Tuesday, November 29, 2005

To Everything There is a Season

In my line of work one tends to make a lot of use of a certain device known in the trade as a "thought experiment". I suspect that the popularity of this device among some philosophers is due to a kind of science envy, but I suppose there's no use in speculating about motives. In general I tend to think that "thought experiments" are a waste of time, telling us nothing of any importance and only very rarely having any philosophical interest. However, sometimes they can shed a little light on our values, and in that sense they can, in very rare instances, be intriguing.

There's one in particular that comes up in discussions of ethical theory that I've been thinking about for a while. It's a very old and very simple one. We're to imagine a man hurrying to a job interview in his very best--and only--business suit. The job is such that he simply will not get it if he is either late for his interview or not neatly dressed, and he desperately wants the job, because the one he has now is neither personally fulfilling to him nor financially rewarding, though he is able to survive with it. On his way to the interview he is hurrying through a public square that is empty except for one other person: a two-year old toddler is playing by himself next to a public fountain. As the man hurries by he looks around for the toddler's parents, but there is literally no one else to be seen anywhere. He watches as the toddler climbs into the fountain and then proceeds to fall face-down in the water. It becomes clear that the child is drowning, but the man is still far enough away from his interview that there is no way that he can help the child without both ruining his only suit and making himself late for the interview.

This thought experiment is supposed to trigger an intuition, namely, the intuition that if the man does nothing to help the child then his values are skewed--he has put a certain level of material satisfaction above the life of another human being. In fact, some people would say that if the man does nothing to help the child then he will be morally responsible if that child should happen to drown. Others argue that (a) it's not his child, (b) the child isn't dead yet, and (c) the man can't be morally responsible for an act that he did not initiate himself. The purpose of the thought experiment (to the extent that thought experiments can be said to have purposes), I guess, is to get people who subscribe to these different views to start arguing with each other in front of the rest of the class so the teacher can sit back and get paid for doing nothing.

My own intuitions about this case track rather closely with the former set of considerations. We often hold people responsible for undesireable things that happen due to neglect of one kind or another, and that is what this case appears to be. The man, in failing to help a person who clearly needs help, neglects his duty by failing to help when he can. That the child is not his is not relevant, since the same duty would exist if the person drowning were an unrelated adult. The argument that he will lose his chance at the job is specious, since the story as we have it gives us no reason to believe that he needs that job more than the child needs his life, or that the man will have no other chances at job security, while a dead child has no more chances at living.

To make this position stick, though, one needs more than a naked intuition. In particular, one needs an argument to show that there is a moral responsibility to help others who cannot help themselves. Such arguments do exist, but they are not without difficulties of one sort or another. Here is one that has fewer difficulties than most.

1. All human beings are morally equal

This is not as obvious as some people think it is, but it is more obvious than some others think it is. Think about what it means to say something like "X is a human being." If you want to make the claim that some object, X, is a human being, you need to have some idea of what it means to be a human being, that is, you need to have something in mind that will establish something as a human being rather than as something else. Everybody has some such set of necessary and sufficient conditions, whether they think they do or not. Unless you believe that there is some such set of necessary and sufficient conditions, you are committed to saying that there is no real difference between a human being and, say, a fire hydrant. There are philosophers out there who commit themselves to such things, but they aren't worth taking seriously. They mostly work at places like Princeton.

For the purposes of this argument, it doesn't actually matter what you take the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a human being are. You might agree with Aristotle that a human being is a "rational animal"; or you might think that all human beings share a certain genetic lineage; or you might think that being a human being means never having to say you're sorry. Whatever condition you stipulate, however, will be definitive: either X meets the criteria or it does not. If it does, then it is a human being; if it does not, then it is not a human being. This means that there is no such thing as an entity that is more human or less human than another similar entity. There are no "degrees" of humanity.

The upshot of this is that there is no rationally compelling reason to treat one human being differently than another on the grounds of their status as human beings. Obviously we sometimes treat different human beings differently on other grounds: we put criminals in jail, for example, but not innocent persons, we make children live at home until they reach a certain age even if they might prefer to run away, and we do not necessarily take the rantings of a madman at face value. But these differences, real though they are, do not make human beings fundamentally different kinds of things. A criminal human being is still fully human, as is a child or a madman.

This is important because the essence of morality is the giving and assessing of reasons for acting one way rather than another relative to other human beings. We do not bother to give reasons when our actions do not affect another person: I don't need to justify my preference for Bach over INXS, nor do I expect such justifications from others. We may not approve of another person's preference for Dewar's over The Macallan, but we cannot reasonably demand that they justify their preference on pain of compelling them to act otherwise. We only demand reasons when the failure to give an adequate reason will result in punishment.

Nor can we demand a reason if we apply different standards of reasoning to different persons. It would be impossible for one person to give a justification to another if the one person subscribed to different standards of rationality than the other. Moral reasoning requires that the same logical standards apply to everyone involved. (For this reason, Aristotle's necessary and sufficient conditions on being a human being are rather attractive.)

So we cannot treat one human being differently than another unless we can give reasons that are rationally compelling. To act otherwise would be, in a sense, to act irrationally, since there is no rationally compelling reason to treat any one person different from any other in the absence of a justification.

2. Anyone may vindicate a moral right, whether his own or those of another

So it is because all human beings are the same kind of thing that it is necessary to give some reason for treating one differently than another, and that reason had better be a good one. That is, it had better be a reason that would justify treating you exactly the way you are proposing treating the other guy. If you want to put someone into jail because he stole your money, you had better be prepared to acquiesce in going to jail yourself if you steal someone else's money. If you want to hold another human being as a slave, then you had better admit that you would not mind being held as a slave yourself. If you cannot make that admission, then you have no reason to hold anyone else as a slave. As it happens, nobody can make such an admission. If you actually want to be a "slave", all that means is that you are not really a slave at all, but some sort of weird "volunteer" servant. If you do not want to be held as a slave, then you have no excuse for holding anyone else as a slave against their will either, since they do not differ from you in any way that is relevant to the question of being held as a slave.

If you want to kill somebody, you had better be prepared to let others kill you when the same conditions are present. Now, who on earth would ever be prepared to let themselves be killed for any reason? If someone were trying to kill me, I would protect myself. And most people would be prepared to let me. I would be justified in protecting my life, because the madman has no reason to take my life. But what if I could not protect myself? Suppose I am locked in a room with a madman and an ex-army ranger. The madman is intent on killing me, and doesn't even notice the ex-ranger. The madman, let's say, has a knife, and keeps coming at me. He gets in a few jabs and manages to cripple me in such a way that I am lying helpless on the floor. Now the madman is going to finish me off, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. But he's a puny little guy, and the ex-ranger could easily disarm him and tie him up with his shirt. Would the ex-ranger be justified in protecting me in this way? Would it be morally right for him to restrain the madman and prevent him from killing me? It is difficult to imagine what could possibly be morally wrong in his doing such a thing.

So, if I have a right, say, to protect my life, then surely another person would be justified in protecting that right for me when I am unable to vindicate my own rights for some reason.

But suppose we return to the drowning child scenario. Sure, the man on his way to the job interview would be justified if he did save that child--the question was not about that. The question was, would he be acting unjustly if he failed to protect the child. Would the ex-ranger be acting unjustly if he failed to come to my help?

3. We have a duty to vindicate the rights of those who cannot vindicate their own rights

The most controversial part of the argument is also the most important. My justification in vindicating the right of another lies in the importance of that right being vindicated: if I act to vindicate a right merely because it pleases me to do so, then my act is not rationally motivated--it is not prompted by the process of giving a rational justification grounded in the equality of the person qua human being. If, however, I act because it seems the reasonable thing to do, if I act because my reason tells me that it is what I must do because I would want another to do the same for me were the roles reversed, then my act of vindication is no longer merely a case of the satisfaction of some arbitrary desire that I happen to have at that moment. But if I can apply reason to this situation to show that it is right to vindicate this right here and now, the same reasons would show that it is always right to act in that way. And if it is always right to act in that way because the logic of morality justifies acting in that way, then it would be wrong to fail to act in that way.

So if I am hurrying to a job interview and I see someone drowning, if I have good reason to believe that the person will die unless I help him, and if I also have good reason to believe that I will not be risking my own life in helping him, then I not only am permitted to help him, I have a moral obligation to help him.

Thomas Merton, famously, recounted the story of the Dutch resistance to the Nazi oppression. It was a non-violent resistance in which many lives, arguably, were saved. But opponents of Mertin cannot help but wonder whether the pacifist resistance would have had any long term effect for the good in the absence of military resistance. That is, you can resist peacefully for just so long in the face of an aggressor like that: in the end, the mercilessness of the enemy will overwhelm you. Passivity did not save the Jews, and it is probably a fluke that the Dutch were able to save as many as they did. If the Allies had chosen to continue resisting the Nazis with words only, one wonders what we would think of them today, in light of what we now know was going on in the camps. Would we still admire them, knowing that they stood idly by while millions were murdered? If we have a duty to protect innocent life, we may also have a duty to use compelling force, if compelling force is the only means available to us for bringing an end to the injustice. But this is controversial, since it is not always obvious when force is required and when it isn't.

We tend to think of the Allied military response to Nazi aggression as justified. If we hear accounts of resistance attacks on Nazi installations, we feel that they, too, were justified. If someone were to try to liberate a concentration camp by violent means, we might very well think that they were justified. We tend not to think that people who blow up abortion clinics are justified, however, so we may not always apply our principles in a consistent way. But that we must have principles, and that we must apply them consistently, is quite clear.

The war in Iraq, like the war in Vietnam, has proven to be a challenge to our principles. Are situations like these cases where we have a duty to vindicate the rights of those who cannot act to vindicate their own rights? If so, is military action our only means of giving aid? If so, what criteria do we apply to measure our success in such endeavors?

Dante and Darwin

There's a very good post at Darwin Catholic about Charles Krauthammer's recent remarks regarding the use of torture in extreme cases. Darwin makes some very interesting comparisons to the theology of Purgatory as found in Dante, and he draws a rock-solid conclusion about the morality of torture under any circumstances. Anything that is morally wrong is always morally wrong, and torture is morally wrong. That's the general principle of the moral realist, but Darwin adds the principle of the Roman Catholic: our positive law ought to reflect the moral (natural) law.

Indulge Me

Pope Benedict XVI has announced a plenary indulgence "under the usual conditions" for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception next Thursday. This item may not get much news coverage, since we live in debauched times that regard such things as indulgences as relics from the middle ages better to be forgotten than practiced. That's too bad, because folks who look at the world in that way are needlessly separating themselves from a worldview that is literally more salutary than the one they cherish so much. It is very difficult to live life as a true disciple of Christ who obeys Saint Paul's command to "pray without ceasing", but why pass up opportunities to approach more closely to such a life by incorporating a whole new attitude towards our relationship to the world into our day to day experience? Go to Confession; receive Holy Communion; pray with Christ's Vicar: these are the "usual conditions". Then go out and live your life as though you were going to meet these conditions every day.

Monday, November 28, 2005

I'm Positive

I have a wonderful little book--not so very little actually: it weighs in at 1387 pages--that is remarkable not so much because of what is written in it but because of the witness it gives to a moribund worldview of a bygone era: the historical positivism of the 1950s and 1960s. The book is Volume 6 of the UNESCO-sponsored History of Mankind: Cultural and Scientific Development, the first volume of which, Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, appeared in 1963. Volume 6, which appeared in 1966, was subtitled The Twentieth Century.

There are a couple of things to notice about this. First, there is the rather obvious hubris of trying to publish any kind of history of the twentieth century before it is even two thirds finished. By the editors' own admission, most of the work for Volume 6 was actually done before 1955. Since we're in the Advent season now, and my children are reminding me once again how difficult it is for those of us born in the 20th century to postpone our gratification, I find this desire to get the history of the 20th century out quam celerrime more than a little close to home. The assumption appears to be that, whatever it was about the 20th century that made it unqiue, that gave it its character, was well established by mid-century, and unlikely to be displaced by any upstart events of the waning years on the downhill side of the century. Looking back over the last 40 years of my life, however, I cannot help but think that the last third of the 20th century had very little in common, culturally or scientifically, with the first two thirds. There is, indeed, a place for a book such as this, but it ought to be titled something like A Provincial and Myopic View of the Significance of the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Now, before people start complaining about what a ridiculously pedantic title that is, remember that the thing was sponsored by UNESCO. I think I'm being rather charitable.

The second thing worth noticing is the apparent assumption that people who are literally in medias res are somehow going to rise above it all and write about the cultural and scientific development of their own era in a way that is not wholly useless. Albert Speer wrote a very interesting account of the Third Reich, but I would not go to that volume for anything like a compelling account of the significance of the history of that regime. Volume 6 of the History of Mankind was "planned and executed from an international viewpoint", it proclaims, and that, I take it, is supposed to be one of its virtues. But in fact such a claim only reflects the sad political reality of the day: you couldn't say anything politically interesting without Soviet kiss-asses objecting on ideological grounds. The chapters on economics and history are interlarded with footnotes from Soviet "experts" who challenge much of what is being said in the main text. In some passages written by Soviets there are a few tepid challenges from Western scholars, but by and large the politicization of the volume is a one-way street.

The book is filled with grandiose-sounding slogans, with section titles such as "Man's Relation to his Past and Future", Dissemination of Nutritional Knowledge", "Extension of Education as a Mass Process". But let's cut to the chase: of course one wants to know what these brainiacs had to say about culture and religion, science and society, and--of course--one is not to be disappointed if one is expecting to find a typical 1960s mishmash of popular psychology, positivism about "man's progress", and communistic economic ideas governing the whole analysis. In particular, there is a very Bill Moyers-ish dismissal of all religion as a mere cultural construct with no real relation to reality--for that one must turn to science, since after all it is science that is really god to these people. The Catholic Church and--of all things--philosophical Thomism! are singled out as the cultural bad-boys of the century, since they toe the line of their respective "orthodoxies" (in this book the word "orthodoxy" is like the word "vice"). For these movements, "rigorous formal logic" was the determining faculty by which we come to know the world. But what of that other "orthodoxy", Islam? You may be surprised to learn that
Most of the interaction between eastern and western thought was onesided, the impact of ideas originating in the West upon the thought of the East.
That's right, the "impact" in the other direction didn't come until the first year of the next century. But I'm interrupting...
The development in the West of the non-rational philosophies during these years, however, began to provide a possible bridge to the philosophical thought of the East which had always stressed the use of non-rational faculties to penetrate to the essence of reality...through the middle of the century, however, the gap remained wide as far as any real penetration of eastern though into the West was concerned. It was indeed a rare westerner who was prepared to submit himself to the discipline which easterners associated with the sort of insight, self-penetration and wisdom which was part of their tradition and which the westerner, too, could only hope to experience from within.
Wow, there's a lot of penetrating going on in there. Notice how the problem of inter-"penetration" is laid at the feet of the lazy westerner, who doesn't have it in him to penetrate himself the way the easterner does. There seems to be some distinction being drawn here between the "rational" faculties and the "non-rational" ones, but as usual with this kind of 1960s garbage there's no explanation (or empirical evicence) regarding what this distinction might amount to and how it is actually worked out in any real theories of either east or west. In short, this is just banal speculation on the part of someone who's read too much Hesse.

Some parts of this volume are fascinating to read--in some sections it does contain rather interesting compilations of data. But as a genuine assessment of the "cultural and scientific development" of the century--well, it's hard to take it very seriously. Culturally much has happened since 1966, such as the fall of western communism, the ascendancy of the Catholic Church, the globalization of the economy, explosive change in music and art, both classical and popular, and in the scientific domain one need mention only a few things such as space exploration, medicine, computer technology, before one begins to see that this volume was hopelessly outdated even before the century it purports to give a history of was finished.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Simon Says

When I was in graduate school I was fortunate to be able to study under Simon Blackburn while he was still the Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has since returned to Cambridge, where he continues to hold forth in his witty and sagacious way on matters of Truth and Morality, not only in his teaching but in a series of popular books on, well, Truth and Morality.

In a recent contribution to the Times Literary Supplement (available online here) of 30 September 2005, Blackburn does a fine job of highlighting the merits of a recent selection of essays by the late G. E. M. Anscombe. For those who are not philosophy wonks, Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and, perhaps of even more interest to readers of this forum, a very dedicated Roman Catholic. She was also, as all sides agree, something of a genius. Many Catholic moral philosophers do a pretty good job of hiding the fact that they're Catholic--it's one of the many symptoms of the debauched times in which we live--but Anscombe argued forcefully for many of the moral tenets of the Catholic faith, including the absolute prohibition on euthanasia, abortion, and contraception. She defended, in other words, a version of moral realism that was quite congenial to the Magisterium's view of normativity in the world.

Simon Blackburn, by contrast, describes himself (not in this particular essay, but in plenty of other places) as a Humean, though not as an out-and-out moral relativist. The trouble is, the only difference between his moral philosophy and moral relativism is the stridency with which he asserts the correctness of his views. Humeans are, by and large, both skeptics and empiricist materialists as well as rather truculent, so none of this should come as a surprise. One does not want so much to fault him as to pity him, but that is another matter.

It is rather interesting to note, however, the pomposity with which he dismisses the sort of morality defended by Anscombe. He begins by criticizing her view, which he characterizes as "Dostoevskian," that
if God is dead everything is permitted: "where one does not think there is a judge or a law, the notion of a verdict may retain its psychological effect, but not its meaning".
His own verdict, however, is that this is just a load of hooey, and in fact has been proven to be hooey by none other than Plato.
Suppose you are a colleague, and I find you taking bribes in order to fiddle exam results and am shocked and horrified as a result. I believe you have failed in your duty, that you have betrayed your obligations to the university and to your students. Is this "merely" psychological, and am I using words with "merely" talismanic force? Well, just try me. Suppose I break off relations with you, or make the matter public, or invoke sanctions, strip you of your rank or drum you out of your job. Suppose, in addition, I look askance at anybody who fails to share my outrage, and strenuously try to change their minds. Am I supposed to say, po-faced and even while I do these things or worse, "By the way, I do not say that what you did was morally wrong. That's a concept I cannot deploy"? This is poppycock: what I do shows in spades that this is exactly how I regard you and your doings.
Well, that's just great: you can claim to be as realist as you like just so long as you are enough of a popinjay to use words like "poppycock" in a sentence.

The difficulty with the analysis comes only when one wants to know why he would treat a morally offensive colleague in this way. For the Humean the only reason is because the behavior is repulsive to some particular point of view, not because there is anything wrong with it in itself. What makes it repulsive to Simon Blackburn, however, may not strike another as quite so deserving of such opprobrium. In short, by ignoring the fundamental belief behind Anscombe's moral theory--the existence of final causes--Blackburn misses the whole motivation for being moral in her system.

This is why his appeal to Plato is so perplexing. I suppose he must have in mind places like the Gorgias or Book I of the Republic--places where Plato argues that just living is its own reward, there is no "divine command" that makes something morally right or wrong. But Plato would not have agreed that the mere fact that Simon Blackburn finds bribery offensive is a sufficient condition on its actually being offensive, no matter how deeply Simon Blackburn believes it, or what he threatens to do about it. Maybe it isn't Plato himself whom Blackburn has in mind. Callicles, in the Gorgias, would have been quite happy to agree that what a particular individual regards as morally offensive is morally offensive, even though he would have drawn a very different inference about the moral licitness of bribery. I'm sure Callicles would have agreed with Blackburn about just who are the ones who are most likely to have the best views about morality, too, since Callicles seems to have held a rather Nietzschean view about, well, Sophists.

But for Plato himself, moral normativity lies in the notion of an objective human good, something that does not differ from person to person and, more importantly, something about which it is possible to be mistaken, that is, you can fail to know that something is really the right thing for you to do, even though you are very sincere in your belief that it is not. Now, this is not necessarily inconsistent with Simon's argument, at least so far. But if we were to turn the tables things would be somewhat different. If we were to ask, "What about you, Simon? What if you were the one contemplating taking the bribe? What reasoned argument would prevent you from doing so?" He would not have at his disposal recourse to an answer like "I know that I cannot morally do such a thing, because doing so is contrary to the human good, thus making it wrong per se, a violation of my place in the rational order of things." If he claims that he does have recourse to that answer--if he does, in fact, endorse the realist notion of an objective human good--he has not revealed in any of his writings just what he thinks that objective good is. If he denies that there is such a thing, he begs the question against Anscombe and the realists.

In particular, since he seems horrified and offended by the idea that human life itself might have an objective value and the concommitant idea that certain things, such as the needless taking of human life, might be categorically prohibited, he begs the question against the Catholic Church's understanding of what the objective human good is. Some folks--Simon Blackburn among them--misunderstand what it means to say that if God is dead anything is permitted. The misunderstanding appears to stem from the mistaken belief that it is nothing more than fear of God, fear of retribution, that keeps the believer from doing wrong things, and that if only God (or our virus-like belief in such a being) weren't there we could do anything we like "and get away with it". That is a very banal understanding of what a moral realist like Plato--or Anscombe--is arguing for. The idea is rather that all things, including human beings, have a natural end, and normativity is defined in terms of what that natural end actually is, not what we might (perhaps mistakenly) believe or wish it to be. It is this end that gives us a compelling reason to act one way rather than another. We do not act out of fear of God, but out of love for God. Without God, we may love whatever we like, and that is why, without God, anything is permitted.

The only "reason" that Blackburn offers for refraining from bribery is the fact that he, and others like him, will scorn the folks who take bribes. Well, unless depth of feeling and sincerity can persuade, that argument fails to persuade. One can rightly ask, "Why should I care whether I offend Simon Blackburn?" If the answer is really nothing more than "Because I will humiliate you in front of others, wreck your career, and in general make your life miserable"--well, that is just an ugly might-makes-right sort of argument and, ironically, differs in no way at all from what Blackburn himself appears to think is the point of having God be the source of normativity!

For the Catholic, unlike Plato, the objective human good is God himself, and our love for God is a manifestation of our innate desire to seek our final cause, our natural end. If, like Simon Blackburn, you simply don't believe that any such natural end exists, there's not much anybody can do about that. But to merely assert, without argument, that there simply is no such natural end of man, is surely no better than to assert that there is. And it is clearly worse to not only assert without argument, but to childishly ridicule one's opposition when argument fails. Perhaps he thinks he is only emulating the brilliant Ms. Anscombe, who was rather famous for the well-placed barb, but Blackburn scoffs at the whole idea of final causation in his essay, comparing it to Michael Frayn's parody (the "natural end of travel" is to move forward, so all looking backwards, including the use of rear-view mirrors in cars, is immoral). When I knew Simon Blackburn he was not quite so, well, full of himself, at least not most of the time. He was always very kind to me, even though his open scorn for all conservatives is something that he proudly parades in the press. Perhaps he is enough of a moralist, of sorts, to recognize the possibility that there may be a difference between when it is appropriate to merely think that someone is a scumbag and when it is appropriate to tell them to their face that they are one. It is more than likely, though, that the explanation for his treatment of me was nothing more sophisticated than his ignorance of my politics, thus proving Plato right once again--it is possible to be mistaken about what the "right" thing to do is, since if he had known my politics he surely would have treated me differently. His ignorance was my bliss.

The title of Blackburn's essay, by the way, is "Simply wrong", which I suppose is intended as a sly response to what he perceives as Anscombe's "absolutism" about ethics. I'm sure the irony was unintentional, but it is rather delicious.

Walmart Apologizes

Well, that was easy. You may now return to eating fried liver. I wish I could say that I'll see you there.

Kids These Days

I actually was not particularly surprised to read this report at CNS of religiosity among Catholic teens. In particular, I found this remark hauntingly clowse to home:
Forty percent of Catholic teens said they had never attended any parish-based religious education, compared to 19 percent of mainline Protestants, 13 percent of conservative Protestants and 12 percent of black Protestants.
My parish does not have a Catholic school, so we provide our own religious education through a parish program that serves both Athens parishes. Attendance is not too bad among those who sign up for it, but not everyone who is supposed to be getting Catholic education is signing up for it. True, it does cost money, but we have scholarships for those who can't afford to pay: nobody in either parish has any excuse for not signing up.

The real problem is that there are some folks who just don't understand that they are required, by Canon Law, to get a religious education for their children. Catholic parents are required to send their children to a Catholic school if there is one available to them and, failing that, they are required to obtain religious education from the Church. Homeschooling is allowed only with the permission of the bishop and in compliance with diocesan standards. If parents themselves don't understand the duties and obligations that come with membership in the Church, then it is hardly surprising to find that the children haven't cultivated very impressive religious values either.

One reason why some parents may not fully understand the duties and obligations that come with being Catholic may be that some parents do not understand what it even means for themselves to be a Catholic. There are some folks who call themselves Catholic principally because that was what they were raised to do, but who do not have very deep committments to the teachings of the faith itself, assuming that they even know what the teachings are beyond some vague princples like "Attend Mass if it's not too inconvenient." I don't know how many such folk there are in the Church, but I do know that there are some, and I suspect that it will be the children of these kinds of people who will have the least interest in getting involved in religious activities.

I sometimes wonder about my own level of committment to religious principles, and I consider myself a pretty religious guy. I worry constantly that my inner attitude is not what it ought to be, that my prayer life is not enough in the spirit of "Thy will be done." These are, in my opinon, important worries to have because they seem to me to reflect "where I'm at" spiritually, so to speak. So when I run into people who think that the Real Presence is not a teaching that needs to be taken all that seriously (certainly not literally!), then I know that I am in the presence of someone who needs to rethink his/her committment to the whole notion of participation in a religious institution. I sometimes think that what is needed is a body of believers whose attitude is more like the attitude that must have been present in the early Church, when committment to the Church's principles was actually something dangerous. It is relatively easy to make such committments today, and indeed in some contexts doing so may bring with it certain kinds of rewards in the form of social acceptance or even status.

Sadly, I'm not all that sure what I would do if I found myself in context where my religious committments were literally dangerous. But at least I'm sad about that. I fear there may be some folks to whom it never even occurs to be grateful that things are otherwise. Until we take these things more seriously--much more seriously--we can't expect our children to take them very seriously either.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Easy for me to say--being asked to boycott Walmart is, for me, a little like being asked to boycott fried liver. But some people love fried liver, so it may not be equally easy for everyone.

Here is the announcement of the boycott from Bill Donohue, which I endorse:
Bill Donohue commented today on the latest development in the Catholic League’s fight with Wal-Mart:

“Yesterday, I announced a boycott of Wal-Mart and asked 126 religious organizations that span seven faith communities to join with us. We want a) an apology for insulting Christians by effectively banning Christmas and b) a withdrawal of its insane statement regarding the origins of Christmas and c) a revision on its website.

“The piece today by Joe Kovacs on worldnetdaily.com quotes Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart saying, ‘We already serve a diverse customer base, and we’re just trying to help them to celebrate their individual needs and wants.’ I thought Wal-Mart was a department store—not a Wellness Center.

“Stewart’s remark is flatulent. If Wal-Mart had a ‘Holiday’ section on its website that directed customers to its Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa sites, that would not be objectionable. What is objectionable is its steadfast defense of the statement about the origins of Christmas as crafted by its Customer Relations department, and the way its customers are directed online to find Christmas items. Searches for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa direct customers to the Jewish and African-American holiday sections, but searches for Christmas are directed to the ‘Holiday’ section. Ergo, Wal-Mart discriminates in its treatment of Christmas.

“Today, I e-mailed Dan Fogleman, Senior Manager of Public Relations, letting him know the following: ‘Now that Wal-Mart is standing by its position, I hope you’re ready for our next move. Don’t forget, we have the next six weeks to pull out all the stops, and we will.’”

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day

My wife and I always argue about elections. I'm ashamed to admit that I often take a very utilitarian approach to them. No election in my lifetime has been decided by a single vote, so my own particular vote has no value, so it doesn't matter if I vote or not. So when it's convenient for me to do so, I vote; when it's not, I don't feel guilty about not voting.

My wife, by contrast, is much more civic-minded. She argues--and rightly so--that it is our civic duty to vote, it is a precious right, won by the blood and toil of the generations that went before us, and we have a moral obligation not to waste this precious liberty.

I don't actually disagree with her, at least in my heart of hearts. But in practical terms I know that it will make no difference at all whether I vote or not. When I've said this to my wife, she points out what is often said in such contexts: "Well if everybody thought the way you did...". The trouble with this sort of objection is that it is a totally non-practical argument offered against a practical one. In real life it simply is not the case that "everybody" thinks this way. A lot of people think that voting is a waste of time, and they don't do it, but plenty of other people do vote--enough of them, in fact, that it would not make any difference if I were to vote. The in-principle argument is good only for showing why democracy requires such things as "civic duties"--it does not provide a compelling reason for any one person to actually head out to the polls.

Some of you may now be starting to understand why my wife hates philosophy. Others may find themselves secretly agreeing that a single vote makes no difference. These latter folks may be surprised to learn that I have only missed one or two elections in thirty years. I've always felt that it was important to vote, even when it makes no difference to the outcome. There are certain times when, in some abstract moral sense, it can be important to register one's preferences in an official way. If you are living in Germany in the 1930s, you want to be voting against Nazi candidates even if you know that the Zeitgeist is against you. You accomplish two things, even if you do not affect the outcome. First, you add your number to those who are dissenting, thus giving folks a better idea of who stands for what. Second, you raise a kind of objection to what is going on. If one is strictly a utilitarian it may not make any difference if objections are raised or not, but if one is not a consequentialist than it can be important to raise a cry even when no one is listening.

The importance of voting was also brought home to me in another way back in the 1990s when the voting structures in South Africa changed. I remember listening to news reports on NPR of the first free elections in South Africa--there were interviews with blacks who spoke very movingly of their experiences at the polls, and I felt ashamed that I had ever even considered not voting.

So today I'm off to the polls myself. There aren't many important issues on the ballot in my area, but just being free to do it is, perhaps, reason enough to go.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

See You on the Other Side

Today is my father's birthday. If he were alive he would be 88 years old. I think of him often in the autumn of the year, not only because that's when his birthday was, but also because that was when he was taken away from me. Sometimes I find it depressing, but not always. I suppose it's depressing on those occasions when I wonder what it would be like to have had a father, or whether I would be a better father myself if I had had one around to serve as a model. It's not so depressing when I remember that nothing lasts forever. People die, and plenty of people have been through a lot worse in their lives than I've been through, so I have plenty to be grateful for. Some children lose their parents earlier in life than I lost mine; some never know their parents; some are killed in the womb by their parents. Things could be worse.

In the epistle reading for Mass today St. Paul tells us that the dead shall be raised first, and "we who are still alive" will be with the Lord always after that. His instructions are explicit: we are to be comforted by this message, the message that all of us--Church Militant and Church Triumphant--will be together in the Lord for all eternity. The Beatific Vision is enriched, at least for us imperfect creatures, by the plurality of souls that we shall be a part of in the heavenly host. Just as the Trinity is a community, so are we, and we experience God's essence most fully when we experience our own sort of community.

Two weeks from Tuesday will be the fortieth anniversary of my father's death. I was only 7, but I remember the day quite vividly. Events like the loss of a parent become a part of one's being, because they are unforgetable and they shape who and what we are. Nineteen years later I lost my mother, and as different as I had become from that 7 year old boy, my life was changed again in a dramatic way.

November is the traditional time for remembrance of the dead and, sure enough, I tend to do a lot of remembering during this most memorable (for me) month. But I also do a lot of looking forward--I'm not sure what, exactly, I'm looking forward to, since I really have no idea what things will be like once I am called from this life. But I imagine that, whatever it's like, it won't be bad. That's not intended to sound hubristic, as though I know I'm bound for heavenly glory. Rather it's an endorsement of St. Thomas More's striking words, written in his last weeks in the Tower of London: "and if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

I've mentioned several times that I began my Christian sojourn as an Episcopalian. In some of my posts I have been rather merciless to my alma mater, but perhaps that's just a manifestation of what many separated couples know all too well about the feelings one tends to have towards someone, or some thing, that one once loved dearly but that one feels betrayed by. I've just read a stirring--and deeply touching--article by Fr. Robert Sanders about his exit from ECUSA, posted on Pontifications, a blog run by Fr. Alvin Kimel, another refugee from ECUSA. I share many of Fr. Sanders' complaints about the materialism, determinism, empiricism, deconstructivism, and general debauchery of the post-1979 ECUSA; reading his account was like reading my own private diaries from those years.

I mentioned in a post just yesterday that I had an Episcopalian friend for whom I felt I should pray, in particular, that he convert, and I could name many others whom I would dearly love to welcome into the Roman Catholic Church. My friend is so faithful, so orthodox, I cannot really imagine why he does not convert--how can anyone refuse to leave that crumbling ruin of a denomination? If it is asking too much to become Catholic, it would be better to convert to Orthodoxy than to remain in the ECUSA, where heresy is seeping up through the floors and dripping from the ceiling.

What appears to be happening is that the ECUSA, which used to be the Anglican denomination in the United States, is rapidly dwindling to sect status, while the Anglican Communion Network is the rising star of orthodoxy within American Anglicanism. One cannot help but applaud their efforts to maintain some semblance of orthodoxy among American Anglicans, but one also cannot help but wonder--after all this time, is it really so important to remain aloof from Rome? Why not come home? What is it about Roman Catholicism that still keeps you away? What point of doctrine do you reject? Is it really nothing more than Papal Primacy? Perhaps there's more, but when I was an Episcopalian everyone I knew in the Episcopal church insisted that it wasn't really much more than that.

My mentor in the faith at that time was Fr. Robert Duncan, Fr. Bob, now the Bishop of Pittsburgh, and a leader in the movement for orthodoxy within American Anglicanism. I confess that I was a lousy Christian at that time, but if there was anything good, anything true, about my faith--anything at all--it was because of Fr. Bob's influence. Looking back on the way I used to live, even after my becoming a Christian, I can't believe that he put up with me as much as he did. I was like the young Augustine, who famously prayed "Make me chaste, O Lord--but not yet!" He was, and is, a model of patience, humility, compassion, and mercy.

And what a grasp of our faith he has! Ironic as it may seem, my final conversion to Roman Catholicism was due, in the end, to the rock-solid orthodoxy of what I learned from Fr. Bob. I sometimes wonder, really, how many Episcopalians were lost to Rome because of his influence. His grasp of what is liturgically proper surpasses just about everything I've experienced in the Catholic Church, and his liturgies are among the things I miss the very most from those days. The reverence with which he celebrated the Eucharist, the passion with which he preached, and the care with which he tended souls, taken all together, are beyond anything I have seen since. But why he doesn't convert is a mystery to me, a fact which I suppose reveals just how little I actually know the man himself. I knew the priest, not the person. The priest was indistinguishable from a Roman Catholic, but the person has a history, an intellect, an outlook, that is not mine.

Pablo Casals' titled his autobiography Joys and Sorrows, which has always struck me as a particularly good title for an autobiography. If I were any kind of a writer with any hope of writing my own autobiography some day, I would be grumpy that that title is already taken. Life is an amalgam of sorrows and joys, and sometimes there can be aspects of life that are both at once. In one sense I am overjoyed to be a Roman Catholic rather than an Episcopalian, and it's not just because I've dodged a bullet by jumping out of the train before it went over the cliff, it's because I've come Home to the Truth. But at the same time there is sorrow for what has been lost, much of it near and dear to my heart.

constitit et lacrimans 'quis iam locus' inquit 'Achate,
quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?
en Priamus. sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi,
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.'

Aeneid i.459-463

On Thinking About the Trinity

There is an interesting little book, which used to be quite popular among philosophy majors, called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published by Edwin Abbot in 1884. It tells the story of a two-dimensional world populated by characters of various shapes: women are thin, straight lines, men are polygons with numbers of sides corresponding to social status, and the hero, A. Square, has adventures in strange realms called Spaceland, Lineland, and Pointland. He gets into trouble when he starts to think about a land of more than three dimensions, and he must return to his own world. (As an aside, Ian Stewart has published a quasi-sequel to Flatland called Flatterland: Like Flatland, Only More So [Perseus, 2001].)

I was reminded of this book today in a tutorial with a student who has been working on St. Anselm. We were reading On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, in which the logical relations of the Persons of the Trinity are explored in some detail. Thinking about these logical relations reminded me of Flatland because the difficulties reminded me that there may be certain sorts of things for which we have no cognitive categories, thus making it quite difficult, if not impossible, to conceptualize what it is we're talking about.

Take this simple example. If you were a citizen of Flatland and lived in a universe of only two dimensions, then if you found yourself inside a circle, and somebody said to you: "Exit the circle without passing through the line that defines it," you would be at a loss as to how to do it. However, those of us who live in the three-dimensional world can easily see that all you need to do to escape a circle without passing through the line that defines it is to jump over the line, that is, move into the third spacial dimension. In a world in which there are only two dimensions, of course, it would be impossible to conceive of such a thing. To see why, imagine this: suppose you are not living in Flatland, but here and now, in the 3D world. If you find youself inside a sphere, what would you do if someone said to you "Exit the sphere without passing through the wall that defines it"? It just doesn't seem possible, but if we were to reason on a par with the previous example, we would say "Simple: just move into the fourth dimension and jump beyond the wall that way," just as we recommended to the two-dimensional person in the circle. But we can't conceive of what it even means to move into the fourth dimension in order to exit a sphere without passing through its wall, because our minds conceive of space in three dimensions, not in four. But logically, of course, it should be possible.

The Trinity is a very knotty problem for anybody who wants to live only with things that are logically possible. It's tempting to say that the set of things that are logically possible contains more items than the set of things that are actual, since there seem to be plenty of things that are at least logically possible but that could never appear in the real world, and yet it at least seems to be the case that everything that is actually in the world is also something that is logically possible. For example, it's at least logically possible for there to be a lump of gold that is larger than the known universe, but it just isn't going to happen. At least not until Bill Gates sells his shares of Microsoft. But just because there are more items in the set of things that are logically possible, must we also accept it as a given that the set of things that are actual is a proper subset of the things that are logically possible? Is there, in short, a kind of actuality that is something other than a merely logical possibility?

It is tempting to say no. But if that's what you're tempted to say, it seems that you are committing yourself to denying the Trinity, since it is not very difficult to show that the Trinity is not logically possible. One of the best known proofs of this in recent times is Richard Cartwright's "On the Logical Problem of the Trinity," which was originally given as a public lecture in 1978 at North Carolina State University, but which has since been published in his Philosophical Essays (MIT Press, 1987, pp. 187-200).

The argument rests on the text of the Athanasian Creed. According to that Creed, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but there are not three gods, but One God; further, the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. The problem is one of identity. If the Three Persons of the Trinity are all identical to God, and if God is a single essence, then logically at least the Three Persons of the Trinity ought to be identical to each other, but they aren't, they are distinct insofar as they are not all one Person.

The argument relies on a conception of identity that is sometimes called the Indiscernability of Identicals. The basic idea is that all objects which have every property in common (that is, are indiscernable from each other) are identical. For example, we call the morning star Phosphorus, the evening star Hesperus, but if you examing Phosphorus and Hesperus, you will find that they have every property in common: brightness, diameter, position relative to the sun, etc. The reason, of course, is because "Phosphorus" and "Hesperus" are just two different names for the planet Venus. The words have different meanings--one means "morning star", the other means "evening star"--but they have the same reference.

The upshot of the Indiscernability of Identicals is that whenever any objects fail to share even one property, they are not identical. The Father has the property of begetting the Son, but the Son does not have that property, instead he has the property of being begotten by the Father. So the Father is not identical to the Son. So far so good.

The trouble begins when we consider a common intuition about identity: it is supposed to be transitive. That is, if x is identical to y, and y is identical to z, then x ought to be identical to z. For example, if (2 + 7) is identical to (3 + 6), and (3 + 6) is identical to (4 + 5), then (2 + 7) ought to be identical to (4 + 5). And sure enough, all three equations are identical to 9. We can write this as (2 + 7) = (3 + 6) = (4 + 5) = 9.

So, God is identical to the Father, and God is identical to the Son. Let x = "The Father", y = "God", and z = "The Son", and you get x = y = z. From this, it ought to follow that x = z. But according to the Athanasian Creed, the Father is not identical to the Son, and that is a violation of our logical intuitions about identity.

If we were to base all of our beliefs only on those things that are logically possible, then, we would not be able to believe in the Athanasian Creed. That would be too bad, since the Creed teaches us that the only way to be saved is to believe what it teaches. Perhaps it is false, but that would not help the orthodox Christian, for whom there are many other magisterial sources of what the Athanasian Creed teaches, and you simply cannot escape them and remain a Christian of any stripe.

One way out, perhaps, is to redefine the notion of identity. Or of metaphysical unity. This way out seems rather extreme, and would give rise to further puzzles, many of them non-theological. It's better to keep out intutions about these things as they are.

The other way out is to grant that it is not possible to make logical sense of the Trinity, but argue that logical sense is only one way of conceiving of reality, and only of one part of reality at that--the logically conceivable part. But just as the two dimensional man has no cognitive capacity for logically imagining what it would mean to jump over the line of a circle, it may be case that our logic just is not up to the task of giving us the equipment needed to conceive of how Three distinct Persons can all be One Thing, namely God.

St. Anselm's solution to this puzzle, loosely based on St. Augustine's argument in the De Trinitate, is quite different, and I will have more to say about it later.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

My Mistake--Possibly

I thought that the use of X-Mail anonymous mail systems became obsolete nearly a decade ago when it became easy--and free--to set up an email account under any identity one cared to invent. Imagine my surprise, then, to get email routed to my inbox through hushmail.com, surely one of the quaintest of the surviving systems. I think they should change their name to hushpuppy.com, but I'm willing to bet good money they won't do it.

Anyway, my anonymous tipster informs me that it simply is not true that "virtually all" of the graduate students in philosophy here at OU think Republicans are either stupid or evil. So much for my fantasy that nobody really reads this blog. Anyway, this source claims that upwards of a third of them don't think so at all. Perhaps my source is not fully aware of the meaning of "virtually"--it's hard to tell from an anonymous source but it may very well be that my correspondent is one these very graduate students. That would explain two things at once.

Now ordinarily I don't put much stock in anonymous tips, since people who are afraid to say who they are often don't have anything worthwhile to say, like who they are. But I will confess that my original count was based on the profile of the students during the last election, and we do, of course, have several new students this year, some of whom I haven't even met, so I was way out of line to try to fool people into thinking that "virtually all" means the same thing as "literally all", and I apologize for my deception.

Don't forget that, logically at least, the truth of "p OR q" does not exclude the possibility of the truth of "p AND q", and I did vote Republican. So perhaps I'm stupid AND evil, rather than merely stupid OR evil.

More Dappled Thought

I once had a good friend, a fellow Episcopalian (at the time I was still an Episcopalian), with whom I often discussed interesting philosophical and theological questions. We were just amateurs, of course, a couple of graduate students in classics who thought that knowing Latin and Greek was a sufficient condition for knowing just about anything at all of any value (I, at least, remain both an amateur and an obnoxious know-it-all, but my friend has moved on to bigger and better things), but we had a good time and surely having a good time is at least part of what good conversation is for.

We had both toyed with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, though in the end I did and he did not. He often mentioned to me another friend of his who had converted and who prayed for his (my friend's) conversion daily, and I sometimes wonder whether I ought not to do the same, but I don't. I suppose one reason is because I respect his intellect and I believe that he is smart enough to figure out for himself what the right thing for him to do is, though I realize that isn't a particularly good reason for not praying for his conversion. I suspect sloth plays a rather major role in most of my failings, this one included, but God's will is somewhat mysterious, at least to me, and I can't claim to have a better idea of what's best for him than God does, so my prayer is always at most "God's will be done."

One thing that he said to me has stuck with me now for over 20 years. We were talking about transsubstantiation, and he said to me what a lot of Episcopalians and other Anglicans--not to mention Eastern Christians--have thought: the Real Presence is a Mystery. "It happens," he said; "don't worry about how it happens."

OK. Some things are mysterious. I suppose that one way of conceiving of the mysterious is as the set of things that either have no explanation or that have explanations that contradict either experience or each other. In the case of the Real Presence, I suspect that my friend was suggesting that there simply is no explanation for how it happens, though one might also say that any explanation of how it happens will contradict empirical evidence. My own view is that transsubstantiation, as a doctrine, is not actually an attempt to explain how the Real Presence is brought about--it is rather a re-description of what the Real Presence is, a description in metaphysical rather than theological language. At any rate, I have no trouble accepting both that the Real Presence "happens", as my friend put it, and that we may say what is happening by appealing to the doctrine of transsubstantiation, and that we do not thereby diminish the mysteriousness of the Real Presence. Transsubstantiation is pretty mysterious too, when you get right down to it.

There are some things, however, that are mysterious in a much more mundane way. It is a mystery to me, for example, why there are eight hot dog buns in a package of buns but 12 hot dogs in a package of hot dogs. I suppose it may have something to do with getting us to buy more of one or the other of these useless commodities, but I'm not interested in speculating about what the actual reason might be.

In between the Great Mysteries like the Real Presence and the uselessly mundane mysteries of the hot dog bun to hot dog ratios, there are some mysteries that seem rather mundane but that may actually be obscuring something more important. The thing that has prompted me to think that there might be such a category of mysteriousness, and indeed to write this entry, is this entry in Jim Tucker's blog Dappled Things. Tucker cites, apparently with some approval, a paper on the topic of tyrannicide in the 13th century. Now, Tucker basically describes himself as a libertarian of sorts, and tyrannicide has always been a popular topic among certain branches of libertarianism, so it should come as no surprise to find that this paper would seem interesting to a libertarian. But when that libertarian is also a priest who has not only come out against the death penalty but who also has criticized Pat Robertson for calling for a "hit" against a Central American, ummm, tyrant, well, that presents something of a mystery.

I must confess to a rather guilty pleasure, since I have something of a love-hate relationship with Tucker's blog: I love to hate it. I do feel rather guilty about hating it, because many of the folks whose opinions I value very highly, such decent and intelligent folks as Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations and Kathy Hutchins of Gathering Goat Eggs and the Reform Club, seem to like Dappled Things enough to blogroll it.

Blogrolling, obviously, does not always entail an endorsement. My own blogroll reflects only those blogs that I read and at least enjoy but often admire, but others put just about anything into their blogrolls. De gustibus non disputandum est. When I first started blogging, I noticed Dappled Things because my favorite blogs linked to it, and at first I did like it, and I blogrolled it--at least for a while. But over time I found the mysteriousness a little too, well, mysterious. My first discomfort came with Tucker's mysterious love for the Confederacy. There are lots of folks who mistakenly romanticize the culture of the Confederacy, but some do so more than others, and in some cases the romanticization borders on the pathological. I have a colleage here in the philosophy department at Ohio University, for example--who is also a self-proclaimed libertarian--who argued with me at great length over whether it was really morally right to bring an end to slavery by force. I agreed with him that the use of force was problematic, "But," I said, "At least, in the end, there was a positive outcome." His reply: "Well, for the blacks, anyway."

His view, apparently, is that the means that were employed to bring an end to slavery brought about a significant loss of "liberty" (whose? I imagine he means the propertied classes) that was simply not worth it. For me, the attitude that says giving up habeas corpus temporarily during time of war is too high a price to pay for freeing the slaves, is, in a word, mysterious. I can't even imagine having that kind of value system. In fact, the President is actually granted the right to temporarily suspend habeas corpus by the pre-war Constitution, so I'm not really even sure what the beef is supposed to be. But surely there can be no doubt that the South, in resorting to war, was endorsing a might-makes-right criterion that is thoroughly inimical not merely to republican government but to Christian moral theory.

This is just one example, of course, and I'm not trying to suggest that Tucker has the same attitude towards that issue that my colleague has, though from what he writes in his blog I have every reason to believe that he does. But if we combine this misplaced nostalgia for the Bad Old Days with an attitude towards the Jews that is, well, very mysterious indeed, then one begins to see why I continue to read DT with something like a morbid fascination, always wondering what new mystery will greet me there.

Some mysteries, like the Real Presence, are extremely Good Things. Others, like the ratios of buns to dogs, are trivial and meaningless. Others, like the dappled patterns of moral reasoning that one finds in some blogs, are probably more matters for amusement than concern, but the problem is that one just can't know whether what is going on is just due to the typical sort of goofiness that comes from Generation X's inablility to think things through in chunks more complex than an MTV video, or due to some more sinister cause. Fortunately, I've always enjoyed a good mystery. Perhaps if I keep reading, the answer to this one will become apparent. Or maybe I should just content myself with the fact that mysteriousness happens, and stop worrying about how it happens.

Paris on the Hocking

I haven't blogged in a while because my wife and son have absconded to Paris for the week, leaving me and Olivia to fend for ourselves amidst the debauchery of Athens. To judge from recent news reports, Paris, too, seems to be in the throes of debauchery, but it seems to me that if one must live in debauched times one could do worse than to be living them in Paris.

We can't compete with Paris any more than we can compete with Harvard, but we can think we can. While Paris is having riots in the banlieux we're having protests against the "Bush Regime." There's an organization here in Athens--perhaps it's national, I don't know--that is trying to get Bush impeached. I suppose it's some sort of payback for the whole Clinton thing, but one can't help but notice that the difference between conservatives and progressive appears to be that conservatives try to remove presidents who have committed high crimes and misdemeanors, while progressives try to remove presidents who don't see the world the way they do. Perhaps in the mind of a progressive, not seeing the world in a particular way just is a high crime and misdemeanor.

Whatever. These folks are starting off their campaign with a protest against the local army recruiter, whose office just happens to be at the end of my street. The plan of the protesters was to have a "walk-out" yesterday at 10:30, which means that anybody who wanted to join in the "protest" against the army recruiting office was supposed to walk out of class right at 10:30 (all classes here run from ten past the hour to the top of the next hour, so the walk-out was guaranteed to disrupt classes), head to the recruitment office, and block access to it. It's not quite the same thing as shooting pistolets at the gendarmerie, but it's a lot more excitement than we're used to around here. Shades of '68.

News of the "walk-out" reminded me of a sign I saw on the campus gate last week. It was a large banner, actually, with the letters SDS very large upon it, followed by smaller writing that said "Students Deserve Safety." In my day SDS stood for Students for a Democratic Society, but of course even way back in the day the students who belonged to SDS didn't really believe in democracy--not really--anymore than the students here believe in it. If you believe in democracy you accept it as at least possible that people will disagree with you about some things, and there may be more of such people than of people who agree with you, and you will have to put up with that until you can persuade the other people to change their minds. And if you believe in democracy then you believe in changing people's minds with arguments and reasons, not with force. Forcing people to stay out of a recruitment center is not an act of democracy any more than burning down the recruitment center (as used to happen in my day).

Some people appear to have forgotten this feature of democratic society: there are times when you must be content to wait your turn. If you don't like the president, you wait until the next election and vote him out of office, you don't invent imaginary "crimes" and "misdemeanors" to accuse him of and remove him by that sort of force. The petulant and pre-adolescent attitude of some "progressives" is much the same today as it was in my day. These puerile children don't want to wait their turn, and they take it as an affront to their dignity to find that there are actually people out there who don't see the world the way they do. In fact, they get rather angry at such folks, thinking them strange, at best, or evil and immoral at worst.

Here's a rather striking example. I have a neighbor who teaches at the university. He and his wife have lived peacefully with us on this street for nine years. They often used to walk past my house while my family worked or played in the yard, and we would always exchange friendly greetings. We would chat. They even had us over to their house for dinner.

Then came the presidential election of 2004. We were raking leaves in our yard one day while they walked past, and they mentioned that they were getting excited about the election. My wife said that we were too, but jokingly added that our source of excitement was probably somewhat different from theirs, because of course we knew their politics. They were puzzled because, of course, they are typical academics who assume that anybody with a brain will be liberal. They were shocked to learn that we were planning to vote Republican. They haven't spoken to us since. At first we didn't really understand what was happening--I would pass one or the other of them on the street or on campus, and they would pointedly ignore me or look the other way. I mentioned it to my wife, who said that she had experienced the same thing. Finally we just plain asked them if something was going on, and the reponse was: "The election has been painful for a lot of people."

Being angry because other people aren't just like you is an attitude that I have come to expect in my four-year old daughter, for whom the whole world revolves around her passions and desires. Over the years I've come to expect it from self-styled progressives as well. I don't think my neighbors will try to burn down my house, of course, but it does not surprise me at all to find them having a "walk-out" from our previous relationship and boycotting us altogether. That is the progressive way: treat your enemies as though they are evil, rather than just different.

Don't be silly, someone might say. They don't think you're evil, they just don't want to talk to you any more than you want to talk to them. There are two reasons why this isn't an accurate description. First, most progressive actually admit to thinking that those who disagree with them are evil. Paul Halsall, a professor of medieval studies at North Florida State University, has said that all Republicans are "either stupid or evil", and virtually all of the graduate students in philosophy here at OU say much the same thing. Second, it simply is not the case that conservatives find the company of progressives distasteful. After all, I work in academia and virtually all of my friends are progressives, and I enjoy talking to them very much. I don't mind at all that they see the world differently than I do, even though I think they see it wrongly. Some of our conversations are heated, but on my own part it is never personal. I'm sure the same is true of some progressives, just as there are some conservatives who are not as open towards progressives as I am, but in my own experience there is a clear difference in the overall numbers involved here.

Are conservatives more mature than progressives? One doesn't want to generalize, but if I had to go on my own personal experience, nearly 30 years in academia has taught me that adolescent behavior is far more common on the left than on the right. So I'm not the least bit surprised to find students who think that walking out of classes is a good way to "learn" about politics, or that there are actually professors here at OU who urged their students to walk out of classes, excusing it as a "learning" experience. You'd have to be very puerile indeed to think that doing something stupid but emotionally satisfying is actually a learning experience.

I can't claim to be free of puerile instincts of my own, however. My wife and son will be returning on Sunday, and I can't wait to ask my son how one says "There are a lot of people on the balcony" in French.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...