Saturday, December 13, 2014

Unworthy of Man

I must, however, be of opinion, that the sentiments of those, who are inclined to think favourably of mankind, are more advantageous to virtue, than the contrary principles, which give us a mean opinion of our nature. When a man is prepossessed with a high notion of his rank and character in the creation, he will naturally endeavour to act up to it, and will scorn to do a base or vicious action, which might sink him below that figure which he makes in his own imagination. Accordingly we find, that all our polite and fashionable moralists insist upon this topic, and endeavour to represent vice as unworthy of man, as well as odious in itself.

David Hume, Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Music on My Mind

Larry Sparks, "Bitterweeds". Unfortunately only an excerpt. But you can hear the original version of the whole song sung by Barbara Wilkinson at SongSpace. I think Wilkinson's song is likely to become a classic: a clear, easy to sing, and memorable story.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rosmini on Causes and Happenings

'Every happening has a cause that produces it.' This proposition means exactly the same as the following: 'It is impossible for our intelligence to think a happening without thinking a cause that produced it.' To show that 'a happening without a cause cannot be thought', we must show that 'the concept of a happening without a cause involves contradiction.' Once this is demonstrated, we will have deduced the principle of cause from the principle of contradiction.

The demonstration is as follows: to say 'What does not exist, acts' is a contradiction. But a happening without a cause means 'What does not exist, acts.' Therefore a happening without a cause is a contradiction. The proofs follow.
As regards the major: to conceive mentally an action (a change) without an ens, is to conceive without conceiving, which is a contradiction. Indeed, the principle of knowledge states: 'The object of thought is ens'; therefore without an ens, we cannot mentally conceive. To conceive an action without conceiving an ens that performs the action, is to conceive without conceiving. Therefore to apply the action to something that does not exist is a contradiction in terms, which was to be proved.

As regards the minor: a happening is an action (a change). If this action has no cause, it is conceived by itself, without belonging to an ens; there is then an action without ens or, which is the same, what does not exist, acts. Thus the minor is proved (cf. 350-352).

Antonio Rosmini, New Essay Concerning the Origin of Ideas, Volume 2, Part III, Chapter 2. To put the argument in another format:

Major: 'Something that does not exist, acts' is a contradiction.
(1) What is conceived is conceived as a being.
(2) An action conceived without being conceived as a being acting, is not conceived as a being.
(3) Therefore, an action conceived without being conceived as a being acting is a contradiction.

Minor: A happening without a cause entails that something that does not exist, acts.
(1) A happening is an action.
(2) An action conceived without a cause is not conceived as a being that acts.
(3) Therefore, a happening conceived without a cause is not conceived as a being that acts.

The section references to 350-352 is from Rosmini's criticism of Kant in Volume 1. There Rosmini argues that 'what happens' conceptually includes the notion of 'cause', and thus the judgment is analytic and not, as Kant would have it, synthetic. As he puts it:

The following, therefore, is the sequence of our conceptions:

1. We conceive coming into existence, a concept which includes that of change.
2. The concept of change contains that of new operation.
3. The concept of new operation contains that of prior existence.
4. The concept of prior existence contains that of cause.

Conclusion: A happening without a cause is a contradiction.

SZ sz ZS

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake
by Edwin Morgan

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z

I am currently in the last week of term, so I am envying the Hungarian snake's dormition.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Metaphysics of Pregnancy

At Philosophers' Zone there's a summary of a discussion with Elselijn Kingma on the metaphysics of pregnancy. It's an interesting subject in itself, with important ramifications for many philosophical problems (as Kingma notes). And it is particularly interesting this time of year, since Monday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Christmas is in two weeks. Kingma summarizes her view of pregnancy in the following way:

‘My view is that the way to think of the foetus is to think of it as part of the pregnant organism. So that means we have one organism throughout the pregnancy and only at birth does this organism split and becomes two organisms.’

She opposes this view to what she calls the "foetal container model", in which "the pregnancy is literally a container and in the middle of the container there is a hollow in which sits the foetus—and there is no problematic part-whole relationship." (I take it that the key point here is the 'no problematic part-whole relationship', since spatially the fetus is literally contained. That is, the point is that the fetus is not contained in a pregnant organism the way a gift is in a box but is integrated into it in complex ways.) Unfortunately, we don't get Kingma's argument for the one organism view. There are other views than these two on the table. For instance, my own view of the matter, which I've mentioned before, is a two-organism view in which one organism is an integrated and dependent functional part generated in the other. (Of course, there is always some complication with what, precisely we mean by 'organism', since the term notoriously has no strict definition; but in the human case, I would say the same with 'human being': a pregnant mother is a human being who has another human being as a proper part.) The pregnant mother is not a mere container for the fetus; like Kingma's model, it is a part-whole model, since the fetus is literally and physically an interactive part of the mother, qua mother. But nothing about this, as far as I can see, requires that we hold there is only one organism. One potential worry about Kingma's one-then-two view is that birth is not a momentary happening,but a rather extended and complicated process; while the position looks like it would have a fairly simple way to distinguish organisms in the pregnancy case, it cannot actually do so. Is the relevant point the beginning of labor? The exit through the birth canal? The cutting of the umbilical? The first breath (after all, merely severing your hand doesn't make it a different organism, even though vital functions continue for a while)? There's no obvious way to answer this, and this seems to suggest that at least at some point in the process we can perfectly well have one organism that is still in some strict sense part of another, and if that's the case, it isn't clear why we shouldn't have said that all along -- or, at least, it seems that we could have said it much earlier just as well as later.

Kingma also considers ethical implications of her model. Unfortunately, it's not in the audio excerpt, and I find the written summary difficult to follow. She says,

‘When I do harm I have to cross through space to interfere with you. When I allow it to happen I just don’t get involved; it will happen regardless of my involvement. Pregnancy is not wired up like that. A pregnant woman who does anything at all does not cross space to interfere with her foetus.’

I find the idea that 'crossing through space' has much to do with whether one is doing harm difficult to understand. We obviously can harm ourselves. And we can clearly draw a distinction between doing and allowing even with regard to ourselves; most of what happens in our bodies we simply allow, although sometimes our allowance is more active and sometimes less. This is a worrisome fact, given that the position attributed to Kingma is that subject/object (or doer and done-to) break down, so that, in her words, "a doing-and-allowing construction (of harm) cannot be applied to pregnancy"; but if we're talking subject and object of actions, it is unclear how this can be the case. We can clearly be both subject and object of active harm to ourselves. Since the doing-and-allowing construction doesn't break down even in cases where there is obviously only a single organism and no question of pregnancy, it isn't clear at all to me why we would think it would break down here. The more obvious implication of Kingma's model (it is an implication of my own, as well) is that, at first approximation, for a mother to harm her fetus is to harm herself, and to harm a fetus is to harm the mother (although this is not necessarily a straightforward matter since part-whole relations are not always straightforward when it comes to harms); this is not, I suspect, where Kingma wishes to go with the matter. The assumption in the not-very-elaborated comments in the summary seems to be that Kingma holds that we cannot harm ourselves. This is, to say the least, very counterintuitive, and there are very good reasons to reject any such assumption. But it is perhaps an artifact of the summary rather than Kingma's own view.

Kingma is certainly right, though, that pregnancy is worth some thought. For such a common thing, it is remarkably overlooked when people talk about matters to which it would obviously be relevant.

Three Poem Drafts


The breezes give as they receive
and rustle through the erewhon leaves;
their false appearance tricks, deceives,
and makes a point most true.

We counterpoise to know the world,
a bright unworld within it curled,
a banner light at night unfurled,
to be of thought a clue.


Gently now the angels sing
the Son of God, the shepherd-king,
who by still waters leads the lamb,
who was Himself a tender ram
ensnarled in thorn and made to die,
raised again to throne on high,
from thence to rule with iron rod,
the Savior, King, and Son of God.


Unstained by our darkness, O Mary, please pray
for sheep who have wandered, all we who, astray,
are lost in dark shadow, cut off from the light;
pray that the Shepherd will set us aright
with His rod and His staff, with the call of His voice;
pray for us, Mary, who made the just choice.

Unblemished by malice, unbroken by sin,
O Queen of the angels, pray for all men,
and pray for God's mercy to lighten our way
until the night ends at the dawning of day;
pray in the Spirit that God give us grace
and raise us to meet Him in light face to face.

Uncaptured by failing, O Mary, most kind,
baptized from conception, keep each lamb in mind
with prevenient prayer from God's holy throne,
that never the lost should wander alone;
of many ends mother, of many souls friend,
pray for us, purest, from now to the end.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Proper Medium Between Extremes

All questions concerning the proper medium between extremes are difficult to be decided; both because it is not easy to find words proper to fix this medium, and because the good and ill, in such cases, run so gradually into each other, as even to render our sentiments doubtful and uncertain.

David Hume, "Of the Independency of Parliament".

Simplifying Law

Philip K. Howard has an excellent essay at the Cato Institute on the importance of simplifying the law:

The solution, broadly, is to restore human responsibility as the activating force of law and regulation. Law should be radically simplified into goals and governing principles, like the Constitution, and leave to accountable humans the responsibility to achieve those goals fairly and sensibly. Law becomes a fence around a corral, within which humans can try to achieve results in their own way. Any successful regulatory oversight works this way. The FAA, for example, certifies new planes as “airworthy” without detailed codes on how many rivets per square foot etc. Would you rather fly on a plane that was permitted to fly only because a court decided it complied with detailed regs? Australia replaced a thousand rules for nursing homes with 31 broad principles such as requiring “a homelike setting” and respecting “privacy and dignity.” The experts scoffed. Within a year the nursing homes were materially better.

Posner on Human Rights Law

Eric Posner has an interesting essay arguing that we should stop focusing on human rights:

The truth is that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives. There is little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole, have improved the wellbeing of people. The reason is that human rights were never as universal as people hoped, and the belief that they could be forced upon countries as a matter of international law was shot through with misguided assumptions from the very beginning.

He argues that human rights treaties do not seem to influence the behavior of government, that human rights law is so "hopelessly ambiguous" that governments can rationalize anything under it, and that such laws tend to express arrogance more than idealism. His alternative is to focus on wellbeing:

It is time to start over with an approach to promoting wellbeing in foreign countries that is empirical rather than ideological. Human rights advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of development economists – not only about the flaws of top-down, coercive styles of forcing people living in other countries to be free, but about how one can actually help those people if one really wants to....Helping other countries means giving them cash, technical assistance and credit where there is reason to believe that these forms of aid will raise the living standards of the poorest people.

And he ends with the insistence, "A humbler approach is long overdue."

There are a number of problems with the argument. It is noticeable that the criticism of human rights law from the beginning was that it doesn't improve wellbeing, so it seems a little peculiar that wellbeing projects are themselves the alternative; and rather suspicious that while human rights law is criticized for not being a wellbeing project, there is neither a hint nor shadow of recognition of the fact that someone could question whether wellbeing projects improve situations from the perspective of human rights. Human rights law is criticized both for being imposed on governments and for not influencing government behavior; and, for that matter, it is criticized for not influencing government behavior and for being the language governments go out of their way to use in order to justify themselves.

There is simply no sense in which focus on wellbeing is a "humbler approach" than human rights law. Wellbeing projects are notorious for being forced on local populations who do not need them or cannot use them. Some wellbeing projects have excellent results. Others destroy the local economy and create new problems on top of the old ones that they failed to fix. Posner notes that a lot of studies of wellbeing projects have been done, and touts the empirical approach as a good one; what he doesn't say is that most of those studies show that a very large portion of those projects fail even in their particular objectives. What is more, a project that works very well in one place may fail miserably in another. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of local cooperation and initiative, to make these things succeed at all. Indeed, for them to be successful, they primarily have to be powered by local efforts in the first place, with the aid and assistance just supplementing what those local efforts are doing.

If one insists on the importance of scale, a human rights approach can be handled on a small scale. This is what International Justice Mission does, for instance, defending individuals and working with local governments, and it is only one organization of many. Posner focuses almost entirely on large scale treaties. But most of those were never intended to do the substantive work, but only to lay down the general lines.

So, in other words, whether or not human rights approaches are worthwhile, there seems to be no good reason to think that Posner's proposed alternative actually fares any better, even according to some of his own criteria. If we are considering particular cases in which wellbeing projects succeed, there are particular cases in which human rights law succeeds; if we are considering the failure of human rights law to contribute to wellbeing in general, wellbeing projects, rather ironically, apparently fail to contribute to wellbeing in general. And it's ironic that he ends by comparing the hubris of human rights law to the hubris of nineteenth-century "civilising efforts", since the latter were certainly thought of in terms much more like the "humbler" wellbeing project than they were thought of in terms like human rights law. That Posner chooses to name his proposed civilizing efforts 'wellbeing promotion' scarcely changes what he seems to be proposing, however humbly he conceives of them, unless he just means 'give local people some occasional help in doing what they already happen to be trying to do'.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Fortnightly Books, December 7

Who is like You from among the mighty, O Lord? (Exodus 15:11)

Hanukkah begins the evening of December 16 this year, and thus overlaps the next fortnight, after which I'll be taking a week off from the Fortnighly Book for Christmas. So what I've decided to do is to do something a little different and lead up to Hanukkah with an appropriate set of texts: First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, Third Maccabees, and Fourth Maccabees. All of these are very different books.

First Maccabees is a deuterocanonical work that gives us the story of the revolt of the Maccabees, that is, the rebellion of the Jewish priest, Mattathias ben Johanan, and his sons, Judah Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi against the attempt of the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to stamp out the Jewish religion. The book was certainly written originally in Hebrew, although only the Greek version is extant.

Second Maccabees is a deuterocanonical work that also covers the Maccabean revolt. However, it focuses on a much narrower portion of the history (roughly about the first seven chapters of 1 Maccabees), supplementing it with additional traditions. The author of Second Maccabees states that he is abridging a five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene, whose work has not survived and who, unfortunately, is otherwise unknown, and the book was almost certainly originally written in Greek. It is much more theological in tone than 1 Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees are both in Catholic versions of the Biblical canon.

Third Maccabees is the odd book out; it has nothing directly to do with the Maccabees or their revolt at all, being concerned (insofar as it is concerned with actual historical events) with a different persecution of Jews that happened decades before. However, it can perhaps be considered a Maccabean book in the broad sense, in that it covers an important part of the historical background, and in that it can be said to have a number of thematic links and occasional verbal similarities (enough to indicate that the author may have had access to 2 Maccabees). The persecuting king in this work is the Greco-Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy IV Philopator, who had recently defeated the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus III. It is not, however, a book concerned particularly with history, but with conveying a wealth of folk legend about Jewish survival of persecution. It was originally written in Greek.

Fourth Maccabees is a philosophical work. It draws from a particular set of episodes in 2 Maccabees 6-7, and can be read both as a general treatise on virtue and as a philosophical reflection on Jewish martyrdom. In both aspects it is a work devoted to helping the reader cultivate a better life. Originally written in Greek, it is a masterpiece of early Hellenistic Jewish philosophy.

The sheer diversity of these books should make it interesting to read them all together. Read such a way, I think they can be seen as a rich exploration of the problems faced by Jews in dealing with the rise of Hellenistic culture from the time of Alexander the Great, and the complexities of living in a civilization that was not merely a political unity but primarily a unity of an all-encompassing and, to the Jews, alien culture. I'll probably be reading them all in the New Revised Standard Version.

Hanukkah (Hebrew for 'Dedication') is, of course, the holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple that crowned the Maccabean victories. It is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar; the importance it has in broader culture has more to do with its proximity to Christmas than its significance among the Jews. While the basic story of the Maccabees relevant to Hanukkah is certainly influenced by 1 Maccabees, the book is not part of the Jewish canon -- hence its survival in Greek as part of the Septuagint but not in Hebrew Thus ironically, the Christian canon has more on this very Jewish holiday than the Jewish canon. (This is true, barely, even for the Protestant canon, in which 1 Maccabees is not regarded as canonical; Hanukkah is explicitly mentioned in the Gospel of John 10:22ff., and recognizing this is in fact essential for understanding what is going on in the story.) However, the elements of Hanukkah celebration most widely recognized are those surrounding the story of the miracle of lights, which is a rabbinical tradition that in its earliest written form in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) long postdates any of the Maccabean books, so, alas, we'll not see it here. Hanukkah is also, of course, called the Festival of Lights; the earliest mention of this is in Josephus, who (interestingly) does not connect the name with any literal light at all, instead taking it metaphorically to mean the sudden manifestation of unhoped-for liberty.

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson


Opening Passage:

That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn boards they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.

Summary: Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story introduces us to the stunningly beautiful granddaughter of the Warden of Judas College, who is arriving for a visit during the bump-races between the colleges. Zuleika (rhymes with seeker, not with hiker) is a professional magician -- or, rather, she is someone who has stage magic as a profession and is successful in it, since we quickly discover that almost her entire repertoire consists of amateur tricks. It is her beauty, not her skill, that has led her to pack international theaters and play before Princes and Dukes; for Zuleika Dobson has the advantage over other magicians that every man falls in love with her the moment he sees her. It is also a personal problem. While she has an ordinary vanity, and thus likes the attention, nonetheless having endless numbers of men falling head over heels in love with her has left her with a firm conviction that a man who falls in love with her is not worth loving. It is with great excitement, then, that she meets John Albert Edward Claude Orde Angus Tankerton (pronounced Tacton) Tanville-Tankerton (pronounced Tavvle-Tacton), the Duke of Dorset, Oxford's pride and joy, who is wealthy, noble, extraordinarily handsome, fluent in all modern languages, and talented in painting and piano. He is also a narcissist used to unmarried women throwing themselves at him. But, alas, even the Duke is not actually immune to her charms, and thus is touched off a chain of events that will destroy the entire Oxford student body.

The work is constantly farcical, but avoids being wearying by ranging from light-hearted to mock-heroic to very dark and morbid. It has a great many in-jokes about Oxford; most of them can be caught fairly easy, but I found I caught some things only because of a summer spent in Oxford in college, and I imagine that it would be most hilarious of all for an actual Oxford undergraduate. The edition I read had an excellent short introduction by Douglas Cleverdon that laid out the key elements it helps to know about Eights Week and Beerbohm himself.

Favorite Passage:

"You have never dipped into the Greek pastoral poets, nor sampled the Elizabethan sonneteers?"

"No, never. You will think me lamentably crude: my experience of life has been drawn from life itself."

"Yet often you talk as though you had read rather much. Your way of speech has what is called 'the literary flavour'."

"Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr. Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at dinner somewhere. I can't break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book. Of life, though, my experience has been very wide. Brief? But I suppose the soul of man during the past two or three years has been much as it was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and of—whoever it was that reigned over the Greek pastures. And I daresay the modern poets are making the same old silly distortions. But forgive me," she added gently, "perhaps you yourself are a poet?"

Recommendation: Quite amusing and occasionally hilarious. Recommended.