November 24, 2005

A role for pornography in spiritual direction

The Vatican wants spiritual directors to attempt to discern whether seminarians have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, and then it wants them to dissuade those who do from becoming priests. I am sure that in the relevant Vatican document, just released, the word "arousal" does not appear. It's not a Vatican word. Yet it is the core of this matter. What is a director to ask a young man, "Do you have good male friends?" "Do you like them a lot?" "Do you want to be very close to them?" No response to any of these wimpy questions is going to settle the matter the Vatican wants settled. The only question that will make a difference is, "By what sorts of images are you aroused?"

This bothers me on a couple of levels. First, it seems a colossal assault on the dignity of someone who has professed willingness to remain celibate for life to press this question. It is not a cocktail party question. I don't recall ever daring to ask it of anybody.

Further, this is a question that, in the nature of things, can't get a clear response on the first asking. Anyone with truly deep-seated tendencies toward a socially disfavored kind of sexuality will likely be in major denial about that sexuality. So what does the conscientious spiritual director do? Is it really his or her responsibility to bring in pictures, saying, picture by picture, "Does this turn you on?" -- with maybe furtive glances at the young man's trousers.

The Roman Catholic Church has elicited outrage in the past, sometimes for saying true things, sometimes for saying wildly odd and clearly false things. But I can't see how this Vatican pronouncement escapes being funny. And that should worry the very dignified gentlemen in Rome.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:10 AM

November 22, 2005

Teaching people to dither

In a conversation on philosophy and environmental action, beginning philosophy teachers who are also very concerned about the degradation of the environment worried that philosophy classes on environmental ethics disempower students. Philosophic criticism of every thesis and of every proposal leaves students feeling that there is something wrong with ANY course of action. While that understanding does not imply paralysis, it often conspires with laziness and denial to encourage paralysis.

I get the point. Three responses:

1. Philosophy itself has not ignored this problem. There is an interesting literature within philosophy on the topic: what to do when you don't know what to do. Descartes' provisional ethics, laid out in the third book of the Discourse, and amplified in letters to Princess Elizabeth, says an important first word on this topic, as does Plato's Crito. Introductory ethics teachers should seek out the real literature of applied ethics, the literature that begins with a realization of the complexity of the questions and the depths of our ignorance.

2.Very smart people have made big messes by under-thinking important problems. Think about the career of Robert Moses, the architect of New York City's freeway system. He had some good ideas, and his success in promoting those gave him the power to promote some very bad ideas that seemed to him just continuous with his good ideas. The result was the destruction of many neighborhoods and many lives. Like the hotheads Socrates was annoying in Athens, Moses over-reached. It is one job of philosophy to study great smart failures and to put obstacles in the path of people with ideas. That's a thankless task, since the result is just: something really stupid doesn't get done. But being adult means taking on thankless tasks.

3. The education of the head to criticize has to go along with the education of the heart to care about something. Philosophers often don't like talk about educating hearts. It sounds sentimental. That's too bad. We cannot responsibly show people that it is very hard to fix a particular problem unless we first of all give them all the reason we can to care about fixing that problem. That's just part of the job.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:04 AM

November 10, 2005


I get caught up sometimes in the romance of the great codebreakers, guys like Turing -- the ur-nerds won big. But the whole project also puzzles me. Let's take a simple scenario: there's an operation that A wants to carry out; B wants to thwart that operation. A sends a coded message. B intercepts that message and subjects it to the best codebreaking technology. Finally, a text appears: "Launch the invasion at midnight on Dec 8; land in San Francisco." Everyone's elated and begins work to shore up San Francisco. But why should they be elated? Their elation rests on the assumption that any code will encode one and only one appropriate message. If the codebreakers had found the text, "Apples are sour," they would have kept looking, because "Apples are sour" is not the sort of thing conspirators want to communicate to each other. But what keeps a code from encoding simultaneously an indefinite number of appropriate messages? If a code could do that, codebreakers would never know when their job was finished, and even the right message would be pretty much useless for planning.

One might think: well, the recipient must surely have a way of decoding the message that gets just the right one out of the welter of appropriate ones. So the codebreaker can search for that information as a way of selecting among appropriate messages decoded. But such a key might not even be necessary. Suppose the sender simply relies on the receiver's judgment -- giving him or her the key to all the appropriate messages. Sometimes that will result in very successful communication, because the sender knows how the receiver will sort out the messages. And sometimes, it may be enough for some of the appropriate messages to be discarded -- any one of the rest of the interpretations will result in successful coordination. In that case, the message can be genuinely indeterminate and still be successful.

One might think: the codebreakers could make at least this much progress: they could produce a list of messages on which the right message, the real plan, was very likely to be found. But it is not at all clear that this would help their cause in the slightest. My intuition is that, in many circumstances, the knowledge that something dangerous is going to happen is very much more useful than the knowledge that one of the 15 items on a list is going to happen. Breaking the code in this complex way may put the codebreakng party in a much worse state than it would have been in, had the code remained unbroken.

Perhaps there's something about encoding that limits the number of messages a given code-artifact can carry. But that's a matter that needs to be looked into.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:12 PM

November 4, 2005

The dark matter of the moral universe

Lots of people have loudly said that decent behavior is important to human life: principled behavior, self-sacrificial behavior, compassionate behavior, behavior that responds to some clear moral ideal. Unfortunately, the business news and the political news paint roughly this picture: lots of folks of modest intelligence making short term whoopee at other people's expense, and usually at their own long-term expense. The ones with foresight look maybe two years into the future. They aren't even good to themselves, or else they haven't mastered the statistics about the human lifespan. If you doubt this, try to find some moral or prudential sense in current attitudes toward universal health care, global warming, or fossil fuel depletion. A person doesn't dare read the news.

Kant had an elaborate story to tell about why one would never find an uncontroversial case of action done purely out of regard for the moral law. Lacking his metaphysics, one sort of expects that, if morality is important to human life, there should be a bit more of it in the news.

My guess is that the place to look is in the sculpting of family: that lots of people put their primary moral energy into shaping a family legacy of some sort, either carrying on something they inherited or starting something new. Until one has a way of understanding that moral project in its full reach, one will have an incomplete picture of the moral universe.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:29 PM

November 1, 2005

Rescuing a Strayed Kitten

Browsing cable, I hit upon one of those Catholic conversion shows, set in a study, in front of a fireplace -- no carnival barkers and weeping testimonials for this sort of Catholic -- just the quiet conviction of being right, and a tolerant smile for those who raise the same old tired objections for the millionth time.

I deeply, deeply hate this stuff. I can imagine hell: being reborn as a mouse in that study.

They dragged in Chesterton, as their patron saint, a convert who then went out to confute the critics, because he liked confuting people. But Chesterton is a sweet man, an insightful and helpful man, and the poem they quoted as part of their argument is a quiet and friendly poem that gives those without religion a glimpse of how it is for some people. I felt obliged to rescue the poem:

G.K. Chesterton - The Convert

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:31 PM