Monday, June 30, 2008

Hindsight and altruism

Forty years ago you and your brother foughts about who would get to play with the new train. You remember the fight, but not the outcome. At the time, you really wanted to win the fight and play with the train. Now you no longer have any strong preference for having been the one who got to play with the train.

In the view from distant hindsight, we do not have strong preferences that we were the ones who obtained some good—at least if we are talkiing of material goods. Now Simone Weil thinks, and I think common sense supports her, that the view from distant hindsight is the true and objective way of looking at a situation. Since it is not rational to see it as strongly preferable that we had long ago received some material good rather than someone else getting it, neither should we have such a stroong preference in regard to near-future goods. This is an argument for altruism and against egoism.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Here is an argument:

  1. A character trait aimed at producing what is always intrinsically good is not a vice. (Premise)
  2. A tendency to Schadenfreude is a character trait aimed at producing pleasure (at the sufferings of others). (Premise)
  3. A tendency to Schadenfreude is a vice. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, pleasure is not always intrinsically good.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Everything is beautiful

Suppose that beauty is objective. Nonetheless when we talk of an entity's being beautiful, we are talking of it under a certain aspect. Thus a performance of an aria may be auditorily but not visually beautiful. A Rembrandt may well be ugly in respect of ultraviolet observation. We typically call a work of art beautiful if it is beautiful under some aspect. A part of the task of learning to appreciate a work is learning how to observe under that aspect (the aspect may include historically contingent artistic conventions). But, plausibly, every physical object is beautiful under some aspect. If it is not visibly or auditorily or tactilely beautiful, maybe it is x-ray or gravitationally beautiful, but we just do not observve by x-ray, and observe poorly by gravitation. It seems likely that given the infinite variety of objects, each object is quite beautiful under some aspect. An item is beautiful if it is beautiful under some aspect. Is an item ugly if it is ugly under some aspect? I think not. We would not say a face is ugly if it is ugly under x-rays.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Purpose and evolution: a sketch of an argument

Ancient pre-history is not directly relevant to the question of what medical procedures are now morally appropriate. Whether eyes are for seeing is directly relevant to the morality of medical procedures—for instance, it directly affects whether a doctor should agree to blind a patient who wants to be blind. Therefore whether eyes are for seeing is not something that reduces to facts about evolutionary history.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Evolution of morality

An explanation of a true proposition essentially involving an objectively normative term uses a normative term. That people tend to get basic moral beliefs right essentially involves the objectively normative term "moral". Scientific explanations do not involve normative terms. Therefore there is no scientific, and hence no evolutionary, explanation of why people get basic moral beliefs right.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Abortion and politics

Let us assume, as is in fact the case, that fetuses are persons, and abortion is immoral and should be illegal. Let us imagine two politicians, Smith and Kowalska, running for high state or federal office. Kowalski believes:

  1. fetuses are persons, and hence abortion is immoral, but
  2. abortion should be legal.
Smith, on the other hand, believes:
  1. fetuses are not persons, and abortion is permissible, and
  2. abortion should be legal.
Insofar as these beliefs go, Kowalska is closer to the truth: she is right about (1) but wrong about (2), while Smith is wrong about (3) and wrong about (4). But observe that Kowalska is committed to a further claim which follows from (1) and (2) (and the uncontroversial additional assumption that is almost universally granted that if fetuses are persons, they are innocent persons who are killed with abortion):
  1. There are some innocent persons killing whom should be legal.

Thus, even though Smith's views on abortion are more false, she is not thereby committed to the abhorrent view (5). But Kowalska's truer, but more conflicted, views lead to (5). Therefore, pro-lifers have reason to vote for Smith over Kowalska. Indeed, Kowalska either believes (5) or she is not smart enough to draw the inference to (5) from (1) and (2). The belief in (5) is arguably sufficient to disqualify one from high public office, while the inability to see that (5) follows from (1) and (2) (together with uncontroversial assumptions) suggests that one lacks the intellectual skills needed for high public office. Of course it is possible that Smith is also disqualified, and so are all the other candidates. If so, then one has a hard choice.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Morality and the mind

There is a popular misconception that morality does not apply to the life of the mind. The misconception comes with an argument:

  1. Morality applies only to actions.[note 1]
  2. No thought is an action.
  3. Therefore, morality does not apply to thoughts.
The conclusion manifestly follows from the premises, but premise (2) is false. Voluntary thoughts are actions, and it is only to voluntary thoughts that morality directly applies, just as it is only to voluntary bodily movements that morality directly applies (the person who "shoplifts" while sleepwalking has not done anything wrong because she has not performed any action strictly speaking).

Let me argue that voluntary thoughts are actions. First of all, they figure in deliberation in the same way bodily movements do. Thus, we may press buttons in order to attain some effect we are aiming at, but we might also think a thought in order to attain some planned effect. In both cases, the effect may be mental or physical—all four combinations of cause and effect types are possible. Thus, I may press a sequence of buttons on my computer in order to learn whether zebras can interbreed with horses: a physical action, ultimately leading to a mental effect. Or I may press a button to launch a rocket, a physical action leading to a physical effect. Or I can choose to meditate on an embarrassing episode in order to redden my cheeks (e.g., if I am on stage), a mental action leading to a physical effect. Or I can think about an aspect of one philosophical problem in order to shed light on another, a mental action leading to a mental effect. Thus, our actions can include thinkings as means, just as much as they can include physical movements as means.

This is particularly clear in the case of others. If I am the boss, I may solve one problem by asking a subordinate to think about it, and solve another problem by asking a different subordinate to make a prototype. The employees' thinking and physical movement can equally be a part of the boss's plans, and the employees can be paid for thinking and for moving. Typical jobs include both components.

In fact, we can turn the initial argument around to show that some thoughts are genuine actions:

  1. Some thoughts fall in the scope of morality.
  2. Only actions fall in the scope of morality.
  3. Therefore, some thoughts are actions.
To see that (4) is true, consider the case of someone who promised to spend some time each day thinking about a particular person or issue. Clearly, thinking then can be the fulfilling of a promise, and hence something morally required.

Perhaps a part of the intuition behind thinking that thoughts are not subject to morality is an idea that thoughts are involuntary. But that is plainly false. The life of the mind is full of choices: Do I think about this aspect of the problem or that? In what way should I approach this difficulty? Should I first try to prove or to disprove this mathematical statement? Should I think about his faults or his merits or both when reflecting on what I should do in regard to him?

Or maybe the issue is simply that there are not a lot of clear rules about how one ought to think. But even if that were true, it would not follow that morality is inapplicable to thought. Morality is not always tied to clear rules—sometimes it is tied to the judgments of the prudent person. And anyway, there are a lot of clear rules about how one ought to think: the rules of logic, a deliberate failure to follow which is a wicked self-deception.

It's worth noting that just about all major ethical systems will make some thoughts fall under the scope of morality. Consequentialism: Thoughts have consequences. Some thoughts are more likely to make one help others, and other thoughts are less likely to do that. So some thoughts are wrong on a consequentialist system and others are right. Kantianism and Natural Law: Thoughts aimed at self-deception are wrong, since they are contrary to the nature of rationality (Kantianism) or the truth-directedness of our minds (Natural Law). Virtue Ethics: Clearly, spending all one's time thinking only about the wickedness of others is going to make one cynical, and is not what a virtuous person would do, so that such a habit of thought is immoral.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Paul II and Marx

John Paul II is clearly a philosopher who has thought a lot about Marx and about themes of work and alienation that were important to Marx, having first been treated basically as a slave by the Nazis, working in a quarry, and then later living in a regime where almost everyone was treated as a slave of the state. I find striking that John Paul and Marx, while both agreeing about the possibility and actuality of the phenomenon alienated labor, have a major disagreement. John Paul II (and here I am particularly thinking of his first encyclical, Laborem exercens) has the idea that no matter how oppressive the work, it is possible for the worker to do it with dignity (indeed, personal dignity is literally inalienable, and it is possible to make one's work connect to this dignity). The worker can herself ensure that she is not alienated by working in a way that exhibits virtue (the official translation of Laborem exercens talks of the virtue of "industriousness", probably not the best word in English). This does not, of course, in any way excuse the dehumanizing employer or slave-owner, but it does mean that the employer or slave-owner will in fact fail at dehumanizing the worker if the worker holds on to working with virtue. (Here, I guess, we have an instance of Hegel's master-slave dialectic, though John Paul does not allude to it. The employer or slave-owner will in such a case only dehumanize herself.)

Towards the end of The Acting Person, Wojtyla reflects on a related question: the question of what attitude one could have towards an oppressive state. There are two opposed vices to be avoided: on the one side, acquiescence in evil; on the other side, taking oneself completely out of the life of this state. The virtue is in between. It is the virtue of solidarity which, among other things, involves one's doing one's work for the state (with dignity, presumably), but with a willingness to dissent where dissent is called for.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The unitiveness of unreciprocated love

There is a myth that agape is not a unitive love because it does not seek reciprocation. This is mistaken in two ways. First, agape does seek reciprocation (God's love for us is exhibited precisely in his making it possible for us to love him back). Second, reciprocation is not needed for a loving union. This second point is what I will argue for here. According to Aquinas, a love that appreciates the other for her own sake always involves “ecstasy” and mutual “indwelling”. When I love someone, I enter within the beloved both by will and by intellect. By intellect, because I strive to understand that person, from the inside, seeing the person’s goals and nature from his or her own point of view. In love, this understanding leads to willing the other’s good, and not just the abstract good of the other, but particularly the other’s good as it is found in the goals that the other pursues. Thus, I leave myself and live outside of myself—this is ek-stasis. At the same time, the beloved comes to be in my mind, because I constantly think about the beloved rather than about other things. I delight in thinking about my beloved, a delight that is an activity of my will. Moreover the beloved’s good becomes mine, so the beloved lives in my heart or will. Hence simply by loving someone, I dwell inside the person intellectually and in will, and the person dwells in my intellect and will. Even unreciprocated love involves this four-fold indwelling union of lover with beloved.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Love's unitive aspect

Thinking about the unitive aspect of love makes clear one difference between an ethics of love and a consequentialist ethics of maximizing everyone's good. For while love calls on us to do good to others, it does not merely call for us to bring it about that good things happen to others, but to act lovingly towards them. This is compatible with acting in ways that produce sub-optimal results for others. Suppose an eccentric billionaire writes up a legal contract where he binds himself to give a certain destitute stranger a million dollars if I spit in the stranger's face and then spend two minutes verbally abusing and denying the worth of this stranger before telling him what this is all about. It could turn out that all things considered, it would be better for the stranger to suffer this and to get a million dollars than to get neither, and the stranger may resent my opting not to do this. (The judgment that it is better to abuse this stranger depends on details about the stranger's psychology; to know that this is so, one would have to know that the stranger would not become a worse person due to this abuse and would not commit suicide during the two minutes; let us assume this.) But even so, it would be an unloving action to disparage the intrinsic worth of another person, an action that is directly contrary to union with our neighbor and is contrary to the duty to love one's neighbor. In such a case, love does not allow one to act in the way that will in fact maximize the stranger's good.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Harry Frankfurt thinks that the only thing we can do is to see whether a given thing is one that we care about. Consequently, Frankfurt identifies what is important with what we care about. But the "consequently" does not actually all follow. For in exactly the same way we might argue that the only way of figuring out what really exists in physical reality is by examining what we perceive with our senses, and thus conclude, with Berkeley, that to exist in physical reality just is the same as to be perceived. We can say that the fact that we care about something is evidence as that it is important, just as the fact that we apparently perceive something by our senses is evidence that the object is physically real, without denying that I might care about something unimportant or have hallucinatory perceptions of unreal things.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is love blind?

The adage that love is blind would be a tragedy if true. For if one loves, one wants to know more about the beloved, in order to have more to love in the beloved. It is true that, as a matter of fact, people "in love" frequently are blind to aspects of the beloved. But note two points about this. First, insofar as they are blind, they fail to appreciate the beloved as the beloved is, and hence they are failing in love, so love forbids blindness. Second, a charitable blindness to bad characteristics may in fact be an appropriate way of seeing what is really there. For there is good reason for a theist to think that evil, as such, is always a lack. If it were not a lack, if it were something positive, then like everything in existence, it would be sustained by God, whereas God would not sustain evil, as such, in existence. If this is correct, then when we see what is truly there in someone we love, we will not see the evils, since they literally do not exist. At the same time, we may well see that there are ways in which the beloved could be better, which potential for greater goodness is actually a good feature of the beloved, a feature worthy of appreciation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Homogeneity of grounding and groundless presentism

The Grounding Homogeneity Thesis (GHT) is not a precise claim, but a guiding principle that, ceteris paribus, we should prefer philosophical theories on which pairs of statements that have similar logical form have similar kinds of truth grounds or else resemble each other in not having truth grounds. For instance a piece-meal metaethical theory on which what makes stealing be wrong is that it violates the categorical imperative while the fact that murder is wrong has no truth grounds at all violates GHT.

Groundless Presentism is Trenton Merrick's theory on which claims about the past and the future are just true, and there is nothing to make them true. Crisp argues against Groundless Presentism basically on the following grounds. It is now 9:25 am. Then the following two statements are true:

  1. Pruss is (tenseless) writing a blog post at 9:25 am.
  2. Pruss is (tenseless) writing a blog post at 9:20 am.
But on Groundless Presentism, (2) has no truth grounds, while (1) has truth grounds—my present writing. Yet (1) and (2) seem to have the same logical form.

Question: Can the Groundless Presentist just deny the apparent similarity of logical form? If so, then she is committed to the view that one can't read logical form off the words—one may need to know when a statement is being uttered, for instance. I actually agree, but it is a controversial view.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kierkegaardian love

Kierkegaardian view of romantic love makes love not be based on a quality of the beloved such as her generosity, beauty, intelligence, chastity, plenitude of jewelry or knobbiness of knee. A love grounded on these kinds of qualities would not really do justice to the irreplaceability of the beloved, the mysterious incommunicability of the beloved.

But what does Kierkegaard put in the place of such qualities? It is a choice by the lover, a choice to love. But then on Kierkegaard's view, romantic love is, after all, based on a quality, a quality even more fickle than beauty or plenitude of jewelry: the lover's choice. And this, surely, is even more problematic, shifting as it does the focus from the beloved to the lover.

I think this whole business of finding reasons for love is silly. For we always have decisive reason to love another person... just because the other is a person. The question is not of what reasons we have for loving, but of what reasons we have for loving in a particular way (friendly, filial, romantic, etc.) And this question is both less momentous and easier.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Premarital sex and marriage as a social institution

Let us suppose, to see where this false assumption leads us, that premarital sex were morally permissible. Let us also suppose that marriage is a social institution and that a social institution is defined normatively by the duties and permissions one gains as a result of entering into the institution.

Now, all the substantive non-sexual duties and permissions of marriage can be had by a non-marital relationship (I say "substantive", because there is one permission that cannot be had except by those who are married, and that is the permission to say "we are married"). Two people who love each other as brother and sister (in fact, they could actually be brother and sister) could simply come together and through carefully written contracts (against the background of a state that gives sufficient authority to contracts) give each other the duties that marriage involves, and those permissions that depend on one another's agreement, and the state could then do the rest for them.

Thus, marriage, if it an institution, has to bestow sexual duties and/or permissions. Could this just be the duty not to have sex with anybody else? I don't think so. The two people who love each other as brother and sister could promise each other than neither would have sex with anybody, and then they would automatically acquire the duty not to have sex with anybody else (this is a controversial point—I know at least one philosopher who will deny the inference here). Since premarital sex was assumed to be permissible, the couple does not acquire the permission to have sex. So what sexual duty or permission do they acquire?

The only remaining plausible candidate is that each acquires a duty (surely a ceteris paribus one) to have sex with the other. Thus, if the argument works, then if (a) marriage is a social institution in the above sense and (b) premarital sex is permissible, then what defines marriage over and beyond a possible committed loving lifelong non-marital relationship is that by marrying the couple gives each other sexual duties towards each other.

This means that if we see marriage as a social institution, and we accept premarital sex as permissible, we will see marriage as basically a "stern" institution (here I am echoing Newman's idea of conscience as a "stern" voice, i.e., one that speaks only of duty), one defined by the conferral of duties rather than of permissions. On the other hand, if we see premarital sex as impermissible, we will see marriage as in large part a permissive institution, one that confers the permission to have sex.

Presumably seeing marriage as a stern institution is a part of why some people in our culture have a negative attitude towards it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reproduction and in vitro fertilization

I've discussed this kind of argument before. But I kind of like the following formulation. I am not endorsing the argument.

  1. In causing x to come into existence solely for the sake of the good of something or someone other than x, we are treating x as our instrument for that good. (Premise)
  2. It is always wrong for us to treat a person as our instrument for a goal. (Premise)
  3. Every action is done for the sake of the good of something or someone. (Premise)
  4. In intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we act for the sake of the good of the child or of some other entity (or both). (By (3))
  5. To act for the sake of A, one must choose to act for the sake of A. (Premise)
  6. To choose to act for the sake of the good of x requires that one presuppose the existence of x. (Premise)
  7. One choose cannot to accomplish something that one already presupposes. (Premise)
  8. Therefore, one cannot choose to act in order that x should exist for the sake of the good of x. (By (6) and (7))
  9. Therefore, in intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we act for the sake of the good of some entity other than the child. (By (4) and (8))
  10. Therefore, in intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such, we are treating the child is our instrument for that good. (By (1) and (9))
  11. Therefore, it is wrong to intentionally bring it about that a child exists as such. (By (2) and (10))
  12. In engaging in in vitro fertilization (IVF), the couple and the doctor are intentionally bringing it about that a child exists as such.
  13. The couple and the doctor act wrongly in engaging in in vitro fertilization.

The most serious problem with this argument is that it also implies that it is wrong for a married couple to have intercourse simply in order to produce a child. I think this implication can be tolerated. The couple can permissibly intend not the existence of the child as such (now we see the point of the "as such" qualifications in a lot of the claims), but they can intend fecund marital union as such. Marital union is good, and when it is fecund it is even better.

Can the couple making use of IVF say the same thing? "We do not intend the existence, of a child, but we intend a fecund round of IVF?" No. For fecund IVF has mainly instrumental value. One engages in fecund IVF in order to have a child, and so one intends the existence of the child as such. But marital union, fecund or not, has a value in itself.

Objection 1: It is not wrong for God to use us as an instrument.

Response: I agree, which is why (2) uses the word "we", i.e., we human beings. But note that even if our purpose in reproduction is to provide God with an instrument, it is still our intention to provide God with an instrument, so it is still we who are using the child as an instrument for God's purposes.

Objection 2: God can command a couple to reproduce, and then the couple is not reproducing in order that a child might come into existence, but because the reproduction itself is commanded by God.

Response: While it is reasonable to claim that God commands married couple to engage in intercourse, and when it is not unreasonable to try to make the intercourse fecund, we have no evidence that God commands married couples to engage in IVF. It is surely false that God commands all married couples to do everything they can in order to reproduce.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A remark on in vitro fertilization

In procreating, we are about as God-like as we can be. But, as C. S. Lewis has forcefully argued based on a number of cases in The Four Loves, it is when we are most God-like that we run the greatest danger of idolatry. It is then that we need humility most. A plausible way to inculcate this humility in oneself is to procreate only by a method designed not by ourselves but by our Creator (or by nature).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Knowing confusedly

Contemporary American philosophers tend to encounter the distinction between confused and distinct concepts in Descartes, and the distinction can be somewhat mystifying there—the "confused" seems a pejorative, for instance. It's interesting that the distinction is one that is already present in Aquinas. In Aquinas, the distinction is between knowing something confusedly and knowing it distinctly. There seem to be three paradigmatic ways one can know something confusedly:

  1. Knowing the whole without knowing the parts. For instance, we may confusedly know our bodies without knowing the kidneys.
  2. Knowing several individuals under a common description they all satisfy. For instance, in some sense we know all human beings—namely, we know that they are all human and hence have the properties that all humans have. But we know them under a common description here.
  3. Knowing a nature (e.g., humanity) under an accidental rather than essential description. Thus, if I know humanity as my own species, I know humanity only confusedly (it is an accidental property of humanity that it is my own species—this is true in the Aristotelian sense of "accidental" and probably also in the modern, since were I not to have existed, then I would not have been human). But I know humanity distinctly when I know it as rational animality, Aquinas thinks. Aquinas uses this distinction to solve the puzzle of how we can perform the Socratic task of seeking a definition for something, since we allegedly need a definition to know what we are seeking the definition of. The answer is that we only need to know confusedly what we are seeking the definition of.[note 1]

Of these, the third seems best to match Descartes' usage and I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that this is what Descartes has in mind. What is interesting, though, is that Aquinas will not tolerate Descartes' claim that we have a clear and distinct concept of God. For the essence of God is beyond our knowledge in this life according to Aquinas. Aquinas and Descartes agree that if we had the concept of God clearly and distinctly, we would know that God exists. But Aquinas denies the antecedent of this conditional (while accepting the consequent but on other grounds).

I wonder if Descartes' discussion of the clarity and distinctness of the concept of God doesn't commit a certain fallacy. In Aquinas, the concept of confusion is not a pejorative concept. The philosopher knows all things—but confusedly, at least in sense (2) (the philosopher knows general descriptions under which all things fall). There is no cognitive failing in knowing things confusedly. In fact, knowing things confusedly can be a cognitive achievement. To see the trees is distinct knowledge, while to see the forest is confused knowledge in sense (1)—but this confused knowledge is an achievement. In sense (2), our ability to abstract things is what gives rise to confused knowledge, and this confusion is an achievement. In sense (3) it is a bit harder to see the confusion as an achievement, but it is. For it is one thing to know that humanity is rational animality, and another to know that it is my species (I am not sure Aquinas would see it this way). One can know the former without knowing the latter, and so the latter confused knowledge is an achievement in part independent of the distinct knowledge.

The fallacy I am thinking of is that I get the feeling at times that for Descartes "confusion" is pejorative (just as it is in 21st century English). Now, then, Descartes may be having the following intuition behind thinking that the concept of God is not confused: Were the concept confused, there would be something wrong in us for having it—but to have the concept is surely a positive intellectual attainment. But if we see that there is nothing negative about having a confused concept of God (though in some ways it would be better to have a distinct one), then it becomes much easier to just that our concept of God is confused.

One reason to think Descartes would take "confusion" in a pejorative sense is that apparently it did have that valuatively negative sense in 17th century French (at least the 1694 French dictionary I have on my PDA gives only valuatively negative examples under "confusion").

Monday, June 9, 2008

Believing claims about visible things

Traditionally, Christians used to complain that some folks (e.g., atheists) suffer from a difficulty in believing in invisible realities. While there may be such an affliction, I think in a way it can be harder to believe claims about visible things. Consider, for instance, the difficulty a lot of people experience in believing that miracles have occurred out in the extra-mental physical world (some people are much more open to believing in miracles of inspiration than in physical extra-mental miracles), or the difficulty in gaining acceptance for philosophical theories that make empirical predictions, even if these empirical predictions are compatible with everything we know. In regard to the latter, I am thinking of three examples:

  1. Certain versions of libertarianism which entail that there are brain events that do not supervene on events that can be explained by physics.
  2. Versions of General Relativity Theory that entail that our world has foliation by spacelike hypersurfaces (e.g., Crisp's presentist General Relativity).
  3. The claim that no future pope will ex cathedra teach a doctrine that contradicts earlier infallible teaching of the Church's magisterium.

I think the issue is simply that it is pretty easy to believe propositions that have the property that even if they were (perhaps per impossibile) false, one wouldn't know it. In believing such propositions, there is no risk of being proved wrong. But it is harder to believe propositions where the belief involves a certain risk—i.e., propositions which are such that if they were (perhaps per impossibile) false, one might be proved wrong.

Similarly, it may be easier to believe propositions that have no practical consequences for us over propositions that have practical consequences. Consider for instance that a lot of people find it a lot easier to believe that God is a Trinity, despite all the paradoxes inherent in this doctrine, than they do to believe that contraception is always wrong, which doctrine does not involve any serious paradox, though it is counterintuitive relative to our culture.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Homosexuality in Leviticus 18

[The main two arguments in this post have been refuted by the first commenter, and so I no longer endorse this post, though I still accept the category A view on other grounds. I was thinking of deleting the post, but thought it better to stay, as an embarrassing testimony to my slip up. I had simply missed Lev. 18:19. So Lev. 18 as a whole is not just about morality, but also about ritual purity (given the incest prohibitions, it is clear that some of the purity rules are closely tied to moral rules). My inductive argument fails, thus. Moreover, on reflection there are alternate readings of Lev. 18:24-25, which verses have now become problematic. First, one might read verse 24 as saying that the nations that are being driven out defiled themselves by their practice of all the prohibited items, some of which (well, I still think all but one) clearly are a matter of morality. Second, we might suppose that the menstruation rule violated a purity rule that members of the relevant nations themselves accepted, and hence was a violation of conscience or something like that.]

The Old Testament prohibits homosexual activity. One of the challenges in regard to Old Testament prohibitions is to separate (A) those that are universally applicable, for instance because they are a matter of Natural Law, from (B) those that were only literally applicable to the Jewish people (and even there, only until such time as one should die with Christ in baptism), such as the prohibition on pork. In an earlier post, I argued that the God of Love would only give a complete prohibition on homosexual acts if these acts were always immoral, so the prohibitions on homosexual acts were in category A.

I was reading Leviticus 18 tonight. This contains prohibitions on incest, the sacrificing of children to Moloch, male homosexual activity and bestiality. Two items struck me (not in the order in which I list them). First, all the prohibitions other than of male homosexual activity can be easily read as having universal, or near-universal applicability (perhaps God made special provisions with respect to incest for the first humans; the duty of exogamy can perhaps be relative to the size of the gene pool). There is, thus, an inductive argument that the prohibition on male homosexual activity has universal or near-universal applicability as well. Second, we have the following text in verses 24-25 (in the JPS translation), after all the prohibitions have been given:

Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants.
It is clear contextually that "those ways" include all the prohibitions of Leviticus 18. It appears, thus, that God held non-Jews responsible for violations of all the rules in Leviticus 18, and this would put the rules in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition on male homosexual activity, in category A.

It may be that I am missing something here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Every action is morally significant

If it is a duty to love God with all one's heart, mind, being and strength, then it seems that every action ought to be an expression of love for God. Therefore, every action is morally significant: it is either morally good, being an expression of love for God, or it fails to be an expression of love for God, and thus fails to be good. After all, if one acts not out of love for God, then one has a motivation that is not based on love for God, and hence one is failing to love God with all of one's will.

This could be read very pessimistically as the Lutheran claim that we are always sinning. But it could also be read more optimistically, as that many apparently insignificant actions, if they are not to be wicked, must actually be expressions of love for God.

Let me end with my favorite quote from George MacDonald (The Princess and Curdie):

'But, please, ma'am - I don't mean to be rude or to contradict you,' said Curdie, 'but if a body was never to do anything but what he knew to be good, he would have to live half his time doing nothing.'
'There you are much mistaken,' said the old quavering voice. 'How little you must have thought! Why, you don't seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don't mistake me. I don't mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you.'
Curdie laughed.
'There are a great many more good things than bad things to do. [...]'

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Conversations, anonymity and pseudonymity

A central feature of normal human conversations is the re-identification of individuals. It would not be a normal human conversation if a bunch of blindfolded people sat around wearing headphones and microphones, with the speech from the microphones being fed into a voice disguiser which reduced all the voices to one, and with no one identifying herself. A normal conversation requires constancy of interlocutors. The re-identification of individuals is what makes dialectical accountability possible. Moreover, through conversation, one ideally becomes friends. But friendship requires individuation.

Consequently, I am disallowing anonymous comments on this blog as of immediately. I might reconsider given good reason.

I should note that I have benefited significantly in the past from anonymous comments, and I hoping that persons now commenting anonymously will post under their real names or, at least, under a nom de plume.

I do, in fact, also believe pseudonymity is something unfortunate. Our actions and words express us: it is unfortunate if we do not openly stand behind them. I think there is a strong presumption against pseudonymity (cf. this post of mine). If you feel that the alternative to participating pseudonymously is not participating at all, I ask that you examine carefully why it is that you are unwilling to stand publicly behind one's views. This examination might yield one of three conclusions: (a) one should speak publicly in one's own name; (b) one should be silent; or (c) genuine prudence forces one into psuedonymity. I fully understand that, for instance, persons living in totalitarian regimes, graduate students and untenured faculty, etc. can have very good prudential reasons for participating only pseudonymously in discussion, and so I am not banning pseudonymous participation.

In fact, I strongly advise graduate students and untenured faculty to post only pseudonymously, unless they have good reason to believe the prudential concerns do not apply to them. (I should also note that if one is in a category where one's life or liberty depends on not being identified, it might be wiser not to post even pseudonymously unless you use appropriate independent encryption-based services to access the Internet, since there may still be ways of being tracked down.)

Whether one falls in a category where pseudonymity is justified is a judgment one must leave to the individual prudence of the phronimos.

Nonetheless, I do ask that if you use a pseudonym, you try to stick to one pseudonym. This will make possible the re-identification of conversation partners. I can, however, understand that you might on rare occasions switch to a new pseudonym (e.g., if one's cover has been blown, or one has lost access to an account).

Anonymous sperm donation

Here is a valid argument:

  1. At least barring commensurate reasons, it is wrong to act in such a way that one will acquire a basic and serious human responsibility that one does not plan on fulfilling. (Premise)
  2. If one consensually reproduces, then one acquires a basic and serious human responsibility of parenthood for the offspring. (Premise)
  3. Anonymous sperm donors consensually reproduce the offspring that comes from their donated sperm. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, anonymous sperm donors acquire the basic and serious human responsibility of parenthood for the offspring. (By (2) and (3))
  5. Anonymous sperm donors typically do not plan to fulfill their parental responsibilities towards the offspring coming from their donated sperm. (Premise)
  6. Anonymous sperm donors typically lack reasons for the donation commensurate with the acquiring of unfulfilled parental responsibilities. (Premise)
  7. Therefore, typically, sperm donors act wrongly. (By (1), (4), (5) and (6))

I suspect it's sound, too.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Possible slowdown in responding to comments

I've been appreciating a lot of the comments, and am grateful for all the interest in my half-formed ideas. However, this is a very busy summer for me. I need to finish my book One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (Notre Dame University Press). So while I will try to continue to blog (except maybe while traveling for a certain 1.5 week period), I may have to go light on responding to comments. Please don't think your comments are being ignored if I do not respond to your comment.

On Hume and a raging tiger

My belief that behind the purple door there is a raging tiger who would painfully kill me in a way that is very bad for me is sufficient to motivate me not to open the door. According to Hume, one needs to add to this belief the desire not to be painfully killed. Adding such a desire on top of the belief seems quite unnecessary.

What, then, do I make of the apparent possibility of Simone's believing that behind the purple door there is a raging tiger who would painfully kill her in a way that is very bad for her, and yet her being entirely unmoved by this belief? It seems that this possibility implies that there must be something more than the mere belief that is motivating me, since Simone has the belief and is not motivated. But this reasoning is fallacious. That there are cases where an A-type event does not cause a B-type event does not imply that something more than an A-type event is needed to cause a B-type event. It could, instead, be that there is something more in the cases where the A-type event does not cause a B-type event, for instance some defect that blocks the AB causal pathway.

What explains that Sally the Sheep is four-legged is just her being a sheep. Her mate, Rob the Ram, is three-legged, although he is just as much a sheep. We do not need to posit a further cause of Sally's four-leggedness beside her being a sheep. Rather, we need to posit a further cause of Ram's three-leggedness, such as genetic damage or an accident with some equipment in his woodworking shop.

Typically, when A-type events normally cause B-type events, a sufficient explanation of a B-type event in normal circumstances need only cite an A-type event. But when there is a departure from the normal, something more needs to be cited. Now it is clear that my being motivated by my belief is the norm, while Simone's case is abnormal. Thus, rather, it is Simone's case that calls for a further explanation, not mine.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Orthodoxy and the ordinary believer

Getting the doctrinal content of faith right is much more important in Christianity than, say, in Judaism, where the focus is on action rather than creedal belief. Granted, Christian faith is not just creedal belief, but normally Christian faith includes creedal belief. But consider the following serious problem. If you ask the ordinary believer (and maybe not just the ordinary believer), whether Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. to explain the content of the doctrine of the Trinity, if the believer says anything at all, it is not unlikely that she will say something seriously heterodox. She might affirm a view on which the divine persons are not individually God, but are parts of God, or give an account that entails modalism or tritheism (or both). The same goes for the doctrine of the Incarnation. All of this seems to seriously endanger the idea that such an ordinary believer has genuinely Christian faith. After all, if her beliefs are in fact not monotheistic or not Trinitarian, it is difficult to see her as having recognizably Christian faith. Moreover, when the ordinary believer recites a creed, it seems that she understands the creed in a sense different from that which the creed's authors gave it, and so she might as well not bother reciting the creed.

One solution to this problem of the ordinary believer is to lower the doctrinal requirements needed for Christian faith. For instance, one might simply think that it suffices to affirm that Jesus is Lord. I think this solution fails for two reasons. The first is that it goes against the universal tradition of the Church which from the beginning has held that getting the doctrinal content of the faith right and avoiding heresy is important. The second is that belief is not a matter of words. If Sally takes "Jesus is Lord" to mean just that Jesus is her feudal master, she surely does not express the same thing that St. Paul meant when he said that Jesus is Lord. A heretical account of the Trinity or of the Incarnation seems to affect the content of one's professing "Jesus is Lord"—it may affect the meaning of each of the three words.

Here is a better solution. (It is not very original, of course.) A part of Christian faith is the humility that the doctrine one believes is not one's own. A humble believer when asked about what she means by the words "one in being with the Father" in the Nicene Creed might give some explanation, and that explanation might be inadequate or even heretical, but she will qualify her explanation in some way that indicates that her explanation is not authoritative. This is an odd thing. After all, if I utter a sentence, then typically my understanding of what the sentence means is authoritative as to what I meant, pace deconstructionists. But that is not the only mode of speaking. Thus, I might be a messenger or an interpreter, passing on another's message. In this case, my understanding of what the words mean is not at all authoritative. I think that is how we speak the doctrines of faith if we are humble.

More strongly, I think there is a mode of belief like that, where the content of my belief comes from some other source than myself, and I can be mistaken in my explanations of it. To some extent, this is already true in Kripkean cases of beliefs referring to natural kinds or proper names. I may mistakenly think water to be H3O2, but nonetheless my belief that water is a drinkable liquid is true, because I am not the one who is authoritative as to the referrent of "water", even if it is a matter of my thinking (this may require some externalism). When an orthodox Christian believes that the Son is "one in being with the Father", while she may have theories as to what that means, what she is firmly committed to is not the theories, but the meaning which the Church—the mystical body of Christ—attaches to these words.

Thus in an important sense, then, the believer does firmly believe the orthodox doctrine if she firmly trusts the Church that originates the doctrine. I suspect this kind of trust and ceding of authority over the interpretation of one's own beliefs only works well if one thinks that the authors of the creedal affirmations that one accepts were fallible. This means if one thinks only Scripture is infallible, this will only work for close paraphrases of biblical affirmations.

What I said so far is not, I think, complete. For if one qualifies one's explanations of Trinitarian doctrine with a seemingly humble: "Of course, that's just how I see it, but what I truly, hand-on-my-heart, believe is that which the originators of the doctrine meant", there will be something hollow about the qualification if it is not in some way reflected in one's intellectual life. A disclaimer added on to every claim quickly loses meaning.

I think that the way that the disclaimer can be reflected in one's intellectual life is through a willingness to reject one's interpretation of the doctrine as soon as it is seen that the originators meant something else. But this, too, can come cheaply. If the doctrine is a Scriptural "Jesus is Lord" or even a conciliar "his only Son ... [is] one in being with the Father", it seems one does not risk much in being willing to reject one's interpretation. It seems unlikely that St. Paul or St. Athanasius will show up and tell one that one had misinterpreted the text, and historical evidence can often be read in multiple ways. But if there is not much risk, then the disclaimer does not affect one's intellectual life very much.

But if one is Catholic, there really is a risk of being taken up on one's disclaimer. For then the primary originator of the doctrine is not some individual who has died, but the Church that continues to be alive, and continually, through the centuries, has clarified her own teaching. There, there really is a risk that one will come across some other authoritative teaching that contradicts one's interpretation of the doctrine, and there is even a danger that a future teaching of the Church will contradict one's interpretation. In the face of such a risk, the disclaimer that one submits one's understanding to the judgment of the Church has real meat: it would not at all be surprising if one were called on this.

This post should be read in conjunction with the preceding one.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Christian Revelation

Catholics and the Orthodox see the primary repository of divine revelation (in the sense which Protestants call "special revelation", i.e., as distinguished from the revelation embodied in nature) as the Church. The inerrant and inspired Scriptures are the written tradition of the Church (the Church is the New Israel, so this includes the Old Testament), but the Church also expresses divine revelation in liturgy, oral tradition, the Councils and the Magisterium.[note 1] Protestants, on the other hand, tend to find divine revelation primarily in Scripture, though there are some Protestants who think that the Church is the primary respository of revelation, but that this revelation is only found infallibly in the Church's Scriptures.

It is often argued that seeing the Church as primary here makes much sense in light of the fact that the canon of Scripture is defined by the Church.

Here I want to suggest a different argument. The primary object of our faithful trust is Jesus Christ. But the Church is the mystical body of Christ. In trusting the Church, we are trusting Christ. Seeing revelation as embodied primarily in the Church fits well with the christological focus of our faith. While, of course, the Holy Spirit who inspires the Scriptures is perfectly trustworthy, New Testament faith is primarily a trust in Jesus Christ. Trust is an interpersonal relation, so it makes sense to distinguish the persons of the Trinity in respect of it. Seeing the Church, the mystical body of Christ, united as such by the Holy Spirit, as the primary respository of revelation fits particularly well with the christological nature of our Christian faith.