Friday, February 11, 2022

No Moral Leaders

 I think a peculiarity of the modern age is the tendency to make up ethical ideas that have no real foundation, often because of taking metaphors too seriously or simply word recombination or loosely associating very different things without considering how they relate in reality. This is not strictly confined to ethics (one of my pet peeves is 'knowledge production', since knowledge is not a product and thinking of education as a kind of production gets you into very wrong territory very quickly), but ethics seems particularly prone. One that I've seen a lot of recently, for what reason I don't know, is 'moral leader' or 'moral leadership'.

Obviously one hopes that in this or that leadership position someone acts morally, but this is not what people mean -- they mean people who lead other people in morality itself, somehow. Recently I've seen people arguing about whether comedians in general or a particular group of activists were 'moral leaders'; I've seen people call rabbis, imams, bishops, and other ministers 'moral leaders'; I've seen people argue over whether certain politicians or religious leaders or community leaders retain their status as 'moral leaders'; and more. The fundamental problem with it all is that there are no moral leaders, because moral leadership in this sense is an incoherent idea based on a confusion about how morality works. 

No politician is, or ever has been, a moral leader; no bishop, priest, pastor, or similar minister is, or ever has been, a moral leader; activists and comedians are very certainly not moral leaders; no saint is, or ever has been, a moral leader. No one is. The realm of morality has no leadership roles for us. Human beings can give good moral advice and they can provide good moral examples, but that is all, and, being human, they will do both sporadically and inconsistently. There are certainly no positions that give you any special authority in matters of moral advice and moral example; moral advice and moral example do not get their quality from the status of the adviser or the profession of the person who is the example.  If you think that someone has the right kind of experience to give good advice, or if you think that someone has show how to do something well, then by all means adapt this advice or example as you can. But advice and example have their own standards.

It is, moreover, unjust to demand of people what they cannot possibly deliver. To demand of others that they be your moral leaders is to abdicate your own moral responsibility and to set them up to fail by giving them an impossible task. What is more, adding an impossible demand to their real responsibilities makes it harder for them to fulfill those responsibilities. We do not have politicians in order to be 'moral leaders'; their responsibility is to perform the duties of their offices in an effective manner appropriate to the particular purposes of the offices. We do not have bishops, priests, pastors, rabbis, and the like to be 'moral leaders'; their responsibilities are things like preserving and maintaining the integrity of the sacraments or rituals, preaching the word, researching religious laws, organizing worship and religious charity, and so on. We do not have policemen to be 'moral leaders', but to enforce the law with due process; we do not have firefighters to be 'moral leaders' but to put out fires and rescue people from them; we do not have doctors to be 'moral leaders' but to provide medical information and perform particular skilled interventions. And so forth and so on. In all these positions we expect people to give advice relevant to their position and the experience they develop it in it; in all these positions we we hope that people will be good examples to others. But their purpose in that position is to perform an office, do a job, fulfill a duty, and all of them (even religious ministers, which people seem particularly to want to saddle with special moral leadership status) can do their job in at least a mediocre way even if they are bad at giving advice about it and don't make for great examples in doing it. And performing their office is the standard to which they can justly be held in those positions.

I suspect that this attempt to appoint people to the fictional position of 'moral leader' (or sometimes to strip away a fictional 'moral leadership' status) is related to the kind of universalized donatism that you sometimes find people affirming, in which people who are morally flawed are not conceded to have any authority at all, so that if they have a position of authority for some particular purpose and they are morally flawed in the way they exercise it, they are 'illegitimate'. Human people being what they are, it hardly needs to be said that this really requires that we recognize virtually everyone as 'illegitimate'. In reality, most offices and positions are not that fragile; authority can be genuinely exercised even when exercised defectively; and legitimacy depends on fulfilling a very particular role and performing very specific tasks, not being a moral paragon. And, while you can always encourage better behavior, it is, again, an injustice to demand otherwise of people.

Thursday, February 10, 2022


 If men were to impress upon their minds a thorough conviction of the truth of this simple proposition, That they have no right to do evil in order to obtain good; we should not have seen so many human victims immolated upon the very altar of the Virtues. But since these compromises have taken place between the present and the future, between the sacrifice of the present generation and the advantages to be conferred upon posterity, a new degree of passion considers itself as bound in duty to overstep all limits, and often men, prone to guilt, affecting to be animated by the examples of Brutus, of Manlius, of Piso, have proscribed virtue, because great men have sometimes immolated guilt;--have assassinated those they hated, because the Romans had courage to sacrifice all they held most dear ;--have massacred feeble enemies, because generous souls had assailed their adversaries in power;--and, deriving from patriotism only the ferocious sentiments which at some periods it may have produced, have displayed no greatness but in wickedness, and have trusted only to the energy of guilt.

Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël-Holstein, The Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations, p. 182.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Pleasure and Reason

 Discussion can take place only where a reason can be assigned, and if we can assign no reason why we delight in looking on a rose, what arguments can we resort to in attempting to discuss it? If, however, any reason could be assigned for the pleasing emotion excited by a rose, this reason, and the discussion founded upon it, so far from lessening our pleasure, would only serve to render it more agreeable and delightful. If reason could supply us with arguments to prove demonstratively, in what manner this pleasure arose from certain qualities which the Creator of our being had annexed to the rose, and by what laws these qualities were calculated to increase our happiness whenever we observed them, the conviction that our Creator adopted this means of affording us delight, must surely serve to increase the pleasure which the rose would have afforded us without this knowledge. Pleasure, so far from being lessened by knowing that it is rational, is always increased by the reflection of its being so.

Martin MacDermot, A Critical Dissertation on the Nature and Principles of Taste, p. 106.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Feeling, Discussion, and Taste

 It is easy, then, to perceive, that in our estimate of things, we not only differ from each other, but also from ourselves, when our judgments are deduced from our immediate feelings, and not from any previous knowledge of the matter. This error in our judgments, extends not only to matters of taste, but prevails in every subject of human inquiry, connected with our passions, and capable of engaging or interesting our affections. To prefer feeling, therefore, to discussion, in ascertaining the beauty of any production either of nature or of art, is to be guided by a standard which is never the same, except in men whose equanimity of temper renders them superior to the influence of times and circumstances. Such men, however, are rarely to be met with, even in the most polished and refined nations; and it is only in such nations we can expect to meet with them.

Martin MacDermot, A Critical Dissertation on the Nature and Principles of Taste, p. 69.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Fit Days

by Helen Hunt Jackson 

Still lie the sheltering snows, undimmed and white;
And reigns the winter's pregnant silence still;
No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are the days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year's ill,
And prayer to purify the new year's will:
Fit days, ere yet the spring rains blur the sight,
Ere yet the bounding blood grows hot with haste,
And dreaming thoughts grow heavy with a greed
The ardent summer's joy to have and taste;
Fit days, to give to last year's losses heed,
To reckon clear the new life's sterner need;
Fit days, for Feast of Expiation placed!

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Evening Note for Sunday, February 6

 Thought for the Evening: Postulates of Civil Theology

Let us assume, as a starting point, that the two great evils concerning the state that civil society must avoid are collapse and totalitarianism. We then have a problem: to grow a civil society that avoids both. To do so, we must postulate certain things as possible and able to be acted upon.

As I have noted before, in totalitarianism the state acts on the principle that nothing falls outside of its authority. To resist this requires recognizing at least one of two things: that there is something more authoritative than the state and that there is something with authority independent of the authority of the state. The former gives us our first postulate:

(1) There is a moral order that is greater than and is relevant to the political order.

That is to say, there must be some kind of 'higher law', or system of values, or source of rights, or whatever we wish to call it, that is greater than anything that could come within the reach of the state. This is related to the postulate we seem to need if we are going to recognize authority that is independent of the authority of the state:

(2) There is a higher law to which persons are individually, cooperatively, and collectively responsible independently of the state.

Exactly the form this takes does not concern us here; the point is simply that if there are kinds of authority outside the state, there must be obligations, or something like obligations, that give people, either individually or in groups, some authority that is not state-dependent.

As I noted, either one of these on its own provides a kind of block against totalitarianism; but they seem to require each other, for reasons I previously noted. It is also the case, however, that we seem to need both to avoid the opposite evil, collapse. People in civil society, to avoid collapse, must be able to come together in a just way; this requires something like a higher law, whatever form precisely that might take, that is to say, a standard independent of the state for what counts as just interaction, and this must be able to weigh more heavily than other concerns, requiring something that is at least like a greater moral order. 

A postulate you would need is that the kind of society for which we are aiming is possible. This gives us our third postulate:

(3) There is a pure form to which civil society tends that is characterized by justice.

That is to say, trying to make civil society just does not do violence to it, but on the contrary, fulfills and completes it.

The most common reason people give for wanting to avoid either collapse or totalitarianism is that in neither case are people treated as having adequate value. Now if we simply try to measure the value of human life, in order to assess adequacy, we run into the problem that any measurement we could make of someone's value from their lifetime seems inadequate and, what is more, one can imagine totalitarian states using such a measurement to make their decisions. Therefore many people would like a further postulate:

(4) There is a value or worth to human life, both individually and cooperatively, exceeding what could ever be manifested in a lifetime.

Again, exactly what this means in practice is not our concern here; it could be that we recognize every human being as having human rights, or being in the image of God, or as ends in themselves, or any number of other things, either singly or in combination. But the value of human life is itself a justification of civil society, which expresses and in some ways completes human life, and therefore a reason why totalitarianism and collapse should be avoided to begin with.

These four postulates -- moral order, higher law, just destination, human dignity -- seem to be required for building any viable civil society. The exact form they take can vary, but if a civil society does not accept any of these -- does not accept a moral order, does not accept a standard of justice independent of itself, does not accept that civil society is complete and healthy insofar as it is just, and acts in a manner that treats human individuals as either worthless or as having only such worth as is obvious in the lives they have lived so far -- it seems clear that it is either already totalitarian or nearly dissolved as a society into a war of each against each.

Postulation is a relatively weak rational act. To postulate does not even strictly require that it be true; the purpose of postulation is to provide a platform by which a problem can be solved. Thus, if you tried to figure out how a ball would move if it falls from a height and rolls across a smooth floor, taking into account only what is strictly true, it would be a massive task. So instead you postulate that the ball is a perfect sphere, that there is no air resistance, that the smoothness of the floor is perfect, and so forth. This makes the problem soluble, and despite the fact that no ball is a perfect sphere, there is usually air resistance, and even the smoothest floor is not perfectly smooth, you can get answers that are right to a very high degree of approximation, and thus good enough for practical purposes. Thus it wouldn't matter if you preferred a slight variation of one of the above; they just need to be close enough for practical purposes. But if something like our postulates do not obtain, then it seems that it becomes a practical absurdity to try to build a stable non-totalitarian society in the long run.

However, it seems like we have moral requirements to work toward a stable society and to avoid a totalitarian one, and that any reasonable person will at least try to do both. Thus we have a moral responsibility to make the above four postulates (or reasonably close variations on them) in actual practical life. I happen to think all four can be given a reasonable degree of proof; but even if this were not so, it would be reasonable and responsible to postulate them in order to try to build a stable and non-totalitarian civil society. And all four can be postulated in a consistent and unified way if we at least postulate one more thing:

(5) There is a divine moral governor of the world.

Various Links of Interest

* Origin Stories: Quayshawn Spencer (video). Spencer is known for his work in philosophy of biology.

* Last year, there were two periods in which, for the first time in a long time, deaths outpaced births in the United States.

* Scientists have polymerized a material in two dimensions. Polymers are extremely useful, but they've always been limited by the fact that we could only form strands. If this process generalizes, so that we can make different types, it will allow us to make very light sheets of material that are stronger than steel, which could potentially revolutionize entire fields of engineering.

* Jonathan Cattrell, Representation and Copying in Hume's Treatise and Later Works (PDF)

* Charles Piller looks at a case of fraud in DNA barcoding that has been used to verify quality in food and supplements.

* Jay Daigle, Why Isn't There a Replication Crisis in Math?

* Justin Vlasits, Division, Syllogistic and Science in Prior Analytics I.3 (PDF)

* Sean Campbell, The BLM Mystery, looks at the lack of financial transparency in the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.

* Brendan Hodge, America's Retiring Priests

* Thad Botham, Agent Causation and Free Will: A Case for Libertarianism (PDF)

* Low-Tech Magazine

* Javier Corrales, Tell-Tale Signs of Democratic Backsliding, at Persuasion

* Jay Livingston, Consider the Social Class of the Lobster

* Bryan Cutter & Dustin Crummett, Psychophysical Harmony: A New Argument for Theism (PDF). (Although I don't know how 'new' it is, given that you can find several early modern philosophers who have some version of it.)

* Lisa Gill looks at the problem of heavy metals in commonly used spices

Currently Reading

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wind in the Door
Isaac Asimov, Fantastic Voyage
C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Music on My Mind


Leonard Cohen, "If It Be Your Will".