Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More on morality

The conversation continues apace:

The idea is that, because human beings are the source of all value, they themselves possess an absolute, unconditional value. It is impossible to set a price upon that without which "price" is inconceivable. My Hegel-inspired emphasis on society as the unconditioned good is just an extension of this Kantian insight. The two arguments share a structure and are complimentary because society subsists only in and through its individual members who subsist in their autonomy only in and through their society.

Again, I'm not familiar with Kant--for shame!--but since he was a theist, wouldn't he claim that God imbues humans with value? I'm asking only because I'm curious. You'll notice I've tried to concentrate on the parts of your response that highlight matter we've previously neglected to discuss.

It's perfectly possible to ground rights in something changeable, like social history, so long as it can be seen to change in accordance with some kind of logic or reason. The legitimacy of rights claims, then, could be assessed according to the rationality of the socio-historical transformations from which they emerge, where the ideal of freedom or human flourishing provides the benchmark for rationality. But I suggest this rather tentatively, and it would require a great deal of elaboration in any case.

You need not elaborate. But I'm curious, again--and feel free to but note the musing without responding to it--about how our rights might "change in accordance with some kind of logic or reason". Or rather, I'm unaware of how we would be able to tell how such rights changed if we couldn't determine the inner logic that compelled them to do so. Just some scattered thoughts.

On a semi-related topic, I'm not sure how familiar you are with C. S. Lewis. His book The Abolition of Man provides a short but sufficient look at what he calls the Tao--what I would call the Natural Law--and what it means for the development of a system of ethics. If you stumble across a copy, it's well worth a read.

On the contrary, this is precisely why we need democracy, transparency, and lively political debate. To eliminate government would be a disaster. Our well-being depends upon too many socio-economic systems and institutions of far too great a complexity for any individual to manage alone. These systems do improve our lives and provide us with real freedom. Yet, as they become increasingly global and interconnected, they also present an increasing amount of danger. But this is an argument for more, better government to responsibly promote our interests.

I very much disagree. Men, alas, not being angels, require government as a necessary evil, not so much to prevent man from doing evil, as to provide a system of redress when the inevitable occurs. "The government that governs least governs best" not because man behaves well without government, but because too often, rather than check the evil of the men under its control, government creates still greater evils. It's worth pointing out that, during the bloody twentieth century, a man was far, far more likely to be killed by his own government than at the hands of his fellow citizens. My argument here is based on my understanding of human nature, so it is informed by my Catholicism, but we need not get too far into what is essentially a political debate.

Well, you're right that I won't tell you what specific actions you need to take in order to have an ethical life, because I believe that there are many different ways to lead such a life.

I think it worth pointing out that the multitudinous saints lived lives that were often very different from one another; yet all lived quite ethically, at least insofar as the Church is concerned.

And, in my view, my position fairs rather better than yours with reference to the target metaphor. It is much easier to form a concrete conception of the good life, and to see that it can only be achieved with and for other people in just institutions, than it is to form an action-guiding conception of God.

I think you're forgetting that we Christians have revelation to help us in guiding our actions. One could certainly claim that revelation is bunk, or counter-intuitive, but it is the height of absurdity to suggest that the Church would be unable to form a code of ethics whereby the good life may be achieved. Think of an ethical dilemma, and the Church has thought about it; think about a profession, and, excluding those devoted to evil, the Church has had a member who has excelled at it.

PJ: I don't expect that we will ever eliminate evil -- and so we must always have some mechanism for managing its presence as best we can, when it appears -- but I don't see how this problem has any kind of foundational importance. (Additionally, some people do dispute your claim about the universality of our understanding of evil -- the argument of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, for instance, is intended to debunk this prejudice.)

Pepin has recommended that particular tome to me, so I hope to get to it eventually.

As to evil: one must have an understanding about what it is and why it has come to be so that one may minimized it and its effects. No? I have found that the doctrine of original sin and the story of the fall provides an excellent explanation for the existence of evil.

It's not possible to explain a positive phenomenon with reference to a non-existent entity, so Chesterton's atheist is a strawman. In any case, I'm not sure there is evil in all of us, at least not according to my earlier definition of evil as seeking to cause suffering for its own sake. Perhaps you can explain your position here?

I think the atheist explanation for evil would go something like this: since there is no omnipotent being to prevent evil from occurring, we're forced to endure it; if there were a God, He would have prevented evil from existing in the first place.

If we define evil as the causing of suffering for its own sake, then, going back to the example of the cat, and the fact that human beings torture the animal simply because they can, we must admit that something has gone dreadfully wrong with man. Now, I don't know if you've ever done anything evil, but I know that I have; in fact, I continue to do evil, despite my insistence--like Peter's--that I would never do such a thing. I'm not sure who else to blame for my sins unless it is my own miserable self.

This is completely consistent with my eudaimonistic position, as should be abundantly clear from what I've written heretofore. Notice too that I carefully specified that suffering is not a merely physical notion, but that the worst kind of suffering is spiritual, i.e., having to do with human freedom, with our inability to freely articulate and pursue our own conception of the good life.

I don't want to rehash things again, but you're contradicting yourself. I don't object to the fact that our inability to "freely articulate and pursue our own conception of the good life" may cause suffering. Nor do I insist that self-immolation may be a mite unpleasant. What I cannot understand is how you can claim that a woman who sincerely wishes to end her life is ethically prohibited from doing so. I cannot, for the life of me, see how self-actualization can be a "good" if it can be countered--seemingly at random--by an appeal to another "good". You need not attempt to explain this again since I'm clearing not getting it; only know that this is probably going to be a rather large sticking point for a number of people as it has been for me.

To the first part of this, all I can say is that I'll throw in my lot with democratic action over prayer any day (and you accuse me of wishful thinking!).

The phrase "wishful thinking" springs insensibly to mind when you expect democracy in the Middle East to bring about positive change. The brethren of those in Iraq have elected a panoply of terroristic groups to power. Purple fingers notwithstanding, I severely doubt that the Iraqis will prove better judges of character.

I don't expect you to believe in the power of prayer, but the saints, of which I have previously spoke, have all been canonized after prayers in their name led to miracles--a phenomenon I have no doubt you'd deny. Recently, the dedication of Russia to Mary by the Popes was one cause some credit to the fall of the Soviet Union, a fall which only seemed inevitable in retrospect, and which was undoubtedly heightened by the actions of the Polish Catholic group Solidarity.

Christ was insistent that His wisdom would seem foolish to the world. And so it goes.

The second part I find more alarming. The idea seems to be to provoke (and disavow) violence in order to spread an ideology that would otherwise, on its own merits, be rejected? (The more Catholic the world is, the more ethical, the closer we all are to our One True Purpose.) The reasoning here strikes me as dangerously close to that of the 9-11 hijackers. I don't expect I have to ask, after that accusation, but anything you could do to clarify your position here would be most helpful.

My reference to martyrdom was merely a very safe prediction of what will inevitably come should Christians attempt to evangelize the Muslim world. I do not support our President and his quixotic War on Terror, but as a student of history, I am less than impressed with Islam's influence on the world--even as I respect it as the most serious alternative to Christianity. Islam is an inherently violent faith, and one that refused to tolerate dissidents. Just ask Salman Rushdie. Christians are currently being martyred in post-invasion Iraq, and I have little doubt that a number of missionaries would suffer the same fate. Nonetheless, for the Church, such offerings prove propitious.

Thus far, the Muslim world has been impervious to conversion. One reason is that any apostate of Islam is condemned to death, but another is the inherent irrationality of the religion. In the Regensberg address, Pope Benedict drew ire for suggesting that Islam was being irrational when it insisted on using the sword to spread the faith. Quoting "the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus", the Pope noted: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

He then added: "The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."

In short, I do not seek martyrdom, either for myself, or for members of the Church. Nor do I believe that the Catholic faith require the sword to spread. But martyrdom may be required if we are to produce fruit in the Islamic world. Who knows where the Church would be without Diocletian''s persecutions.

Be careful, too, in conflating martyrdom with suicide. Missionaries who are killed preaching the Good News are worlds apart from those who fly planes into buildings to strike at the Great Satan.

This comes very close to some of my more general practical/ethical/political objections to religion. It seems to me any time a group of people think that they are in touch with a super-human truth and thereby endowed with a transcendent purpose, that jihadist and Inquisition-style projects begin to look alarming rational. After all, if you really believe that our immortal souls are at stake, or that you are doing the Work of the Almighty, a few human lives looks like an acceptable price to pay (however regrettable it may be that they declined your impassioned appeals to convert, refused to see the truth, etc.).

The religions of the world have undoubtedly caused a certain amount of evil. These are not to be excused or ignored. That said, while your argument is theoretically sound, the reality is that religious crimes have been infrequent. It is telling, in fact, that the Spanish Inquisition is one of the crimes for which Christianity must repeatedly answer. While the excesses should not be forgotten and must be condemned, I can only conclude that it is mark of the liberality of the Faith that an institution which led to 3,230 deaths over a span of over 350 years tops the list of scandals of the age. (The statistic comes from Henry Kamen's book, The Spanish Inquisition, which I heartily recommend to anyone who wishes to understand the topic.)

The brief retort, then, is that while possessing the Word of God might theoretically cause one to force men to believe, the Church has--thankfully--seldom resorted to force. Conversion, like learning, does not suffer compulsion. I can no more force you to become a believing Catholic than I can get you to profess that the sky is purple. My only hope is to explain that, while the Catholic Faith can never be reached by unaided reason, it is perfectly compatible with rationality. God's Grace must suffice for the rest.

One other point bears mentioning. The twentieth century witnessed a number of dictators--from Hitler to Pol Pot, Stalin to Mao--who attempted to remake mankind in their own image. None professed a belief in revealed truth, but all committed heinous crimes nonetheless. The importance seems to lie, not on what men believe to be truth--though this plays some role--but on their views of the value of their fellow human beings. It is also, I think, a caution against placing unchecked power in the hands of any one man.

Your second claim shocks me. Can you explain why you think that democracy (or universal suffrage) is "among the silliest of the ideas advanced by humankind"? I mean, what kind of government do you support? Where does the government get its authority if not from the will of the people to be governed? And how can anyone be assured that the interests of the people are served except by making one's case to them as a condition for holding office?

Let me first explain that when I'm speaking of democracy, I'm being a bit sloppy. Direct democracy strikes me as an intriguing idea--can you imagine trying to pass a budget in a nation of 300 million people, all voting over the Internet? When I spoke of democracy, I was referring to some form of representative government.

There are several flaws to this form of democracy. The first is that it provides a false pretext for governmental authority. In this pitiful presidential election of ours, we are again faced with a very poor selection of candidates. Nonetheless, the cretin that emerges victorious will use the "will of the people" to do all sorts of nefarious things. At least half the populace--myself included--doesn't even vote. The competition of two very similar parties may provide, in H. L. Mencken's phrase "the only really amusing form of government", but I can't see how the will of the people has anything to do with it.

The second is that democracy assumes that the unwashed masses have the foggiest idea of how to run a government. I firmly believe that all men are children of God, but that virtues should be spread evenly throughout the species strikes me as far too fabulous. History teaches that the number of people capable of producing a good government is small--perhaps ten or fifteen percent of the populace. Letting all and sundry vote is a sure recipe for disaster. As a libertarian, I can't help but chuckle when I recall that the first tenant of Mussolini's Fascist Manifesto was universal suffrage. Totalitarianism via democracy is the road on which we will travel.

I have thought too little on ideal government, since all of my suggestions are impractical, but I think I should like a monarchy. I am also reminded of Voltaire's ideal government--the statement may be spurious--a soft despotism tempered by the occasional assassination.

I concede no such thing. I claim simply that there are many ways to lead an ethical life, and that I do not presume, a priori, to know the conditions under which my way might be an improvement for anyone else. In any case, it's both easy and useless to pass judgment on other people, whatever their culture. The real challenge is to effect reform, and I think I have the conceptual framework, in terms of human flourishing and suffering, to make the case for improvement on an individual basis.

On this point I must staunchly disagree. It seems to me that one of the largest drawbacks to your philosophy is that it is only effective among a small group of well-read humanists, most of whom will be content to read books and avoid morally questionable endeavors. I have previously pointed out that atheism is but a layover on the way to paganism. Save for a few intellectual types, a Hegelian interpretation of Kant isn't going to sway the masses. As Joseph Knecht discovered in Herman Hesse's excellent The Glass Bead Game, whatever the virtues of humanism, it will always fall short in producing massive societal change.

As for the Church, she has produced her reform. Say what you will about the theoretical shortcomings of Catholicism, the empirical results are in. The middle ages of Europe can be called many things, but they were certainly of marked difference from the vast stretches of barbarism that surrounded the decadent Roman Empire.

Self-actualization is not "do what thou wilt." Furthermore, it is constrained by society primarily in the sense of being made possible by society, because it's only in terms of the language and practices handed down to me by my historical community that I can articulate a self-conception to actualize. Society, here, is not a force outside of the individual to which it could be opposed. Do you understand the point I'm trying to make here? It runs counter to some popular intuitions, but I think it's incredibly important to appreciate, philosophically. To your request, I still don't understand what you want in terms of lines or definitions beyond what I've already said. I just don't believe that the subject matter of ethics can be deduced a priori or catalogued exhaustively.

I think I'm beginning to understand, but it's a very different way of looking at things, so it will take me some time to contemplate.

I suppose I probably do. Truths have a "subjective ontology," which is just a fancy way of saying that they exist only in thought (even if their objects -- the content that makes them true -- often exist independently of whatever we may think). Since there was a time when there was no one thinking, and since there will be such a time again, we can say for this reason that there are no eternal truths. But I don't know if this is what Sartre meant. Why do you ask?

I ask because it came up in my reading, because I knew you had read Sartre, and because the idea of absolute unchangeable Truth is essential to my worldview.

In any case, I very much doubt they had our highly reflexive kind of moral consciousness.

The idea of an evolved morality makes little sense to me. I can see how we might take some time to abolish an evil practice, but I can't see how the morality of a caveman should differ fundamentally from mine, save in the instance of revelation. Aristotle was wiser than the caveman, but I see no reason why their morality should not have aligned.

Once again, I continue to enjoy the conversation. I thank you for your patience, and look forward to your response.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The coming faux-conservative defeat

A good friend sent this along, courtesy of Sean Hannity. This is his idea of what McCain needs to do in order to be President of the United States. Let's examine these points, shall we:

1) To be the Candidate of National security:
a) Victory in Iraq
b) Fully support NSA, Patriot act, tough interrogations, keeping Gitmo open
c) A Candidate that pledges to NOT demean our military while they are fighting for their Country. eg Harry Reid: "the surge has failed", "the war is lost"
d) Candidate that promises to ensure that our veterans can live out their lives in dignity.

Iraq cannot be won; more to the point, as polls demonstrate, it's a losing issue. Torturing terrorists and spying on Americans is not only immoral--by virtually every ethical standard imaginable--it's wholly ineffective. Point c) is irrelevant. The last one is a good point, but it would be better to simply stop sending the troops to die for pointless causes.

I note, too, that Hannity has listed National Security as the most important issue. But this has never been the raison d'etre of the Republicans, and one need look no further than point one to see why the GOP is heading for a beatdown of historic proportions in the fall.

2) The Candidate who pledges to oppose Appeasement:
a) The Candidate will oppose any and all efforts to negotiate with dictators of the world in places like Iran, Syria, N.Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela without "pre-conditions"

Negotiation is a necessary step in the diplomatic process. As Pat Buchanan has repeatedly pointed out, FDR negotiated with Stalin, and Nixon talked with Mao. I find it impossible to believe that any of today's third-rate dictators are in the same league as the two biggest tyrants in history.

3) The Candidate Pledges to support Tax CUTS, and fiscal responsibility:
a) The American people are NOT under taxed, Government Spends too much
b) The Candidate who Pledges to ELIMINATE and VOTE AGAINST ALL Earmarks
c) The Candidate pledges to BALANCE the budget

Funny how Hannity ran Ron Paul out of town for running on these very points. Of course, Ron also has a record of fiscal conservatism, which probably makes him unpalatable to the neo-conservative Hannity. A hawk who is fiscally liberal is more at home in today's Republican party than a principled non-interventionist who has a proven record of fiscal conservatism. That's all you need to know.

Reagan and Bush both increased spending. You have to go back to Coolidge until you see a real spending cut. I don't know if Paul could cut spending in Washington. But I do know that moderate John McCain can't. Believing otherwise is foolish.

4) The Candidate Pledges to be a supporter of "Energy Independence"
a) supports Immediate drilling in Anwar and the 48 states
b) Building new refineries
c) Begin building and using Nuclear Facilities
d) expand coal mining
e) realistic steward of the environment
While simultaneously working with private industry to develop the new energy technologies for the future, with the goal being that America becomes completely energy independent within the next 15 years.

I'm all for drilling domestically, but would someone please tell me what the government has to do with oil supply? How hard is it to deregulate, get out of the way, and let the market go to work?

And what does work with private industry even mean? If the market can support an alternative form of energy, it will. If it cannot, government coercion is only going to waste taxpayer money, though I suppose it will also provide jobs for otherwise unemployable art majors.

5) The Candidate pledges to secure our borders completely within 12 months:
a) build all necessary fences
b) use all available technology to help and support agents at the border
c) train and hire agents as needed

This is a particularly stupid point, and not because I disagree with Hannity about the importance of border security. The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to defend a border as large as ours is, especially with two wars going on elsewhere in the world. As for the fence, despite the legislation that passed that requires it, it's quite simply never going to get built.

The solution to the illegal immigration problem is simple. If you remove the incentives which draw illegals to America, they will go back home. Imposing exorbitant fines on companies that hire illegals will cause employers to balk at the costs incumbent on getting caught; they will thus cease hiring illegals. The barbarians will then return to their own homes.

6) Healthcare:
The Candidate will look for Free-Market solutions to the problems facing the Healthcare industry, and will vigorously oppose any efforts to "nationalize healthcare".
a) The Candidate will fight for Individual health savings accounts, that includes "catastrophic insurance" for every American, so people can control their own healthcare choices.

Question: if the government keeps your money as "catastrophic insurance", whose money is it? It sure isn't yours. Sometimes Big Government conservative types like Hannity get confused about what a free market solution really is.

7) Education:
a) The Candidate pledges to "save" American children from the failing educational system
b) The Candidate will fight to break the unholy alliance of the Democratic party and teachers unions, which at best has institutionalized mediocrity, and has failed children across the country
c) fight for "CHOICE" in education and let parents decide
d) fight for vouchers for parents

The correct response is to abolish the Department of Education and let the states do the work. The federal government should have no role in educating the unwashed masses.

Alternatively, I would also accept "burn the schools" as an answer.

8) Social Security and Medicare:
a) The Candidate will "save" social security and medicare from bankruptcy.
b) Options will include "private retirement" funds so people can "control" their own destiny.

What about letting people opt out of a socialist retirement scheme? Again, if your private account is held by the government, you're not the owner of anything--save your chains.

The quickest way to "save" socialist security is to stop pouring money down the rat hole known as Iraq.

9) Judges
a) The Candidate vows to support ONLY judges who recognize that their job is to interpret the Constitution, and NOT legislate from the bench.

Finally, we agree on something. Now raise your hand if you really think John "gang of fourteen" McCain is going to appoint another Scalia. All of those with your hands up have failed the intelligence test necessary to secure your ability to vote. Better luck next election.

10) American Dream:
The Candidate accepts as their duty and responsibility to educate, inform, and remind people that with the blessings of Freedom comes a Great responsibility. That Government's primary goal is to preserve, protect and defend our God given gift of freedom.

That Government's do not have the ability to solve all of our problems, and to take away all of our fears and concerns. We need their pledge that we will be the candidate that promotes Individual liberty, Capitalism, a strong national defense and will support policies that encourage such...

It is our fundamental belief that limited Government, and Greater individual responsibility will insure the continued prosperity and success for future generations.

We the people who believe in the words of Ronald Reagan, that we are "the best last hope for man on this earth," "a shining city on a hill," and that our best days are before us if our Government will simply trust the American people.

Ignoring the fact that our best days are almost certainly behind us, notice that this contradicts almost all of his actual points. A government that is big enough to protect everyone from the hobgoblins that always threaten us is one that is, by definition, inimical to liberty. That Hannity seeks to use the government to offer "free market solutions" to problems caused by the very government which he clumsily champions is proof enough of what his conservatism really is.

I have never regretted abandoning the republican party, but I am going to be unusually thankful when McCain gets slaughtered in the Most Importantest Election Ever in November.

Monday, May 19, 2008

More on the matter

My worthy adversary writes:

I've explained, at least to my satisfaction, that there are lots of goods, irreducible to one another, and that the reason an object (or an end, more generally) can appear as good is rooted in our biology.

I can't think why it has taken me so long to ask it, but do you believe in free will? If you don't, I can't see what good a conversation about ethics would do--though, admittedly, I've never been able to fathom how one could disbelieve in free will. I'll refrain from quoting Rush. On the other hand, if you do, you surely realize that humans may do all sorts of things contrary to biological impulses. The use of birth control, for instance, provides a telling example of how humans thwart such impulses.

One could add to this that society -- as the ontological foundation of the practices in which these higher goods subsist -- is the unconditioned good, without which there would be only a Hobbesian struggle for survival and none of the spiritual fulfillment of the kind supplied by recognitional networks.

You have hit upon one of the tenants of Natural Law theory, in which sociability is held to be one good; though, of course, all goods, in the Christian tradition, come from God Himself. The important fact, however, is that sociability is not enough. One could make an argument that the various despotic realms, especially those of the twentieth century, maintained sociability. They are ethically flawed, however, because they routinely violated other precepts of Natural Law, most blatantly in their flagrant disregard for human life, another good.

In short, a barbarous anarchy may be preferable to a human society if it is not in agreement with the basic tenants of morality. This is a point I have been at some pains to convey to you: it is impossible to vest the moral compass with a society of men because man is almost hopelessly fallible.

So we have to step in to protect the dignity-conferred rights of the intended victim. We institute laws and support an executive branch to enforce them, to physically apprehend those who are a danger to other people and society as a whole. The existence of such a branch serves as a reason not to break the law, and, if someone exercises her freedom to break it anyway, well, there are the feds to do their job and protect the rest of us as best they can.

I'm not sure what you mean by dignity, at least in this context. Our rights are inalienable because they come from God, or they are simply the results of what the people believe them to be. We know where that road may lead. This is a point the secularist of the EU implicitly recognize; "human rights" is an amorphous term because, unless it is grounded in something unchangeable, these rights are nothing more than the whims of the feds to whom you would go for protection.

Your scheme may work well enough, but your rhetoric can't mask the fact that this is basically wishful thinking. Government, especially when governed by those who answer to no one, is far more likely to coerce by violence and violate our so-called rights than it is to protect them. This is one of the largely unlearned lessons of the twentieth century, and, indeed, all of human history.

Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere, as Chesterton put it. If you don't draw moral lines, and merely put your faith in people's ability to influence their government to govern well, you will end in a nightmare of disappointment.

You would say, I expect, we ought to behave ethically because we are the children of God, and that God in his divine wisdom has ensured that when everyone behaves ethically in this way, that we will all get along without too much stepping on anyone's toes.

Jesus insisted that He came to divide, so I don't think your last assertion is true. There are two reasons for the Christian to behave ethically. The first is an extension of the principle of the policeman at the corner, only God has better eyesight. The second is that God is Goodness itself, and therefore worthy of our loving service. Sin is an offense against God, and harms our neighbors, but often it is the sinner himself who is harmed most, as Roskolnikov discovered.

This is very much analogous to my claim that because of what we are (satisfaction-seeking, self-conscious beings) and because of how the good life is structured and conditioned (in terms of social networks of recognition) it is overwhelmingly in our best interest to behave in an ethical way that also promotes shared social goods.

Agreed. But the difference is very important. In my argument, every human being seeks God as his ultimate end. Your end is not defined. If I label it for you--as I am wont to do--as pleasure, a bit of a crude translation, you resist, saying that this is not what you mean. If I point out that you cannot have society as a good because society can be, and often is, bad, you again reject my claim and point out that it is more nuanced than that. Very well, but you cannot expect me to believe that a series of "goods", rooted in nothing more than wishful thinking, can possibly be a reasonable way to ground a system of ethics. If you do not tell men what to aim at, they will inevitably find lousy targets. And hit them.

The discussion of the cat, frankly, was rather cryptic. Further explanation of what a soul is and how you see it figuring in this debate would be most helpful.

On this point, I think I can be of some service. Chesterton's point was that everyone starts with the understanding that evil exists. We have atheists like Woody Allen who lament the underachiever for creating a world so full of evil. Meanwhile, Christians wrestle with what is probably the most significant objection to the existence of an all-powerful and all-good Being. In fact, according to Aquinas, the existence of evil is the only real objection to the existence of God--though not an unanswerable one.

Anyway, the point is, no matter what your views on God, you no doubt feel that the world has somehow gone wrong; things could be better. The next thing one notices, is that it is not simply natural disasters and the like that are the cause of evil. Man is capable of much evil of his own. We can come to this conclusion from any number of observations. For instance, we may view with moral indignation the abuse of power, and the pain and suffering which it brings. But it is best to find this evil in one's own heart, for this allows us to get at the root of the problem.

Chesterton's point was that there were two good explanations for the evil present in every one of us. The first is the atheist's: The absence of God is all that is necessary for evil to triumph. But the Christian has his explanation as well: Man has disobeyed, and is separated from God; but once God deigned to walk among us, and paid the price for our disobedience; through Him we may be saved. In other words, evil is a result of sin.

Self-immolation causes unnecessary suffering.

This isn't necessarily true. We can concoct any number of scenarios in which it would be better to immolate oneself by fire. A widow would possibly endure great suffering, especially as her failure to immolate herself would cause social ostracization. It would be likewise difficult, based on what you have said, to have convinced Hitler to have refrained from eating his gun. Or, to use another example, if Christ, while waiting for Pilate's decision, would have drank the hemlock offered to Socrates, He would have relieved Himself of tremendous suffering. Only a firm grounding in the goodness of human life, regardless of the pain it suffers, offers a legitimate defense against the evil of suicide, in any of its forms.

If we can't do this, we need to seriously consider the possibility that our way is not so superior as we fondly like to think. Given what I recall of your views on Iraq, I find it positively weird that you suggest, however obliquely, that the way to improve the world is to march in and proselytize.

I think the answer is to pray fervently, and to evangelize, which often leads to martyrdom, the blood of which was the seed of the Church, in Tertulian's phrase. My antipathy toward the World Democratic Revolution in Iraq is that the exchange of human life is not worth the establishment of a so-called democracy. Actually, I think democracy, or at least the principles of universal suffrage, to be among the silliest of the ideas advanced by human kind.

On the other hand, bringing the Good News to the Iraqi people would be a worthy goal. It would not cost any lives--if done right--and would even ameliorate the present situation--as the religious often build hospitals and the like in the communities to which they offer witness. If asked why I do not partake of such I can only posit that I am a coward. Thankfully, moral weakness isn't a reason one may be excluded from the Church.

More on point, you essentially concede that you have nothing to offer a community, whose ideas differ from your own, in the way of a rational argument. Cultural relativism, which you seem, at times, to support, renders moral progress impossible, because it removes the standard by which such progress may be judged.

The reason -- or at least, one reason -- that the sort of relativism you're worried about can't take hold is that all cultures are shaped and constrained by our biology. They all bottom out at the same place, as it were.

I would agree, but I would add that our biology was literally shaped by the Fall. The only conclusion I read from my amateur study of human history is that evil is ubiquitous, but various. Bottoming out must be taken almost literally; where man meets man is at the crossroads of depravity.

People suffer needlessly whenever they are denied the proper conditions for flourishing, whenever they are deprived of existing resources for free self-actualization.

But you've repeatedly stated that freedom must be constrained by society. Self-actualization--do what thou wilt--is consistent only with anarchy. You could argue, as Christians do, that freedom consists in choosing to do good, but, again, this leaves you with the need to draw some lines or define some goods.

I have two things to add in closing. First, I came across this quote from Sartre in my readings of Kreeft's excerpts of Aquinas: "There can be no eternal truth since there is no divine mind to think it." Do you agree? Second, setting aside my skepticism toward macro-evolution, when the first human being evolved, was it a moral agent? Or did it require the evolution of other humans for him to achieve that status?

I merely ask that you give these questions your consideration. As always, I look forward to your response.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Why not to support moderates

The moderate Republican is pleased:

A day after the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples should have the right to marry in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday that he supports the court's decision even though his personal view is that "marriage is between a man and a woman."

I tend to believe that the gay-marriage issue gets far more attention than it deserves. Unlike the abortion issue, no innocent parties are being harmed in the process, and it's not as if the sanction of the government to sodomy changes much, at least in how Christians are concerned. A sin is a sin regardless of whether or not it is approved by the state. Still, I am not a Republican, so my views on this issue are different than many of the GOP rank and file. And though it's probably true that most of them are intent on supporting the good ship McCain as it sinks in November, California's governator provides a good look at how "moderates" tend to govern.

Then again, if Republicans were capable of recognizing betrayal, they would have turned on Bush long ago. Still, it bears mentioning that, while Bush's Supreme Court nominees have yet to stab the party in the back, the California ruling was brought to you by Republican appointees. In this light, it's going to be increasingly difficult to defend voting for McCain on the grounds that he'll appoint good Supreme Court justices.

UPDATE: I just saw this on Drudge:

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created shock and awe in the Republican Party when he warned years ago that the GOP was in danger of "dying at the box office" by failing to make the sale to a wide swath of voters...

The answer for GOP presidential candidate John McCain: take a page out of the Schwarzenegger playbook and sell a product that is "counter" to the current GOP brand on issues like global warming, spending and even immigration reform.

There are two problems to this line of thinking. The first is that it doesn't work. Ronald Reagan is a hugely over-rated President, but he captured moderates, not by running as a wishy-washy moderate, but as a principled conservative. That he failed to govern as such is lamentable, but beside the point.

The second problem is bigger. If politics were all about winning, you could legitimize running as a complete charlatan. But if your goal is to shrink the size of the federal government--forget that this is not the Republican's goal--you can't run a bunch of "big spenders".

The Republicans appear to have learned nothing from the Bush years. It's going to take a considerable amount of time in the political wilderness before they remember why they joined the party in the first place. Two or three decades should do the trick.

Kidnapping the children, for the children

By now, everyone knows a little bit about the Texas polygamous "cult", and the allegations made by CPS to provide cover for their little kidnapping. I've neglected to cover the topic, because Vox Day has covered it here, here, and also on his blog--most recently here. Ilana Mercer has also done a good job covering the kidnapping.

Still, this is a big story, and deserves comment simply for that reason. Ilana summarizes the point nicely:

Whether they are "plural" or single, Wicca or just weird, bohemian or bourgeoisie – parents should take the kids and skedaddle when they hear that phrase "in the best interests of the child." It is simply a license for the state to substitute its own judgment for that of the parents. Today, it's polygamist parents – Kool-Aid drinkers is Bill O'Reilly's favored sobriquet. Tomorrow, it'll be the offspring of homeschoolers or global warming deniers.

I merely add that a nation that allows more than four-hundred to be taken from their parents on the basis of a fraudulent allegation--the woman who originally called in the complaint wasn't in the compound--without a smidgen of due process is not free. Worse, a nation that accepts such a blatant abuse of government power lacks the will necessary to secure its freedom.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The dialog continues

I started to write my response in the usual manner: quote, rebuttal, quote rebuttal, etc. But I noticed that I was asking the questions I had asked before, the questions that inevitably seem to arise when an atheist attempts to formulate a system of ethics: What is Good, if not God? Where does it come from? Granted that there are a number of ethical systems which a man may utilize in striving to live ethically, why is he compelled to live ethically at all? These seem to be the fundamental questions, and I ask them up front to avoid repetition later.

In any event, I'll stick with the usual format, if only to avoid having to rewrite. I'll also try to avoid asking questions which I have already asked, and do my best to answer those posed to me.

Maybe you've already explained this, but what do you think human nature is?

I would say that man is composed of body and soul. He is both a moral agent and a rational one; the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is what separates man from the beasts. Further, I believe human nature is fraught with concupiscence. Thus while man longs for God who is Good, because he is a fallen creature, man sins; like St. Paul, we do what we do not want. (Romans 7:16)

And how do you know that the features you select are part of nature rather than the historical accomplishments of human culture?

Since you can't test for a soul—anymore than you can dust for vomit—you'll have to either accept or reject that one on faith. Still, aside from the notion of man as fallen, I don't think there's anything in my definition with which Aristotle would disagree. As for the fall, it so happens Chesterton said it best. After noting that the doctrine of original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”, he notes:

Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In short, I think my definition, although slovenly constructed, is entirely valid and complete enough for the sake of our little intellectual duel.

Why does it matter?

Because we'll never get anywhere if we can't define our terms. If human nature is always changing, then so too will be the “good” which applies to that nature. This is an entirely permissible explanation, but I think it rather clear that this excludes the possibility of a logically coherent system of ethics.

On the other hand, the values attached to different practices and modes of life have an economy largely autonomous of our biological nature, and this is the realm in which we exercise our freedom and exist as ethical beings. So I prefer to focus on society, and to look for answers to ethical and moral questions in terms of the individual's embeddedness in her historical society.

You posit that we are ethical beings. But you have yet to define the terms “good” and “evil”, which are necessities for any ethical choice. You've spoken repeatedly of values, from which good and evil may arise, but I see nothing in your presentation that would prevent a “historical society” from valuing disparate things. And, indeed, if we study history, we will see that various societies have done precisely this.

For instance, one of the more charming practices of India was the rite of suttee, in which the newly widowed immolated herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Now, Christians have a code of ethics which precludes self-immolation, and, in this case, the evangelization of the island helped lead to a reduction in the practice; it was eventually abolished in 1829 by the colonizing British. But, to go back several centuries, there was nothing in the “historical society” of a poor Indian woman which would discourage her from self-immolation. I see no grounds upon which you could condemn this practice to her.

Ethically, raping people promotes violence that's likely to spill back into your life unexpectedly, it's going to feed into all kinds of destructive cycles, and is massively unlikely to contribute to a fulfilling human life... Rapists suffer from a confused conception of the good life. The satisfactions of nonconsensual sex are hollow and fleeting.

While I would tend to agree with you, my agreement arises out of our shared cultural heritage. The Judeo-Christian culture teaches that rape is a moral wrong, and a grave one. But rape hasn't always been considered wrong in all cultures, as Vox Day points out.

Understand, I am not so much disagreeing with you as I am unmoved my your reasoning. Much of what you say could be readily applied to the promiscuous culture of too many institutions of so-called higher learning. The satisfactions of consensual sex are hollow and fleeting as well. Vanity of vanities and all that.

Much of ethics seems to be little more than applied common sense, but the vicissitudes of human behavior suggest that this simple appeal isn't likely to suffice. We live in an age when millions of unborn children are slaughtered so that women can live what they feel is “the good life”. Naturally, this appalls my Christian sensibilities—and I think it evinces a violation of Kant's second formulation of his categorical imperative—but while one could insist that these women are not actually living the good life if they refrain from abortion, one could make a case--in my view a much stronger one--for precisely the opposite. Thus, while our conceptions of the good life are probably very similar, until we define this term—or at least ground it in an objective system of ethics—most any behavior could be seen as consistent with “the good life”, which is the exact problem that the ethical system should aim to solve.

You determine for yourself, inasmuch as you determine anything for yourself, who you want to be. We each have our own conception of the good life. The point is that this conception cannot be formed in a vacuum.

This seems reasonable, but it remains unclear as to where my ability to determine my own “good life” leaves off and is curtailed by that of my “historical society”. Thus, we would both agree that, within our “historical society”, becoming a good rapist is a contradiction in terms. But I see nothing in what you have said so far that would prevent the contradiction from disappearing in a society that chose to value nonconsensual intercourse. To me, on the other hand, because God is the source of goodness, rape is always wrong, no matter the values of a particular society.

Where do you think we get our literary standards?

We get our literary standards from our culture, but they're ultimately unsound in determining whether or not a writer has achieved the "good life". If you asked Americans to compile a list of the good writers of today, those who can actually read would come up with names like Stephen King, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, perhaps Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. Occasionally, great writers receive deserved adulation from their contemporaries, as Charles Dickens and Shakespeare did in their time, and Umberto Eco does in ours. But many good writers suffer the fate of Melville. Only the Father who “sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4) is capable of rewarding—or punishing—humans according to their actions. Culture sometimes rewards virtue; often it punishes it; oftener the two possess no obvious relationship at all.

To elaborate on this and to show how we begin to achieve an autonomous world of value, I quote from a paper I wrote on Hegel's Phenomenology, of which I sent you a copy a few weeks ago.

For some reason, I never got the paper. If you send it, I'll do my best to read it, though I confess with my background in philosophy as limited as it is, it will probably prove beyond my ability to understand.

Lastly, since my admirable antagonist references phenomenology, I'll share this passage I recalled from George Weigel's Witness to Hope:

It was phenomenology's determination to see things whole and get to the reality of things-as-they-are that attracted Karol Wojtyla [the future Pope John Paul II]. In his habilitation thesis, he asked whether it was possible to create a solid philosophical foundation for the moral life on the basis of [Max] Scheler's phenomenology of ethics, and particularly the ethics of value...

The question Wojtyla posed in his habilitation thesis was whether Scheler (and, by extension, the phenomenological method) could do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Thomas Aquinas.

The answer, for the young priest, essentially, was “No.” The moral act is a real act with real consequences, and to Wojtyla's mind Scheler had failed to come to grips with how moral choices actually shape a person. Therefore, in Scheler's system, morality was still suspended somewhere “outside” the human universe. Wojtyla was also critical of Scheler's tendency to emotionalize experience and consciousness, leading to a truncated portrait of the human person...

Phenomenology would drift off into various forms of solipsism, however, unless it were grounded in a general theory of things-as-they-are that was resolutely realistic and that could defend the capacity of human beings to get at the truth of things... If the choice was not between good and evil, but only between personal preferences, then all choices were ultimately indifferent and real choice no longer existed. This, in turn, would empty the drama of human freedom of its essential tension and deprive human beings of their most distinctively human quality. (p.127, 129)

As always, I look forward to your response.