Saturday, October 09, 2021

Dead are Many, Living Few

A Parable of the Bouddha
by Charles William Stubbs 

Came a woman to the Master --
“Great Lord Bouddha, pity me,
Medicine give me for my dead child,
Child of Kisagotami."

Said the Master -- "Bring me hither
Grains of millet, my behest,
But from house that Death hath never
Entered an unbidden guest.”

Went the mother with her dead child
Clasped close in agony,
“Give me, neighbours, grains of millet,
 As the Master biddeth me."

Said the people: "Here is millet,
Take it, Lady, thy behest;"
But she asketh: “Hath death ever
Crossed your threshold as a guest?

“Hath there ever in my friend's house
Died a husband, parent, child?
” And the neighbours pitying wondered
 At her question strange and wild.

“ Yea, sweet Lady, as thou sayest
Is the common lot, too true:
Of all households in the village,
Dead are many, living few."

And she went through all the village,
Households rich and households poor,
But the answer ever cometh,
“Few the living, dead are more.”

Then the mother's eyes were opened,
And her heart was comforted,
"Ah, Lord Bouddha! there is pity
In thy discipline," she said.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Dashed Off XXII

 Human wisdom lies less in avoiding folly than in panning for gold through its silt.

What Hume calls 'will' is an experience of deliberately being a cause; what he calls "a false sensation or experience of the liberty of indifference" is a real experience of multiple possibilities being involved in our decision.

All reasoning has cause, object, and end.

Monachism is a symbol of the soul itself.

All art constantly aspires to the condition of every other art.

Custom produces (1) facility and (2) tendency.

the vivacity vs the intimacy of ideas and impressions.

relevance objection to argument: linkage response
structural objection to argument: either counterobjection or repair response
material objection to argument: either evidential response or definitional response

Reason by nature is open to what is outside itself.

Boundaries are based on teleologies; change the teleology, change the boundary.

One of the incidental excellences of the Aristotelian account of prudence is that it provides a good way to distinguish the kind of stupidity that is culpable and the kind that excuses.

Ambrose's De Officio as a discussion of professional ethics

T & T 1.4.1 -- the issue of preserving the evidence of long chains of reasoning

morality as object, as end, as cause, as occasion

All our passions, volitions, and actions have reference to other passions, volitions, and actions, although the varieties of reference are considerable.

Actions are only laudable or blameable because they are reasonable or unreasonable, even though laudableness is not synonymous with reasonableness.

Most forms of immorality are mischosen ends.

Not all errors concerning means are equally erroneous.

Note that Hume's argument at SBN 460 assumes there is no real right and wrong independent of judgments about them, which most of his targets would not accept. Hume's argument against Wollaston (SBN 461n) really assumes no final causes in inanimate objects, and relatedly assumes that there is no badness-as, and that immorality is not badness-as-rational-choice. Again with the oak tree example, Hume assumes there is no general badness-for that has a species we call 'immorality'. Note re his first condition at 465 that on most systems of morality we may indeed be 'guilty of crimes in ourselves and independent of our situation'. Note also that his second condition is really about the relation of reason and will, not about the eternal relations, and that it depends on a Humean account of cause. Note that the Cartesians had already proposed a solution to Hume's challenge about oughts and relations: relations of perfection and imperfection.

natural as opposed to: miraculous; rare and unusual; artificial; violent; atelic (chance); civil; moral

Actions are praised or blamed qua signs.

Charity inflames every other principle of affection, raising a stronger love from beauty, wit, kindness, than what would otherwise flow from them.

Human history shows that human beings often act benevolently toward their enemies, even hated enemies, even though that is not the predominant element of their actions toward them. It is hard to be wholly ruthless, even with a foe.

"if the passions depart very much from the common measures on either side, they are always disapprov'd as vicious" SBN 483

Hume and the doctrine of compensation T

Discussions of lying often confuse 'excusable' and 'needing no excuse'.

In the long run, every political idea is pressed to the point of becoming stupid.

Everything immaterial is a sign of the infinite.

Half of genius is trying many things.

Assertion is not always a sign of belief.

leisure, recreation, learning-time, unavoidable delay, unforeseeable time; contrast these all with wasting time
-- each of the former could be mistaken for the latter, but it's important not to treat them as if they were the same

three ways in which land may be a people's
(1) sovereignty
(2) ownership
(3) sacred connection

By conjunction of forces, the Church can pray without ceasing and proclaim the gospel to the entire world; by partition of employments, the Church can do these things in a way closer to optimum; and by mutual succor the Church can do these things constantly and regardless of outside interference.

Our self-love is very often not in any direct opposition to our love of others.

"nature provides a remedy in the judgment and understanding, for what is irregular and incommodious in the affections." SBN 489

property as outgrowth of our tool-using ability
-- note that this explains accession very neatly
secondary tool reserve qua reserve of one with whom one is closely associated
reserve for active use as itself a use of tools -- storage, having at hand, etc.
delivery of tool into usability
children calling dibs on use

It's interesting that Hume in his discussion of property never really considers animal territoriality.

relation to work animals : relation to pets :: friendship of use : friendship of pleasure

Music, like hope, reaches forward.

PSR as distinguishing lack of apparent reason from lack of real reason

being, being with, being so

the primacy of love in the order of action

All kinds of knowledge have three modes: starting with appearance, reaching to reality, and ending with God.

The Church is both catholic and apostolic, and thus in the world and not of it.

The catechumen is in the Church as the infant in the womb is in the family.

Repentance fundamentally builds on our mortality.

accounts of contracting
(1) convention
(2) natural act of mind
-- -- -- resolution
-- -- -- desire
-- -- -- volition
-- -- -- -- -- of performance
-- -- -- -- -- of obligation

All property right and obligation admits of degrees; objects may be had in different degrees of possession, and actions may be completely or incompletely required.

In a free society, citizens will have protection from penalties, in various degrees, due to longstanding custom, inherited right, presumption of freedom, and novelty of situation, as well as due to positive law.

Crackpots and conspiracy theorists are often a sign of a society that treats ideas as important, because they exhibit a pathology of that.

reading of Scripture, study of Scripture, practice of Scripture
reception, interpretation, appropriation

Being: efficient, formal, final
Theoretical Intellect: memory, word, love
Productive Intellect: idea, energy, power
Will: intention, choice, enjoyment

"Divine being is necessary with the most perfect necessity of immateriality." Bonaventure

wisdom received, wisdom attained, wisdom itself

Contingency is of different kinds.

Propositions are only necessary to the extent that they attribute necessities to things.

familiarities -> plausibilities

memento mori as vaccination against grief

In T 3.3.1 (SBN 577), Hume explains the theme of T 3.2: "human contrivances for the interest of society" arising from the process of sympathy.

A possibility: Some contingent truths are not contingent relative to some other contingent truths.

Propositions as such are explained by proposition-making; what propositions describe is not generally explained by propositions.

Necessarily, there exists a cause capable of having contingent effects.

All reflections trace back to something reflected.

eikasia-contingency vs pistis-contingency

natural appetite for wisdom -> God
natural appetite for happiness -> God
natural appetite for peace -> God
natural appetite for truth -> God

testimony for experience of God
testimony for plausibility of arguments for existence of God

When we regard our perceptions, we find them related to each other by being parts of a whole.

delicacy of sentiment, just sense of morals, greatness of soul, and depth of reasoning and reflection as the properties of great philosophical inquiry

Since Hume takes perception to be whatever is present to mind, he seems committed to saying impressions are more present, or at least more strongly present, to mind than ideas. In most accounts, this would paradoxical.

Most of the causation we experience clearly involves intermediation.

constant conjunction as a sign of causation

To say that causation just is constant conjunction is as if one took down a volume of Shakespeare and said that it was just patterns of marks on paper; it ignores the broader system within which the patterns are patterns.

We only understand constant conjunction as causal by understanding it as caused.

Even simple forms of causation are often associated with many different invariable sequences.

(1) Everything that exists is such that it is possible to exist.
(2) Being such that it is possible to exist involves particular conditions, intrinsic or extrinsic.
(3) Particular conditions involved in the possibility of something existing we can call reasons.
(4) Everything that exists is such that there are reasons adequate for its existing.

Every boundary has a cause.

equitable vs rigoristic reading

One of the problems with 'wokism' is its regular conflation of aesthetic badness and etiquette badness with injustice.

"Fides Trinitatis est fundamentum et radix est divine cultus et totius christianus religionis." Bonaventure

vestige : image : Old Testament : New Testament

the three books in which the doctrine of the Trinity is read (Bonaventure)
(1) book of creation
-- -- --(a) by vestige
-- -- -- (b) by image
(2) book of Scripture
-- -- -- (a) Old Testament
-- -- -- (b) New Testament
(3) book of life
-- -- -- (a) lumen inditum
-- -- -- (b) lumen infusum

pelagus substantiae infinitum

begins to exist -> dependent -> caused by another

God is an infinity of infinities; He is infinite with the infinity of power, He is infinite with the infinity of wisdom, He is infinite with the infinity of love; He is infinite with the infinity of life and truth and nobility.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Doctor Unitatis

 Pope Francis has been reported as saying that he will soon declare St. Irenaeus of Lyons a Doctor of the Church. The report:

During a meeting Oct. 7 with members of the St. Irenaeus Joint Orthodox-Catholic Working Group, the pope praised the group’s efforts in creating a space for dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, much like their namesake. 

 “Your patron, St. Irenaeus of Lyon –- whom I will soon declare a doctor of the church with the title, ‘doctor unitatis’ (’doctor of unity’) -- came from the East, exercised his episcopal ministry in the West, and was a great spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians,” he said.

There have been a few indications of interest in this in the past few years, but nothing much has come of it yet. Pope Francis occasionally says things that he doesn't really follow up on, and says things that get misunderstood, but it does seem quite plausible that he'd go through with this, making St. Irenaeus the 37th saint with the title of 'Doctor of the Church'. He would not have been my first guess for who would next be named, but Irenaeus does meet the essential requirements, which are to be a canonized saint, not a martyr (since 'Doctor of the Church' is a liturgical title, but 'martyr' is the highest possible liturgical title and so it supersedes 'doctor'), with a body of theological writings of enduring value suitable for recommendation to the whole Church.

If this happens, St. Irenaeus would be the earliest Doctor of the Church, beating out St. Hilary of Poitiers, the current earliest); as the most recent Doctor of the Church, he would also be the one with the largest gap between his death and receiving the title (beating out St. Ephrem of Syria, the current record-holder); he would be the twentieth bishop on the list. While his see was in the West, he was himself from the East, which is possibly why Pope Francis calls him the 'Doctor of Unity', despite the fact that this is not an immediately obvious title for him.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Evening Note for Wednesday, October 6

 Thought for the Evening: Reason and Tradition

Frederick Will's 1983 article, "Reason and Tradition" [The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 17 No 4 (Winter 1983) pp. 91-105], based on an earlier Distinguished Humanities Lecture, begins with a central point: "All of us members of civilized societies are, individually and collectively, the legatees of a vast and complex cultural heritage in which a great variety of strands -- scientific, technological, religious, moral, political, artistic, and so on -- are interwoven" (p. 91). This cultural heritage includes customary ways of thinking and acting that which we call 'tradition'. They have arisen over generations as each generation receives its cultural heritage and adapts it and passes it on to the next. Members of civilized society also have another resource available to them, which we call 'reason', and a common pattern one finds is arguments for the modification of tradition on the basis of reason. So what shall we make of this pattern of thought?

One common view is that reason is a resource with special features: it is universal and independent of tradition, and we have access to it that in some way is other than cultural inheritance. What Will argues is that this can't be right because it can't fit actual practice, in which rational authority is unavoidable more contestable and locally bound than this suggests. One of the results of the popularity this theory of reason is a tendency to attribute authority to clear conviction; what seems obvious to me is what is taken as true, independent of matters of tradition. On the basis of these kinds of clear convictions, people try to remove traditional safeguards, which they take to be corruptions. Will gives two opposed examples. The first is someone who, from the obvious wrong of killing, assumes immediately that anything that allows people to kill in, say, war or abortion, is wholly to be quashed. The second is someone who, from the obvious good of privacy concludes that there is no limit to what one may do with one's body, whether consensual violence or abortion or whatever else, regardless of what traditional limits might be in place. These two may have opposed conclusions, but the manner of proceeding is the same: From something deemed luminously obvious, both try to push out of the way safeguards that tradition has put up to prevent private judgements like these from definitively dominating everything. In this sense, Will says, 'reason' is being used to refer to what is actually a fallacy of accident, taking the qualified for the unqualified.

When reason is referred to as an authoritative source, it is generally treated as "an identical resource residing in individuals" (p. 94). Community might be taken to help stimulate it, and we might attribute reason to community as a sort of extended sense, but the fundamental sense of something intrinsically individualistic. It is supposed to be an authoritative source because everybody has it, everybody has it fully, and you have only to look within, not without, to recognize what is to be done. Will takes the popularity of this to be tied as well with a number of other individualisms, in epistemology, in politics, in religion, and so forth; they all reinforce each other in various ways. Reason is also taken to be something with an inherent connection to acceptability, and the form of its acceptability is tied to the individualism with which it is conceived: reason is the same in each, so the judgment of each should be the same for each. "Each individual, in the rational governance of thought and action, harmonizes with other individuals" (p. 96). The difficulty arises in how one can guarantee this; the answer given by Descartes was 'method', but this implies that we need ancillary means to reason aright. Will holds that these ancillary means, these methodological helps that keep us on the right path, are a distorted but clear derivation from the impossibility of rational activity without tradition, custom, and the like. Minds must be trained to a method; to engage in rational activities, they must be able already to function in a highly sophisticated and complex way that it simply cannot invent out of itself whole cloth.

As Will puts it in other terms, the point is that reason is supposed to be the same in all, a common gift; but rational judgments are certainly not the same in all, so there needs to be a way to sort out contesting judgments. This can only come from other resources, and, what is more, among those are included some resources that we cannot have without public institutions and practices. "The contribution of our native endowments to the constitution of reason cannot be isolated from the contribution of individual experience, practice, and custom, and the communal version of these in tradition" (p. 98). Reason and tradition are not appropriately opposed; tradition is a constitutive component of reason. Attempting to resolve contests of rational judgments based on reason alone is seen in practice to increase contests and confusion, not reduce them. If someone is mistaking an unclear conception for a clear one, someone's individual mind is not working as it should, at least here, and requires the correction of others. This is indeed how we respond to such situations. Since we require the help of others all the time in other situations, this is not surprising, despite the fact that it should be on the standard theories of authoritative reason. It's as if people were always expected to judge their own case by being advocate, judge, and jury simultaneously; this could not possibly function as a real trial. 

A true account of reason, then, will be one that is not purely individualistic and that does not introduce a false opposition between reason and tradition. The first thing to recognize is that tradition plays the major role in determining what most of us find clear or obvious most of the time. In a contest of clear intuitions, we do not have to say that one is really not clear; they may both be clear, each arising in the context of some traditional divergence. And this is in fact what we often find in intellectual history; the Greek mathematicians discovering irrational numbers were faced with two clear ideas in opposition, one that numbers must be based on whole numbers, and one that geometrical distances have a numerical magnitude. This is a normal feature of intellectual life, not just in mathematics and in science, but also in education, morals, law, and politics. We can draw, then, a general conclusion:

In every great divisive controversy, within academic disciplines and in wider communities, there are basic generating causes in our tradition. Communities of scholars and scientists, and moral, political, and religious communities, find themselves collectively at loss as to how to think and act; and individuals in their more private lives find themselves similarly at a loss because for a variety of reasons in different cases their tradition provides them with no single clear guide. In many situations different components of their tradition point in different and contrary directions. (p. 103).
The alternative of thinking this way is the tendency, common in argument, of trying to force one's views across as in some way or another obvious while stubbornly refusing to regard the possibility that another person may not only not find it obvious, they may find the opposing view obvious. This ends up approaching Ambrose Bierce's sarcastic comment on self-evidence: The self-evident is that which is evident only to yourself. In reality, we should be expecting the opposition of clear ideas; the "abrasion" between them is how tradition develops and adapts. This does sometimes give tradition a bit of a rambling feel, but it's precisely this that makes it possible for it to contribute those elements of itself on which reason crucially depends.

Various Links of Interest

* Yitzhak Melamed, Spinoza and Some of His Medieval Predecessors on the Summum Bonum (PDF)

* Marcus Hunt, Noble Animals, Brutish Animals (PDF)

* Milena Ivanova, Scientific Progress and Aesthetic Values (PDF)

* An interesting discussion of some of the complications associated with lab-grown meat

* Unhistorize, a blog on late pagan Neoplatonism

* Trent Pomplun, John Duns Scotus in the History of Medieval Philosophy from the Sixteenth Century to Etienne Gilson, discusses precisely what the title says: how Scotus is treated in works on the history of philosophy in that period. Thomists are often blamed for many of the characterizations of Scotus one gets, but as Pomplun shows, many of them are Protestant or secular in origin, and Thomists often started echoing them only relatively late when they had already become pervasive. 

* Neil Dalal, Shankara, at the SEP

* Cody Moran, What Is a Smartphone? A Thomistic Analysis

* An interactive map of the world's submarine cables

Currently Reading

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Isaac Asimov, Prelude to Foundation
Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good
J. R. R. Tolkien (Hofstetter, ed.), The Nature of Middle Earth


 The substantial usage of the word li is particularly a neo-Confucian earmark, even though it was already employed in Huayan Buddhism to designate ultimate reality. The word was initially used as a verb, which means "to carve jade" (the Chinese character has jade as a radical). A fine jade craftsman must carefully study the lines and grooves of an uncut jade in order to produce a beautiful piece of jade. By extension, li as a noun means the veins or detailed markings of a thing, li as a verb means to regulate, to administer, and to manage. In neo-Confucian discourse, the meaning of li includes pattern, sequence, logic, order, and norm. The Cheng-Zhu school also established a normative dimension of the concept li for they claim that everything in the world ought to meet the standard set by its own principle.

[JeeLoo Liu, Neo-Confucianism, Wiley (Hoboken, NJ: 2018) p. 6.]

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Vaccine Mandates

Arthur Caplan has a post arguing for vaccine mandates, commenting on the recent Association of Bioethics Program Directors letter on it. It makes a number of obvious mistakes that unfortunately tend to clog up discussion of the matter and that I think end up being actively harmful to any attempt to deal with the pandemic seriously.

Since Caplan's post is based on the ABPD letter advocating vaccine mandates, I will start there, and note in particular two grave errors in framing.

Eligible persons who refuse to be vaccinated risk infecting themselves, spreading the COVID virus to others, increasing the likelihood that worse virus strains emerge, and perpetuating the need for more invasive public health strategies like lockdowns and limiting travel, which can impinge upon common welfare and liberties.

One of the consistent problems people have had throughout the pandemic is failing to grasp that a pandemic is a highly unpredictable, highly variable population-level phenomenon. The letter throughout errs by blurring the population level and the individual level. It fails to recognize (what is provably true) that persons who accept vaccination also risk infecting themselves and spreading the virus strains to others. Vaccination is one of the most effective health interventions ever invented, but it is not magic shielding. Vaccination makes your body a less hospitable environment for the virus, thus reducing the probability of its replication and transmission; but you still can get sick again, particularly if it mutates a bit (which viruses often do) and you still can spread it. These things depend on a vast number of variables. What vaccination does is reduce the chance of further spread at a particular node (organism) in a controlled way; it does not guarantee anything. At the population level, reducing the chance of further spread at lots of particular nodes has a significant effect, so this is not a small thing at all; but no approach to a pandemic is legitimate if it fails to grasp that the population-level cooperative effect is what actually matters here. In addition, some proportion of those who are not vaccinated will already have had the virus, and thus have already had in an uncontrolled way that which a vaccination gives in a controlled way.

The primary result of this is that the causal chain here is much muddier than the ABPD wants to pretend; it's probabilistic all the way through, and it's probabilistic at the population level, i.e., the harmful effects that are identified are results of what the proportions of the population are, not the result of what this or that individual does.

The second grave error in framing in the letter is here:

Some claim that vaccine mandates are “tyranny" that violates rights to individual liberty and autonomy. However, there is common agreement among both secular and religious ethical worldviews and traditions that preventing risk to others justifies enforcing limits to personal decision-making.

It is noteworthy that the second sentence is obviously false -- there is in fact no common agreement among "secular and religious worldviews and traditions" that limiting personal decision-making is justifiable on the ground of preventing risk to others. Note, for instance, that it says 'risk' not 'harm' and 'preventing' not 'reducing', and also that it does not note any qualifications at all to this; and note that it is explicitly consequentialist in framing despite the fact that many "secular and religious worldviews and traditions" are not consequentialist or are even anti-consequentialist. But what is most noteworthy about this is that it doesn't actually address the objection it purports to address. The objection is that it is outside the authority of the state to enforce vaccine mandates, and that the attempt to impose it would violate rights to individual liberty and autonomy. The "However" doesn't address either rights or liberties at all; it talks vaguely about 'personal decision-making' and not 'personal rights' or 'personal freedoms'. It doesn't establish who in particular is the authority that can enforce these limits in particular, and it doesn't establish that this risk-prevention justifies enforcing this limitation. It doesn't even gesture at these things, despite the fact that, as it explicitly notes, this is the primary issue -- not whether vaccination is good, but who and what would have the authority to mandate it, if anyone, and, if vaccination can be mandated, exactly what the barriers against tyranny would be that would provide protection for rights and liberties. And it also mixes this up with the previous error, in that it frames it as a matter of preventing risk (which we cannot do in a pandemic) rather than reducing risk. Such a double error merely intensifies the objection, because prevention is an all-or-nothing thing -- you've either prevented or you haven't, whereas reduction is a sliding scale. Since reduction of risk is a sliding scale, it is a legitimate question as to how far you can go. If the justification to which you are appealing is 'reducing the risk of swimming pool deaths', there are lots of different ways to do this and some of them will be regarded as reasonable and some as extreme. Should you put out some public service announcements? Should you require basic swimming pool safeguards? Should you ban swimming pools? It's not something that falls out of the justification. It has to be determined on other grounds.

Caplan in his development of this continues the flawed framing. He considers two objections to vaccination mandates. The first is the liberty one, to which he replies:

But this absolutism in the name of liberty makes little sense. Certain dire challenges to human health, flourishing and viability require collective action organized, coordinated and directed by governments. Legislatures and courts have long given the authority to government and its agencies to follow sound scientific and medical advice to minimize the danger posed by grave public health crises. Covid-19 with its 4.5 million deaths, untold numbers of people with disabling complications, psychosocial havoc and burdens on health systems is recognized as a very serious public health emergency. It makes sound ethical sense to permit restrictions on both liberty and personal choice including mandating vaccination for all deemed medically eligible to combat a dangerous worldwide plague.

Note that this, again, does not address the issues at all. What it explicitly argues is that (1) we need collective action "organized, coordinated and directed by governments" and (2) governments have long given themselves authority to minimize the danger posed by grave public health crises. It then tries to conclude from this (3) restrictions on "both liberty and personal choice including mandating vaccination" should be permitted. This is literally a dimwitted argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. It is not even made more probable by the premises. (1) and (2) at most establish that government has a public health authority, which literally no one disagrees with. They do not give us any indication of how far this authority extends; they do not give us any indication of the actual justifications that would structure and limit it; they do not give us any indication of what the appropriate standard of 'minimization' would be.  What is far more serious, they do not tell us at all how any of this interacts with "liberty and personal choice". We all know that despite (1) and (2) there are limits to the public health authority in every political regime -- even some pretty unfree ones -- that we know. We all know that (1) and (2) would not justify executions, life imprisonment, or rounding up minorities to improve vaccines. We know that (1) and (2) can't justify every action of government or any other agent acting for public health. So what is the reason that it extends to vaccine mandates? Caplan doesn't give it. If your answer to why you are justified restricting "liberty and personal choice" is 'it's really serious', you don't actually have an answer, and people are naturally going to be suspicious that you don't care about liberty and personal choice at all.

The second objection to which Caplan responds is that vaccine mandates seem inconsistent with the recognized rights of bodily integrity and medical consent. To this Caplan responds:

It is true that the right to accept or reject medical care is a long-standing right in America and other nations. However, this right has as the ABPD statement acknowledges limits and consequences. One may reject vaccination but then be subjected to penalties including fines, loss of employment, loss of benefits, restrictions on travel, restrictions on accessing certain businesses and services and denial of entry to government positions. Rejecting vaccination may also mean that masking or testing requirements must be followed to move about in society. Individuals are free to reject safe and effective prophylactic medical care including vaccines but private and public entities are free to enact penalties in the name of protecting the public’s health including those especially vulnerable to harm from Covid-19.

LOL. It reminds me of the time my Ethics students, trying to propose a right for a class 'declaration of rights', proposed that people should have a right to practice their religion as long as it wasn't against any law. If your response to "This violates people's right to X" is to say, "No, you're free to X, all we are doing is punishing you with 'fines, loss of employment, loss of benefits, restrictions on travel, restrictions on accessing certain businesses and services and denial of entry to government positions' if you attempt to maintain X in this context", you are in fact conceding either that it really does violate the right to X or that you don't think people have a right to X at all. 

This is the fundamental problem with all of this. Improved safety in a pandemic must not be used as a justification for totalitarian exercise of power; you must establish that you are not overstepping your actual, recognized authority; rights and liberties must be respected and you must show that you are respecting them. But Caplan doesn't address any of this. What he argues for is not the justifiability of vaccine mandates but for a totalitarian public health power -- literally, since his answer to both the liberty and the rights objections is explicitly just that governments have the authority to limit and restrict both liberties and rights if they have a medical justification for it. This is not helping; this is an actively harmful contribution to the discussion, because it associates vaccine mandates with vague appeal to government health powers without any regard for the worries of people about where the limits are.

Vaccine mandate discussions are, beyond the usual worries, complicated by three things that I think are not often recognized adequately in purely ethical discussions. The first is that the state of the pandemic, which changes over time and is different from region to region, affects what is reasonable to propose. It makes more sense to propose vaccine mandates in a quarantine lockdown situation, for instance, than in a situation in which vaccination is increasing and you are just looking to vaccinate a late minority who have worries about the vaccine. The second is that your response to this pandemic needs to be looking to the next epidemic, and getting your target result by forcing large numbers of people under threat of punishment is setting yourself up for large-scale failure next time, because people will be much less willing to allow you an inch in the future if you've already shown that you'll take a mile. And the third is that a government or corporation that has built up a lot of trust can get away with asking for more from citizens or employees than one that hasn't, and our government agencies have not actually had a shining year of cultivating trust. Much of the resistance to vaccines in free countries is self-perpetuated; it is perpetuated by government flip-flopping and naked politicizing and broken promises about all that people will have to do; it is perpetuated by heavy-handed overextension of authority, like bringing the force of law against churches or family gatherings; it is perpetuated by government officials and legislators and governors blatantly violating rules that they force on others; and it is perpetuated by a failure to extend the hand of cooperation and compromise and a refusal to take seriously (as Caplan refuses to take seriously) concerns of violations of liberty or rights.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Fortnightly Book, October 3

 The next fortnightly book is Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. In college (first at Howard University then at Barnard College), Hurston became fascinated with anthropological and ethnographic research. She would spend her whole life researching folklore and folkways, and this would heavily inform her literary work, which is sometimes characterized as a kind of literary anthropology, attempting to capture a way of life on the basis of ethnographic research. Their Eyes Were Watching God was in part the result of over a decade of investigation into Southern folklore and was partly written while researching Obeah customs and rituals in Haiti which, given that a common theme in Hurston's anthropological work is underlying similarities among different ethnic cultural practices, is often seen as influencing what she decided to emphasize about Southern culture in writing the novel.

The novel, Hurston's second and published in 1937, did not do well. Her first novel had solidified her position as a promising light in the Harlem Renaissance sky; Their Eyes Were Watching God was widely, and harshly, criticized. The single most influential African American author of the day, Richard Wright, savaged it by saying that, while it showed she could write well, it also showed she had no interest in writing serious fiction, and he was far from being the only one to write a critical review of it. The broader press was varied but even at its best rarely more than mildly positive. Hurston would go on to write works that were somewhat better received, but she repeatedly refused to fall into line with what the dominant voices in her day were saying fiction and literature should be, and her outspoken lack of sympathy with political and social views of other intellectuals and authors led her to being something of an outsider in the Harlem Renaissance. Perpetually suffering from harsh reviews, her literary reputation began collapsing into obscurity toward the end of her life, and when she died in early 1960, she was barely getting by.

The obscurity surrounding her began to clear away in the 1970s. Alice Walker happened at one point to read something by her and became an enthusiastic fan of all her work, considering her one of the great literary geniuses of the twentieth century, and went on an extensive hunt to try to find out where she was buried. Walker eventually managed to find what was probably the unmarked grave (it was an unmarked grave in the right area) and commissioned a marker for it:


Walker also advocated for a return to reading Hurston, and under her influence, Hurston's reputation has slowly recovered. Interestingly, it is Their Eyes Were Watching God, originally the most harshly criticized of Hurston's most criticized works, that seems especially to have captured interest and hearts this time around, since it is easily her most popular work today.

The book is the tale of Janie Crawford, a woman in search of marriage with love. It is harder to find than it sounds, even for an extraordinarily attractive woman like herself. And finding it will involve her in more difficulty than she could imagine, and in particular, she will find herself a murder suspect because of it.