Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Complex New Pope?

This article on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is eminently worth a read. I must say that I came away from it with rather more sympathy for Ratzinger than I had on the way in.

There are, unsurprisingly, some scary and amusing things in the piece. It reports on some of his writings, which contain predictable Catholic sophistry about sex. (It's a source of endless fascination for me that so many religious folks are so filled with fear and loathing of sex that they will produce endless streams of patently fallacious arguments about how terrible it is unless viewed as a mere means to an end... A sad and tawdry bit of world slander, that...) At one point he also says that the (old) Pope told him that his most important religious obligation was not to have his own opinions, and he seemed to be o.k. with that. (Perhaps strangely, I think there might be a non-irrational interpretation of this. Though see Peirce on the Method of Authority.)

So how can we respect someone who so subordinates his own thinking to others and so demeans human sexuality? What could be more inhumane than denigrating freedom of thought and wonderfulness of sex?

Yeah, good question.

Reportedly he is a man willing to listen to reason and admit error, and that goes a long way in my book. I'm also sympathitic with those who have been driven to the right by seeing how deeply rotten the extreme left can be, and it is his encounters with campus radicals in the '60's that seems to have sent him in a more conservative direction. I'm not saying that makes his positions right, of course, but I am saying that I can understand that reaction. It's an old story. My early brushes with the rot of Christian fundamentalism probably sent me in a more liberal direction than I might have otherwise gone in ( which than I otherwise might have gone?), and I have conservative friends who became conservative in large part because of experiences like those of Ratzinger.

(Footnote: even liberals who don't care about lefty bias on campus on moral grounds should care on prudential ones. Some of the best and the brightest turn right after encountering the ugliness of the radical left.)

But reportedly Ratzinger thinks that religious certainties are the only thing that can save us from the barbarism of right- and left-wing totalitarianisms. That's not true, but the arguments for that position are subtle and seductive. It's easy to fall for them, and many intelligent people have done so. And if you think that religious authoritarianism is the only thing standing between us and the End Of Everything--well, then accepting such authoritarianism is perhaps not such an unreasonable thing.

At any rate, this Times piece reminded me of the dangers of thinking in cartoonish ways about those with whom one disagrees. Ratzinger might be wrong--in fact he rather clearly is wrong about a great number of things. But that doesn't entail that he's stupid or evil. In case you doubt this, it might be worth reflecting on the fact that you and I are almost certainly also wrong about a great number of things.

So, anyway, here's wishing good luck to the new Pope, especially in his inquiries. I hope he either gets closer to the truth or figures out a way to explain to me and mine why we're the ones who are missing it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The New Pope, Liberalism, Relativism, Conservatism and God

Some assertions by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict the XVI concerning liberalism and relativism might warrant consideration. For example: "We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism...that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."

If he continues to make such assertions, and if these become important themes in his papacy, then liberals might finally be forced to give some serious thought to the relationship between liberalism and relativism. The most important point to be made here is this one: liberalism in no way presupposes moral relativism. This is not a particularly difficult point to understand, and it should be clear to anyone who has spent even a moderate amount of time thinking about the issues.

Most liberals, like most conservatives, haven't given very much thought to meta-ethical questions about the nature of moral obligations. Most liberals, like most conservatives, say a lot of extremely vague and confused things when they do set out to say something about these meta-ethical issues. When conservatives and liberals do make claims about the moral foundations of liberalism, it is common for them to make claims that are interestingly ambiguous. The ambiguous claims made by liberals in this context are frequently ambiguous in a predictable way--that is, ambiguous as between (a) an objectivistic/realistic/rationalistic interpretation and (b) a relativistic interpretation. The ambiguous claims made by conservatives in this context are frequently ambiguous as between (a) an objectivistic/realistic/rationalistic interpretation and (b) an interpretation that presupposes some version of the Divine Command Theory of morality.

Some important points:

(1) Although some liberals say things that can be interpreted as being relativistic, this does not mean that one must be a relativist to be a liberal.

(2) Although some conservatives say things taht can be interpreted as presupposing the truth of the Divine Command Theory, one needn't do so to be a conservative.

(3) Since moral relativism is a hopeless philosophical junk heap, philosophically astute liberals will not endorse it.

(4) Since the Divine Command theory is a hopeless philosophical junk heap, philosophically astute conservatives will not endorse it.

(5) The astute liberal believes that the moral claims made by liberalism are really, objectively true. This is commonly taken to mean that these claims are rationally binding on us. That is, that they are non-optional demands of reason. Astute liberals do not believe that the reason that women should be treated as the equals of men is that our culture happens to say that they should. Philosophically astute liberals recognize that mere widespread acceptance or cultural orthodoxy cannot underwrite moral obligations. In fact, that recognition is in some sense what liberalism is all about. Rather, philosophically astute liberals believe that there are rational, objective, and reasonably well-known reasons in support of the claim that (e.g.) women should be treated as the equals of men.

(6) Conservatives frequently act as if liberals are the only ones who face puzzles about the nature of moral obligations. But conservatives face the same problems liberals face.

(7) In fact, conservatives who accept some version of the Divine Command Theory face the biggest problem of all. The Divine Command Theory is one of the most problematic, least plausible, and least likely-to-be true of all moral theories. In fact, the only meta-ethical theory I can think of that is as dopey as Cultural Moral Relativism is the Divine Command Theory.

(8) The failures of the Divine Command Theory are well-known. If you have forgotten about them, refresh your memory by re-reading Plato's Euthyphro. Although Plato is discussing a slightly different position there, many of the criticisms are directly applicable to the DCT.

(9) Though there's no time now for me to go through the failings of the DCT in detail, let me just end on this note: The DCT is simply moral subjectivism writ large. The DCT proper is merely divine subjectivism (or an individualistic version of divine relativism, if you prefer). According to the pure form of the DCT, right acts are right and wrong acts are wrong merely because God says that they are. There is no rhyme or reason to morality, no objective reason that murder is wrong, no reason that God cannot change his mind tomorrow and make genocide and rape not only permissible but obligatory.

The fundamental error of cultural moral relativism is NOT (as is commonly believed) that different people would be under different obligations. The fundamental error of cultural moral relativism is that it attempts to ground moral obligations in something rationally arbitrary--the whims of cultural orthodoxy. But the mere fact that a practice has become orthodox in a culture does not--cannot--make it right. There are evil customs as well as good customs--which shows that mere orthodoxy cannot constitute rightness. (Of course there may be some quasi-evolutionary pressure towards better and better customs, but that is an entirely different matter. Here and now we are asking what makes right acts right. If you think that there is such pressure, then you are not a cultural moral relativist. The cultural moral relativist cannot believe that it makes sense to say that customs become better.)

But the divine command theorist believes, in essence, the same thing that the cultural moral relativist believes--that moral obligations can be grounded in something rationally arbitrary--God's commands. This is the point in the argument at which the sensible theist will say that God's commands are not rationally arbitrary--that God is good, and that he only commands us to do that which is rational and objectively obligatory. That's a perfectly sensible thing to think, but if you think that then you are not a divine command theorist. Rather, you are (probably) some kind of moral objectivist or realist or rationalist who thinks that God is good. But if you think that--if you think that God would never command us to do wrong because God always commands the good (and if you think that those claims are more than empty tautologies) then you think that what is right and wrong is rationally antecedent to God's commanding those things. Consequently, you are not a divine command theorist. That is, you do not think that it is God's commanding something that makes it right. Rather, you think that right acts are right for some reason independent of God's commands, but that God--being good--informs us of what is right. He informs us of it, but he does not make it up.

God does not play dice with morality.

So no sensible theist is a divine command theorist. But if a theist is not a divine command theorist, then he has no philosophical advantage over anyone else. A theist who is not a divine command theorist believes that right acts are right for some reason other than God's commanding them. Consequently, such a theist still faces the task of understanding and explaining why right acts are right. If God's commanding them doesn't make them right, then something else does--and the theist is in no better position to figure out what that is than the rest of us are.

(10) Divine command theorists like to say things like "those who don't believe in God cannot make sense of morality." But this suggests (though it does not entail) that those who do believe in God can make sense of morality. Perhaps they can, but if so they cannot do so simply in terms of God's commands. They must be able to give an account of why those commands are just, which means explaining their justness without reference to the commands themselves, which means that they are in the same boat, philosophically speaking, as non-theists.

[Note: this was quick and dirty. Will try to address this stuff with more care in futuro. For one thing Ratzinger may actually be more interested in some kind of egoism or something than in cultural moral relativism. But at this time of the semester, it's do it fast or don't do it at all...]

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Get Religion, Get Bizzay

Sometimes I wonder at the fact that I used to take George F. Will seriously. No kidding. He was my favorite conservative columnist back in the day. I'd eagerly read his columns, and I'd take him very seriously.

But that was before I found out that he'd helped Reagan cheat in the debates. And before he began the long slide into sophomoricism. (Hey, is that a new word???)

Today's op-ed might have been written by one of my more sophomoric sophomores. It's the end of the semester, I'm getting approximately zero hours of sleep per night, and I'm facing a towering stack of papers and exams, else I'd waste a good bit of my day putting together a careful refutation of this unmitigated piece of crap. I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but thank God for grading. This may be the only time in my life at which grading prevented me from wasting my time...

Anyway, if you want something written on this post haste, go to one of those academic blogs written by someone at Columbia or Stanford or somewhere where the profs teach a 1-2 load and have grad students to do their grading. Or Harvard. One of my colleagues who used to teach there tells me that one of the reasons Harvard students get mostly 'A's is becaues their profs and grad students don't want to waste any time grading their papers--slap an 'A' on a paper and you don't have to worry about writing comments or justifying your grade to the student. In fact, slap an 'A' on a paper and you don't even have to read it... Then you get to spend all your time on your scholarship. (And then you also get famous, if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat.) Great system. As somebody noted somewhere, in this system the teachers pretend to teach, and the students pretend to learn, and everybody is happy because they're free to do what they really want--research in the one case and drink and get laid in the other.

Oh, man, I need some sleep! Cranky Winston is trying to get out again...if he were a French superhero, he'd probably be known as Monsieur Ressentiment...

( "Monsieur Incroyable!" "Bomb Voyage!" Man, I love that movie...)


I might be unable to resist wasting some time on it later today, but for now, how 'bout just a:

Shorter George F. Will:

Only Christianity can enable us to complete the great task of overpopulating the planet.

Just because I can't resist, let me include my two favorite bits:

Modernity teaches that freedom is the sovereignty of the individual's will -- personal volition that is spontaneous, unconditioned, inviolable and self-legitimizing.


Weigel doubts it is possible to "sustain a democratic political community absent the transcendent moral reference points for ordering public life that Christianity offers the political community."

Questions left as exercises for the reader:

Isn't it cool that the moderns have all spoken with the same voice? How could I have missed that? Which ones do you think he has in mind, anyway? Do you think he intentionally expressed the "modern" view in a way that might be interpreted as being ambiguous as between (a) subjectivism and (b) Kant, or was that an accident?

And which of those "moral reference points" associated with Christianity are the indispensible ones? Do you think they're the ones that all sane moral systems--religious and non-religious--share, like the no killing part? Or the specifically Abrahamic ones like the no graven images part?

And if you had a respected national forum like the Post op-ed page, do you think you should try to write thoughtful essays that advance discussion of important issues, or would it be o.k. to crank out half-baked political crap?


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Is It O.K. To Overpopulate The Earth Because Babies Are Cute?

That, in effect, is the question Ayelet Waldman is asking herself. Ms. Waldman's already had more than her share of offspring, but is contemplating more, apparently because babies' heads smell nice to her. (I am not making this up.) To her credit, at least she's trying to resist the urge to re-re-re-re-reproduce. On the other hand, she seems to be more worried about her waist line than about, um, what was that other thing? Oh, yeah--killing the planet. At one point she acknowledges that it "feels like gluttony" to contemplate having another child--but [she says that] it feels that way only because some other people can't have any.

It's a kind of gluttony alright.. But that's not the reason.

I've got nothing against kids. Kids are fine with me. Who knows, I might even have one of my own some day... But let's show at least a minimal amount of restraint out there, o.k. people?

[Note: o.k., this is too cranky. But be that as it may, nobody should have five kids.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Peirce's Semiotics and the Future of Computing

Apparently Kenneth Ketner and Ralph Biel of Texas Tech's Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism have patented a new computer logic switch based on Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotics.

If you're not familiar with Peirce, you're missing out on the work of America's only great philosopher. Peirce is easy to read but difficult to understand, if you know what I mean. But he's eminently worth the effort. As for the works of Peirce himself...well, I suppose I'd recommend standards like "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make our Ideas Clear," though the former makes him sound like a meataxe psychologicist, which he most definitely was not. His theory of the logic of science seems to be, in essence, a Kantian deontological ethics of belief--or, perhaps more properly, ethics of inquiry.

As secondary-source introductions to his works, I like Sheriff's Charles Peirce's Guess at the Riddle and W.B. Gallie's Peirce and Pragmatism. By far the best advanced analysis of Peirce is, IMO, Richard Smyth's Reading Peirce Reading. It's also hard to go wrong with stuff by Joseph Ransdell.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Bias in Academia: A Call for Research

[Ugh. Sorry about the bad sentences in the below. Lack of sleep makes for poor proofreading.]

As this semester's crunch time has rolled around, and as I'm conveniently also getting 4-5 hours of sleep per night (heavily weighted toward the 4 hour end of the spectrum), posting will be sporadic for awhile, and I won't get a chance to regale you with as many of my fascinating oracular pronouncements on this topic as I'd like. I'll also have to post even sketchier ideas than usual. But better some than none, I guess.

So far as I can tell, there's no way to make any headway on the issue about bias in academia without some research. To the question 'is there excessive bias,' we can be gratified to be able to answer promptly--we don't know. The only thing that can cure this condition is research. So let's hereby call for some. (I'm told that there have already been calls for research into the question of whether there is anti-conservative discrimination in academia, but that's not the question I'm interested in. I'm interested in bias in the classroom.)

What's distressing about this situation is that some are already asserting that no such study is needed, and that no such study could be done. Neither of these claims is even close to being true. We've designed experiments to determine far more elusive answers than this one. It will, of course, be difficult, in part because there might be bias on the part of the researchers. But this isn't even close to being an insurmountable problem. It is a problem of course, and the biggest danger would be, it seems, liberal bias in the conduct of the experiment. But forewarned is forearmed, and we'd just have to be very careful that this didn't happen.

Tips for reasoning: don't exaggerate a difficulty into an impossibility.

Hell, I think I might even think about conducting such a study myself. I'm genuinely puzzled about the question, recognize that I don't know the answer to it, and don't really care which way it comes out. Or, rather: I'm so much more interested in knowing the [relevant facts of the matter than I am in anything else in the vicinity] that any other motive fades into insignificance.

Funny how so many folks on both sides become[ skeptics] so quickly when something like this comes up.

In the sense of 'funny' that means horribly depressing...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Krugman on Conservatives and Liberals in the Academy

Krugman's latest is worth a read. I'm not convinced by this line of argument, but it includes one of the hypotheses I take most seriously.

Though the Academic Freedom Bill of Rights is a disaster, that doesn't mean that there's not a problem with liberal and leftist bias in the academy. I think the conservatives blow the problem out of proportion, but I can't be sure because I haven't seen any real data. I do know that some of my (liberal and conservative) colleagues agree with me about this. Others, unfortunately, dismiss any attempt to discuss the issue with a wave of the hand and a jerk of the knee.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Carolina's Most Important Stat: GPA

O.k., I'll stop with the hoops posts here directly, but I just can't resist this one. The DTH reports that our guys had the highest GPA among all teams in the NCAA tournament.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you probably realize that some of those schools aren't exactly academic powerhouses, either, and some not too honest about the whole, um, academic component of college, so this is particularly impressive.

I tried to get the story of the rally yesterday from Johnny Quest, but this was made difficult by the fact that she kept bursting into tears while discussing the thing. Apparently there was much quasi-Aristotelian talk about achieving human excellence, and much of being part of a community, and suchlike. Roy wouldn't stop talking about Kansas, which is one of the reasons we all love him. I think May said he would be staying, but I couldn't tell because JQ mostly just talked about how he was so sweet that she was going to marry him--which would be too bad for me, of course, but, hey, he deserves the best is the way I look at it. She also said that there was so much blue and so much cheering and so much LUV in the air that Rashad McCants stopped at one point and said "you people are crazy."

God, I can't believe I missed it. I'll be down there this weekend though, grooving on the residual vibes.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Dean Smith's Letterman Graduation Rate

Congratulations North Carolina Tar Heels
2005 NCAA Men's Tournament Champions!!!

In other news, pope dies.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Go Tar Heels

GO TAR HEELS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Accentuate the Negative

So what was the point of the last post? Well, I've been poking around corners of the blogosphere that I don't normally frequent. Among other things, I've been reading more of the stuff on the far right. All this poking around has reinforced a couple of suspicions I already had. One of those suspicions is that cyberbalkanization is probably for real, conventional wisdom be damned. Another one is that part of the mechanism driving that phenomenon has to do with focusing on the biggest morons, worst arguments, and most irritating characteristics on/of the side of the political spectrum you don't agree with.

Why do we do this? Maybe in part for fun. Maybe in part to feel superior. My conjecture, though, is that much of it has to do with a tendency to focus on characteristics that just happen to piss us off and adopt political positions as a result. If spikey-haired, ambiguously-gendered jargon-spouting collectivist anarcho-feminists bug you most, you'll tend to move right. If puritannical snake-handling flag-waving my-country-right-or-wrong ultra-Christian uber-capitalists bug you most, you'll tend to move left. So, I guess, in some respects the aversions are antecedent to the identifications.

But I'm not so much interested in how it happens. I'm more interested in the phenomenon itself--focusing on the worst and weirdest of the other side. We'd make a lot more progress if we all thought more about the failings of our own favored parties. Physicians, heal thyselves. What, after all, is the point in spending all your time focusing on the failures of the Republicans if the only influence you have is with the Democrats?

This, oh my brothers, is a tragic waste of the human spirit. The faction of the future may very well be the descendent of the party which is most able to resist this urge to obsess over the perceived failings of its opponents. The faction of the future may very well be the descendent of the party which is most willing to focus on its own flaws and foibles. And to correct them.

Thus spake Raptothustra.