Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Brief Foray into Epistemology

I've always avoided epistemology since it didn't excite me the way ethics and politics did. It is, however, becoming clear to me just how intertwined all these philosophical branches are. You start digging at the roots of one and you find those roots travel quite a ways underground and flower into a whole different plant that you thought was quite unconnected.

So yesterday, during a discussion of science, global warming, and whom to trust, one of my brighter students expressed quite succinctly the epistemological principles I've been trying to articulate in my discussions with him:

"So, Mr. Watson, is that why you say the principles of knowledge are community and time?"

Yup. Community because you're ignorant, and time because it takes a while to communicate and get things through your thick head. That's overly simplistic, but a start.

Now the other interesting thing is that this "community" that you need in order to truly know things has to be a functioning, just, full, working political community. Anything less than this disables you from truly learning the truth about something because you never know what a person means when he says something. You both must have a common conception of overarching, higher goods that you are all aiming at -- I think these are what Charles Taylor calls "hypergoods" -- in order to trust his utterances, since a person can say what is simplistically true but mean something entirely different by it.

For example: someone might say: "Check out this huge cookie. It's really good. I'll trade you the cookie for your Rice Crispie® bar." And you might be tempted to make the trade since you like chocolate chip cookies more than you like Rice Crispie® treats. But that's only a fair trade if you two share the same hypergoods. In this case the hypergood of fullness of life through deliciousness of dessert. If it turns out that the vendor of cookies is your enemy and he doesn't have your fullness of life through deliciousness of dessert at heart, then what he means by "good cookie" is one that will poison you with strychnine and accomplish his unshared hypergood, which is fullness of life through your horrible demise. (I assume you do not share his longing for your own horrible demise.)

Unless you and he share common concepts and ideals of life, you don't mean by primitive terms like "good" what he means by those terms. Thus you can't believe anything he says. Thus you can't learn from him anything you don't already know.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I hope there's more to this story, 'cause if not, Henry VIII is definitely in hell....

The room ... was turned into a chapel in about 1530 by Henry VIII when he appropriated this complex of buildings from a leper hospital and turned it into a royal palace.

- from the BBC's Sacred Music documentary

Seriously, Henry? You got away with that inside your own head? Your conscience said, "Sure, close down that nasty old Catholic hospital. It's probably just used by monks and priests to do naughty things with the poor little leper boys. They'll be much better out on the streets." Like I said, there had better be another side to this story, because how seriously do you have to be messed up to think it more important that the king have another palace than that people suffering from a debilitating, contagious disease have a place to live and die with what little dignity and comfort they have left?

Of course, there are probably horrible things about my lifestyle that I don't see at all, but about which future generations are going to write, "Seriously, Jon? You got away with that inside your own head? I sure hope there's another side to your story because if not, you're definitely in hell."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Philosophy of the New Atheists is Determined by Their Politics

The New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris, et al) are working out the metaphysic of a liberal democracy that is considered “absolute”. That is, if you consider liberal, individualistic, democratic society to be the best (or only) way to live, that belief needs a certain theory to back it up. The NA’s have done a certain amount of thinking on this score and have worked their way back to the presuppositions that are implied by modern, liberal, democratic society.

For Christians, ideas like “modern political freedom” are not and cannot be absolute. (Really, for any human being they can’t be absolute, but most people in Western society haven’t picked up on this fact yet.) We recognize that our current political and social freedom is contingent on the common acceptance of certain, basic, society-wide values and norms - specifically, Christian ones. Given society-wide acceptance of those values and norms, there can be quite a lot of freedom for individuals to choose ways of worship, certain moral values, etc, without threatening the structured peace of society. It’s perfectly fine, then, from a political point of view, to have atheists in your society and allow them to not go to church, but only as long as they’re Christian atheists.

If, however, you take modern political and social freedom as an absolute, then there cannot be a Higher Being who has created us and determines what is right and wrong for us to do, personally and socially. The NA’s recognize that if there is a God who has created, then what he says goes. But what he says can’t go (or else modern liberal democracy isn’t absolute). Therefore, there is no God. If A then B. Not B, therefore not A.

Richard Dawkins especially is fascinating because his main argument is almost entirely a moral one. The “science” is just a smoke screen. (Not that I think for a second he isn’t convinced that Science disproves God.) But Dawkins basically says, “Religion disables a community from considering modern democratic political and social freedom from being an absolute. But they are absolute. Therefore, religion is bad.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I Am So D*** Sick of Democracy

Why is it that every time people discuss Thomas Aquinas's, or Aristotle's, or Augustine's, or Plato's ideas of government, it's to gabble on about whether he would or would not have agreed with "democracy." If we like a philosopher, we try to argue that he was a proto-democrat, who would have been up there, signing the Declaration of Independence with his ol' pals, Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson if he'd only been lucky enough to be born 500 years later. And if we don't like him, we discuss darkly his inability to understand the light we have been granted from on high.

Seriously, can we just agree to look at what principles of government might lie behind any particular form of government, and not keep fetishizing "democracy" as some sort of Platonic Ideal of Government? 'S driving me crazy.

A Fascinating Phenomenon

A fascinating phenomenon that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with in the conservative intellectual community is the tendency of support that starts out as charity to become a matter of justice.

When someone grows to rely on the help that is given them, and plans their life around the expectation that it will be there, and there's no good reason to think that it won't be there, then such help is no longer a charitable contribution. Such a contribution is now just, and its denial an injustice.

A Basic Premise of Moral Philosophy

I'm kind of shocked that I've been arguing with people lately who deny this. This is moral philosophy 101:

If a fellow human being is in significant trouble, you have to help him out, even if his predicament is his own fault. If I'm walking on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in wintertime and I see a guy about to go out on thin ice, and I warn him, and he goes out anyway, and falls through the ice, I can't just sit back and say, "I warned you. This is your own fault," while I let him drown. I have to do everything reasonable I can to rescue him. If I don't, I'm not just a smartass, I'm a bad human being.

That's why it is right that we as a society pay taxes to have search and rescue teams risk their own lives to search for, and rescue, even the idiots who ignored foul weather warnings.

So if some idiot 23 year-old kid with an overweening sense of his own invincibility decides to "risk it" and not get insurance, then yes, we, as a society, have to help him out if he gets cancer or crashes his motorcycle. We can't just say, "Sorry, kid. It was your stupid choice, and now you're screwed."

My Beef With Libertarians (and Libertarian-Leaning Conservatives)

I wrote this in response to an interlocutor on Mark Shea's blog post about the conservatives at the Tea Party debate who cheered when Ron Paul implied that someone who was in a coma without medical insurance - insurance that he had neglected of his own fault to get - should "suffer the consequences of his actions", since that was what "freedom" meant, and among whom were a couple who shouted "Yeah!" when it was asked whether that meant "let him die".

Anyway, the guy I was arguing with - a polite and generous man - asked what my beef was with libertarians. This is the first of a series of posts in which I want to try and flesh out my political philosophy a little (and also to save some of my thought that's been captured in some of the replies I've made in blog discussions).

My Beef with American Conservative-Libertarianism

I come from the conservative/libertarian end of the political spectrum - I'm still a Republican - and I am extremely frustrated with conservatives in the United States, mostly because they took what is a secondary consideration, "Whether it is a wise thing to make one, large, bureaucratic institution with the power of the sword the sole nexus of justice in a society" (answer: no), and made it into the primary thing, as if it were a primary principle of natural law.

I never thought I would have to argue with Catholics that society has a duty to help people in need. I never thought anyone would take the position that if someone's in trouble, and it's their own fault, then it's okay (under Natural Law) to let 'em starve (or slave forever under a burden of medical debt they will never be able to pay back, or ... whatever). And yet there are people in that video and [in the comment section of Shea's blog] who think just that way. That doesn't rise to the level of natural virtue, much less supernatural, Christian virtue. Even a virtuous pagan knows he should care for his neighbor.

These people have made "freedom" an idol. Freedom doesn't mean - it cannot mean - that I no longer have a responsibility to my neighbor if he's a big enough idiot. Yet under the banner of "freedom" and "liberty", people feel free to argue that they have no such responsibility, and that it's ultimately up to individuals and their own personal "charity" to decide whether to help their neighbor or not, and natural justice under natural law could never blame them if they didn't help. This is sick and wrong.

People keep saying things like, "Well, taking care of people in need: that's charity, not justice."

That is false. Charity is the love of Christ flowing out of me to give more than is my duty to give. But taking care of one's neighbor is not a supernatural virtue. It is a requirement of natural justice. I have a duty to care for my neighbor. If I don't, it's not a lack of charity, it's an injustice. I'm not an unprofitable servant. I'm a wicked servant.

Americans have had the luxury of living in a pretty decent society, where we could count on the fact that the churches were, by-and-large, well attended, well funded, and looked upon as true representative institutions of the whole community. Furthermore, we lived in towns or small neighborhoods within cities where people knew their neighbors, shared their ideals and their way of life, knew what they deserved in justice, and, since they belonged to the same organizations (churches, fraternal organizations, etc), had the means and the wherewithall to help them, and deliver the justice that society owed them.

But this state of things has been destroyed. And it has been destroyed as much by people who desired economic freedom from their neighbors and the mobility of labor that allows large corporations to operate more efficiently and deliver consumer goods in greater abundance, as by the "liberals" who wanted to expand government. In short, we destroyed it, just as much as FDR. And we Red Staters refuse to acknowledge this. Instead, we go on carping about "freedom" as though with just a little more "free market capitalism" we could save America. It was "free market capitalism" that helped destroy the America that could operate without intrusive national governmental oversight. FDR and his ilk were trying to save America for capitalism, for economic individualism and "freedom", not from it.

But my people will not see. They are captive to a philosophy that sees the Modern Conservative Understanding of the Founding Fathers as some sort of Oracle of the Divine, when Thomas Aquinas could have reduced all their arguments to rubble.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Observation After Today's Mass

Why, oh why do old people in the church insist on Gregorian Chant and ancient hymns when it's obvious that what young people today want and need is cheesy 1970's folk music badly played?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stuff White People Like: Stuff White People Like

I suppose that would have been better as a Twitter post.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Requirements of a Subsidiary Community

In political discussions that occur both among friends and over the internet, I keep hearing conservative Catholics bring up the principle of subsidiarity. While I welcome the prominence the principle is getting in our country, I am frustrated by the one-sided use of its negative aspect ("no public agency should do what a private agency can do better, and that no higher-level public agency should attempt to do what a lower-level agency can do better – that to the degree the principle of subsidiarity is violated, first local government, the state government, and then federal government wax in inefficiency" - Reid Buckley), without due attention to its positive aspect: that there actually exists a level of community that really ought to accomplish these functions, and that community is not "whatever club I decide I want to belong to."

In order to be a real community that accomplishes real good and distributes real justice, a subsidiary community must have the following characteristics:

  1. It must have moral authority. The members of the subsidiary community must understand that a refusal to fulfill their duty to such a community makes them "bad" people. All law is, in the end, a moral appeal. The anti-littering statutes work not primarily because people are afraid of being caught by the cops throwing McDonald's wrappers out their car windows, but rather because nearly everyone understands that littering is a bad thing, and the law is there to restrain the small percentage of people who, for one reason or another, have decided to ignore the moral reality. A law unsupported by a common moral judgment quickly becomes a dead letter.
  2. It must be capable of fulfilling real human needs. If it lacks the ability to enable its members to live decent human lives and truly receive justice from fellow members, then it is not a community, and its members will quickly conclude that it has no reason for existence.
  3. It must have the ability to appropriately enforce its distribution of justice. We would like to believe that either, (a) everyone would voluntarily do whatever is to the common good (devotees of Marx), or (b) that everything everyone did would just automatically turn out to be for the common good (devotees of Smith). But this is fantasy. People are occasionally wicked, and any community must have a way of dealing with its members who transgress against their neighbors.
  4. The people that comprise it must have a common understanding of a good life, at least to the extent of the functions of the community. The members must by-and-large agree on what they need from the community.
  5. It must have a good, working knowledge of the people that comprise it. Without knowledge, how can you distribute justice?
  6. It must have an understanding of the limits of its authority. At what point must the next highest community take over the distribution of justice?
  7. It must have a way of resisting the encroachments on its authority by larger, outside powers, whether governmental, private, or corporate.
The first five characteristics belong to any community at all, I think. The last two are characteristics of specifically "subsidiary" communities.

Aha! It's awesome when someone as hilarious and insightful as Scott Adams says the same thing I've been saying for years....

Dilbert continues to be awesome.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Frustration with Subsidiarity and the Common Good

Human society, if it is going to work in harmony, needs to have means of guiding people to, or, occasionally, punishing those who work against, the common good. These means are not exclusively violent (i.e. of the sword, as in St Paul's teaching that government rightly possesses the power of the sword to punish evildoers). Many smaller and differently constituted communities have the ability to punish violators of the common good in other ways. These ways may be economic (a refusal to patronize the violator's business), social (shunning a neighborhood jerk), religious (I know a lady who was excommunicated from her church for unrepentant adultery and who ended up coming back and being reconciled), or local-governmental (the local planning board doesn't let you start a pig farm in the middle of a residential neighborhood).

The techniques that these smaller, more local, and more particular human societies have available to them for enforcing the common good are often more incisive and accurate than the sword at enforcing real justice. Nevertheless, they only work as long as they have real power over people. If I own all the shops in town, people can't refuse to patronize my business; if it doesn't matter to me where I live or whom I associate with, being shunned by my neighbors will mean nothing; if my identity isn't significantly tied to a particular church (if not a particular congregation), I'll just go down the street to a different church or start my own "New Testament" house-church in my living room; and if I'm rich enough to buy the planning board, I can tell the town to go to hell.

Nearly all the social phenomena of the last 100 years or so has been towards eviscerating the authority and power of any of these smaller, subsidiary, communities, and conservatives have been complicit in this destruction just as much as liberals. Our contribution to this phenomenon has usually been economic, but we've occasionally been enamored of things like "the marketplace of ideas", in which individuals choose those churches and institutions which fit their own taste, instead of submitting in any way to the wisdom and authority of some community greater than themselves.

Thus we've gradually disabled any subsidiary community from inculcating its values and enforcing justice, and what is left? The only organization left with any power and authority whatsoever: the nation-state. Its tools are large and clumsy: it wields a broadsword or an axe when what is needed is a scalpel, but people who are desperately crying out for justice will take what they can get.

I am very sympathetic to the argument that power granted the government could easily - almost inevitably - be used tyrannously. But I have little sympathy with people who with economic tools destroy subsidiary communities' ability to work for the common good, then complain when people try to work for any possible common good with the only tools left available.