August 30, 2004

The Causal and Cognitive Effect of the Extremes

G.E.M. Anscombe suggests that what is bad about pacifism is that those who accept the pacifist's view that all killing is wrong will, when they "stoop" to killing, kill without mercy or distinction (for example, bombing cities). They see no distinction between kinds of killing. Sometimes that is right, and sometimes those who accept the pacifist position but find they cannot uniformly condemn killing kill very sparingly, kill only in extremity.

One might make a similar point about veganism: those who take it to be wrong to make any use of animal products will be unable to make any moral distinction between factory farms and relatively humane operations with a butcher shop in the back room. But that is just one possible causal consequence. Some others convinced of the truth of veganism may deviate from it as little as they can and may support any effort that promises to make animals' lives more tolerable.

But all this is just about causal consequences: what people are in fact inclined to do, when they accept certain doctrines. What puzzles me: is either of these responses more reasonable than the other, a cognitively better response?

Posted by shea0017 at 3:12 PM

Marvelous Comrades

George W. Bush is quoted in today's Strib. America's enemies " never stop thinking of new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." This echoes a letter from Michael Faraday, written during a trip to Rome as a servant/assistant to Humphrey Davy: "Knowledge of the world of men, of manners, of books and languages: things in themselves valuable above all price. but which every day shews me prostituted to the basest purposes. Alas, how degrading it is to be learned when it places us on a level with rogues and scoundrels. How disgusting, when it serves but to shew us the artifices and deceit all around." (The Philosopher's Tree ed. by Day, p. 60)

A recent Atlantic article describing the contents of an Al Quaida computer suggests that the terrorists get substantial inspiration from the public ruminations of the counter-terrorism experts. ('Aerosol in the subways; why didn't we think of that?')

One way of reading Plato: he is looking for things to think about that only improve the thinker, for lines of thought that cannot be prostituted. He is looking for a way to keep counter-terrorists from doing the terrorists' homework for them. He is looking for some deep difference between wise people and crafty, erudite, wicked people.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:42 AM

August 29, 2004

Renaming Highways

Some people want Olson Highway to become Reagan Highway, to celebrate how wrong the communists/socialists were and how right Reagan was to destroy them and elevate us. I want to know more about what naming does, first. Is a name a reminder? If so, are people going to forget Reagan, without the change? It seems likelier they'll forget Olson. Are names properly a reflection of what the current majority thinks, so that with each election all the street signs should change? That's good news for sign painters but bad news for travelers. Are names endorsements, so that if everyone hates what somebody did, we should not call anything after that person? Maybe. But does everyone in the City of Lakes really hate it that Floyd B. Olson preserved all that lakeshore as public land? I don't think so.

People forget about precedent, when they have power. They also don't have much use for history. I should think it would be especially useful for Republicans to remember that Minnesota has an old and lively socialist tradition that once elected a governor.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:32 PM

August 27, 2004

Victimless Crimes?

Suppose Red McCoombs comes into a little 800 person ski lift community in the Rockies and offers the inhabitants a couple million dollars each for their claim to the area. They go off to Los Angeles, buy bungalows, go to clubs, eat themselves silly. When asked a year later if they miss their old life, flying down slopes with mountains behind them, eating hearty and nutritious breakfasts, they say, “No, it was cold, and the stores weren’t convenient. Here we have movie stars.” Red meanwhile is making $800 million a year of their land, giving 8000 people a fine, if somewhat resorty, vacation. Who suffers?

Consider what we would say if Red had gotten all the ski lift community people addicted to heroin.

If one is going to get sticky about the buyout, one has several lines available. One can say that the former-skiers-now-consumers were thriving before and aren’t thriving now, or that they were doing what they really wanted to do before and they are only doing what they think they want to do now, or that the athletic, adventurous people that they were have been seriously injured, indeed killed, or that humanity has been deprived of a good option and what has replaced it is just more of what we already have too much of. I dunno.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:02 AM

August 25, 2004

Rich Society Ladies and Poor Inca Farmers

In "The Mona Lisa Smile," Julia Roberts plays an art history teacher at Wellesley in the 1950s, a Bohemian from the wrong social circles who disturbs the dowagers and would-be dowagers of the upper East Coast crust. As often in Julia movies, there were a few good moments. Some of the best were the pictures of the wealthy older women, intent on holding on to their power, and totally vacuous in their lives and conversation. One wants to go re-read Howard's End , to remind oneself of what wealth and culture can sometimes give people. I was reminded of racism everywhere, of what the Nazis would have said about wealthy Jews. Fundamentally, this hostility towards the rich is of the same species with the Spanish hostility towards the indigenous Americans: they occupy resources we want, and nothing they are up to could possibly be valuable or first-rate.

Sometimes the impulse to redistribute the resources of the rich is just the same as the impulse to redistribute anybody else's resources: we have plans that don't permit you to live as well as you are now living. We value goods that are incompatible with your goods.

I have great sympathy for the motto, "Live simply, that others may simply live." I also have some sympathy for another motto, "Live in a complex and interesting and passionate way, because then at least somebody is living in a complex and interesting and passionate way." What I don't know is how any social order can make the right amount of space for both of these.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:37 PM

Incas and Snowbunnies

On PBS last night, Pizarro conquered the Inca empire, made Peru safe for Spanish immigrants in quantity. The Strib this morning reported that Red McCoombs has acquired 240 acres of the best ski country in the world, is planning to build accomodations for 10,000 in an area where 800 people now run some nice small ski operations. (With the money he makes on a deal like this, Red could buy a mountain, where he could ski without lots of people around.) Most teenagers are just stuffed full of useful organs, with which they aren't doing much at the moment.

Lots of people have claims to things that other people want, and think they could use much better. Lots of small, first-rate things could be traded in for vastly larger quantities of second-rate things. And the laws of ownership and exchange get written by the one who wins, in the long run, and quite often by the one who makes the largest campaign contribution, in the short run.

In the Republic, Socrates suggests that someone who has trouble reading a text written in small letters might do well to look for the same text in a larger format. Red, meet Pizarro.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:10 PM

August 24, 2004

See a Movie; Take an Attitude Out for a Spin

I just watched "The Spanish Prisoner," about a guy being swindled. There were scams within scams, like in "House of Games," and "The Game." When I got through, I had "trust nobody" printed on my eyeballs for the rest of the day. Some of my friends go through life that way. The story of how we got into war with Iraq suggests that Bush advisors needed a triple feature of paranoia movies and got instead -- "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

When Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, a Mafia informant, saw "The Godfather," he said, "I left that movie stunned. I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life. It was incredible. I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, who felt exactly the same way." Fictions bring attitudes into focus; they put theme music behind our lives.

The link between movies and the study of ethics is very tight. Ethics can't investigate actions one at a time; coherent thought about human conduct has to look at larger units, at attitudes and at states of character. And movies give us portable tools for evoking attitudes and experimenting with states of character. That's one link between ethics and movies. Another is that going to the movies is a morally important action, as listening to stories was from very early on: movies and stories are ways of bringing a chosen perspective to bear on the current situation. They are moral tools, ways of using the malleability of human perception and feeling. A great deal might be said about how to use such tools. No one is teaching people how to use these tools in their own lives, to take back the power over their own attitudes and stances. And so movies are used to manipulate the masses, and clever people stay away from them.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:51 AM

August 23, 2004

The Statute of Limitations

After many years, new DNA techniques are allowing prosecutors to charge someone in a rape case. I wonder why it is possible to prosecute sometimes -- and not other times -- for old crimes. Is the idea that the evidence after a certain number of years is just too old and too cold -- that there are too many ways the state and defence might be ignorant, in trying a case 20 years old? Or is the idea that the person who did the crime may have changed so much in 20 years that it would be unfair to hold him or her to account? Or is the rationale simpler: it would clog up the courts too much to have old cases competing with new cases for scarce resources? Or, finally, is the consideration just that those whose lives are disrupted by a criminal investigation have some right to state assurance that, after a certain number of years, they can count on criminal matters being closed and can go on with their lives?

This matters, partly, because old crimes built some of the institutions and entitlements we take for granted: our claim to land, private and corporate claims to wealth, individual claims to moral authority. The hope of the Corleone family in the Godfather series is that, in 3 or 4 generations, they will be just like the Rockefellers. They will have left their past behind. Every smart thug has the same hope. It is part of the complex mission of a state, as the holder of public responsibility, to permit the past to be left behind and to prevent the past being left behind. It will matter how each state takes account of that responsibility.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:12 PM

August 20, 2004

Sam Spade and Monk

I just recently got to watch some old Bogart movies (Casablanca, The Enforcer) in juxtaposition with "Monk," the show about a detective who is very oddly wired. Bogart movies try to teach people how to think. There's this fine bit in Casablanca where Nick explains why he isn't leaving with his true love; having been invited to think for both of them, he lays out a clear and compelling argument. In the Maltese Falcon, he does the same thing, explaining why he is sending his true love off to jail for 20 years. The message: cool guys can think when they have to, and should think when they have to, and should do this way.

Nobody would ever take Monk to be cool; the only girl he gets is his nurse. But he also teaches thinking: he notices peculiar details because his disorders force them on him, and he makes use of what he knows that only he can know. He's not a public reasoner, like Bogart; he's a private and peculiar reasoner, but he gets the job done. He persists in his folly and becomes wise.

Television is sort of ok, except for Chains of Love and Big Brother and the part of Fear Factor where they eat things and Jerry Springer and the MTV countdown of hotties and ...

Posted by shea0017 at 1:13 PM

August 19, 2004

Better to Have Loved and Lost

Three cases: (1) a farmer takes good care of his beef animals, except that he tags and castrates them, and eventually slaughters them. His reasoning: being raised for slaughter is the only way these animals would exist at all, and my having any relationship with them at all requires that I relate to them partly as executioner. (2) An Auschwitz guard is as kind to inmates as the rules of his job permit, but he intimidates inmates when other guards are watching and helps to herd inmates into the gas chambers. His reasoning: being in a concentration camp is the only way these people could continue to live, my having any relationship with them at all requires that I relate to them in ways that are sometimes brutal, and that I help to kill them. (3) An elementary teacher in a poor neighborhood treats the children in his class kindly. He knows that they go home to horrific families and neighborhoods, while he goes home to a pleasant suburb. His reasoning: the families they go home to are the only families they have or can have, their best hope for remaining alive. The only way I can have any relationship with these children at all is by having this bordered, professional, 9 to 5 relationship.

To what extent is love compatible with participating in the abuse of the creatures we love, or in tolerating and condoning that abuse?

Posted by shea0017 at 9:06 PM

August 18, 2004

Lives Tell Us What is Possible

My father used to tell about an athlete at college who had a major in "biographies." For my father, this showed how low a college would stoop to keep an athlete eligible to play. Recently, reading a fine account
Download file of encounters with Julia Child over the years , I revisited my dad's dismissive remark. It is really helpful to know what all Julia Child was interested in, and especially what attitudes she took toward food. It is interesting and helpful to know what attitudes are natural for human beings, how one interest leads to others, how one interest shapes a life. I think that is partly because it is so hard to see, in advance, where any path human beings start off on will ultimately go. If I begin to take food seriously, will I end up huge and dysfunctional and self-absorbed. Not necessarily; Julia didn't. Biographies teach us something about what our choices might mean. That's not a bad subject to major in.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:07 AM

August 17, 2004

The Forest City Stockade

Next weekend is the Forest City Stockade festival. In the 1860s, a group of settlers quickly constructed a defensive structure and hid inside it for a few days, shooting from the top of the wall at Indian raiding parties.

Very often, pacifists are clearly right: violence is no solution to human problems. It just postpones and deepens the problems and freezes the moral imagination. But stockades make very good sense. It would not have been in anybody's interest -- long or short term -- for the Forest City Massacre to have joined the Acton Massacre on the list of wrongs the soldiers had to avenge. Keeping people from starting or expanding wars is a good use of resources.

The problem for pacifism I think is that one cannot do credible defense without the threat of violence: the stockade would not have worked without the rifles in the watchtowers. And defense does limit violence: it limits the power of small groups of angry people to start major wars and major disruptions of the structures on which life depends.

I am conscious that the defensive umbrella has been extended in the United States to cover most of our military action since 1945. We project overwhelming force halfway across the world -- to defend ourselves. But still, pacifism has to say something about defense.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:35 AM

August 16, 2004

"Many Things are Important"

This idea has seemed impossible to most people throughout history, though their differences about what alone is important have been astonishing. To make mental space for genuinely independent goods, sometimes in competition, sometimes in temporary alliance, but always potentially in conflict, potentially presenting hard choices -- that is an unusual act.

The value of preaching, as an intellectual activity, is that preaching is guided by texts from very different experiences of value, on different Sundays or Saturdays, so that one has to be a channel for a plurality of values, to preach well. One has great help from this tradition, in avoiding single-mindedness.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:48 PM

August 14, 2004

Double Features

Last night, the 1956 Doris Day/Jimmie Stewart/Alfred Hitchcock version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" followed "Die Hard II." It was a rich feast. Jimmie and Doris spend the whole movie trying to be selfish: 'Let Europe self-destruct; just give us our son back and let us go home!" They manage to save Europe, and their son, because they have such good loud instincts and everybody in Europe has such weak, confused instincts: the aristocrats can't do anything, the villains aren't sold on villainy, the people in church can't sing, and the riches of empire are collecting dust in a taxidermy shop. This is big symbol moviemaking: an assassination almost happens in the middle of an overloaded, throwback-to-Queen-Victoria style concert that is supposed to muffle the shot. Doris Day's simple minded scream saves the day. Then Doris saves the day again, by singing a hymn to not thinking too much, 'Que Sera Sera,' very loud.

Bruce Willis, the all American boy, just wants to be with his wife, but he has to save a whole skyful of planes and thwart a military coup to get to that final bloody kiss on the tarmac. He smokes, but, like Doris and Jimmie, has otherwise fully functional instincts, unlike the police, the army, the press, and the people who run things. He teams up with the crazy janitor and the under-promoted black guy, both of whom have held onto some small portion of their brains, despite being Implicated in the System. In the last scene, Bruce manages to take the perfect revenge on the nasties AND save all the good guys and gals, in one gigantically clever act. You can almost hear "Que sera sera" in the background.

You don't need to read, dear readers. Just keep watching television and all will be revealed in due season. Que sera sera.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:53 AM

August 13, 2004

Bus Tours and Open Air Museums, Pageants and Weblogs

I found myself recommending a bus tour yesterday. I never thought I'd do that, because I have been dragged along on so many. But for some purposes, with some kinds of follow-up, a bus tour is the perfect educational tool. For other purposes, the corny local pageant does just the right job.

So many teaching tools are available -- initiation rites, powerpoint presentations, lectures, learning circles, group exercises, walking tours. And none of them has supplanted the others; but as more tools become available, each one is put precisely in its place. It becomes clearer and clearer as tools multiply what the particular strengths are for particular strategies.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:52 AM

August 11, 2004

"We all run around in a ring and suppose/ and the secret it sits in the center and knows."

Sometimes I think there is one thing most learning is about: the way some discrete thing changes when one adds context or background or backstory -- something that's different and yet relevant. Think of the difference between being at a family celebration as a stranger and being there as family, having known all parties most of their lives. The accents under parts of the celebration are so different: one feels weight here, remembers here, treads lightly here. That's the model for lots of learning: look at this, take account of that, then go back to this and see how it has changed.

And all such learning is on two levels: one sees an African mask or an expensive present or a recreated pioneer fort differently, and one sees objects in general as centers of webs of connection and context one just hasn't mastered yet. One gets access to some things, and one learns a style of approach, an attitude, toward other things.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:10 PM

August 10, 2004

Who Was That Masked Man?

I was reading today about pet hoarding -- keeping an unspeakable house full of pretty happy bunnies, with the freezer for a cemetary. It's a syndrome. I think of Zell Kravinsky, plotting to give away more and more money and organs. There's a level of sacrifice we can make sense of; when people go beyond that, we want to know who they are, to try to figure out whether they are noble or nuts.

Here's the complicated part: I read once on a university bathroom wall this bit of insight, "Just because they're out to get you, that doesn't mean you're not paranoid." The corollary to that is: "Just because your sacrifices make sense, that doesn't mean you're not crazy to make them."

Suppose one was faced with the following choice: do x amount of good, and stay sane, or 100x amount of good, and go crazy. How would one choose?

My friends from the early 70's would tell me that "crazy" is just a label that society puts on those whose conceptions are radical and challenging. It's a term of abuse with no moral content. But I am inclined to disagree: I think one has good moral reason not to go crazy, and that crazy is a pretty definite place one can go. But I don't know my way around this territory very well.

Posted by shea0017 at 3:19 PM

August 9, 2004

Leaders and Auditors

It always offends me when the interesting discussions in any area are put under the heading: "leadership." When we talk about what's important, we are training leaders. I feel like introducing "Sheepership" conferences. One of the worst things that can happen to any organization is for all those involved to try to lead, on whatever model of leadership they have assimilated over the years.

The category I like is: auditor. I think the world divides interestingly into those who just participate in activities and people who ask: how is this going and how does it fit in with other things? That's a question one can ask as a participant, and the answer may change one's participation without making one a leader. I think we can easily have too many leaders, but I don't think we can ever have too many auditors.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:08 PM

August 5, 2004

The Really Hard Questions

Required reading: a piece by Ian Parker, August 2 New Yorker, "The Gift," about Zell Kravinsky, who has given away his entire self made fortune, 45 million, and also a kidney to a stranger. He's quoted as saying, "I lay there in the hospital and I thought about all my other organs. I feel that I can do more; I burn to do more. It's a heady feeling." The final words quoted in the article: "It's not enlightenment. It's the start of a moral life."

I think that moral philosophy has to have something to say to Kravinsky, or it is just fooling around. I mean, I think that until moral philosophy grapples seriously with the possibility of Kravinsky, with the possibility that the moral life is a life of pretty much total self sacrifice, and that there isn't a plan B worth talking about, it isn't really a serious discipline.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:11 AM

August 2, 2004


Once, in the Twilight Zone, a gangster died and woke up in a swank hotel, where a butler told him, "You can have anything you want, anytime you want it." After a week or so, the gangster got sick of high living and asked to be sent to the other place -- to which the butler responded, "This is the other place." (Cut to maniacal laugh, closing credits.)

If we all understand this story, and see its obvious truth, why is so much of our ethical and political discourse framed in terms of finding out what you want, getting what you want, making sure that lots of people get most of what they want? Why is the tragedy of the world so often put this way: some people get what they want, and they don't care about the other people who don't get what they want? If the ''haves" cared, just a little bit, we could have a world in which everybody got most of what he or she wanted. And that would be a great world!

An ethic of service built around what other people want has the same basic conceptual problem as a policy of selfishness, built around what I want. And extending the whole confusion into eternity -- the place where, if you were good, you get what you want, and if you were bad, you get what want not to have -- just makes the problem more obvious.

There's a Christian revival coming to town. People are going to get some help in going to heaven and in avoiding hell. But will they get any real help in telling the two apart.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:31 AM