June 29, 2004


Weblogs establish over time the authority of their authors -- differently from orthodox credentials and perhaps more reliably. The problem is always: to know exactly the limits of someone's authority, and degrees, jobs, publications, don't help all that much. A PhD in philosophy can mean -- astonishingly different things. But when someone comments widely, one can find footholds: places where one knows enough to second guess the person. Also, one can pretty quickly detect ideological patterns, fanaticism, bugs of all sorts. And, perhaps most important, one has some measure of the basic sanity of the person -- his or her connection to family, friends, nature, emotion, babies, pets, and so on.

It is an intellectual revolution. Until recently, only columnists and major authors could develop the kind of public profile that now anyone can develop by just continuing to blog for a few months or years.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:28 AM

June 25, 2004

A Sane and Funny Person in a Crazy Place

Ann Treacy of Treacy Information Services alerted me to a blog from Baghdad, Baghdad Burning . This is wonderful, funny stuff produced during the two hours of electricity a day, in between washing and cooking and all the other electrical stuff that has to be done.

It is an incredible act of generosity for someone to write this well in English for -- partly at least -- the edification of people she has reason to disrespect. The fact that we have access to such a voice is a genuine miracle.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:05 PM

June 24, 2004

10,000 Lawyers at the Bottom of the Sea

The profession of law is in danger of losing its dignity. When it does, lawyers will say with one voice: we are all just instruments of somebody's policy -- judges, advocates, all just somebody's hired guns. This new batch of memos about torture is so transparently: "advice about how to do what you want to do without getting prosecuted." (A simple test: suppose the terrorists kidnap your daughter and promise to abide by these standards of civilized behavior. Just how much better do you feel?)

And then there's this guy Yoo, who allegedly helped write some of these things, quoted thus in the New York Times today, "This is an unprecedented conflict with a completely new form of enemy that fights in unconventional ways that violate the very core principles of the laws of war by targeting civilians," Professor Yoo said in an interview yesterday. "We should want the executive to ask what rules apply to that conflict before they enact policy, not after."

I feel like sending this guy some books: about Hiroshima, My Lai, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dresden. It would be fun, if one had Gates' money, to make a couple of semis pull up at Yoo's door, with books pouring out the back, and the word "unprecedented" stencilled on the side of the trucks. It's as if Yoo believes the law on torture was thunk up by some pet store owner in Oshkosh who never reads the newspaper.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:34 AM

June 21, 2004

What surrounds you?

I was in the country for three weeks, surrounded by beauty of weather and landscape, and now I am shut in again, in the city. My surroundings have changed, but I still feel like the same person. Only it must matter, what surrounds a person; over time it must matter. At odd moments, one is influenced. The tone of one's life is changed.

It strikes me that the word "surround" has little ethical use: what surrounds you? With what do you surround yourself? What kinds of surroundings do you build? What resistance do you put up to your surroundings?

We haven't in some ways said more than the first words in ethics, though a great deal is known viscerally.

Posted by shea0017 at 3:57 PM

June 20, 2004

Freedom of Speech

Weblogs contribute to freedom by putting speculation into the public domain. They provide a space for speculation, and, if there are enough of them, they may make the world a little safer for speculation.

As I review my entries over the last three months, I find something to annoy almost everyone I know -- and surely almost everyone who would ever want to hire me. I could be more circumspect. Perhaps this is a suicidal endeavor.

But I think the approach I want to take is just to keep writing, and trust that anybody I would want to work with or associate with will realize that minds have this kind of range, this kind of variety, opinions and impressions all over the place.

That realization, widespread, makes everybody who thinks safer.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:01 PM

June 19, 2004

Yes, yes Kerry but Still...

I think about all the people I know who are even vaguely Presidential material and I ask what they would do if they found, say, $500 million dollars buried under their tomato plants. It would not occur to any of these folks to maintain five substantial homes, in four of which, as a matter of logic, the staff dusts, cleans and polishes every day on the off chance that the Owner might happen to stop by to go potty or pick a plum or something.

I know it's his spouse's money. I know some of that money is well used, through foundations and such. I know moral seriousness is in short supply in this country, and we should rejoice to find even a little bit of it on somebody's shelf. But these are serious times, and we need adults to lead this country.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:34 AM

June 18, 2004

A Thought That Bothers Me

The most provocative thing I heard said about the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandals was this: any sexual abuse that happened is small compared to the ordinary and accepted psychological abuse of children contained in teaching them about hell and everlasting punishment. The major abuse of children is not in the aberrations of the institution but deep in its theology.

I think this charge has some merit. I keep coming back to it.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:32 AM

June 16, 2004

Ethics as Very Strange Stuff

In a University intro to ethics class, John Dolan once asked whether the right answer to ethical questions could be something really strange, something nobody would guess in a million years -- in the way that, for example, the answers to some questions in physics are strange and unexpected. I thought then that the answer had to be "no." Lately I am not so sure.

My spouse recently rented a popular book from the library, to avoid waiting a month for a circulating copy. Nobody protested. But when someone in the butcher shop one night tried to buy a better place in line, the other meateaters were scandalized. Had Mr. Rich simply ordered his meat delivered, no one would have blinked.

Another case: lots of society is easy with capital punishment, but only if doctors supervise so it's painless. People don't worry about the pain caused by the years of waiting to be executed. And people would be horrified at the thought of doctors causing measured amounts of pain to criminals on some regular schedule, as punishment -- or amputating their crime-enabling parts, as a condition of release. The predictable pains and humiliations of incarceration are however taken as normal, acceptable, part of the package.

I don't understand ethics.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:21 AM

June 15, 2004

Learning Circles

Miles Horton of the Highlander Folkschool ran learning circles: a group of people simply tell their stories about some important matter. The Minnesota Folkschool, under the leadership of John Wallace and Lynn Englund, has adopted the same strategy. It seems almost too simple: why should people learn things from just hearing a bunch of stories in the same general area? At a recent May Term residential course, Mara Patton suggested on intriguing answer. People will naturally take different attitudes to roughly the same events: some people will be devastated by losing a job; others will take the loss as an opportunity to learn something new. And that will make clear to everyone that this is a matter on which different attitudes can be taken. Since pain and waste result when people feel trapped in one attitude, that's useful information.

We sometimes think that philosophy has to move forward, to generate new thoughts. But sometimes people learn by realizing the same thing, over and over again, with respect to different "material." Perhaps what is most needed is just for people to have the same thought, over and over, until it becomes second nature.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:49 AM

June 14, 2004

Two Approaches to Justice

At the all night party that is Plato’s Republic, the guys start out discussing “What is justice?” in a familiar way: somebody gives a definition, Socrates finds a counter-example, somebody gives another definition, and the game goes on: trying to capture in a formula – decent human relationships, large and small, long term and short term. That project has marked thinking about justice up through Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the 20th Century.

The ancient Hebrews thought about justice too, but some developed a more cynical line. Any formula will limp, any system will limp, any arrangement will limp. (Remember, these folks spent a lot of their political lives as oppressed minorities.) So the key to justice is to keep any formula, system, arrangement from taking up all the available space. Think about two big contributions of Jewish thought to talk about justice: jubilee and gleaning. The idea of jubilee is partly this: every 25 years, debts are cancelled, slaves are freed. Any definition, any system, has exactly 25 years to work its magic or its mischief. The idea of gleaning agriculturally is: don’t harvest clean. Leave some grain for the poor to get, for animals maybe. Extended, the idea is: don’t push any system to maximum efficiency, don’t apply any rule with maximum rigor. (I remember the old sitcom “Hank,” about a guy who got an education by sneaking into the back row of Harvard lectures. The Hebrews would have approved, I think. They would also have liked garage sales, plea bargains, cable television, and alternative medicine.)

Someplace in the 19th Century, the American legal system gave birth to the corporation as we know it today: immortal and limitless. Surely, when the corporation was born, people had reason to believe that big, long-lasting corporate entities would produce prosperity enough to make questions of justice pointless: the rising tide would lift all boats far above the minimum requirements of justice. The stories of Carnegie’s contribution to American and world prosperity, of Edison’s contribution, would make that thought inevitable.

And while this was going on, there was this Jewish guy in the back of the room, muttering warnings from long experience with systems and formulas and plans.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:53 AM

June 7, 2004


As I once again begin to play the teacher role and evaluate, I have recourse to Browning's poem "To My Last Duchess," which seems to me to say the last word about evaluation.

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 10
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 20
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 30
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,--good! but thanked
Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech--(which I have not)--to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 40
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 50
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Posted by shea0017 at 6:03 PM

June 6, 2004

What we Strive For


The ultimate goal of education is that the learner becomes, for a moment, one with what she studies.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:52 PM



Is this a foot or a work of art? If Leonardo had painted the Mona Lisa on your foot, would you still walk on it? Is the bottom of a foot a good place for works of art, or a singularly bad place for works of art?

Posted by shea0017 at 4:47 PM

June 5, 2004

Teaching and Gardening


Teaching is sometimes like gardening and sometimes very unlike gardening. Here's a moment from my current course when the two came very close together.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:16 PM