. Why do you hate that painting so much?"

She looked somber a moment, then said thoughtfully, "There is power and there is power. One kind of power is the kind I wield over Syan. It is clear, it is brutal -- and it is limited. It cannot be everywhere at once, it cannot loom over everyone all the time. Your Imperial senators let out their occasional peacock-screams about the freedom of the Imperial citizen, as you bury those very citizens alive in laws, but here in Syan the laws, though merciless, are clear and few. Murderers are shot, rapists and traitors flayed, brigands hanged, tax evaders and thieves branded, and almost everyone else can go about their quiet business according to custom and choice. To try to rule everything is the surest way to loss of power. Every Matriarch is taught that from the first day she is Infanta: Make no plans requiring control of little details. But there is another kind of power, and it respects no limits. It exerts a slow pressure to conform to impossible standards, mythical standards, and it is designed to seep into the very core of who you are." She pointed to the painting. "It is a power that she presumed to try to wield over future Matriarchs. And it is a power to which I refuse to give any opportunity for exercise."

And she turned and left, leaving me to finish my meal.

to be continued

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Ambassador, Part I

This is a short story draft that I never quite finished putting up, so it seems due for a completion as well as a revision.

Nobody except the Matriarch of Syan knows exactly what happened to my predecessor, but I can imagine many of the details, some of which are likely true. The Matriarch of Syan does not at first give an impression of extraordinary power. One hears of Matriarchs who have done so, but it is not the look that makes a Matriarch. I am not sure what does; but perhaps it is the the ability to smile coolly at the destruction of enemies. And I have no doubt that the Matriarch was smiling coolly as my predecessor  sat down to dinner with her.

He was a cautious man, and carefully ate nothing except what was tasted by the food-tasters, a young man and a young woman. I hope they were well-paid for what must be a harrowing occupation; but perhaps they, like canaries in the coal mine, were simply drafted. But everything was tasted by one or the other, and the Matriarch herself began to eat, and so he ate.

"I have heard an interesting rumor," the Matriarch said abstractedly as she looked down at her wine and swirled it in her cup. "I have heard that you have had a meeting with the ambassador from the Five Cities Republic."

"'Having a meeting' is hardly the name for it," said the ambassador. "We happened to meet in passing and exchanged some words."

"Half an hour of words, it seems."

"That is certainly an exaggeration." You have to give the man credit, after all; he was part steel, the sort of man who could lie like that and calmly continue eating.

"Rumors often are," she said carelessly. "I only bring it up because there are interesting things happening in the Republic. Or perhaps they are rumors, as well."

"Those rumors I have heard," he said, clearing his throat, then clearing his throat again. He drank some wine. "The Republic appears less stable than it used to be."

"Republics are always less stable than they used to be," said the Matriarch. "I am thinking more particularly of the tales I've heard that certain statesmen there are interested in trying to destabilize the Matriarchate."

The ambassador perhaps turned slightly pale, but no other sign of distress would have showed. "Indeed? But I am not really surprised. The Five Cities are always a cesspool of intrigue, as you know. I am sure that they are plotting and plotting to unsettle the Empire in half a dozen ways, as well."

"No doubt," said the Matriarch. "The Republican ambassador said nothing to you about the matter?"

"Nothing whatsoever," was the reply.

"Interesting." The Matriarch carefully cut her steak. It is a quirk of hers, the extraordinary care with which she eats her food, everything in precise bites.

After a few minutes of quiet eating, she spoke again. "I actually wanted to ask you about the Imperial training exercises."

The ambassador would have cleared his throat. "Training exercises?" he said, his forehead getting slightly damp.

"Training exercises," she said. "That is what the excuse would have been, would it not? 'We are not really building up our forces in preparation for an invasion. It is a training exercise. It is only near your borders because the location allows for' -- what would it be? -- 'because the location is ideal for practicing mountain maneuvers'? Let's see. Ah, yes, 'all routine; if you would like we can arrange for observers from Syan, but it would take time to get the permission, since you would have to notify the Imperial City and the local commanders.' Something like that would be the excuse, would it not?"

"Well," said the ambassador, perhaps a little weakly, "there are some training maneuvers going on, but there always are, you know. They don't keep me informed of every detail. Surely it is not so many that you could regard it as a serious threat."

"I am sorry to be so blunt, Your Excellency, but the Empire is long past being a serious threat to anyone, regardless of numbers. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat reckless to engage in 'training exercises' so close to the border without any prior notification. It seems only a matter of courtesy to let us know. After all, it could be taken very badly. To take just an example, there are all these rumors about the Five Cities plotting to assassinate me, and should I be out of the way, who would not think that the Empire might be tempted to annex the mines across the border, just to take advantage of a temporary moment of weakness on the part of Syan? Or perhaps to lend troops in assisting the Five Cities in opposing the Infanta? Or perhaps the Empire would be happy to cut a deal with the Republic to recognize and support its invasion in exchange for some valuable favors? There are so many possibilities for bad interpretation in the whole matter."

The pallor of the face and the beads of sweat on the forehead were quite pronounced. The ambassador cleared his throat. "If you wish," he said weakly, "I can file an official report registering your protest, in addition to any your ambassador to the Empire might file directly." He cleared his throat again.

"That would be very kind," she said. "You see, it is not the single event that causes consternation. But there are combinations of things that should always be avoided, even if singly they are perfectly harmless." She took a drink of wine.

"I heard about one that will no doubt amuse you," she continued. "There was an incident in my predecessor's day of someone important dying suddenly and mysteriously. And it turned out that the death was caused by two completely harmless substances. You see, when they are separate, they have no ill effect. But if you were to mix the two under just the right circumstances, they convert to a highly toxic compound. As it happened in that case, one of the substances had been in the food, and another in the drink. If he had just taken wine, or had water instead of the wine, he would have been perfectly fine; but he had both, and as it turns out, the acids of the stomach are the perfect conditions for the combination of the two compounds. Is that not remarkable?"

Whether the ambassador thought it remarkable would doubtless be difficult to determine, since he would by this point be sweating profusely, breathing raspily, and doubled over as if in pain. It would not be long before he slid onto the floor, dead.

The Matriarch had his body shipped back to the Empire in grandest honors, expressing her deepest sorrow at having lost someone who had worked so hard for the mutual benefit of the Empire and the Matriarchate. The official story was food poisoning; which I suppose was completely true.

Of course, as I said, no one knows precisely what happened except the Matriarch; these details are all how I imagine it, but they are well-founded details. I like to think that my predecessor took it stoically, in the finest Imperial tradition, as his forefathers would have. I hated the man myself, but he was an Imperial citizen, after all, of an old senatorial family, and I would hope that some of that would show itself in the end. And, I suppose, being killed by the Matriarch, which you can guarantee will be an inconveniently undignified and unpleasant death, cannot but make me have some sympathy for him. After all, I am likely to go the same way one day.

Obviously my own involvement in the matter began after the body had been shipped back to the Empire with all the crocodile tears the Matriarch could ship with it. Had I had any sense whatsoever, I would have 'come down' with a terrible illness the moment I was invited to the Second Consul's office. Nothing good could come of such an invitation. But I suppose I, being an incurable optimist, took it as a sign the ice was finally thawing, and I walked into the office as innocent as a lamb gamboling up to the door of the slaughterhouse. I do not know how long I could have held it off, in any case; a consul can only be put off so long before soldiers come by to haul you in.

"How is your father?" he asked, with a big smile. Both the question and the smile should also have set alarms ringing in my head.

"He is doing quite well," I replied. "As active as ever. He is away with my brother, looking into buying a seaside villa. Our rents have been excellent the past few years."

"That is good," he said. "Would you like a drink?"

In general, you should never take a drink from someone who favors your family's enemies, but you should also never refuse an offer of a drink from a consul. Caught between two irreconcilable political truths, I took the drink with thanks.

"I hope you will allow me to be frank," he said, after we had shared empty comments about the quality of the oak-aged brandy. "Your family's political fortunes have not exactly been at their highest in past years. I have always felt the situation to be regrettable, but the shifting political winds have never blown quite right for me to do anything about it. And I am not sure that they do so now. But necessity may accomplish what diplomacy cannot. An ambassadorial position has recently come open, one that can only be filled by someone of highest senatorial pedigree. It may be the route to restoring your family's political position. It is a politically sensitive position, and I do not claim that it would be easy in every way, but things are in motion that if properly kept in motion would ensure the finest political laurels."

It was this that in fact set off alarms in my very slow-witted head. I started running through all the ambassadorial positions that I knew were open, wondering in what edge-of-everything hole-in-the-wall they were going to try to stuff me, and thinking through the excuses that might get me out of them. The trouble is that there are very few excuses that you can give a consul to his face. Part of my mind also began trying to figure out what my father could have possibly done that, despite not knowing about it, could lead the Second Consul to think that he could move directly rather than through a senatorial committee; consuls normally went through great lengths to preserve the public fiction of neutrality.

I sipped my drink, trying to sort this all out in my head. "What is the position?" I finally asked, unable to come to any likely possibilities on my own.

"The Matriarchate of Syan."

I choked on my brandy. It was worse than I had thought. Syan is where you send enemies whose careers you no longer need to destroy. It took me a while to quit coughing.

After I had recovered, I sighed. "I take it that the position was artificially rather than naturally opened."

"Officially, it was a natural opening. Unofficially, he was certainly poisoned; we think he got sloppy and the Matriarch got wind of what he was doing."

"And we are just letting the Matriarchate get away with it."

"To do otherwise, we would have to be in a position to do otherwise. You know how touchy they are; and we are in no shape to go to war over an assassination they can just deny. We could never get our allies to give money or troops for that, and the Mercenary Legion is dealing with the vice-governorates of the Southern March."

He put down his snifter. "Look," he said, "I know you exactly what you are thinking. And normally you would be right. The recently deceased and entirely unlamented ambassador was stuffed into the position to keep him safely out of the way until precisely something like this would happen, or until he was too old to be useful. And, one way or another, in Syan it's a rare ambassador who grows old. But he was more cunning than his enemies expected, and he was somehow able to use the position to leverage some crucially important concessions from the Five Cities. Concessions we need. The Republic is planning to move against Syan. In the deal, we get the concessions by not intervening, at least until matters are in hand, beyond providing some minor cover. It is ideal for us. But we need someone there to reduce the chance that they will try to renege on the deal, and it is here that we face a fundamental problem. The Matriarch knows us nearly as well as we do; she knows that it is a position given to members of disgraced high-level families; sending someone from a minor family would be taken as an insult, and sending someone from a family on the upswing would make her suspicious. We need a trustworthy black sheep, a loyal disgrace. Even people who hate your family concede that you are, one and all, good citizens of the Empire. And you were deemed the least risky of your family. The circumstances chose you, not I." He spread his hands. "Such is politics; we are all puppets held by the strings of the very webs we weave."

"I take it, then, that there is no room for me to turn down this offer."

"Let us simply say that it is your duty as an Imperial citizen, and, as I said, whatever others may think of your family, nobody impugns your sense of duty." In senatorial circles, that is a polite way of telling you to shut up and just accept that you have no alternative.

And they lost no time sending me on my suicide mission; I was packed off on the next transport to Syan.

to be continued

Kind and Cruel

April Sonnet No. I: April Kind
by Francis Bennoch

April, though treacherous and changeling named,
Wanton and wayward in thy nature, still
Revealest thou those mysteries that fill
All hearts with love's deep sympathy, and famed
For blooms that odorous balm distil.
Birthtime of beauty and of poesy:
When birds betrothed melodions from the hill
Rain down their morning song of ecstasy.
When amorous bees toy fondly with the flower,
And drain its humid sweets deliriously,
Faint with excess, in love's delicious bower
Softly infolded, blossom-couched he lies:
Whilst draughts of fragrant dew oblivious sleep supplies.

April, 1855.

April Sonnet No. II: April Cruel
by Francis Bennoch

April, ah me! how swiftly changes come,
How soon the month we love we learn to hate,
When boughs deflowered hang down disconsolate,
And clouds of grief make dark our garden home,
Where genial sunshine lingering loved to wait;
With joy we grafted in thy wounded rind
The fairest branch that ever blossom bore;
Clasped close, incorporate as one combined,
A newborn rapture trembled in thy core
As budding life expanded, more and more
We longed to reap the fruit; but woke to find
Hope in a morning blighted; from the shore
A ruthless wind stole with untimely frost,
And all thy cherished bloom was shrivelled, loosed, and lost.

April, 1855.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Looking Upon the Inner Truth

Do teachers hold that it is their thoughts that are perceived and grasped rather than the very disciplines they take themselves to pass on by speaking? After all, who is so foolishly curious as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks? When the teachers have explained by means of words all the disciplines they profess to teach, even the disciplines of virtue and of wisdom, then those who are called 'students' consider within themselves whether truths have been stated. They do so by looking upon the inner Truth, according to their abilities. That is therefore the point at which they learn.

[Augustine in the De Magistro, from Against the Academicians and The Teacher, King, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 1995) p. 145.]

Monday, April 12, 2021

Nobis and Dudley on Abortion

 Nathan Nobis and Jonathan Dudley have an article in Salon in which they argue that the case against abortion is ethically weak, and it is so absurd as to be almost funny. The essential idea is right -- a very large number of pro-choice arguments do not touch on moral questions at all, or only obliquely, whereas almost of the primary pro-life arguments are moral to their root. But their grand argument that the pro-life arguments are weak argument from analogy.

Their first step is based on living organ donation:

First, in every U.S. state and most countries, if a person elects to be an organ donor, their organs can be removed for transplant when that person suffers complete brain death—even if their body is still alive. Organ harvesting involves cutting living human beings open and their organs being removed one-by-one until, at last, the heart is detached and the human being dies, having been directly killed by the procedure. 

Almost everybody thinks that this is acceptable, they say, so it goes to show that really we all believe that "it's not always wrong to kill human beings", even innocent ones.

I'm afraid, alas, that I literally burst out laughing when I originally read this first step of their argument, and I'm still having difficulty keeping from doing so in going over it again for this post. There is of course one very, very important word in their set-up that complicates this supposedly lucid case, namely, that they explicitly say that they are already talking about human beings that are regarded as having already died for other reasons -- "complete brain death", i.e., irreversible cessation of brain functions so that the person can be regarded as dead. What Nobis and Dudley have really shown in their first step is that people generally don't think you can kill a human being who is already dead, so the moral worries that would come with killing a human being don't arise for people who have reached the point of their brain irreversibly shutting down so as to be classified as dead. Their argument depends on recognizing that a body can be dead one way (brain death) and still alive for a while another way (until heart death), and then assuming that only the latter actually matters. Needless to say, the people Nobis and Dudley are talking about are not treating the latter case as the point of death for the human being. Thus it's simply false to say that they are treating the case as one where it is acceptable to kill a human being, because they obviously hold that the human being is already dead and the body is just still undergoing its shut-down process, and the organs can more easily save lives if taken from this dead person now rather than late. Contrary to what Nobis and Dudley, suggest, there are in fact pro-life people who worry about the moral questions involved in such live organ donation, but the many who don't have a moral problem with it quite clearly do not themselves see it as killing a human being, no matter how Nobis and Dudley might think of it. We can even assume that Nobis and Dudley are right, if you'd like; it doesn't follow that people are actually interpreting the case in this supposedly-right way. Most people make the judgment of moral permissibility they do in this case because they take it that a person can be irreversibly dead while parts of their body are still alive, and thus assimilate to the case of taking organs from the recently dead (in cases where both brain death and the stopping of the heart have happened) for precisely the reason that they regard it as nothing but taking organs from the even more recently dead.

The second step of their argument is based on the case of anencephalic infants -- i.e., infants who are born without a large part of the brain. These are generally delivered and simply given palliative care; because they lack brains capable of adequate functioning, they eventually inevitably die. Nobis and Dudley say that this practice "ends their life, but is not morally wrong". Well, no, what ends their lives is not having a brain capable of supporting life for very long; reverting to only palliative care even for adults would not generally be regarded as 'ending someone's life', because that suggests deliberate killing. That is precisely not what is happening in palliative care cases; you have a reached a point where death is not actually avoidable, more aggressive interventions might make things worse, and so you focus instead on trying to make the inevitable easier.

Where they are heading with this is the combination argument: as we don't mind killing brain-dead people and we don't mind 'ending the life' of anencephalic infants with inadequately formed brains, we should not mind abortion in cases where the brain is not yet fully developed. The problem with this argument by analogy is that Nobis and Dudley clearly think that the morally key point of similarity among the cases is the lack of a fully working brain, whereas this is definitely not what pro-lifers regard as the key point in all these cases -- the fact that anencephalic infants are given palliative care is proof in and of itself of that. Rather, it's clear that the key issue in the moral decisions people are making about this is inevitability -- in particular, unavoidable death. Those who have undergone brain death have reached the point where nothing can be done to save their life; with organ donation -- as you will find people explicitly saying when asked why they are donors -- at least they can save other people's lives. Nothing can be done to save anencephalic infants (they are not infants born simply with survivable brain problems); they are given palliative care, just like adults who have reached a point of no return. In both these cases the reason for this is the brain, but it could happen in other cases for other reasons (e.g., palliative care for those with radiation poisoning), showing that the brain is not actually the essential component, and it is clear that what people take to be significant here is that we have reached a point where actual remedy is no longer possible at all. But while there are cases in which embryos are nonviable, and so forth, these are not what we are usually talking about in discussing abortion; most abortions are of embryos and fetuses that have not passed any point of no return. Their lack or limitation of brain function is because they are still developing, and it will pass in time. There is nothing inevitable about the death of the one in the womb in the case of most abortions; it's deliberately induced on one who would probably survive, and reach full functioning, if they were not aborted.

And it is very noticeable that, while the key analogy in an a moral argument should be directly linked to the acts taken in each case, this is precisely not the case as Nobis and Dudley frame it. We have the following cases and common responses:

BRAIN-DEATH: having received prior permission, we wait until they are pronounced irreversibly dead so that we cannot possibly save their life, and then take their organs specifically for the very major good of saving someone else's life.

ANENCEPHALY: as we are unable to save their lives, we give them palliative care until their inevitable death.

ABORTION: for reasons that vary quite widely, we surgically rip them apart to make sure they won't survive and usually throw away the remains as medical waste.

These are not the same kinds of moral actions. The analogy on the most salient point for moral questions -- our actual response to the situation -- is somewhat lacking. If, on the other hand, you tweak the circumstances of the last so that response can be closer to one of the other two, it quickly becomes obvious that pretty much any pro-life position can in principle handle these cases consistently. For instance, opponents of abortion almost universally recognize that cases in which you are saving the life of the mother are different moral cases for which the usual considerations are inadequate -- because (as with the organ donation case) you have introduced the great good of saving the life of another, in this case the mother. This makes both situation and response much more similar to the organ donation case, and you find correspondingly a general sense among opponents of abortion, regardless of their specific views about this kind of case, that this situation introduces further moral considerations that at least have to be addressed.  But in either direction -- whether one nuances and qualifies in this very specific case or not -- there is no fundamental inconsistency; it depends on exactly the role you see for the good of saving the life of another, and your conclusion can't be assumed to generalize to other cases in which this is not even in view.

And if we looked at making our response more like that of the anencephaly case, then we would be giving 'palliative care' until it was no longer necessary -- which, since most pregnancies are not inevitable death cases, sounds awfully like seeing the pregnancy through until they are born.

Thus the sophomore undergraduate attempt to force a dilemma doesn't actually work. Nobis and Dudley say:

Pro-life intellectuals argue that organ donors are not really "human beings." But surely they are human beings—they are living human organisms, with heartbeats. The pro-life premise that it's always wrong to kill human beings implies that organ donation practices are wrong, so this is a good reason to reject the assumption and its application to abortion.

It is in fact not the case that "it's always wrong to kill human beings" is a "pro-life premise"; for instance, defense to save one's own life or another's is often not considered wrong. (This is a problem throughout the argument, since Nobis and Dudley in all their reading of "pro-life 'intellectuals'" have apparently only managed to pick up a kindergarten-version of the pro-life position.) But Nobis and Dudley are committed to saying that you can kill people who are recognized as dead, which is the real point at which you are going to find people baffled here. The reason we call it 'brain death' is that it is regarded by people as a clear case of irreversible death. (There is, of course, 'reversible death', i.e., cases where people die in some sense but can be brought to life, which has always been recognized as a thing that rarely happens and in our age of medical wonders actually happens a fair amount. But even there we generally take it that if there's a real chance of reversing it, one should try. By definition, in the irreversible cases there is no point in trying.) Nobis and Dudley perfectly well could argue that 'brain death' is not death in the right sense for moral judgments here; there are (contrary to what they imply) actually quite a few pro-life people who hold this. What they can't do (but which they in fact are trying to do) is argue that people who do regard brain-death, an irreversible state, as actual death are being inconsistent in saying that they are dead and thus aren't being killed when their organs are used to save the lives of other people, or that they are inconsistent in holding that prohibitions against killing don't apply to those they regard as dead, but only to those that they regard as alive. And again, Nobis and Dudley perfectly well could argue that embryos are human beings in exactly the same sense as the brain-dead, but what they can't do (and yet try to do) is argue that people who think that this is false are inconsistent in treating it as false. (It is, of course, also the case that live organ donation of the sort being discussed is not so sacrosanct that concluding that it is wrong would danger anything in the way they suggest. There are lots of things we rightly refuse to do in order to have a supply of transferable organs; you can't just assume that the fact that something is one kind of organ donation that it is automatically a morally acceptable kind; this has to be established.)

A further fundamental problem is that arguing against "It's wrong to kill human beings" is not adequate. For instance, if I murder somebody and try to justify my actions by saying that there are rare cases where it's not wrong to kill human beings, even if we suppose I was right about those cases, it does not actually address the issue, which is that you can't just regard yourself as having the right to go around killing human beings. That is, the fact that there is some case to which we don't think the principle applies (if that is so) does not establish that in fact you need no justification to say it does not apply here. Thus, while it would establish that we couldn't completely handle the matter at the level of general principle, it wouldn't establish that if one case is fine the other must be; that would have to be argued at the level of specific justification. There are reasons people say things like, "It's wrong to kill human beings", even if this is just a shorthand for a much more complicated principle; and, not having addressed the reasons, you haven't actually established that similarities between the case are related to this more complicated principle in the same way. And it is, in fact, generally the case that it's wrong to kill human beings, and it remains generally the case even taking it in a sense in which it admits of exceptions, and therefore continues to be relevant. If I argue that I should be able to kill a sedated person for their organs because I claim it's a lot like the brain-death case, which shows that it can be OK to kill human beings, I would rightly be regarded as both intellectually stupid and morally obtuse. But this is precisely what both Nobis and Dudley are doing. The person who insists that killing a sedated person for organ donation can't be done because it's wrong to kill human beings is still at least more right and reasonable than someone who thinks it's enough to say that "Well, sometimes you can kill human beings" and then points out a few quick similarities between those supposed cases and this. No, even if you think there are exceptions (and as I've noted, almost everyone does to this particular statement as Nobis and Dudley insist on stating it), it's still a very good rule, and you still need a positive justification for why it doesn't apply here.

It's difficult not to be harsh about such a blatant case, but in fairness it should be said that on this particular point, Nobis and Dudley are making an error I often see people make, due to the fact that even professional philosophers often don't really have a very clear idea of how counterexamples work. If you have a general principle, P, and you have a counterexample, C, it's common to assume that C refutes P; but this is not in fact the case. What C does is show that, if there is a domain in which P is true, it is at least a domain that doesn't include C. The only way to refute P is to show that it can't apply to any relevant domain; counterexamples just show that the principle at least has to be restricted. And even if you've established a counterexample -- neither of which is this case in Nobis and Dudley's argument, since the principle is "It is wrong to kill human beings" but the examples are not cases that would usually be characterized as killing (in one case, the person is usually taken already to be dead, and in the other the person dies on their own because we have no way to help them) -- even if, I say, you've established a counterexample, any other example has to be established as sufficiently similar in precisely those points that contribute to the counterexample's being a counterexample. 

Suppose it is in fact OK to kill human beings sometimes. Does that establish it as OK in any given case? It does not. And all Nobis and Dudley have to offer for going beyond this is their own vague sense of analogy between cases -- not, as they repeatedly mischaracterize it, how people generally see the matter. This is very weak argument, since it really means that they've given an argument not that opponents of abortion should not have the positions they do but that they, Nobis and Dudley, given how they see it, are committed to rejecting the pro-life position. And it is an argument that depends for what little strength it has on assuming that Nobis and Dudley haven't missed important relevant differences (which, as we've seen, they have) and that there is not some other, more accurate principle involved that nonetheless still distinguishes these particular cases in the way the crude, rule-of-thumb way does (which they don't even consider).

Nobis and Dudley do at least try to give some kind of positive argument as well as negative argument for thinking abortion morally permissible. It isn't very good; in their formulation of it, based on the idea that interests are what grounds rights, they gloss over both the fact that there is a great deal of controversy over the best way to characterize interests and the fact that there are, in fact, arguments that those in the womb have interests from the beginning -- indeed, it's hard to make sense of most actual medical advice to pregnant women without assuming that they do, since it seems to be able to require being able to recognize healthy development, and health a reason for attributing interests, and to recognize that what you do now can affect their lives later, which is a reason for attributing interests. (Indeed, given that there have been arguments for decades that plants have interests, arguments that are increasingly popular, it's a little baffling that their argument depends on the by-now very old-fashioned assumption that all you have to look at is the brain. It's like being teleported to the 80s and 90s.)  And, of course, there is always the position, more common than Nobis and Dudley suggest, that interests, while relevant to rights, are not what actually grounds them (since, among other things, some of the ways we characterize some interests seem to suggest that we already are presupposing rights). Of course, one can still reasonably hold that some version of their argument holds by holding that this particular formulation is just a handy approximation  -- but as Nobis and Dudley don't allow any room for such formulations on the opposition side, they can hardly complain if someone refuses to allow them that same room.

The best I can handwave in favor of the authors is that their real audience is supporters of abortion rights, and that their real argument is not the permissibility of abortion but that it's reasonable for such people to stake their ground on definitely moral arguments. But that's a weak defense, since it would really require showing that the moral arguments have powerful bite when arguing against opponents of abortion, which they haven't really done. Their most substantive arguments depend on (1) assuming a controversial view of what cut-off we should regard as death specifically for moral purposes relevant to the killing of human beings and (2) treating a fact about whether the brain is functioning as in and of itself the decisive issue, rather than a contributing factor. But it seems doubtful that it's a good strategy for pro-choicers to chain themselves to the assumption that irreversible brain failure is not a morally significant change, and most people, I think, would hold, perhaps rightly, that it would be better to bypass assumptions like these if that's possible.

So, in short, it's true that the real issues here are moral, and it is plausible that this is where it is best to focus if possible (although it is entirely understandable that people would prefer to avoid this difficult terrain if they could); nothing in what I've said suggests that this can't be done by supporters of rights to abortion; but Nobis and Dudley's overly quick and amateurish attempt is not a model for doing so, and it is all the worse for not being someone's rough first-approximation but being put forward as if it were some kind of model. And, of course, this is all before we even get to the political and social complications; there are good reasons why the pro-choice movement has tended to do a lot of elaborate work to avoid any kind of argument that makes them sound like a Kill-Human-Beings movement, reasons that are obviously not being considered by those, like Nobis and Dudley, whose first instinct is to argue that it is morally permissible to kill human beings.

Abyss & Sea 7

After a light breakfast of smoked fish and small beer, Disan spent most of his day away from the Porphyry Mountain, meeting with the captain about whatever arrangements needed to be made for their departure the next day and visiting the markets. He bought several small trinkets for Baia and was for a short while sorely tempted to buy her a pair of monals from the Khalad mountains. Male monals were highly prized in the Great Realm because of the almost metallic shine of their feathers and the brightness of their colors -- in this case shimmering green along the crest, copper on the neck, and bright blue in the wings. He finally decided not to buy it, to the great disappointment of the merchant, upon reflecting that he did not know how Ker would feel about it.

Returning to the Porphyry Mountain, he met briefly with the High King to discuss specifics of the fleet-building plan, and then prepared for the great farewell feast that evening in his honor. The feast was lively, with jugglers, dancers, and musicians. The dishes were varied as well. Talans and Tavrans, who made up the majority of the court, were great eaters of beef, so there were great plates of roast beef, smelling of clove and nutmeg, and there was roast cygnet stuffed with beef, and heron stuffed with beef, and a pie of stork and beef. Disan, who was certainly not Talan, ate lightly of it, and mostly confined himself to the seafood; the chefs of the Porphyry Mountain did a passable imitation of Sorean mussels with garum. Mostly, however, Disan watched the entertainments and listened to the singers tell the tales of the realm: the raising of the land by Fulné and Trethin, Ardalan's wooing of Asaria, the humorous Song of the Valiant Carpenter, and so forth. But the one Disan liked best was the Song of the Cherry Tree Maiden, an old Sorean song, which was sung by a young Sorean woman. As it happens, it is of all the songs of those days the only one to survive in full, although as a translation of a translation, so it is fitting to write it here.

The Song of the Cherry Tree Maiden

Prince Essan held a mighty bow,
a hunter great was he,
and knew all paths and woodland ways
from river to the sea.

He hunted deer and hunted elk
and all their kin and kind
and one day set in swift pursuit
of silver-splendid hind.

By thicket, coppice, stream, and hill
the silver hind he sought
until it through the thick, dark trees
his winding way had brought.

And in the forest's ancient heart
he found a cherry tree,
around which danced a maiden fair
with hair down to the knee.

His heart was seized; it melted through;
he loved her then and there,
the maiden graceful in her dance
with foot and ankle bare.

"I love you well," the prince then said,
"come be my lovely bride;
such beauty like the cherry tree
should not in forest hide."

"I cannot go," the maiden said,
"to be your lovely bride;
by chantments greater far than you
I to this tree am tied.

"No human maiden can I be;
my soul is blossom-born
and if I leave this cherry tree
it shall be from me torn."

For many days Prince Essan came
to see her dance in shade,
and never would she come with him,
no matter how he prayed.

He ached inside; he could not eat;
no sleep would brush his face;
but though the maiden loved him well
she would not leave her place.

Upon a day Prince Essan came
with axe of steely blade
and set it to the cherry tree
that held the lovely maid.

"Now come with me, now come," he cried,
"that you and I be wed!"
And on the ground the cherry tree
was dying as it bled.

She took a step to go with him,
the sweetly dancing maid;
like mist she grew, and windborn cloud,
and then began to fade.

She took a step to go with him,
then vanished with a sigh;
for what is severed from its root
will surely come to die.

The entertainments of that night were many and bright, the dancer's costumes brightly colored, the songs and melodies sweet. But when Disan went to bed that night, it was the tale of the cherry tree that echoed in his head as he went to sleep, and it was still echoing there in the pause between first sleep and second sleep.

The Soreans began their journey back home in the early morning.


Baia was busy. She had been overseeing the temporary settling of the Visitation Court at a small manor, the largest in this rural area of the country, but a little small for the large-scale traffic of the royal honor, and thus had had to do a considerable of negotiation in order to get all of her Court housed and provisioned properly. Then one of her ladies-in-waiting, and her best seamstress at that, had married, and that had to be properly done; Baia suspected that the marriage was rushed for purposes of covering prior indiscretions, but the lady had always been one of her best. The wedding affair was as nice as could be quickly arranged, and all at the Queen's expense; and the lady was granted the honor of being Queen-for-the-Feast, which required making sure she had appropriately queenly gear. And, of course, she still held audiences to hear grievances and petitions.

In the midst of it all, Sosan came to her with a honey merchant from Tavra. Honey merchants are usually not exactly poor, but to make their money with a cart selling odds and ends as well as pots of honey, they spend most of their time in hard traveling, and Sosan had had some trouble locating him. He stood, hat in hand, his silk coat worn and a little ragged at the hem, and obviously unsure what to do in the presence of a Queen.

"Tell the Queen what you have told me," Sosan prompted. The honey merchant fumbled a bit, so Sosan went on, "You have a regular route from Tavra...."

"Yes, Your Highness," said the honey merchant to Baia, "I have a regular route from Tavra; hard work, but good money. Excellent wares, some even from the apiaries of the Tavran royal estates. Your minister," here he bobbed in Sosan's direction, "has asked me about my route, and it does seem to be my route, and I was likely in the area when he suggests. But," he said in a more anxious tone, "the honey I sold on that route was of the highest quality; it is a good part of the route for the royal honey. And I do not understand why I would be questioned about any death; honey is good, and even if the bees drink where they shouldn't, it could never be enough to cause harm, and the bees from royal estates have only the best flowers, and I would never harm my honey, because it is my livelihood, and I...."

Baia cut in. "Nobody accuses you of anything; we are simply investigating and so need your answers. Did you see anything amiss on your route at the time Sosan gave you?"

The honey merchant shook his head, "No, Your Highness."

"And you are reasonably sure that the honey you would have sold would have been from the royal estates of Tavra?"

He nodded, "I do not keep records of precisely what is sold where, but most of the honey sold in that area is so."

"How do you obtain royal honey?"

The honey merchant had a little flicker of the eyes and was a little slow to answer. "Well, Your Highness, it's like this, I have a cousin who works with the beekeepers, and when there is surplus, he lets me know, and I buy it at a fair price."

"Hmm," said Baia, looking off to the side a moment. Then, returning to the honey merchant, she said, "We thank you for your assistance. You may go now. Sosan, please make sure that this helpful merchant receives a gift for his assistance; a box of the extra ribbons from the wedding will do." Sosan nodded and showed the honey merchant out.

When he returned, he said drily to Baia, "I could ask, if you like, but I doubt that there is much in the way of record of this negotiation."

"Yes," said Baia, "but what passes under the table in Tavra is not our primary concern here. Whatever the deal was, my suspicion is that some of the honey he received for it was not the usual royal honey."

She spent a few minutes in thought while Sosan patiently waited, then she said, "Sosan, I will be in need of a new lady-in-waiting. Perhaps in the spirit of unity among the kingdoms, we should look for a Tavran girl of highborn family."

"I will begin to make inquiries," said Sosan.