Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sidewalk Counseling at Thermopylae

Considering our recent Supreme Court victory, pro-lifers may well think that things are getting better for the pro-life cause.  In certain respects this is true, but as I explained in an editorial for "Informed Conscience," the Benedictine College pro-life newsletter, the nation is not really with us, and the political environment will only get worse for the unborn thanks to demographic shifts.  While I was writing that editorial earlier this year, I thought about what causes overly high levels of optimism in the pro-life movement.  I think it's women. 

Though the mini-Himmlers of the abortion lobby say that pro-lifers are a bunch of evil sexist male dude-bros, anyone who has ever actually encountered the pro-life movement in reality notices that it is led primarily by women.  The jackboots of patriarchy that the feminists fear are actually fashionable flats worn by old grandmothers, middle aged mothers, and incredibly cute 20-something female activists.  Instead of threatening people with hellfire, they speak gently with women outside abortion clinics, urging them to spare the life growing within them.  It is good that women are so prominent in the pro-life movement because they can empathize with other women in a way that men cannot.  It is, after all, women who have abortions.

Though women are a tremendous asset to the pro-life movement, I think that female pro-lifers are especially susceptible to false optimism.  This observation is entirely anecdotal, but hey, rigorous studies are for people who get paid to write.  It seems to me that women have a great desire to be on the winning team, because they feel especially affirmed by positivity.  In addition, women tend to receive more encouragement from the opinions of others.  When they see that half the country identifies itself as "pro-life" they will feel good about their cause.  When I see that statistic, I think "that can't be right."  Then I start muttering something about bad polling methodology into my glass of bourbon. (Ok, maybe that's just me.)  I think the simple fact that women respond to feelings of affirmation and solidarity means they will be more optimistic about movements to which they belong. 

Unlike women, men are made to fight, and find affirmation in battle, even against impossible odds.  It is for this reason that men so admire the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, or the men of the doomed Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  This is not to say that we think getting shot by Persian arrows or blasted by Russian cannon are good things, but the valor of men fighting for every inch of ground against an indomitable foe speaks to the primal warrior in all men.  We hope for victory, but we wish to do our best no matter how the battle is going.  Obviously men can get discouraged, but it is the  ability to fight through discouragement that shows the character of a man.

Pro-life men are themselves often caught up in the bubbly optimism of their female colleagues, girlfriends, or wives in the pro-life movement, but I think that they should be able to deal just fine with a more realistic assessment of the abortion situation.  In fact, I think it is very important to the pro-life cause that they face grim realities, for it is when the odds are against them that men can see most clearly the importance of their mission, and are inspired to fight ever harder.  So, men of the pro-life movement, quit congratulating yourself for being "the pro-life generation," put your game faces on, and go kick some ass.

Credit: Warner Brothers

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Facebook Politics


Whenever I examine someone's facebook page for the first time I always check the "About" section so as to view his political and religious views.  In regards to the former, I find the common practice of inserting the name of a political party, usually Republican or Democrat, to be rather annoying.  This is not because I find the parties distasteful, though I certainly do, but rather because a political party is not a political philosophy.  If someone tells you that they are a member of a particular political party, you can make a good guess as to his policy preferences, but party membership says relatively little about core political views. 

This is because party platforms are not philosophical statements in any useful sense, but are rather a set of policy proposals that most party members wish to pursue for their own philosophical reasons.  There are of course exceptions to this; after all, if someone identifies himself as a member of a Communist party, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he is in fact a Communist, and that he almost certainly smokes a lot of weed.  For everyone who does not identify himself with a self-referentially complete party/philosophy such as Communism*, simple party affiliation does not offer a good representation of his true political views.

For example, Republicans, like most Americans, tend to be some kind of liberal.  They can be placed on the right side of the liberal spectrum.  However, important differences exist between say,  a neo-con, and a libertarian Republican, even if the two often favor some of the same policies.  Both of those factions have substantially different ideas about the purpose of the state.  Furthermore, there are even a few Burkean classical conservatives hiding in the ranks of the GOP, and they (or rather we) view government and society in very different terms than most Republicans.  Party affiliation or even general descriptors such as "conservative" are simply insufficient for delineating exactly where one falls on the political spectrum.  This is not to say that party labels are useless, but rather that they cannot be expected to substitute for a comprehensive political philosophy.

One might accuse me of asking far too much from a line or two on a facebook profile, and that accusation would certainly have merit.  The real problem I see is not facebook politics but rather that much political self-labeling does not advance beyond the level of facebook.  National democracy is rather absurd, but so long as everyone is allowed to vote, all voters have a responsibility to critically examine their political ideas and should be able to explain exactly what type of Republican, Democrat, Tory, or Labour supporter they actually are, rather than simply limiting their political identification to a party name.


*Yeah I know there are a gajillion different shades of Marxism.  I don't care.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ruckman's Revelation


My home state of Florida is host to a variety of weird flora and fauna but some of the people here are the most bizarre of all.  Pastor Peter Ruckman of the Pensacola Bible Institute is a prime specimen of Floridian weirdness.  He is one of the most extreme advocates of the King James Only movement, which considers the King James Version of the Bible to the be best available English translation of scripture.  Ruckmans departs from some of his saner colleagues, however, in his fantastic claim that the translation of the KJV constitutes divine revelation.  He calls it "the infallible English text."  It is profoundly odd that a Protestant would declare a bunch of 17th Century English dudes to be an extra-biblical source of divine revelation.  Weirder still, more than a few Independent Baptists seem to believe this nonsense.  Jack Chick, who is even crazier than you think, is a Ruckmanite.  Chick claims that God made English the universal language of the world (really) so that the infallible KJV could be read by everyone.  He says that the use of other translations by Protestants is due to the nefarious workings of Satan/Catholicism.  Between them, Ruckman and Chick spread this bizarre heresy to whomever is gullible enough to believe it.  I suppose we should be grateful that they aren't espousing Arianism or something.  Weird micro-heresies like this probably don't pose too much of a threat to anyone's soul, and at least they provide an entertaining diversion to the rest of us.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Inside the Utility Closet

Scott Alexander, who writes at Slate Star Codex, is a pretty swell guy as far as godless rationalists go, and he makes many careful and compelling arguments.  However, he fails to make a good case for one of his fundamental beliefs, namely, utilitarianism.  He advances his argument in The Consequentialism FAQ, a question and answer style discourse on the primacy of consequences to proper moral reasoning.

Alexander begins by arguing that any moral system must be grounded in moral intuitions.  He writes, "Moral intuitions are important because unless you are a very specific type of philosopher they are the only reason you believe morality exists at all."  When faced with competing intuitions, Alexander says that "We must reach a reflective equilibrium among our various moral intuitions, which may end up assigning some intuitions more or less weight than others, and debunking some of them entirely."  His justificiation for this equilibrium: "It's my moral intuition that we should. Isn't it yours?"

Alexander contrasts his intuition-based system with ethical philosophies grounded in metaphysics, which present absolute ethical principles that exist independent of intuitions.  He attempts a refutation of metaphysical ethics with a hypothetical story that is too long to reproduce in full, so I shall summarize it.

If a man acquired a mystical artifact that exempted him from any sort of transcendent metaphysical morality, he would still feel guilty about doing evil.  We are stuck with intuitions about morality regardless of metaphysical exemptions, so morality seems exactly the same with or without metaphysics.  Therefore, metaphysics should have nothing to do with morality.

Alexander really should have run this scenario by someone else before he decided to publish it as his entire argument against metaphysical ethics.  The problem with the scenario is that it is quite literally nonsense.  Metaphysical reality cannot be switched off for an individual.  Every major philosophy that I can think of that posits some essential transcendent morality also binds that morality to the metaphysical reality of man.  A person exempt from morality would thus also be exempt from existence.  A man not bound to metaphysical morality is just as absurd as a square triangle, and an argument against metaphysical morality based on such a man is as faulty as an argument against the omnipotence of God based on His inability to create such a triangle.

Alexander fails to defeat metaphysically grounded ethics, but he soldiers on and attempts to construct an ethical system based on intuition.  The offset paragraphs with the bolded headings are from the FAQ:
Why should we assign a nonzero value to other people?
I was kind of hoping this would be one of those basic moral intuitions that you'd already have. That to some degree, no matter how small, it matters whether other people live or die, are happy or sad, flourish or languish in misery.
Well, I suppose sociopaths are out of luck here, but that extreme exception aside, we are still with left the question of how exactly to apply our moral intuition that people have value.  Alexander attempts to address this.
Why might morality fail to assign value to other people?
Morality might fail to refer to other people if it only refers to itself, or if it refers to selfish motives like avoiding guilt, procuring “warm fuzzies", or signaling [showing off].
What do you mean by a desire to avoid guilt?
Suppose an evil king decides to do a twisted moral experiment on you. He tells you to kick a small child really hard, right in the face. If you do, he will end the experiment with no further damage. If you refuse, he will kick the child himself, and then execute that child plus a hundred innocent people.
The best solution is to somehow overthrow the king or escape the experiment. Assuming you can't, what do you do?
There are certain moral philosophers who would tell you to refuse. Sure, the child would get hurt and lots of innocent people would die, but it wouldn't, technically, be your fault. But if you kicked the child, well, that would be your fault, and then you'd have to feel bad about it.
But this excessive concern about whether something is your fault or not is a form of selfishness. If you sided with those philosophers, it wouldn't be out of a concern for the child's welfare - the child's getting kicked anyway, not to mention executed - it would be out of concern with whether you might feel bad about it later. The desire involved is the desire to avoid guilt, not the desire to help others.
I find it hard to believe that Alexander really thinks anyone would feel more guilt about kicking the child than they would about the death of all those people.  If anything, exclusive concern about guilt would lead people to kick the child.  We may reasonably say that the death of the innocents is not our fault, but human emotions do not work strictly according to reason, much as rationalists such as Alexander might wish they did.  Those who would consider themselves responsible for the child kicking but not the deaths would almost certainly feel guilty for the deaths anyway.  It is metaphysical morality that Alexander must truly grapple with, but he sets that aside in favor of a hypothetical person with a bizarre kind of scrupulosity.
What do you mean by “warm fuzzies"?
This term refers to the happy feeling your brain gives you when you've done the right thing. Think the diametric opposite of guilt.
But just as guilt is not a perfect signal, neither are warm fuzzies. As Eliezer puts it, you might well get more warm fuzzy feelings from volunteering for an afternoon at the local Shelter For Cute Kittens With Rare Diseasess than you would from developing a new anti-malarial drug, but that doesn't mean that playing with kittens is more important than curing malaria.
If all you're trying to do is get warm fuzzy feelings, then once again you're assigning value only to your own comfort and not to other people at all.
Here Alexander makes what is perhaps the best argument against his own position.  What exactly is the distinction between the supposedly selfish "warm fuzzies" and supposedly selfless moral intuitions?  To his credit Alexander recognizes this problem.
Are you sure it's ever possible to value other people? Maybe even when you think you are, you're valuing the happy feelings you get when you help other people, which is still sorta selfish if you think about it.

Even if that theory is correct, there's a big difference between promoting your own happiness by promoting the happiness of others, and promoting your own happiness instead of promoting the happiness of others.

People who use a guilt-reduction or signaling-based moral system will end up making harmful decisions: they will make choices that hurt other people in order to benefit themselves. People who try their best to help other people for fundamentally selfish reasons still help other people as much as possible, and this seems to deserve the label “altruistic" and the praise that goes with it as much as anything does.
Alexander may see the problem, but he fails to present a coherent solution, and instead is satisfied with shifting the goalposts.  He claims that there is a big difference between promoting one's own happiness and promoting the happiness of others in order to make oneself happy, but offers no evidence for this.  What exactly is the difference?  Sure, it makes a difference to someone else if I return the wallet he dropped or take it for myself, but a morality based entirely on intuitions has nothing to do about my potential beneficiary or victim and everything to do with me.  If I intuit my own need for some blackjack and hookers, and that intuition is stronger than my intuitions about the immorality of theft, then I should take that sucker's wallet.

The great moral philosopher Bender Bending Rodríguez

Alexander's FAQ concludes with a case for utilitarianism, which he considers to be the best way to achieve equilibrium of intuitions.  He writes,
Morality should be about improving the world. There are many definitions for “improving the world", but one which doesn't seem to have too many unpleasant implications is satisfying people's preferences. This leads to utilitarianism, the moral system of trying to satisfy as many people's preferences as possible.
He goes on to explore the different strains of utilitarian thought and their practical application, but his basic definition shall suffice for our purposes. 

Considering Alexander's argument as a whole, one must grant that it is logically valid.  His conclusion that utilitarianism is the ideal moral system follows from his premises.  However, his argument is entirely unsound.  The most generous thing that could be said for his argument is that several of the key premises might be true but that Alexander offers no significant support for them.  Most egregious are his failures to properly address metaphysically grounded morality, and to differentiate between "warm fuzzies" and moral intuitions.  Without these premises, Alexander's thesis fails. 

This post is intended not as an attack on Scott Alexander but as a critique of utilitarianism.  Alexander is not presenting his own home-brewed case for utilitarianism, but rather the standard argument for that moral system, and it is because he presents it so accurately and concisely that I picked his argument to criticize.  Every argument for utilitarianism of which I am aware runs into the same problems that Alexander does; problems that they also fail to overcome.  As for the rest of us, we should work to discern real morality, a morality that treats people as ends in themselves rather than bundles of preferences.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Musical Interlude

I am working on a post about utilitarianism that should be up sometime tomorrow.

I sure am glad to be back in the South.  Check out this performance of Dixie by the 2nd South Carolina String Band on period instruments:


Legal/Ethical note: This track was not uploaded by the band, but they link to it on their website.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finally Done!

This Saturday I will receive a diploma.  The last month has been especially intense, and I didn't write a single post.  Though I will no longer be "A Catholic College Kid," per the subtitle, I will keep blogging as a "A Catholic Law Student."  I am grateful for the education I have recieve and am excited about the future!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fasting is Easy, Lent is Hard

Of the three activities that the faithful are encouraged to engage in during Lent, fasting, prayer, and alms giving, fasting gets most of the attention.  I think this is probably because it is the easiest.  Lenten fasts were once fairly intense, but we now just give up chocolate and beer.  I have no difficulty keeping my lenten fasts, and I'm certainly no saint. 

Perhaps we ought to engage in more difficult fasts, but regardless, we should be sure to remember prayer and alms giving.  The passivity of fasting is great for lazy people like me.  Actually going to the chapel for a rosary or daily mass seems far more difficult.  Giving of our time and money to help those less fortunate is even more of a bummer.  There are those who feel the greatest joy while praying or feeding the homeless.  Such people are called saints.  Saints do not exist as an impossible ideal but as an example of how we are all to live.  Holiness is demanded of us all and Lenten disciplines are designed precisely to make us holier.

Have a blessed Lent.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick Explains the Trinity

So funny.  H/T: The Crescat

Happy St. Patrick's Day!


An Irish Blessing

May St. Patrick guard you wherever you go,
and guide you in whatever you do--
and may his loving protection be a blessing to you always.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Greatest Living Sci-Fi Writer

Vox wants to know, who is the greatest living sci-fi writer?  The only one I recognize in the poll is John C. Wright, who I know as an excellent essayist, but if any of you know the other authors, click on the link and vote for your favorite author.  I am looking forward to seeing the result.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Beware!

As Beefy Levinson reminds us, today is the Ides of March! (Well for the next seven minutes US Central Time anyway.)

Mike Rowe on Education

Remember what I said about posting youtube videos on Saturday night so as to fulfill my 4 weekly post commitment?  Well, here's the first one.  Do you want to watch a 40 minute interview with Mike Rowe?  Of course you do.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dolan and the HHS Mandate

An old Zippy post has changed my mind about Cardinal Dolan and the HHS contraception mandate.  Previously, I had been concerned with what I considered to be Dolan's hypocrisy in regards to the mandate.  Under Dolan's leadership, the Archdiocese of New York had provided coverage for contraception, sterilization, and even abortion through its union mandated insurance plan.  Dolan himself had said that the HHS mandate that requires the same thing would necessarily violate the consciences of all Catholic employers.  When one applies Dolan's objection to the insurance plan that his own archdiocese uses, then the archdiocesan plan must also violate the consciences of Catholics and no Catholic, especially the Archbishop, should be complicit with such an evil.  Zippy, who knows way more about moral theology than I do, writes,

The question on the table is, is compliance with the HHS mandate necessarily formal cooperation with evil? And while I strongly commend those who raise the question for raising it I think the answer is most likely that no, compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil. I do have an important caveat in the closing paragraphs of this post, however.
I use the term “necessarily” because it is always possible to formally cooperate with evil, even without doing anything at all. Someone who in his own head says “good on her for getting that abortion” or “good for those people providing contraception” or “good for that judge clearing the way for Terri Shaivo to be starved to death” or “good on Bush for bombing that restaurant full of towel heads” has formally cooperated with mortally grave moral evil: he intends the evil act of another person or has shared in the evil intention of another person, and is morally condemned by that intention.
The plight of an employer faced with complying with the HHS mandate is similar to the plight of a legislator faced with a bill that restricts more abortions than are restricted now, yet still includes some exceptions – say the usual dark triad of rape, incest, and life of the mother. Evangelium Vitae tells us that not only is abortion itself intrinsically immoral; it is also morally wrong in itself to pass laws explicitly authorizing any abortion. It follows (my inference) that a legislator who specifically proposes the three exceptions in law, even if only as a means to the very laudable end of increasing legal restriction of abortion, does evil. You can’t specifically propose the three exceptions without intending the three exceptions as a means to some end: formal cooperation with evil. On the other hand, Evangelium Vitae also tells us that a legislator can licitly support such a bill, so long as his absolute rejection of all abortion – including by inference the three exceptions – is explicit and well known.
The situation with the good pro-life legislator is that he faces an omnibus choice: he does not support the three exceptions themselves and did not propose them himself, but if voting for the bill results in an overall better state of the law it is acceptable for him to vote for the bill. Similarly, the good employer does not support the provision of contraception and did not propose it himself. But he also faces an omnibus choice, where every option he chooses has bad – though unintended by him – consequences. It would be formal cooperation for him to propose and support evil provisions in the health insurance plan himself, as a means to any end; but it is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil for him to support the provision of health insurance that has many good benefits, even though it also provides, literally against his will, the material means for other people to do evil things.
There is a certain danger in this kind of thinking though. It is one thing to support a bill which increases restrictions on abortion across the board, even while retaining exceptions proposed by others (who are necessarily employing gravely evil means in so proposing, despite in some cases laudable ends). It would be another thing to support a bill which trades off restrictions: one which (say) introduced a previously closed exception for rape but closed an existing exception for incest. And it would be another thing still to trade off incommensurable evils: say, to further restrict some abortions while mandating sterilizations of certain individuals. It is far from clear that these “lesser of two incommensurable evils” calculations can avoid formal cooperation with the evil actions deemed “lesser”. I cannot therefore definitely conclude that compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil (though I expected to conclude that when I started writing the post; so there you go).
This seems reasonable to me.  It would seem that it is not necessarily immoral for a Catholic employer to comply with the HHS mandate.  This absolves the Archdiocese of New York, but leaves us with a new problem.  If a Catholic can in good conscience comply with the contraception mandate, then upon what grounds can we claim that the mandate violates our religious liberty?  If Dolan believes that complying with a similar plan in his archdiocese is not immoral, then how can he say with any legitimacy that the HHS mandate would require Catholics to violate their consciences?  If the lawsuits against the mandate fail and the bishops decide that its not so bad after all to comply with it, then the Church will appear to be inconsistent and self-serving.  In addition, great harm may be done to the relationship between confused laity and the flip-flopping clerics.  Bishops such as Dolan are not necessarily hypocrites, but they may have made a bad situation worse.

Internet Problems

As soon as the internet starts working in the place I am staying I will be able to publish an actual post.  This mobile app only let's me post basic text.  Dang it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Blogging During Lent

I have been neglecting the blog of late, but as a Lenten discipline, I will try to post at least four times a week.  This may or may not involve the posting of four inane YouTube videos every Saturday evening.