Monday, March 23, 2015

On the common good

One of the characteristics of our time is the exaltation of individual rights to  the exclusion of consideration for the common good.  Actually, this explanation is a bit misleading, for today we make no account for the common good at all.  We simply assume that it will be secured along with our ever-expanding set of rights.

There are two reasons for this hesitation to speak of the common good.  In the first place, if the starting point is that our rights are limitless, the common good can only serve as a restriction.  This makes us wary.  Implicit in this is the assumption that unbridled autonomy leads to happiness, while anything that opposes it causes us unhappiness.

This is a mistake.  Traffic lights do impede our ability to drive wherever we may please, but only superficially.  In reality, the lights provide the modicum of order necessary for drivers (and cyclists and walkers) to thrive. 

Secondly, we cannot speak of a common good because that idea has been obliterated by secularism and the failure of the enlightenment project.  We do not have a single common good based on a shared understanding of what our humanity means.  We have wildly divergent and incompatible views of man that lead to incompatible notions of the common good.

Consider the debate surrounding the current hot topic of the culture wars: gay marriage.  Proponents insist that the right to marriage is self-evident.  As heterosexuals may marry, so too may homosexuals.  Failure to grant this is to deny gays their rights.  The common good is secured when both heterosexuals and homosexuals have the right to be married.

Opponents maintain that not only is this at odds with the institution of marriage, it is inconsistent with the common good.  For the family is the foundation of society.  One of the principle reasons the state concerns itself with marriage at all is because of consideration of the child, who has a right to his mother and his father.  Allowing gays to marry obscures this essential point, while permitting them to adopt obliterates it.  For the children raised by gays, however lovingly and however successfully, cannot meet this essential obligation.

My point here is not so much that gay marriage is a mistake, though I think that it is.  Rather, it is that we come no closer to achieving that common good by creating additional rights which must be granted.  Every additional right only serves to increase the confusion, for as long as competing ethical frameworks exist, there will be disputes over whether a right is consistent with the common good provided by that framework.

The solution would seem to be secession of some sort: this Catholic community has these particular rules, while this Mormon one has others; and the hipsters in Brooklyn espouse different mores to achieve their good while Silicon Valley posits another.  From a practical point of view, this would present some challenges, but it seems a workable and peaceable solution.

What prevents us, I won't say from taking this step, but from even giving it consideration, is that we fail to recognize the limitations in our own framework.  However passionately we believe in it, we will not be living in a culture either wholly secular or wholly religious any time soon.  Nor will we reduce the amount of infighting between the various secular philosophies or religious ones.  (And I suspect that the latter only appear to more intractable than the former.) 

Both the right and the left seem to have missed something rather substantial.  Electing a Republican President won't return the country to its Christian roots any more than electing a Democratic one caused all Christians to apostatize.  Politics is not completely ineffective--as proponents of gay marriage are well aware--but neither is it deterministic.  Culture, what's left of it, remains.  And it will prove, as it always does, a most influential factor.

From this standpoint, our energy should be devoted towards preserving and rebuilding our culture.  Politically, where we can we should hope for a truce.  If our nation cannot be so governed as to be ordered towards the common good as we understand it, it might at least be possible to be left free to work out that common good on a smaller scale. 

What will convert the culture isn't politicians passing the right laws but families living moral lives in the midst of decadence.  If we can't talk about the good, perhaps others will recognize it when they see it lived.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Identity as Everything

From the sordid xojane, a creature called K. T. Bradford throws down a challenge:

What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

(Editorial note: cis is a nonsense term meant to identify, and thereby disparage, those who are not confused about their sex.) 

Back to the piece: Bradford is to be cheered for the frankness of her bigotry.  For while she identifies the privileged victim groups, she also
notes the object of her odium: straight white males.  It is evidently easier to simply come out and name the object of her hatred, rather than enumerate each and every oppressed class--and risk the ire of anyone who has been left off of this ever growing list.

(As an exercise to the reader, it is easy to replace "straight white males" with any other group and reveal the screed as racist and sexist twaddle.  For instance: "Essentially: no gay, black males"; "Essentially, no Jewesses"; "Essentially: no short fat Democrats", etc. etc.  Fish in a barrel.)

But this article is instructive for another reason.  It illustrates the narrowness of what passes for the leftist mind.  Here's Bradford:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

The poor thing is such a delicate flower.  Exposure to crime think causes her to all but wilt; she is scarcely capable of turning even one more page.

Now, I read widely.  And unlike Bradford, I consider it important to challenge myself by reading new things, even books with which I might not agree.  In the same way, I try new foods; but I also compel myself to eat vegetables.  Such discipline is an indispensable part of growth.  Just as eating well keeps one healthy, reading well prevents one's mind from atrophying.

Of course, one may also read for pleasure.  There's nothing wrong with doing so, any more than it is objectionable to eat dessert.  But a sense of proportion must be maintained, for while physical nourishment is necessary, so too is knowledge. 

There is a narrowness in Bradford's reading habits.  But the narrowness also explains her imbecilic recommendation.  To Bradford, every book is a manifestation of its author's identity and is entertaining according to the manner in which the reader relates to that identity. 

Consider: books that push her out of her comfort zone cause her to rage-quit.  And as she notes: "Cutting that one demographic [Jews--I kid--straight white males, obviously] out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories." 

Now, this only makes sense if the identity of an author correlates strongly with the sort of story that author tells.  And for the stories Bradford likes to read--those as inextricably tied up with identity as she is obsessed with it--no doubt that correlation is strong.   But that's not the case for good literature, which is always more than a mere reflection of the author's viewpoints.

H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling were straight white males--worse, they were both Englishmen.  Yet the former wrote science fiction, while the latter wrote adventure stories.  This was no doubt because Wells spent most of his childhood in space, whereas Kipling was raised by a kindly, if talkative, panther.

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.  Beatrix Potter wrote wonderful children's stories, though it is a pity that she is always injecting her identity into the goings on of Peter Cottontail.  Likewise A. A. Milne, who was clearly--quickly checks Wikipedia--a man. 

One is tempted to pity people like Bradford.  But they do too much damage to be left to their own misery.  It is one thing to read narcissistic nonsense or to write rubbish which no one reads, but she dares to tell us to judge a book based on her silly ideological litmus test.  Life is too short to prevent oneself from reading good books, especially on such a ridiculous pretext.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Political realism

Maisie Ward holds the distinction of being the official biographer of G. K. Chesterton.  In her book, she recounts the epochal meeting between her subject and the great Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc. 

From this tryst, in Chesterton's words, "emerged the quadruped, the twiformed monstor Mr. Shaw has nicknamed the Chesterbelloc."  (From Chesterton's Autobiography, quoted in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Maisie Ward, p. 128)

Ward then offers an explanation of the manner in which Belloc influenced Chesterton:

"Belloc himself told me he thought the chief thing he had done for Chesterton when they first met was to open his eyes to reality... [Chesterton] was in fact the young man he himself was later to describe as knowing all about politics and nothing about politicians... Belloc then could teach Chesterton a certain realism about politics--which meant a certain cynicism about politicians."  (Ward, p. 129)

Interestingly enough, despite this realism, Belloc served four years in Parliament from 1906 to 1910.  This experience did little more than confirm his contempt for cynical politicians.  As he wrote to a friend during 1907, "I cannot stand the House... the incapacity of the country is incredible!  I can see little object in the House of Commons except to advertise work.  It does not govern; it does not even discuss.  It is completely futile." (Old Thunder, Joseph Pearce, p. 109)

One has little doubt how either Chesterton or Belloc would view the American political system of today.  In fact, on a trip to the StatesAmerica, the former observed: "It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged."

Whether we like it or not, the political system if of immense importance.  It is not trivial whether the Federal Reserve decides to debase the currency so as to bailout the banks.  It is a matter of some significance with which countries we decide to go to war--or what might be a shorter list, with which countries we decide to remain at peace.  When the Government decides to create a new department--like Homeland Security--or overhaul some significant aspect of the economy--such as healthcare, education, or what passes for immigration policy--this will have an impact. 

Sadly, our influence on the powers that be are slim.  If this is cynicism, it is one grounded in reality.  We may hope and pray that the Republican Party, despite its brave hesitation, may finally do something about abortion, but we should temper our expectations.  Time and money spent on national causes yields a very poor return.


But there is room for some optimism as government becomes more local, a point Chesterton and Belloc understood well.  In this, abortion is instructive, for two reasons.  First, because if the Republicans won't even try to limit an abomination like abortion, they're not going to lift a finger to mitigate smaller evils.  Second, because all the progress being made to eliminate abortion has taken place locally.  We're winning.  It's getting so bad that soon even the Senate might notice.

We should never surrender to evil, but we should remember the lesson Belloc imparted to Chesterton: "a certain realism about politics--which meant a certain cynicism about politicians." 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On Facebook

I recently made the decision to delete my Facebook account.  Deactivate, I should say, because the company keeps one's records should one decide to reactivate one's account--or should it decide to sell the information about their users to advertisers. 

When deactivating one's account, they ask for the reason.  I told them Facebook is inimical to civilization.  Although this explanation does have about it a whiff of the hyperbolic, it's not far from the truth.

As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy:

For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not well for man to be alone." The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent.

The brilliance of Facebook is in the way it taps into this basic human need while simultaneously leaving that need unsatisfied.  We don't feel more connected with someone after viewing a picture on his wall or reading a post of his, even while Facebook pretends to grant this wish.  And since we remain unfulfilled, we eagerly look for another picture or post.  Ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

There is another way in which Facebook is devilish, though in this respect its far from unique: it feeds our drive for novelty.  Our age is obsessed with what is new, and our media reflect this obsession.  Listen to people discuss their favorite things.  Whether the topic is movies or television shows, restaurants or beers, the bulk of the conversation will be devoted to the newest thing.  And the praise of that thing will involve little more than a confirmation of its newness.

The Internet is powered by novelty, and Facebook is no exception.  The news feed carries with it endless streams of triviality.  The very term news feed reveals its purpose: we return to find out what else is new.  Even if the last few stories have been dull, that which has yet to appear will be novel and could be of interest.  No matter how many times we have been disappointed, we scroll or click to see that next new thing.

There is nothing wrong with novelty, so long as it properly proportioned.  But our age worships this false idol and forgets that upon which our, indeed all, civilization is based: what T.S. Eliot--and Russell Kirk--called the permanent things: "the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations". 

Understand that here Facebook is not the villain.  Nor, for that matter, is the Internet.  There is nothing to prevent people from posting worthy things on the Internet--like chapters from Orthodoxy for instance.  People may even link to these sorts of things from Facebook.  But given the relationship between our age and novelty, it is imprudent to hope that the technology will work against the Zeitgeist.  Rather the opposite, as the thirst for novelty can never really be quenched. 

If we wish to keep what is left of our civilization, we must set aside the novel and rekindle our affection for the permanent things.  Though not salvific, they are indispensable. 

They're also more rewarding.  Reading one of Plato's dialogues and discussing it with a close friend is far more satisfying than shouting at an Internet companion over his position regarding something some fool politician said.  Anyway, it's worth a try.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Nihilism all the way down

Philosopher Justin McBrayer has an illuminating piece over in The New York Times with the somewhat lengthy, but revealing title: Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

He open his essay with a provocative question: "What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests?"

He points out that "philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture."

It is a clear indication of our decadence that those students who are deemed fit for college enter with less moral education than the dimmest barbarian.  This is not by accident: it is the deliberate policy of the schools:

"When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes."

McBrayer notes the fallacy:

First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are
either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

This is the "dictatorship of relativism" of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke in his last homily before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

I offer three observations about this sorry state of affairs.

First, although it seems as if all moral claims will be treated equally--that is, as mere opinions--it is not so.  Every society needs some moral code.  Ours is provided by our elites and their puppets in the media.  They will ostracize our beliefs as mere opinion.  But they will present their worldview as accepted fact.

Consider: is it really questionable whether the child in a womb is a living, breathing human being?  Is it actually a matter of opinion that only a man and a woman are capable of being joined in marriage, and that this union--and only this sort of union--may produce a child?  But these questions are never asked.  The media has no interest in such questions.  And neither do the graduates of our universities, bereft as they are of any moral sense.

Second, such people are incapable of receiving the Good News.  They do not even know that there is goodness!  Our primary objective is to convince them of this.  Before we can make Christians, first we must have pagans.  Only then may they be evangelized.  We should not despair of conversion, but we should recognize the enormity of our task--and pray accordingly.

Third, Christian parents must do everything in their power to remove their children from the schools.  A Christian teacher, if his faith is strong, may be able to withstand the nihilism of the schools and prove a useful bulwark against it.  But no student is that strong.  To hand a child over to be told day in and day out that moral truths do not exist, and yet ask him to maintain that is does, is foolish in the extreme. The children of the light shall have no part with darkness.

Monday, February 09, 2015

World War T

With the Supreme Court poised to sanction the incoherence known as gay marriage, the left has begun to wage what Steve Sailer calls World War T

In light of that development, here is a cogent take on the latest absurdity:

Our mental faculties, like our physical ones, are ordered toward various ends. Among these ends is the attainment of truth. To this extent, it is perfective of our mental faculties to recognize how we truly are (and thus apprehend a truth). It is for this reason that we can make sense of mental disorders such as anorexia nervosa as disorders: they involve persons' having persistent, false beliefs about their identity or how they really are. In the case of the anorexic, someone who is dangerously underweight believes falsely (but tenaciously) that he is really overweight. It would be a proper procedure of medicine, then, for a therapist to help an anorexic individual to do away with his anorexia, restoring the individual’s mental faculties to their properly functioning state.

Well put.  The entire premise of mental illness presupposes an objective good that exists outside of the patient's subjective frame of reference.  If my uncle insists that he is King Henry VIII that does not make him so.  Nor would we be doing him any favors if we went along with the conceit.  If he is otherwise a well-functioning member of society, we may not press the point too hard, but that would not mean we had granted the argument.

The analogy with anorexia is a helpful one because those who fight against us in World War T positively loathe the Henry VIII argument.  To sane individuals, they are seen as analogous, but they only get so far as the comparison with one who is mentally ill before erupting into a paroxysm of rage. 

No wonder they have such trouble thinking clearly.  All those emotions are always getting in the way. 

To continue:

But what are we to make of this “gender reassignment” surgery? Insofar as such a surgical procedure involves the intentional damaging and mutilating of otherwise perfectly functioning bodily faculties by twisting them to an end toward which they are not ordered, such a thing cannot, in principle, possibly be considered a medical procedure. And because love compels us to seek the good for another, it is thus a grave evil to condone such surgical procedures.

This is also well articulated, and dovetails nicely with what I posted about previously.  As Chesterton once put it, "There are some desires that are not desirable." 

Read the rest of the piece.  It's all quite good.

Anyway, this war for the transgendered is only going to accelerate.  If these coherent arguments aren't liable to be taken seriously in our degenerate times, it nonetheless profits us to be familiar with them, both for our own edification, and on the off chance we meet someone who has yet to be taken in by what passes for the left's system of thought.

Teleology

In my civilian life, I'm a software developer.  Those who lack proficiency with computers assume that I'm something of a wizard.  Alas, I do not possess any magical powers. 

When you distil it down, I am paid to solve problems.  I do so in a very specific way: by translating the requirements of the business into pieces of code that can be repeatedly executed by a computer. 

It might seem obvious that to solve a problem, one must first define it.  The business is really good at creating a wish list: they desire an application with such-and-such a set of features.  But, in the midst of all of the excitement about features, they often lose sight of the problem they are trying to solve.  We may end up creating an application with all the bells and whistles which nonetheless fails to meet the needs of the users.

So we find, curiously enough, that the end is a very good place to start.  It is the same with ethics.  Before we can determine whether something is good or evil, we must know the end to which man ought to be directed.

As obvious as this seems, that's not the way we speak about ethics.  We speak not of ends, but means.  If we wish to engage in a particular act, we will insist that this behavior doesn't affect anyone else.  If we desire to sanction a particular act, we will appeal to some nebulous moral majority.  One wouldn't want to be caught on the wrong side of history.

For our purposes, it is not essential that I posit an entire teleology.  It is enough to insist that the good of man requires that he be alive.  Said otherwise, his life is a good.  In our decadent times, such a modest proposal might be considered controversial, but it will have to do for now.

It follows from this end that there are behaviours that are not conducive to the good of man, most obviously, suicide.  Some would insist that suicide "doesn't affect anyone else."  In most cases, this is a lie, but even if it were true, this behavior would still be a moral evil since it acts against the good of man.

This is the manner in which we ought to think about ethics, but it is not the way in which we do so.  As a result, our discussions fail to go anywhere.

Just as it is with ethics, so too with medicine.  We can only know if a pill is good if we know that it will work towards the good of man.  We can only recommend a procedure if we know that it too works towards that end.  Reducing fever is conducive to the end of man; terminating a pregnancy is not.

Now, there are procedures that go wrong, just as there are medicine that fail to work.  This is a separate point.  If the fever fails to come down, we must seek a more effective means to this end.

If we keep the necessity of the end in mind, we will improve our ability to minimize our confusion, be it in business, ethics, or medicine. 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Romney out

It appears that the Stupid Party will not be re-running the unelectable loser Mitt Romney in 2016:

On a ski lift high above the powdery slopes of Deer Valley, Utah, Mitt Romney made it clear: His quest for the White House, which had dominated nearly a decade of his life, was coming to a close.

The selling point for Romney was that he was "electable" in a way that his opponents were not.  This is the manner of things: the rich who bankroll the party coalesce behind a boring figure of no significant threat to the status quo.  Objections from the party rank and file are then brushed aside, for while the other candidates may have stronger credentials, they are, alas, not electable.

Romney could not run again because he had proven this argument false.  His only appeal was that he was thought to be a winner.  But he was not, so the Stupid Party has turned on to duller and more depressing things:

People were much more excited about Jeb [Bush] than Mitt,” said Ron Gidwitz, a Chicago financier who helped raise millions for Mr. Romney and allied groups in 2012. “Mitt ran twice before unsuccessfully. He’s a great guy. But winning is everything in this business.”

The elites are uniting behind another Bush. Heaven help us all. 

On the one hand, Jeb is not his brother's keeper, and so can not be held accountable for the fact that George W. was such a disastrous president.  (And to the holdouts who insist he was a good president, the current president is the best proof to the contrary.  George W. Bush was so bad the country elected Barack Obama--twice!--rather than endure another Republican president.)

On the other hand, I've had enough of the Bushes for my lifetime.  And enough Clintons for that matter.  What does it say about our democratic republic that, since 1988, only eight years will have seen someone other than Bush or Clinton in the white house?

In a well functioning organization, the most important positions are filled by the most impressive members of that organization.  Applying this theory to the present topic, three possible conclusions present themselves.

1) The most well-qualified people in our republic of over three hundred million people just happen to come from one of two families (three, if we count the Obama's);

2) The Presidency is not all that important, and so can be handled by mediocrities with little harm;

3) Our republic is highly dysfunctional.

I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014 book breakdown

It seems that getting engaged, planning a wedding, getting married, travelling to half a dozen other weddings, and dutifully supporting one's wife through the sickness which accompanies pregnancy reduces the number of books one reads.  But joy is more than ample recompense for books not read.

I read a scant forty-five books this year.  If I remain on the right edge of the bell curve for our mostly illiterate nation, still, this is less than impressive for me.  Actually, it's truer to say that this is a harbinger of things to come.  I am informed that one does not read serious literature to infants, though perhaps exceptionally precocious toddlers will pine for that pleasure.

Now, onto the recommendations:

An Anxious Age - Joseph Bottum: I reviewed it here.  His book helps us to understand that which is rotten in America.  Hint to the secular sociologists: the matter is a spiritual one.

The Quest for Community - Robert Nisbet: something of a conservative classic, Nisbet notes that human beings long for community while the State undermines this desire.  We have come a long way from the country Tocqueville observed.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman: beautiful book.  I read a lot of history, so much that I forget that historians aren't always very good at writing.  Her prose is gorgeous and her theme is well-chosen.  The Great War was human drama par excellence before it devolved into years of futile trench warfare.

The Ballad of the White Horse - G. K. Chesterton: wonderful poem.  We read too little poetry.  We read even less of the epic sort.  Such is life in the age of Twitter.  Taken in parts, even a computer programmer should be able to appreciate this type of greatness.

2015 Reading List

Currently Reading
Capital in the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Piketty
Essays (Vol. II of III) - Michel de Montaigne
The Interior Castle - St. Teresa of Avila
G. K. Chesterton - Maisie Ward

Read
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives - Pope Benedict XVI
Front Porch Tales - Philip Gulley
That Hideous Strength - C. S. Lewis
Essays (Vol. I of III) - Michel de Montaigne
The Culture We Deserve - Jacques Barzun
The Restoration of Christian Culture - John Senior
All Roads - Dale Ahlquist
1776 - David McCullough

* Denotes reread