The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

Alison Bechdel is pretty great

Putting everyone in the picture (click for source)

Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post.

I added a comment to that post, in which I expressed my admiration for Ms Bechdel (she really is quite admirable!) and briefly rehearsed some of the points I made in posts here and here.

I disagree with David Gerrold

A friend of mine posted a link to some remarks David Gerrold wrote on Facebook on 17 February.  Mr Gerrold is responding to this essay by William Lehman.  I have some reservations about Mr Gerrold’s remarks.

William Lehman has written a screed about how he who controls the mythology of a nation controls the identity of the nation. I’ll agree with that original assertion. But then he uses that as a springboard for a somewhat ill-considered extrapolation that people afflicted with fuzzy-wuzzy thinking have spoiled his precious nuts-and-bolts science fiction.

I think the words “his precious” get us off to a bad start there.  I’d be the last to say that nuts-and-bolts science fiction is the only kind we should have, but it is precious to lots of people other than Mr Lehman, and for good reason.  Any work of art, whether literary art, dramatic art, visual art, whatever, derives much of its power from the way it intrudes itself into your experience of the rest of life,  sort of annexing other aspects of life to itself.  So with a nuts-and-bolts science fiction story, the actual science that is related to the events and setting of that story blends in with it in the reader’s imagination, so that you can’t be quite sure where one ends and the other begins.  Other kinds of science fiction have equally great strengths, and graft themselves onto other parts of the reader’s experiences, but nuts-and-bolts is uniquely strong in that particular area.

SF is not a narrow domain, it’s a smorgasbord.

And if nothing else, science fiction is about sociology — because it’s not just about the engineering, it’s also about who we become when we reinvent our technology. It’s about the continuing evolution of the human culture. Lehman’s essay seems to imply that even after we have jet packs and flying cars, robots and starships, we should still keep our twentieth century “golden age” attitudes. Um, no. The history of the last seventy years isn’t just about computers and smart phones and the internet and electric cars — it’s also about how we as a people have progressed in our attitudes, some good, some not so.

That’s certainly true; the great promise of science fiction is in its ability to help readers visualize whole societies. This always involves a degree of commentary on the society in which the authors are working, though sometimes this commentary can be far down the list of reasons why we like a work of science fiction.  I’d cite my favorite nuts-and-bolts science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke’s social vision was rather horrifying; read his early drafts of Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars and note the patronizing attitude Clarke takes at the Earth-bound characters objections to the plan the men from the Empire bring to demolish the planet.  And of course Childhood’s End also comes to its climax in the demolition of the Earth.  Anyway, Clarke’s geocidal vision not only does not ruin his novels, it doesn’t even stop them being great achievements of their kind, because even works like Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars, which are set so far in the future that there is almost no actual science in them, do lead the imagination back into the real world of science and technology and merge with that world to create an unforgettable artifact in the reader’s imagination.

So … here’s where I kinda pull rank. He points to Star Trek, The Original Series as a catalyst for the engineering students. And to a great degree, he is right. The optical disk happened because two engineers saw “All Our Yesterdays” and wondered how you would store data on a big silver record. Sliding doors and flip phones and tablets and phasers all showed up on Star Trek and certainly there were people wondering how to make those devices.

But where Lehman has completely missed the point is that he uses Star Trek to justify his own beliefs while overlooking the much more important fact that Star Trek, The Original Series wasn’t about the engineering as much as it was about the “Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha” stuff.

I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn’t about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don’t get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.

Most of the stories we wrote were about social justice. “The Cloud Minders,” “A Taste Of Armageddon,” “Errand Of Mercy,” “The Apple,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and so many more. We did stories that were about exploring the universe not just because we could build starships, but because we wanted to know who was out there, what was our place in the universe, and what could we learn from the other races out there?

Star Trek was about social justice from day one — the stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience. The stories weren’t about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with. It wasn’t about defining an enemy — it was about creating a new partnership. That’s why when Next Gen came along, we had a Klingon on the bridge.

Lehman blew it. He missed the point. He uses science fiction — and Star Trek — as a justification for playing a game of “us” v. “them.”

Here’s a clue. When you divide humanity into us and them, you automatically become one of them.

The continuing denigration of women and minorities as “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” leaves me wondering … are you folks in favor of social injustice?

If you’re against “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” then we to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities?

Because if that’s what you stand for — a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination — then you really shouldn’t be pointing to Star Trek as your inspiration. Because that’s not what Star Trek was about. Honest. I was there.

In these closing paragraphs, things get very problematic very quickly.  Mr Gerrold may not know what Mr Lehman is talking about when he uses the phrase “Social Justice Warriors.”  This phrase is not synonymous with “people who advocate for social justice,” still less with “women and minorities.”  It is a sarcastic phrase that refers primarily to internet trolls who try to bully people into silence by accusing them of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, speciesism, and other forms of hatefulness.  Right-wingers are quite fond of the phrase “Social Justice Warrior,” since it focuses attention on ugly behavior perpetrated by people who think of themselves as being on the left, but no one can seriously deny that there are at least as many right-wing trolls online as left-wing ones.  There just isn’t a name that covers all right-wing trolls as a category the way “Social Justice Warrior” covers left-wing trolls.

I’ve read some good pieces about the damage that left-wing trolls, or “Social Justice Warriors” if you must use that phrase, have done to the left.  Michelle Goldberg write a good piece in The Nation a year ago about the success bullies on Twitter have had in poisoning discussion among feminists.  More recently, Jon Ronson admitted in the New York Times Magazine that he had once been been a left-wing online bully, intoxicated with the power to whip up virtual mobs that did real harm to people for offenses real and imagined.  Mr Ronson covers the case of Justine Sacco, who, because of the response to one poorly-phrased joke that she posted on Twitter, lost her job and found that “no one could guarantee her safety” if she were so reckless as to travel.   And Fredrik de Boer wants “a left that can win,” and shows how leftists who busy themselves bullying each other have done as much as any rightist could wish to prevent the formation of alliances that could actually advance social justice.  I’d think that reading any one of those pieces would relieve Mr Gerrold’s concern that we have “to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities” if you use the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.”  Though I admit, I try to avoid the phrase, since it does conjure up the same image of a sullen bigot that comes to mind when we hear complaints about “political correctness.”  I understand that, of course.  But if you still think that “Social Justice Warriors” is a code word for “women and minorities,” I’ll have to refer you to Mr de Boer’s piece linked above, where he gives example after example of working-class women and people of color hounded out of university classrooms because they didn’t discuss social issues in the “progressive” language that the richer white students had learned in private schools.

The part where Mr Gerrold discusses Star Trek is troubling in several ways.  First, a work of art always means more than its author intends it to mean.  I think D. H. Lawrence said that, and it is the sort of thing that would have to be true.  Otherwise you’d have to have the artist standing around explaining the work to you every time you encountered it.  So even if Roddenberry were the sole author of Star Trek, and even if Mr Gerrold’s interpretation of Roddenberry’s intent were exhaustive and infallibly true, it would still not follow that “You don’t get to claim… his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.”  And thank goodness it doesn’t follow; imagine how impoverished the imaginations of those of who support gender-neutral marriage or transgender rights would be if we couldn’t learn from the writings of authors who had never had the opportunity to consider the case for those causes.

Second, Roddenberry was not the sole author of Star Trek, any more than any other single individual can ever be the sole author of a collective endeavor like a television series.  Line producers Gene Coon, John Meredyth Lucas, and Fred Freiberger made tremendous contributions, rewriting every script and overseeing innumerable practicalities in the making of the episodes.  Coon invented huge slabs of the Star Trek mythos; in the third season, after Roddenberry effectively left the show to find a more lucrative way of spending his time, Freiberger was for all intents and purposes the primary creator of the show.  This is all spelled out in marvelous detail, along with documentation and photographs, in Inside Star Trek by Robert Justman and Herbert Solow.  As associate producer, Justman was also one of the leading architects of the show, and as executive in charge of production during the first two seasons, when the show was made by Desilu Studios, Solow also played a key part.  Other major authors would include story editor Dorothy C Fontana, John D. F. Black, and also “nuts-and-bolts” science fiction patron saint Robert A Heinlein, whose story “Space Cadet” NBC bought as the basis of the series.  Indeed, the single episode which Mr Gerrold wrote for Star Trek, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” was very similar Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones, which Mr Gerrold had read many years before.  Offered payment for the screen rights to the novel, Mr Heinlein asked only for Mr Gerrold’s autograph on a copy of the script.

And then, of course, there were the writers who were credited with particular scripts or stories, the actors, the composers of music, the set designers, video editors, special effects people, etc, etc.  I bring all of this up to show how implausible it is to say of Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was “his show” in some simple sense.  To give one obvious example, there were few causes that Gene Roddenberry “disdained” more openly or more vigorously than the Roman Catholic Church, yet John Meredyth Lucas, line producer for much of the second season, was a devout Catholic who became producer of Paulist Productions’ Insight: Stories of Spiritual Conflict in the Twentieth Century. So there’s an example of two of the major authors of the series taking utterly different positions on a big question.

Third, Mr Gerrold raises a question about levels of intentionality when he says, “I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned… he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out.”  I’m sure that’s one of the things Mr Roddenberry envisioned.  But if you read Justman and Solow’s book, it is crystal clear that the number one thing he envisioned was himself having lots of sex with lots of attractive young women.  That makes him a more pardonable figure than he would be were it true that he goal to structure a life around than if he had been “one of the great Social Justice Warriors,” in the sense in which that phrase is actually used.  Further, it suggests that Roddenberry’s politics should be taken with a grain of salt.  I think that goes a long way towards explaining how the pro-Cold War politics of episodes like “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory” found their way into a series that was usually so clearly left of center.  The politics Roddenberry really cared about were those built into his interpersonal relationships with women whom he wanted to take to bed, and national or international politics were a means to that end. So to the extent that we think of Roddenberry as the author of Star Trek, and to the extent that author’s intentions inform our interpretation of the show, we will need some kind of critical methodology to separate one of his intentions from another.  Simply saying, “I was there!  He told me so!” is no answer at all- Roddenberry told different people different things for different reasons, not because he was dishonest, but because he was human.  That’s what we all do.

Fourth, and rather awkwardly, there are some, how does one put it, surprising bits in Mr Gerrold’s recollections of his involvement with the original Star Trek.  Mr Gerrold has written extensively and quite informatively about his experience as the author of one teleplay for that series, even publishing a book in 1973 called The Trouble With Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode.  Mr Gerrold’s references to episodes from all three seasons and to what Gene Roddenberry said in “every meeting” leave one with the impression that Mr Gerrold was a regular member of the staff, behind the scenes on a daily basis from beginning to end.  This is not the impression that one gathers from his book, or from other accounts he gave when Roddenberry, Justman, and others were alive, nor does it jibe with information published elsewhere.  All of that material suggests that his single writing credit is a fair representation of his contribution to the series. Dorothy Fontana and others kept in touch with Mr Gerrold and encouraged him to submit more scripts, but I haven’t seen any indication that he was involved in the show in the way that he here suggests. Just how many meetings were included in the “every meeting” which he and Roddenberry both attended?  I hate to bring this up, but Mr Gerrold is leaning so heavily on the “I was there” in his attempt to shut Mr Lehman down that it is impossible not to point out that the place where he was and the place where a person could learn the information he wants us to think he has are not, in fact, the same place.  Maybe Mr Gerrold is auditioning for Bill O’Reilly‘s job, or Brian Williams‘, but I don’t see these remarks helping him in this fight he’s picked with Mr Lehman.

I’m puzzled by today’s xkcd

Here’s today’s xkcd:

My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about

It’s true that not knowing much about sports is culturally isolating, far more so than not knowing much about meteorology or space probes.  In the USA, where xkcd creator Randall Munroe and I both live, ignorance of American football* is more isolating than ignorance of meteorology and space probes even among faculty and students of universities with departments of meteorology and aerospace, as witness the relative pay scales and promotion schedules of football coaches and professors of those subjects.

Considering how much money and power are put into promoting football in the USA, it is simply absurd to claim that football fans are vulnerable to some kind of power that an individual acquires by not caring about the sport.  Whether or not you care about football, if you live in the USA you have no choice but to pay taxes that subsidize football, to seek employment in businesses managed by people whose small talk consists largely of discussions of football, to receive news and entertainment through media outlets that are saturated with football, and to be educated in schools where football is enshrined as the supreme collective experience.

Indeed, Americans are so heavily incentivized to like football, and football games are so intensively covered by US media, that I find it hard to believe that there are a great many people in the USA who haven’t tried to like football.  I suspect most Americans who dislike football simply find it impossible to overcome the stupefying tedium of watching a bunch of costumed men standing around doing nothing for hours at a time, and that most who complain about football or mock football fans resent the power that football has in American social life.

I would hasten to add that the experience of playing football isn’t dominated by the 90% of the time that players spend standing around doing nothing.  I have far more vivid memories from my high school days of the 9% of the time that players spend striking and holding poses in formation.  I remember the many times I was called off-sides, which in football means that a player is posing incorrectly.  While from the spectator’s perspective football is like staring at people milling about at a bus station, from the player’s perspective it is much more like being a fashion model.

There is so little action of any kind in an American football game that I cannot help but be suspicious of the reports one hears about the rates at which players suffer head injuries.  I find it particularly incredible that the almost perfectly immobile players of the National Football League can all suffer concussions during their games.  Perhaps they all sustain heavy blows to the head before coming onto the field, and that’s why they do so little during the game.

A blog post today by Rod Dreher reminds me of a hypothesis of mine about how football became so popular in the USA in the twentieth century.  Dreher quotes and comments on a conversation between Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis about how financial institutions and financial markets are able to exercise enormous power without much public scrutiny simply because their operations strike most people, including most reporters and certainly most politicians, as intolerably dull.  I suspect that the average American is aware of the fact that a high threshold for boredom is key to gaining wealth, power, and high status in our society, and that as this awareness grew in the last century football, the most boring of sports, crowded out boxing, horse racing, and ultimately even baseball to become not only the king of American sports, but the lingua franca of social interaction in corporate America.

*Hereinafter referred to simply as “football,” because this post is all about conditions within the USA.

Why I am not a utilitarian

Jeremy Bentham, under surveillance at University College London

Yesterday I visited Oxford’s “Practical Ethics” blog and read a post titled “Why I Am Not a Utilitarian,” by Julian Savulescu.  Professor Savulescu says that he is not a utilitarian because utilitarianism advises us to act in a way that he would find impossible:

As we argue, Utilitarianism is a comprehensive moral doctrine with wide ranging impact. In fact it is very demanding. Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by Utilitarianism.

For these reasons, one criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too demanding.

Bernard Williams, a famous critic of Utilitarianism, once infuriated Dick Hare, a modern father of Utilitarianism, in a TV interview by asking him,

“If a plane had crashed and you could only rescue your own child or two other people’s children, which would you rescue?”

Utilitarians should rescue the two strangers rather than their own child.

People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding.

I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save 7 or 8 lives.

Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.

I would go further than Professor Savulescu, and argue that it is not only unreasonably difficult to act as utilitarianism would advise in these extreme situations, but that the emotional attachments and personal drives that utilitarianism urges us to discard are the very things that make it possible for us to behave morally in the first place.  Professor Savulescu quotes research showing that the people who would in fact be willing to behave in ways that utilitarians urge upon us in their thought experiments are extreme egoists and psychopaths.  While such people might be willing to let their own children die in order to save the lives of a larger number of strangers, I would not envy those strangers were they subsequently to find themselves in any way dependent on their rescuers.

Other commenters on Professor Savulescu’s post had made this point by the time I got to it, so I did not say anything about it in my own comment.  Instead, I picked up on a remark that an earlier commenter had made about the various thought experiments in which utilitarians deal.  One of the more famous of these thought experiments is the “Trolley Problem,” in which one is asked to consider two hypothetical alternatives in response to a runaway trolley.  Left unchecked, the trolley will run over several people and kill many of them. The only way one has to check it is to push a fat man in front of the trolley, killing him but saving the others.

This and similar thought experiments raise the question of knowledge- how does one know that one will be able to push the fat man over, how does one know that his body will suffice to stop the trolley, how does one know that the others will be slower to get themselves out of the way of the trolley than one will be to push the fat man over, etc etc.  In posing the hypothetical, a philosopher can always dismiss these questions by saying that, ex hypothesi, the premises are all true.  But the closer you get to real life, the more pressing and more numerous the knowledge problems become.

When philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism 200 years ago, he built it around a notion often called “the hedonistic calculus.”  This calculus subtracts pain from pleasure, yielding a quantity of net pleasure.  The right action is that which provides the greatest amount of net pleasure for the greatest number of people.  Faced with the question of how any person could possibly know what action would provide this, considering that to do so one would have to know every consequence one’s action is likely to have on every person for all of future time, what precisely the feelings of each of those people would be about each of those consequences, and how intense each of these feelings would be, Bentham resorted to a utopian solution.  He coined the word “Panopticon,” naming a social system in which every person was under total surveillance at all times.  In such a system, the authorities might be able to form an educated guess as to what the consequences of their policies would be for their subjects.

The idea of the Panopticon in turn raises several questions.  How would such surveillance originate?  If it were instituted by people who were not themselves under surveillance, and who did yet not have access to the information surveillance would produce, how could they know that the surveillance they were crafting would itself serve to produce the greatest net pleasure among the greatest number of people?  Moreover, since the subjects of the Panopticon would know that they were under surveillance, the institution of surveillance itself would change their psychology quite dramatically, making it impossible for people living before the creation of the Panopticon to have an empirical basis for their expectations as to how such people would react to life within it.  Would those conducting the surveillance themselves be subject to surveillance, and if so, who would maintain surveillance on those conducting surveillance of those conducting surveillance?  Would there be other societies outside the realm of the Panopticon, and if so how would one know what policies would bring the greatest net pleasure to the members of those other, unsurveilled societies?  What about future generations, whom it is impossible to keep under surveillance as they do not yet exist?  How could the rulers of the Panopticon assess the feelings the consequences of their policies would produce in people of future times when they cannot monitor such people?  And, considering that the hedonistic calculus is essentially about subjective feelings of pleasure and pain, how do we respond to suggestions that our understanding of each other’s subjective feelings is always incomplete?  Finally, how does the existence of the Panopticon condition individual behavior?  Does every individual of every station have access to the complete records of the Panopticon?  Are all to use this information in making every decision in their lives?

Even in a society constructed as a Panopticon, then, it is far from clear how one could know enough to live as the utilitarians say we should.  Indeed, many forms of knowledge that are required, for example knowledge about future events or about other people’s subjective responses, may not be obtainable even in principle.  A commenter named Sean OhEigeartaigh pointed out that utilitarian thought experiments require unrealistic assumptions about the amount of knowledge a moral agent might have.  This was the point I was picking up on in the comment below:

I think Sean O hEigeartaigh makes the vital point, which is that these scenarios require more information than a person could reasonably be expected to have. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the whole concept of the hedonistic calculus requires that an agent have more information than a human being could possibly have. As such, utilitarianism is not an ethical theory at all, inasmuch as it cannot develop a set of criteria for judging human behavior. Its only possible use would be as a theodicy, a means of justifying the behavior of a supernatural being who is either omniscient or at a minimum radically better informed than humans can be.

Perhaps it is too much to say that utilitarianism is possible even as a theodicy. To make a theodicy go, one must grant, first, that a supernatural being exists, second, that that being is in some profound sense better than we are, and third, that the actions of that being require moral justification. None of these premises would appear to be particularly secure. Moreover, an attempt to use utilitarianism to justify the acts of whatever supernatural being we have posited would immediately run into a variety of other problems, some of them quite severe. Most obvious, perhaps, is the stubbornly ambiguous concept of “pleasure” at the stem of all theories of utility. I for one can think of no reason why a utilitarian theodicy would have an easier time meaning one thing at a time by this word than the attempted utiltarian philosophies of the last two centuries have had. Furthermore, the implications of conceding the existence of a supernatural being whose knowledge is radically superior to ours would seem to be rather wide-ranging and to call for a rethinking of the concept of rationality on which Bentham et al were trying to elaborate. So perhaps the time has come to discard utilitarianism altogether.

The bit about pleasure refers to another problem that Bentham tried to solve by accepting something horrid.  Asked what he would say if it could be shown that playing push-pin had given more net pleasure than high art, he would unhesitatingly say that in that case push-pin was better than high art.  Bentham’s most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, tried to escape from this by distinguishing among various forms of pleasure, high and low.

What Mill ended up doing was raising a question that has widely been considered fatal to the claims of utilitarianism to be taken seriously: what exactly is “pleasure”?  I think we know, when we say that listening to music gives us pleasure, and eating a fine meal gives us pleasure, and being reunited with a loved one gives us pleasure, and completing an important job of work gives us pleasure, that we are not saying that these experiences are interchangeable.  Saying that we have received pleasure isn’t at all like saying that we have received money.  If we set out to describe with technical precision what it is that each of those experiences has given us, we will not be surprised to find that the answer is a set of distinct and complementary feelings, not differing quantities of any particular substance.  Discard the idea that “pleasure” and “pain” are the names of substances, in the Aristotelian sense of the word “substance,” and it is difficult to see what, if anything, is left of the hedonistic calculus.

Three cheers for Liza Cowan

This morning I looked at Twitter and saw this from Liza Cowan

I mention such a wide variety of people on this site that I laughed out loud when I saw this.  Perhaps Catharine MacKinnon, Pope Benedict, Susie Bright, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and Leonard Nimoy (to mention five names that have occurred here more than once) are all together in some darkened room plotting iniquity at this moment, but I find it hard to imagine.  So I wrote in reply:

Liza explained:

Apparently Liza’s nemeses had Googled her name and Pam Isherwood‘s together and found our old page of “Artists and Art Blogs.”   They are both mentioned there, because of course they are- they’re both very distinguished artists, and you’re in for a treat if you go to their sites.  But the inquisitors took the presence of their names on the same list as evidence that Pam is Liza’s “follower.”  Looking over the list, Liza seems to have a pretty impressive set of followers, including Harvey Kurtzman, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Queen of England.  

This controversy stems from Liza’s view of transgenderism.  As I understand it, her view is related to that of the late Shulamith Firestone, who held that the relation between men and women is very much like the relation that Marxism describes between bourgeois and proletariat in the later stages of capitalism.  Women form a worldwide class of the oppressed, men a worldwide class of oppressors.  Femininity, on this view, is a scar left by abuse, masculinity a weapon wielded by the privileged.  Liza’s opposition holds that gender is a more playful thing, that it is a set of roles we play, some by choice, some under duress, and that by playing the game our own way we can subvert the oppression that certainly does characterize gender relations by and large.  

I am not qualified to have an opinion about this issue.  Maybe Liza is right, maybe the Politically Correct Thought Police who are calling her names are right, maybe the truth is something else altogether.  What I do know is that Liza is an exciting artist, a rigorous thinker, and a good friend.  So if someone is out to ban or silence or smear people associated with Liza Cowan, I hereby volunteer to be banned, silenced, and smeared.   As I put it this afternoon:



Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

The Branch Theory of the Church

From Wikipedia (click image for article)

One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church.  The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian.  In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly.  Mr Mitchican writes:

The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.)  Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:

Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)

This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church?  Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them.  For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu.  The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them.  They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained.  Were they Christians?  In a sense, yes.  One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.)  But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are.  For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”

It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear.  The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.”  This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not.  The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.

Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:

The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned.  There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious.  It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church.  Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion.  Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.  Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts.  The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.

The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning.  It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body.  That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.”  The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.

(pages 111-112; emphasis added)

Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large.  I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.”  In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us.  As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother.  Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians?   But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another?  Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is?  Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship?  It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open.  And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.

The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one.  Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.)  It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value.  Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way.  This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian.  In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy.  Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy.  The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one.  Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic.  This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole.  The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.

(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)

Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory.  The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division.   The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination.  For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.

In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year.  He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others.  We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sintissued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72.  And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:

87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.

Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt.    Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission.  Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.”  In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation.  Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South.  It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.

I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory.  I can express only my personal preferences.  These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans.   I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes.  Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person.  That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas.  A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.

However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.”  The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus.  If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church.  In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.

Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.”  Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church.  Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture.  These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post.  A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.

The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them.  But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect.  Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination.  In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership.  Their name change marked a similar movement.  It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.

The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so.  If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along.  That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.

That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity.  And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.

What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter.  Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:

(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)

In response to an inquiry from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Mr Torrey gave an example of an episode:

This prompted my reply:

Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born:







Dim enlightenment


The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

10 Things I Don’t Know About Christianity

The other day, a commenter on Alison Bechdel’s website called my attention to this list by Jim Rigby, as it appeared on Patheos:

I thanked that commenter, the redoubtable “NLC,” and added this remark:

Hanging out with mellow progressives like Episcopalians and Quakers it’s tempting to forget or understate the sheer bloody-mindedness that so often thrives under the sign of the cross.

As for the focus of the “Ten Things” on the Bible, one thing I think the Bible makes crystal clear about homosexuality is that homosexuality wasn’t a particularly controversial topic when the Bible was taking shape. The Bible is hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the antigay crowd can find only six brief verses in the whole thing that support their position at all explicitly.

What’s more, most of those six verses are actually about something else, and none of them contemplate anything like the same-sex relationships that exist in today’s world.

Sure, the tone of the six snippets make it clear that same-sex sex was not well-regarded in those days, and neither the law nor the prophets nor anything in the Christian scriptures pushes back against that hostility. But so what? None of those writings push back against slavery or any of a number of other institutions familiar in those centuries, but Christians nowadays seem confident that they have disassociated their religion from those things, and in fact often propose it as a bulwark against them. I fully expect the Christians of the 22nd century to be united in a smug sense of superiority over the homophobes of that day, just as their counterparts now are quick to cite the Christian Abolitionists of the 19th century.

The more I think about it, the more I find to disagree with in the “10 Things.”  For instance: (more…)


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