Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Strangest Whim Has Seized Me

 A Ballade of Suicide
by G.K. Chesterton 

 The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours -- on the wall--
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me. . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day. 

 To-morrow is the time I get my pay --
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall --
I see a little cloud all pink and grey --
Perhaps the rector's mother will NOT call --
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way --
I never read the works of Juvenal --
I think I will not hang myself to-day. 

 The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
Rationalists are growing rational --
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
So secret that the very sky seems small --
I think I will not hang myself to-day. 

 Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall --
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Democratic Governance and Majorities

 A common view about the relation between democratic governance and majorities is majoritarianism, which is that democratic governance occurs when decisions are made by the majority. It's so common that people slip into it without even thinking about it. And people in majorities tend to assume that this is the way things should work, no matter how many times they've been burned by it when they were in the minority. But there are many problems with it, not least in that, if the point of democratic governance is to represent and give power to the people, bare majority dominance does not do this well at all. This has been known for ages, but majoritarianism is the only view of democratic governance that one can always count on being accepted by people.

A more plausible account of how democratic governance and majorities should relate has no name, as far as I know, so I will just call it democratic generalism. The essential idea is that democratic governance should represent and give power to the people not partwise but generally or overall. More specifically, the idea is that in democratic governance, the goals of the majority should have greater weight, but minority goals should receive as much accommodation as is consistent with this. This guarantees, to the extent that it can be guaranteed, a bit of something for everyone, but the primary problems with it are (1) practical problems of guaranteeing it, given that majorities tend to take advantage of being the majority to ignore minority preferences, and (2) people are remarkably averse to it, and inclined to talk as if the only democratic thing were always winner-takes-all, despite that being the least democratic thing that can still reasonably be called 'democratic'. Institutions and practices whose very purpose for existence explicitly includes accommodation of minority goals are often vehemently attacked as being anti-democratic--- in the U.S., the obvious current examples are the Senate, the Electoral College, the filibuster, and any number of conscientious objection accommodations. I'm not sure what to make of this, beyond the rather commonplace point that people often participate in politics to get whatever they can get, and accommodating other people's differing goals is often not an obvious way to do that in the short run -- that is to say, democratic generalism, while having more claim to represent and give power to the Demos as a Demos, is just often not going to be popular with the Demos, which consists of people who prefer, if they can get it, that their own policies be enacted without negotiation, modification, or compromise.

Music on My Mind

 Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf (a nickname he got when he gained weight while playing high school football), died yesterday. One of the best-selling musical artists of all time, he was famous for his highly theatrical shows and intensely melodramatic but story-driven music.

Meat Loaf, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad".

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Azure Sky is Hid by Clouds of Snow

 Winter's Reign
by James Alexander MacGowan

The earth is dark and dreary, drenched with rain,
The azure sky is hid by clouds of snow,
Which bursts and whitens the dark plain below,
But 'twixt the river's banks it strives in vain,
Where each alighting flake is duly slain,
A moment white, then mingles with its flow;
Nor till the frosty winds, congealing blow,
Has it the power its mantle to enchain.
Frost, Winter's king, and Snow, his sovereign queen,
Upon a double throne their sceptre wield.
The king of Spring, ere long, war's flag unfurls,
Of Winter's reign no vestige soon is seen,
As Spring, luxuriant, sweet, clothes wood and field,
While, from high mountain crags, Winter defiance hurls.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022


 * Various Articles at the SEP
Margaret Schabas, Economics in Early Modern Philosophy
Karolina Hubner, Spinoza's Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind
Halla Kim, Korean Philosophy
Raphael Woolf, Cicero

* John Finnis & Robert George, Indictability of Early Abortion c. 1868 (PDF), discusses the legal status of abortion in nineteenth century America.

* Louis Caruana, The Jesuits and the Quiet Side of the Scientific Revolution (PDF)

* Paul Taborsky, Aristotle and Linearity in Substance, Measure, and Motion (PDF)

* Freelosophy is a new discussion forum for discussing papers in the PhilArchive.

* Sonny Bunch discusses the case of movies in which audiences take away different lessons than the movie-makers intend.

* Robert VerBruggen, How much leniency with criminals can we afford?, at City Journal

* Silvia De Toffoli, What Are Mathematical Diagrams? (PDF)

* Chiara Brozzo, Are Some Perfumes Works of Art? (PDF)

* Fabrizio Macagno, How can metaphors communicate arguments? (PDF)

* Zach Weber, This Paradoxical Life, discusses paraconsistent logic at One thing that I think is not sufficiently clear in the article is that paraconsistent logic is not necessarily dialethic -- i.e., paraconsistent logics can work with contradictions, but most forms don't 'accept' the contradictions but just are able to work around them because they don't have what's called contradiction explosion. Aristotle's logic has a number of features that make it paraconsistent (although some late medieval adaptations of Aristotelian logic are not), for instance, and it is very much not dialethic or accepting of contradictions. It's just that if you accidentally assume contradictory things, then the logic won't 'explode' (in part because you can't infer anything from a contradiction in Aristotle's logic).

* Michael Barkasi, Perceiving is Imagining the Past

* Carlo Lancelotti, The Idea of Tradition in Del Noce

* Paul Musgrave, What the Kids Are Reading. Unsurprisingly, the answer is 'not much'. It's a serious pedagogical problem, because reading is something you do best if you do it a lot, and for difficult readings, people who don't read much end up being practically illiterate; and, beyond that, reading is a very effective way to be able to go much deeper into arguments and ideas than you otherwise could, so being practically illiterate guarantees a shallow grasp of a large number of topics. My own view, which is different from Musgrave's, is that it's just not negotiable: for some things, you need people to read enough to handle texts that go into depth on the subject, and thus lightening the reading load is self-defeating in the long run (although there are exceptions, since sometimes you can substitute easier readings for the same purpose). In such cases the pedagogical problem becomes not, "How much reading should be assigned?" but "What support needs to be put into place to make sure the students do the reading and are able to get out of it what they need?"

* James Pogue, This is not how civil wars start, criticizes the tendency of some in contemporary politics to stir up fears of civil war.

* Andrew Dennis Bassford, Ought Implies Can or Could Have (PDF). Of course, 'could have' is just a further-modalized 'can'.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Blessed Passions

 For there are blessed passions and common activities of both the soul and body, which do not attract the soul to the body, but rather raise the body to the heights of the Spirit, convincing it to look upward. Which activities are these? These are the spiritual activities, which do not move from the body to the mind (as we said before), but which move from the mind to the body and through their activities and influence transform the body for the better and sanctify it. For as the divinity of the Incarnate Word of God is common to the body and the soul, having deified the flesh through the soul, so it is also in spiritual human beings, where the grace of the Holy Spirit is transmitted through the soul to the body. This allows the body to participate in divine things and to experience the blessedness which the soul undergoes. Because the soul can experience divine things, it naturally possesses a passionate aspect that is praiseworthy and divine, or rather, because our human nature has a singular passionate aspect, it is capable of assuming such a positive aspect.

St. Gregory Palamas, Triads in Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude, Chamberas, tr., Newfound Publishing (Hebron, NH: 2021), pp. 178-179 [Second Triad, Second Discourse, Section 12].

Monday, January 17, 2022

D'Alessandro on Preferring Attractive Partners

 William D'Alessandro has a paper, Is It Bad to Prefer Attractive Partners? (PDF), in which he argues that it is often morally bad to prefer partners who are physically attractive. That the argument fails is not surprising (and it should, in fairness, be said that the article seems put forward in a more exploratory than a probative mode), but I think it shares a number of problems with many bad discussions of ethics, and in particular ethics of discrimination, so is worth considering.

The two key concepts in the argument are harm and unfairness. (D'Alessandro also considers issues of control, but makes clear that these are secondary.)  

(1) Harm is understood in a broadly consequentialist way; of it, D'Alessandro says, "If a form of discrimination favors group X and disfavors group Y, I’ll count it as harmful if it causes the members of Y to do significantly worse than the members of X along intuitively important dimensions of human wellbeing (without any compensating benefit)." It is important for evaluating the argument to recognize that this way of understanding harm narrows the field of the kind of consequentialism that we can be assuming. For instance, note that this notion of harm does not require that group X be doing badly; it just requires that they be doing worse than another group. For instance, if you introduce a kind of device or practice that provides a considerable benefit (with respect to human wellbeing) to people who use it, but people who are right-handed benefit from it much more than people who are left-handed, then by this understanding of harm, we are harming left-handed people, not because we've actually hurt them, but because we have benefited them much less in a matter relevant to human wellbeing. I think it would be often controversial to call this 'bad', and I think most even of those who consider it bad would be uncomfortable classifying it as 'harm'; in this case, it seems to be a good example of unnecessarily treating the perfect as the enemy of the good.

(2) Unfairness is understood in a broadly deontological way; D'Alessandro says of it, "An unfair behavior, as I’ll use the term, is one that treats possession of some trait as a basis for awarding or denying a benefit, even though the extent to which someone possesses that trait is unrelated to the extent to which they deserve the benefit." This requires a very strong tying-together of deserts and benefits. Most people do not accept such a strong colligation of desert and benefit, because they hold that we have many different obligations, not all of which are desert-related. For instance, most people hold that parents have obligations to children that require them to make efforts to benefit their children because they are their children, regardless of their children's behavior -- any behavior by the child may shift what kind of benefits one focuses on, but the obligation is in place regardless of the behavior or desert. If this is the case, it weakens how closely desert and benefit must be tied; we have a moral obligation to benefit beyond desert, sometimes, based on other obligations. Nor is parenting the only case in which people tend to hold that they have benefit-granting obligations that are not tied to desert; marriage, fraternity and sorority, friendship, co-citizenship, shared religion, and even humanity are contexts in which people often recognize obligations to benefit that are not tied closely, and perhaps not tied at all, to desert, but to the requirements of the relationship or community involved.

D'Alessandro's argument needs harm + unfairness in these senses to be a sufficient condition for some kind of moral badness, but I think the above considerations suffice to establish that it is improbable that they are a sufficient condition, whether separately or together. The essential mistakes are two very common ones in ethical discussions: confusing comparatively worse with simply bad, and failing to consider how a given set of obligations (like those concerned with desert) interacts with other obligations.

There are other issues with D'Alessandro's argument. For instance, the argument has to assume, even to get off the ground, that attractiveness is a definitive source of benefit, rather than a source of benefits within a complicated set of causal mechanisms. "Unattractiveness is correlated with loneliness, social anxiety, self-consciousness, stress and life dissatisfaction"; yes, but unattractiveness of itself does not cause these things, but only is (at best) a contributing factor to these effects, dependent on other factors, and this means that we can ask the question, 'What if those other factors were removed, or if they were replaced by different factors? Would unattractiveness still count as a cause of these effects then?' It's unclear whether this would be so. 

Indeed, we run into a peculiarity here. D'Alessandro argues as if attractiveness were the fundamental element in attraction, but it seems clear that this is not so; it's not like attractiveness makes people to be attracted. Rather, being physically attractive is statistically emergent; someone who is physically attractive is so because people in fact tend to be attracted to them on physical grounds. Thus all of the questions we might ask about preferring attractive people can be rephrased as questions about whether is is morally acceptable to act on one's attraction to someone. Whether they are what would usually be considered 'attractive' then drops out entirely; it just happens to be the case that as a population we have rough similarities in what we are attracted to, but the real ethical question is whether we morally can ever benefit anyone based on physical attraction. Almost everyone thinks that there are situations in which this is permissible -- for instance, few people would object to a husband giving his wife flowers because he thinks she's beautiful -- and in sexual matters it is hard to see how one could avoid it, since even setting morality aside it's very difficult to have much sex with people to whom one is not at all attracted, and this carries over to many activities that are not sexual but in some way sex-adjacent.

It of course does not follow from this that all forms -- or even most forms -- of acting on physical attraction are good or reasonable; there are other obligations that are relevant and important. I'm in fact inclined to think that these other obligations are far more important than any that might concern attraction itself -- whether or not one acts on physical attraction is a matter for the virtue of moderation, which unlike justice (which is what we are usually considering in considering harm and desert) does not usually have hard-and-fact obligations, but a certain kind of flexible and approximate appropriateness within a whole life. But it is another common failure in ethical discussion to assume that in moral matters there are no cases in which we are dealing with 'better and worse' rather than 'right and wrong'.

Father of All Monks

 Today is the feast of St. Anthony the Great, Abbot, one of the most important figures in the history of Christian asceticism. From the Life of St. Anthony, by St. Athanasius:

Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect how great Antony, the man of God, was. Who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline, and neither through old age was subdued by the desire of costly food, nor through the infirmity of his body changed the fashion of his clothing, nor washed even his feet with water, and yet remained entirely free from harm. For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man. He remained strong both in hands and feet; and while all men were using various foods, and washings and various garments, he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength. And the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God's love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

How Far the Goal! How Long the Trail!

 A Song of the Oregon Trail
by Helen Hay Whitney

How long the trail! How far the goal!
Last year the moons might come and go
Like dancing shadows on the snow.
My heart was light, my heart was strong;
I cared not though the way be long;
But now--the end is you--my soul!--

I fear the dark, I fear the dread
White frost that hovers round my heart,
The cold, high sun, and, wide apart,
The frozen, pitiless stars above.
So far, so far from my true love,
And, oh! I fear, I fear the dead! 

I fear their fingers, grasping and pale.
I did not fear the dead last year--
But now, the kisses of my dear!
The breast of her, so kind and warm,
Ah, heart! I must not come to harm--
How far the goal! How long the trail!