Saturday, August 05, 2017

Deed and Talk long as the peoples keep to good customs, they do decent and just things rather than talk about them, because they do them instinctively, not from reflection. But when they are corrupted and ruined, then, because within themselves they ill endure their sense of lacking such things, they speak of nothing but decency and justice, just as it comes naturally for a man to talk of nothing but what he affects to be and is not. And because they feel themselves resisted by their religion (which naturally they cannot disavow or repudiate), in order to console their errant consciences they use the same religion with impious piety to consecrate their wicked and nefarious actions.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin and Fisch, trs. Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY: 1976) p. 428 (section 1406).]

Friday, August 04, 2017

Dashed Off XV

"The first death drives the soul from the body against her will; the second death holds the soul in the body against her will. The two have this in common, that the soul suffers against her will what her own body inflicts." Augustine (Civ Dei 21.3)
"Eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that highest and purest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed in that first transgression." (Civ Dei 21.12)
"The very life we mortals lead is all punishment, for it is all temptation." (Civ Dei 21.14)
"God's anger is this mortal life, in which man is made like to vanity and his days pass as shadow." (Civ Dei 21.24)
"Sinners are destroyed in two ways -- either like the Sodomites, the men themselves are punished for their sins, or, like Ninevites, the men's sins are destroyed by repentance." (Civ Dei 21.24)

Note Augustine's suggestion that spirits (like devils) are attracted to symbols (Civ Dei 21.6).

"Humble yourself to the utmost, because fire and worms are the punishment of the ungodly." Sirach 7:17

Every argument from evil against God's existence has analogues in arguments against providence and against hell.

Arguments against the existence of hell usually collapse due to a defective conception of heaven. There's nothing that seems to necessitate this; but it happens over and over again.

the danger of attributing the properties of the whole Church to oneself

the frame of the picture & the boundary of the experiment
the abstract architecture of an experiment (mereotopological)

the catholicity of the Church and room for disagreement (Paul & Barnabas, Augustine & Jerome)

The devil generally works by a touch here, a touch there.

the dangers of an amorphous compassion

the Kantian critiques as metaphilosophy (they set up for Hegel in precisely this way)

the inherent tendency of philosophy qua inquiry toward free choice, intellectual independence from matter, and divine primacy (each is associated with a condition for pure inquiry)
the inherent tendency of philosophy qua inquiry to a community of inquirers

the coherence-finding and constancy-assuming faces of scientific inquiry
the continuant, the independent, and the external as the goals of scientific inquiry

"Taste and elegance, though they are reckoned only among the smaller and secondary morals, yet are of no mean importance in the regulation of life." Burke

There is a dangerous tendency to replace disciplines of temperance and of fortitude with disciplines of justice. disciplines of justice are indeed very important, but justice cannot survive where a people do not learn moderation and endurance.

sports as performance fiction

icons & faith; relics & hope; indulgences & charit

principle of traditional precedent in iconography

"Faith thinks, and if she does not think like the world, it is not because she thinks less, but on the contrary because she
thinks more than the world." Jean-Luc Marion

"The three great doctrines of the redemption of man by the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross; the three equal persons united in one Godhead; and the resurrection of the dead,--are the foundation of Christian Architecture." Pugin
- cruciformity, integral triplicity, verticality

gratitude for architecture
architects and artists as benefactors

architecture that expresses and emphasizes human dignity

sense of danger & sense of health as moral senses

Almost all time travel paradoxes arise out of free will -- it is free will that makes them possible and apparently paradoxical.

Good taste, particularly as it is relevant to courtesy, is a fundamental condition for dealing properly with the poor.

Eugenics has a naturally utilitarian structure.

The danger with breeding for intelligence is that it is likely to be a stupid man's idea of intelligence.

"At the summit, true strategy and politics are one." Churchill

originary analysis in early modern philosophy

good-seeking and bad-avoiding motives for crimes

ideation -> objectification of ideas -> reassessment
cycling in inquiry

Lullian art as middle-term finding

overlay of metaphor as source of discovery

An analogical inference may be rationally acceptable even if its conclusion is not more probable on the evidence than any rival conclusion based on the same evidence
the casuistics of analogical inference (safety &c; probabilism &c.)

In historical reasoning, one must always recognize that the evidence is but a trace, that there was more to the real thing than shows up in your evidence.

historical evidence as like advice

historical narrative as an exploration of the rationality of specific actions (Oakeshott)

Gluttony, lust, and greed as violations of already existing common good; sloth, wrath, envy, and vainglory as preventing even the formation of new common good.

the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Note of Sanctity

stole of immortality (Latin vesting prayer)

There are times when disputes over liturgy seem like a perpetual war between those who delight in removing the landmarks of their ancestors and those who refuse to use accurate weights and measures.

One way to read medieval discussions of the agent intellect is as accounts of philosophy itself.

For idealizations to be realistically grounded (as opposed to merely justified as practically useful) requires final causes: the tendencies of which the idealization is the limit.

'the original source of things has no more regard to good over ill than to heat above cold, or to draught above moisture, or to light above heavy'
- note that these are all of degree
- this has the greatest plausibility for natural evil (the difficult and the easy)

Bayesian accounts of belief inevitably make belief otiose (belief becomes just the word for relations among apparent evidences).

The problem with credences, or assimilating belief to probability in general, is that such things fail to account for the differences in kind between raising something as a possibility, holding it in abeyance, toying with the idea, doubting if it could be true, suspecting it might be true, thinking it could very well be true, or actually believing it.

If probabilities characterize only how belief should be, then belief itself is an act or event distinct from anything to do with probability, if belief is to be characterized in terms of probabilities, then it seems it would have to be only how things seem to be.

The purpose of a talent is the multiplication of God's goodness.

the Psalms as an exploration of the moods of the Church

common attention and shared beauty

undesigned correspondences and the Muse (inspiration)

good - pleasant good - beautiful

Strong forms of vice create typical reactions. Thus intemperance creates a pressure toward contempt, and vainglory toward resentment, in those who must deal with it.

The point of a wedding is to be a sign of the marriage, not to stand on its own.

tradition & diachronically common good

All common good is capable of having a diachronic aspect due to inheritance.

It is always easy to find the advice an age least needs because it is the advice most commonly given.

We cannot determine what requires consent in the first place except in light of some more fundamental moral standard.

inner-core moral concepts: virtue, universal duty, human dignity, common good
intermediate perimeter moral concepts: honor, prima facie duty, sociability, social order
outer defense moral concepts: enlightened self-interest, tolerance, consensual relations

Marriage is for all too many the only school of temperance.

Traditions cannot give virtue, but, properly handed down, they can build bulwarks of honor and profit and pleasure for virtue.

modestia as good bearing

The prudent rethink the world.

the importance of distinguishing the consensual and the preferential

Marriages, like societies in general, may be built on virtue, honor, profit, or pleasure; and like societies they face the same kinds of difficulties.

The intemperance of one is often the penalty of many.

Love transfigures truth; it does not erase it.

Conspicuous to the Nations

Composed by the Sea-Side, Near Calais, August 1802
by William Wordsworth

Fair Star of evening, Splendour of the west,
Star of my Country!--On the horizon’s brink
Thou hangest, stooping, as might seem, to sink
On England’s bosom; yet well pleased to rest,
Meanwhile, and be to her a glorious crest
Conspicuous to the Nations. Thou, I think,
Should’st be my Country’s emblem; and should’st wink,
Bright Star! with laughter on her banners, drest
In thy fresh beauty. There! that dusky spot
Beneath thee, that is England; there she lies.
Blessings be on you both! one hope, one lot,
One life, one glory!--I, with many a fear
For my dear Country, many heartfelt sighs,
Among men who do not love her, linger here.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Anecdotal Jottings on Consumerist Life

I was in the convenience store today, and stopped, astounded by the sight of Ruffles All Dressed potato chips. One of the (relatively few) disadvantages of having lived for a while in a foreign country is that there are always things that are only found there. In Canada, I used to have really neat toaster crumpets for breakfast almost every day; they were done by a local bakery, and good luck finding toaster crumpets in Central Texas. (The bakery that made them burned down a few years after I left, I believe, so even Canadians couldn't have them anymore. The past is the most foreign-country of all foreign countries.) But one of the things I had a lot of in Canada was All Dressed Ruffles, that potato chip flavor than which no greater can be conceived, or close enough to it, anyway. But they aren't distributed in the U.S.; you can ship them in from Canada these days, and once they were a special offer in the U.S. for a time, which you could buy online. But finding bags of them just sitting on the shelf of an ordinary convenience store was enough to stop me in my tracks.

We talk a lot about the problems of a consumerist society, and the problems are real, and sometimes serious, and, yes, some of them are serious enough to serve as signs that our society is in desperate need to be reformed from its decadence. It is a problem that you can most convince people of the importance of self-control if you package it as a consumer product (diet and exercise programs); it is a problem that the best way to get people to sign on, in principle, to fasting and repentance is by giving away free stuff (Ash Wednesday). It is a problem that will eventually break us. But I think all the criticisms, right as they are, often don't face squarely the fact that consumerist society has its advantages and charms, and that they are significant enough that we can be looking right at the degradations they cause and still have difficulty doing anything about them.

There is a story that Boris Yeltsin was visiting the United States -- Texas, in fact -- and on the way back from the trip they had to stop at a grocery store to pick up some things. It was just a random grocery story on the way to the airport, practically in the middle of nowhere. And Yeltsin walked up and down the aisles, astounded at all of the food, just an endless abundance of it, so much so that no one was rationing it out, that people didn't have to stand in line for it, that in this insignificant little store out of innumerable such stores, there was so much abundance that ordinary working people could just walk in, grab whatever they wanted off the shelf, pay for it, and leave. It is said that he turned to one of the people he was with and said something like, "If people back home in the Soviet Union were ever to know, really know, that this was possible, the next day we would have a revolution on our hands." And he himself attributed his drifting away from Communism to that stop at a random grocery store in the middle of nowhere. And one can see the point of it. To live surrounded by perpetual abundance is not the only sign of a good society; it is not the best sign of a good society; it is perhaps not even a very reliable sign of a good society except under very specific conditions; but it is one of the things we look for in a good society. A society without it might be good by making up for it with other things -- but it is something that would have to be made up for, and in spades. Given a choice between living in a land flowing with milk and honey and starving in Venezuela, people will endure quite a bit of awfulness to be in the land of milk and honey. And there is nothing unreasonable about that. This is something, and something of importance, that consumerist capitalism does better than any other kind of society of which we know. You can talk up the advantages of other kinds of society, and those advantages may be real and important and worth it, but it's still the case that they all require people giving up an endless ocean of comfort and luxury, because nothing you propose will be likely to compete on this particular point. When you're not swimming in it, it's perhaps not difficult to steer people another way -- although we should not underestimate the general attractions of the very idea -- but if a nation is in it, nothing will get it out except massive sacrifice and self-denial.

And we may criticize as we please; living in the midst of a consumerist society, we are already enmeshed in it. You can have a sense of what home is like regardless of the society in which you live, but in a consumerist society, your sense of home is partly consumerist. Your entertainment and creature comforts will be brought to you by a consumerist society in consumerist terms. And it is not a replacement. What is happening is that consumerism is building on something very natural -- and very few things are better at building on it than on consumerism. Bits and pieces agglomerate to our family identity; my family is a Ford family. The consumerism is woven into our language. I have a family member who worked for Ford, and he was once part of a team working out some sort of deal with the Chinese government. The Chinese were not being very cooperative, and it was a long slow process, but finally they managed to work their way through and get an appointment with a mid-level bureaucrat of some importance. For reasons I forget, there was a change in some plan or other, and so they informed the Chinese that they apologized, but there was a switch in the people who were coming; the team would now be including Henry Ford II. After some delay, the Chinese got back with an apology of their own -- they would need to reschedule the meeting slightly because Deng Xiaoping couldn't make the time it was originally scheduled. And so they met with Deng Xiaoping himself, and he said that once he heard that the grandson of Henry Ford was coming, he knew he had to be there himself. He had grown up around farms, regularly using trucks, and commented that he had been almost twenty before he realized that 'Ford' was not the Chinese word for 'truck', but a name. We, however, aren't just around Fords. We're a society of brand names and advertisements; they're a continuing part of how we think and speak.

Consumerism, like any kind of society with popular appeal, will never fall to mere criticism because it satisfies natural needs, and does things that people need and want societies to do; and, what is more, it does some of those things better than any competitor on the table. The problem is that it metastasizes. Everything becomes consumption; consumption accelerates almost on its own even when we know that it's going wrong; we get caught in cycles with no way out except sacrifices we're no longer trained to make; and, knowing the problems, the sheer impulse of the things we like carries us along, and can only be turned with great difficulty. Food without limit, sex without limit, self-indulgence without limit, use of petroleum without limit, we always reach a point we said we would not cross, but momentum just carries us over the line again and again and again. That sort of thing is not something we just happened to pick up; it's not an external imposition. It is a natural process that somewhere lost its checks and balances, so that it gives us something that we like, and even something of some importance, and it will keep doing it until it kills us.

That's a bit of a depressing turn to a line of thought that started with potato chips. But one of the things we'd all like is the world at our fingertips. It is not the only thing we'd like. It is not the thing we might deem most important. But it is something that a consumer-focused society does a lot to give; and along this particular line of genuine benefit, none of the more balanced and reasonable options can compete. Which is why people criticize and criticize and yet consume more and more.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Two Poem Re-Drafts


Bright phantom!
Cast through my heart some thin, pallid light
tangled in shadows that flow in the night,
ocean of darkness eddying black,
muddled with motion, like spidering crack.
Sing with a melody argent and fine,
higher than bell and as tinny as tine,
thin as a reed yet rich as the spray,
angel-like mists that aeolian play.
Dream me a dream, my alchemist sprite,
manic with madness from unction of light,
pure as a potion, medicine deep,
thick as forever and stringent as sleep.

Night Walk

In silent starlight rivers flow,
their waves of moonshine rippling light,
and I am where I do not know
on empty lane in quiet night,
and I am walking, robed with glow,
on pebbled way of gray and white.

The moon above, in dancing mist,
is bright with light no shade can mar
as, bowing down, its beams have kissed
a road that glints like crystal spar;
it lures, and I could not resist
to walk where moonlit visions are.

The stars like song refract a fire.
Their iridescent showers fall
on rivers silver like a wire
and snow the caps of mountains tall;
and as I walk, I never tire,
but stride refreshed by heaven's call.

On night-lit ways my feet have passed;
in shadows I have voyaged far,
on farther lands my fortune cast
with no companion but a star,
and all has led to this at last:
to walk wherever visions are.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Plato's Philosophical Style

In Plato's anti-tragic theater, we see the origin of a distinctive philosophical style, a style that opposes itself to the merely literary and expresses the philosopher's commitment to intellect as a source of truth. By writing philosophy as drama, Plato calls on every reader to engage actively in the search for truth. By writing it as anti-tragic drama, he warns the reader that only certain elements of him are appropriate to this search. This, we can now see, is the real meaning of the Protagoras's tension between dialectic and elitism, between its appearance of offering us a choice and its announcement that only a superior being ought to choose. Each of us has the choice, in fact: but it will be an appropriate choice only if it is made by the highest element in us, viz. intellect. We now begin to understand that Plato's style is not content-neutral, as some philosophical styles are sometimes taken to be; it is closely bound up with a definite conception of human rationality.

[Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press (New York: 2001) p. 134.]


Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Maria de' Liguori, Doctor of the Church, founder of the Redemptorists, patron saint of confessors and moral theologians. From his work on the Mass:

We must also know that the Old Law exacted five conditions in regard to the victims which were to be offered to God so as to be agreeable to him; namely, sanctification, oblation, immolation, consumption, and participation.

1. The victim had to be sanctified, or consecrated to God, so that there might not be offered to him anything that was not holy or unworthy of his majesty. Hence, the animal destined for sacrifice had to be without stain, without defect; it was not to be blind, lame, weak, nor deformed, according to what was prescribed in the Book of Deuteronomy....

2. The victim had to be offered to God; this was done by certain words that the Lord himself had prescribed.

3. It had to be immolated, or put to death; but this immolation was not always brought about by death, properly so called; for the sacrifice of the loaves of proposition, or show-bread, was accomplished, for example, without using iron or fire, but only by means of the natural heat of those who ate of them.

4. The victim had to be consumed. This was done by fire. The sacrifice in which the victim was entirely consumed by fire was called holocaust. The victim was thus entirely annihilated in order to indicate by this destruction the unlimited power that God has over all his creatures, and that he created them out of nothing, so he can reduce them to the nothingness from which they came. In fact, the principal end of the sacrifice is to acknowledge God as a sovereign being, so superior to all things that everything before him is purely nothing; for all things are nothing in the presence of him who possesses all things in himself....

5. All the people, together with the priest, had to be partakers of the victim. Hence, in the sacrifices, excepting the holocaust, the victim was divided into three parts, one part of which was destined for the priest, one for the people, and one for the fire. This last part was regarded as belonging to God, who by this means communicated in some manner with those who were partakers of the victim.

These five conditions are found reunited in the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Evening Note for Monday, July 31

Thought for the Evening: The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Theory

John Danaher has a nice article on the epistemological objection to divine command theory. I have talked about this before, and why I don't think it works, but it's interesting to have a more developed form to look at. Danaher gives a simple version of the objection:

(1) DCTs, either explicitly or implicitly, include an epistemic condition in their account of moral obligations, viz. you must either know or successfully receive communication (implying knowledge of divine commands in order for you to be morally bound).

(2) There are such things as reasonable non-believers (i.e., non-believers who do not violate any epistemic duties in their non-belief) and for these reasonable non-believers (RNBs), satisfaction of the epistemic condition is not possible.

(3) Therefore, on DCT, there are no moral obligations for non-believers.

This is a nice way of conceiving the objection, because I think it makes the reply very clear. As anyone knows who has read me before on DCT before, whenever faced with an objection to divine command theory, I always ask, "Would this be a problem for William Warburton, or someone like him?" And this formulation makes it relatively easy to say: he would deny both (1) and (2). The first part of (2) is the easy one; on Warburton's account, non-believers are trying to have moral obligations without a moral obliger, which he regards as a contradiction, and therefore they are not reasonable. On Warburton's account, non-believers should not be saying that there are general moral obligations; they can say that things are in bad taste or that they are stupid ways of being and doing good, but he is quite insistent that nothing can create an obligation except a wise and good agent with power of sanction, and nothing can create a moral obligation except a supremely wise and supremely good agent with universal power of sanction. And (1) Warburton would deny for exactly the same reason that we say, if a law has been promulgated, that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

In order to consider the problem with (1) a little better, it is worth remembering another thing that I always bring up when people object to divine command theory, namely, that you have to do justice to one of its clearest advantages. If you are positivist about legal obligations -- as a great many people are -- DCT is the only available unified theory of obligation that allows moral obligations to be universal in scope. If we're talking about legal obligation and moral obligation, there are only a limited number of views:

(a) Legal obligation is part of, or at least derives, directly or indirectly, from moral obligation, which does not itself depend on any kind of obligation-making process or action.
(b) Legal obligation is created by law-making process of some sort, while moral obligation is independent of any such process or action.
(c) Both legal obligation and moral obligation are created by an obligation-making process or action of some sort.

For (a), legal obligation is a kind of moral obligation, although often a qualified kind. Natural law theorists and Kantians accept such a view. A benefit of (a) is that it provides a unified theory of obligation: all kinds of obligation ultimately get the same explanation. Legal positivists have historically tended to accept (b), but (b) has the obvious disadvantage that it allows there to be two kinds of obligation, and no unified account of why they are both obligations. To get the latter, you need (c). But there are only two major forms of (c). Legal obligations are always recognized to be limited in scope, because they are formed by a process or action that is limited in scope, so the question is whether this is true of moral obligations or not. If you say, "Yes," this is some kind of social relativism: morality changes from society to society. If you say, "No," moral obligation has to be created by an obligation-making process or action of universal scope. And that, as they say, all men call God. If you are a positivist about law, you have some reason to be positivist about morality, because your reasons for being a positivist about law have analogues for being a positivist about morality; if you are a moral positivist who wants a morality that is universal, as most people do, you have reason to be a divine command theorist, because that is precisely what is offered by DCT. And thus whenever we look at an objection to divine command theory, we should always ask: Would this objection work applied to a lesser obligation, like a law passed by Congress? It is, for instance, simply not true that such laws require an epistemic condition -- ignorance of the law is no excuse, if the law was properly promulgated -- so we would need a very good reason to think that moral obligations differed on this point.

Danaher notes that some divine command theorists accept something at least like an epistemic condition; but, of course, perhaps they shouldn't. I confess I'm not impressed by the argument Danaher gives, which is that metaethicists tend to hold that moral obligations have an epistemic condition because our usual platitudes about moral obligation seem to require one. Danaher's example provides a good reason for why I'm not impressed: we tend to think moral obligations are "action-guiding and motivationally salient". It is true that an obligation can't guide your action if it's not known, but this does not mean that its being an obligation depends on its actually guiding your action. If you know it and don't act on it, it didn't guide your action; if you know it and don't care about it, it is not motivationally salient; but in neither case can we conclude that it is not an obligation. You don't get out of the obligation not to murder simply by being a sociopath who doesn't care about it and so ignores it. What we mean is that a reasonable person aware of the obligation will let it guide his action and be relevant to his motivations; it is not an account of what is required for it to be an obligation. And with 'ought implies can', Danaher's other example, Kant's own version of the maxim depends on his having an account of obligation diametrically opposed to that of divine command theory. On Kant's account of obligation, obligation is built into reason itself, and therefore, since it's impossible for a reasonable person not to have 'epistemic access' to their obligation, the only 'can' he himself ever intends is the 'can' of being able to act on it, at least in principle. But even if we ignored that, on Kant's account, it is unacceptable to do an action you are obligated to do for any reason other than that it is what you are obligated to do, but you can talk to people about the topic and discover that this is not what most people assume -- most people think that if you inadvertently did what your obligation requires, you fulfilled your obligation, even if only by luck. And if you accept that this is true, then 'ought implies can' only means that an obligation implies that you can in principle do what fulfills it, whether you know it or not.

It's worth thinking about why we say that ignorantia juris non excusat. And the reason is found in another legal maxim: Leges instituuntur cum promulgantur, laws are imposed when they are promulgated. We require that laws be published with signs that they are from the appropriate authority and intended to be published as law. But if laws are instituted simply in their being communicated in this way, whether someone learns about it is irrelevant to whether they are obligated by it. You can honestly not know that you have to pay your taxes, and you can still be obligated to pay your taxes, if the law requiring you to do so was promulgated as such by the appropriate authority. We might take your ignorance into account in determining punishment; but not in determining whether you were obligated. And the only exceptions to this are the exceptions that prove the rule -- that is, the only time this is the exception in the case of legal obligation is when the law itself provides for ignorance being an excuse.

Danaher's defense of (2) seems to me to be marred by a confusion between "having epistemic access to X" and "knowing X". His point, of course, is that since rational non-believers don't believe that something is a divinely promulgated law, they can't know it. But whether they believe it or not is irrelevant to the question of whether they have epistemic access to it. I think part of the problem may be that he is assuming that if you have epistemic access to something you will know it if you fulfill your epistemic duties; but this, I think, is quite generally false. For instance, I have epistemic access to how many shirts I have in the dryer, and I am not in any way currently violating any epistemic duties with regard to my shirts, and yet I don't know how many shirts I have in the dryer because I haven't gone to look -- I have no duty to do so. But, that aside, Warburton would reject (2) in part because he doesn't think it's possible for anyone to reasonably posit that you have an obligation that no one made obligatory, as noted above, but also he would deny you have any actual duties unless someone has obligated you to perform them. We can say that it's stupid not to do something, or it's bad taste not to do something; but Warburton's account of obligation, if accepted, applies to any kind of obligation. So on his account either we don't actually have much in the way of epistemic duties, or each one implies an authority capable of imposing general epistemic duties, which is an apparently divine legislative power.

Danaher does consider matters related to this. He argues that legislative signs are easy to fake; but, of course, this is true of laws, as well, and, again, this doesn't affect the obligatory character of laws. Even reasonable doubt about whether something is a law does not make it so that it's not a law for you.

But here's an interesting question: suppose the argument is sound. Does this cause a problem for DCT? For some versions perhaps. But while Warburton would reject the conclusion because he thinks moral obligations have universal scope, if the conclusion were right it wouldn't be a problem for the basic account of obligation. Warburton holds that when we talk about morality we talk about three different things -- good and bad taste, based on sentiment; good and bad sense, based on rational recognition of what is appropriate to what; and obligation and prohibition, based on authority. Why would anyone be bothered with whether atheists are obligated on such an account? When atheists claim they have a moral obligation, they can only do so on the basis of sentiment or reason, anyway. Warburton will simply say that things grounded on these are not actually obligations, and that treating them as if they were is incoherent, but the content itself will not be affected -- if incest is icky, it stays icky whether it is prohibited or not, and if helping someone in need is reasonable, it stays reasonable whether it is obligatory or not. So all the moral reasons atheists give can perfectly well be right; Warburton would just regard the talk of obligations as something that they are illicitly borrowing from theists. (It's worth comparing with Anscombe's article, "Modern Moral Philosophy", in this regard.) We can perfectly well make sense of some people having obligations that others don't; for instance, one of the reasons you might be given special obligations, is because you are given responsibilities or privileges others aren't. So the objection, even if sound, is not a direct problem for divine command theory as such, but for trying to combine DCT with universal moral obligations. It's true that it removes one apparent advantage of DCT over social relativism -- that it allows obligations of universal scope -- but it doesn't seem to affect anything else.

Various Links of Interest

* Nick Davis explains why professional psychiatric ethics needs the Goldwater Rule.

* Gracy Olmstead, How Jane Austen Proves that Prudence Is at the Heart of Happiness

* David Benton and Hayley Young look at the current science regarding losing weight.

* Sean Hermanson, Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Political Correctness in Philosophy

* The ideals of chivalry in the works of Bl. Ramon Llull

Currently Reading

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night
Giambattista Vico, The New Science
Mary Astell, The Christian Religion, as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England
Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fortnightly Book, June 30

In undergrad in days of yore, I had a period in which I read a lot of feminist utopias and dystopias -- all the ones I could find in the library or through local interlibrary loan. Utopias and dystopias are very difficult to write well, particularly if you are deliberately out with a message, and thus, unsurprisingly, many of them were rather dubious to middling. (The middling ones usually had a really good idea somewhere and just never found an exciting way to develop it.) The best utopia, hands down, was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, which I've done for the fortnightly book before. The most famous dystopia, of course, is Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which was middling; a weakly structured and poorly thought-out work, I've always thought, but one which is written unusually well, stylistically. Some readers read mostly for style -- the 'literary fiction' reader, which it is fine to be if you come by it honestly -- and it essentially caters to that crowd. But there was one feminist dystopia that was utterly unique. I've been wanting to go back to it for the fortnightly book for a couple of years now, and since this summer I've been taking a rather relaxed attitude to selecting books, it seems like a good time to do it.

In the 1930s, a number of fiction works, largely satirical of modern society or critical of the fascism rising at the time, were published under the name Murray Constantine. Because several of the works had a fairly strong focus on the status of women, it was speculated by critics at the time that they might have been written by a woman. This was discovered in the 1980s to be true; the author's real name was Katharine Burdekin. She had already written a few works, and possibly started publishing under a pseudonym to protect her family from any political repercussions that might arise from her more critical fiction. The best-known of these works, published in 1937, was the chilling work, Swastika Night. In 1937, Hitler was firmly in power, but the rest of the world was still trying to find a compromise with him that would allow peace. And Burdekin looked at it all, and asked the chilling question: What if you took the Nazis at their word? What if the Nazis got exactly what they had already said in public they wanted to get?

That's how you do real dystopia. The problem with Atwood's work was always that there is no one in the universe who actually wants a society that works like that; it's a patchwork of completely different views that don't come together in real life, you could never get enough people to accept it voluntarily, and the mechanisms she provides for it fall well short of being able to explain its existence. But a dystopia that really hits the mark is one that shows you exactly what people are aiming for, either intentionally or unintentionally. World War II had not quite begun. The full extent of Nazi atrocity had not yet been unveiled. But Swastika Night describes what various Nazi spokesmen and propagandists had already promised, and Burdekin really thinks through what would be involved. It has been noted that it has a lot of similarities to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published twelve years later; as Orwell was an extensive adapter of ideas, it is almost certain that Swastika Night was one of its influences.

The story picks up seven hundred years into the thousand-year Reich. The entire world is divided between Germany and Japan. The Nazis have ruthlessly uprooted every history but the lies they want people to learn. Religion has been Hitlerized, with only some scattered Christian groups, without rights or status, barely surviving, repeating their faith in garbled form. The whole of society is built on the Mystery of Blood, with blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans as the master race. Everything has become subordinated to the state. It is a picture quite as dark as it sounds -- a long and terrible night of civilization.

And yet, unlike with most dystopias, there is hope. Even terribly flawed men can have a spark of something else inside. And there is one thing that can break the whole centuries-long nightmare, the thing that the Nazis had set out to eliminate in the first place. It can be obscured, cut down, smashed; sometimes nothing is left of it but a glimpse someone sees through a distorted mirror or out of the corner of their eye; but the real truth is very hard to destroy completely....


Today is the memorial of St. Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna, Doctor of the Church. In his day, Ravenna was the primary city of the Western Roman Empire, so he was in a position of considerable importance and influence. When Eutyches was deposed and condemned by a synod under St. Flavian of Constantinople and the Pope confirmed the decision, Eutyches appealed to Chrysologus; St. Peter replied by telling him that he should submit to the authority of the synod and of the Bishop of Rome. Most of his writings have vanished, but a fair number of his short homilies survive, all of which are excellent.

Let us do penance, brothers, let us do penance right away, because we no longer have any extended period of time, the very hour is quickly coming to an end for us, and the imminence of judgment is already preventing us from the opportunity to make amends. Let your penance get up and running, so that judgment may not outrun it, since the fact that the Lord has not yet come, that he still waits, and that he delays, means that his desire is for us to return to him and not to perish.

[Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons, Volume 3, Palardy, tr. Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2005) Sermon 167, section 5.]