War for Helen?


One of the less well-known legends of Helen’s later life, from Star Trek comics #9

The Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae has a post today about the story that the Trojan War was triggered by Queen Helen of Sparta running off with Paris, alias Alexander, a Trojan prince. The post quotes several ancient Greek authors, sketching a variety of ways in which the ancients crafted the tale and a variety of purposes which they used it to serve.

They quote Herodotus’ remarks about the story:

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. 

(Book 2, chapter 110)

I offered this comment:

I’ve always been puzzled by the tradition that regards it as self-evidently absurd that a major war could have been sparked by something like Helen and Paris running off together. It sounds pretty plausible to me.

Had Priam known, as a certainty, that Menelaos and Agamemnon would raise the army Homer describes, lay siege to Troy for 10 years, and then destroy the city, probably he would have handed Helen over the minute Menelaos demanded her. The legend says that it took years to put the coalition together, so that first demand probably came from a military power that Priam could easily have defeated. For Priam to have complied with that demand would have been to present himself as a soft target to every power with designs on Troy.

Even if he had known that a vast army was coming after him and that they would defeat him, however, after that first minute had passed it would have become extremely difficult for Priam to surrender Helen. Every moment Helen was in Troy, a larger share of Priam’s prestige was invested in keeping her there. After just a few days, giving her up would have been a severe loss of face. And the way politics works, if you lose face severely enough, there’s no limit to what you can lose.

I think of the week that followed 11 September 2001. The USA demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden; some very well-informed people of my acquaintance were quite sure that bin Laden and his circle had planned and ordered the attacks without informing the Taliban leadership, but were also sure that the Taliban leaders would not comply with the American demand, even though they knew that refusing to do so would result in the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan, because complying would invite out-factions within their movement to stage a coup. Either way, they would lose control of the country. But while they might escape from the American onslaught with their lives, and perhaps even with a chance at returning to power if the occupation went badly, a coup would lead directly to their deaths.

Large-scale rationality, with economic interests and geopolitical power structures and so on, that’s very important in keeping a war going and setting the range of possible postwar environments. But the events that lead up to war take place at a different level, where there’s a lot of contingency and a lot of personality. That must have been quite obvious in ancient times, when a policymaker in Asia Minor had no way of getting information in real time about military alliances that are or are not being formed in mainland Greece, but plenty of information about who’s dominant in the face to face relationships he has with the people around him.

I teach Latin and Greek at a mid-ranking college in the interior of the USA. When the story of Helen and Paris comes up in my classes, I ask my students to imagine what might happen if Michelle Obama fell in love with Ji Xinping’s son and the two of them ran off together. It would be a tremendous challenge to diplomacy to prevent even that situation from ending in disastrous violence. How much more volatile would the situation be if, instead of a bilateral confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers who are connected by an incalculable number of electronic communications on a daily basis, the parties were loose and shifting coalitions with no access to even the most basic information about each other’s positions and capabilities.

Rationality and patriotism

Here’s a quote from the late Bill Hicks that often shows up on social media sites:

It goes on:

I do think this rather misses the point.  Certainly it would have been absurd for Hicks to have taken credit for being an American, as it would have been absurd for him to have taken credit for being his parents’ child.  That is not at all the same thing as saying that it would have been absurd for him to have taken pride in his relationship to them and their native land.

Take for example the matter of achievements.  Children want their parents to take pride in their achievements, and parents want their children to take pride in their achievements.  But if parents took credit for their children’s achievements, or vice versa, it would be a betrayal.

Likewise with regard to one’s country.  A person who had done something extraordinary would no doubt be pleased to find that s/he had become a source of pride for his or her countrymen.  Were s/he to find that those countrymen were trying to efface his or her name and to take credit for his or her achievements for themselves, I am sure that s/he would react with dismay and anger.

Taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s countrymen is part of patriotism, just as taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s family members is part of devotion to family.  There are many other parts to each of these things.  Affection to other members of the group, eagerness to defend the group when it is attacked, willingness to sacrifice one’s own individual interests for the sake of the group’s collective interest, all of these belong both to family devotion and to patriotism.

Nor is this the whole story of patriotism as a virtue.  I’ve been developing an interest in Moral Foundations Theory ever since I finally got around to reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind a few months ago. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist with an interest in anthropology, concludes in that book that in the ethical systems of the world, people consistently show concern with a few major oppositions.  He and his associates summarize the most readily identifiable of these as Care vs Harm, Fairness vs Cheating, Liberty vs Oppression, Loyalty vs Betrayal, Authority vs Subversion, and Sanctity vs Degradation.

Professor Haidt is not a Perennialist like my hero Irving Babbitt, who held that the wisdom traditions of every culture and age could be distilled into a set of doctrines and that his personal system of ethical and aesthetic and political beliefs was identical to that set of doctrines.  Rather, he argues that these oppositions crop up in the ethical experience of people in culture after culture, and that practical morality in all of the infinite variety of forms it takes among the world’s peoples is usually an attempt to address all of these oppositions all at once.  So, people try to be caring, fair, free, loyal, orderly, and pure, all at the same time.  Professor Haidt criticizes academic philosophy for a tendency to isolate one or the other of these oppositions and focus on it to the exclusion of the rest, and more broadly criticizes the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultural elites for their tendency to reduce morality to Care, Fairness, and Liberty, disregarding or actively deprecating the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Professor Haidt claims that, among other ills, this disregard leads to political polarization, as the less WEIRD members of Western societies find that they cannot trust the educated elite to attend to matters which they, like most people in the world, consider to be of great moral weight.

If we take our cue from Professor Haidt and his fellows, we might want to develop a concept of patriotism that would draw on all six of the principal moral foundations.  We would need a standard of care that imposes a special obligation to look after one’s countrymen, without denying that others may also have a claim on our kindly ministrations.

As for fairness and cheating, something of that concern enters into our distinction between taking pride in something and taking credit for it.  It would be cheating to take credit for something another person did, but would also be cheating to refuse to take pride in what that person did if they were connected to us in a way that would entitle them to hope that they would make us proud.  A citizen who refuses to take pride in a countryman who discovers a great scientific truth or creates a magnificent work of art or wins a major athletic contest or conducts herself bravely in combat is cheating that countryman, just as a parent who refuses to take pride in a child’s achievements is cheating that child.  Fairness, indeed, demands that we take pride in the great deeds of our countrymen.

Inasmuch as the opposition of Liberty vs Oppression is obviously political, in a world of nation-states efforts to cultivate Liberty as a virtue must be obviously patriotic as well.  Liberty is always liberty as expressed in a given country, by its people, within its customs, under its laws; oppression is always oppression of a given people, in violation of their customs, in contempt of the restraints that law places on the exercise of power.  So liberty is a patriotic virtue.  When Nathan Hale resisted the British in defense of the liberties of Connecticut, he saw himself as his fellow rebels saw him, as a patriot.  Whether or not Hale actually died with the words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” on his lips, he certainly does symbolize a conception of patriotism that is very much alive to the opposition Liberty vs Oppression.  Likewise with an organization such as Veterans for Peace, with its slogan “Peace is Patriotic.”  Their focus is consistently on the ways in which militarism and the war economy erode the freedoms for which Americans have long hoped their country would be known.

When you get to Loyalty vs Betrayal, patriotism starts to have its unpleasant associations.  There’s a very long and extremely familiar history of irresponsible ruling elites branding all opposition to themselves as betrayal of the country, and using that smear to justify oppression.  I do think that remarks like Bill Hicks’ “I hate patriotism!” and similar statements from the political Left are counterproductive in that they make it difficult for others to trust that anyone on the Left will appreciate the value of Loyalty, and that in that distrust they tend to be dissatisfied with any but the crudest conceptions of loyalty.

Authority vs Subversion strikes liberal ears with an even nastier ring than that of Loyalty vs Betrayal.  The essence of modernity is rebellion, the essence of liberalism is rebellion institutionalized as a permanent feature of civic life.  That isn’t to say that modern, liberal people can never accept authority as legitimate, but that they can find legitimacy only in authority that is the byproduct of an adversarial process, such as an election, a market competition, or court trial.  So in a modern, liberal society, we have to develop a patriotism that can be expressed through adversarial processes and notions peculiar to adversarial processes (such as “rights,” for example.)  That is to say, a modern, liberal patriot must value adversarial processes, participate in them, respect other participants, and accept the outcomes of those processes.

Sanctity vs Degradation is largely about keeping symbols intact.  That’s why Bill Hicks’ suggestion that “instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags we should put pictures of our parents fucking” in order to destroy patriotism is apt.  That would certainly degrade both the flag and the parents, pointing to a rejection of both patriotism and devotion to family.  Considered as a dimension of patriotism, then, Sanctity vs Degradation brings to mind the idea of ceremonial regard for patriotic symbols.  It also suggests that the range of things we treat as patriotic symbols should be subject to dramatic expansion.  So the conservation movement that led to the creation of US National Parks in the early twentieth century presented the country itself as a patriotic symbol, and many social welfare proposals have succeeded because the people of the country were seen as patriotic symbols.  That’s one of the reasons why the moral imagination and the religious imagination are so often so deeply intertwined, that they both reject any attempt to confine the symbolic realm to limits set by explicitly rational thought.

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.

The only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny

Maybe it is possible to categorize the set of a person’s beliefs by the importance that person attaches to each of those beliefs.  If we visualize a person’s collection of beliefs as a sphere, we might imagine a solid core consisting of beliefs to which the person attaches great importance, a loose periphery of beliefs to which the person attaches very little importance, and various layers in between.  Over time beliefs would of course shift from one layer to another, so that a belief held only tentatively under one set of circumstances might take on great significance under another set of circumstances.

layers 4For example, if I am walking through an unfamiliar part of town, the shape and color of the buildings may not be of any great interest to me.  If in that case I were to be asked to describe a building I had passed a few minutes before, I might not be surprised or bothered to be told that my description was in error.  My impressions of the details of any given building’s appearance might be very tentative, formed only incidentally as I walk along paying attention to the street signs and to features of greater interest.  However, if I lost my way and were trying to use those same buildings as landmarks, my ability to describe the buildings would have a direct bearing on my ability to find my way.  While I might not care about the buildings for their own sake, I certainly care about that task, and would therefore have a stake in my beliefs about their appearance.

Contact with other people of course has an effect on the movement of beliefs from one layer of significance to another.  Contact with an appealing person or group of people who represent a challenge to an idea in or near the core might pull that idea up towards the loose periphery of tentative beliefs, while contact with a hostile person who attacks a peripheral belief might drive that belief down towards or into the core.  So, a religious believer who at one time regards it as a core principle of his or her identity that only the practices of his or her religion can make a person virtuous may come to put less emphasis on that belief after meeting and beginning to like a number of apparently virtuous people who do not follow those practices.  Conversely, a person who has chosen one candidate for public office over another in the belief that his or her preferred candidate was the slightly better choice may very quickly begin to behave as if the difference between the two candidates was of immense moral significance if some obnoxious person confronts him or her with a demand that s/he shift his or her allegiance to the other one.

A striking example of this latter process took place in my living room some time ago.  Mrs Acilius and I were watching a television program in which singers competed for the votes of the text-messaging public.  Mrs A had been watching the program from its first installment months before, I was watching it for the first time on the night the winner was announced.  As they played the two finalists’ previous performances, I said that the female singer seemed much better than her male antagonist.  Mrs A agreed that she was the better singer and said that she had voted for her, but insisted that the difference between them was really very slight.  “They’ve just chosen better clips from her performances than from his,” she explained.  “I wouldn’t be at all upset if he won, he’s almost as good as she is.  I want to buy some of his music, as much as of hers.”  The male singer did win.  Mrs A’s immediate response?  “How the %$&# did that happen!?  She was so much better!”  Well, I said, I suppose more people voted for him, and– “People voted for Hitler, too!”  So in about fifteen seconds, the man went from being virtually as good as the other singer to being Hitler.  When I pointed this out to Mrs A, she burst out laughing.  Her belief that the female singer was the better choice floated back up towards the peripheral layer of her tentative, relatively unimportant beliefs.

While beliefs can shift from one layer of importance to another, they often stay at one level for long periods of time.  Beliefs about religion, politics, sexuality, economics, and other matters touching group identity and kinship structures tend to cluster at the core, while beliefs that do not have any obvious bearing on one’s social position or on any task one is attempting to perform tend to remain in the periphery.  It strikes me that this has implications for the concept of rationality.  What sorts of ideas are subjected to rational scrutiny?  Ideas in the periphery are too unimportant to subject to sustained analysis, unless one is a student in a humanities course looking for a paper topic.  On the other hand, ideas in the core are too important to subject to sustained analysis.  Challenging them brings discomfort and makes enemies.  Only a powerful incentive can ensure that a person will test them thoroughly, and even then defensive bias can be expected to enter in at every point unless one is guided by the most robust methodological constraints.

Of course, there may be times when one takes a perverse pleasure in experiencing discomfort and enmity.  I think of an old friend of mine whose second favorite activity is the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church, its hierarchy, its doctrines, and its practices.  The only thing to which she devotes more energy than her jeremiads against the Roman Catholic Church is participation in her local Roman Catholic parish, of which she has long been one of the mainstays.  Clearly the denunciations and the devotions are two parts of the same complex of behavior, though how exactly that complex fits together I cannot say.

There are also times when people take pleasure in inflicting discomfort on others and displaying enmity towards them.  At those times, a critic of core beliefs might show both an aggressive bias in treating the beliefs that are explicitly under attack and defensive bias in an attempt to preserve other beliefs, even beliefs that are closely related to them.  We often see this in debates between political partisans or religious sectarians who seem to each other to be separated by vast ideological gulfs, while outsiders find the differences between them incomprehensibly subtle.  I confess to having spent a significant amount of time during the 2012 US presidential campaign listening to supporters of the two chief candidates explain in all earnestness that the health insurance reform one of them had sponsored as governor of Massachusetts was in reality profoundly different from the health insurance reform the other had signed as president, despite all appearances to the contrary.  I did my best to avoid probing into this topic when in conversation with committed partisans on either side, and every time I failed to express solemn agreement with their talking points I elicited a flash of real anger that I only made worse by laughing in their faces.

layers 2

Between “Don’t Care” and “Don’t Dare”

Rational scrutiny, then, is something that takes place mostly in the intermediate layers between the core and the periphery.  This suggests a troubling reflection.  The history of philosophy, the history of art, the history of science, all suggest that the only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny.  Even a belief supported by such compelling evidence as the belief that the Sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around the Earth eventually collapsed when it was subjected to examination.  If neither the beliefs in the core nor those in the periphery are regularly challenged, then it is only in the intermediate layers, between the outer periphery of beliefs we do not care about sufficiently to challenge them and the inner core of beliefs that we do not dare to challenge, that we can expect any significant percentage of our ideas to be capable of withstanding rational scrutiny.

This may explain why descriptions of rationality so often tend to drift into discussions of problem-solving, even among people who theoretically disagree with thinkers like Max Weber or the pragmatists who would identify rationality with problem-solving.  Our intermediate-importance beliefs tend to be those which we use in performing specific tasks.  So most rational scrutiny takes place among these beliefs, and in the course of problem-solving.  That in turn may go some distance towards explaining the popularity of ideas which depict rationality and emotion as so deeply opposed to each other that any high level of attainment in abstract reasoning is to be taken as evidence of emotional immaturity, and vice versa. 

Indeed, such ideas are so widely taken for granted that it may seem odd to suggest that their popularity needs explaining.  To me it has always seemed odd that our culture posits such a stark opposition between reasoning and feeling.  It is as if we all regarded it as a self-evident truth that there is a war between hands and feet, and that anyone who has exceptional manual dexterity must on that account have difficulty walking, or that any accomplished dancer must be at a loss when called upon to make use of his or her hands.   Regarding hands and feet, the opposite is of course more nearly true.  The more adept one is in using any part of the body, the less distracting that part will tend to be when trying to use another part.  Surely it is the same with emotions and reasoning, other things being equal.  The more mature and integrated one’s emotional state, the wider the range of topics about which one can reason calmly for sustained periods; the more experience one has using reason rigorously, the narrower the range of unfamiliar ideas that are likely to prompt one to seize up with panic.  So why do we assume that expert reasoners must be emotionless automatons, or that deeply happy people must live by pure feeling, not sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought?

That rational scrutiny, in practice, is confined for the most part to a rather narrow band of ideas might explain why it is so commonplace to draw this absurdly stark opposition.   To subject ideas to rational scrutiny seems to imply that they are neither core beliefs, which because of their sensitivity must be exempt from such criticism, or tentative impressions, which because of their triviality do not merit such serious attention.  To set no bounds to rational inquiry may therefore seem to suggest that one has no core beliefs, no tentative impressions, and indeed no sense of proportion whatever.  It is difficult to see how a person of that sort  would be able to empathize with others, and if one had chosen to become such a person it would be reasonable to suspect that one was hiding from some sort of deep pain.  However, that suggestion need not be accurate.  One can have a strong sense of proportion while numbering among one’s core beliefs the conviction that rational scrutiny is of sufficient value that any belief might be subject to it.  Training in philosophy, the arts, science, or any of a number of fields might underpin such a conviction.  Living in accord with that conviction can be a sign, not of perversity or hostility, but of courage.

Worshiping coitus

Sacred art

One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage.  The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets.  Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse.  Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.”  Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do.  First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?”  Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage.  Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court.  “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes.  He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”

Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago.  Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it.  Click on the image to go to the strip:

I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation.  Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences.   If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.

Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract  considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex.  The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree.  Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility.  I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex.  However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.

The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept.  Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies.  Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline.  This is a real problem with modernity.  Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people.   Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem.  Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization.  An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.

Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society.  As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society.  Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes,  might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general.  But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters.   If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.

“The blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things”

“Azathoth,” by “Servant of Entropy”

Three days after the US presidential election, CIA chief David Petraeus stepped down from his post.  In his letter of resignation, General Petraeus confessed that he had carried on an adulterous liaison with a woman named Paula Broadwell.  Ms Broadwell had written a book about him.  The book was titled All In, about which title I will not make any jokes.

Many observers have speculated that there must be more to the story than this.  Surely the head of the most famous and most lavishly funded spy agency in the world could not be ousted simply because of a private indiscretion.  For example, on Counterpunch Bart Gruzalski speculated that the general may have burbled out some state secrets to Ms Broadwell, and that these state secrets may have threatened to damage the reputations of well-connected figures.

Glenn Greenwald analyzes the matter, and points to what I would consider the most chilling explanation of all.  Mr Greenwald points out that General Petraeus, as Director of Central Intelligence and in his previous posts as commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, would seem to have done a great deal that one might consider objectionable:

[I]t is truly remarkable what ends people’s careers in Washington – and what does not end them. As [Michael] Hastings detailed in that interview [broadcast on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir Show on 9 November], Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him: a disastrous Iraqi training program, a worsening of the war in Afghanistan since he ran it, the attempt to convert the CIA into principally a para-military force, the series of misleading statements about the Benghazi attack and the revealed large CIA presence in Libya. To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.

Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal – a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair – to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington. Of all the heinous things the CIA does, the only one that seems to attract the notice or concern of our media is a banal sex scandal. Listening to media coverage, one would think an extramarital affair is the worst thing the CIA ever did, maybe even the only bad thing it ever did (Andrea Mitchell: “an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about”).

Perhaps the real reason that General Petraeus resigned was nothing more than meets the eye.  While the directorship of Central Intelligence is a civilian post, the general retains his commission in the US Army, and under Article 134, paragraph 60 of the USA’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice it is a crime for an American soldier of any rank to commit adultery.  It may be the case that the Army prosecutes that crime only occasionally; however, if an officer of General Petraeus’ prominence were to be allowed simply to disregard a long-established and well-known provision of military law, morale in the ranks might well collapse.  So his resignation might have been unavoidable.

Mr Greenwald’s column is well worth reading; his main theme is the extent to which the Washington press corps has come to regard the US military and its senior commanders as figures above reproach.  So for example, when Mr Hastings listed the grounds quoted above for regarding General Petraeus’ recent career as something less than glorious, the ostensibly progressive Martin Bashir hustled him off the air with unseemly haste.  The overall portrait Mr Greenwald paints of the Washington press corps reminds me of C. Wright Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism.”  As Mills explained it on pages 86 through 88 in his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three (as quoted here):

In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps—which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war—and in great, round, hortatory principles. (p. 86)

. . . The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe. (p. 87)

. . . They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that “winning” means something, although they never tell us what. (p. 88)

. . . Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its “inevitability,” want it in order to shift the locus of their problems. (p. 88)

The crackpot realist regards his or her warlike worldview as the only one worth taking seriously for a most understandable reason.  S/he is surrounded by highly competent, impressive people who command great resources and occupy lofty positions within the social order.  The sheer fact that these individuals want a thing makes that thing seem reasonable.  That they constitute an isolated group with interests that are far removed from those of society at large does not seem credible when one is in their presence.  Yet the more impressive such a group is, the more of their wishes it is likely to persuade the public and policymakers to grant.  A group that is as impressive as America’s generals and admirals undoubtedly are will be very likely to press its agenda far beyond what the national interest demands.  Mr Greenwald quotes John Parker’s remarks on this phenomenon:

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe – interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity – and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it’s personally humbling for reporters who’ve never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters’ innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically. . . .

Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’, a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.

To that, Mr Greenwald adds “That is what makes this media worship of All Things Military not only creepy to behold, but downright dangerous.”

Undoubtedly it does.  But there is more to it than that.  If General Petraeus, high priest and god-king of Washington’s cult of military worship, a man exempt both from the laws that forbid extreme violence and from the rational scrutiny that analyzes the costs and benefits of public policy, can be brought low by what is in the end a conjunction of personal weakness and bureaucratic inertia, then “the sharp, amazingly focused” minds at the helm of the USA’s military establishment have not coalesced into an intelligent policymaking body.  As individuals they are eminently rational; as a group they are a mindless thing.

Warfare and spycraft are endlessly fascinating to adolescent boys; much of the military worship current in the USA is an outgrowth of the fact that many men never outgrow that fascination.  Action movies, thrillers, and war-themed video games form much of the canon of twenty-first century culture; lessons about the rule of law, the value of restraint, and the role of diplomacy find little reinforcement in this canon.  I’ve taken the title of this post from the writer of another sort of story that appeals chiefly to adolescent boys.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, eventually uniting them with an elaborate, and to me frankly rather boring, system of mythology.  Still, his description of one figure in that mythology haunts me, and seems perfectly apt as a description of the National Security State and its worshipers:

Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.

(from “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935)

A “flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers… lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”  That fits the Washington press corps perfectly.  Perhaps I’ll call them that from now on.  Or perhaps I’ll shorten it to “the flopping horde.”

Did astrology originate in cities?

I wonder if the first astrologers were city-dwellers.  True, archeologists have found evidence that people who lived before the rise of cities paid close attention to the orbit of the Moon and identified constellations, and have argued that the orientations of temples and other religious structures from those days suggest that they attached a religious significance to the movements of heavenly bodies.  Those activities are hardly surprising; farmers need a calendar to plan their year, as hunter-gatherers also need to plan their expeditions for times when game will be relatively plentiful and fruit ripe for the picking.  Still, it might not be too much of a stretch to look at a society that invests heavily in maintaining and publicizing its calendar and to see a suggestion of something like what the western branch of organized Christianity used to call “natural astrology,” a set of ideas about ways in which heavenly bodies might influence the earth’s weather and various medical phenomena related to the transmission of disease.

Quite distinct from natural astrology are the various studies to which the Western Church used to refer as “judicial astrology.”  That’s the part that includes horoscopes, sun signs, and the like.  The difference matters when considering the origins of astrology; we have very ancient documents relating to the movements of heavenly bodies that seem to have some special significance and that predate the earliest references to judicial astronomy by centuries.  So, I’ll use the terms.

It is sometimes said that our earliest evidence of judicial astronomy comes from Mesopotamia, but that is misleading.  The nation state didn’t exist in those days; Ur and Lagash and Akkad and Babylon and the other urban centers that rose and fell in that region interacted with the political and economic systems of the countryside around them in a variety of ways, but in other ways they remained quite distinct.  It is in such cities that we find the first documents describing judicial astrology.

If astrology did arise in cities, it arose in a social environment where markets were familiar.  Its entire history would have taken place amid money, contracts, and production for exchange.  That calls into question the assumptions that we discussed last year when this xkcd appeared:

Not to be confused with "selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works," which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.

Some people fall into the assumption that, because markets promote something called “rationality,” they must therefore favor every form of reason and disfavor every form of unreason.  However, the rationality which comes from markets is in fact something of a very narrow sort.  A month after our discussion, we noted that Shikha Dalmia had put it very well: “Markets don’t reward merit, they reward value.”  Dalmia summarizes the views of economist Friedrich Hayek:

In a functioning market, Hayek insisted, financial compensation depends not on someone’s innate gifts or moral character. Nor even on the originality or technological brilliance of their products. Nor, for that matter, on the effort that goes into producing them. The sole and only issue is a product’s value to others. Compare an innovation as incredibly mundane as a new plastic lid for paint cans with a whiz-bang, new computer chip. The painter could become just as rich as the computer whiz so long as the savings from spills that the lid offers are as great as the productivity gains from the chip. It matters not a whit that the lid maker is a drunk, wife-beating, out-of-work painter who stumbled upon this idea through pure serendipity when he tripped over a can of paint. Or that the computer whiz is a morally stellar Ph.D. who spent years perfecting his chip.

As markets are neutral as to the virtue or vice of economic actors, so too are they neutral as to the truth or falsity of the ideas that those actors bring as products for sale.  If falsehoods are in demand, falsehoods will sell; if truths are not in demand, their bearers will go begging.  The mouseover text for the xkcd represents a nod to this fact, and an attempt to wriggle out of its implications: “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  That won’t do, since it assumes that we can assign a fixed meaning to the expression “works.”  An investment advisor who believes in astrology may not be any likelier than other advisors to beat the market, but s/he may very well use that belief to “make a killing,” if s/he attracts clients who strongly value such a belief.  In that case, astrology would not “work” in the sense that quantitative analysts officially recognize, but it would make the advisor every bit as rich as it would if it did meet their definitions of success.  As for whether it makes the clients rich, well, Fred Schwed answered that one in 1940:

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, an out of town visitor was being shown the wonders of the New York financial district.  When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor.  He said, “Look, these are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.”  “Where are the customers’ yachts?,” asked the naive visitor.

Clearly, markets have not dissolved belief in astrology, any more than the continued non-existence of the customers’ yachts has discouraged people going to brokers and bankers.  If the practice of judicial astrology first arose in cities, it may in fact be a by-product of market society.  Perhaps we might find that judicial astrology began, not simply as a more elaborate version of a natural astrology that had long been a feature of rural life, but as an attempt to understand market interactions and the power of the market.  In that case, it would qualify as a school of economics.  One may wonder whether judicial astrology would be the most absurd such school in practice today.

“Markets don’t reward merit; they reward value”

This article by Shikha Dalmia makes some of the points I tried to express in the notes I posted here a few weeks ago under the title “The Economic Argument.”  Two key passages are these: “Markets don’t reward merit; they reward value—two very different things.”  And  “The idea that there is no god (or some secular version of him) meting out cosmic justice through the market’s invisible hand is unsettling, even to market advocates, but it shouldn’t be. It opens up the possibility of a defense of markets that is, as it were, more marketable.”  In other words, when economists say that market competition tends toward rationality they are not saying the same thing Plato says when he imagines a form of learning that culminates in a vision of absolute truth.  Efficient social structures may emerge from market competition, but there is no guarantee that these structures will exemplify justice or reveal the secrets of the cosmos.